PostScript to Elgin: The Passion of the Gospel

I accepted an assignment to give two sermons yesterday at Elgin Community of Christ, one at the traditional service and one at the contemporary.  Elgin congregation is a warm and growing community.  It’s a congregation I admire because of their commitment to venture out into new territory with God, worship, and ministry.

After preparing two sermons this past week, I felt convicted to abandon my notes for both sermons yesterday.  Instead, I felt led to speak from my soul – risking all my imperfections and idiosyncrasies.  It was a vulnerable experience for me.  But, I didn’t realize it until both sermons were over.  I spoke from the passion I feel for the Gospel.  In particular, I tried to get at the promise and the challenge that the Gospel always presents to us as a dynamic and living Word.   I’m still prayerfully reflecting about all I was feeling.  Last night, I even had a vivid dream that I was inside a huge new motor home barreling down the road that I was struggling to control!

If I’m honest with myself, I can’t hide how real the Gospel is to me.  I can’t hide how much I’ve needed God before, how vulnerable I really feel most of the time, how fragile I think love and hope really are in our world, and how I’ve experienced God’s Love wash over me and completely change me.   It’s difficult to hide the passion I feel for the Gospel because, for me, both the hope of salvation and the Kingdom come together in ways that are so real.  For me, they never come separately.

And, the need for both in the world haunt me.

The longer I live, the more I realize that accepting Jesus and his prayer –  “thy Kingdom, Come” – is not something accepted once and for all.   Baptism marks the beginning of a life of conversion. This conversion is not limited to some religion, belief system, or moral code.  Baptism is the beginning of a new life and prayer – “Thy Kingdom, Come” – and living into the possibility of that Kingdom in Christ each new day.  Confirmation is the promise of the Holy Spirit as a companion on this daily walk.

Sometimes, I wish the passion I felt for the Gospel – its fullness, felt through both the promise and challenge that come simultaneously – was something I just made up.   Maybe, someday I will discover that this understanding of Jesus and the Kingdom is just some relative interpretation, something that came to me out of my life’s circumstance.   Maybe, I’ll learn that someday.

But, that’s not how I experience it.   The Good News and challenge of the Gospel is not how I have come to the Gospel, but how the Gospel has come to me. When God comes to me in my life, this is how God’s Word interprets me. My life – its purpose, short-comings, and value – are all put in perspective.  My deepest aches and inadequacies are mended and I am left with the passion to give the Love and Hope that I’ve been given – and to wrestle with that all my days.

As I spend time with scripture, I am convinced (cf. Romans 8:38-39) that this challenge of the Gospel and the promise of its salvation always come together – as one.  I don’t know how Christ’s salvation and the challenge of discipleship can be separate.  I believe this is Paul’s relentless message of Christ: putting on the mind of Christ, becoming the new creation and the coming of the new humanity.

If Jesus is any example, living the Gospel is not tidy.   It is fraught with challenges – some from within church, some from principalities and powers, even from those closest to him (Peter’s denial; Judas’ betrayal; James and John desire to be the greatest among the disciples).

Despite appearances, the life of discipleship is not a life well-scripted.

Reading the scriptures with care, we find evidence everywhere.  Faith in God comes with struggles and challenges.  But, God answers those struggles with a heart filled with passion.   This passion, God’s passion – the passion at the heart of Gospel – is exactly what we need to feel and believe. We don’t need all the answers.  Not perfect vision.   Not a perfect record of right decisions or the perfect program or inpenetrable finances.  But, passion.  Passion for the promise and challenge of the Gospel – Christ and the Kingdom that comes in him.

Jesus, the Kingdom, and Revelation

The words below came to me with clarity, and even a little urgency, this week.  I do work in ministry and study theology.   So, for many reasons, these words seemed important to me.

“The purpose of the church is the Kingdom of God.  God’s gift is to the church is ongoing revelation.”

Community of Christ members who have a memory that goes back to RLDSism may very well recognize the impact of RLDS tradition on these words.   Our belief in the Kingdom of God on earth, what we’ve referred to early as Zion, and God’s ongoing revelation are part of what makes the Community of Christ and its tradition unique.  So, if you grew up RLDS, you might read these words with an “insider’s lens.”

But, I’m not sure I mean them exactly that way today.

I grew up in the Community of Christ.  I’m a child of “the church.”  I was nurtured, blessed, baptized, and ordained in it.  I was loved and blessed by its people in extraordinary ways.  The ministry of ordinary people in the church has had a life-changing impact on my life.  It grounds my life with the stuff of testimony.

It was also through the church – its tradition, testimony, and unfolding story – that I felt led out into the world to search for God – amidst other traditions, amidst other testimonies, and other theologies.  It was because of the church and the ordinary people that made it up that I believed I could find God just about anywhere, especially amidst new connections and new relationships.  It was through the church that I learned to expect to find God there amidst other movements, people, and ordinary things.

So, when I write these words today, they have a much wider testimony and deeper meaning than they ever could originally.

“The purpose of the church is the Kingdom of God.  God’s gift to the church is ongoing revelation.”

This is not some religious conviction.  It calls to me as a way to live and view my life.

I think the broader meaning of these familiar words is precisely the spiritual challenge facing the Community of Christ today:  Can we return to the new and revealing Spirit that first brought this church into being and made it a movement?  Can the Community of Christ pursue the purposes of God’s Kingdom on earth with fervor and with others?  Can we remain attentive and receptive to God’s ongoing revelation amidst us and coming through others?  Can we be transformed in the prophetic Spirit that presents this challenge and grounds our faith?

I think it remains undecided.

And, yet, it’s central to everything we have ever claimed to believe.

To pursue the Kingdom of God, to pray on earth as it is in heaven, and accept Jesus is to accept the life of the disciples.  We can accept this in light of scripture.  Jesus was the the Kingdom of God among them.  Jesus’ life ministry, death, and resurrection was God’s new revelation to them.  Through the Holy Spirit, this same promise and this same challenge given to the disciples is also given to us:  God’s purposes will continue to unfold.

To have faith at all, to believe in God amidst us and within the world, is to be on the verge of a moment of revelation.  How else can God be God if God is not beyond our present scope, beyond our expectations, and not bound to religion and, instead, is released amidst God’s creation?

My 26 year old Love…and life lesson in trust

I had to blog about my old bike before the riding season was over.  I have “ride motorcycles” as one of the things I love to do on my “About” page. I thought, “I, at least, need to post a pic!”

Margo and I have owned this 1982 Honda GL1100 since 1997.  We bought it in 3 months before we were married and rode off on it on our wedding day.

It looked quite a bit different back then.  It was still black, with chrome.  But, it was also a full-dresser, which meant it had a full fairing, windshield, saddle bags and trunk like a normal Goldwing.  I de-dressed it the year I bought it because I wanted a big bike, but something not so encumbered.

Even after 26 years, it’s still smooth, responsive, powerful, and rides wonderfully.

Margo and I moved to Chicago in 2003 and I actually have had the bike stored for the last 4 years.  This season, we got it out and had it serviced for the season.  The ride back from Grand Rapids, MI, where I had it stored, was the first time I had ridden in 4 years.  I don’t really have words to describe the 3-hour ride.  No bugs in my teeth, but I grinned the entire way.  The weather was perfect and the ride went smoothly.

One of the things I love about riding a bike is the lessons it teaches in trust. A motorcycle can teach life lessons, especially in the area of trust.  When you’re riding 70 miles an hour, or even just 30, you have to learn to trust the bike to ride it safely.  Leaning into curves or trusting the engine to do what you’re telling it to do, all require trust.  An anxious or nervous rider is a dangerous one.  Being comfortable on your bike is key to riding it safely.

It takes 3 of  your limbs to control the bike when you ride.  Left hand is the clutch.  Right hand controls the throttle (accelerator) and front brake.  Right foot controls both the rear brake and shifter.  My bike, like many old bikes, is a 5 speed.  Learning to coordinate all these controls, keep balance, and pay attention to the road and traffic around you is part of the fun and art of riding.

A motorcycle teaches trust to the passenger, too.  In fact, the lesson in trust is more important for the  passenger.  Why?  On a bike, you turn by leaning.  Unless your moving slowly or in a tight space, you generally don’t ever actually twist the handlebars.  Instead, when riding, the driver and rider have to be coordinated and working together or it can be like driving two steering wheels.  The rider has to learn to do what doesn’t always come naturally – learn to lean with the bike.  If the rider does what the bike does, the driver can drive it and ride safely.  If not, riding with a passenger can be quite hazardous.  I threw my cousin on the back of my bike in college, not knowing he had never ridden before.  We both almost ended up in a lake.  The passenger has to trust the bike and driver, and do what the bike wants to do.  Getting comfortable as a passenger on a bike is its own art.   Trust is the only thing that makes it work.  It’s what makes it possible to ride and ride safely.

I’ve been riding since I was 18 years old.  This is my fifth bike.  I don’t ride that often, mainly for recreation.  But, when I do, there is something like freedom that I feel, that I don’t always feel when I don’t ride.  I know it sounds cliche, but its true for me.  Little can describe the feeling of the open road, the sense of the wind across your body, the noise of machinery underneath you, and the responsiveness of the bike when riding.

In 16 or so years of motorcycles, there’s a few things I’ve learned from riding.  One, rain at 60mph feels like being shot with BB’s.  Two, after the sun goes down, 60 degrees feels like 32 at about 50mph.  Third, out in the country, riding without a windshield at dusk in the fall can get you covered in bugs…and a June bug on bare skin at 60mph can leave a welt!

But, lastly, I’ve learned that trust is something you need when you ride, whether riding or driving, no matter what you’re doing.

It’s not unlike faith.  Some people think they could never trust a bike.  But, if you’re gonna ride, you better learn to trust – because not trusting undermines the relationship you need for you and the bike to work together…

…and your life might depend on it.

Letting the Spirit Lead

In Chicago Mission Center (warning: site is out of date – we’re working on it) of the Community of Christ, congregational leaders have come together to work on on some key areas that they feel are critical for new life and direction.  One of these three areas is Spiritual Leadership.

What does this mean?  In my mind, it starts with the basic idea that God’s Spirit is the head of the church – wherever it’s gathered.  It means, God’s Holy Spirit – the very Spirit of Christ-with-us – is the organizing principle of our lives as disciples, congregations, even as a denomination.  This belief in the Spirit’s leadership has deep roots in Community of Christ history.  No matter where that history has gone – sometimes prophetically forward, sometimes embarrassingly and tragically off track – this conviction that God’s Spirit still communes with us and gives us direction today is central to our faith as a historic people.  This means that a tremendous burden and adventure is promised to everyone who walks with the movement of the Spirit: every disciple, every pastor, each congregational leader, all mission center leaders, and even leaders of our international church.  That burden and adventure is one of ongoing possibilities, risk, and discernment.  Letting the Spirit lead challenges us to put popular ideas, political rhetoric, age-old dogmas, and personal agendas in proper perspective…and let the Spirit lead.

God’s Spirit is always already doing something amidst us and within us.  God’s Spirit is always already at work and present in some way.  Our responsibility, as disciples and leaders, is to proclaim the good news God is here and bear witness to how God’s reign is working in and around us.  Sometimes disturbing and disorienting, God’s reign breaks in to open us up, to share and act in vulnerable honesty on what we see God is doing amidst everything we feel, think, and see.  This is a huge challenge.  But, it is also a profound and promising way to live:  To believe God is always moving amidst the divisive and confused ways of our inner lives and our world.

Believing in a God who came down from the heavens and into the world to dwell means we can’t demonize the world or permanently draw away from it.  This is God’s creation – what God so loved.  (John 3:16)  However, we can join the Spirit of God always already working in the world, walking in the streets and showing itself through the simple words of children, the wisdom of those old and forgotten, the hearts of mourners seeking justice, and the visions of poets and prophets.

In Chicago Mission Center, I think there are some specific things we must consider in our hope to let the Spirit lead. The following are my own reflections and recommendations for how to get out from underneath the weight of inertia, indifference, and impasse that flows from our fear of conflict, which keeps us personally and our congregations searching for new life and new energy.  They are not a recipe, but I dare say, they are sign posts on the journey through the wilderness – the wilderness we can get out of only if the Spirit leads.

Yes.  Think Exodus.

1.  Dwell, again, in Scripture. Our scriptures are not a resource of inerrant proof-texts for us to win an argument.  Nor, are they irrelevant books belonging to an ancient past.  Our scriptures are a well-spring of witness.  They are a diverse and dynamic collection of stories, poems, songs, legal codes, and proclamation about God’s doings in the lives of living people.  They are a testament of how God has moved and continues to move in the lives of both individuals, peoples, and nations.   Dwelling in them, we can find profound resources for recognizing the Spirit’s leadings amidst our personal lives, congregations, and even in the world at large.  Spending even 15 minutes a day repeating or reflecting on a few verses can have a tremendous impact on our congregational and spiritual lives.

2.  Practice Free Speech – Prayer:  It’s hard to remember to pray, let alone to pray as if God is there – right there – listening.  Some people are cynical about prayers that come only when we’re in trouble.  But, I think those prayers, often times, are the most precious.  They are often prayed when we are our most vulnerable, at our wits end, and truly at an impasse.  They are those prayers that are often the most honest – those prayers when we will bargain with God to be good, or go to church, or give to a charity – if only….

The lesson of these prayers, I think, is that they are the very heart of prayer.  We should pray this honestly about our needs, our concerns, and our helplessness to fix things on our own all the time.  We DO live in a world we cannot control, only nudge, nurture, and try to influence.   We are often too busy involved in plans, schedules, or personal agendas for effectiveness and success to remember the vulnerability of our lives and living situations.  When we’re in trouble, life is more real in some way, and so are our prayers.  We can speak the most freely in these situations because we need to.  God can take it.  Lay your heart open to God’s Spirit all the time.  Say what you really feel and really think, especially when you pray.

3.  Take Risks and Make Mistakes:  I see a lot of church-goers and “normal” people still held hostage by two deeply held beliefs.  Both of them get in the way – put us in the way! – of letting the Spirit lead.  Here they are:

One: Whether raising children, leading a congregation, or maneuvering in traffic, we believe that we can be safe if we make the right decision and do the right thing.

Hogwash!

Raising kids, you can follow every intuition or the latest research and you’ll still botch it up.  Same with driving.  Use your turn signal, look twice, you can still have an accident.

It’s the same with spiritual leadership.  You can apply the truest doctrine, the most obvious common sense, or the latest and greatest congregational resource.  It may go terribly awry.   You may find yourself no closer than you were before to the perfection you believed was possible if you only…did the right thing.   There is no such thing.   Spiritual leadership is a relationship, not a recipe.

This leads me to the second false belief.

Two:  We live in a customer-driven world and consumer culture.  This logic has slowly seeped into most of our spiritual lives and congregations without us even realizing it because we believe it ourselves.  We believe in customer-satisfaction!  Why shouldn’t it be the measure of all things?  Here is how it works into our heads as spiritual leaders:  I’m moving in the right direction if people are happy.

Not true.

Following the Spirit’s lead on something important does not always make everyone happy.  Spiritual leadership is not about satisfied customers.  It cannot be tested by universal agreement.  In fact, Old Testament prophets were often charged by God to go against the public consensus.  This takes our discussion about taking risks and making mistakes to a deeper level for a minute.

The Community of Christ is a movement that rests on the principle of consensus.  It’s plainly stated in the Administrator’s Handbook on the first few pages, and goes back to our roots as a movement of dissidents.    As a people, we are charged to live in the creative tension that almost always exists between the Spirit’s leadings and the consensus of the people.  This is the tension of prophetic community.

There’s a misconception about consensus, however, that is often at play whenever a congregation or other spiritual community is trying to come together.  Consensus is NOT agreement. It is not, “We all like this!”  or “I completely agree!”  Consensus follows from the general question, “Is this something I can live with?”; “Is this something I can be open to?”  Consensus is the commitment together to struggle together. This is all it can ever be in a spiritual community where all are free to come and to leave.

The challenge of letting the Spirit lead, then, is that spiritual leaders have to stand in the gap when everyone doesn’t or won’t agree.  Sometimes, this means letting people leave and protest.   This is part of leadership and coming to consensus.   Following the Spirit’s lead binds us to trust in Christ-with-us.  This is the promise of taking risks.  The promise of Christ-with-us is what opens the soul to trust.  Consensus is the rule that allows us, corporately, to take those risks.

What deeply hurts or even damages a community or congregation is the assumption that agreement is the only thing members can live with.  This is the death of consensus…when agreement is confused with consensus and the community can only work together is everyone is happy.   This is the logic of customer-satisfaction taken to its highest degree.  It rises to religious dimension in church.

The paralysis that this confusion can instill in a congregation can be as painful as it is dramatic.  It can rob a congregation that wants everyone happy usually can’t stand any conflict.  Without even recognizing it, it begins to struggle like a business that has to keep all its customers, or it dies.   In this scenario, a congregation and its leaders are barred from the risks necessary in discerning the Spirit’s movement, as well as the promised peace that comes from struggling with faithfulness.

When we are not grounded in dwelling in scripture and study, and not laid open and made vulnerable in the free speech of prayer, we often need – sometimes deeply need – the agreement or appreciation of others to fill in the gaps of our self-confidence.  Spiritual leadership, however, challenges us to a deeper relationship with ourselves and others.  It requires us to take risks and go beyond the surface of agreement.   To dance with the Spirit, to let the Spirit lead in that dance, is to surrender to making mistakes.  Consensus is the principle that guides us in that walk together.   To journey with Christ requires some kind of consensus because to walk with Christ requires we give something up of ourselves in order to seek greater movement of the Spirit in our lives.

Wow.  This is a long post.  But, I felt the need to write it today.

Blessings…

Obama? McCain?: My Faith in Party Politics

It’s a forced choice.  There can be only one.  (Anyone thinking Highlander?)

The bane of party politics.

Honestly, I generally don’t vote for the candidate.  It’s like picking your birthday or wedding cake based on the figurine that tops the cake decorations.  Hello, Kitty?  Batman?  Elmo?  A cute little bride & groom?

(The cake for my sister-in-law’s baby shower was a very pregnant woman: tall, slender, long hair, both fists on her waist…and a purple cape.)

In many ways, both Obama and McCain (or Palin?!) are cake-toppers, the face on the cake.

A cake-topper can say a lot about a cake.  With the color scheme, hand-made frosting flowers and sprinkles, the topper can make or break a cake’s appearance.  It’s the same with politics.  A lot of people vote based on the party-topper and the way s/he puts a face on that party’s politics.  But, like buying a cake, the outcome of our vote goes well beyond appearances. What about the cake of the cake?  Is it moist?  Dry?  Vanilla, chocolate, or marble?   Was organic flour used?  What about the trans-fats in the frosting?

I say, go for cream cheese frosting.

My point is, when you cast your vote in November, you are voting for a whole lot more than the cake-topper candidate.  No matter how much a maverick or inspiring orator, the candidate you elect, in many important ways, will be but just the face of a party.  Of course, we cannot underestimate the power of that face.  Elections are often decided on the mixture of sound-bytes and appearances we hear and see on in the internet and TV.  (Think, here, about many of the comments about John Kerry & Richard Nixon.)

Don’t get me wrong.  Who Barack Obama or John McCain is, come January, will be important.  One of them, assuming there are no surprises, will wield tremendous influence over American-politics-to-be.  They will be our nation’s newest political symbol.  They will be the face of American principles, and their personality, reflected back to us as well as projected out to the rest of the world.  One of them will be the commander-in-chief of an enormous military complex, and the CEO of the executive branch of our government.   Who we choose in November will make a huge influence on life together over the next 4 years.  But, this person does not not run government alone.  They do not stand independently, as a messiah, dictator, or king.  Neither Obama nor McCain can act completely outside the rhetoric and relationships that got them in the oval office.   They come as the face of a party, the face of a system of party politics.

Just as the last eight years of George W. Bush has shown, and most presidents before, in November we will vote for a lot more than just a candidate.  We will be getting more than a speech or pretty face.  The candidate we vote for will bring a list of interested parties.  They will bring an ideology, a set of ideas and political views that shape their party’s platform.  They will come to the Presidency with a perspective that shapes their commitments to certain social, economic, and foreign policies, the kind that can make or break a nation, an economy, and a presidency.

No matter how much we hype the individual – and we Americans are all card-carrying members of the cult of individuality – these perspectives and positions are the beauty and baggage of party politics…two-party politics.

And, those who want to be on the winning team invest deeply in both parties.

<sigh>

So, while cynicism convinces me that the above statement is true (sad, but true), there is a reason why I just can’t vote for McCain/Palin this year.  And, I won’t.  There are things the Republican party stands for and has aggressively promoted that I just can’t support, let slide, or get along with.  And, the issues go deep into the heart of my faith.

In addition to my disagreement with them on many social justice issues, I condemn how America’s religious and political right have used religion in their politics: to exploit people’s fear and manipulate their religious roots, in ways that twist Christianity and “American values” together into an unholy union of self-serving nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, and militarism.

Too many $6 words?

Think about it.  Especially since 9-11 (but with roots that go well before), there’s been a careful attempt to reshape the American mindset.  Nationalist rhetoric, apocalypticism, and religious self-righteousness has transformed grief into resolute paranoia.  And, its captured the imaginations of many traditionally good-hearted, neighborly, and passionate Americans.

Right-wing politicians and activists have convinced a critical mass of American people that the most powerful nation and largest military in the world should do basic things that are against the most basic rules governing most of America’s play grounds.  They’ve convinced us to fight for things which run contrary to the very principles of liberty taught in elementary schools:  a) hit first, ask questions later (preemptive war) and b) use controversial religious doctrines to restrict civil liberties (abortion, same-sex marriage) and c) to determine what is taught in schools (sex education and creationism).

Each of these issues have become decisive and divisive issues that shape our elections only because they scare us and are religiously charged.  They take attention off more concrete political issues that go to the heart of the gospel:  economics, peace, global hunger, militarization….

After September 11th, something in me changed.  September 11th didn’t make me more patriotic; it didn’t make me proud to be American, nor did it wake me up to the fact that there is evil in the world.   I already had a sense of that and a sense of where my faith should continue to be.

Instead, after being manipulated by the sensationalist ploys of American media, unable to watch TV without seeing the Towers falling dozens of times; in the wake of our President’s rhetoric about retaliation, war, and American victimization; when I began seeing friends and neighbors become paranoid of Islam and racially profiling Muslims and persons who spoke or looked like Jesus (remember, he was a Middle Easterner) – I became frightened to be that version of America.  I did not agree with its rhetoric, its racism, or reactionary retaliation.

Perhaps, I wasn’t and am still not truly American…or American enough?

At this point, I believe our nation has tremendous grief to work through, economic lessons to learn, and reconciliation to do.  My hope is that, on these issues, we move forward.  Faith in America and faith at all is not going to be found in religious or political nostalgia – in returning to Andy Griffith or the 1950’s, ostracizing dissidents and non-Christians, or building our self-righteousness on a rotating list of known and hated enemies.

I’m not sure there is any party that aligns perfectly with my religious/spiritual and political views.  In fact, I don’t have all of them worked out.  And, it’s for that exact reason that I keep a modicum of faith.  Perhaps, about the size of a mustard seed.

I am a bit fatalistic about our politics and current political situation, no matter who gets elected.  The cult of personality has tremendous power to distract us from real political questions and real politics.   But, I have hope.

There are things certainly yet unseen (cf. Hebrews 11:1) – the outcome of the November election, the Iraq War, our economic condition, and how the winning candidate is going to lead in the oval office come January.  And, in my hope, I have faith.

You should, too.

Hope…on faith.