Sunday, January 31, 2010

what would paul do?

Okay, I know, I know. It creeps me out too. But it's difficult to overlook Paul in the roll call of tour guides for the spiritual destiny of this planet.

Paul could have easily developed his own personality cult. Hands down. Instead, it drove him crazy when people said, “I follow Apollos…I follow Paul”. I have a feeling that some televangelists and Christian personalities with grandiose organizations named after themselves—“The So-and-So International Ministry”—would cause Paul embarrassment for the Body of Christ. And while no single personality so shaped the embryonic theology and ecclesiology of the Church, Paul consistently pointed to Jesus as the One deserving focus and worship, even giving his own body for Him…after having it beaten and abused for decades. It’s as if the reward he personally experienced was greater than any debt he felt owed to the One who gave His body for him. At times self-deprecating, maddening and puzzling, it’s hard to ignore the spiritual chutzpah and risk it took to write to the contentious Corinthian church, “Imitate me…just as I also imitate Christ.”

It’s a little sad seeing this current series end. This series came out of a planning season a year ago. It’s necessary for us to chart out series that far in advance so that in an increasingly complex multilayered staff we can plan to take advantage of options and next steps to get the most bang for the buck. And even with spending fourteen weeks in Acts (not counting the Christmas break), Paul’s journeys warrant more attention. But time marches on and we have other issues to cover.

Though there is one overarching thing it’s left me with.

A couple of times in my pastoring VCC I’ve gone on multiple-weeks fasts. I’m not a “fast-er” by nature (uh, that’s dumb…who is?). I like to eat. No, love to eat. I remember once when I felt God wanted us to do a series on the poor for six weeks. I was scared silly, convinced that we’d run everyone off. Who wants to come to church to get depressed and feel guilty? That’s what families are for. I’m just kidding. Sort of.

Regardless, it’s nearly always good advice to do the thing that you at least think God told you to do, if your heart is in a healthy place. And so we launched into a six-week series on poverty with my friend Andy Ransdell (now leading LifePoint Vineyard in Monroe, Ohio) sharing the teaching duties. As we began, I sensed God wanting me to fast. And so for three weeks I had zero food, just water, tea and watered-down orange juice; I was—er, am—too cheap to buy gallons of it, and I was drinking a lot of fluids. It was at the end of that series that we introduced the Healing Center concept.

A year later we started the Luke 4 Challenge to raise millions of dollars to create the Healing Center, the Student Union and the water project in Jos, Nigeria. Once again I felt compelled to fast. When I told my wife, she asked, “For how long?” I told her I think until God says to stop. Little did I know it would last over three weeks of no food at all. On the Sunday we had the commitments come in, Anita and I headed to Nashville after the last celebration to see our daughter…and I felt I was done. We stopped at a Frisch’s in Louisville and I had my first food: a bowl of vegetable soup.

In these two cases, I fasted because of two things: I was desperate to see God move at VCC…and I was passionate about what we were doing.

In Acts 23, we find this same kind of desperation and passion applied…but in a dark way:

The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, "We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here."

Can you imagine having forty men strategizing your murder? And so determined and passionate about it that they vow to fast until the job is done? Whoa. Religion can do some strange things…as we know in our current global troubles. And any leader that has a contract on him is doing something different. Just reading about that event in Paul’s life causes me to think about my own in different ways, in more outward-focused ways. Earlier while in Caesarea, a legit prophet takes Paul’s belt, ties his own hands and feet with it and says, “The Holy Spirit says, if you go to Jerusalem, the owner of this belt will be tied up and handed over to the Gentiles.” The people there saw this and pleaded with Paul not to go. Paul told them, “Why are you making this hard for me and breaking my heart? I’m not only ready to go to jail, I’m ready to die for Jesus.”

That’s powerful. Not only is he getting a premonition by the Spirit of what’s coming, he sees no reason to avoid it. This guy is on a mission.

I wonder if I’ll ever become that mission-oriented? Would I do that? When one becomes so focused away from their own safety or concerns that they can genuinely respond like that, it challenges me to want to get to know them…and to imitate them at some level.

And I hope that I can genuinely and honestly say at some point in my life, “Imitate me.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

father and child

I wonder why we think God is not as good of a father as we are?

This weekend Dustin Smith, our Senior High ministry worship leader, led worship in the big room. Charlie Hines (who, along with Jim Zartman, leads worship at VCC) had planned this weekend to introduce Dustin to the wider church. A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter Katie (it’s hard to believe she’s going to be twenty-two shortly) asked to do a worship internship with the Student Union. After her five-month stint with YWAM in Australia, Thailand and Indonesia, she came back with a different slant on her music. Prior to that, her two years in Nashville had kind of cooled down her music aspirations. She went there primarily to connect with other singer/songwriters and, I think, to get out of Cincinnati and individuate. Finding your own voice is part of growing up…and when your dad has an amplified one, it’s probably a bit tougher. But even more, she discovered her own faith…and her own brokenness before God.

It’s not that Katie didn’t enjoy worship. Katie and her sister Rachel have always loved to worship. Some of my fondest memories were hanging over the balcony rail watching the two of them dance during a jam-packed SOS worship jam through their junior and senior high years. Or seeing them lift their hands to God during intimate worship songs. I remember being at a national Vineyard conference in Anaheim in 2001 that had a separate youth conference simultaneously in a huge tent on the parking lot. During one of the evening sessions in the main auditorium, Matt Redman was leading worship and on the first song, all the students were released from outside and came running into the front of the stage singing and dancing. I spontaneously started crying once I spotted Rachel and Katie in the crowd, worshiping with all their hearts. I thought, “Does it get any better than this?” Now as a 23-year old married woman, Rachel sings with the worship band at the Chattanooga Vineyard and helps lead the outreach ministry.

As a former worship leader for many years, I would sometimes look out at a crowd of people and see someone standing there with arms crossed, boredly staring straight ahead, and know they were more than likely dealing with intimacy issues. Not just with God, but with other relationships. Call me crazy, but I think it’s interconnected. I don’t believe it’s a style issue or whether someone likes to sing or not. But to be a believer and in a crowd of people who are actively worshiping God and not give any body language or zero indication of a desire to express love to God strikes me as oddly self-absorbed or at worst, voyeuristic.

Katie never saw herself leading worship, even point-blank telling me years ago, “I’d never want to be a worship leader!” As she learned guitar in high school, she enjoyed writing her own songs about her emotional highs and lows, relationships…and God. But while on her third world mission trip, once the leaders discovered she played guitar, they told her she had to lead worship…they needed her. That’s when Katie’s proverbial paradigm shifted.

Dustin has taken her under his wing and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are spent at the Student Union along with Saturday nights and Sunday mornings in the senior high celebrations. As an aside, it’s a freebie…internships are unpaid. And one of the things I’m totally weird about is anything that smells like favoritism. Many years ago I remember telling our then-current student ministry pastor, “Never ever show any partiality to my kids. Ever. I’m not kidding.” And I always thought it was weird when pastors turned the leading of their churches over to their kid. Anything that smells nepotistic creeps me out. It’s a heartbeat away from fostering an entitlement-mentality.

Anyway, watching Katie singing and playing her heart out to God was a bit overwhelming to me. I’m not sure how to describe what I felt…or even why I felt the way I did. Saturday night during the ending of the last song, I stood in the wings backstage and watched. When Katie finished, she put her guitar down, walked over and just hugged me. No words needed to be said, but just in case she didn’t know, I told her how proud I was…and then told myself to not lose it. What is it about your kids that so affects you when you see them making attempts to please God? I don’t think there’s anything like it. It’s oddly moving.

And it’s the moment. Whether she ever leads another worship song or decides to go in some completely different direction, it is this moment that I’ll remember twenty years from now. And doing my best to keep it together in the wings.

Which gets me back to the opening question: Do I really believe I’m a better dad than God?


At the risk of sounding irreverent, I wonder how many times He has stood in the wings with His chest puffed and thrilled to the core because one of His kids has made an attempt, however small, to honor Him in some way? I wonder if His flaming eyes have ever been quenched by tears of pride while watching one of His children do something in the moment that reflected the simplest desire to please Him? Do I truly think that God is devoid of emotion and only responds stoically to expected demands? Have I ever meditated on what it means to be made in His image?

If I did it would force me to answer this question: in times of anxiety and sleepless nights, do I really think I’m a better dad than God?

If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better? Matthew 7:9–11 (The Message)

Monday, January 04, 2010

the blind side

Twenty-ten, here we come.

On New Year’s Eve night we did what a lot of old people do: we went to a movie. After a great meal with some friends, we headed to the Rave to see The Blind Side with everyone’s favorite biker girl, Sandra Bullock (and who would have guessed that Faith Hill’s husband was turning into a real actor?).

The hit film is based on the true story of Baltimore Raven Michael Oher’s “rags-to-NFL” journey and has taken in a hefty $209 million and change. It’s a heartwarming story, but it leaves me a little flummoxed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a feel-good, inspirational movie. Quentin Tarantino it’s not. And it’s dealing with real issues: racism, social classes and poverty. But here’s the deal: the audience was totally white…and will always be. Uh, big deal, Dave. Did you see who went to Narnia?

But here’s what makes me uncomfortable: the subtext is racial reconciliation, yet I wouldn’t invite any of my African-American friends to see it. It’s one more movie about white people rescuing hopeless and helpless black people. I know it’s done earnestly, but if you’re reading this and you’re white, try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes that has years of generational cultural minority baggage and abuse: how would you feel? Would you take your kid to see it? Sometimes the meta-message is bigger than the intended meaning.

And that’s the funny thing about the level of reconciliation that’s needed in the Church between the races. One would think that this movie is about the main character (Sandra Bullock, unlike the book it’s based on) having her perception of African-Americans turned upside-down. She responds to her friend’s statement, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” with “No, he’s changing mine.”

So why would I be uncomfortable inviting my friends to see it? That alone should give me a clue to part of the problem

Reconciliation is the core of Christianity: God reconciling us to Himself. He did this by slipping into the skin and sympathizing with the weaknesses of those who were powerless. That’s the incarnation. Paul sums it up in the hallmark scripture we used during the Christmas series: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)

Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father, they were one in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love. He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what it’s like because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one with the power.

Incarnational Christianity is what I believe each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, to feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s the real thing. That’s why it says in 2 Corinthians: You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus was: though he was so very rich, yet to help you he became so very poor…. (2 Corinthians 8:9a Living Bible). It goes beyond the power of empathy. In the early centuries, it was the Christians that stayed behind in natural disasters, famines and diseases to take care of the ones left behind.

Here’s the theological principle: Reconciliation is the responsibility of the people in power. Understand this: in the Kingdom of God, African-American believers must extend forgiveness to me, their white brother. King Jesus demands it. But there’s something vitally missing in that for me. If I don’t ask for forgiveness and show fruits of repentance by seeking systemic and individual justice, then I’m going to miss the transformational power of love in my life. It is always the responsibility of the people of privilege and power to seek reconciliation, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus did: left the privileges of heaven to reconcile the world to Himself, became a servant.

That’s incarnational Christianity. It’s all about real love. And when I make any attempt to see the world through my black brother’s eyes, then I let go of all claims, defenses and power, and become one with him…reconciled.

Years ago after one of our large scale outreaches, we reconvened in the Atrium with about a hundred of us to tell stories of what happened. I noticed one African-American couple with their little boy of about six or seven years old in a sea of white faces. The second person on the microphone told how excited they were to “talk to a black homeless guy”. She was earnest and sincere. But as I stood there, I wondered what was going on in the head of the husband of the couple who had brought their little son to do an outreach: Would he have to process what was said? Was the meta-message here that what this church does is help “black people” and the people who do that are white? And even more, if you want to grow up and be a leader here, you really need to be white…because that’s how it looked that afternoon. I wondered what it must be like to be a black father who wants to raise his child to be proud of his culture and his heritage, love the heart of the church he’s in, but have to wrestle with what’s between the lines of every conversation and communiqué.

Reconciliation is a little more complex than we who have the power probably think. And as my friend Ray McMillian once said, “I can’t take another foot washing.”

So isn’t reconciliation what Sandra Bullock did in the movie? Yes. But stop and think: the theatre is filled with white people. Maybe if we thought about that more—and the “why” behind it—it would do more for reconciliation than anything.