Archive for the 'ODM Responses' Category

“Hypocrisy is the natural expression of what is meanest in us all.”

–as quoted by Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 71

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“When good is found and we embrace it with abandon, we embrace the Giver of it…Yes, in church on Sunday at 9:00 AM, but also in the seemingly mundane. In traffic at 5:15 PM. In a parent-teacher meeting. In the colors of a sunset. On the other end of a tragic phone call. Every second is an opportunity for praise. There is a choosing to be made. A choosing at each moment. This is the habit of praise. Finding God moment by revelatory moment, in the sacred and the mundane, in the valley and on the hill, in triumph and tragedy, and living praise erupting because of it. This is what we were made for.”–David Crowder, Praise Habit: Finding God in Sunsets and Sushi, 13-14

I’m required to wear shoes at work. I want to wear shoes at work. Even if I heard the voice of God on my way in saying, “Take off your shoes, the place where you are working is holy ground,” I would be hard pressed to be obedient. I mean people walk in an out of that store every single day with only God knows what on the bottom of their shoes. The other day a teenager walked in wearing only socks. Maybe he had heard God’s voice on the way in to the store; maybe he was a lazy teenager.

But that is where Moses found God, isn’t it? Out in the desert, at his place of ‘employment,’ there in the place where only God knows what walked by or through every day, Moses heard the voice of God say, “Take off your shoes, the place where you are standing is holy ground.” I find it strange, maybe I’m over-analyzing, that God did not say, “Come over here and before you do take off your shoes because the place where I am at is holy ground.” No that’s not what God said. According to the strictest translation of the OT (ESV), God said, “Do not come near; take off your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Maybe I’m over-analyzing. Maybe I’m terrified that the place where I work, the unholy of unholies, is actually a place where I might find God and embrace him with abandon.

I have always been taught that it was God who made the place where Moses was standing holy. Yet God seems to be saying that Moses had something to do with it also. We cannot deny what God said, “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Did Moses have something to do with the consecration of the ground upon which he stood? Did God want Moses, who probably spent a lot of time complaining about those damn sheep, to see the sacred space created each day by his work with sheep? Could it be that there is no such thing as unholy ground if we are standing in a place practicing God’s presence?

I’m sure there will be all sorts of arguments to the contrary: Humans are sinful, we don’t make things holy, we foul things up, Moses was a sinner, only God is Holy. Yeah. Sure. Right. OK. I’m not going to win a theological argument by proposing that it was Moses, not God, who made the earth holy by his presence, by simply standing in a place where sheep likely urinated the day before. On the other hand, who is going to prove me wrong?

Still it is striking, isn’t it, that before Moses arrived the ground was just ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And nothing more. But after he arrived the ground where he was standing was holy because God declared it so. Moses didn’t decide that it was holy. To him it was just urine soaked, sun baked soil. When he arrived, however, God declared it sacred. God declared it sacred. Does he say that about the soil upon which we walk? Could he?

Someone asked me the other day: “This post makes me wonder how you would describe the high calling of working in a video store?” I confess that I find it difficult to practice the presence of God at work. It is extremely difficult to find God in the faces of mostly unhappy and lethargic people who are convinced that we charge too much for our rentals and that it is perfectly unreasonable that their credit card should be on file with our store. I wonder to myself: How can I find God in the face of a customer who is intent on renting the latest installment of ‘American Pie’ or the most recent Zalman King exploration of the world of porn? How can I find the face of God, I’d settle for a burning bush, when a customer is challenging me to a fist fight in the parking lot because his credit card was declined?

There’s also the issue of Jesus. I’m not sure, but something tells me Jesus would not be wearing a Slayer shirt, reek of alcohol and tobacco, curse at me if he had late fees, pre-order the latest episode or Halo, or rent Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus. I could be wrong. Seeing Jesus in the face of customers who refuse to buy their children candy (’because that junk food is bad for you’) but then rent or buy them Hot Tub Time Machine because, evidently, their minds don’t matter, is impossible. I’m not opposed to seeing Jesus there or meeting God or creating holy space, but, to be sure, it requires some imagination. I do not know if I have that sort of intestinal fortitude.

Then again, maybe it’s not so much about meeting God or recognizing him or receiving a calling from him in a burning widescreen high definition television playing Blue-Rays. Maybe it is simply about the very way I treat all those people just in case it is Jesus. “But Lord, when did we give you a cup of water or visit you in prison or give you a break on late fees?” (the implication being, of course, that when these things happened, Jesus went unrecognized.) Maybe it is the attitude that accompanies the service of the least and lowliest, the bawdiest, the raunchiest, the rudest, the crudest, and credit inhibited that matters. My co-worker said to me last night, after I was challenged to a fight, “What’s sad is that those people are allowed to breed.” I chuckled, politely, but inwardly I was cringing and my heart was broke.

Can it be that the very ground where we stand is somehow or other made holy just by our being there? Is that so much of a stretch? Maybe my problem is that when I go to work I refuse to take off my shoes because I’m convinced in advance that there is no way God could make such a place holy or would even declare it holy. Maybe the problem is that I refuse to see that place as a place where God might show up at any given moment. Maybe I am so intent on God not being in that place that I have refused to invite him in, or see him already there, or practice his presence because he loves all those that ’shouldn’t breed’. Maybe I’d rather have something to complain about than something to praise him for.

I don’t know what sort of shoes Moses was wearing. Maybe he had on a nice soft pair of Nike’s or some really comfortable Wolverine’s. All I know is that something happened after he arrived on the scene that day. Or maybe it had happened a week prior when Moses walked his sheep through that place. Whatever it was that happened, God told Moses to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was sacred ground. And I think Moses had something to do with that.

When I go to work this evening to sell Starburst and Peanut Butter Whoppers and Coca-Cola and Jennifer’s Body, I’m going to take off my shoes for a while. I’m going to go ahead and take the chance that there might be holy space at my job. Could be that I spend way too much time waiting for God to show up when, in fact, God is already there and he is waiting on me to show up, take off my shoes, and let Him speak.

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Over the past 20+ years, I have been blessed with a number of opportunities to lead/accompany worship in song – mostly (but not always) from behind a keyboard of some sort.  During that time, I’ve born witness to (and scars from) numerous “worship wars” dealing with style (primarily) and substance (on occasion).

Putting together a worshipful and effective musical worship service is not as simple as grabbing some songs from a hymnal/binder/web-page and running with it.  Lyrical content, style, instrumentation, flow and theme are some of the key elements that have to be considered in effectively leading corporate worship.

It is in this vein that I’m thinking about starting a new (likely infrequent) series: “Worship Music in Review”.  (If it flops, #1 might be the only edition.)

For this edition, I’d like to look at a currently popular song from Passion 2010, which is being incorporated into some churches’ worship services, Chris Tomlin’s “Our God”.  Before we go on, watch the embedded video (if you don’t know the song) and read the lyrics.

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Back in the day, when I was eager and thought it mattered, I used to subscribe to a number of theological journals. Among them was Interpretation a theological publication of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I enjoyed reading through the thoughtful essays and the ‘between text and sermon’ section near the back of each month’s journal. Each month covered a different topic ranging from exploring a different book of the Bible to serious theological propositions.

Last week I was perusing through some of my back issues and one in particular caught my eye. It was the April 2000 issue titled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” This was perfect given that my wife and I are currently praying and exploring how we can be forgiving people in some areas of our lives we believe need healing and reconciliation. Forgiveness used to come easily, but for some reason during the last year or so of my life, I have found it easier and easier to bear grudges and withhold forgiveness–especially towards brothers and sisters in Christ. I confess my weakness and failure in this regard.

This movement has been a terrible burden. It has made it difficult to worship. It has made it difficult to pray. It has made it difficult to think. It has made it difficult to study the Scripture. It has made being a man, husband, and father difficult. It has made relationships in general very, very difficult because in that place, that place of unrest and unforgiveness and bitterness, I found myself building protective walls–cutting off others so as to avoid all possibility of being hurt. I’m not offering excuses. I am saying that at the root of all that I have struggled with for the past year is, most likely, a terrible spirit of grudgery and unforgiveness.

If you have carried any such burden in your life, ever, at all, then you know full well the weight of the burden. Then that preacher at the church yesterday took out this gorgeous Katana, reached back, and drove it straight into my heart, without showing the slightest remorse: “When people love Jesus, they will love each other.” Why do preachers do that?

I have been living in that place; it is a cold, cold place. And I did all I could to douse the warm fires of the Spirit of Jesus with my own bitterness. Now the reservoir is empty. There’s no water left to quench the Spirit. Once again, I am undone, out of options. Jesus has cornered me and given me no other option. And it is that preacher’s fault. I think he is wise to allow us to use up all our water. It helps us realize that we have no other option but to forgive. It is also his way of loving us back into his arms. It is his way of saying, I’m not letting you go that easily. It’s his way of forcing us to name our sin and deal with it through prayer.

In the first essay in the journal from that month, Crafting Communities of Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones who, at the time at least, was dean of Duke University Divinity School, wrote:

Could it be that in the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines? Could it be that forgiveness is less a matter of the will and more a miracle that we discover by being found, and struggling to participate, in the practices of grace-filled Christian communities? (131)

In other words, the very thing that I needed in order to cultivate forgiveness and grace as a habit of my life, the very place where it was going to happen, was the very community I had cut off (or cut myself off from) in the first place. Forgiveness was ‘easy’ when I was firmly ensconced in the life of the church and rubbing shoulders with other people who were also practicing, but when I moved out of that place and began living among the Philistines–a people among whom grace and forgiveness is neither practiced nor prized–those things became more and more difficult and far more complex in practice. What I learned is that I am utterly incapable of being as forgiving as I had once imagined myself to be. That’s humiliating and humbling.

So, I have learned that I need the church (that is, the people of Jesus) far more than the people of Jesus need me. Jones concludes:

The questions raised earlier may now be stated in declarative form: the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends, in part, on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines. If we want to be faithful in our witness to God, then we ought to focus more attention on cultivating and crafting communities whose practices are marked by the crucified and risen Christ and bear witness to the eschatological work of the Holy Spirit. For, in so doing, we will discover with even greater power the active receptivity that makes it possible for us to learn the painful yet redemptive process of embodying forgiveness in faithful communion with God, with one another, and with all creation. (134)

Forgiveness is hard work best done within the community of God’s people–even when the forgiveness involves ‘all creation’ (that is, those who are not a part of the community). I believe we should be able to practice forgiveness in the church, but I wonder why it is so hard to do so? Why do I find it so painful to go to the people, the community of the crucified, and speak of forgiveness and grace and love?

Forgiveness is different and difficult for the people of God because it requires humility. We may end up having to ask for forgiveness before we ever dare assume the right of being forgiving.

Let me end with a question or two.

First, why do you think it is easier for us as Christians to forgive those who are not Christians than it is for us to forgive other Christians?

Second, how do we promote such a practice in our communities? Jones, in his essay (which explores this idea by explicating the letter of James) suggests that through the practices of singing, truthful speech, praying, anointing, confessing, and engaging in mutual admonition within the community, we learn to promote this practice. “…part of the gift of Christian life is that we do not learn to do any of them alone.” His idea is that in the practice of such things we learn to be a community of grace and forgiveness. What do you think?

Third, does such a community exist? Can the church be such a place?

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I’ve been thinking about taking up my cross, denying myself, and following Jesus. A lot. It’s a horrifying thought—sacrifice myself, deny the very impulses that give life to my hands and feet, follow someone I have never seen, heard, smelled, or touched. It’s all there…and in case I have any doubts, the one voice I do constantly hear is the one that says, “Yeah, He’s right.”

I constantly reply, “I wish He wasn’t.”

In his book After You Believe NT Wright explores what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Jesus. Early on in the book he poses a question (and provides an answer) which essentially defines the content of the remainder of the book. He writes,

‘How should I behave?’ contains two significantly different questions within it. First, it refers to the content of my behavior: In what way should I behave? In other words, what specific things ought I to do and not to do? But second, it refers to the means or method of my behavior: granted that I know what I ought to do and ought not to do, by what means will I be able to put these things into practice? […] Interestingly, Jesus seems to have given both sides of this question the same answer: ‘Follow me!’ This is both what you should do and how you should do it. (14)

And how do we follow Jesus? By taking up the cross and denying ourselves—necessary precursors which must be recognized, accepted, and in place before we ever take our first step behind him. Wright goes on, “The theme is stark and challenging: in order to develop Christian character, the first step is suffering” (177). I heard this while listening to some older music last night. It’s an old Petra song called ‘Hit You Where You Live.” This short lyric stands out to me as one of the best lyrics Bob Hartman ever wrote:

The evidence leads to conviction
When we don’t live everything we say
There’s got to be a crucifixion
We can live dying everyday

A crucifixion. It’s not original to NT Wright or Bob Hartman or any of the other hundreds of writers who have dragged their arms across the paper, pen in hand, and dared to etch these words into the fabric of their heart. I know why I sing them and write them and repeat them: to remind myself, constantly, that this is the life I was chosen for and that I chose. Frequently this life makes no sense and oftentimes God’s silence is deafening. He’s there; he’s not there. The road up Calvary, surrounded by thousands of people, is a lonely road.

The idea was original with Jesus and picked up on by those who dared drag their cross around the Roman infested Middle East. Peter said it. Paul said it. John said it.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. (Romans 12:1)

He also wrote and, worse, I assume, believed and, worser, expected those who read his writing to also believe:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who love me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

I could go on and on and on and on quoting this author or that author and demonstrating unequivocally that we are, as disciples, called to the crucifixion driven life. (Well, we are also called to the Resurrection Driven Life too, but one is necessarily a result of the other; and the other necessarily a precursor to the other; I’ll leave it up to the Holy Spirit to teach you which is which.)  But the fact is, regardless of how many people say it or how eloquently they say it, no matter how poetically it is written or how much it is romanticized, this life, this life of self-denial, cross bearing, and Jesus following is not for the faint of heart. And there are times when I am sick of it; tired of trying.

I know what you’re thinking:  that is rather anti-climactic. I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I’m sorry if the perception of the Christian life we sometimes give off to those around us goes something like this: “Oh, I found Jesus and now my life is set! I can smile all the way to the bank! I can rest easily at night” and that that perception, however well intended, is decidedly, emphatically, wrong. I’m sorry if you have been misled to believe that dying is meant to be, uh, fun.

It’s hard. I’m not crying about it. I am pointing out that sometimes, all the times, this life—this learning to live the Jesus life—is terribly confusing. I’ve come to believe that it (this crucifixion driven life) has nothing to do with whether or not I succeed or whether or not I actually contribute to the world or make a so-called difference. Frankly, I believe this crucifixion life is the most personal aspect of our lives and it is, to be sure, the one place along our walk where God most loudly announces his love for us. Love.

It’s hard to believe that God loved us so much that He gave His one and only Son. It’s even harder to believe that He loves us so much that he requires us, as part of the plan, to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus. It’s hard to believe that he loves us so much that he calls us and when he calls us, he bids us come and die. It’s hard to believe he loves us so much that he is bound and determined to rid our lives of all that destroys us, of all that fails to bring glory to his name, of all that does not bear his image. “We are being recreated in the image of our Creator,” Paul wrote.

And some can say this with a smile and a Hallelujah! But Paul and others know the truth that that which lives inside of us is dark and must be murdered and that the darkness wages war, a bloody, violent, aggressive war, a counter-offensive, and that it seeks to maintain its strongholds at all costs.  It’s hard to imagine that God loves us so much that he not only points out what the strongholds are and where they are, but that he also leads the charge against them.

Love.

There is no hope for me, you realize this, right? It is simply impossible for me to believe in this God, let alone purposely decide every day to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him, right? And, let’s be honest, the cross I am called to bear is not a hangnail or a splinter or a crank boss. The cross is an instrument of death. It is the very means God uses to unwrap and undo self-sufficient humans.

I saw the fruit. It was good for food. It was desirable for gaining wisdom. It was pleasing to the eye. So I ate. The fruit became my cells, my tissues, my organs, my systems, and my being.  Now I have to throw it up and my insides must be turned outside. I must be undone.  (I think it much easier to sit around pots of meat and leeks and vegetables in Egypt, but don’t we all?) Who can rescue me from such a life? Who can fix me? Who can bring life out of death? Who cares so much about my life that he is willing to let me die (forces me to die?) in order that I might live? I can’t do it. I have no power.

Christians, then and now, are the only persons on the face of the earth who worship a crucified Savior—to all appearances in every and all cultures a rejected, humiliated, and failed Savior. [...]

These are background observations for understanding why what I am calling ‘acquired passivity’ is so difficult for us to take seriously and then embrace—and why it is absolutely necessary to embrace it if we are to accustom ourselves to living in a world characterized by the grace of God, for ‘by grace you have been saved.’ There are no other options. It’s grace or nothing. There is no ‘Plan B.’ (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 93)

Follow Jesus.

“But Lord,” I say, “I don’t know where I am at or where we are going.”

And his reply?

“Well, Jerry, if you are following Jesus, does it matter?”

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

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In the past, we’ve discussed issues of violence, non-violence, just war, and radical Islam.  There’s a documentary, Holy Wars, that is starting to make the film festival/Oscar circuit that may be adding an interesting voice to the conversation.  Even if I may not agree with all of its conclusions – or those of its key figures – from what I’ve read this past week, it may actually be a demagoguery-free picture of what following Christ might look like, when confronting other religions and their followers.

I have not seen the film (since I live nowhere close to LA or NYC), but it’s something I’ll probably check out if it makes it to Indianapolis.

Basically, the filmmaker wanted to follow some adherents of Christianity and Islam for 18 months, exploring their views on the End of Days, and how it impacts and/or drives their faith.  During this time, he centered on two key figures – a Christian Missionary and an Irish convert to Islam – and how they sought to engage their opposing religion.  At the end of the 18 months, he arranged a meeting between the two men, the results of which were surprising to him and had an impact on at least one of the subjects of the film.  As a result, the director filmed for two more years.  The end product, which unexpectedly shed a positive light on Christianity, was rejected by a number of distributors, but is now gleaning a number of positive reviews and some Oscar buzz for best documentary.

http://www.vimeo.com/13422152

You can read more about the director and his vision, the Christian missionary closely followed in the film, his book about the experience, and a couple of reviews from the LA showing of the film last week.

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Counting Stars Now AvailableIt’s no secret that I’m an Andrew Peterson junkie. Seven or eight years ago, he was scheduled to come play a small concert at our little in-the-middle-of-a-cornfield church, and – having become a bit burnt out on mediocre music with the label “Christian” slapped in front of it like “New!” on a stale bag of pretzels – I was going to skip it. A friend of mine from the church (and the guy who does our web hosting) suggested I might like it, and compared him to Rich Mullins. Unwittingly, he had just about put a nail in the coffin of my ever showing up, since pretty much no musician I’ve found in “Christian” music has had a favorable comparison to Rich.

And then I was asked to help promote the concert, and to play some of Peterson’s music on the piano in the weeks leading up to the concert. This meant I would have to listen to the CD and put some work into it, which – in turn – sold me enough that Peterson wasn’t the average CCM hack, that I broke down and bought tickets for the family to go to the concert. And while he wasn’t (yet) up to par musically with Rich, he had a great deal of talent and heart, and an authenticity absent from most performers.

The next year, he returned to our church, doing his first Christmas tour for Behold the Lamb of God, the True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ. After that, my inner skeptic was stilled, and Peterson had pulled me into his artistic vision of the story of Christ – both within Christmas, and in every day life.

Peterson’s music and lyrics are not really comparable, in style or quality, within the Christian music sub-genre (or even outside it, for that matter) with anyone other than the dearly departed Mullins. If there is a key difference between the two, though, it is this – Where Rich had a haunted/pessimistic/cynical streak, seasoned with a wild but weary maturity of bachelorhood, Peterson has a more optimistic thread running through his music, most likely grounded in his family, as a husband and father. Apart from that, much of the instrumentation, flow and production are incredibly reminiscent of Rich’s later work (as he gained freedom from Word Records’ heavy-handed production) – similar, yet different enough to completely stand alone, in it’s own right.

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I confess I have a singular television pleasure (Pawn Stars doesn’t count): The Office. I cannot help myself. If you have watched The Office you know how incredibly absurd Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, is, but you are willing to look through him because even in absurdity there can be wisdom.

Blockbuster Video, the place I call my Office, has previous seasons of The Office on DVD and I can and do watch them while I am working. It’s not a matter of sitting around with popcorn and Coke on a couch. It is a matter of hearing the dialogue–which is often all you really need when watching the office. There is some physical humor, but it’s not really the most important thing. I prefer to say I am listening to The Office.

On the DVD’s one can access deleted scenes and every so often I do just that. I did just that after several episodes during season 2 and in particular I watched the deleted scenes after episode 8, “Performance Review.” Sometimes the best wisdom comes from the places we might easily overlook and I think it is easy to overlook the wisdom of Michael Scott. Here’s what Michael said in one deleted scene:

Michael: What is an office? Is it a group of people? Maybe. Is it an idea? Of course, yes. Is it a living organism? Exactly, yes. And any single cell organism has to have a spine, and that’s me. But the spine is always controlled by a brain, and that is Jan. But the brain needs a heart, and that is me again. So ironic. You know what? The heart is smarter than the brain. But the brain is so effing hot.

I know that won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched The Office, but all you need to read is the part couched in between the absurdity and the vulgarity. It’s kind of like the High Priest making a statement and having no idea what it means, how true it is, or what the ramifications would be for the entire population of the earth (John 11:49-50). But there it is. He said it. The ridiculous and absurd Michael Scott: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” It’s easy to overlook the utter brilliance of this sentence because it is surrounded by typical Michael and because it is only found in the deleted scenes files. I can’t believe this paragraph didn’t make the cut.

The thing about The Office is that, in my opinion, it’s not really about the office at all. I’m no sentimentalist, but I know that what attracts me to The Office is not Michael’s wisdom, Dwight’s antics, or Toby or Stanley or Angela or Kevin or anyone else in The Office. I watch The Office because of Jim and Pam. There it is, I confess: I watch The Office because the love story between Jim and Pam is majestic, grand, beautiful…in my opinion, it’s the only reason to watch The Office.

So I’m a sap. I’m captivated by this love story. The cat and mouse. The come and go. The give and take. The near and the far. The love story that is the central story to The Office is perfectly written. It is a story that perfectly illustrates what Michael said in the deleted scene: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” The heart finds a way. I wish I could tell you that while I sit here and write this I am not crying. I can’t. I’m thinking about the last year of my life and how I have played the mouse to Jesus’ cat, how he has been near and I have been far, how he has given and I haven’t taken. I can’t tell you how I am waiting for our break-up to be over and how I’m anxious to kiss once again for the first time. My heart cries out: Yes! My brain still dwells in the land of Meshek and Kedar. My brain is in the way, even if my heart knows the truth. I want to skip ahead to episode 4 of season 6. Again. But there are many episodes in between.

The story of Jim and Pam is a love story that captivates the heart and the mind. I have watched the relationship grow and grow…anyone who watches The Office knew from the very first time they watched the show that Jim and Pam were in love. We waited and watched and hoped and imagined the day when Pam and Roy would break-up and Jim would be the one and Pam would be the one. We never knew how they would come together. Jim got transferred. Pam was a little stand-offish. Roy got in the way. Jim had Karen. Pam went back to Roy. There was tension. There was chasing. There was flirting. There was danger. There was awkward situations and grand announcements. There was the Kiss. There was the fight. Still we hoped. We even hoped the friendship wouldn’t get in the way! We dared to think that in the end Jim and Pam would be one. We knew they loved each other, but how and when would they be together? At one time Pam told Jim she couldn’t imagine her life without his friendship, but Jim wanted more. We suspected Pam did too, but so much clutter was in the way.

So we watched. We waited. We wanted to see each episode unfold and what new twist or turn their love would take. We feared for Jim lest Roy find out and bash in his face. We wondered how long Pam would hold on to Roy. So we watched. And waited.

And then it happened…

There in the midst of the absurdity of the office, love blossomed and bloomed. There in the midst of every sort of dysfunction and sin, a pure love became. There in the midst of every sort of suffering and turmoil and trial and misery and uncertainty, love reached out its hands and took hold of two hearts and bound them together as one. There in the midst of friendship, surrounded by idiots, suffering, pain, and the every day tedium of mindless work: two people found each other and love won. There in the midst of the 6 billion inhabitants of this planet, two people looked across their desks, their eyes met, and they saw the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. There in the midst of the murkiness and drudgery that is life, love was revealed and exposed and confessed and announced and bound and consummated.

There, of all places, love. There, of all things, love. There, of all people, love.

Do not our hearts long for this? Even when our minds rebel and scream and shout and rage against all that is right and good and pure and holy do we not know love? Are we are not all desirous of love? In the end, Paul said, all that really matters is love because all that remains is love.

I know it’s only television. I know it isn’t real. I know that love doesn’t really work…but then again, it does, doesn’t it? Isn’t that why I watch the show? Isn’t it because love is that way, it is like Jim’s and Pam’s? Isn’t it because we know that is exactly how it is, even with Jesus? That is exactly how love becomes. Love grows in the soil of adversity. Love becomes in the midst of the near and the far. Love takes hold in the midst of absurdity and uncertainty. Love is two becoming one.

And ours is a love story. In the midst of all that life is–the wrath, the uncertainty, the unholiness, the unhappiness, the tedium, the dysfunction, the crudeness, the awkwardness, the turmoil, the trials, the suffering–in the midst of it all, there is a love story. Many will write this off as mere fiction–the product of someone’s imagination, entertainment via cable television; and nothing more. But some of us are in on the secret…some of us are privy to the mystery…some of us have been given the key…and we know it is true. Despite out misgivings and our fears that the break-up and tension will never be resolved, that Jim and Pam might never get together, that there are too many obstacles in the way, we are guided by our hearts and our hearts tell us the truth. And we know the episodes that follow. We know there is a marriage and we watch all the previous episodes knowing and waiting with anticipation for the episode when finally, for the first time, the marriage takes place.

We are people who will endure season after season of disappointment because we know in the end, there is a love that will find a way and a love that will not be broken. No chicane will stand. Love wins. And season after season of disappointment will not disuade us from believing.

Then an entirely new life begins.

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”–Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

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Jars of Clay, one of my favorite bands, has written and recorded a song they simply called ‘Closer.’ Part of the song goes like this:

I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough
I want your kite strings tangled in my trees all wrapped up
I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough
I’ll be the comets that are fallin’ from the sky you light up…light up

I was thinking about this song yesterday while the preacher was preaching from Ephesians 1:3-14:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

You undoubtedly noticed what I noticed about this dense yet free-flowing paragraph. There are a lot of prepositions. I mean, there are a lot of them. Of distant galaxiescourse it is easy to lace your sentence with so many prepositions when the sentence is over 200 words long. Two-hundred words is a scary sick amount of words for a paragraph, let alone a sentence. But I digress. Paul was Paul and Paul can write however he wants to write. I’m just here to read it and be amazed and/or changed.

I confess that it is easy to feel alone and I further confess to exacerbating that feeling by desiring to be alone. I offer no excuses or apologies for being created so. There are times when I so desire company that I will go out of my way to find a conversation on Facebook. *Smile.* There are other times, prevailing times, when I will go into my bedroom, lock the door, close the drapes, hide under the blankets, turn out the lights, and wish the world and all her people away. But as most preachers do, even when we are not particularly paying attention, the one yesterday was talking about this community we belong to–this fellowship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Somehow or other we are included in that mix; I don’t know why or particularly understand the mystery. But we are, God has decreed and made it so. David Crowder describes the mystery thusly in his appropriately titled The Nearness :

Darkest night brought redemption
Inner sense, divine embrace
In the light of all creation
Heaven and earth start to twist
And the nearness of there
Feels more near to here

Somehow or other, and who knows what it means entirely, God has embraced us in our condition. He has and does love us in a way incomprehensible to our minds. Feel it in our hearts we may, but in the mind the love of God shown in Christ is beyond comprehension. I defy anyone to attempt to quantify what God has done for us or the manner in which he has loved us. It cannot be explained, yet we know it’s true. Love, when all else fails, when shadows falls, when suffering encroaches, when all that we have known and embraced is scattered…love–that love, in Christ–remains. If you can make sense of that, you should patent it and sell it or write a book or conduct a seminar. (And drop me a line.)

When reading a sentence that is two-hundred words long, it is not hard to miss the forest for all the trees. When reading Ephesians 1:3-14 it is not hard to miss the prepositions for all the theology. Paul uses big words like ‘predestined’ (a word that some have built theological fortresses upon), and mystery, and redemption. The temptation I think is to get caught up in those mountains and miss out on the more beautiful thing that Paul is telling his readers and simply put, it is this: everything Paul talks about in Ephesians 1:3-14 is true, or takes place, or is possible, because of Jesus. It is the nearness of Jesus, the ‘in Him’, that makes possible predestination, redemption, adoption, spiritual blessings, Holy Spirit promises, and inheritances and a host of other things found in this two-hundred word forest.

The most important part of Ephesians here, then, is found in the simple preposition ‘in’ and the Person it is attached to, namely, Jesus. In Him anything is possible and in particular our redemption. In Him is the nearness, the close enough, the love, and the company I desire and dread. In Jesus.

Dear God. I get chills just thinking about it to be honest with you. It is frightening to think I am positioned closer to God than I am my own skin. It is rather terrifying to imagine that when I am surrounded by death, when I am corrupted by sin, when I am overwhelmed by a flood, when the deep is swirling around my head and my heart has been banished to terror that it is all happening in Him. It is sometimes hard to imagine that all of our disagreements as Christians and all our hatred for those created in God’s image and all our unhappiness and suffering and shame and sin and arguments and theological terror takes place in Him. Have you ever thought about that? You know, that when you hate your brother because of a theological disparity you are hating him in Him?

How can hate and love reside inside the same person who is in Christ?

When we treat our brother or sister with contempt we do so in Him. When we fail to forgive we do so In Him. When we hate to love and love to hate we do in Him. When we exclude one made in the image of Christ we do so In Him. When we decide who is and is not in Him we do so In Him. Do you realize that according to the Gospel we are so located in Christ that everything we do, every breathe, every step, every thought, every beat of our heart is done In Him? Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever given thought to how your every action and decision as a person in Christ is done In Him? Do you realize that if you are In Him it is impossible to not be In Him and it is even more impossible to do anything apart from Him or outside of him? Have you ever thought about how overwhelming His presence is? Have you ever wondered when God seems so far away how he can be when we are In Him?

Have you ever considered how vital is this positional theology?

So why do we feel so alone at times? Why do we feel so devoid of his presence? Why do we feel so empty and desperate? Why do we feel so afraid and terrified? We do we feel so insecure? If we are so close to God in Him why does he sometimes feel nowhere near? If we are so close to God in Him how can we get closer?

This is not a piece that purports to provide an answer as much as it is a piece to provoke a painful and prolonged look at our position as disciples. We are not just followers, we are also parasites living on and off our host, The Host. Everything happens in Him and nothing happens apart from Him. If we are chosen, it is in Him. If we are blessed it is in Him. If we are included, it is in Him. If we are sealed with the Spirit, it is In him. If we are redeemed, it is in Him that it happens. If we are adopted, it is In Him. If we have hope, it is so in Him. And so, too, if we suffer, it is In Him. And I don’t believe He would have it any other way.

We are not so alone as we think and we need not climb any higher in order to be nearer our God to Thee. We are as near as we can be if we are found in Him. And In Him we are found indeed.

There’s more to say about this, but I cannot say it now. I need more time to remember, more time to forget, more time to take note of my surroundings I need some time to reorient myself to my position and stop dwelling so much on my condition. I’m in my house right now. I know where the stairs are, and where the sink is. I’m familiar with the bathroom and the bedroom. I know where the front door is and the back door. I’m thoroughly comfortable and familiar with my surroundings. I can come and go as I please. I can rest in safety.

I need to be that way with Jesus where, and in whom, I am. I am near to God because He came near to me and snatched me up and placed me, firmly, in Him.

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balcony 02If you have paid any attention at all, you know full well how tumultuous has been the upheaval of the past year of my life. I’ve tried to keep my rants to a minimum, but sometimes I have failed. I have tried to learn through this experience of career change and learn I have–not always willingly, not always happily, and not always without an adult beverage to take the edge off of the process.

I’m not the only person in the world who has had to endure a career change. Some welcome it, others fear it. I’m somewhere in the middle, taking a more philosophical approach that goes something like this: “Why?”

Or maybe that’s the coward’s way out, who knows?

It’s always easy to avoid reality by asking ‘why’? Asking ‘why?’ enables us to sit and wonder all day long. Asking ‘why?’ is enabling–yes, it serves as a sort of co-dependent to all our Right-ness. Asking ‘why?’ is a way of avoiding the changes by hanging around in a fog-like stupor and questioning over and over again all the circumstances and issues that lead up to the moment when the change actually, and perhaps inevitably, took place. I guess maybe we think things will magically change if we sit around and question long enough what went wrong. So we lash out, question, regret, blame, and do all sorts of other unsavory philosophical things in the name of ‘Why?’ and never actually arrive anywhere but right back where we started: Why?

Rich Mullins sang about it in a song called ‘Hard to Get’:

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow All I really need to know
Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret I can’t see how
You’re leading me unless
You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

‘Why?’ becomes a sort of soothing god; a justifier of our self-righteousness; a companion in our misery. ‘Why?’ people are quite lonely people. It’s a wonder God allowed such a wicked word to be invented or to evolve alongside the aardvarks and amoebas. It’s a wonder that God allows, or catalyzes, such events to foster the perpetuation of the ‘Why’. Mysterious ways indeed!

In the course of this journey I have been taking I have gone from the guy who stands in front of the congregation, leading, praying, preaching to the person going most out of his way to hide: the balcony person. I have gone from being Bud Selig to Bob Eucker. I’m not writing this to disparage those of you who, reading this, also identify with the balcony. On the contrary I am saying I completely understand. I have become, in a little less than a year, a full-fledged, member of this esteemed congregational clique that goes out of its way to be unnoticed, uninvolved, and unannounced. It’s easy to migrate and hibernate and remain invisible in the balcony. I’m becoming a pro.

Following are some observations I made one Sunday morning while sitting in the balcony during worship. They define my experience and perhaps yours. Everything I write in this post is, obviously, patently, personal and generalized. I make no claims here to omniscience. I only offer what I am or what I have become or, probably, what I have resorted to in order to figure out what church means at this juncture in my life and as an insulation against hatred for the Body Jesus loves.

First, as noted above, balcony people can hide. We neither want to be seen nor need to be. In fact, we prefer being unnoticed. This may be a good thing. As I reflect back on my days as ‘the guy up front’, I think to myself it may have gone better if I had been a balcony person then too. Maybe, I say this regretfully, but maybe I wanted to be seen back then and maybe that was a problem, a large problem, The Problem. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to be seen, but being seen by the right one, the One who sees all and from whom none can hide, is a far, far better reason to be in worship. Perhaps the balcony is sort of like the prayer closet; perhaps it should be.

Second, balcony people are, at best, spectators not participants. (Participation necessarily implies more than one.) I know this is not entirely true, but it has become true for me. Being a balcony person has given me the opportunity to observe the worship and avoid participation. I noticed that some Balcony People do not even sing when the words appear on the screen. What I have noticed is that Balcony People are keen to let things happen. They are fine with allowing the worship to be directed or lead or controlled by some other person. Being in the balcony gives me the opportunity to do what I want: sit when I want, stand when I want, spread out my notebook and legs when I want. I can be no one and everyone in the balcony. In the balcony I can watch what other people do, and people do not do much in worship. The reason I can get away with this is because in the worship our eyes move only in two directions: down (for example, in prayer) and forward (waiting to see the next move of the worship leader). No one looks up and no one looks back. The balcony is safe from prying eyes, but perfect for spying eyes.

Third, balcony people are, by and large, anonymous. Seriously: how many people who are downstairs are going to make a beeline to the balcony during the Passing of the Peace? In my experience none. I do not have to talk to anyone while I’m in the balcony. I do not have to shake hands with the preacher. I do not have to say hello to the annoying old lady who wants to slobber all over everyone with her hugs and ‘Jesus Never Failed Me Yet’ sort of naiveté. I do not have to have a name as long as I am in the balcony. For that matter, no one even has to know I am there. I can slip in and slip out as quietly as the proverbial church mouse and no one is the wiser.

Fourth, and finally, Balcony People can and do come and go as they please. There is no real starting time for those who sit in the balcony. They can afford this lack of punctuality because no one but other Balcony People see them arrive–and they understand all too well the reason for being unpunctual (to avoid others). On the other hand, Balcony People can also leave whenever they want. I’ve seen this phenomenon on more than one occasion and, to be sure, participated in it as well. It is a sacrament of Balcony People to leave early. We can leave during the sermon, before the offering, after the communion, but especially before the very end when we might be forced to make eye contact with other folks, those folks, the ones who sit on the lower level closer to god. I think this is the key: the freedom to avoid others, the freedom to avoid their strangling handshakes and hugs of super Christians, the freedom to avoid their questions about ‘what church we belong to’, and the freedom to avoid the other twenty questions that have nothing to do with anything but the sinister attempt to get me to belong.

Maybe the goal of conversation should not always be to get me to belong. Maybe I’m fine un-belonging for now.

What I have learned most about being a Balcony Person is that I get to be alone. Maybe that’s why balconies were invented in the first place, you know, so that people like me could hide; so that us undesirables wouldn’t have to be looked at or interacted with on Sunday mornings (we tend to bring down those on whom Jesus has painted a perpetual smile). Maybe it was created precisely to be a hiding place. Maybe the balcony has become the new ash heap, a modern pile of garbage for the Jobs among us, a Patmos for the defeated and broken, a Kedar for the struggling. (God’s people spend a lot of time in exile.) Job sat with friends in his heap while he suffered and tried to figure out the whats and wheres and whys of his trials and so do we–except it’s in a nice clean, carpeted, air conditioned building. And maybe we get to hide there for a while, kind of like David among the Philistines or Noah in his ark, until it is time to move back downstairs with all the people who have it all together, for whom Jesus contains no mystery and the Why no longer exists.

Balcony people can afford to hold hands with ‘Why?’ longer than those who sit amidst the congregation because we are in no hurry to arrive and in no hurry to leave. As a balcony person, I can take as much or little time as I need. I do not have to have it all-together in order to be a Jesus follower. I can be the run down, undone, miserable, joyful, loser that I am in the balcony because the only one who sees me there is only One whose sight matters during the worship. This doesn’t make us superheros or special or more real than anyone else. And this is not to say that all bottom-dwellers are exactly the opposite. It just means that this is my experience in becoming a wallflower in the congregation.

I think Balcony People are those who are lost enough to be led. Not all, but many. Those in the balcony are those who, to some extent, realize that sometimes God wants to know just how much we want Him. This is not to rundown the superheros among us who sit downstairs on Sundays. It’s just to say that some of us feel like we need to sit on a small hill of rubbish or in the upstairs or in the balcony so that we can get just a little closer to God. We need those extra twenty or so vertical feet. Maybe we think being higher up means he will hear our voices a little clearer or, better, that we will hear His.

Maybe we just like being invisible for a while.

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