Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Young Theologians

The bedtime routine every night always includes prayertime. We cycle through a bunch of different ones, sometimes we let the kids choose one, other times it's chosen for them (especially when they "can't" agree on one and thus delay any further progress in getting to bed!).

Tonight we prayed the Shema:
The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
Love the LORD your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. 
And love your neighbor as yourself.

Following the prayer I told them that this prayer sums up what God wants for us to do in life. Levi asked how we can know what God tells us. I told him that God tells us stuff in the Bible.

Then Isaac asked why God is so far away in heaven. I told him that we can't see God, but not because he is far away. Actually God is very close, he is so big that he is everywhere. He's right here next to them, he's also in Emma's bedroom, he's in Huntington with Shirley and Faye, and he's at the Lake too!

Levi asked if this meant that God could see everything. Isaac wanted to know if, since God is so big, if he could lift the house with one hand. Yes, I'll bet he could do that. I told them that God is so big that he could touch the sun and it wouldn't burn his hand.

Levi then wanted to know if God could pick up a bear. I said yes, and if the bear bit his thumb, it wouldn't even hurt. Isaac wanted to know if God could pick up an elephant. Yup. Eli wanted to know if God could pick up a lion. Yep.

The boys seemed pretty impressed with God. Especially the part about being able to pick up bears!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Connecting with the Story

Do you have the expectation that reading the Bible should be easy? Have you tried reading the Bible, but since it didn't make sense, you quit? Maybe you have the feeling that reading the Bible should leave you with a sense of enlightenment? Did you find the Bible to be boring?

The word "Bible" is just another word for book. The Christian Bible is a collection of sixty-six books. In reading any book, it is important to grasp what kind of book you are reading. The Bible is not an in instruction manual. The Bible is not a self-help guide. The Bible is not a scientific tract. The Bible is not even a history tome. The Bible - all sixty-six books connected together - is a story book. The Bible is a book about a story, the main character being the God of Israel.

To say it is a story is not to imply that it is a fairy-tale, that it is dealing in make-believe, that it is fiction. A story that resonates with you is a story rooted in reality. The stories that endure are the ones that tap into deep truths. The story within the Bible is one that reveals relevant insights into the nature of humanity, the tasks of Israel's God, and the flow of power in the world. And other stuff. Stuff that is crucial to compelling stories we still read today. Which is why so many people still read the Bible.

If you tried reading the Bible and you quit because of whatever reason, but you're interested in giving it another go, let me know. I'd be glad to be helpful in this next go with the Bible.

This idea of Bible as story is not new. It's often how the Bible gets presented in Sunday School. The idea of the Bible as a plausible story for adults - well that is new. We grow up with the Bible as a story, but then as adults the Bible turns into a book of historical facts and spiritual truths. The Bible loses its edge to  inspire through story and instead becomes a confusing source of religious propaganda.

For me, reading the Acts of the Apostle as story rather than as "keys" to building an effective has been really refreshing. First, I perceive the author of the book to be brilliant and intentional. The author crafted this book to make multiple points, he's arranged material with an eye for communicating a big range of ideas. Second, I perceive the author to be one of integrity and character. The author is crafting a book that connects with what really happened. He's not writing a pure history book, he's not writing a church-planting manual, and he's not writing fiction. He's telling a selective story about the origins of the Church. So if I want to connect with the story, I need to try and see the story from the author's perspective.

I've never preached through the book of Acts because I've never really connected with the story. It's been a boring book for me for a long, long time. But as I reconnected with the Gospel of Luke, and began to realize how it shapes the story in Acts, a new perspective emerged. Acts is not just a random collection of ancient stories strung together to highlight miracles and adventures. It is a carefully arranged story that moves the legacy of Jesus forward.

 It's important to note the flow of the story. When you read something that doesn't make sense, instead of glossing over it, stop and consider why that verse, that sentence, that paragraph is there. Everything is interconnected, so if it doesn't make sense, other stuff won't make sense. For example:
"When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"

This is the response of Jews in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks having heard a sermon from Peter. For the longest time I was not able to understand this response to Peter's sermon. When I would read and reread Peter's sermon, I wasn't cut to the heart! So why were they? What was it that Peter said about God and Jesus, about the crucifixion and resurrection, that cut the people to the heart? This is important for the flow of the story. But since I didn't get the connection for years, I glossed over it. And in glossing over it, most of Acts lost a lot of its edge. So I kept plugging away, going over and over, getting other insights until the story made sense.

Of course I have to work that hard to have the story make sense - it's an ancient story written in a different culture to a particular people in a foreign language using a unique literary style. If I'm going to connect with the story, I need to respect the brilliance and craftsmanship of the book. The people of two-thousand years ago weren't dumber because they didn't have cell-phones. The literature of the first century was not simplistic because they didn't sell it on Amazon. Back then there were plenty of really, really intelligent, sophisticated, clever, savvy, diligent, cultured thinkers and writers. We might have more information available to us today, but that doesn't make us superior. What they wrote ought to be respected, what they wrote still resonates with us today.

So don't give up on your attempts to read and understand the Scriptures. Respect the text, get inside the culture of the story, see it from the author's point of view. Don't assume you will get great insights every time you read any piece of Scripture. Some of it is easier to understand than others, sure; but some of it is complicated poetry with layers of meaning that have rich rewards for those willing to dig. If you want the truth, you'll have to work for it. The Scriptures reveal truth, and in working hard for it, you'll discover how much you really want it, and how valuable it really is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Making Levi, Isaac & Eli Pick Up Sticks

Community service is fun. Having my children join in on a service project is even more fun! On Saturday Anchor partnered with the City of Fort Wayne and the Great American Cleanup for the second year in a row. We chose to tackle the alley behind the church.

Two years ago it was littered with large tree debris from an awful ice storm. Most of the limbs and leaves were removed last year, but there was still some left - so our goal this year was to get it all out. If not for a huge growling black dog, we would have gotten that last pile of tree limbs. Stupid snarling Rottweiler.

The Anchor crew got to work sometime after 8:30am, and we were sweeping out the trucks by around 11am. There was a pretty big pile of stuff in the parking lot by the time we got done. I'm hoping the City doesn't delay in picking it up for us!

I'm thankful for the Anchorites that were willing and able to come. Serving our neighbors is important to me, it's something I enjoy, and it's good for my soul. Serving with my friends at Anchor makes the experience even more rich and fruitful!

Having my sons there with me to serve in the alley was a special experience. They jumped right in, worked hard (although we did need to take a drink break... :), and they had fun hanging out with the other Anchorites. Riding in the back of Bob's black truck and Steve's red truck were the highlights of their morning! It was a joy to get my hands dirty while serving with my boys and my friends!

Here's some of the pics that Steve Dennie took - there are a lot more on the Anchor Facebook page.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Utter Failure of Church

Do you have a story of how the Church has failed you or those you care about? Do you have too many moments where you are disappointed in and hurt by the Church? Does it ever strike you that it'd be easier to avoid Church, that Church is not worth the hassle or headaches?

Being a pastor of a church, there is a side of me that wants to always present the best side of Church; it's in my professional interest, right? But being an insider makes me acutely aware of the ways the Church is an utter failure. For me personally, I have no terrible instances to point to where the Church ruined my life or dashed my hope in God. But I have plenty of friends and professional acquaintances who have - plus I watch the news. Some parts of the country have around forty percent of the population regularly attending church, but in most places its more around thirty or twenty - some regions even less than that.

Church has become a non-option for most people. For many, it was never a choice to go or not go. So the Church in North America has to ask itself: what is going on? Does the lack of connection with most people reveal their rejection of Christ and truth? Or maybe the disconnection is rooted in our utter failure as the Church.

I'm not giving up on the Church. But in sticking with the Church, I don't want to whitewash the sins or fuel foolish attitudes. To move forward, I think the Church needs to rethink its understanding of the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles. Not just rethink it so that we can publish more books, but rethink it to realign our actions to better deal with reality. I don't think Jesus is done with the Church, he's too loyal to ditch us. But what to do?

My title of this post is an overstatement. There are plenty of churches out there that are doing good work in the name of Jesus. There are lots of honest, humble, hard-working Jesus-followers in America. They are not the ones looking for fame, they don't want their ministry to make them wealthy. Whether they are the exception to the rule, or the wave of the future, it depends on what you and I decide to do.

Everybody has a blind-spot, and that includes me. And that includes Anchor. If you feel that Anchor has failed you, if you think Anchor has let you down, if you have been disappointed in Anchor - I'm the first to admit that we are not perfect. We don't get it right all the time. If you see something in Anchor that needs to change, if there is an area of sinfulness that we ought to address, if we are sloppy or being inconsiderate, please please please share it with me. The last thing I want for Anchor is to fuel the sense of failure of churches in America.

Anchor is going to spend a bunch of time in the Acts of the Apostles. By looking back, we'll be reminded of the original intent and Spirit of the church. While it is important to face our sins, it is also important to see what we could become. On the one hand, we want to be honest about our failures, but we also want to be humble as we work for success. By immersing ourselves for an extended time period in the Acts, we are reminding ourselves of what Jesus originally intended. How did this Jesus movement get started? What was the heart of the Church when it got going in those first many decades?

The post-modern age of Anchor is vastly different from the first-century Mediterranean world of the apostles. Culture and societies shift and morph, yet people are people - we still get afraid, we still vie for power, we want success and crave love. In understanding the first church, we'll get some glimpses into what the church of today ought to focus on. But that means coming to terms with the reality of our age. As we learn more about the culture we live in now, we can compare and contrast it with the culture of the first church. It will spur creative thinking about how the Same Spirit who changed lives then, will transform lives now.

This is a lot of expectations to place on reading one chapter a week out of the book of Acts. We'll do more than just reading, but without the studying we'll be no closer to understanding anything. The reading fuels a movement towards more fruitfulness in our service towards one another and our neighbors. We don't need to try to change the world, we just need to focus on bringing and being Good News to our community. What that will look like depends on how ardently we read and understand the Scriptures and study and discern our culture.

The utter failure of the Church is not something we need to be ashamed of, just honest. It will keep us humble. And it will spur us forward. In our world, a seed needs to die in order for the new plant to emerge. If Jesus is in charge of the Church - a bunch of rebels baptized and being conformed by His Spirit - then what we need to focus on is not on all the failures but on all the ways our Lord brings good out of it.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Dare to Decide

Trust in God. Confidence in Self. Focused on One Thing. The first two tasks are going okay, but that last one is a huge struggle. I am interested in so many ideas, opportunities, possibilities, journeys, etc. This results in indecision, regret, dabbling, fatigue, and bewilderment. I am continually faced with reality: I must make choices, I must say NO to many, many, many, many, many things, and say YES to a few. Figuring out what to say YES to is difficult, but it is what makes saying NO possible.

Once again I turn to Kierkegaard for wisdom and conviction and inspiration. Some of the quotes below are a blatant reprimand to some of my cowardice, pride, and fear. I seek to do the next right thing, but I fumble around trying to focus on the EXACT right move, afraid that a misstep at the beginning guarantees future failure. Of course this is only possible when I narrow down the next right thing to one specific step, when what is required is a particular direction. I'm looking at the next flagstone, God is trying to lift up my chin to see the next milemarker.

Do not fly so high with your decisions that you forget that a decision is but a beginning.
How wretched and miserable it is to find in a person many good intentions but few good deeds. And there are other dangers too, dangers of sin. With all your good intentions, you must not forget your duty, neither should you forget to do it with joy. And strive to carry your burdens and responsibilities in a surrendered way. If you don't, there is a danger of losing your decisiveness; of going through life without courage and fading away in death.
The proud person always wants to do the right thing, the great thing. But because he wants to do it in his own strength, he is fighting not with man but with God. He wants to have a great task set before himself and to carry it through on his own accord. And then he is very pleased with his place. 
The thing that cowardice fears most is decision; for decision always scatters the mists, at least for a moment. Cowardice and time always find a reason for not hurrying, for saying, "Not today, but tomorrow", whereas God in heaven and the eternal say: "Do it today. Now is the day of salvation."
But "God does not give us the spirit of cowardice, but the spirit of power, and of love and of self-control" (1Tim. 1:7). Cowardice does not come from God. One who wants to build a tower sits down and makes an estimate as to how high he can build it. But if no decision is ever made then no tower is ever built. A good decision is our will to do everything we can within our power. It means to serve God with all we've got, be it little or much. Every person can do that.
We must not support high and important things while ignoring the practical, daily stuff of life. Indeed, decision is something truly great; the life of eternity shines over decision. But the light of eternity does not shine on every decision. Decision may be once and for all; but decision itself is only the first thing. 
Genuine decision is always eager to change its clothes and get down to practical matters. The real significance of decision is that it gives us an inner connection. Decision gets us on our way, and here there are no longer little things. Decision lays its demanding hand on us from start to finish. 
Cowardice, on the other hand, wants only to concern itself with the really important, big things, not in order to carry something out wholeheartedly but to be flattered by doing something that is noble and great. Yet hiding behind the exalted is nothing but an excuse for not conquering all the little things one has omitted, simply because they were too little.
This much is certain: the greatest thing each person can do is to give himself to God utterly and unconditionally - weaknesses, fears, and all. For God loves obedience more than good intentions or second-best offerings, which are all too often made under the guise of weakness. 
Therefore, dare to renew your decision. It will lift you up again to have trust in God. For God is a spirit of power and love and self-control, and it is before God and for him that every decision is made. Dare to act on the good that is buried within your heart.
Confess your decision and do not go ashamed with downcast eyes as if you were treading on forbidden ground. If you are ashamed of your own imperfections, then cast your eyes down before God, not man. Better yet, in weakness decide and go forth!
Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations, pgs. 3-8

Ants for Pets

Cleaning up after breakfast, we found some ants chowing down on a piece of popcorn laying by the patio door. They were swarming on the popcorn, and milling about by the patio door. I called the boys over to check out this feature of nature. Isaac wanted to know if we could keep them for pets. Levi wanted to know if these are the ones that bite. Eli was trying not to step on them.

We watched for a while, and then we picked up the piece of popcorn and threw it outside. Then we all took turns picking up the tiny little ants and throwing them outside as well. Isaac was hoping we could keep one or two of them. He was hopeful that if we let the ants stay in the house, we'd never have to sweep the floor again. We could drop all the food we wanted on the floor, and the ants would clean up for us! Sorry Isaac, that's not the way it works with ants.

Since the boys had grown fond of their new pets, we decided to give them food. We put some cereal and honey outside on the patio. Now we'll check in every once in awhile and see how their picnic is going.

I have to admit that this non-violent treatment of ants is partially inspired by an NPR interview with E.O. Wilson. On the radio one Friday afternoon I heard him explain alternative ways of turning away an ant invasion without slaughtering them. For reasons I don't fully understand, when the opportunity presented itself this morning to remove the ants, it was more intriguing to get creative than destructive. We'll see how well this plan works in the days and weeks to come!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Do More Great Work

In seeking greater clarity about myself and how to produce better results in life, I came across this helpful little book. Doing more great work isn't just about a job or career, although that's the book's starting point. Doing more great work, in my mind, starts with home, since that is where the heart is. I want my wife and children to benefit most from my work in the world. Some of my work is for them, it is with them, it is because of them. I want to make the most out of this brief life, and that means I want to do more great work as a gift for my family and friends.

Anyway, here were some great insights into doing more great work that came from the little red book:

Six Great Work Paradoxes
1. You don't need to save the world. You do need to make a difference. 
What can you do more of that makes a difference, shifts the balance, has an impact, adds beauty, changes the status quo, creates something worth being created, improves life, moves things forward, reduces waste, engages people, or allows love? (You don't have to do all of those. Just one will be fine.) There are opportunities to do any of these things all around you right now.

2. Great work is private. Great work can be public.
Great work is meaningful for you - often its reward is a moment of private triumph. ...if you're just after public acclaim, then doing great work might not even be the best route.

3. Great work is needed. Great work isn't wanted.
Great work shows up at the intersection where what needs to change in your world meets what's important to you. Taking a stand for great work means in some small (or significant) way swimming against the tide. 

4. Great work is easy. Great work is difficult.
It can be a time of uncertainty, groping forward when you're not sure of where you're heading.

5. Great work is about doing what's meaningful. Great work isn't about doing it well. 
You're unlikely to be able to do it perfectly. I'm not talking about a standard of delivery. I'm talking about a standard of impact and meaning. 

6. Great work can take a moment. Great work can take a lifetime.
Not every minute of the journey is great work, but what it adds up to is. Somehow, time can both shrink and stretch to accommodate a great work moment.

What do you think of these paradoxes?