Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Church Millennials Need

Maybe I’m just bitter because my generation, the so-called Generation X, never made quite the splash of the ones around us, the Boomers and Millennials--at least according to the media. Cultural pundits basically looked at us for a brief moment, shrugged, and labeled us with an X indicative of the indefinable lostness that surely defines a generation of slackers. So maybe, a product of my generation, I’m jaded and cynical. Whatever the reason, I must confess: I’m sick to death of the articles, conference presentations, blog posts, and even entire books that show up in my newsfeeds almost daily telling me, a pastor: The Kind of Church Millennials Want.

So, I’m wading in. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? In fact, I’ll go ahead and be a good Gen X-er and cynically push past the pandering and production value of talking about what Millennials want from a church. Who cares? In fact, who cares what kind of church Gen X-ers want? Or Boomers? Or Builders, the so-called “greatest generation”? I think it’s time we talk about something more substantive: The Kind of Church Millennials NEED.

1. One
Millennials need a church that is one. A part of Jesus’s “Great Commandment” (love God with all your heart, etc.) that we often neglect is the beginning, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29; Deut. 6:4). God is not many. God is not divided or scattered. The God of today is not different from the God of a previous generation, beholden to the whims of tastemakers or shifting cultural mores and preferences. God is one—three Persons, one God.

And God’s church is one. Today’s cultural fragmentation—which, by the way, is only exacerbated in the church as it gloms on to generational trends—is nothing new. The first generation of the church dealt with the same issue. Thus, we have Paul’s eloquent and powerful hymn-of-a-reminder, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). One.

Beyond language and styles of music and dress and uses of technology, etc., all of which surely and necessarily change as years pass, Millennials need a church that will do everything it can to remain one. We too easily split. We are too quick to take our football and go home. We are too eager not to be part of a group with people who are different from us. We are showing Millennials and the world a church that is indignant in the face of offense. But the offense toward which we are indignant is often coming from the Gospel itself. So we must commit ourselves to be one for as long as we possibly can. Disputes come and, despite the church’s best efforts, necessitate separation. It’s a fact. But even such separation should be a desperate, heart-breaking last resort. And it should not be at the expense of the church’s oneness in Christ. This is the church Millennials need.

2. Holy
Millennials need a church that is holy. Again, every time we retreat from the offense of the Gospel—even if we do it in the name of “relevance”—we are retreating from God’s call to holiness. Now I’ve seen the lists of do’s and don’ts. I’ve even made up my own. This is not holiness. I’m talking about the holiness that all creation is waiting for (Rom. 8:14-22)—the holiness of humans growing in and reflecting the likeness of God, of chip-off-the-ol’-block children made in God’s image.

Imagine Moses ascending Mt. Sinai, into the cloud of unknowing, into the fiery darkness of the holy presence of YHWH (Ex. 19). Imagine Moses experiencing the unfathomable radiance of the Lord’s holiness, receiving God’s holy law and the meticulous instructions for the holy tabernacle, the sacred space where God will meet with his people (Ex. 20-31). Down the mountain the people are tired of waiting and have given up on Moses. They’ve retreated into the company of the surrounding pagan gods, making a golden calf, an idol to worship that is more tangible and malleable than this vast, demanding God.

Now imagine Moses dragging the golden calf up Mt. Sinai and telling YHWH amidst the wind and fire, “Lord, this calf is the language of the culture. Let’s use this and some of the other pagan trappings to attract the crowd. Then when they come, we’ll gradually help them get to know you. Also, we don’t want anyone to feel left out. So let’s tone down the fire and darkness and mystery and some of the stuff about you we don’t like. Instead, let’s say you’re like…oh, I don’t know…some kind of shiny farm animal.”

Millennials need a church that refuses to dumb itself down, a church that will not shrink from or shrug off God’s holiness but will rush headlong into the fiery mystery of this holiest One—no matter how strange he has revealed himself to be or how odd we, growing in his likeness, must become. Millennials need a holy church.


3. Catholic
Millennials need a church that is catholic. Surely we know this does not mean Roman Catholic (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Catholic literally means “universal,” and that’s the church Millennials need. This is the church that encompasses time and space, the church that spans both history and the globe. The “style” may be contemporary, but the church Millennials need is one that is thoroughly grounded in and informed by its history and tradition. The “latest thing” can be just as much an idol as a golden calf, especially when it leads the church to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” (Eph. 4:14). Orthodoxy (and, to some degree, orthopraxis) is what connects the church not only historically, but also globally.

The catholic church is the body of the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, who is its exalted Head. Crucified, he has conquered sin. Risen, he has conquered death. Ascended, he has conquered all powers. He is at “the right hand of God,” the place of power and authority, from which he is everywhere present to bring the reign of God throughout history and across the earth. And the chief means for the implementation of Christ’s all-encompassing (catholic) reign is the Spirit-filled church.

Check out this picture of the catholic Christ and his catholic church: “God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence” (Eph. 1:20-23, The Message). Millennials need a catholic church.

4. Apostolic
Millennials need a church that is apostolic. First, this means the church of the Apostles, the ones Jesus called and sent out, whose teaching was basically the aforementioned catholic faith—Jesus the Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended.

And, second, an apostolic church is, literally, a “sent out” church. Jesus’s so-called “Great Commission” connects apostolicity with oneness, holiness, and catholicity (Matt. 28:18-20). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [catholic]. Therefore go [apostolic] and make disciples of all nations [one, catholic, apostolic], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [one, holy, catholic], and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [holy].”

But it’s somewhat trivial to parse the Commission out like that. The whole thing is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, because the whole thing is the church—rooted in the authority of the risen and ascended Christ, globally present, immersed in the reality of the Triune God, obediently following Jesus’s commands. This is the church that is both Apostolic and apostolic. And this is the church Millennials need.

But there’s one more line. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Generations come and generations go. Millennials, large as they are and influential as they’re increasingly becoming, will give way to another generation. Surely there will be articles and books and speeches made about dressing up your church and even your beliefs to attract that next generation. So what is it Millennials need? What do X-ers and Boomers and Builders need? What does all humanity and all creation need? It’s simple: Jesus. “I am with you,” he promises. “At all times, from age to age and trend to trend, I am with you.” If we cling to metrics and fads and shifting cultural mores, we are building a house on sand. And great will be the crash (Matt. 7:24-27).

Only Jesus—crucified, risen, ascended, and returning—can promise to be with us always, forever. And only a church that clings to him—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—will find itself in the divine embrace and eternal dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who is Love. This is the church Millennials need.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Many Scars

Pastors have moments of utter exasperation with some church members sometimes. The power-plays, the self-centeredness, grown men and women acting like selfish toddlers who simply won’t understand why they can’t have everything their own way. Plenty of church members get exasperated with such fellow members too. So much infighting and bickering over who’s in charge, over which factions get the power. Very little discussion of mission, of how to reach others with the Good News of God’s love and kingdom coming in and through Christ and, supposedly, his church.

I’ve had to confront church folk at times. This isn’t because I enjoy such confrontations—I don’t…at all. But for one, I am ordained to the ministry of Word, Sacrament, Service, and Order. That Order part means that it is my job to humbly order the life of Christ’s church, which includes confronting and correcting such power grabs and factions. And two, these people have no idea what they’re dealing with.  Read the rest at SalvationLife.com...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Methodists Shield the Children!"

Image by Paul Jeffrey, KairosPhotos
The cross and flame symbol has become a powerful, radical symbol in a number of places, including Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Middle East. There is news footage from many war-torn, crisis locations that shows cross-and-flame graffiti on walls and shot-up buildings and doorposts. The representations of the cross and flame range from crude scratches to large, colorful graffiti. But in all of these disparate, desperate places, the Methodist cross and flame has become a powerful, grass roots, almost underground symbol.

The reason this symbol has become so important to so many is that Methodists are covering children…literally. In the midst of gunfire and bomb blasts, Methodists in the world’s most chaotic and dangerous places have taken it upon themselves to shield children from danger. These Methodists literally stop and cover these helpless, vulnerable innocents with their own bodies, absorbing the bullets or shrapnel into themselves and saving the children. The reports have spread as the cross and flame symbol has spread. When asked what the increasingly ubiquitous cross and flame symbol means, locals report, “It means the Methodists shield the helpless children!”

This was a dream I had last night. It was one of those vivid, layered dreams, in which the images and reports flashed quickly like news footage, yet I was actually in these places as it happened. I saw the graffitied cross and flame. I saw the Methodists covering children with their own bodies. I shared the reports with my fellow American Methodists. I even considered deeply whether or not I would be able to put myself in harm’s way and absorb bullets and shrapnel. I decided I must…we all must. Then I woke up.

It was the middle of the night and I lay there thinking about this dream. I imagined the power of this possibility. What if we Methodists (of course it goes for all Christian tribes, but my dream was about my own), were known, not for apathy or infighting or hypocrisy or for our liberal or conservative power agendas and allegiances, but as protectors of the vulnerable. Of course we aren’t necessarily going to go around throwing ourselves on children and absorbing bullets—that’s the stuff of dreams. But what about the real, bigger picture—the widows and orphans, the oppressed and exploited, the voiceless ones caught in the crossfire?

“When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? …When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean… Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Is. 1:12, 15-17).

What if the cross and flame began to be seen as a representation of people who truly embody the love of the God who made himself vulnerable, who was crucified to save the helpless, and who is now risen and ascended to offer hope and new life to all. What if it represented people who embody the illuminating, holy presence of God dwelling in the midst of darkness and war and terror and harm, the God who covers the exposed and absorbs the shrapnel.

“Methodists shield the helpless children!” Must it only be the stuff of dreams? Come now, let us reason together… (Is. 1:18)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Weight Loss

I know I’m not alone in needing to drop a little weight. Not only will it make me healthier, but it’ll make me feel better and enjoy my life more. Voices in various media make all kinds of promises for easy ways to drop this weight. But in my core (which needs the most exercise) I know the answer: walking…with Jesus. See, the weight I’m talking about dropping is not excess fat and flab. This weight comes from fear and judgment and all that is bound up with them. And yes, the culture offers all kinds of quick fixes. And yes, I’m finding that Jesus offers the only “program” that truly takes the weight off.
Read the rest at SalvationLife.com...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

God In the Dark

I don’t remember being afraid of the dark. I’m sure I went through normal childhood nyctophobia, and I certainly have those moments as an adult in which I’m fearful about some unknown noise outside at night or in a dark house. But there’s a deeper fear of a deeper dark with which I’m all too familiar.

In Ascent of Mt. Carmel, John of the Cross talks about faith as darkness, and that one who wants to live in union with God must enter the dark. This dark faith is opposed to senses and intellect, i.e. opposed to outward circumstances and our constant struggle to figure out how everything will work out and how we can position ourselves for the best possible outcome.

We are afraid of the dark, and that fear of stepping into the unknown is understandable. But the problem, all too often, is the reason for the fear. It isn’t because we know there will be struggle and that we must learn to walk by faith rather than by sight. The reason for our fear is because we are sure that we are all alone. Surely there is no one there to lead us into the light. Is there even any light at all? 
Read the rest at SalvationLife.com...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

To Be a Sheep

The Call to Be a Shepherd

I was on one of those walks, one of those discernment walks where you’re hoping to hear from God. I had my small Bible with me. I had been reading through Matthew’s Gospel. I walked to the park a few blocks from our newly-wed duplex. We had been married only a few months. And I was only a few months more than that into a discernment process, something of a vision quest. I felt like God might be leading me to be a pastor—maybe. Pieces were coming together. That day, sitting at a picnic table in a park in my hometown of Canyon, Texas, I read an important piece:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. –Mt. 9:36

That verse, set in the context of a description of Jesus’ kingdom ministry and followed by his declaration that the Lord wants workers in his harvest field, worked its way into my soul and became part of my calling. To this day that image of Jesus having compassion on the harassed and helpless sheep in need of a shepherd’s leading continues to inform my pastoral vocation. But is that all there is?

The Call to Be a Sheep

“What is there about the life and teaching of Jesus that speaks most powerfully to you?”

That question came to me in a morning quiet time recently. I was reading a devotion rooted in the life and teaching of St. Ignatius and his reflections on the life of Jesus. It’s a fair question: What about Jesus’ life and teaching is especially meaningful to me? The problem is, I didn’t know how to answer it. And this troubled me…deeply. I don’t think I’d ever tried to answer it really.

I’d progressed from a childhood “Jesus is my friend who loves me” to that young decision “He’s the way to heaven” and the deep teen years of “He’s the God-man” and then the young adult “He cares for the poor and needy” and recently, as a pastor doing doctoral work in mystical theology, “Jesus is the bright revelation of the dark mystery of God.”

But what about Jesus’ life and teaching speaks most powerfully to me? To me? Not to the books or movements I’m currently into, to the authors and musicians and preachers and teachers I’m absorbing lately? But to me? Not even to the sermon I’m working on or the study I’m preparing for or even the book I’m writing? Just me?

I guess it comes back to the childhood “Jesus is my friend who loves me.” And that friendship and love are revealed in his compassion for me, that I am harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd. I had gotten so caught up in being a shepherd, spent so many years in the training and vocation of pastor, that I forgot what it was to be a sheep—if I ever really knew. Now it began to dawn on me: The Lord is my shepherd…

So Jesus calls me, even me, to be part of his life and teaching, to be part of him. He leads me and teaches me. He tells me his stories about a kingdom, about the heirs of that kingdom, about life in the kingdom as a steward and builder and even as a child of the King.

But it’s me he wants to lead and teach—not some abstract, generic, and even profound movement or thinker or leader. This is what it is for Robert to be loved and to love. This is what I need to do to live freely and faithfully, using my gifts and personality and passions and desires to follow him and be his student and his friend. To my shock, I am only at the beginning—the beginning of the journey through green pastures and still waters and right paths, the journey through the valley of death’s shadow and into the presence of my enemies, the journey with anointed head and overflowing cup into the house of the Lord.

I come as a sheep to the Good Shepherd. I come as a child to my Friend. It’s ok to say it, to believe it, to live it: Jesus loves me, this I know…

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

5 Lessons for Pastors (and Others) from Dead Poets Society...Besides Carpe Diem

I was blessed to come of age among romantics, dreamers, artists. My closest friends in my teen and young adult years were deep thinkers and lovers of beauty. We asked big questions, dreamed big dreams, and looked at the universe as a grand home in which we were free to sprawl and traipse with muddy shoes. But we were also awkward, self-conscious, and searching. When the movie Dead Poets Society came out, we found in it something of an autobiography.

Here was a group of boys entering manhood, seeking comfort in their own skin while clothed in ill-fitting family armor. In Robin Williams’s John Keating they found a teacher, mentor, and friend who gave them permission to embrace and unleash the life-passion pounding in their young hearts. Mr. Keating didn’t place pressure on them to be themselves; he simply offered them encouragement to find themselves.

Dead Poets Society was, providentially for me and my mates, released only days after high school graduation. In my mind it set a course. I was going to be a composer, a poet, a professional romantic. I grew and aged and moved from being one of the schoolboys toward the role of the teacher—or at least some combination of the two. Then I became a pastor.

But I never forgot John Keating. I’ve continued to be inspired by this character, both as he was written and as Robin Williams played him. I hope that, at least in some ways, I am a pastor in the way that Keating was a teacher. I try to seize the day, I’m a lover of words, and when I preach I even sometimes tell the congregation to “huddle up!” But there are deeper lessons. In that spirit and in honor of the beautiful lifework of Robin Williams, I offer a few of the ways this plays out.

1. Pastor with Passion
Mr. Keating teaches from the heart. He speaks and listens intently. He teaches purposefully. He whistles the 1812 Overture. He stands on his desk and sounds his barbaric Yawp!...and encourages others to do so. Nothing is half-hearted.

The authority of the King and his kingdom mission are not to be undertaken lightly. What fuels our passion? What saps our passion? Feed the former and starve the latter.

2. Know What You’re About
In a private conversation with Neil, it is discovered that Keating has a significant other who is in London. Frustrated in his own struggle for identity, Neil says, “You can go anywhere. You can do anything. How can you stand being here?” Mr. Keating replies, “Because I love teaching. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

We must guard against double-mindedness and distraction, against giving our hearts to others who are more than willing to tell us what we’re about, and against a culture that is eager for us to be disappointed with ourselves and to buy their greener pastures.

3. Be Original
Examples of Mr. Keating’s “be original” message and methods abound. A key example of both is in the courtyard scene, in which Keating takes the boys out of the classroom (which is typical and also illustrates the point) and encourages them to take a stroll in the courtyard. Soon, some are in line, marching in step, as others stand by and clap in rhythm. They all conform to each other and to some indefinable pressure to be “right.”

Each of us is a God-made original, with our own ways of being a human and a pastor. We do well to find and follow our own unique manor in living our call and plying our craft.

4. Work Broadly
Keating leads the boys onto the athletic field. Each is given a line of verse to recite boldly (see #1) as they kick a ball, all to the accompaniment of a record playing exalting music. Sport, verse, music…comradeship. Another time, Keating reminds them that, ”… medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Pastoring is broad—teaching, counseling, scholarship, preaching, management, social justice, monasticism, and on and on. It reaches across the ages and sprawls into eternity. And Jesus’ kingdom mission reaches even more broadly. How blessed we are to engage, equip, and empower God’s many-splendored people as they bring God’s kingdom into their own disciplines and setting.

5. Stand for Truth
I can’t watch the end of Dead Poets Society without being stirred to tears. Who can?! As Todd finally emerges from his fear and “quiet desperation” to take a stand (literally) on behalf of his disgraced, scape-goated mentor, and as others follow his example, Mr. Keating smiles in satisfaction that the lessons he has tried to convey to them have indeed taken hold.

Like other professions, and like the young lives in Dead Poets Society, the pastor is haunted by the dark temptations of conformity, of waywardness and alienation, of going through the motions or doing whatever it takes to “succeed.” Too many of us have left behind the Truth of Jesus for a misguided and misleading message that big, rich, and famous are God-blessed, while small, poor, and anonymous are God-forsaken. We attend conferences and graph the metrics of J. Evans Pritchard, PhD., while Jesus is urging us onto our desks. 

Pastor with passion. Know what you’re about. Be original. Work broadly. Stand for truth. Find the barbaric yawp in your soul and let it out—not just once but always. Look to Jesus, that resurrected “sweaty-toothed madman,” as he charges ahead, and follow him into the thick of it, into the thick of life itself. “O Captain! my Captain!”

NEW BOOK--An Untold Story: Heroism, Mysticism, and the Quest for the True Self

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings About the Boo...