Friday, September 30, 2016

Living in the "in-between"

For most of my life I would have been considered anything but urban. I've lived in the cornfields of the Midwest.  I've lived among the rural farms of Upstate New York. Some of my fondest memories are still the many days of my life spent in the solitude and wild of the Adirondack mountains.  In many ways I am convinced that those were the days that formed my inner places.  I am an introvert by design. I am a writer of sorts and this place breathed the life and contemplation into my soul necessary for words to then be poured out.  I could feel the very presence of God there. The secret places of the forest seemed to wrap themselves around me and even now, nearly 30 years after last stepping foot on those paths, I can still feel them calling to me.  Especially now.
These past 17 years I have chosen to live within the city limits of one of our country's major urban centers.  In fact for these past few years it has been considered the fastest growing urban center in the US.  We moved into an urban neighborhood, raised our family and loved nearly every minute.  My life and being as a husband, dad, papa, and pastoral artist to an amazing faith community held relatively few regrets and much of it along the way I recorded in the earlier moments of this blog. Much of that was written along the beaches and the water that surrounded our neighborhood penninsula.  This became my place of inspiration, but it was always just a bit louder than I was comfortable with. When the still small voice of God began to resonate about the din of the neighborhood, we discerned that it was calling us somewhere deeper in ... and what I had always considered to be urban soon seemed not so much so.  Apartment living, cranes, wealth, desperation and the chance to plant Jesus in the midst of if seemed to be our calling.  3 years living on the fringe of downtown followed,  realigning what I had considered to be my breaking point.  My recording of it all became sporadic and inconsistent.
Two months ago it became financially necessary for us to move one more time ...now no longer living on the fringe of downtown, we are downtown.  When you live one block from cruise ships, one block from "the market" (think throwing fish) and a few blocks from Amazon you end up in this surreal place of relentless sensory assault.  This morning I walked out of my overpriced apartment building, through an encampment of a half dozen tents housing a handful of our homeless neighbors, into the market filled with wide eyed tourists and well off tech workers being led by their iphones to highrise office towers ... all of this within 200 yards. Into this, it seems, we have been led to lead a community of Jesus seekers and followers. 
I'm not sure that I could ever relate the intensity of this experience.  I could post pictures.  I could create a Youtube channel.  You would still be merely a spectator.  The people we are called to range from those who have everything that they deem necessary to live the life that they want ... to those who need more than we could ever provide them with to merely live.  For those who want to take a side trail and offer judgement, let me just add this; It is one thing to realize that all  "they" really need is Jesus, it is an entirely different thing to persevere in the task of figuring out how to demonstrate that reality.
All of this to say that, years apart from the secret places of the forest, I find myself in another forest, waiting again to feel wrapped in His presence.  My days range from overflowing optimism to not knowing how much longer I can do this.  Most days I live in the "in-between".
I know he's here, I see him everywhere in the faces of the city. I have no doubt, today at 10am, that we are where we've been called.  I just need to find Him in the secret places of this other wild.  Whatever that looks like and however transparent it may be, in the hope that it might give courage and voice to someone else, I'm going to commit to recording it here weekly. 

Thursday, August 04, 2016

It's personal

As I have so many times in the life of this blog, I find myself writing in the midst of another life change.  This time, despite a year ago swearing it would not happen again, we are once again moving ... changing residences ... new address, new neighborhood, even a new zipcode this time.  In reality it is only about a dozen blocks away, but I'm also a dozen months older than the last time, which was a dozen older than the time before, and a dozen older than the time before that.  At this point in my life, I can certainly physically feel it.  "I ain't as good once as I once was". This time though, not only is it felt physically, it's being felt emotionally and spiritually, with a weariness that I'm not used to.
Someone recently shared with me that it seems as if, quite possibly, the nomadic wandering is a cost, or a curse, of the path that we have chosen, specifically the path of planting a new community of Jesus followers in the core of a city.  Not just any city either ... one of the most expensive cities in the country.  Even beyond that, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities in the country.  Something no one had ever shared with me is that, when you are perched on the financial edge of the sustainability cliff, and an unrelenting wind begins to blow, you will do whatever you have to do to give yourself even the slimmest margin of distance from the edge.  For u  this means continually searching for whatever relief that might be found in our cost of living.  Practically speaking, it has manifested in moving to less expensive living quarters.  After 3 years of moving for some relief here within this neighborhood, the cost has gone from ridiculous to obscene and we have no choice but to move or be swept over the edge by a wind that shows no signs of subsiding.  So comes the familiarity of moving, but this time with an accompanying emotional weariness that is unfamiliar.
It feels personal this time.  I'm trying to process these feelings with a dark blend and a chocolate croissant, while sitting here in the belly of the beast, otherwise known as Amazon.  To be fair, they are not "the" reason that things are so out of control here, but it certainly ranks in the top 3.  It's also the reason we chose this crazy pursuit.  We wanted to see what could happen to a neighborhood "without soul" if a group of Jesus followers invested themselves in its formation.  The jury is still out on that pursuit.  I think that it feels personal this time because we've given every bit of our comfort, every bit of our resources, and every bit of our being to living in and investing in this neighborhood, and without even a second thought, it has pushed us out.
On the surface I am trying to reassure myself that we are still here.  The church is still here.  Our work is still here.  We have relationships and influence ... we are involved.  Down deep though I am haunted with a feeling that its all just BS ... and I'm not referring to my undergrad degree.  I know that the most profound influence doesn't come from the outside, in a 9 to 5 or whenever I can get there sort of way.  The most profound influence is in the midst of living life within your context.  When God provided the solution in Jesus for all mankind, he didn't send a proclamation and he didn't do it from the outer realms of the spiritual world.  He sent Him here, to walk and talk, live and laugh, serve and heal those created in God's image. It's known as incarnation. It worked, it works, and yet, too often those who want to follow Jesus fail to model this.  At the moment I'm feeling some failure. 
Usually, I like to find some resolution in my writing.  It's not there today.  I'm sure it will come.  Plenty of people have offered consoling, well meaning thoughts and I've tried to lessen the feelings by considering the possibilities that may lie in the new neighborhood, new relationships formed, new paths set before us, blah blah blah.  I'm sure that there is all of that.  You may check back here in a week or so and life may be all roses and puppies again. If not, then certainly someday.  For now, God may still be God, Jesus may still be the answer, and the church may still be within His plan.  I'm just taking it a bit personally at the moment.

Friday, May 27, 2016

confessional

In recent weeks I've been blessed with a  challenging personal question, followed a few weeks later by an opportunity for some rest and reflection, where the question kept struggling to the surface.  The question in this instance was what I considered to be my greatest weakness as a practitioner of the pastoral arts.  The way it usually works is that a burning personal question appears in one form or another, followed by some brief attention and then a dive deep back into the next thing, resulting in not only forgetting the response, but eventually also the original question.  Ironic because my answer to this particular question was my difficulty in slowing down, backing off, and resting.
For twenty four years I've lived and breathed "church".  Although there are some in the world convinced that I only work 30 minutes a week during my preaching and teaching opportunities, multiplied where multiple weekend services are involved and an occasional wedding or funeral, those closest to the inner cirlce know that it never stops for me, as is the case for most in my calling.  Since answering this call it has consumed my life.  If I were honest, most of my waking moments somehow are drawn back to church.  I haven't been able to really enjoy and embrace time away.  Hobbies get shuffled off to a better time when I can focus on them, which is rarely to never.  My ability to be focused and in the moment often gets sacrificed to thinking about "church".  I'm trying to figure it out, diagnose it, make it more meaningful, more attractive, more relevant, more involved.  How do we get people to come?  How do we get people to stay?  How do we get people to grow, to serve, to give, to study? How, how, how, how?  Now that I've moved from an established church to launching a new one it has only gotten more intense and seemingly more urgent.
Over the years I have led countless studies, begun countless programs, created countless preaching series and continually felt depressed when people didn't come.  Where are they?  Why wouldn't they want to learn this?  Was I that terrible? How could they possibly have better things to do?  Why can't I go to the beach, the mountains, skiing, soccer, baseball?  Why aren't they here?  Where's their faith?  Don't they know I'm killing myself for this? ...
And it's occurred to me now ... the "this" that I've been killing myself for, sacrificing moments that can never be reclaimed for, giving my heart and soul for ... that "this" is not the person of Jesus, it's the entity of church.  I've spent the majority of my ministry years trying to win people to the church before introducing them to a life giving, life changing, life sustaining relationship with Jesus. Many people, by God's grace and ability to deal with our shortcomings, have come to understand and place their faith in Him.  In all of it though, I never really fully grasped the concept of "resting in Jesus".  I think that I realized this somewhat a few years back as we entered in to this journey of birthing a new ... wait for it ..... church.  I knew in my heart going in that it was about Jesus first.  I knew from the biblical accounts of the birth of the church that it was about Jesus first and then a community formed organically through a mutual and communal faith that supernaturally drew the most unlikely of members into community.  I knew this, and yet, true to form I quickly fell into trying to figure out "church". Sure we tried to do it differently, more relational, more missional, more blah, blah, blah.  Why wouldn't they come?  Why wouldn't they stay?  Why wouldn't they serve, give, study?  Same circus just different monkeys.   Others certainly had influence in this, with expectations and commonly held imagery of how and when and what, but I must own the outcome.  It could just be that a church could emerge in the neighborhood with Jesus still so very distant.
I guess you could judge this confession of sorts.  You might be disillusioned with any imagery of a pastor that you may have held.  But I'm pretty sure if you were honest .... leader or lay person ... you'd find some hard truth in this.  It might hit uncomfortably close to home.  Most of the amazing well meaning people of faith that I've ever had the privilege of knowing are somewhat complicit.  Let's face it, when talk comes of "leading people" or "introducing people" to Jesus, the most widely recognized mechanism is to get them to church.  Invite them or market them in.  Inside the church, most of our time, effort, and resources are expended in getting them in and keeping them in "the church".  Sure Jesus is around somewhere, but he's become an accessory.  We have long forgotten that people were first introduced to Jesus and then a community formed.  We have changed it to forming community first and then introductions to Jesus can take place.  As a result, I'm afraid, so many church communities in the neighborhoods and Jesus still so very distant.  And so it goes ... welcome, song, song, prayer, sermon, communion, song, announcements, blessing, hope you saw, heard or felt Jesus ... if not, come back next week and we will try to do better.
Not for me, I'd rather rest.

Friday, May 13, 2016

heroic following

In my earliest years I never gave it much thought.  I guess that I kind of had a "the world is flat" opinion that never really prompted a consideration for what lie to the West, beyond "the Great river" that split our country.  Sure I read the text books, saw the movies, studied American geography, played "Oregon Trail".  It wasn't until we made our cross country drive 16 years ago to take up residency on the West Coast that this nagging question "Why?" began to dominate my thoughts on travels back and forth on highways birthed from the wagon trails of old.
Every time I find myself heading back to the West on these same highways, I imagine life before these asphalt trails  and the unimaginable effort it took to navigate this treacherous and desolate terrain.  I attempt to imagine the unimaginable and it always leads to "Why?" in so many contexts.  Why would you leave the relative comfort of what you knew?  Why risk for something that you didn't need to risk for?  Why, when staring into the void of another endless plain, or another towering mountain range, would you continue on towards something that you had never seen?  Why continue on, after reaching the first, second, third, or thirtieth relatively safe and sustainable place, for weeks or months on end to find another?
I once asked this very question to a period actor at the High Desert Museum near Bend, Oregon who was stationed at a diorama depicting a westward traveling wagon family.  "That's easy" he offered without hesitation.  "It's because of the stories". he said like it was current day, which to him it was.  "Stories?, I wondered".  "The stories that came back from those who had gone on before and made it" he clarified.  It sounded like a simple and yet profound answer.  In fact it satisfied me for the next few years ... sort of.  I've begun to think a bit more deeply on the matter lately.  What kind of stories must they have been to lure those people on?  It sounds fairly heroic looking at it 150 years after the fact.  But what about back then, in the midst of it, on a day when the snows are coming, your family is sick and your wagon wheel disintegrates half way up a boulder laden, poor excuse of a trail?  How powerful did those stories have to be to get you to climb down into a nearly frozen mudhole to wrestle on a new one and continue on?  How many times did real suffering cause you to call BS on some story passed down about what may or may not lay beyond?  How many mornings did you wake up wondering whether or not to push on toward the "stories" of the West or turn back toward your experience of the East.  And what about those who were the actual story tellers? ... those who made the trails ... those who succeeded ... those who never made it but died trying?
My point, and I do have one, is simply this ....  We have been conditioned to only consider the story teller.  They are the ones with their names in the books.  They have the monuments, plaques, and festivals named after them.  They are heroes to be sure, I don't want to negate that.  But lets be honest, they were also anomalies ... the unusual few born with a few screws loose, some version of wanderlust, adult ADD and possibly even a death wish.  They blazed the trail, got bloodied and bruised in the quest to show us something beyond.  They and their kind are unquestionably necessary.  The real heroes though, in my opinion, were now and continue to be those who got up every morning and pushed on through the unimaginable to get to what could only be imagined.  It struck me one time as we stopped along the path of the Oregon Trail, to see the ruts of the old wagon trains still visible, that it wasn't the first wagon through that created the rut ... it was the successive wagons, one after another, all following stories, that eventually created a permanent trail to a new reality.  They were the heroes and the real changemakers.  It may be true that we need the ones to blaze the trail ... but without those who follow, the trail will soon only be a memory.

Friday, April 29, 2016

As it is in Amazon ...

Generally I prefer relaxed in a coffee shop environment.  All I need is a good blend of coffee drawn by competent hands, a comfortable place to sit, some table space and free wifi, and I'm a happy boy.  Usually, it goes without saying, the relaxed part comes with the territory.  It's an unwritten social norm that such an environment is for casual connections or introverted joyous solitude.  However, at least once a week I find myself seated in a Starbucks where this social norm doesn't rule the day.  Like a moth to fluorescent light I'm drawn to ground zero in the heart of the Amazon campus to be enveloped by the intensity of a culture that rarely rests.  It's rarely relaxed.
I usually come away from the experience a bit more exhausted and weary, but I keep coming just the same. There is almost never a line of less than a dozen waiting to order and another dozen waiting on orders placed.  Most conversations are animated and elevated to overcome the others that are surrounding.  If I didn't know any better, from observation, I would say that it seems as if the masses decided at some point to take their office on the road, to pause their meetings long enough only to place an order, and then continuing undeterred by the reality that they are sharing their meetings with numerous other meetings, immune to the possibility that such spaces were originally assumed to be a place to detach.  Even the occasional loner and introvert that wanders in is sure to be connected to and continue to work by virtue of their smart phone held dutifully before them.
I used to really detest this environment, until I became intrigued, only later to be drawn in.  I would tell myself that what drew me here was a social experiment. It was like a train wreck that you couldn't turn away from.  I judged them.  But over time, judgement and stereotype gave way to sympathy and concern.  I wished them peace.  It has been written about certain generations and contexts that "they may seem to have everything, but they don't have peace".  That could and, in my opinion, does certainly apply here.  So I spend a good deal of my time praying exactly that for them.  I've added Rich Mullins "Peace" to my playlist for this space as a blessing while I'm among them.  Lately though I've come to believe that there is more to this strange attraction than a prayerful concern.
There's an odd piece of me that is envious.  The energy and zeal, as temporal and eternally inconsequential as it appears to me, is the exact thing that I see so little of in faith communities, my own included.  For one thing, these people are evangelists in every sense of the word.  The tireless way that they propagate their causes is admirable.  The way they are continually and organically connected in community and they are not beholden to or identified by their physical walls is what I dream of for the church that I am trying to lead in this neighborhood.  When they are finished at the end of the day, many of them will simply move theirs or morph into other gatherings around other tables in neighborhood establishments over a meal.  They envelope and consume the neighborhood and their influence is undeniable, not as individuals, but as a movement.  Oh how I wish the church could be seen once again in this way.
Even while some anomalies and oddities in Christian circles venture back towards ancient, organic, and missional models of community, most are still trapped by their walls.  We are either trying to lure those not yet knowing Jesus or coercing those who do to experience God for an hour and ten minutes a week in a relevant and respectable setting.  You might be shocked if I told you that I rarely, if ever, see the connection, zeal, and intensity that I witness here in any of the church gatherings that I am part of.  And then again, if you lived here and you were honest, you'd probably admit the same experience.  We think its pioneering and brave if our small group gathers in a coffee shop or we hold theological discussions in a pub.  We think its cool and incarnational to drive ourselves downtown on Sundays to an urban campus without really connecting ourselves to the people who live there.  We feel we've put ourselves out there if we arrange our busy lives to accommodate gathering 1.8 times per month behind our walls of comfort and we tell ourselves that we are for social justice when we collects socks for the homeless.  Then we wonder why we live in the age of those "done" with church.
One day I am certain it will be observed that "they were continuously connected in community, they ate together, played together, and shared their message with great enthusiasm, and together changed the world".  The question that I can't get away from is, will this be said of the Church, or only of Amazon?

Friday, February 19, 2016

blank pages and the spiritual discipline of writing

I wrote a letter the other day.  When I say that "I wrote a letter", I mean I actually wrote it ... with a pen and actual paper.  I'll have to admit that it was a unique experience.  It wasn't a post it or a memo, it was an actual letter with a beginning, middle, and ending ... on paper ... in ink ... with questionable penmanship.   It was void of all the usual trappings that I have become accustomed to.  There was no spell check, and I couldn't just backspace to get rid of my spelling shortcomings.  There was none of that annoying blue underline grammar check begging the question "are you sure you want to construct this phrase this way?".  I tend to ignore those anyway.
Possibly more of a challenge though was my entering in to this letter without a clear vision of where I was headed.  There wasn't even a blinking cursor to follow across the pages.  Actually, this lack of direction delayed its writing for several days.  All I had was a feeling of where I should head and ultimately it was only this feeling that moved me forward.  I had finally decided that I just needed to sit down, start writing, and follow wherever it led me.  In the end it led me to a completed letter, on paper, in ink, hand written, and a satisfaction that I had arrived where I was supposed to be.
It seems as if this process has become synonymous with the way my life has progressed for the past several years... actually for almost 27 years now.  From the very first time that God had my attention and put a blank sheet and a pen in my hand with a "feeling" that I should follow.  Let me be clear though, this is not what I would consider my preferred method of living.  I never wanted to live out the God and Abram conversation "go to the place that I will show you".  I happen to like maps.  For that matter I like to know where I am going to stop along the map and have a reservation waiting for me when I get there.
God created me as a nearly balanced left brain/right brain individual. In normal circumstances, balanced might be seen as a preferred state.  In this case, I would argue, balanced is not the best plan.  Balanced simply means that I am constantly at war with myself between thinking and feeling.  This means I have a feeling ... a "go to the place I will show you" kind of feeling and I immediately try planning how I'm going to get there.  That's a formula for frustration, exhaustion, and a little bit of crazy.  I want to feel sorry for those in my life who have been dragged along that journey to "the place I will show you" in the same way that I feel sorry for Abrams family.  They had to follow his feeling and hope that it wasn't simply a bit of a mental condition.  My family has had to follow back and forth, sometimes only on nothing more than a literal "feeling".  I want to feel sorry, yet on the other hand I can't argue with the results.  I can't imagine being in a different place or them being in different places.  I want to feel sorry for Abrams family, and yet look at how God's plan unfolded because Abram picked up the paper (or tablet or ???) and began to follow across the page until the story, or at least his part of it, was complete.
Our nature, I think, is to fight against the blank spaces and the unknown in our lives.  We want a plan, people of my profession sometimes claim that there is a formula for finding a pre-written page.  They sell books and fill seminars promising back stage access to the author and an opportunity to dictate our story ahead of time.  It's not true ... and believe me when I say that I want it to be true.  But then it wouldn't be called faith would it.  All you get is a blank page, a pen, and the opportunity to follow one word at a time.  Don't worry about the destination because if you just allow yourself to follow, you could never imagine it anyway.  Just write.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The fight for optimism

I've never been known for my optimism.  People might even be quick to label me a pessimist, but I would have to disagree.  I consider myself a realist.  In my definition of these terms, and since I'm writing, I get to define them, a pessimist is someone who often or always thinks the worst based on nothing in particular.  A realist is someone who thinks the worst based on past history.  See the difference? For example, I happen to be someone who is very time sensitive.  Some might say anal I suppose ... whatever ... the point is that I live amongst a people who aren't ... time sensitive I mean.  A pessimist would assume that everyone would be late for everything.  I only assume this of people who have proven this to be so.  For the others I cling to my optimism and try not to look at the clock. 
It seems to me, in my corner of the world, that we as a culture are far more pessimistic than I remember us being.  What's more alarming to me is that, for those who share my faith and hope in Jesus and a promised eternity, pessimism seems to be the attitude of the day.  I see far more hand wringing than hand raising.  I hear far more about things of king and country than I hear of the King of kings.  I experience more suspicious and gate keeping conversation than grace and "let me hold the door for you".  I'll admit that with all of the bandwagons passing by it's easy to think that we ought to jump on one lest we miss out on some elusive answer to our anxiety. 
So from one struggling realist to another, let me share 3 spiritual disciplines that I am finding useful in my quest to err on the side of optimism:

1. Screen Fasting
At the risk of showing my ever advancing years I will admit to an anxiety level that rises in direct proportion to screen time.  I currently have my office in a neighborhood workspace community.  I have daily witnessed some of my co-working neighbors literally working 3 or more screen driven devices at the same time.  Just the sight of them nudges my blood pressure upwards.  It's not necessarily the screens themselves that cause anxiety, although there is mounting evidence to support this.  Mostly it is what is contained on the screens.  Facebook, twitter, and email are all landmines that I need to take time away from when I feel the pessimism coming on.  I'd love to say that I'm successful at this, but if anything is going to trip me up it is the idea of screen fasting.  I'm not a fan of fasting period but it can prove to be a valuable time of refocus.  Try it for a planned and designated section of time.  I'm shooting for one day a week.  I have all kinds of excuses why the world needs me to be online, but they are not true. No one ...let me repeat it for those in denial ... no one is so valuable that they cannot unplug for a few hours or days at a time. 

2.  Relational conversation
This continues from number 1.  Try engaging in a real, as opposed to virtual, relationship.  It can be intimidating to actually have to deal with a persons real emotions, body and facial expressions and the like during a real as opposed to texted conversation.  Now my iphone 6 may have a ridiculous number of emoji's all designed to "express" my deepest emotions, but I have yet to see one that really truly mimics a good "middle school girl" like eye roll.  Be honest now ...  how many "misunderstandings" could have been resolved or sleepless nights avoided by a good face to face, "I think I hear you saying", real time conversation?  We are created for relationship, we are wired for it.  So whenever possible, stop texting, turn off Face Time, grab some coffee, a table and friend and just talk.  Laugh out loud as opposed to Lol.  Don't even Rofl.  Just talk, relate, converse, and role your eyes.

3. Sacred listening
If you knew where I lived then you'd know what a stretch that this can be.  Where I live, if there's not traffic, there are cranes.  If there are not cranes, there is crazy lived out in a multitude of "well you don't see that everyday" ways.  So how do the people in my neighborhood resolve this?  Probably the same way you and millions like you do ... they pull out their phones, put in their ear buds, and try to drown the noise of life out by more and louder noise.  As I write this it occurs to me that this seems a bit irrational and perhaps even a crazy way to avoid crazy.  Allow me to share the one thing out of these three that I have found the easiest to accomplish.  I will admit that walking the streets with a great soundtrack or some inspirational words can seem more appealing.  However, you easily drown out what God is doing right in front of you.  We have so conditioned ourselves to believe that God really only works and resides in a church building on the weekends, or for those of us in the Northwest in the trees or on the water.  That is at least bad theology and at worst heresy.  The reality is that God is at work all around us.  To experience it in the buzz of humanity, even traffic and construction, is to give yourself the opportunity to enter in to his work.  To dedicate some of your day to a heads up, phones down, earbuds out, awareness of the life around you is to accumulate prayers that can be offered up, if not on your own behalf, better yet on behalf of those who surround you.

This all comes with a warning.  It is difficult.  Living intentionally can be difficult and living intentionally when everything around you conditions you otherwise is a constant challenge.  I would love to be able to write this as an expert, but I'm only one who is constantly fighting for optimism.  I called these spiritual disciplines for a reason.  First of all, I do think that optimism is a spiritual condition.  I follow one who has promised eternal life.  If that's not cause for optimism, I don't know what is.  They are disciplines because they take discipline to be able to engage in.  Sometimes I do well and sometimes not.  It's hard but, as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, "Of course it's hard.  If it weren't hard, everyone would be doing it.  It's the hard that makes it great".