Sunday, February 27, 2011

Encounters with Jesus II - Woman at the Well

After being snowed out last week, we had our second Encounters with Jesus storying group tonight.  We had another good turnout, with most of the same people coming back a second time.  The narrative and participant guide, including the response page, are available here.

One of the challenges tonight with the story was that this one had a little more fictionalized content than the last one.  I have mixed feelings about the fiction.  The most important thing is to clearly communicate which parts come from my own imagination and which parts come from the Bible and which parts are historically verifiable.  We were able to make that clear during our session tonight, but I think for the resources I'm going to have to go back through and do different fonts for each of those.  If we don't do the fictionalization, then we'd have to do some introductory background information, which sort of takes away from the storying atmosphere.  At the same time, I don't want to take away from Scripture and the power of the stories by interspersing too much of my own vision and imagination.  But perhaps this is what pastors always struggle with.  Because how can we teach people without bringing in some of our own culture and interpretation and life experience?  For the time being, I'm trying to keep the fiction as the kind of details that just give background of what life was like, but I may have gone a little too far with this story.

On the positive side of things, we had some really meaningful discussion about what life with the Eternal One looks like.  We talked about how to find it, how to grow in it, and how it should actually look.  There were some really insightful comments from everyone involved, including those with no real background in the church.

The application time was amazing.  Some people are really getting into the drawing part of it, and some just write down answers to the questions.  But everyone is actually really willing to be real and then to share what they drew or wrote.  We're being really intentional about praying for each one as they share.  Today's question was what you are looking for in life and inviting people to ask Jesus for those things.

So in all, it seems like there are more positives than negatives here.  What's even more amazing is being able to see God work in the people's lives throughout the week.  I've had some awesome opportunities to have conversations with people, building on what we've been talking about during the week.  I can't emphasize enough how the relationships that I have with the people who come are just as important as the content we're covering.  I think the content and approach are important, and they're working for where we're at right now.  But without relationships, I don't think that we'd be seeing the kind of fruit that we are.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kindle version available!

The Kindle version of Second Story: seeing what's not being said is now available.  You can order your copy here.

More information about the book is available here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adventures in evangelism training

So I was transported back in time this weekend as I hung out with some church folks (not my church) who spent some time talking about evangelism.  It was a very interesting and somewhat discouraging transportation into a culture that I intentionally left behind a while back.

There were some bright spots - or one, at least - when one of the speakers talked about his relational evangelism.  There was a glimmer there of the unconditional love and pursuit of relationship because of how much God loves every person.  We also talked through James Cheung's process of sharing.  What I find interesting about that is that the only time I can imagine busting that out is if I'm specifically asked what it means to be a Christian.  But faith conversations seem to really go in bits and pieces over a long period of time, and almost never have I had the opportunity to just share a little pre-fab explanation.

But the most discouraging part of the weekend was talking with someone who is currently working on a college campus as an evangelist.  The only thing that he could see was valuable was an actual gospel "presentation" that apparently he uses when he walks up to strangers and starts a spiritual conversation.  When I asked him what he thought about emotional barriers to faith, he simply brushed that thought aside, as apparently he does to every objection someone has to the "gospel message".  Hard core, man.

By the end of the weekend I was basically speechless.  I couldn't even imagine where to start dialogue.  It puts some perspective on a 20 minute talk I'll be giving at a seminary this week... Helps me to see where church people might be coming from.  I feel like I've been away so long that I'd forgotten.

So yeah.  Interesting.  I wish we'd spent more time talking about how to have spiritual conversations in everyday life.  We spent a lot on theory and there wasn't much practicality.  But I guess the practical is just a passion of mine.  And it assumes that people actually already value spiritual conversations in everyday life.  Perhaps they don't.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Day in the life

Have you ever had the chance to sit with an almost-believer and explain the big-picture story of God?

It's truly amazing.  It's one of the coolest things you'll ever do.  It's one of the most fulfilling things that I've ever done.

I had a conversation like that today.  I also had a major victory in court today.

I used to feel like I had to choose between the two.  Did I want to be in ministry?  Or did I want to be a great attorney?  Did I want to give my time to teaching, encouraging, and discipling people?  Or did I want to give my time to advocating for those who can't advocate for themselves?

There are a lot of challenges that come with being a minister in the marketplace.  There is the constant pull of many different things from many different directions.  There's the pesky concern about whether you're going to make enough money this month to cover the bills that causes you to take one more case than  you want to just so you have it covered, and the case ends up taking up all your time for months on end.  There's the reality that you don't quite fit in the church or in the world.

But there are some awesome and amazing things that come with being a minister in the marketplace.  There are the unexpected and blessed conversations with a friend whom you've invested in for years.  There are the days when someone asks you how you integrate your faith into your whole life.  There are the times when you get to be there when someone takes that final step into the kingdom of God.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm in the right place.  Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choices or if I should've tried harder to find a different place in the legal world.  But honestly, today I'm full of joy and peace, knowing that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.  I would not trade those conversations for anything in the world.  Not even the things that I think I want most.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Letting go of perfection

I got a question from a reader today.  The question is basically how a person can be vulnerable with others, regardless of whether they are believers or not.  This reader grew up in a faith community that had the expectation that a follower of Christ's witness to the world would include something close to perfection.  There are two main things that I want to say in response:

First, I think that the first step to building mutual relationships with people who might not have the same beliefs as you is to take away the distinction you have in your mind between "Christian friends" and "non-Christian" friends. There may be some different values, etc with people who don't believe the same things, but those differences don't have to be a bar to the friendship. I think that you have to view all people as people and have an attitude of learning from and walking with them.  Similarly, I think you should be seeking to positively influence all those around you, regardless of what they currently believe about God.  Sometimes this is difficult because we want to be liked and appreciated, so we tend to present those aspects of ourselves that are most like the people around us.  But I think it's important to recognize that, outside of the church, people rarely judge you for your decisions as long as (1) you aren't hurting anyone, (2) you aren't trying to make them do what you believe is right, and (3) your beliefs and actions are consistent with one another.

Second, I understand the church-induced perception that you have to act in a certain way to be a "witness" to the world.  But in my experience, using this I've-got-it-all-together facade hinders your interpersonal relationships and can de-motivate peopel to seek God out.  We definitely are image-bearers, but the image that we present is not supposed to be perfection--that's impossible. Instead, the standard is humility and vulnerability and dependence on God. The bad choices we make, the bad attitudes we display, the normal human stuff that we do gives us an opportunity to model what true reliance on God to be our help and our salvation looks like. Being real like this also makes being a follower of God achievable, for lack of a better word. We don't want to communicate that following God means that someone has to get their life together before coming to him. And actually taking the time to apologize and be humble about the ways in which we hurt people can be a really powerful way to reach out. You are basically putting the other person in a position of power in the relationship, rather than being the one who has it all together.  This can be a really powerful way to invite someone into your life.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Encounters with Jesus, Part I

Last night was the first night of our "Encounters with Jesus" storying group.  It's a group that's going to meet for the next couple of weeks around stories from the Bible of people who encountered Jesus and were changed by him.  I'm working on developing the narratives, discussion questions, and response activities.  Our target audience is people who have not read the Bible and do not attend church, but who have a level of spiritual interest that motivates them to attend.  In my case, the spiritual interest has developed with this group of people over a long period of time and a significant relational investment on my part.

You can get a copy of the narrative and planning materials here.  Once we have all the weeks completed, I'll edit them and get them into one booklet kind of thing and post that on the blog and my website.

So let me debrief the evening.  The narrative in this case is quite long.  It's the story of Nicodemus's encounter with Jesus and how it changed him.  The source material for the narrative is the Biblical passage of John 3 and The Expositor's Bible Commentary and the Interpreter's Bible.  I spent several hours researching and reading.  The Nicodemus passage is so complicated and theologically deep that I knew there would be a lot of background that people would need to understand it.  I built some of that background in, but it still felt like maybe there wasn't enough.  We had to spend time during the discussion explaining what the Jewish ruling council was, how and why the Jews were longing for a political rescuer, and quite a bit about the story Jesus referenced from the Old Testament about the Serpent in the Wilderness.  A person leading the discussion would probably want to take some time to make sure they understand those things and be able to explain them.

As far as the response time, there were a couple of interesting things.  First, those who attended who are from the church were surprised at how open everyone was related to the question of brokenness.  People had no problems sharing how they are longing to see God intersect their lives and the things they are struggling with.  For church people, who are accustomed to presenting the best possible facade of their lives to other church folks, the inherent realness about brokenness that exists in the world can be quite shocking.  For me, it's one of the things I love most about walking with people outside the church.

Second, we noticed that the idea of "life with the eternal One", which is what the commentaries say "eternal life" means in this passage, was something that people struggled with.  For those who were trying to imagine what life with the eternal One looks like, they drew pictures of paradise.  Even while acknowledging that Jesus was probably talking about how life with the eternal One could start now, their visions of what that means was idyllic.  So one of the goals for the next few stories is to continue developing this idea and giving people a picture for what walking with God in the present means about life in the present.  I don't know about you, but my life is far from ideal.  Even so, walking with God gives me an eternal (and mostly hopeful) perspective that allows me to thrive in the midst of difficult situations.  While I long for people to know the peace of eternal life in paradise, I also really want them to know the peace of life with the eternal One now.  And that is what Jesus invites people into.

Overall, everyone enjoyed the conversation and we had some fantastic questions and observations from the group.  If you're not familiar with the storying concept in general, you should definitely check out Michael Novelli's  I am following and adapting his process for use with the adults in my world.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cosmic Struggle

I should probably mention the spiritual warfare that goes with being someone who is seeking to live and share the story of God in the world.

Ephesians 6:12 says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. " (NIV)

I struggle to put words around what that means, and I know that it's not a good idea to spiritualize every bad or good thing that happens in life.  Some things just happen or are natural consequences of the choices we make.  But I can't deny that there is an element of spiritual oppression that has followed me since I took on the project of writing Second Story and, now, since I decided to do a storying group again. 

It's hitting me very strongly right now, actually.  Every old emotional barrier that has kept me from God in the past is resurfacing.  Every human hurt or pain that has been a companion through my life is showing itself so strongly that it can't be ignored.  Most of all, I feel completely and utterly alone.

According to a friend who has seen some amazing movements of God in the lives of many groups of people, there is a sort of pattern to how movements of the Spirit of God go.  It starts with a person or a group of people reaching out to those around them, being present in the lives of huge numbers of people.  The amount of time and the frequency with which they can be with the same people over and over affects how quickly things go from there.  And then there is a time of stillness, where it seems like every word and action is being done in a vacuum and nothing will ever happen - God will never show up.   And then there is intense spiritual oppression that accompanies spiritual interest by a certain number of those people.  How long this goes on, I'm not really sure.  And then finally, the Spirit is unleashed and there is fruit - in fact, there is so much fruit and so much momentum that the darkness can no longer hold it back.

I'm taking her word for it.  I was in the vacuum for many years.  Now we're definitely to the spiritual interest/spiritual oppression part of things.  I am trusting and hoping and praying that a time of abundant fruitfulness is coming.

In the meantime, my question has been how to deal with the spiritual battle that's being waged around me.  It's too much.  The passage in Ephesians talks about the sword of the Spirit (the word of God) and the belt of truth and all that.  I kind of understand what that means, and I kind of don't.  It does help to be able to name those barriers and those human hurts and to invite God into them.  I know that worshiping God in spite of those things has the power to dispel some of the darkness.  I also know that, for me, artistic expression can be very helpful.  So those are the things that I've been trying.  If you have other ideas, though, I'd love to hear them...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Persevering in love

It's exhausting, loving people unconditionally.  I don't know if you've ever tried before - honestly made an effort to walk alongside people, loving them without expectations...

And the sacrifice!  My word.  Laying down your life, your hopes, your dreams and just giving.  It's painful.  It carves out places in you that you didn't even know existed.  It leaves a dull ache at the center of your soul.

So why walk that road?  There are lots of reasons why.  Because unconditional love has the power to bring healing.  Because unconditional love demonstrates how much God love us.  Because unconditional love forms the basis for relationships that can sustain the hardships of life.  Because unconditional love allows us to walk with people who have the stories that we'd rather ignore or pretend do not exist.

The real question is how to persevere in the face of exhaustion.  The only answer that I have to that is somehow relying on the covenant love of God, who keeps his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.  Meditating on that and choosing to love based on how God has loved and treated me as well as crying out to God to give me strength is the only way I know to keep going.

So that's what I'm doing tonight.  I'd kind of like to give up instead.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Stories we ignore

Have you ever thought about the stories that we don't allow in church?

The story of the abused child who becomes an adult and now cannot figure out how to feel God's presence in his life.  The story of the homeless man who has no access to a shower and can't figure out how to get his life together enough to be presentable.  The story of the homosexual person who has been told by the church that she doesn't fit, that she isn't right, but she has accepted her sexuality as part of who she is--so now she has to choose between God and her whole identity.  Or what about the story about the person who is sick day after day after day... with no hope of healing in this lifetime?

We don't want to hear the stories that have no answers.  We don't want to hear the stories that don't have redemption in the here and now.  We don't want to be confronted with the stories that push up against our carefully constructed boundaries around truth and right and wrong.  We don't want to have to look at the humanity that is encompassed in these stories and admit that life may not be as simple as we want it to be.  We don't want to acknowledge that sometimes, while we're here, the stories that we live don't end with a fairy tale ending.

We insulate ourselves from pain.  Our middle-to-upper-class culture does this too.  We pay for the best medical care, we pay to put our kids in the best schools, we pay to live in nice neighborhoods with the goal of preventing any of the pain and hardship that is normal in the rest of the world.  We sanitize our lives.  And when we fail to do that, we are not welcome in church.  Well... we can show up if we're willing and able to present a sanitized version of our lives that presents our complete and utter faith in the goodness of God.

There is no space for lament--for the acknowledgement that life is not what it ought to be, that life is not what we want it to be.  There is no room to rail against God asking questions about where he is and what he is doing and why he has left us alone in this agony.  There is no room to cry out.  It makes people uncomfortable.  So they answer with pat answers and simplify and spiritualize the agony so that it once again reflects the sanitized and controllable boundaries that we're comfortable with.  If we can understand and contain it, then we can predict it.  And if we can predict it, then maybe we can prevent it in our own lives.

We do such a disservice to ourselves and our communities by ignoring the real stories of people's lives.  Sooner or later, every person is confronted with pain, agony, abandonment, frustration, disappointment, tragedy, or grief.  By and large, the church is not safe for these people.  So people are left with the option of presenting a facade or actually beginning to spiritualize and contain their own pain.  Either that, or they leave the church.

What if instead we accepted people right where they are?  What if the message was that we would sit with people in their pain?  What if we didn't allow agony to disgust, embarrass, or frighten us?  What if we were willing to just love and walk alongside and cry out in agony along with our brothers and sisters?  What if we could make church a safe place to share any story?  What if there was no judgment and no expectation for the person to have a perfect life?  What if we were all actually vulnerable about the things that were going wrong in our own lives, so that it would be safe for others to share too?

What if?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Is there still a place for evangelists?

Let me start by saying that I'm uncomfortable with the label "evangelist."  The word has so many negative connotations in our culture that I'm hesitant to use it.  Add to that the fact that I believe that all followers of God are called to be salt and light in the world, which means that I don't like drawing a distinction between someone who is "an evangelist" and someone who is not.

But the reality is that there are some people who are more passionate about walking with others spiritually.  And some people are very clearly called to leading and discipling within the body of those who regularly meet together as followers of Jesus (yes, the Church).  So assuming that there is a similar calling to evangelism, I think that I have that.  I didn't know about it at first.  Maybe I should have, when I was attending a Christian college and nearly suffocated living within the Christian bubble.  It was all I could do to force myself to finish instead of running off to some other part of the globe doing some kind of mission or relief work.  As it is, I lived for a long time with a vague sense of dissatisfaction that I couldn't pinpoint or get rid of until I stopped hanging out with only people who believed the same things I did.

Anyway, I can't deny that the thing that brings me the greatest joy in life is being able to walk with people as they move from hostility toward God to a point of surrendering their hearts and lives to him.  Let me note that I don't see it as my job to move someone from one point to another.  It's very much being sensitive to the things that I perceive God is doing in someone's heart and life and being there to walk with them, to help them identify God's movement in their lives, and to help direct them to the right resources.  So much of what I do is listening and asking  questions.  That, and praying day and night for God to break through the darkness.

I struggle though, to know where to fit into the church.  Where does someone whose calling and passion lies outside the church fit into what is so often an institution that is primarily concerned with its own existence?  The greatest problem is that my world looks so different than the world of your average churchgoer.  I don't even know how to connect.  In my mind, I know that we are necessary to one another - I need that body as much as that body needs me.  But I struggle to find my place.  I feel like I'm always running against the grain.

This becomes even more difficult when you realize that anyone whose calling is to evangelism is actually already under a ton of spiritual oppression.  So often it's felt like I'm battling on two fronts.  And if I have to choose where I'm going to put my spiritual energy, it's going to be fighting the darkness that's in the world rather than the darkness that sometimes surrounds the institution of the church.

So this is a problem that I don't have an answer to.  Do you have a place and a role for the evangelists in your body?  Do you know if there are people in your church who feel like they belong more in the world than at church on Sunday?  If so, what are you doing to affirm their place?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Narratives and stories

So I'm working right now on writing some narratives for a sort of journey through the book of John about people's encounters with Jesus.  The narratives are going to be written from the people's point of view about how their encounters with Jesus challenged and changed them.

We're going to be doing a storying group through these narratives for the next five or so weeks.  I'm really excited to see what will come of it.  How will these people and their stories challenge the way I see Jesus?  How will they teach me to view life with the Eternal One?  How will they invite the community to view Jesus?  How will they challenge us to action?  I don't know.

I'll be posting the narratives and study questions as we go, and I expect that I'll revise them and then put them all together at the end.  My dream is to continue to create resources that can be used by others. 

So today's story was the woman at the well.  The most interesting thing to me I think was Jesus's description of "eternal life" or life with the Eternal One.  He compared it to a life-giving stream of water that bubbles up and overflows.

Nourishing.  Joyful.  Peaceful.  Active.  Unpredictable.

Interesting ways to view this life.  I'm not sure that's what the church has communicated or regularly communicates about what it means to walk with God.  But that picture intrigues and interests me.  It makes me want to dig deeper.

That's the beauty of story, isn't it?  As I've been working through these John narratives, I'm often amazed at just how unclear Jesus's stories were to the listeners.  The commentaries make a big deal about how literally everyone always took what he said, or about how dumb they were that they didn't get the deeper meaning he gave.  But I gotta tell you - it's not all that clear.  There are so many different places you could take the word pictures Jesus gives.  And as I've looked at the commentaries (from like the 20's, and the 40's, and the 60's), people definitely took these stories to different places.  Anyway, it'll be interesting to discuss how those same stories are resonating with people today.  I'm excited to see it and hear it and experience it.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Planning for spiritual conversations

Important life activities often lead someone to a heightened spiritual sensitivity.  And a lot of thought goes into being at the right place at the right time to love someone during these times by praying, listening, or sharing from your heart and life experiences.  It’s not a scientific process. 

Instead, there’s a lot of intuition involved.  But you can increase the accuracy of your intuition by thinking about things ahead of time and trying to imagine where people are at.  If you can look at life experiences and try to remember when you’ve been in a similar place and draw connections with other people you’ve known who’ve gone through similar things, you can often guess at what people might be thinking or feeling right now or where they’re headed.  This gives you much-needed time to think and pray about how you can most naturally, effectively, and appropriately walk beside people during these important times.

Here are some questions that you may want to consider as you prepare to walk beside your friends and loved ones.

A Person’s Past

•    What major life events happened in her past?
•    What emotions might they have caused?
•    What questions about God might they have created?
•    What questions about the church might they have created?
•    What was their family’s relationship with church like when they were growing up?
•    What was their parent’s view of God?
•    Is there any cause in the person’s past for feelings of guilt or shame?

A Person’s Present

•    What’s going on in the person’s life right now?
•    What are the person’s stated feelings and beliefs about God?
•    What major joys and major sorrows has the person recently experienced?
•    What are the person’s relationships like?
•    What is her relationship to the church?
•    What other Christians are in his life?
•    What do those Christians say about God?
•    How do those Christians’ actions affect his view of God?
•    What opportunities exist right now to meet the person’s needs?
•    What stories from your life or from the Bible might be relevant to the person’s life right now?

A Person’s Potential Future

•    What season of life will the person soon be entering?
•    What difficulties or tragedies could occur?
•    What joys might be on the way?
•    What emotions may those things bring up?
•    What questions about God might emerge?

Preparing for Major Life Activities
•    How can you be praying for the person’s past, present, and future?
•    What can you do so that you will be able to stay aware of where they are at and how they are doing?
•    What stories from your life or from the Bible might be relevant for what my be ahead?
•    What investments in relationship can you make right now so that you are available to them later?

A pdf of this document is available here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A night for rejoicing

So I just had a friend tell me that the way I loved, accepted, listened to, and didn't judge her made a huge difference in the way she now views God.  There was a time, not so long ago, when she struggled to hear God's voice in her life because of the rejection, judgment, and hypocrisy of the church and the Christians in her life.  And I got to be a part of the softening process.  I got to be a part of the process of seeing her drop some of her barriers and truly surrender to God.

What an amazing thing.  I can't even tell you how awesome it is to invest in someone, to love someone, to walk beside someone, and then to actually have that make a difference.  It's the best thing in the world.

So much of ministry and outreach seems thankless.  There are so many times when all you get back is hostility, or even worse, apathy.  There are so many times when it seems like nothing that you say or do makes a difference at all.

But sometimes for someone everything changes, and you can actually see what you've been investing in.

Fantastic.  Much rejoicing in the house this evening.