Monday, December 6, 2010

From Spectators to Participants

Lots of folks
from Christ-followers
to seekers
to skeptics
ask me from time to time
"How can I encounter God?"
"How can I see God?"
"How can I experience God?"
I have a simple answer for that:
become a participant not a spectator.

It seems to me we
including myself
spend a lot of time
being spectators:
watching TV
checking Facebook
checking Twitter

Many folks who go to church
go expecting to be spectators
rather than participants.
"Hope the choir is on key today."
"Hope the preacher is interesting."
"Hope the sermon is short."

And we go home wondering
where is God?

No wonder.
Faith is not a spectator sport.
It demands participation
if we are going to encounter God.
That means
getting out there
feeding the hungry
visiting the prisoner
holding the hand of the lonely and forgotten
weeping with those in grief
speaking to the powers that perpetuate injustice
making room in our lives for someone else.

My colleague, Jeanne Wisenbaugh
preached on Mary, the mother of Jesus, yesterday
and something she said got my mind going.
And what came out was something like this
Mary wasn't going to be a spectator
in God's divine drama
if God was going to invite her to be a participant.
She said, "Yes."
"If that's what you want, God, I'm all in."

I believe that God invites everyone to be a participant
in the divine drama
of human history.
And the one's who see God
are the one's
who say

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Language of the Spirit, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about some of the different languages
that we encounter
and interpret
The language of music
or of art
or of good food.
And I wondered out loud
about the language of the Spirit:
What is the language of the Spirit?

How does the Spirit communicate to us,
and how do we,
in turn,
communicate with the Spirit?
Is it only through prayer?
That seems a bit too simple and
a bit narrow.
Aren't there other languages through which
The Spirit communicates to us
and we communicate to the Spirit?
Love, maybe
or mercy
or tears
or sighs
or acts of compassion for someone else?

And how do we interpret the Spirit
to someone else?
How do we speak
the language of the Spirit
to another person?

I am still seeking the answers
but I do know this

any language
is powerful.

Words have the power to
create or destroy
wound or heal
inspire or defeat

Love has the power to create
Mercy has the power to heal
Grace has the power to transform
Confession has the power to reconcile
Truth has the power to right wrongs

There is power in language.

God give us the wisdom
to use the power of language
and to use it wisely
not for our own purposes
but for the purposes of
of One much greater
than ourselves.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Language of the Spirit

I have been aware of languages lately
but probably not the languages you are thinking of.

I have become aware that there is a language to things like
and food,
and art.

Take music for instance:
Blues has its own musical language
that any musician and most Western listeners
can recognize.
So does jazz
or heavy Metal
Or classical
And so does the music of other cultures
like African
or Japanese
Each has its own langauge
and vernacular
and the songwriter uses this language to
tell us something
about herself

Or take food:
Food has a language of
and flavors
and places from where the ingredients come
the Sea, for instance
and cooking methods
roasting or smoking or boiling
and all of this ends up the language of
this dish and the culture in which it was born

Or art
art uses the langues of colors and imagery
and how much paint is on the canvas
and where the light is focused
or who much of the sculpture is finished
and how much left undone
or what space is used and not used
and all of this becomes the language the artist uses
to try and tell us something
about himself
or about

All this got me thinking
what is the languge of the Spirit?

Is it Scripture?
It is the sermon?
Or prayer?
Or music
Or art
Or food
Or creation
Or less tangible things like:
Or compassion
Or passion
Or conscience
Or courage
All of the above?

All I want
are the ears
and room in my heart

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Out of Touch

I have had a cup of ice water poured directly in my lap recently.

It came in the form of an article distributed by The Office of Research of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

The article claims that nearly half of the population of the United States is “out of touch with church” –

Meaning –“These folks are unreceptive and closed to attending church and churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.”


For the last several decades the church has (rightly or wrongly) targeted “seekers:” people who were interested or curious about God and a relationship with Christ and His church, but not “in” yet.

Now even the population of seekers is dwindling
And the fastest growing demographic is

Not people who have been hurt by a church
and have vowed never to return
Not people who have never had a church connection
Not people who are “spiritual just not religious”


That is pretty sobering

One question that was not addressed in the article
Is why?
Why are more and more people becoming unreceptive and closed?
I have some guesses
But I think the whole truth is that the answers to the why questions
Are as varied and different as the people who can truthfully and thoughtfully answer them.

The good news is that
Who have either seen this coming
Or experienced it themselves,
Have created expressions of the church like
“Missional church”
Or “emerging church”
Or “Fresh Expressions”

The bad news
For some
Is that we must wake up to the reality
That we
The church
Especially mainline
Sometimes called
Continue to do the same things we have done for the last
Few years
The last few decades
The last fifty years
The last century
And expect to effectively reach people
And make disciples of Jesus Christ
For the transformation of the world

The question is now
Are we willing to do be different for the sake of the kingdom?

Are we willing to take risks we have never taken
Are we willing to go to places we don’t usually go
Are we willing to meet people we don’t know
Are we willing to do things we have never done
If it means that we will reach someone with the love of God
Who is

Or maybe the question ought to be
Who is really out of touch?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Spiritual but not Religious

I remember the first time I heard these words:
"I don't like organized religion."
What did he mean?
He doesn't like organization?
He doesn't like the church?
He doesn't like religion?
He doesn't like institutions?
Is he just excusing his lack of participation in a community of faith?
I'll admit,
it was jarring
and I was unprepared to dialogue about it,
though I am sure I asked a few questions for clarification

If I had a dime for every time I heard these words
(or one of their many variations)
"I am not religious but I am spiritual."
What does THAT mean?

More often than not, I think these statements boil down to two things:
First, the modern perception of the church and
Second, a modern preoccupation with the self and the immediate

To be sure, the church has had some less-than-stellar moments in our history
Moments for which we cannot be proud
Moments about which we should, even now, weep in shame
Moments which clearly do not reflect our best practices and the values of God's Kingdom
Many folks seem to relish in pointing out the church's historical and contemporary flaws
and it seems to give them sufficient reason to not only reject the church
but ridicule any and all who practice the Christian faith.

I am not so sure.
Irrelevant has come to mean more like "What have you done for me lately?"
Clearly the church is relevant in the lives of countless of people both within and outside of the church.

For instance, my congregation was relevant in the lives of about 900 people a few weeks ago as we handed out free food to the hungry
Unfortunately, it's the seedy, not the positive, story that gets told in the press.

(I will have to admit if we are talking about a relevant message, I will agree that I have sat in worship services listening to a completely irrelevant message given by a less-than-passionate preacher praying that a brick would fall on my head and stop the pain.")

That said, I find it hard to believe that one can reject a whole organization and mock millions of followers because of a small minority of events and people.

Today "being spiritual" has become, not only trendy, but an escape.
Today what passes for spirituality is a home brew of pragmatic practices and beliefs borrowed from a vast array of religions including both Western and Eastern religions
as well as aboriginal religions.
These spiritualities are all about what works for me now
Practices are about making me a better person
They do not hold me to an authority beyond my own conscience or pleasure
They do not demand that my "beliefs" be cogent
They are not about how I can make the world a better place
They do necessarily hold me accountable to how I treat others
Or how I steward the earth and all that dwell on it
Ethics are about what works for me and can be abandoned
the minute they cease working for my pleasure

Don't get me wrong
I don't think the church is perfect
And I applaud any attempt to transcend self
and find a transforming relationship with God
But what I have found
is that community - like the church
or the synagogue
or the mosque
however imperfect
is the right and best place to sustain
a wise and healthy spirituality

I am not sure what people mean by
But I AM sure that
Thomas Merton
John Wesley
Mother Theresa
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
the Dalai Lama
and those like them


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Personal Stalker

There was this guy that always followed me around wherever I went.


The guy was an extreme stalker!
He followed me to work.
He followed me at home.
He followed me on vacation.
I couldn't get away from him.

Sometimes he would tell me how good I am
What a great preacher I am
What a great pastor I am
What a great dad I am
And stuff like that.

He's also the guy who tells me
What a terrible guitar player I am
And how ugly I am
And so on.

And, when I made a mistake
No matter how large or small
He would take a whack at me
Or beat me up real good.

The thing is
That even though he has followed me for years
I didn't know his name.
Until last week.

A couple of weeks ago I made a mistake
And he beat me up
Real good
For days.

Then I learned two things
His name,
And that he doesn't exist.

His name is "perfect jeff."
And "perfect jeff" doesn't exist,
He only existed in my psyche.
And though I always knew
I am not perfect
"perfect jeff" would tell me otherwise
And smack me when I wasn't.

People would tell me to let go of the mistake
And the event in which the mistake occurred
And they were right.

But, what I also needed to do
Was to let go of the guy who kept beating me up over it.

So, I did.

And my life is different.
And I have a new-found freedom
And I am healing
Thanks to the liberating grace
Of God
And of the church.

So, to all of the recovering perfectionists out there
And to those perfectionists who long to recover
It's time to let go of your personal
And be liberated into the grace of God
Who loves us
With and despite
Our many
Faults and flaws.

Who needs to be perfect anyway?
I am pretty sure it is over-rated.

Monday, May 3, 2010



Christians talk about it - especially at Easter
But do we really think it can happen
To someone else?

I have a close friend who went to a lunch where Michelle Obama was the speaker.

(I am pretty sure Michelle Obama had a crush on me in high school.)
(Okay, we didn't go to the same high school,
but I am pretty sure that if we did she would have.)

My friend was a bit apprehensive because
she leans Republican
and had read some of Michelle Obama's writings from like
and she didn't like what she read.
And I
(who love the Obamas even though I don't like everything our President has said or done or stands for)
I thought to myself
So what.
over 40
is the same person they were in college?
or the same person they were at 30?

I know I am not

Thanks be to God!

When me friend called me after the luncheon
She told me how great the luncheon was and
How she had changed her mind about Michelle Obama
And how impressed she was with her
And the work Michelle Obama is doing
I think she felt a genuine kindred spirit with Mrs. Obama


It happens to everyone who is breathing.
We are not who we were then
Or at least mostly not
Or shouldn't be

A few months ago I caught up with a friend from high school
high school was like 30 years ago
We discovered we live only twenty minutes from each other
So we had lunch and we have kept in touch since
And, while we were very close in high school
It really feels like starting all over again
We've both changed
We inhabit different worlds

I say all this because I think that church has forgotten
that God transforms people
every day.
We are not who we were then
Neither are they
whoever they may be
And so when
come to our worship
or our programs
or our dinners
or our fellowship
let's welcome them
as new creations

I mean
if they are coming to us
haven't they chosen Christ at some level?
in some way?
and isn't that the beginning of being a new creation in Christ?
And don't we want to see them
not as they were
nor maybe even so much as they are
but what they
through God's grace
are becoming?

I think that's they way God see me.
And man
Am I grateful!
Because I would hate to think that God still sees me
as that awkward
totally messed up
I was in high school
and thinks to Himself
No way am I coming within twenty miles of
THAT guy!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who have you been with?

There is an old adage for pastors I learned when I was in seminary

"People don't care how much you know
Until they know how much you care."

I get it
Caring comes before preaching."

But, that's not how I see many of my colleagues interpreting that statement.

It looks more like this:
"Care for your congregation just enough so that they won't get too upset when you talk over their heads with a vocabulary you learned while getting your masters or doctorate degrees."

I know one pastor who told her congregation from the pulpit that she was smarter than they were because she went to _______ University and _______ Seminary.

Usually it is more subtle than that.

I recently came to the epiphany that
The congregations I have served and led have not cared how much I know.
Not one person in any of my congregations has ever asked to see my report cards.
Not one.

They don't care how much I know.
I think what they mostly care about when I step to the pulpit
Have I been with the risen Christ this week
And will I share it?

I believe that there is a tremendous hunger in our congregations
and in the world at large
to be with people
and to hear from people
who have been with the risen Christ
and who will share that experience
not just with words
but through attitude
and outlook
and living in general.

So, I might reword that old adage to say
"People don't care how much you know
until they see who you have been with."

My plan from now on
when I approach the pulpit
is to say
if only to myself
"I have been with the risen Christ this week
and it has made an impact on my life
and I want to share it with you."

For all believers
I want to encourage you to try that same thing
when you go to work
when you go to school
when you work out at the club
when you hang out with friends.

I am absolutely
100% convinced
with all that I am
that there is a tremendous thirst
in our congregations
and in the world
to be with
and to hear from
people who have been with and
whose lives have been changed by
the risen Christ.

But, don't take my word for it.

Take a good look around your school
your office
your church.

Any hope there?
Any joy there?
Any passion there?

If you have been with the risen Christ
then you have living water
and the world
my friends
is parched.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stephen Hawking and the Faith Imperative: or Christians and the brightest physicist may have more in common than you thought

I was in college when I read Stephen Hawkings book, "A Brief History of Time."
I thought Hawkings was brilliant and his book very accessible
I still do.

I was watching a documentary yesterday (made in 2008) that was updating Hawkings' work twenty-five or so years later. It was talking about the "M Theory" and "The String Theory" and other theories that are trying to get at a "theory of everything."

In other words: one theory to explain all that happens in the universe.

It was about ten years ago that I was introduced to Quantum Physics and The String Theory by a wonderful friend of mine who was on a journey to find God and that maybe God was more than our finite human constructs.

Now, I don't pretend to get everything about Quantum Physics or The String Theory. But, I do have a small general knowledge of those subjects.
Enough to be intrigued and curious.

So, I watched the show.

What you have to know is that physicists believe that prior to the Big Bang, the universe was a tight, little, dense, symmetrical dot of matter; and that in the nano-seconds following the explosion the forces that shape and work in the universe came into being.

Including gravity.

Gravity gives physicists all kinds of headaches
Because it seems weaker than all of the other forces.

How do you explain that?

Physicists, like Hawking, have spent their whole careers trying.

Let's digress for a moment.

We have been taught that science is about verifiable fact and religion is about faith in Someone who cannot be verified or observed scientifically and so the twain shall not, indeed cannot, meet.

In fact, I have been put off more than once by arrogant people who claim that my faith is silly, naive, ignorant and irresponsible blather because it cannot be scientifically proven or verified.

So, imagine my surprise when I hear Stephen Hawking say that they "hope to one day find the symmetry in the universe that they believe is there but have never observed."




The host of the documentary went on to say that physicists have a lot of great theories
which exist
on paper.

Physicists have spent a lifetime
constructing a truth that exists only on paper
to try to explain something they believe is there
but they have never observed.

Does that not sound an awful lot like religion?

I have faith in a God I have never seen with my eyes but have experienced in many ways.

Stephen Hawking has faith in mathematics.

I am not knocking his faith.
And, I kind of like having something in common with Stephen Hawking.

in something
we have never observed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tour Guides for Jesus

I am trying to take the advice of my niece who is a prolific blogger - and blog pundit - about setting aside time every month to write my blog. Now I just have to find the time to schedule the time to write my blog.

I'm hopeless.

As you may already know, I am a big fan of Rob Bell, pastor at Mars Hill Church near Grand Rapids. He wrote a book called Velvet Elvis in which he articulated faithful Christian-following in words I could not find in nearly two decades of ministry.

One portion that captured my imagination was his description of being a missionary. He writes, "Missions is less about the transportation of God from one place to another and more about the identification of a God who is already there."

In the past, most Christians have thought of missions and being a missionary is to take God where God is not. I agree with Rob Bell when he writes, "Some people actually believe that God is absent from a place until they get there."

But, that would be a really flawed understanding of missions.

The essential flaw in that thinking is to think that we need to take God anywhere, and that there is a place in this universe - let alone on this earth - where God is not present.

Missions is more about starting where people are an pointing out where God is present and working in their lives. Missionaries are, then, kind of tour guides for Jesus.

Again I quote from Rob Bell: "Tour guides are people who see depth and texture an connection where others don't. That is why the best teachers are masters of the obvious. They see the same things we do, but they are aware of so much more. And when they point it out, it changes the way we see everything."

The best tour guides tell us how a color or brush stroke can tell us more about the artist, or how the style of architecture can tell us more about the architect.

I like the "Tour Guide" image for missions and missionaries. It makes more sense to me and is better theology.

I am leading my congregation to think of themselves as missioners
As tour guides for Jesus
Who go to the people they know are living without a relationship with God
Without hope
And pointing out to their friends where God is present and working in their lives.

But, missioners do more then just point out God.
They live as a Christ-follower would live in that culture.
Missioners aren't interested in changing the culture, or even necessarily changing the person
I am pretty sure that's God's job, not ours.

Missioners don't need to take on the false beliefs of the culture, or the practices of the culture that run counter to a Christ-centered life.

Instead, the missioner lives as a living example of how a Christ-followers looks in that culture.

So, a missioner in the culture of sports
Would live as a faithful Christ-follower in the sports culture.
A missioner to the medical community
Would live as a faithful Christ-follower in the medical culture.
The same is true of missioners in the office
Or missioners in the youth culture,
Or missioners in the local community.

We are not talking about changing culture
Or confronting culture
Or even transforming culture.
We are talking about being a living example
To people
Who have adopted a set of beliefs,
And assumptions about Who God is and is not
And connecting some of the dots
And, maybe, change the way they see
Their present
Their past and
Their future.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My New Year's resolution - I will try harder at updating my blog more often. In fact, my goal is to update it monthly. That will probably mean more stuff about what's going on at Flushing United Methodist Church than my thoughts on particular subjects and issues.

I have a lot of respect for the bloggers that can write daily blogs that are well-thought out, interesting and make me think.

This month, my thing is untransformed Christians and missonal disciples.

First, untransformed Christians.

Last summer I preached a sermon series called, More Like Jesus. The idea was that people don't need Christians to be perfect, they just need us to be more like Jesus. The way we got at that was by looking at some of the criticisms for the church and Christians and Christianity by non-believers. (i.e. Christian are judgemental, ignorant, etc...)

As I have reflected more on those criticisms I have come to decide that the majority of the criticisms come from encounters with untransformed Christians.

Untransformed Christians are people who have either stopped growing in spiritual maturity, or never grew in spiritual maturity; or they are folks who have chosen not to allow a certain part of their lives to be transformed by the grace of God.

Please understand, I am not judging as to whether these folks have faith in Jesus Christ or have had a salvation/conversion/new birth experience. I am saying that there are folks who have a relationship at some level with Jesus Christ so that they call themselves Christian, and yet they have either not allowed God's grace and power to transform them or they have stopped allowing God's grace to transform them.

I know tat there are still bit of my life that I have have not completely surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. And, I know that there are times when I mess up - BIG time and small time. But, I hope that when I do mess up, I have the grace and courage not to try and excuse my mess up, but admit it, make amends and move on.

I am REALLY glad that mistakes don't have to be the final word and that God does not disown us when we mess up.

So, what do we do about untransformed Christians? Nothing. Let God deal with that. God is more than big enough. Rather, I want to make sure I am growing in my relationship with Jesus Christ and that I allow God to transform every aspect of my life so that I can be the man, husband, father, pastor, brother, etc...that God redeemed me to be.

Maybe, then, my life can be a better and more attractive testimony to God's love and power than the untransformed Christian.

Now, about missional disciples.

Personally, I think the church needs a new paradigm for Christ-followers.

In fact, I rarely us the word disciple much to describe followers of Jesus Christ.

"Disciple" carries too much negative (and sometimes ambiguous) baggage.

Many churches call the members of their congregation, "ministers." And, that is Biblically true. But, culturally the term "minister" has been gone through so many changes that it has lost teeth.

My main objection is that the term minister does not carry with it a sense of faith sharing or evangelism (talk about a scary word today). I strongly believe that ALL Christ-followers should share their faith verbally in some way. (yes, I wrote verbally! We at Flushing UMC do a great job sharing our collective faith through missions and ministry, but no so much at verbally. That, I am certain, is due more to my leadership than anything else. I intend to change that.)

So, I think we need to embrace a new paradigm for Christ-followers.

The one that makes the most sense to me is being a missionary or a missioner. To me a missionary is one who goes to another (different) culture to bring the message of hope in Jesus Christ and to incarnate or embody the love of God in Jesus Christ. A missioner is one who does the same thing only with people of the same or similar culture.

So a missioner not only does ministry, but also intentionally looks for ways to share the good news that God has given us in Jesus.

This month we at Flushing UMC are looking at the foundations for being missioners through a series of messages called, The Missionary God. You can check out our website for those sermons.

I like what Rob Bell says about being missionaries.

I'll share that next time.