Friday, December 31, 2010

Incarnation in the marketplace

So I'm sitting at the SALT conference with students from Chi Alpha in the midwest.  It's always fun to go to these conference and hear how God is moving in the current college generation.  One of the  main topics of conversation here at the conference is about ministry in the marketplace.

Growing up in a pastor's family, I was immediately placed on a pedistal.  I had to act in a certain way because the church expected it.  My parents were actually much better about this than many pastor's families--I actually had a lot of freedom.  But there was always this expectation that we would act like Christians.  What it meant to act like a Christian always had to do with externals--reading the Bible, praying before meals, wearing dresses to church, not swearing, smoking, or going to movie theaters.  And there was always the expectation that pastors and their kids would be better at this than everyone else.

For some reason, the church always sets people apart to be the professional Christians.  Maybe it relieves the individuals in the pews from some of their own responsibility to act like Christ.  Maybe it's just part of being human that we want to look up to people.  Anyway, that philosophy leads to believing that only certain people are called to ministry and everyone else is meant to just be a regular person.

But we are all called to walk as ambassadors of Christ in the world.  We are all meant to be salt and light. 

I just sat around a table with a bunch of graduates from MSU who are working in various fields.  I got to listen to them reflect on their lunches with current students where they acted as "mentors" and were able to encourage students to think about how to integrate their faith with their work life.  It was incredibly refreshing to hear them talk about how they have found God and have found ways to talk about God and faith and life within their own contexts.

It's not easy.  Each profession has its own obstacles and barriers to talking and living out faith.  But when people are able to do that--when they're able to walk as the person God created them to be--it's such a beautiful and powerful thing.  We are then able to be the hands and feet of Christ--the body of Christ--in the world.  Sure, it is a lesser incarnation than the incarnation of Jesus.  But it is the only one we have right now.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Had coffee with a friend today.  We sat and talked for a couple of hours.  I haven't spent much time alone with her before--we were really more acquaintances.  I think I've known her now for 2-3 years.  We've been in groups where the topic of religion or spirituality have come up, but I've not really talked with her directly about it before.

So today, somewhat out of the blue, she started asking me how I reconcile my spirituality or my faith with the rest of my life.  We got to talk for several hours about faith and barriers to faith.  I was able to share how I've worked through some of those in my own life.

She asked.

How did that happen?  I don't think there's some magic formula or anything.  But I can tell you that I've been investing in her and in the people around her for a very long time.  I've had numerous conversations about a lot of different things - some serious, some fun.  I've been around, loving her and her friend.  I've been living consistently (though not perfectly) in a way that can be observed.

And now, I've been talking about my book.  It's been sort of a catalyst to talking about the place that faith has in my life.  I've been investing in people for years without having a natural way to bring up spiritual conversations.  It will be interesting to see whether this happens more.  It was actually the 2nd time this week that I had a spiritual conversation with a person this week who I've been investing in but not really having spiritual conversations with.

As you can see, I'm still figuring this out.  There are times when I say the wrong thing or go too far.  There may be some times when I don't say things and I should.  But I don't think that you can go wrong by loving and investing in people as people. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Just below the surface

I was watching a father and son interact the other day.  It was like many fathers and many sons throughout history, I think.  The son did something to upset the father.  The father communicated his displeasure about the son's activities.  The son tried to convince the father that he had thought about what he was doing and made the choice for a reason, and that his opinion was just as valid as anyone else's.  That was the surface level of the conversation.

At an emotional level, though, there was a lot more going on.  The son started out with a pretty confident attitude.  He was comfortable with who he was an what he had decided.  As the conversation wore on, though, he couldn't escape his dad's displeasure.  And then he had to think about it, to let it sink in, to decide whether to let him affect him or not.

Watching them interact, it seemed like they had a pretty stable relationship.  I don't think they had damaged one another in the discussion.  But there was tons of potential for that to have happened.

We have a lot of experience reading below the surface in conversations.  Sure, there are some people who are better at it than others.  But in order to survive within relationships, most of us have picked up the skill of identifying the emotions and the non-verbal communication that happens.

Trying to discern emotional barriers to faith is not so different from this.  There's one level of conversation going on about all the reasons why faith is not possible.  But there's a whole other level of emotion and thought beneath the surface.  We've got to learn to use our relational skills that have already been developed to see what those things are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Rest is not something I do well.  I don't know if it goes back to the modeling of my parents, my own personality, or my sometimes desire to escape the difficult things in life, but I work a lot.  A lot.

With the submission of the book to the printer, I suddenly found that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I left as quickly as I could to go back to that place where God met me 2 years ago through the story Till we Have Faces.  This time, my only job was to rest.  With tears in my eyes, I gave myself permission to just be.

And rest, I did.  There is something special about that place.  Perhaps it is the prayers that, for 25 years, have been lifted up for all those who would come.  Perhaps it is the willingness of those who come to put aside everything for a moment to listen for the voice of God.

I was able to think and pray through some important things.  I was able to again pray that God would take the book wherever and to whomever he wants it to go.  I was able to pray about my future and the things that I am holding deeply within my heart.

I also read through my journal for the past year.  Wow.  The journey that the book has taken to get where it is is something that I cannot even describe.  After years of preparation, the first draft took just a month and a half to get on paper.  July 7 was the day I really started writing.  My community has gone through some intense suffering too--lightning strike, sickness, car accidents, death of those close to us.  There were times when we all felt a little like Frodo, trying just to get the ring to where it was supposed to go.  So many times, I did not know how I was going to make it another day, or take just one more step on the journey. That we made it is a testament to how God has been with us.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chapter 1 - Third Installment

At work the next day, Alex could think of nothing but Annie.  He was at a loss to explain to her why this was so important to him.  He’d tried everything he knew.  But things just hadn’t been the same since his accident. 
    He stood at the café counter, waiting for customers.  Alex remembered back to the days when their relationship had been all laughter and fun.  Annie was that kind of girl.  Her crazy, curly brown hair and her sparkling green eyes seemed to advertise her zany, bubbly personality.  She was the life of the party, and together they were always cracking each other up.  She was beautiful.  She was fun.  She was perfect for him, or had been.  But his month in the hospital had sobered him a little, and Annie just didn’t understand. 
    He loved that she wanted to start a snowball fight or play a game of chase through the snow.  At least, he used to.  But it seemed now like there were so many more important things to think about.  Every day, people were dying without knowing Jesus.  How could he just stand by and let that happen?  It was just too important.  It was time for them to take life a little more seriously.
    He’d tried to explain to her that their old dreams of living for their own family and their own comfort was no longer enough for him.  But she simply didn’t seem to want to hear about the inward journey he’d been taking.  She’d never seemed to want to hear about what he felt God was showing him.  She’d always told him to “stop being so morbid” whenever he tried to bring things up in the hospital.  And now, it seemed like all they ever did was fight.  This was not good.  Not good at all.
    “Can I help you ma’am?” Alex asked without even looking up.  But then he heard a familiar voice, “Alex.  How are you?”
    “Oh, hi Sara!”  He gave a small smile.  “It’s been a while.  How are you doing?”
     “Fine, fine, Alex.  But you look a little worried, honey.  What’s on your mind?”
    “How long do you have?”
    “Why, all the time in the world.  I’ll just get a cup of coffee and one of those whole wheat bagels, and I’ll be sitting right over there in the corner.”  Sara pointed to the table on the far side of the café area, right next to the stack of mystery books.  “You just come on over whenever you have a minute, and I’d be happy to listen to anything you have to say.”
    Alex handed her the coffee and the bagel and caught her eye.  Her warm brown eyes arrested his attention, and her angular face softened as she smiled.  Her whole demeanor was open and welcoming as she gave him a knowing glance.  Then she turned to take her food to her table.  Alex stared after her, barely seeing her long jean skirt and wool sweater.  As she made her way to her table, Alex shook his head to clear it and turned back to the next customer. 
    But his mind immediately turned to his youth group days.  Sara Locke was one of his old youth leaders.  She had always been the watchful, quiet kind of leader who saw so much more than what you said or did.  How many times had she looked at Alex and asked him a question or challenged him to think about something that cut straight to the heart of his struggle?  And she had been so kind to both him and Annie when he was in the hospital.  Yes, she could be just the person to help them.  Maybe she could help him explain things to Annie.
    It was half an hour before Alex had a bit of a break.  He looked over, and Sara was still there, sitting at the table in the corner.  She sat properly, her back straight.  Her long, thick brown hair hung just past her shoulders, lightly streaked with grey.  She held a book in her left hand, and a journal lay on the table in front of her.  Every once in a while, she’d stop her reading and write a few lines in the journal.  As Alex approached, she paused and took another sip of her coffee.
    “Sara?”  Alex asked.  “Is it still okay if I sit down?”
    “Of course, honey.  What’s on your mind?”  She smiled gently, put down her book, and gave Alex her attention.
    Alex saw only warmth and understanding in her eyes and started sharing.  He shared in fits and starts at first, struggling to find words.  But as he warmed up, he was able to tell her everything.
    “Sara, when I was laying there in that hospital bed, I just had so much time to think.  And it seemed like I had this movie of my life playing over and over.  The question that kept coming to my head is, was it worth it?  Was what I had been doing and giving my life to worth it?”
    “I felt like I’d been spared for a reason, you know?  And I remembered that trip that we took to the Philippines, do you remember that?”
    She nodded and smiled, so he continued, “Sara, I knew on that trip that God had a calling on my life.  I knew that I was supposed to be a part of his plan to reach the world.  And I don’t know what happened.  Somehow, during college I forgot about that.  And it broke my heart to realize that nothing I’d been doing was worth anything at all.  I think I just got caught up in making myself a comfortable life.  And Annie and I, we had these dreams of having a family and a life together.  So I forgot about that calling for a while.  But in the hospital, it all came rushing back.  And I knew that something had to change.”
    “And what was that, Alex?”
    “Well, I knew that I needed to give more thought to sharing about Christ with the people around me.  And I wanted to make sure that Annie and I were living for something bigger.”
    Alex drummed his fingers on the table.
    “But things got really hard when I left the hospital.  I went back to my life–the life that didn’t include much of God except for church on Sundays–and there’s been a lot of tension since then.  And Annie, well, I haven’t been able to explain this to her.  She doesn’t understand why I’m so worried about all these people around me.  And I don’t really know what to do to help them, and I seem to be botching it all up anyway.  Should I just give up on the idea, and go back to life how it was before the accident?” Alex paused.
    Sara just took a sip of her coffee and kept silent.
    “But I really don’t think I can do that,” Alex continued.  “It’s like all along, this is who I was supposed to be.  I was supposed to care about the people around me.  I was supposed to be living with purpose and mission.  For a while, I forgot.  But I remember now, and I can’t go back.  What do I do, Sara?”
    Alex looked at Sara and then looked down again at his fingers.
    Finally, she said,  “Alex tell me this.  Do you think that your new value system is incompatible with Annie’s?”
    “I think it might be.  I don’t want that to be true, but I think it’s possible.”
    “Do you think that there’s a chance to save the relationship?”
    “I want there to be!  But I’ve been trying to explain where I’m coming from, and I’m just not getting through.”
    “Do you think she shares your Christian faith?”
    “Well, she definitely believes in God.  She grew up Christian.  I know that she thinks it’s important to go to church because we do that together every week.”
    “Yes, that’s right.  I remember now.  Hmm . . . .  Well, do you think she’d be willing to think and pray about this and maybe learn with you for a little while–about this idea of mission and ministry and how that fits into her life, or how it fits into your lives together?”
    After thinking for a minute, Alex replied, “Yeah, I think so.  She’s always wanted us to go to church and do stuff like that together.”
    “Well, what if we met together, maybe once a week, and talked about this?  We can call it a Bible study or a discussion group.  Or you guys can just come over to my house for coffee, and we can chat.  But it sounds to me like there are some deep issues here and that it would be really good if you and Annie could work them out together.  I’d be happy to help you if I can.”
    Alex leaned back into his seat, some of the tension leaving his frame. “Yeah, I think that sounds like a good idea.  I really have no idea what to do.  I don’t want to break up with Annie.  I love her.  But this is not working, and we need help.  I just don’t know how to explain anything anymore.”
    “Okay, Alex.  If Annie agrees to come, you guys just pick a night next week.  You can come to my house.  But before you come, I want you to read Luke 15 together, okay?  And see if you can determine what the point of the three stories is.”
    “Thanks so much, Sara.  I mean it.  I’d better get back to work now, though.  I’ll call you.”
    “I’ll talk with you soon.”

    As Alex got up to go back to the counter, Sara smiled to herself and then prayed quietly.  “God, please be with Alex as he speaks to Annie.  Help him to have clarity and sensitivity as he asks her to do this.” 
    She picked up her coffee again.  She was inwardly thrilled to have seen Alex here today, and she was excited to be a part of his journey.  She’d always liked Alex.  He had been the class clown of the youth group, always full of surprises and mischief.  She’d always thought of him a little like a jester.  He had that kind of goofy appearance that was made for laughter and fun.  Everyone loved him, and he’d always had the ability to get other people to do crazy stuff right along with him.  But there was more to him than that.  His questions during Bible studies had always been deep and searching.  It was clear that he had a deep desire to know and please God, and she’d always hoped that he would stay true to that. 
    And during the short time she’d sat with Annie during one of Alex’s long surgeries, she’d sensed a very sincere person.  She had no idea what Annie truly believed or what she cared about, beyond Alex, but she was hopeful.  Yes, she would be praying for Alex and Annie.

    Back at the counter, a new question was weighing on Alex’s mind.  How was he going to explain this to Annie?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

First Chapter - Second Installment

Annie Russo had spent that day ferociously cleaning her apartment.  She deep-cleaned the kitchen.  She vacuumed the carpet.  She did five loads of laundry.  But no matter what she did, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Alex and the fight they’d had that morning.  It was stupid, really.

Now she and Alex were walking through a Christmas tree farm looking for the perfect tree for her apartment, and she was determined to make the best of the evening.  She was tired of the tension and just wanted to have fun. 

Alex and Annie held hands, walking through the trees, and Annie racked her brain for neutral topics of conversation.  Alex had been unusually quiet on the way to the farm.  Usually, he was quite a chatterbox.

“So,” she said, “how was work today?”

But Alex didn’t answer quickly enough for Annie, so she dropped his hand and started running through the trees.  “Bet you can’t catch me!” she yelled, darting here and there.

She looked over her shoulder, but Alex hadn’t increased his speed.  He didn’t look like he’d even noticed she’d left.  Looking down at the fresh snow on the ground, she grinned.  She ducked behind a tree and waited until just the right moment.

Smack!  Bulls-eye!  It was a direct hit to the center of Alex’s chest.  But instead of making him lunge for the snow, as she’d expected, Alex just frowned and kept walking. 

Annie frowned.  How frustrating.  What was going on with him?

When Alex caught up with Annie again, she asked, “Alex, what is going on?  What’s wrong?”

He kept walking.

Annie stopped abruptly.

Alex kept walking.

She shouted, “Alex!  Stop.  Would you look at me?”

Finally, he slowed to a stop and turned around and glanced at her.  “Look, I had a really hard day.  I don’t want to talk about it.  Let’s just get your tree.”

Annie shook her head, her brown curls bouncing around her face.  “No, Alex.  I’d rather not.  Let’s just go home.”

Annie turned around and quickly started walking back the way they’d come.  Her shoulders were tense and a frown played around her lips.  After a minute, she heard his footsteps crunching through the snow.  In another minute, he’d caught up with her.  He gently grabbed her arm and pulled her to a stop.  “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry, Annie, I am.  It’s been a rough day.  I really want to get your tree with you.  Come on.  It’ll be fun.”

Annie struggled to push down her feelings of frustration and regain her optimism.  For a moment, the frustration was winning, and she longed to make a snarky comment about how he’d already ruined their fun.  Instead, she said, “Fine, let’s go.  But if you’re not going to talk about it, at least keep your bad mood to yourself.  This is supposed to be fun.”

They walked through the pines and headed toward the firs.  Alex began to tell stories about the people he’d served in the café that day.  Soon they were laughing and talking.  Not about anything serious, of course, but at least they were talking.  Annie felt the tension slowly leaving her body.

And then they came upon a slightly lopsided fir tree.  Annie stopped in her tracks.  “Ooh, Alex.  This one’s just right!”  Alex seemed to be laughing at her choice, but he immediately bent down and began sawing at the trunk.  It took just a couple of minutes, and the tree was theirs.

They slowly made their way back to the check out, Alex carrying the tree and Annie the saw.  Annie asked quietly, “So, Alex, seriously, what’s going on with you?  Is everything okay?”

She looked over, and she noticed his jaw clench.  Uh oh.  But it was too late now.

“I had a rough conversation with Drew again.  He had a bad conversation with his parents on the phone.  I was just trying to explain to him how much God loves him.  But he wouldn’t hear it.”

“Why do you even care about that guy, Alex?  He’s so mean to you.”

Alex switched the tree from his right shoulder to his left.  “It’s really important, Annie.  I feel sure that he doesn’t really know God, and I think he’s going to die soon.  I just don’t want to see him live his eternity in hell.”

“But what’s it to you?  He’s not even your friend.”  What was this obsession with God all of a sudden?  After the accident, he’d been talking about spirituality all the time–and not just to her, but to people he knew didn’t believe the way they did.  She didn’t know why.  Church was fine for Sundays, and she was really happy that she’d found a moral guy.  But to make it the topic of every conversation seemed a little much.  And why couldn’t he just leave Drew alone?  It was obvious that he didn’t really want to hear what Alex was selling.

Alex gripped the tree a little more tightly and started walking a little more quickly.  If he hadn’t been carrying the tree, Annie would have said that he was marching.  Annie struggled to keep up with him.  Finally, he answered, “I wish I could explain this to you, but obviously I can’t.  It’s important to talk about spiritual things with other people.  God cares about Drew, and God wants him to know that.  It’s important that he make a decision to follow God before he dies.”

“I get that it’s important to you that people have their spiritual lives figured out.  But it’s not our job to figure it out for them.  Drew obviously doesn’t care about this stuff.  So why even bother?” 

Annie tried desperately to keep the cringe off her face as she approached the farm’s hut to pay for the tree.  When they got back into the car, their conversation moved on to other topics.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

First Chapter - first installment

Alex Cunningham flung open the door to the Second Story Bookshop, and the jingle bells announced his presence.  He rushed up to the coffee counter, his leather jacket crinkling, and the scent of peppermint and a breeze of cold air followed along.  He approached the counter, his reddish hair glinting under the Christmas lights.

“Sorry I’m late!” he said to no one in particular.  Alex quickly shed his winter wear and went behind the counter, pulling on an apron.  “What’ll you have?” he asked the next person in line.

Alex was relieved to be at work.  The smell of coffee and the sight of shelf after shelf lined with books seemed like a haven.  He had just left his girlfriend Annie’s place, where they had been in a desperate argument, the fifth that week.  Things just hadn’t been the same since his motorcycle accident last spring. 

But it wasn’t long before the bookstore worked its calming magic, and Alex turned his mind to the task at hand.  Soon the lunch rush was over, and Alex was free to head upstairs to his office.  It was Friday, and for Alex, that meant ordering and scheduling.  Alex made his way between the tables and the stacks to the stairs.  His office was upstairs, all the way in the back, and he shared it with Drew, the book purchasing manager.

Alex had worked at Second Story since July.  Before his motorcycle accident, he was a finance guy at a small local business.  But after his month in the hospital, he was only able to work part-time.  By the time he was ready to go back to full-time, the small business had folded.  So here he was, the café manager.  Certainly not ideal, but better than nothing.

As Alex entered the office, he noticed again the chaos that was his and Drew’s office.  Neither one was super detail-oriented, and they didn’t have enough storage space.  There were boxes along the wall, and piles of paperwork on every conceivable surface.  They had a halfhearted filing system going in the big filing cabinet that stood on the wall between their desks.  But it seemed like a lost cause. 

Drew Reynolds was already in the office, hunched over his keyboard.  “Hey Drew,” said Alex. 

“Uh, hello Alex.”  Drew didn’t even look up.  He was looking especially gaunt today, and there was a yellowish tint to his skin that made his dark hair look even darker.  His Calvin Klein jeans and Abercrombie sweater hung loosely off his limbs.  Drew was always well-dressed.  But about a month ago, it had become obvious that he was a really sick guy.  His clothes had begun to just hang off him, and his ordinarily lively face took on a more and more despondent look.  Today Alex could see that Drew was failing fast.

“How are you feeling today, Drew?”  Alex hesitated to ask.  Sometimes Drew would talk to him, sometimes he’d become angry, and sometimes he’d just speak in monosyllables for days at a time.  Alex could never predict which it would be, so that made venturing to care a dangerous proposition.  But Alex thought it was worth the risk. Drew didn’t seem to have many friends, and with his recent break-up, he seemed to become more and more withdrawn from life with each passing day.  Some days, Alex felt like he might possibly be the only person who cared a little bit about Drew. 

“Well, Alex, I feel like shit, as a matter of fact.  And my *!@& father picked last night to spring another lecture on me about the status of my mortal soul when I called to talk to my mom.”

Drew paused, his face becoming redder by the second.  “The jerk was supposed to be at a church meeting, but I guess it was cancelled, so he picked up the phone instead.  I don’t know why I even bother, anyway.  Nothing good ever comes of those phone calls.”  Drew threw a challenging look over his shoulder at Alex and then turned back to his work.

“But your mom must have been glad to hear from you,” Alex said.

“I didn’t even get to talk with her.  About five minutes through my father’s diatribe, I couldn’t take it anymore and hung up.  No way was I gonna call back later to talk to her.”

Alex raised an eyebrow.  He ventured, “That’s awful, Drew.  But your dad must really love you, to talk with you about your spiritual life like that.”

“Love me!  If that’s what you call love, I don’t want any part of that.”  Drew swung his chair around to face Alex.  “He doesn’t love me.  He can’t accept me.  He can’t accept who I am.  He can’t accept that I don’t fit that perfect image he laid out for me when I was two.  All he was ever concerned about was whether all the people at church thought he was a good guy or not.  And he’s made it very clear that how I choose to live has ruined his picture-perfect family and life.  According to him, it’s amazing that the church even lets him collect offering now.”

“Well, God l—“

"And don’t even talk to me about God!” Drew’s eyes flashed.  “According to my father, God hates me as much as my father does.  I don’t want to hear about any of that B.S. today!”  With that, Drew jumped up and stalked out of the office.

Alex’s body sagged as his eyes followed Drew out the door.  He sighed.  He could not get this right.  It had been quite a struggle for him to even get to this point.  When he first started working with Drew, they’d hit it off.  They had a lot of fun together, because they shared the same sense of humor and love of mischief.  They used to set up pranks for the other staff and watch as they usually went off without a hitch.  But when Alex found out about Drew’s then-partner, Eric, well, he’d gotten really uncomfortable.  It had never occurred to him that Drew could be gay.  And what was he supposed to do about that?

Alex had grown up in a church where being gay was a “sin,” and he was pretty sure that sin was supposed to be confronted head-on.  He knew that he was supposed to do something from Matthew 18--go to Drew alone first, or something like that.  And then if Drew didn’t repent, Alex could take someone else along. 

Alex cringed when he remembered the time he’d tried to follow that plan shortly after he’d learned about Eric.  It was a month before Drew had even talked to him again.  But obviously this whole love-oriented message wasn’t getting through either.  Every time he so much as breathed a word about God, Drew blew up at him.  And from the way Drew looked today, he might not make it much longer himself.  He NEEDED to get right with God.  And Alex was sure that he should be encouraging Drew to do that.  Wasn’t that what a serious follower of God would do?

Alex slammed his fist against his desk.

Agh!  Why does everything have to be so hard? 

Seriously, following God is supposed to lead to peace and love and happiness.  But ever since I got out of the hospital, it’s been one conflict after another.  How am I ever going to keep going like this?

Alex turned back to his inventory sheets and tried to focus.  But he couldn’t quite get rid of the nagging suspicion that he was missing something–some kind of skill or piece of information that could help him reach Drew.  There must be some way, right?  

God loved Drew, of that he was sure.  God even wanted Drew to spend eternity with him.  So how was God going to get through to him?  And how was he, Alex, supposed to be a part of that?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Seeing behind the questions continued

So the first thing I should say is that I really think the person who did that YouTube video was joking.  It's satire, and he's poking fun at the inconsistencies of the Christian belief system.  It's oversimplified.

The question that the guy asks is, "Why does God want to send me to hell?"  He says that Jesus doesn't have to send him to hell, because he's Jesus, and should be powerful enough to choose.  He also says that the type of love that demands worship is conditional, and that he would have expected God to be more noble than he is as a human being.

I think all of these comments has an emotional component.  I see that the question about hell has to do with the goodness of God, God's right to judge people, and why would a loving God send people to eternal judgment.  No matter what logical or rational explanation you give, the question is still going to remain--how can God do that?  And really, the question is why.

There's also an expectation that God should be better than humans, but the God that he understands God to be is capricious and makes decisions on a whim or based on shallow reasons (ego, etc) rather than good ones.

The only real way to work through these questions is to understand the character of God that's revealed in the whole story of God.  Telling stories and allowing someone to engage with the person of God, with the person of Christ, is the only way to come to any resolution.  Maybe there's a way to rationally explain all of this, but for a person whose barriers are primarily emotional questions, no rational answer is going to satisfy.

One of the visions for this blog and the connected website is to create resources for people to use to both understand and understand how to tell the stories of God.  I don't think there's any other way that a generation of feelers is going to know Christ.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seeing behind the questions

So my community has been discussing this video for a couple of years.  Every once in a while, one of us will bring it up on the computer again, and we'll sit around and watch it.

I think it demonstrates the futility that a lot of people feel about talking about their faith with other people.  Everyone is afraid they're going to get into a conversation like this, and that they won't know what to say or how to say it.  And I guess if you're prone to emailing people about faith, it would be really easy to get stuck in a conversation like this.

But this kind of situation has never happened to me.  I think it's because when I talk about faith, it's usually after I actually have a relationship with a person, where they know a lot more about me than just what I believe.  And when someone brings up something that they struggle with, most of the time I empathize with them and talk about how I've struggled with the same questions.  Sometimes I'll offer how I resolved the conflict or question in my own mind.

But rather than engaging at a rational level, answering all the questions that are on the surface, I'd also want to engage with the emotional barriers I see.  I see a couple of potential ones here.  What do you see?

Tomorrow I'll talk about the ones that I am guessing could be behind these questions

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Imperfect stories

I went to see the new Narnia movie tonight.  It was a good show--ok characterization, ok pace of action, etc.  But all of the richness of the spiritual connotations was replaced with humanistic philosophy--basically, you can make yourself better and better.  So that was a disappointment.

They kept the conversation with Aslan and Lucy at the end, though, where Lucy is asking if she'll ever see him again.  Aslan responds that he's known by another name in her world, and she has to get to know him by that name there.  And he says something about how she had all these experiences in Narnia so that she would better be able to recognize him in that world.

And how many of us, as children, read those books and allowed the view of Aslan to affect the view that we had of God? 

It's a little scary to me, actually, especially now that I'm writing fiction.  There are lots of ways that we portray God in the world, especially if we are claiming the name of Christ.  There are lots of ways that we can screw up how people think about God; there are lots of way that we can harm their willingness or ability to hear from or about him.  So I guess that story telling isn't any different.

And yet if my assumption that storytelling is powerful, maybe more powerful than making claims or statements, then it's really important to be careful of the stories we tell.  The way we frame those stories, the way we understand how God interacted in those stories has a great impact on what we're communicating about him.

I've been thinking about this too as I go through a children's storybook Bible in the evenings.  There are so many ways that our theology or background affect how we read the stories.  You can sometimes guess at the perspective of the story-writers based on what they leave out or how they frame things.

Imperfect people reflect the image of God imperfectly.  We also tell imperfect stories.  But I think it's important that we be reflecting and story-telling anyway.  So I'm going to keep on telling mine.  But I'm also going to keep praying that God will lead and guide my words and protect others from the damage that my imperfect stories could cause.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stories that transform

It amazes me how much stories get inside people.

I grew up reading books by Michael Phillips.  He had this whole series about a girl named Corrie Belle Hollister.  Every year or so, another book would come out.  She'd be another year older, and so would I.  Her spiritual journey affected mine.

It sounds a little scary, that some fictional character, who doesn't even have a relationship with God, who can't believe anything because she's not real, could affect my spiritual formation so much.  But there's no denying that that's what happened.  I look back on those books now and on all the books I read by Michael Phillips, and I see how much what I believe and how I live was formed by what I read.

So I wrote a book.  It could have been a nonfiction book.  My community has a lot to say about emotional barriers to faith and how to engage those in a natural way.  But as we talked about how to communicate the ideas, we realized that the only way the ideas would make sense is if they were played out in people's lives.  Ideas in the abstract are just ideas.  Ideas that are modeled, even by fictional character, have the potential to change us if we let them.

And I've had a small group of people reading and giving feedback.  And every single one of them said that the book was transformative in their lives.  That's the power of story.  And I'm amazed.  As a piece of literature, the book leaves a lot to be desired.  I could spend another 2-3 years developing the characters and the setting and making the point of the book more subtle.  But as a story that has the potential to model and transform, it's good enough--it does its job.

So it's on its way.  This coming week I'll finalize all the details, and next week it will be sent to the printer.  Shortly after that, it'll be available for purchase on Amazon.  It seems unreal, this journey of writing.  I think I thought that some day I would be a writer.  I just didn't expect it to happen quite this soon.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Second Story - Coming soon!

cover design by Dave Malec

So... I'm a little excited about this.  I just got the cover back from the designer for the book.  Soon the whole thing will be off to the printer.  I'm expecting the book will be available in January.  Click here for a brief synopsis of the book.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reflections on Immanuel

"It all makes sense now, of course, 20 years later.  At the time though, it was dark.  Very dark.  I couldn't see then that God was with me.  Sure, he said he would be.  In the Bible, you know?  'I will never leave you or forsake you?'  But it didn't feel like it then.  Not at all."

"Even with all the weird things that happened....  This old lady sat down beside me at the bus stop that day.  She talked about inane things.  Ridiculous things.  Like the weather.  But when I got up to get on my bus, she grabbed my hand and smiled at me.  Quietly, she said, 'God loves you, honey.'  On that day, of all days."

"And then that guy at the grocery check-out.  He was a little creepy, I have to admit.  But his creepiness led him to pay for my groceries.  Up til that very minute, I had no idea how I was going to pay for them myself."

"So now I can see it, looking back.  God really was with me, even then.  He was present.  Not the way I expected him to be.  Not how I wanted him to be.  But he was there."

I gathered today with a small group of Christians in my community to talk about stories and telling stories to express the truths found in Scripture.  One of my friends talked to us about "stories that compost" and a process of examining a Bible story and then asking 3 questions:
(1) What did you like about the story? 
(2) What bothers you about the story?
(3) What questions do you have about the story?

At the end of that, we all took a few minutes to write a story as a sort of reflection or meditation about the ideas presented in the Bible story.  So we looked at Matthew 1 today, about Joseph's response to the news that Jesus was coming and that he should just go ahead and marry Mary.  As we talked about the story, we noted how God's presence as Immanuel was a theme that flowed throughout.  As I paused to write, that was the overwhelming thought that came to my mind.  So I wrote the narrative above as my "story."

There's something about interacting with a story at that level that requires you to internalize the truth of it in a different way.  I must have read Matthew 1 25 times before.  I have thought about Jesus coming to earth at least once a year around Christmas time.  But have I really considered Jesus's presence with us as Immanuel in this way?  Have I reflected on his presence with us through his people in the same way?  Have I really allowed the story of God's presence to intersect my own heart and life? Probably not.

There are lots of ways to tell the stories of God.  I've talked before about telling our own stories and how God has intersected our own lives.  And without taking away from the truth of what actually happened, I think we can also imagine what those ideas might mean in our own lives and the lives of those around us.  And we can learn to tell the heart of the story using words and stories that make sense to those around us.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gospel within culture

My family moved overseas when I was 13 years old.  It's kind of an awkward time to move to another country.  It's the time in our culture where we are trying to figure out who we are going to become and what's important to us.  It's the time when we learn how to relate to other people outside of our families.  It's the time when we're trying to form an identity that's separate from our parents.

So, at 13, I picked up and moved to the fine country of Singapore.  It's very different than the United States.  The biggest difference I saw that goes to the core of how we relate to one another is that, in the United States, we are primarily individuals.  In Asia, you are primarily part of a bigger community--you are defined based on your relationship to your family, then the greater community, and then your nation.  When making decisions, the family and the community are given greater care than the individual's desires.  There were other things I noticed--like the fact that all the light switches were upside down, or that communication is much more indirect so that no individual is ever blamed for anything.  So "the glass got broken" rather than "Henry broke the glass."

I was a pretty observant kid, so I spent a lot of time watching how people interacted and trying to figure it out.  Although I didn't find the language to describe the differences in culture until my college sociology class, I definitely noticed.  I remember thinking about their governmental system and realizing that democracy was not the only way to go.  I mean, they had a pretty successful country, and they don't have the same form of government as we do.

It was about that time when I realized a couple of things:  (1) Culture affects everything we see and understand about what is around us; (2) There are good and bad things about every culture; (3) I could actually choose my own values and way of life based on something other than my culture, namely, what I believed was biblical or that flows out of the character of God.

I began to critically evaluate the teen magazines coming from the US and the messages they sent about what I was supposed to care about (clothes, boys, appearance, etc).  I began to think about what I actually wanted my life to look like and the values I wanted to use to measure my choices.  And I chose.  Because of my life experience, I was able to have a much more proactive role in my own personal development than I probably would have if we'd lived in the US all my life.

Those three principles have a huge effect on where I'm at today and why I'm doing and talking about what I am.  There's a whole lot of momentum in the Christian world right now to reject what the modern church sees as the cultural imperfections of the post-modern, post-Christian culture.  There even seems to be the expectation that, for people to truly come to faith in God, they have to leave behind their postmodern culture and go back to a rational, modern way of living and believing.

But every culture has positives and negatives.  There is a concern for social justice and the environment that exists in today's culture that did not exist when I was growing up.  Reading the stories of the Bible, those two things seem to be pretty important to God.  There's also an inherent distrust in material possessions that I'm not sure existed before.  Where we're at now is not all bad.

And what I learned from living overseas is that cultural changes are difficult.  They take a long time.  They go to the core of people's beliefs about life and their own identities.  I think that all culture should be challenged and evaluated in light of the character of God.  But practically speaking, to some extent we have to work within the context that we're in.  And that's really what my heart is.  My heart is to ask the question "how do we reach and communicate the heart of the gospel within today's culture?"  God can change culture - but he's only going to be able to do that as people's hearts who are within that culture are changed and conformed to his image.

Within the month, Second Story, a fictional story about that question will be released by Da[w]bar House Press.  It'll be available on Amazon and hopefully through some local bookstores.  I really want to spark conversation about how we can effectively communicate the gospel to people today, right now, in this culture.  More information about the book is available on my website.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Introducing . . . storying

In a slight change of pace, I really wanted to take a couple of minutes and recommend a great resource to you.  About a year and a half ago, I stumbled on the idea of storying from Michael Novelli.  His website is here.

The basic idea is that it's a really powerful thing within a community to return to the power of the story of the Bible.  The Bible was written in narrative form, but so often we break it up and analyze it into tiny, bite-size pieces.  It's really easy to misinterpret.  It's also really easy to sort of contain God if we can categorize and analyze things to the point where they all make sense.

Last year a small group of people met in my house about twice a month to story through the Old Testament.  I was immediately captured by the stories.  I was confronted by the character of God in those stories, who was so much bigger than I'd remembered.  We had great conversations about the stories and about what they challenged us to do in our own lives.

As I've learned to recognize emotional barriers to faith in my life and in the lives of those around me, this idea of story has really jumped out at me as a way to engage with those barriers.  Through story, we can introduce ourselves and our friends to the person of God rather than just ideas about God.  And those stories have the power to transform.  They challenge our preconceived notions and ideas, and they force us to engage with God in a different way than if we just talk about him in the abstract.  I would highly recommend this resource.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Love one another

"I don't really care what people think about predestination or baptism or salvation.  The church doesn't know how to love.  I think we should be focused on that."

Regardless of what you think about the theology of this statement, it's something to consider.  One of the biggest issues people have with the church is how it treats people.  One of the biggest issues I have with the church is how it treats people.

In John 13:35, Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Is it really a surprise, then, that people use the question of love to evaluate the truth of the church's or individuals' beliefs?

This seems to be one of the most common barriers to faith.  What we do is so much more important than what we say.  That doesn't mean that we don't need to put words around what we believe.  It simply means that what we do has the power to authenticate or detract from what we say we believe.  

I don't think that I'm saying anything new here.  But it's amazing how disconnected what we say we believe and what we actually do has the ability to become.  In some ways, our faith communities contribute to this by creating the expectation that spirituality happens on Sunday and doesn't affect the rest of the week.

What does it actually mean to love the people around us?  What does it mean to love the "least of these" or our most vulnerable populations?

I once saw a news show about Rick Warren's wife.  She was explaining her humanitarian work in Africa, and she was able to share the story of how she became interested in this work.  It was amazing.  After seeing so much skepticism in the media about the things that Christians say and do, this interviewer was basically speechless.  She couldn't make fun of what Kay Warren was doing.  She couldn't despise it.  She had to respect it because it was making a real difference in a real way.

As I participate in this church planting team and as we prepare to become the kind of community that we hope to be, this is something that we have been talking about a lot.  How do we create a culture of love and care?  How does your community intentionally love one another and the world?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Listening for stories

So I watched this clip this morning about "The Danger of a Single Story."  It got me thinking about things on several levels, particularly having lived cross-culturally.  It resonated with my own experience.

And I got to thinking that being willing to hear all stories about a person or a people is so important about making human connections.  Sociologists talk about stereotyping as a sort of short cut for survival and communication.  We look at people, we size them up, and then we act according to what we expect will work.  But to truly know someone, we have to be willing to listen to their stories - all of them - positive, negative, neutral.  We have to take the time to hear people and to know what makes them tick.

We do this with our children, right?  We spend a lot of time trying to understand them, to draw them out, to walk with them through joys and pains in life.  We do this with our friends.  We hear their stories, we tell our own to build relationship and connection or to encourage and challenge.

Learning to seek out and engage peoples' stories has really helped me in relationships.  I'm an introvert.  I somewhat hate talking to "strangers," meeting new people, and trying to figure out their cultural and personal expectations of me (as a Third-Culture Kid, I think that's normal, actually).  But I find myself engrossed in the stories of other peoples' lives.  And I find that when I truly listen to a person's stories - all of them - I'm able to find points of connection with almost everyone I meet.

This idea has great relevance to how I talk about faith.  The single story that I was taught about sharing faith is that the church has the solution to the human problem of pain, suffering, evil, sin.  Armed with a tract, I was to leave the safety of the church, go out into the streets, and impart that solution to the people I met.  The stereotype is that the world out there is broken and needs what I have to say.  That's really the only story I ever heard.

Over the last years though, I have begun to live out of who I am, and I have begun to listen to the stories of the people around me.  Instead of seeing them as the stereotypical people who "need Jesus," I have seen them as people with many, many stories of joys and pains, desires and setbacks, hopes and fears.  And I have engaged with those things at a human level, sometimes sharing my own story, sometimes sharing a Bible story, and sometimes just sitting without words.  This is what it means to me now to share faith--it's to walk with people making genuine connections to them and their many stories.

Reading this blog, you may get the impression that all I ever talk about is faith.  But the reality is that I spend a lot more time in my relationships listening to other people or building natural human connections based on shared interests or discussions about ideas.  Though faith is central to my life and is always on my mind, I only talk about it when it's relevant to the current story that we're discussing.

The idea of sharing faith doesn't have to be a horrible, scary thing.  It doesn't have to mean the imposition of my beliefs on other people.  It doesn't have to mean uncomfortable conversations with people.  If I truly believe that I am in the world to love and care for the people around me, and if I am doing that by hearing peoples' stories and engaging with them in a natural way, then talking about my own faith and my own perspective becomes really natural too.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A first step

One of my first opportunities to talk about my faith within a secular environment came while I was at work.  I was on break, maybe at lunch in the break room, and the only other person at work who was my age was also there.  We'll call her Melissa.

So Melissa and I were chatting.  I was thinking then of going to law school, and she was thinking of going back to graduate school to study something like social work.  We were talking about the future and where we were heading.  Turns out that she almost went to law school, and I was a social work major for a very short time during undergrad.  I asked her why she didn't want to go to law school.  Then she asked me why I decided not to do social work.

And I remember really clearly that I told Melissa the story of how God had brought some emotional healing into my life.  The reason I didn't go into social work is because I think that true life-change and healing comes within true community relationships with people who really know you--at least, that's been my experience.  While I think there's a reason for the clinical setting in many cases, I've had the blessing of a rich spiritually-based community where the people around me are challenging me and helping me to grow.  And no matter how much a professional listens to you, she doesn't really offer unconditional love.  And I told her how my friends had offered that and how much it changed my life.  I told her how I believed that God met me through that community in some really difficult times.

It was a really simple conversation.  We didn't end by talking about church or God or Jesus, even.  But that conversation opened the door to talking about faith and spiritual things - for both her and me.  And as time went on, we did talk about a lot of deeply spiritual topics, and she initiated many of them.

Conversations about the spiritual are natural.  We're spiritual beings, and if that part of your life is important to you, it's very natural that it will come out during some conversations.  The first step toward spiritual conversations for me, though, has consistently been to share something from my own life.  I never start with a list of all the beliefs I hold.  I don't start by making judgmental comments about how horrible the world is or how someone's actions are "sinful" or even "wrong."  I don't even really talk about the fact that I'm a Christian.

Instead, the natural bridge for me has been talking about something God has done in my life or talking about why I've made some of the choices I've made.  And because that sharing comes as a natural part of a relationship, I've been able to continue walking beside people as a friend and sometime spiritual mentor over a long time.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The power of story

About 2 years ago now, I sensed that I needed to get away from the craziness of life for a week and go to this little place of prayer called The Hermitage in Three Rivers, Michigan.  It's a place where they practice the discipline of silence and you have time and space to just meet with God.

I'd been somewhat avoiding having such extended time with my own thoughts.  My brother had been diagnosed with cancer that year, and I'd spent a lot of the year just trying to survive.  I can't even explain now what the realization of his mortality did to me emotionally.  He's the only person who experienced life with me in that way - we grew up in the states, and then left with our family to move overseas when I was 13 and he was 11.  The thought of not having someone in the world who understands that life experience was horrifying to me.  But I think I only cried about it once, and then I proceeded to take care of everyone - him, my sister-in-law, myself.  My parents were still gone, you see, living overseas.  So taking care of everything fell on me.

I'd spent a lot of years before that surviving too.  The moving back and forth overseas and losing all important relationships made it hard for me to be able to open up and risk needing other people around.  Inevitably, they would leave or I would leave.  It doesn't help that I have a passion for and an interest in the world, so virtually all of my friends are forever jet-setting around, spending a year in this country or that one.  I had finally come to a place of healthy interdependence within a community, and then once again I was headed toward survival.  And for me, that means shutting everything off - all emotions, all relationships - and just walking through life.  I was well on my way toward doing that again.  And what I've noticed about life is that if you hold on to a pattern like that long enough, it becomes very difficult to undo.

So away I went, to the Hermitage.  I took a stack of books from the library - spiritual books, devotionals.  I took my guitar, my journal, my Bible.  And I went and I stayed in a tiny cabin in the woods.  And I had space and time to listen.  When I got to the cabin, I found some books sitting in the desk.  One of them was CS Lewis's "Till we have faces."  When I got tired of reading "serious" books, I picked that one up.  And I was engrossed.  Here was a story about a person whose whole world had fallen apart.  I read and I read, and then I got to the part where she is led to the room to read her charges against the god in the story.

And I stopped.  And I cried.  And I finally made the choice to be real about my own "charges" against God - about my questions about whether he is good and whether he will provide for us.  My refusal to admit those questions, even to myself, had created a barrier between myself and God, and probably myself and other people.  Once I said those words out loud, I was able to hear the truth from Scripture about who God actually is.

And that's the power of story.  I don't know if there's anything else that would have unlocked my barriers to relationship with God, because I'm not sure that I even knew they were there.  Reading the story and feeling the character's pain and walking with her through her own experience allowed me to draw parallels with my own life and allowed God to bring me to a place of willingness to be real with where I was at.

So part of the reason I believe so strongly that story is a way to engage with people's barriers to faith and trust is because that's what worked in my own life.  That's what spoke to my own barriers and allowed me to move forward and take a risk to speak and to trust.  I don't think it would have been half as powerful for someone to just look at me and say "Anna, you're obviously not trusting God right now."  And how many people were there who I would have trusted to speak into my life anyway?  I was basically emotionally removed from everyone and everything.

Story is nonthreatening.  Story is compelling.  Story gives people a chance to absorb truth in a way that it never will be absorbed when it's communicated through declarative statements.

For example, which was more compelling to you?  The last paragraph of this post?  Or the story I just told about myself?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The culture of crime

I sat in court this morning and watched a judge berate a father for spanking his 8-year-old kid with a belt.  The judge said, "I would never, ever consider hitting my child with a belt."  The father said back to the judge, "I'm trying to make my child into a good man, so he's not pulling up to a drive-through restaurant with a gun in his hand, asking for all the cash."
One of the most difficult things for me to deal with as a criminal defense attorney is the lack of cultural understanding within the system.  There are lots of reasons that our system is unjust, but this is one that is really hard for me.

The law is written by the representatives of the majority.  These are people who have to weigh was is good, what is bad, and how to govern society as a whole.  This is necessary and important work.  But the world that I'm from is a minority world.  The urban culture is a whole different culture, where survival is dependent on presenting an invincible image, where my safety depends on whether you're more afraid of me than I am of you.  The urban culture does not mesh well with the majority culture.  On so many levels, what is required of an urban person for survival is against the law.

Setting aside questions of morality (like whose culture is morally correct), this creates a situation where my clients can never win.  They will not survive their home life or their neighborhood walks without acting in one way.  But acting in that way sets them at odds with the law.  As a result, they face the attendant financial and social penalties that further separate them from the majority culture.

Going back to the father in my story, I wouldn't be surprised if the father is right, that the only way he can prevent his son from going criminal is to physically discipline his child.  In his culture, this is the only way to communicate discipline.  Is it ideal?  No.  Is it causing the child damage?  Maybe--I don't know because I wasn't there.  But the father's reaction may be the lesser of many evils that are possible.  I don't advocate for situational ethics.  But I do wish that there was some way that the father's perspective could be legitimized.  He has very real fears and concerns that society is not helping him to solve in a socially acceptable way.  So he's left with a domestic violence charge on his record, hundreds of dollars of court costs that he's unable to pay, and a criminal record for violence.

Is this really justice?  I understand the need for rules and laws that govern societal behavior.  I understand the desire to protect children from abuse.  In fact, I'm a huge advocate for that in many arenas of my life.  But I do want to cry out against the perception that just because this is what the majority has deemed correct, the people who choose to do otherwise for their own good reasons are somehow different than "us".  He's just the same as everyone else.  Many times criminal behavior does not indicate that someone is a reprehensible or morally stunted person.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Memory as Hope

So on Sunday I was laying down, impatiently waiting for my back to heal, and I popped in the 3rd Lord of the Rings movie.  I'd recently seen the 2nd one when our symphony did a live performance of the music with the movie.  I was preparing to share with our church planting team about hope that evening, so I was watching the movie with thoughts of hope in mind.

I got to the part of the movie where Sam and Frodo are headed through the wilderness, finally abandoned by Gollum, and they are worn and ragged.  The journey has been long and difficult beyond belief.  They keep putting one foot in front of the other, but they struggle to do even that.  At one point, Frodo sort of collapses.  Sam stands there and looks at him, concerned, as always.  And then he starts to talk to Frodo, "Do you remember the Shire, Frodo?"  And he paints a picture of all the things that they left behind, all the things that they remember, all the things that they think are worth fighting for.

How powerful.

I thought of that in the context of the eternal story that we are living in the midst of.  We often think of hope as something to reach for that has no basis in reality, that has never happened before, that we can only just picture the possibility of.  But I think that we also have memory of something that's good and right and perfect that we still long for.  And the fact that it existed before actually can instill hope in us that we can find that again.

One of the most powerful aspects of the story of God is that there is hope for healing and restoration and re-creation.  We have a picture of what that was like - oh so briefly - in the first chapter of Genesis.  Where all relationships were right and good, where people and God walked together, and where work was not the toil it is today. 

When I'm physically suffering, attempting to counsel suicidal clients to get help, watching those around me physically or emotionally hurting, it's so easy to see just those things.  It's easy to see the problems and to be overwhelmed by them.  But the memory of the garden gives me hope that, through the power of Jesus and the work of the Spirit, re-creation is possible.  And not only is it possible, it will happen.  Someday.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The substance of hope

Last night we had the first advent conversation for the church plant I'm part of.  We talked about the first advent topic, which is the hope of things to come.  Although I would typically think of the beginning of the advent season as hope and expectation for the coming of the Messiah, the passages that we were looking at were all about hope for the 2nd coming of the Messiah.

So the question that I posed to the group is what is the nature of the hope that we have to offer ourselves and to the world?

In my daily life, brushing shoulders with all kinds of people in all kinds of places, there's a marked absence of hope.  There's a feeling that the world is not as it should be, and the imperfections of the world around us seem to take center stage in conversation.  Whether it's the economy (Michigan's is still really, really awful), the reality of an possibility of war, or the complete breakdown of our social relationships, people are living without hope.

In Isaiah 2, there's a really hopeful passage of Scripture where Isaiah talks about the end of time, when weapons will be given up for tools of peace.  Isaiah was speaking into a culture of instability and fear that is similar to where we are today, though the invasion of military forces was imminent for Judah.  But the hope that he mentioned was all in the future - the very distant future.  After reading, my question remained - what is the substance of hope that God offers today?  Is it just the hope of a future world where everything will be put right?

Because I'm not sure that hope actually really resonates with the people in my world.  The response I feel is the response of "so what?  How does that even remotely relate to my life right now and all of my current problems?  How does that put bread on the table or get me out of an abusive situation?"

As we talked about this as a community, I think we uncovered that there's a duality of hope that is offered.  Yes, there is hope for the future making-right-of-all things.  But there is also a way in which the body of Christ, the church, is to be an agent of hope and change in the world right now.  How do I know that the future restoration of all things is coming?  Because I am being restored - not just by personal healing, but by being a part of a transforming and transformative community.  

If I can say that I am being restored, recreated in God's image, being made a better person who makes better choices by the power of the Spirit in my life, then it's easier to hope for the ultimate restoration of all things.  If I'm part of a community that is transforming the culture around it, not in a damaging or disrespectful way, but in a way that reaches out and meets actual needs, perhaps it is easier to believe in the possibility of recreation.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Vulnerability is a good thing

So I injured my back this weekend and all of my lower back muscles have seized up.  I can barely move, so I'm laying here, flat on my back, trying not to move.  Besides preventing all activity (except reading and writing, I guess), this problem gives me the opportunity to think.

What I'm thinking about this morning is the importance of vulnerability in building relationships with other people.  One of the biggest problems that I see with the way I was taught to share faith in my childhood was that I was sharing from a position of power.  Maybe a better way to say this is that I was sharing with the belief that I had something to offer the world.  I was untouchable - all my problems had been solved, my life was perfect, and in order for people to have the same experience, they just had to believe the same way that I did.  I'm sure this wasn't the intention of the people who taught me, but it seems like the approaches I was taught lend themselves to that sort of attitude.  It's like you're expected to share from a platform or a soapbox.

But that's not really the real world.  Real people have problems.  The minute I portray that my life is perfect, I take myself and my faith out of the realm of the possible.  Not allowing myself to be vulnerable or need something from other people automatically limits the depth to which I can reach their hearts.

So something I've learned is to allow my needs and vulnerabilities to be an opportunity to invite people deeper into my life.  This isn't natural for me, given my life experience.  I am much more comfortable being self-sufficient.  But self-sufficiency is actually unattainable.  Having needs to be met by other people is part of the human condition and it's a really powerful way to build community with people.  And it's in that kind of community that I think conversations about faith are most impacting.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the other side

I've only ever been prostelytzed to one time.  It wasn't religious, actually.  It was a hard-pitch sales job related to a book/philosophy that a family'd bought into.  I went to lunch with a friend and her mom.  They came armed with this book and a folder full of information.  It was weird.

We were going along, having nice conversation, when all of a sudden, the agenda came up.  In the context of this nice lunch, all of a sudden they were explaining to me why this approach to life was so wonderful and all the different things it could help solve.

They were careful not to pressure me.  They said it would be fine if I didn't want the book or the materials.  But they'd clearly bought into it and were now trying to pass it on.

I couldn't help but think right then about all the people Christians share with about the gospel.  I'm sure many times, we make people feel just that same way - a little awkward, maybe offended.  What was really weird was that I hadn't asked for this information.  I didn't see that I needed it.  My own approach to life was working just fine for me, thank you very much.

It felt so much different than it would have had I had a problem I couldn't solve and had asked for help.  It felt so much different than it would have if she'd just been telling me her story one day, or about something that had happened to her, and how this helped her.

I would like to say that I've never made anyone feel like that before.  But I'm sure that's not true.  I think it happens when I have an agenda, or when my message doesn't really relate to the context I'm in. 

I think there are a lot of different ways to talk about faith.  I have conversations about faith with my friends who don't have faith or have faith in different things.  I even challenge the pants off the people around me to live lives totally surrendered to God.  But the only time I've seen it bearing the kind of fruit I'm looking for (better communication between us, a deeper openness to God and his ways) is when it's within the context of relationship and actually relevant to what's going on and what's being talked about.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How do you walk with God?

So the question I was left with is how do you walk with God?  How do you know when he's leading you?

The reason this is a problem is because, although I'm probably a postmodern person, I grew up with modern parents who taught me to lead with my mind and allow my heart and spirit to follow.  The answer to my question in my home would be to read Gary Meador's book about knowing the will of God.  If I'm remembering correctly, the basic premise is that within the moral and ethical boundaries God has given in his word, I can choose to do anything I want to.  There is no "will of God" beyond that.  I saw my parents make decisions like this.  They would pray about things, they would use their rational minds to think about things, and then they would make the good/wise/right decisions within the boundaries of morality and ethics.

I don't know how this happened, but I actually believe that the Spirit also speaks into a person's life, if she is listening, and can specifically lead and guide.  I think there's biblical evidence that this at least happened in biblical times--even the apostle Paul speaks about being led by the Spirit when he's heading on his missionary journeys.  But my parents had great skepticism about this, mostly because of how immeasurable it is and how you can easily misinterpret your own experiences.

So anyway, most of my life I've lived in a way that I would call is "sensitive to the Spirit's leading", where I make choices about what to do and say based on how I believe the Spirit is specifically leading me.

But this year brought up that question for me again.  Because if I'm going to allow that God means to use people to meet needs in the world, and if I'm going to allow that I should only be doing the things that I'm led to, rather than trying to meet everyone's needs all the time, I have to figure this out, right?

So I was drawn again to the passage of John 15, about abiding in Christ.  And I remembered Galatians 5, which talks about walking in step with the spirit.  What I noticed is that there is very little explanation of what this means.  We're admonished to walk in step with the Spirit, to abide in Christ, but the passages don't really paint a picture besides those word pictures of being connected to the vine or walking in step with something.

So I'm left to interpret these passages in the light of the whole of Scripture.  So I think of Adam and Eve, walking with God in relationship in the garden.  I think of Noah, who somehow knew God and had enough faith in him to build a boat when he'd never seen any rain.  I think of Enoch, who walked with God at such a deep level that he never died.  And then I think of those 400 years of the silence of God when the Israelites were in captivity.  And I think of the 400 years between the last prophet and Jesus coming.  And then I think of how the Holy Spirit came to believers at Pentecost and is now living inside of us.

And what I have to conclude is that God doesn't just plop us here, wind us up like little wind-up toys, and let us go to do the moral and ethical things.  What I see from the overarching narrative of Scripture is that God does want a deeper connection with his people - a connection that acknowledges him and submits to him in all things.  I do believe, not just from Scripture but also from my own experience, that God does lead and guide and give specific direction sometimes.  I think I have to know him and abide with him to the extent that I'm able to recognize his voice in my life.

That does defy measurement.  It can lead me to pretty crazy places if I am not listening to the right things or am just confused.  But just because it's hard doesn't mean that we should get rid of the idea all together.  In the body of Christ, in Scripture, in the orthodox faith throughout history, I think we have some boundaries and some ways to measure what's truly from God.

So that's where I've landed on this issue.  I continue to struggle with the ideas.  But the bigger struggle is actually a heart struggle, and that's actually being willing to wake up every morning and ask the Spirit to lead and to guide, and then being willing to follow where he leads.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Walking thru darkness

I think I've talked before about what I know to be one of my biggest emotional barriers to faith and trust in God - that question of God's goodness and his provision in my life.

After about 10 years of avoiding the question, maybe 3 years ago I went away for a week of silence at this retreat center (for all you extroverts, I'm sure this seems extreme... even for me it was long).  After a couple of days there, I was actually willing to admit that those were my questions.  I think before that, I'd been afraid to verbalize them.  I know that God wasn't afraid of those feelings and questions, but for some reason, I hadn't been willing to own them. 

So anyway, this year has been one of the hardest of my life.  I saw some people who were very close to me suffering intensely, and it affected my life to such a point that I didn't see how it was ever going to get better.  I'd been living with the belief that I had to take care of them.  Going back to that question of whether God is good, whether he will meet needs.  I was not really believing that he would.  So I was trying to take care of everyone around me.  What would happen if I didn't?  How did I know that God really would take care of them?

I think I mentioned before my disillusionment with the belief that God will always meet all of our needs because that hasn't been my experience.  On the trip I mentioned, I allowed myself to ask those questions, and I even allowed the truth of the goodness of God to penetrate my mind.  But it didn't get all the way to my heart.  So when I hit on hard times this year, I couldn't allow the needs around me to go unmet.  So I was trying to meet them all.

I'm sure you can see what I couldn't - disaster waiting to happen, right?  There's no way I can do that.  There's no way that's possible.  I'm human, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), and I totally have limitations.

By this fall, I'd gotten myself to a point of total exhaustion.  I was barely able to pray beyond "God help me," and I couldn't see how I could keep going on that way.  That's because I couldn't.  With the help of a spiritual director, I was finally able to see what I'd been doing and why it wasn't working.

But then there was the question of what to do about it?  The question still remained - if God doesn't always meet everyone's needs supernaturally because he's expecting to use people, but sometimes his people aren't listening, then how can I sit there allowing peoples' needs to go unmet, knowing how devastating that can be?

The answer for me came from John 15 and the picture of abiding in Christ.  I can only control my own behavior and my own willingness to hear the call of God in my life.  I can't meet everyone's needs, not even all of one other person's needs.  So instead of trying to do that, I had to learn to just be faithful and obedient to what God was calling me to do.  I had to abide in him and his word in my life and be obedient to the things he was leading me to do. 

This brought up another question, which is how to know what God is calling you to do.  More on that tomorrow.

For now, I just want to say that I am so thankful that God walked through this with me.  I am so thankful that I'm beyond the darkness that this year brought.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Learning to speak

So I have a friend who's been telling me for a while that one of the most valuable roles we can play in another person's life is to be what she calls a "prophet."  When she says this, she doesn't mean the kind of prophet from the Old Testament, calling down judgment or blessing from the heavens or having a specific message handed to you for another person.

I think what she means is having the ability to recognize God's work in the world around and pointing it out and contextualizing it for people.  She is always saying that one of the difficulties in our culture right now is that we're driven by emotion, but often people don't really have the ability to put words around what they feel or what they need.  One of the most important things we can do for people is sit there and reflect things back to them - thoughts, feelings, and where we see God working.

That kind of role is really uncomfortable to me.  I'm a peace-loving person.  I like to be in harmony with everyone around me.  I'd rather be listening than talking, and I'm usually pretty slow to give other people my opinions about things.  So to actually take the step to say, "hey, here's something I'm seeing," or "have you considered this question?" is always a risk.

What I don't want to be is that arrogant kind of person who walks around bestowing her wisdom and thoughts on everyone around, regardless of where they're at or what kind of effect my words will have.  But I do desire to be available to help people to recognize the work of God in their own lives.

I've gotten more comfortable speaking into the lives of my friends.  My approach is still to ask questions, but I think they've become more pointed as the years have gone by.  Somehow, as I've become more familiar with my own spiritual barriers, I've been able to see those that my friends are running into too, and I can ask questions that invite people to think deeply about what's going on in their own hearts.

It's much harder to do that for people who are casual acquaintances.  To speak into someone's life who you just barely know seems like a bigger risk.  At least when you have a long history of friendship, there's enough of an investment in the relationship that if you say something wrong or hurt someone's feelings, they're likely to be willing to work through it with you.  But with someone you barely know, there's no investment.  And you don't know the person well enough to be able to predict how your words will be received.

I just had the opportunity or the invitation to do that with someone I just met.  I hesitated for a long time, because I didn't want to offend.  I wasn't really sure where the person was at spiritually, and I never want to create a barrier where one doesn't exist.  But after praying about it, it seemed like the right thing to do, so I took the plunge.  I think it ended up working out.  The jury's still out.

Anyway, the key for me is learning to be guided by the Holy Spirit.  It's amazing how the Spirit is working and guiding to meet the needs of his children.  And it's actually fun to be able to be a part of what he's doing there.  It's a matter of learning to see what's going on and accepting the invitation to participate, because when it does go right, it's really cool to see how God is able to use your words and actions. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Living Storybook

When I was little, I listened to a record that had this song on it about "a two-footed, ten-toed storybook."  The idea was that God's story is written on his people, and the way we live allows others to read that story to find something out about God and us.

Generally, lawyers get a bad rap, and much of that is probably deserved.  Somehow what they teach us in law school leads us to believe that no rule is absolute, that it's all about the arguments that you make, and an argument can always be made.

Anyway, my world is made up of this belief system that you've got to do what it takes to get ahead.  There is so much stress and pressure associated with the job, that everyone lives life dreaming of making partner and retiring well.  There's little contentment, little joy, and a lot of divorce and substance abuse.

But I just met with a group of attorneys today who formed a law firm with the vision of helping people.  They represent clients on a sliding scale, and they take cases that no one else wants to take.  They are still passionate about seeing justice done.  They stick out in our community like a sore thumb.  And when I walked into their office, I saw things around the office that told me the reasons they do this is because of their faith.

What an awesome testimony to the love and presence of God in the poorest of neighborhoods.  It's inspiring to see other people who are so committed to making their lives count for something.  I have no idea if they talk about faith with their clients or with other attorneys.  They certainly didn't talk about it with me when we met today.  But I can say for sure that they're living it out in a way that's meaningful.  They're putting actions behind what they say they believe.  They're a living, breathing incarnation of God's presence and his passion for justice in our community.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Building walls

I talked with a woman once, not too long ago, about different social programs being offered in the schools.  She was explaining how many programs and services have been cut from her school system because of budget cuts.  She talked about how they really need the community to step up and offer some of those things, because it's the kids who are suffering.

And then she mentioned that churches sometimes offer.  But she wasn't too excited about that.  She perceived that the churches that had been coming into her school had an agenda and that it isn't really appropriate to have that kind of thing going on in our schools.  Unsaid were the feelings that were clearly on her face--a skepticism, a feeling of manipulation or agenda.

It struck me then that this might be the only experience this woman has with people who call themselves Christians.  All she knows is that these people with their own agendas come offering services, but that it's not really free.  It comes at the cost of being subjected to their opinions and ideas.  And immediately, a stereotype must form in her mind, one that begins to put all Christians in that category so that she has a wall up to any sort of spiritual discussion from acquaintances.

I don't know if you've ever experienced those walls, but I do all the time.  Talking about faith becomes a very delicate thing.  It's so easy to inadvertently add to those stereotypes or to make people feel judged or like objects of conversion.  I've done it before--never on purpose, but I know that I've made people feel that way.

So what do you do to keep from adding to someone's walls? 

The only thing I know to do is to be quick to listen and slow to speak.  To be quick to serve and to love, and slow to give my own opinion about what you should do or believe.  That doesn't mean that I never share from my heart; but I try to be led by the Spirit about what I say, and I usually wait until I'm asked.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

[wo]Man on a Mission

The word "missional" is being thrown around a lot in today's communities of faith.  There's this feeling that perhaps the church has, in the past, lost a little of its purpose in the world.  I would wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.  One of the reasons I struggle to attend church regularly is because sometimes there seems to be little point.  It's often a consumeristic experience, where we tend to show up looking for what can be done for us or what we can get out of the service.

But in our pluralistic, tolerant society, the ideas of mission, of ministry, of outreach, well, they make people uncomfortable.  And I can see why.

In the past, the church saw its mission as crusade--converting people to a way of belief through force.  And a little later, but probably just as damaging, the church saw its mission as tied to colonization--bringing not just spiritual beliefs, but also cultural ways of life to the "savages."  And then even more recently, you have Rob Bell's "Bullhorn Guy" as the picture of missional living gone off the deep end.

What if the mission that we've been given is to be a blessing to the world around us?

When I think of calling, I think of Abraham's original call in Genesis 12.  He was blessed to be a blessing, and God promised that the whole world would be blessed through him.  Then there's the idea of being bearers of the message and ministry of reconciliation, or peace, that is talked about in 2 Corinthians 5.  God called me to ministry through that passage while I was sitting in a chapel service when I was 12 years old.

So, what if every day, when we got out of bed in the morning, we prayed that God would show us who is in our lives needs the blessing of God's peace and presence?  And what if we prayed for that person?  And then what if we, being led by the spirit, actually did something tangible in that person's life to serve or love or listen to as a way to show the love and peace of God in a real way?

God, in my life, let it be so.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A little bit of faith goes a long, long way

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen . . . ."

Hebrews 11 starts there, and then goes on to tell story after story of people who had faith in an unseen God and risked everything to follow him.

The problem I see is that we don't even have hope in today's culture.  The people I meet are hungry for something to hope for and to hold onto.  We all see the brokenness of the world around us.  We're unhappy with the unethical and unjust systems that control our community.  We're devastated by the lack of care society has for the earth and for the people on it.  And everywhere we look, things are only getting worse--never better.

That passage in Hebrews 11 is meant to inspire and encourage people to have faith enough to walk with God.  I recently was going through the Old Testament, and I was stuck on the story of Noah for a while.  We come into the story just when God is telling Noah to build this monstrous boat to float on the water after rain, which Noah had never in his life seen before.

My question is this:  How did Noah know that it was God asking him to do it?  How did he discern that this is what he was supposed to do?  How did he have the guts to actually get to work to do this crazy thing?  It's amazing.  And inspiring.  And challenging.

I think that hope comes from seeing lives transformed by the story and the power of God.  I recently attended a conference where Marton Hall spoke about his faith community, the Awakenings Movement, in Houston, Texas.  I was incredibly inspired by his willingness to step outside of the box, sacrifice the security of his prior churchified life, and risk loving and living in a way that's actually reaching a community that is not otherwise being reached.  His story inspired me to have hope and to want to walk forward in those things that God is calling me to do during this particular time in my life.

What I don't understand is why those stories of transformation and total willingness to follow God's leading are so few and far between.  Maybe we just aren't comfortable sharing the stories of how God has transformed us.  Maybe all it will take to inspire others to get up and walk forward in risk and surrender is to tell those stories of how we were called and how God met us and provided for us in that calling.

With that in mind, how has your life been transformed by God's leading and his work in your life?

To trust or not to trust

One of the things that holds me back from fully surrendering to God is the question of trust.  I grew up in a family where I was taught that God would meet all my needs.  You know, there's that verse that says that, "And God shall supply all your needs, according to his riches in glory."

Really, that's the way that our family justified the choices we made.  We made a lot of sacrifices so that my parents could be "in ministry."  And we walked forward into difficult things believing that God would meet needs that maybe we were leaving behind.

There's a comfort in that belief--that God will somehow pick up the slack and take care of the things that we can't or won't do.  Because, after all, that's what he's supposed to do.  That's what he said he would do.

But then there have been times where my needs were most assuredly not being met.  There were times that I didn't have the things or the people that I needed in my life.  I was hurt and I simply legitimately needed things that weren't available to me.

And even though I rationally kind of made it through those issues--I somehow came to a place where I rationally understood that (only God knows why) God chooses to work through people, and we screw things up all the time, so that at least the possibility exists that God wants to meet needs through his people, he even asks or burdens people to be there and do those things, and they're just not listening.

But at the end of the day, that didn't really solve my problem.  Because if I was going to take risks in my life and step out by faith and have to trust that God would take care of me, how could I really do that?  The system is messed up.  Either God doesn't actually meet every need, or his people aren't paying attention and it's not getting done.  It's much easier (safer, more comfortable) to just make sure that my own needs are met.

So how do you make it through to the other side?  How do you actually have faith to take a risk?  For me, that issue was an emotional issue, not a rational one.  I could rationalize an answer just fine, but that didn't actually answer the issue I had in my heart.  No matter what I thought about it, it wasn't until I was able to confront those fears, those accusations against God, even, that I could move forward and walk in faith and trust again.  I had to go through this process, a relational, emotional process, of working through those emotions.  First I had to own them, which meant I had to admit them to myself.  And then I had to take the risk of actually talking about them with God, and really surrendering them to him.  It was then that I could hear the truth from Scripture about who God really is.

One of the things that I've learned these last few years about recognizing a person's barriers to faith is that they're not much different from my own barriers to faith.  Learning the skill of seeing into another person's heart starts with being brave enough and honest enough to see into my own heart.  And then, having confronted my own barriers and walked down that scary road, I can recognize and then have compassion and empathy for those who are making their own way through.