Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, July 15, 2005

Time for Camp

I'll be gone until July 25th, working with my wife at a small camp deep in the middle of a Kansas wheatfield. I love camps. Once in high school, I attended 9 camps in one summer. But Silver Maple Camp has always been my favorite. Nowadays I only have time for one camp, and while there are many I could work at, this is where I'll always return. There's a sense in which I grew up there: my father directing one session, and me following him around as the resident "camp brat." There's a sense in which my faith started there: introducing me to many of the most inspiring Christians I've ever known, introducing me to God outside rigid church structure. As I recently told someone, if I had to choose what I learned about faith and God at SMC and what I learned earning a ministry degree, I'd have to choose camp. There's a sense in which my life as an adult started there: I met a girl there when we were children, and we began a camp romance as teenagers. I asked her to marry me standing on the dock overlooking the camp's tiny lake. And five years ago we said our vows in the camp's beat up old chapel, standing in the exact same spot where I'd first met her years before, too young to know our paths would lead us together, give us two beautiful daughters, and embark us on an intense/confusing/exciting journey that we've really only begun.

I'm about to go enjoy the best week of my year. See you guys later. God bless.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Community Quotes

I wanted to blog tonight, but I find my brain too fried. So here's 3 interesting things I read in my quest for community recently:

On Enemies: "At the heart of Jesus' message is: 'Love your enemies. Do good to those who criticize you, who hate you. Pray for those who persecute you and push you down.' Our enemy is not someone far off in a distant land. Our enemy is somebody close by who threatens us, who blocks us. Our enemy is inside, not outside, our community."

On Forgiveness: Reconciliation is at the heart of community. To grow in love means that we become men and women of forgiveness...When I say forgiveness is at the heart of community , I do not mean we have to learn to say simply, 'You're a nuisance, but I forgive you.' It means discovering that I, too, am in part the cause of your being a nuisance, because I have dominated you, hurt you, brought fear up in you or because I haven't listened to you, or was not open to you. Forgiveness is not just saying, 'I forgive you because you slammed the door.' It's also: 'I'm working on changing myself, because I have hurt you.'"

On difficulty: "Community is a place of pain, the death of the ego. In community we are sacrificing independence and the pseudo-security of being closed-off. We can only live this pain if we are certain that for us being in community is our response to a call from God. If we do not have this certitude of faith then we won't be able to stay in community...When somebody says to me, 'I find it very painful to live in this community, but I'm here because God has called me here', then I know that person has made a passage from dream to reality. They have found their place. We will only stay in community if we have gone through the passage from choosing community to knowing that we have been chosen for community. It is for us the place of purification, and of support, given to us by Jesus, that will lead us to a deeper love and liberation, a place where cleansed of our egocentric attitudes we will be able to give new life to others.'"

- "From Brokenness to Community" by Jean Vanier
founder of L'Arche communities for the mentally disabled (www.larcheusa.org)

Friday, July 08, 2005

When your community fails you

When you are making spiritual progress in a particular area is usually when Satan attacks. Right now my church is making significant progress in both understanding and living out a better theology of community. But a recent situation really underscored our need to do better.

Last week several members of our church were helping a church leader move into a new home. I wasn't there because I was traveling out of town. The items being transported included a forgotten, yet loaded rifle, safety off. An out of town relative, unfamiliar with guns, snatched the rifle out of a vehicle and began carrying it into the house, his finger on the trigger. As he bent over to pick up something else with his free hand, he inadvertantly pulled the trigger and squeezed off a shot.

Aaron M. is a guy who I really enjoy being around. He's relatively quiet, but very friendly, and I believe him to be a very spiritual man, although maybe not in a conventional way that will get him fast-tracked to a church leadership position. I suspect as I get to know him better, I'll find that he has some of the same issues with our popular understanding of church that I do. But Aaron is a servant and came that day to help out his brothers in Christ. And because of a few twists of fate and some gross negligence, Aaron got shot. As Aaron himself has told me, better him than a child (the bullet narrowly missed a grade-school age kid) or someone who wasn't a member of our church, because while angry (Aaron is an avid hunter who is naturally enraged by mishandled firearms), he is very willing to forgive.

As far as gunshot wounds go, this was relatively minor and Aaron wasn't hospitalized long. If life were a movie, he would have had a "flesh wound," although part of the bullet will remain embedded in his flesh for the rest of his life. And then a strange thing happened. Nobody talked about it. This life-threatening event got swept under the rug. More than a dozen members of our church witnessed it happen, including our entire top-tier leadership (if you're unfamiliar with typical CoC leadership structure, I'm the "senior minister", but constitute sort of a 2nd-tier leadership position), and yet for some reason virtually nobody else was told.

Aaron was present at worship the following Sunday, and I even made small-talk with him, unaware of the bandages his clothes were hiding. Many prayers were said (in fact once I actively solicited prayer requests from the congregation), but no one prayed for Aaron or praised God that no one had been killed (in retrospect, I did overhear one person jokingly ask Aaron if he was sore...does that constitute genuine concern?). In several hours of being together, the accidental shooting was never mentioned, nor was it included in our weekly newsletter, which is filled with people who we should pray for.

The reasons for this silence are probably more complicated than I realize, but I'm sure they do include an over-reliance by everybody on the leadership to handle all communication, and an unconscious attempt by the leadership to downplay any hint of incompetance on their part. But what does it say about us when our first reaction is to save face rather than to care for our hurting?

Aaron didn't come to evening worship that night. I didn't find out he was injured until evening worship. I don't know how long he went without being cared for by his spiritual family. I do know that he was very hurt and upset, wondering why no one hugged him or asked about an event which to him was extremely significant. He'd had a brush with death. It could have been a great deal worse. His life was never really in danger from the bullet itself, but doctors did tell him that for 3 days, he was at high risk for a life-threatening blood clot, and he faced that terror alone. He was not shown concern, he did not experience love, and by the time my travelling allowed me to do more than just speak to him on the phone, he had flown out of the country on business. Leaving his brothers and sisters wallowing in our failure and regret.

As Jim, a wonderful deacon who gets it when it comes to community, said this after talking to Aaron and hearing his hurt from being abandoned: "Being ignored by his family hurt that man more than a bullet ever could."

Lord...Aaron...Forgive us.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


I've been studying theology of community lately and in conjunction have been spending lots of time personally in the Word recently, trying to mold, cajole, chisel and otherwise re-make my heart into that of a true minister. But I've also tried to read in order to grow intellectually, so I dove into N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus. And I hit a snag. I've heard a lot of great stuff about this book, but the first third of it failed to rock my world. Suddenly, out of nowhere came a paragraph that nearly caused me to immediately resign from my job and go apply at Burger King (the only other thing I'm qualified to do, I think). This may not sound like a big deal to you, in fact this may sound like delirious ramblings...but I dropped the book and spent the rest of the day deep in thought.

Here goes: Wright makes a statement to the effect of: "People will put up with all kinds of theological weirdness...but start messing with their symbols, and watch out." He argues that the 1st-century Jewish system of religion was more about maintaining cultural and national identity through symbols of religion rather than being about a vibrant, life-changing, culture-impacting faith through relationship with the Creator. Those symbols were familiar things like Sabbath, Torah, the temple, feasts, purity rituals, etc. These things were meant to be beautiful expressions of faith that served to connect God’s people with God himself. But by the first century they had become less…they had become symbols of God’s people-in-waiting, waiting for the coming of their “Messiah” who would overthrow their Roman oppressors and restore them to their rightful place as world super-powers and rulers over the heathens who had exploited them for so long. So those once-holy means of connecting with God had been turned into symbols…symbols of pride, symbols of greed, symbols of coveting earthly power. Jesus came not to desecrate those holy things, but to tear down their earthly understanding of them. And that’s why he died…not because he offended some Jewish legalists with his grace and mercy…but because he attacked their mistaken symbols of faith, and they felt that their entire identity as Jews was under attack. They saw Jesus as someone who was trying to take away what they thought made them Jewish (when their obedience to and love for him should have been their identity)…they thought he would make them less Jewish.

And therein we learn the risk of messing with peoples’ symbols of faith. And yet I feel very strongly that the church has deified our symbols nearly as much as the ancient Jews did. I think it’s why we struggle so mightily for change, but change almost always caused strife and discord, and usually broken fellowship.

And that is why I’m tempted to give up…at least give up my striving within the established (i.e. “institutional”) church. You see, I’ve always struggled somewhat as a minister…I’ve never quite fit in. I’m usually labeled as something of a “progressive” or “liberal” voice (which one you use depends on whether you like me or not). But the thing is, it’s not because of my theology. I’m really pretty mainstream, not too out there, not too threatening. Scripture is incredibly important to me, as is the church. The reason I don’t fit in is my methodology. I don’t care for church buildings, pulpits, potlucks, administrative tasks, obligatory worship, or consumer spirituality (to make a VERY abbreviated list). Most of the ways of “doing” church that I see everyday and have seen for years I feel are inappropriate and counter-productive. If I was in charge of a faith community, things would look RADICALLY different. Yet those things I would change without a second thought are symbols to most people within the established church. Many people would literally feel less Christian without a church building to store their faith in. When I challenge people to do things differently, I’m challenging their methodology, not theology, yet it still often angers them. They’ve become attached to symbols…not Jesus.

And so I feel doomed to be an oddball, a thorn in the side of people who just want to keep things the same. I guess I had envisioned a time when ministry would be comfortable and I could lead happy, satisfied, spiritual people in reaching out to the community…but that illusion has been shattered. I see now that if I continue working for established churches, it will likely involve constant discomfort, tension, and disagreement, because I feel called to challenge those symbols…but maybe that is my calling…not comfort.