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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pastor and Husbandman...

Yesterday I was doing some yard work and I couldn't help but notice my weeping cherry coming to life.

Little buds covered every branch, plump and taut, like the belly of a pregnant women with an "outie" navel. You could just barely see the little flowering pedals waiting to be released from the cocoon-like covering protecting them from the early spring elements. I would guess she's at about 80% effaced using the pregnancy metaphor and 6cm dilated. It won't be long now.

It has taken 3 years for this weeping cherry to adapt to the soil and develop a root system to support its large sprawling frame. Last year, I wasn't sure she was going to make it. I had to prune off branches that were dying and late in the year I had to hack off a whole limb that lost circulation somehow over the coarse of the summer. She's an expensive replacement, so I was treating her like an ICU patient right up to the first snowfall. I wasn't sure she would brave another Michigan winter and there was only so much I could do to nurse her along.

I was waiting for spring to hear the verdict.

But a couple weeks ago when we got our first few days of warm weather, I noticed some encouraging signs of life. And as the days and weeks have progressed, I couldn't be more proud of "the little tree that could". She has not only survived, but seems to have regained full strength in her dormancy. I expect this to be the first year that we will see some new growth sprouting from its hearty and healthy root system.

I love landscaping and all things agricultural. In fact, the world of farming and/or landscaping would be my first leaning should ministry run amuck. (I don't anticipate that.) It is interesting to me that working with land and working with people are both referred to as "pastoral". So I guess either way I would be a "pastor". The similarities are striking, really.

The draw of nature runs deep inside me. I don't know as God speaks to me any clearer than when He does so through creation. The smell of thawing earth, the sight of virgin territory untouched by humans, the sounds of the surf crashing the sprawling shoreline, the dark interior of a dense wooded lot filled with aged timber and covered with a lush carpet of green ferns...these are a few of my favorite things.

But this year, I find my heart encouraged by my "weeping cherry" who need weep no more. She is well on her way to health and happiness. I'm very proud of her resolve and resilience. She brings me great joy as her pastor and husbandman.

I love spring.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spring Cleaning and Liturgy...

I arose this morning to the smell of fresh cut grass and rain evaporating off the damp driveway. It was the glorious and pungent smell of my past wafting across my property and into my desperate nostrils. I have been pining for the smells, sounds and sights of spring lately.

We have had so much rain lately that our backyard has turned into a pond. The fire pit is completely under water, the cushions of the lawn chairs floating helplessly in the middle of the whelming flood. I waded in to the water to rescue them so that they didn’t waterlog to their own demise. As I did, the sound of honking geese echoed across the yard from my neighbor’s property along with peeping frogs, buzzing insects, and chirping birds. The symphony of sounds literally seeped into my eardrums like the oil my mom used to drip into my ears to soothe my aching infection. These sounds had a similar healing effect.

I opened my garage and began to clean out the debris piled up from a long winter of negligence and laziness. Things inconspicuously stack and accumulate over time along the sidewalls until they effectively take over the whole of the garage allowing for little more than bikes and scooters, boxes and old mattresses. When people come over you throw things out there that you don’t have room for or know what to do with and instead of going out and getting it after they leave, somehow it stays out there getting kicked to a side wall to join the rest of the clutter and litter accumulating like driftwood and leaves in a rivers’ eddy.

Dirt and gravel from the slushy leftovers of snow caking the wheel wells cover the cement floor staining it with all kinds of disgusting abstract art. Leaves from last fall have found their way into the corners and crevices, filling open spaces like box-packing Styrofoam. Every time I move anything, it seems I kick up three more cleaning projects, but you know you can’t leave things as they are. You have to flush out the mice time-shares that have been built over the winter. A thorough inspection of each and every item is in order whether you like it or not. And for some reason, today, I liked it.

I like spring-cleaning for some reason. It is like communion or baptism or foot washing to me. It is a symbolic ritual that represents what my heart longs for elsewhere. It allows my hands to touch something while my head thinks something and my heart feels something. Touchy, thinking and feeling are essential categories to awaken through some sort of liturgical custom. And this spring-cleaning custom spiritually stirs my head, heart and hands. For that I’m grateful.

I need more physical activities that serve to purge the built up residue that cakes my interior. My heart can start looking like that garage I cleaned today. Things pushed to the corners, unmarked boxes stacked along the walls with ‘God only knows what’ inside them, dirt accumulating on the floor brought in by tires and blown in by storms, little rodents taking up residence in book filled boxes, mildew rotting out the bottoms of stationary boxes…I could go on. All I know is that as I was cleaning out my garage, God was cleaning out my heart.

He was stacking boxes, throwing out garbage, sweeping up floors, discovering lost tools, putting items back where they belong, hanging things back in their rightful place, and replacing blown out light bulbs to shed light on dark and damp places. And I needed that.

Who knew that cleaning your garage could be a spiritual ritual?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Family Failure...

I've gotta get something off my chest.

I've been thinking this week about "failure". Risks that could lead to failure, fears associated with failure, the failure to please everyone, personal expectations that lead to disappointment and feelings of failure, etc. Those sorts of internal conversations.

But the "failure conversation" that rattles around in my head centers around my family mostly. At the end of a lot of days I nurse feelings of futility and failure when it comes to raising my kids and leading my marriage. I know all the right things, but my ability to execute what I know I need to do has been lacking lately. My dad used to say, "There's many a slip between the cup and the lip." In other words, somewhere between the cup of water and your watering mouth there are good many spills. I have all the best intentions, but so do politicians running for office.

I am so very tired on most days by the time I come home from work. I try to put my restless mind to rest so that I can play with the girls, but I'll admit, most days I don't feel very playful. I get home and I just want to check out. And when I say check out, I mean lay down and power down.

I will see the girls finishing their homework, and I'll want to help them, but I will sit there on the couch paralyzed in borderland.

I will want to ask them creative questions about their day and when I open my mouth the words will seem so canned and corny. Me: "Are you doin' good?" Them: "Yeah." Me: "That's good." Me: "Did you have a good day at school?" Them: "Yep." Me: "That's cool." Me: "So, how ya' doin'?" Them: "Good." Me: "Good." Here I am, a communicator by trade, trained in counseling, speaking and listening. A conversationalist by nature stumped and stupefied standing stunned before his children. My insides are screaming, "You got nothin', son!" And I feel that.

But that's not the worst of it, folks. I wish it were.

There is a darker underbelly to this familial failure that pains me deeply. The thing that really kills me is the level of my impatience and anger when my surroundings don't comply with my immediate needs. When I can't control the environment I'm in, I start to feel agitated and irritated. Like if I need quietness, and there is bickering between the girls, I feel like I'm going to blow a gasket. If I want to rest momentarily and one of them is banging on the piano, I feel my insides start to tighten like I'm readying myself to pick up the piano and throw it out the front window. If I want to watch ESPN and they are watching "I Love Lucy", I sit there playing out schemes of how to get them elsewhere so that I can have the television to myself. Isn't that sick? Here I've been gone all day and when I get home, I want them elsewhere.

On a good many days I can't shut my brain off. I try several techniques to flush busy thoughts from my head to no avail. I tell myself the truth. I quote bible passages. I remind myself of what's most important. I move from "What if" speculations to "So what" conclusions. I tell myself that it doesn't matter. I talk myself into smiling. I take a shower at 5:30pm to re-wake up and fake my body into feelings of a new day. I read my little devotional next to my bed groping for some bit of truth to meditate upon. Nothing. I'm serious, each of these little tricks might alleviate the congestion for a short time, but it returns with a vengeance. Like the Bible passage where the demons were cast out of the house, they often return with seven more to beat you to a bloody pulp.

But as my daughters get older and my wife gets wiser, these shenanigans are no longer tolerated. Often my own daughters will take me to the woodshed by saying, "Dad, what's wrong?" I will look at them like I've been caught committing a vile crime, leafing through a mental rolodex of excuses. I'll say something like, "Dad's just tired." I think to some degree they get it, but Kami is 11 now, and her mind knows that there's more going on than sleep deprivation. Her face tells me that the answer of "being tired" isn't cutting it anymore. What happens when your kids get old enough to call your bluff? What happens when they wise up to your unhealthy patterns of dealing with stress?

They aren't in a high chair anymore. They aren't aimlessly drifting from room to room looking for something to chew on. They aren't content just reading a Dr. Seuss book on the love seat. They need creative guidance and recreation. They won't just sit on the floor playing with blocks while you catch a power nap after dinner. You can't just put them in front of a cartoon while you do your thing. Those days are downstream.

My kids can tell when I'm half-present. They can see when my eyes are at half-mast. They know when I'm being selfish and when I'm looking for ways to shirk my responsibilities. When they ask me to do something and I say, "Just a minute" they know that is just buying time and really means "I don't want to." When they ask if we can play "Skipbo" and I say "Maybe" it really means "No". But "maybe" sounds much less cruel. When they ask if they can do something and I say, "I don't know" they are starting to realize the stalling technique behind those three words the gives me time to deliberate--oh let's just say it--procrastinate. I just feel sick writing this out for the record. It looks so much uglier on paper.

But I write this out so that I can name it. Until I name something I have a hard time seeing it. And when I can't see it, it's hard to get my crosshairs on it to kill it. And boy, oh boy, would it give me exceeding pleasure to kill some of these tendencies. Tendencies toward paralyzation and passivity. Tendencies that allow stress to lead me to stalemate. Tendencies toward selfish survival mechanisms that kick in and cause myopic tunnel vision. All of these tendencies have to die.

I'm not writing this to beat myself up. I'm writing this to build myself up. I need a reconstruction of my family life once again. I say once again because leading my family passes through valleys and mountaintops at an alarming rate these days. I feel like the undulations are dizzying.

Lord, make me a family man of the highest order.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I'm very sorry...

This week, I've been captured by the incarnation.

For those of you who aren't familiar with that word, it speaks of something God did in order to reach and rescue mankind. Incarnation comes from the root word 'carn' where we get words like carnal and carnivore. All these words speak of "flesh" (sorry to insult your intelligence).

With the word carnal, we are talking about something being "fleshly". It speaks of the most egotistic and earthly values of our human nature. It emphasizes the negative side of "satisfying your own selfish impulses".

The word carnivore speaks of "meat eaters". I would classify myself as a carnivore as opposed to a vegetarian. I like to eat the flesh of appropriate animals. This is why I have gout in my right big toe. But that's beside the point.

The word incarnation, however, speaks of something or someone becoming flesh, becoming human. Not fleshly, but fleshy. Meaning becoming Meaty. Spirit becoming body.

John was one of the first to try and put this concept into words when he said: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we beheld his glory." I'm not sure how long you've lingered with to this statement in the past, but it is profound. This idea changed the world. But after loitering in this text for quite some time, I think within this idea is the secret to keep changing the world. Another way of saying it: "I don't think anyone can affect real change without incarnating themselves into the change they want to see."

What I mean is that God didn't do this for us so that we wouldn't have to, he did it to show us how to. It wasn't a "one for all, once for all"-type of deal. It was a demonstration that turned into an invitation to do the same. We were made to personify principles, not to teach them. We are called to embody theology, not to study it. Putting "skin on spirit" is the only way for people to reached and rescued.

But this isn't what is hitting me about this passage.

I feel like I know that an am doing that semi-satisfactorily.

What is gripping me about the Incarnation isn't the "Word becoming Flesh". That is the first 50% of the equation. I try to do that with my kids, my friends, my community and my church. Another way of saying it is "Truth becomes understandable" or "Spiritual becomes practical" or "Words become Actions" or "Ideas become Real" or "God becomes relevant". Jesus did this. He made sense of God to man. He brought the cookies down to the bottom shelf. He put things into "flesh and blood" language that felt raw and gritty and palpable. He not only spoke in a way that made sense, but he lived in a way that made sense so that his words matched his life.

I think I have thought this is the incarnation, making God relevant to mankind. Living out the gospel in fresh and freeing ways in front of humanity giving them a picture of Jesus that strikes an innate universal nerve. But "living out" is only 50% of the incarnation. The other 50% is where the rubber meats the road. "Living in" carries the ball from the 50 yard line to the end-zone for a touchdown. The Word becoming flesh isn't just "Living out with relevance", but "making your dwelling among people"..."living in their world". I can't believe the implications of this tiny little phrase in John chapter 1.

Living out the gospel allows for a safe distance. I put my message together, monologue for 35 minutes and then I go home. I throw some money at something, and then go about my own life. I sing songs, pray prayers, sermonize sermons and then go home. I get in and get out. I'm making an impression, but it's debatable as to whether I'm making an impact.

But this "dwelling among" deal is where I've typically gotten off the train. This is where I lose the ability to control my environment. This is where my own personal space is violated. This is where I'm not making all the decisions and calling the shots about what I "let in and let out".
Just think about the word "dwell" for a second. Do you know very many people that are good "dwellers". Dang, it's hard enough to get someone to dwell with you in a 5 minute conversation without drifting. We aren't dwellers, we are drifters. You here this in conversation when someone gets antsy in a conversation and then says, "I'll let you go." I even had my mom say that to me last year and I was the one calling her! I wanted to say, "Mom, I called you! You can't let me go cause I have nowhere to go! No, I won't go!" We are creatures that have learned to dart and drift so as to not make anyone uncomfortable, namely ourselves. Getting someone to "dwell with" you is a rare thing, getting yourself to "dwell with" someone else rarer still.

But this is just what Jesus did. He "made his dwelling among us". He didn't come, put himself up in a 5 star hotel outside the neighborhood for a "home base", doing ministry in the slums during the day and retreating to his hotel room at night for "central air, running water, and internet access"; he chose to stay in the slums. If he was any kind of Lord, he was a slumLord. He didn't have a place to lay his head, not because he was a martyr trying to make a statement, but because he laid his head on the exact same surface where people happened to be laying their heads around him in moment. He wasn't about to live "apart" from people while preaching a message of being "a part" of people. The incarnation didn't allow for that kind of "personal space".

The incarnation isn't just the "Word becoming Flesh". That's a great start, but that isn't the whole enchilada. The second half of this verse is where our lives get most keenly disturbed and it is this holy disruption that shakes the planet.

People half-expect the church to market its product with the branding and relevance of Apple. It doesn't surprise them that we are making great strides to relate to them and where they are living. But you can't bring truth to 'where they are living' in "words" alone. You have to "become truth and move to where they are really living". Not just go there, but live there. Just like Jesus, you won't be able to just give them bread, but you would have to become the "bread of life" that fed them after the food ran out. That is why Jesus didn't just preach truth, he became it. He didn't just show the way by pointing to where people should go, he went there himself, he was "the Way" embodied.

I realize the we aren't "The Way, The Truth, and The Life" in the divine way Jesus was as God, but I think we sell the gospel short if we don't understand that Jesus BECAME these things and then "dwelt among" people so they could touch, taste and feel it incarnationally.

This is why they "beheld his glory". This wasn't a guy that came from the suburbs and handed out sack lunches to them on Thursday evenings. He would bring bread to them, but he would "be bread among them", "break bread with them". Remember when he said, "Man cannot live on bread alone." Do you supposed he said that knowing that the incarnation is the second half of the equation? You can bring bread, but not without being bread. This is what takes something beyond relevance to presence. If we turn the word into the flesh of relevance without going the distance and dwelling among people with presence, we can't expect the gospel to be life-changing. At best it will be an 8 cylinder engine running on 4. This is unacceptable.

I don't if this hits anyone else, but I've been touched by the incarnation in new and profound ways lately. It's actually messing me up, and not just a little bit.

I want my words to take on human form and live right next to people. I want the data to become drama, the word to get to the world... and I humbly admit my neglect of half of the incarnation. I should know better as a "ambassador" of Jesus, but over the years the incarnation has been doctored and spun so many times that the gospel has lost its teeth. I'm just getting sick of wearing these dang dentures.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I'm a greeter at Ada Bible today...

It's Sunday morning and I slept in. Usually I'm up at 6:00am taking and shower before heading to one of the Lowell community churches for prayer. Not today. I decided to sleep in and then head to Ada Bible's campus in Kentwood to see how this "video venue" thing works.

I'm in Kentwood at Panera's chillaxing before the 11:00am service. It does my heart good to sit here with my coffee knowing that someone else is stressing over the amenities of a well-oiled church service. They should be finishing up their first service by now getting ready to retool and refuel before the next "run of the bulls". I wish them the best, cause as for me, I'm going to simply walk into church, greet some searching souls around me, plop myself down in some trendy plastic chair, and take it in like a gluttonous parasite.

All joking aside, I really am thankful for other churches. I love that they all have their own schtick and style. I love meeting with other pastors and affirming them. I love seeing God grow churches simultaneously, none prospering through proselytization, but all reaching new hearts in need of redemption. I love Impact, but I love "The Church" way more. We are but a little blip on the radar, but the church is all over the world...underground, persecuted, mega-churches, house churches, established churches, church plants, hip-hop churches, traditional churches, post-modern churches, drive-thru churches, bar churches, strip mall churches, video-venue churches, internet churches, etc. The list goes on and on...each doing their thing to advance the kingdom.

I may not agree with every model, but I don't have to, that's the point. Some of these models don't work for me, but they work for someone else and that's all that matters, cause all that matters is people finding a place to connect with the gospel and gospel-ambassadors.

I don't have to bash other churches to substantiate my own. I don't have to parse another pastor's pulpiteering. I don't have to casting a dark shadow over other churches in the community in order to elevate my own. There is no need for this tomfoolery. The fact is that "our church" isn't superior to "their church". We are all in this together working like dogs to get the message out. And that message is simple. "We are broken. We need fixing. God is the healer. He is the remedy. He is our redemption." I don't care how this goes public. I only care that it does in so many forms that each person has a chance to respond to God's love in a way that makes sense to their story.

So today I'm going to "another church" listening to "another pastor". What is important to realize is that it is the "same church" insomuch as they are preaching the radical gospel of Jesus. And I celebrate this.

So I will be greeting people as they come to Ada Bible today welcoming them to church. Because whether it is Impact, Ada Bible, or any other splinter that chips off the cross of Christ, it is my church; it is our church...because it is Jesus' church. And that is all that really matters.