Pre-trip ponderings on Rwanda

“Mrs. Carolyn, can I maybe have that poster?” I gestured at the poster-size map of Africa, each country stamped with the number of Southern Baptist missionaries serving Jesus there.

I’d been eyeing that poster for a couple of weeks at my church’s weekly girls’ missions education class. The church I attended was small & rural & I was almost always the only girl in my class. Heck, I was likely the only girl there on Wednesday night for missions education at all.

So I knew the chances of my getting to take that poster home were pretty good. I left the church and marched proudly home (all the way across the street) with it tucked under one scrawny bare arm, my Prize.

The poster went on the wall of my room. (Confession: it was bordered on one side by magazine cutouts of Duran Duran, on the other by equally cringe-worthy cutouts of George Michael. Can I help it was the 80s??)

And every night, for the better part of two years, I gazed at that map, took in the borders, the exotic-sounding names, the numbers…and prayed. God bless the missionaries. God bless their work. (In those days Southern Baptists still included good stuff like hospitals & schools & orphanages & seminaries.) God bless the people they’re ministering to.

Now, 31 years later, in a small and temporary way, Jesus is sending me as an answer to my prayers.

When I imagine landing in Kigali, Rwanda, walking off the jet way or onto the tarmac, I visualize my heart. It collapses face first on the African ground. It lies there weeping. It is stunned.

Because this journey has been 31 years in the traveling.political-map-of-Rwanda

From 8th grade to middle-age.

From naïve idealism to…well, plain old unvarnished idealism.

I go because I love helping others in the name of Jesus. I go hoping I will serve in the manner of Jesus. I go not as a savior or a superior or an inferior or an expert or even as a leader. I go as a student, holding out the few things I know to some teachers in a remote, electricity-free school, and saying to them, “Would you like to hear a native English speaker? Can we talk? Can we teach one another?”

I go already weeping at every thought of being there. I suspect Rwanda will utterly ruin me – in every good way. I suspect I’ll come back weeping even more.

But that’s okay. All the Lord does is good.

Tomorrow morning, Lord willing, I get on a plane in the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

And yes, “Africa” by Toto is on my phone. (Did I mention I’m a child of the 80s? Don’t be jealous.)

Published in: on June 15, 2017 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cotton for the ears

“He who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13).

What does it mean to “hear” the cries of the poor?

(Full disclosure: God help me, I’m a middle-class white suburban homeschool mom – so, yes, I’m looking at this verse from this perspective.)

I think it means we pay attention.

I think it means we actually look at the homeless person standing with the cardboard sign at the intersection. It is a person, after all, not a droid.

I think it means we notice the woman with a stroller walking down the six-lane, sidewalk-free suburban shopping boulevard. Would she walk her baby along such a road if she had a reliable car?

I think it means we watch the hard movies – Selma, Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Pursuit of Happyness, etc. Yes, they’re heartbreaking. Yes, they are difficult because they show our cruelty and callousness towards one another. But if they call out our latent courage and compassion, if they inflame our hearts toward advocacy and justice, they have worthwhile, redemptive value.

I think it means we pay attention to the news. (And by “news” I certainly don’t mean our Facebook or Twitter “news” feeds.) It means we stay educated about the lives of the poor in our own community (not just the local homeless shelter but also access to fresh food and quality schools and decent healthcare). And stay educated about the lives of the poor around the globe. Who speaks up for child labor laws, for poor farmers, for residents of slums in world cities, and rural residents with little to no access to education, healthcare, or a justice system that actually honors rule of law? This requires watching and reading beyond the Sports and Lifestyle pages or channels.

I think it means listening to those who work with them day in and day out. The employees and volunteers at the shelters, the Salvation Army, the Department of Social Services, the state-run nursing homes, the emergency room – what do they see, do, and say? They’re in the trenches – we need to give extra credence to their input.

It means my ears should be open. That is, I can’t go ostrich and stick my head in the sand. I can’t live in my safe (gated?) community, stay behind my 8-foot privacy fence, only be friends with people who think and shop and value and vote and raise their kids like me.

suburban poverty

I’ve got to be outside my own comfort zone – not for the length of a church-sponsored activity (mission trip, anyone?) or the forced confines of hopefully brief jury duty obligation.

How can I hear the poor if I’ve surrounded myself – even unintentionally – with the non-poor?

The answer is, I can’t. If I have any expectation of hearing the voice of the poor, I will have to intentionally get out of my middle-class bubble.

And how can I hear the poor if I am too busy? If I’m piddling from this store and that errand and this meeting and that event, consumed with myself and my family, I can’t. There has to be some margin – i.e., quiet – in my life so that the tired voices of the poor can reach my distracted, selfish ears.

And then, heaven help us, I can’t claim ignorance, and I’m responsible to respond in some Christ-like manner.

Which is a good pressure to be under.

Also – I want my cries to be heard, too. Don’t you?

Crucial Note: I have SO SO far to go in this. I mean, SO far.

Published in: on January 27, 2016 at 9:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why can’t we be friends?

So we read Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  holding hands

And we’re great, as a Church, when we see those barriers fall. We love to see blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians all worshipping together. We love to see Israelis and Palestinians joined in worship. We love to see rich and poor together, the celebrities and the anonymous together, Republicans and Democrats, the happily married and the thrice-divorced, the young and the old and all in between, the men and the women….

Oh wait. ’Cept not that last one. THAT barrier must needs stand.

Because (thank you Freud) we all know that, at our most basic, men and women are just sex drives with legs.

So it’s awesome – we stand and cheer – when a black pastor and a white pastor become close friends. It’s outstanding when avowed Republicans and avowed Democrats are also avowed friends, and serve others alongside one another, with compassion and selflessness. It’s superb when the hedge fund manager and the homeless guy go on a mission trip together and end up becoming good friends. (I’m assuming – optimistically & probably naively – that’s happened?)

Unless, of course, any of these friendships are between a man and woman who are not – nor plan to be – married to each other.

Then it’s not okay.

Never mind that Jesus had women following him everywhere when he was on earth. Not just following, but financially enabling his ministry.

Never mind that Jesus apparently disregarded all social custom and in fact seriously endangered his reputation as a minister when he did the first century equivalent of letting a call girl lavish him with kisses at Billy Graham’s house (See “Prostitute visits Jesus at Simon’s house,” Luke 7).

Never mind that Jesus entrusted his closest male friend (John) with the complete care of his mother (Mary) – who was only about 15 years older than John. (See “Jesus gives Mom to John,” John 19.) Gasp.

Never mind that Jesus was alone with a woman – and a committed immoral one, at that – in a public place. (See “Samaritan woman,” John 3.) Gasp again.

Never mind that Jesus’s first appearance after his resurrection was to a woman. Alone. In a garden. Oh my.

Contrast this with the teaching and counsel of the church today. Here are the rules. If you’ve been in church any length of time at all, you’ve heard these or some close version of them. And you’d better believe these are RULES; they are not recommendations.

  1. You may not be alone with a person of the opposite sex in public unless you’re related or dating.
  2. You may not be alone with a person of the opposite sex in private – unless you’re related or dating.
  3. You may be friends with a person of the opposite sex, even if one or both of you are married to someone else – but the friendship should be carried out in group settings, and it should NEVER get intimate or deep.

To stray from these rules is to put yourself on a “slippery slope,” to “play with fire,” to “unwisely test the boundaries.”

Do we not see that, at its most dumbed-down (which doesn’t take long), all of these rules are based on the assumption that, again, at our most basic level, men and women are sex drives with legs? These rules have a stain of “protection” (of marriage, ministry, and witness), but underneath the stain is crumbly particle board.

Can you imagine Jesus saying to a woman in today’s church, “Love you, dear, but we can only talk at the church office with a big window in the door”? Can you imagine Jesus saying to a man in today’s church, “Yeah, I see you have a potentially rich friendship with this woman, but since you’re already married, you’re gonna have to nip that. Too risky”? Can you imagine Jesus saying to the lifelong singles in our church, “Sorry, real oneness is reserved for married people, but don’t worry, it’ll all be okay in heaven”?

It seems to me we’re okay with Jesus breaking down every barrier but this one. The male-female divide, we’re basically saying, is just too deep and wide for even the blood of Jesus to bring unity and peace to.

Because, you know, we’re “wired” for sex.

Thanks a lot, Freud.


Jesus came to destroy barriers, to demolish walls, to bring peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were already near. How can we think that Jesus can bridge the vast, immeasurable chasm between sinful man and holy God, but is unable to help men and women be genuine friends? Really?

Now, I know all the reasons the contemporary church gives for all these rules and boundaries. Do these sound familiar?

“Protecting the sanctity of marriage.”

“Protecting the reputation of Christians and especially ministers of the gospel.”

“Protecting the witness of the Church in a world that sees sexual scandal in the Church at every turn (sometimes for real, sometimes just rumor).”

And of course those lines about slippery slopes and playing with fire.

Yes, yes. But look at those phrases and those defenses. Every one is based on fear, distrust, and suspicion.

We are afraid of our own bodies, and others’. And the church reinforces this.

We are afraid that any time a man and woman forge a close friendship, it will inevitably end up in the bedroom. Or at least they’ll want it to. Freud said it, the world believes it, and now the church reinforces it too.

We are afraid of the world’s censure. Because there has been so much sexual scandal in the church, and the world (rightly) condemns it, we walk on eggshells around people of the opposite sex. Especially those of us in church leadership.

As an aside here, may I remind us that the world will never understand the unity Jesus can bring among his followers? The world is shocked when victims offer forgiveness to perpetrators (see the families of the Charleston Nine). The world is shocked when reconciliation happens at the nation-state level (see Rwanda). The world is shocked when Israeli and Arab believers come together. The world is shocked when black and white worship together. The world cynically dismisses it all as political posturing.

Does this mean the Church ceases to seek reconciliation between historically divided parties? Not at all!

Unless, of course, again, we’re talking about the divide between men and women.

In that case, the Church not only is not really seeking reconciliation, it’s actively counseling against it.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be married. Not just married, but to your downright absolute one-and-only soulmate. (Is there such a thing?)

Didn’t Jesus come to bring peace among his followers? Why do we think that stops at the male-female wall?

Can you imagine what the world would say if the Church began to encourage genuine, close, intimate friendships between men and women, regardless of marital or eventual-marital state?

I can imagine. It would go something like this: “Look at those Christian men and women, thinking they can be tight friends without the sex card getting in the way. Either they’re hiding their affair, or they’re suppressing their desires.”

But what if believing men and women continued to live in the unity that Jesus does offer? What if they served and worshipped and played and worked together, year after year, with never a hint of sexual involvement? (Yes, it IS possible. We are more than our sex drives, y’all!) What then?

Is it possible an unbelieving world – just a few of them – might take notice and say, “Well, hmm, maybe there is something to this notion that Jesus can bring reconciliation. I mean, I know these Christian men and women who are really tight friends, and there’s nothing sexual about it, but they are seriously tight and it is cool and I wish I could have a friendship like that with a person of the opposite sex.”

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Wouldn’t that be reconciliation on a beautiful level?

Oh, and this isn’t purely theoretical to me. I have male friends I once was dear friends with – back before we both got so into church and things got weird. I mourn the distance and odd boundaries between us now. I am sad at the loss of what used to be an intimate friendship.

And I have male friends now with whom I distinctly sense the possibility of deep friendship – if only we weren’t both part of a culture that would look with such distrust and suspicion on its development. I am sad at the loss of that.

I need all the meaningful friendships I can get – don’t you? Don’t we all?

I want the unity Jesus died to bring. I want the freedom to pursue rich and meaningful friendships with my brothers and sisters of different skin color, different cultural background, different voting habits, different socioeconomic status, and, yes, even with those of the opposite sex.

We are more than our sex drives. We are brothers and sisters in a family created by the sacrificial shed blood of Jesus. How I long to live in true community, walls down, barriers gone, freedom and grace given free rein.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Published in: on September 24, 2015 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Contemporary Worship is a Performance

at the women's retreat“Redeemed Performance”

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and swims like a duck….

“Contemporary worship” – you know, the drums and guitars and keyboard, the lights and the production team – is a performance.

There. I said it.

In the churches where we have this style of music, we cringe at the term “performance.” We insist, loudly and at length, that it’s not a performance. Performance is what One Republic does at the arena, or what a local band does at the local tavern. Performance is done by piano students, bands and choirs, ballet companies, symphonies, theater troupes, performing artists of all stripes. Hence the term “performing” artists.

We don’t like that term in church, though. We’re not standing on this stage playing or singing to draw attention to ourselves, get our 15 minutes of fame in for the week, revel in the glory. We’re here to lead others in worship, to draw ourselves and those listening (maybe even participating) into the presence of Jesus, where we seek to corporately praise him, thank him, state our surrender to him, pledge our best and our all to him.

We’re not here for us. We’re here for Jesus. So don’t call it a performance.

But here’s the thing: any time you play an instrument or sing into a microphone, any time others are listening to you or watching you – you’re performing. That’s the definition of performing, hello.

And at a lot of our churches, it is a serious performance. There are production teams – and we don’t even pretend to call them anything else. There are bands – we call them worship teams. (Don’t even get me started on what a sadly limited view we have of worship; in this culture, “worship” equals “music.” WHAT??) There’s a rehearsal. There’s a lead singer and some harmonies. There are lights, speakers, big hairy screens, sound systems (some worthy of rock star status).

There’s a stage, for Pete’s sake.

What exactly is it, if not a performance?

(As an aside – this did not arrive with the “contemporary” scene. Church choirs have been performing for years. It just wasn’t a major discussion.)

The difference between One Direction or One Republic or One Beyonce, and, say, the band I occasionally play with at my church, lies in motivation. The big-time kids are in it for the dinero and adulation; we’re in it to worship a mighty and worthy and beautiful Jesus, and hopefully bring others along with us.

I call this “redeemed performance.”

The word “performance” has gotten a bum rap among church people. We’re so concerned we’ll be – or be seen as – self-focused musicians, we run from the word like it carries a disease.

But “performance” is okay. It’s a neutral term, in fact. All it means is you have an audience.

When your heart is in the right place – and isn’t worship all about getting our hearts in line? – performance becomes, at a minimum, positive, and at best, holy.

I’m not the only one to have experienced this at bono fide performances. Have you ever been to a symphony – where there’s no intent to glorify God – and been transported into his presence simply because the music was amazing and your heart was in the right place? Have you ever been to a choral concert and felt yourself drawn into the presence of the Almighty, even though the singers could care less? Come to think of it, how many movies have you watched – and we know they were performance – and known you were suddenly in the presence of the Holy?

Worship through music is always about the heart. It’s the direction of the heart that determines whether or not a performance is an experience of worship. Jesus told the Samaritan woman worship was not a matter of location but of heart (John 4:23-24). I submit this is equally true in our context: worship is not a matter of “performance” or not, but of the heart.

I can have an audience and draw glory to myself, or I can have an audience and draw glory to Jesus. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t it great how the Spirit can take something neutral – a performance – and, through working in hearts, turn it into something redeemed and holy and edifying?

It’s a band. It’s a performance. Praise Jesus, when he gets hold of the hearts of the musicians, it’s a redeemed one.

What on earth is wrong with that?

Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 2:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Martha Stewart, meet Mary, sister of Martha

Martha Stewart, meet Mary, sister of Martha, or

Entertainment v. Biblical hospitality


My party observation: Entertainment is about the host/hostess. Hospitality (especially of the Biblical variety) is about the guest.

Here’s entertainment: If the food, games (where applicable), music, décor, and overall ambiance are not just so, it’s, well, admit it, it just might be a flop. If the compliments and accolades from the guests aren’t as over the top as all the money, time, and effort that went into being impressive, then why the heck was there a party?

Entertainment is about the host or hostess looking and feeling good. It’s about the house being clean and the food being fresh, homemade, and delicious. It’s about all the elements matching, down to the music playlist. It’s about the Christmas tree, the Pinterest-inspired centerpiece, the toothpicks with holiday-themed frills.

Entertainment inspires awe and praise and a sense that you probably owe the hostess a monogrammed thank you note with an appropriately-themed stamp.

Contrast that with Biblical hospitality. (In the context of a party, anyway: Biblical hospitality is way more a way of life than an event.)

In a nutshell, Biblical hospitality is about the guests: making them feel at home, comfortable, welcome, and unconditionally accepted. When your guests feel at ease enough to kick off their shoes and prop their holey socks up on your coffee table, or at home enough to go poking around your kitchen cabinets looking for a glass, then you’ve exhibited Biblical hospitality.

Biblical hospitality is putting the dog up so it doesn’t scare your visiting toddlers. It’s asking guests to help with tasks (especially in the kitchen), because everyone needs to be needed, and there is warm fellowship in working together.

Biblical hospitality is putting away the breakable things when one of your guests is a 14-month-old. It’s genuinely not caring when a four-year-old guest spills Kool-Aid on the carpet.  (Oh, how I wish I’d known that so many years ago when I was childless but my friends were not!)

It’s offering a glass of water before offering to give a tour. It’s turning off the television unless your guests ask for it to be on. It’s watching their cell phone slide show instead of pulling out your (conveniently handy) three-inch vacation photo album. It’s not offering pound cake to a friend on a diet. (Wait, I think I hear the “guilty” chime again.)

Biblical hospitality is asking Jesus to bless the food as you’re preparing it, not just when you sit down to eat it. It’s praying that your time together is a blessing, that your house is a place of refuge for all who enter, that your guests leave with an extra helping of peace in their hearts and joy in their steps.

Biblical hospitality does not close the door to the bedrooms for fear of revealing a mess. When your goal is to bless your guests in the manner of Jesus, you will be required to be vulnerable at some point. It will show your messiness – and his Grace.

Biblical hospitality looks easier, but is actually harder than entertaining – because it is other-focused and relationship-centered, rather than self-centered and material.

And by it, we may, as the writer of Hebrews says, “entertain angels.”

Published in: on September 4, 2012 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment  

On Sexual Lust, or “The Problem Isn’t in Your Eyes – or My Body”

The Continuum:


I’m not the problem.

Really, I’m not. Just because I’m female…not overweight…and wear a bikini on the beach – none of this makes me the problem for any male believer dealing with lust.

And because I’m not the problem, I’m not the answer either. The problem, my brothers, is in your heads and hearts, and therefore the solution also lies there (via the Holy Spirit). Sorry, I can only help you by praying for you to think like Jesus. ’Cuz I sure would love for you to look at me like Jesus does.

And I’ll tell you, Jesus doesn’t avoid looking at me any more than he looks at me “lustfully in his heart.”

That’s because Jesus never forgets what he’s looking at when he looks at a woman (beautiful by her culture’s standards or not): a beautiful and holistic creation of his Father – a body with a soul and spirit and intellect, all so intricately bound together they are inseparable.

Oh, my brothers in Jesus, that you would look at your sisters in Christ – indeed, at all women – through this lens!

You see, to indulge in the thinking at either end of this continuum (see above) is to think – and therefore behave – askew.

Believers generally agree on the base problem with the libertine approach. Full indulgence of  lust leads to all kinds of havoc, which hardly needs to be listed here. (And, I might add, even our licentious culture reluctantly concedes outright libertinism is a dangerous path.) What’s the bottom line sin with this thinking and behavior? Women become purely sexual objects – harmful to them, and a blatant disregard for the fact that their Creator made them complex creatures – body, soul, and spirit – in his very own image.

Bad, bad, we say. “Don’t go there!” churches and leaders scream, plead, exhort, and rebuke men. “Stay out of Hooters and strip clubs and get the protective software to keep you away from porn.”

And the solution that gets touted by Arterburn & Co.? “Stay away from women. Don’t look. Whatever you do, DON’T LOOK!!!” As if they’re seizing Lot by the hand as he runs wildly from the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. As if women were the equivalent of those cesspools, and these brothers are in danger of turning into pillars of salt if they turn their eyes towards the wickedness of womankind.

There are two problems with this line of thinking. First of all, it simply doesn’t work. Our culture is awash, positively swimming in sexual temptation; a blind man can see it. So unless my brother retreats to a desert hermitage, he will be exposed to this temptation, “parental controls” on or no.

Another reason it doesn’t work is that even believers cannot sustain this kind of thinking forever. We men and women are frail in the sinful nature, however willing our spirits might be.

To put it more theologically, this type of discipline is based on the Law, not Grace. And we all know where the Law gets us: fallen and condemned, however hard we try.

The second problem with this line of thinking is that it does the same thing to women as the licentious approach: it objectifies us. The guy who ogles me objectifies me as a sexual object; the brother, however well-intentioned, who avoids me (including eye contact but especially any kind of touch) also objectifies me. Worse, he makes me the source of temptation.

I am not. Unless I’m genuinely being tempting (and it will be obvious), I am not the temptation. Please, don’t look at me as an evil to be avoided, and don’t quote the Psalmist in the process (“I will set before my eyes no vile thing,” Ps. 101:3a).

I am a complete person. I have a body, a soul, a spirit, a mind, a heart. No one part of me defines me. God made me complex in so many ways. And I invite you to appreciate all of me as a reflection of God’s beauty, God’s creativity, and God’s holiness.

Look at me, please, the way Jesus does: straight in the eye, with a smile of acceptance and hands outstretched in friendship and strength. Don’t turn the other way because I’m female.

Please – will a man in the church stand up and teach this? I will applaud, “amen,” and happily pitch in to see this message make its way into the hearts of my brothers who so want to walk in holiness. Many of these men work so doggedly to stay sexually pure, constructing all the defensive behavioral barriers Arterburn & Co. tell them to put around their eyes, minds, and marriages.

But my brothers in Christ cannot win this battle by taking only a defensive stance. The true freedom – with any issue – comes when our minds are transformed and our hearts renewed. I want to see you men set free from the long and futile slough of self-help, into the light of thinking and seeing like Jesus.

In that place, you will find a rich, beautiful world of rich, beautiful relationships with beautiful (because they were made by your Father) women.

I long to see us all free of the Law, and I long to see women free of objectification.

Because we sisters (we women) are weary of being seen as a problem to be avoided. We want to walk in dynamic and rich friendship and partnership with our brothers in Christ – to show the world how Jesus sees…and how he loves.

Published in: on August 2, 2012 at 1:20 am  Comments (24)  

The Warm Waters of Community


“The sands of her isolation were eroded in the warm waters of community.”

What a beautiful phrase. Speaks to my heart’s longing for community, and our need, as humans, for community.

Really. I want community. People who don’t mind that I call instead of text, because they have time for me – or will commit to a time and honor it. Hmm.

I want people around me to laugh with me and maybe even give me the gift of laughing AT me (’cuz don’t I need a little more humility?). I want people who will let me do the same with them.

I want people in my life with whom I can share my burdens – and not feel like a needy basketcase or whiny wimp. I need people I can call when I don’t know what to do with my kids, my husband, my mother, my mother-in-law, my brother, or my marginal friends. I need to be able to ask for advice and hear more than platitudes and empty promises to check on me “sometime next week.” If I talk about making a change to better deal with my burdens, I want them to hold my feet to the fire until I actually follow through. And I want people who will share their genuine burdens with me with the same expectations.

I want people with whom I can share good news, and know they are just plain happy for me. And I want to be the same way with them.

My community will have children in it, to remind me how much fun a mud puddle can be, and how thoroughly refreshing is a glass of milk and two cookies. They will remind me who I once was, and spur me to leave a legacy worth the bequeathing.

My community will have teenagers in it, to remind me that I, too, once thought I knew everything. They will also inspire me with their indefatigable zeal for justice, loyalty, and unconditional acceptance. They will give me the chance to redeem myself by again pursuing those Christ-like ideals.

My community will have young adults in it, to remind me life can be wide open with possibility and optimism. The newlyweds among them will have every detail of their courtship and wedding displayed in new, non-chipped frames gracing the walls of their apartment, and it will remind me I was once a fresh face full on in hormonal, ungovernable, intense love — cherished, adored, pursued, and confident in my Lover’s love. And I will be a source of sought-out counsel to these young adults, even as they restore my optimism and remind me to look at my husband with softness.

My community will have people my own age — singles, marrieds, and parents. I so need the camaraderie of people who know who Max Headroom is because they were there, not because they saw some VH1 80s flashback. I need the companionship of people who are discovering they can’t run as fast as they did in high school cross-country, that they have some gray hairs and now must decide whether to fight that battle or succumb to it. I need friends who fall asleep at 9 p.m. after an evening of refereeing toddlers or grimacing their way through an assist in their child’s Algebra II homework. And because I need actual community, I want to be in these people’s lives – having them over for a dinner of Papa John’s pizza, hanging out at a playground on Saturday morning, even going camping one beautiful spring or fall weekend. I want to know their children’s favorite toys because we all hang out. I want them to offer for my kids to sleep over with theirs not because it’s a ultra-planned pajama birthday party, but because they want us as a husband and wife to have a night alone, in our own (free) house. Let me add, I’d like to offer the same. I want to know when their marriage is struggling so I can offer prayer, counsel, help with kids and dates. I want to know how they like their steak cooked and how they take their coffee; I want them to know I don’t like broccoli. I want them to call me when they’re headed to the hospital; I want them to bring me food when I have the flu. I want us to share about our walks- or non-walks – with Jesus, without judgment, with all love.

My community will have old people in it. Not just the healthy ones who join the swim & racquet club, not just the ones in assisted living facilities. Both. Those who show me a physically active retirement, and those who show me retirement that’s still socially active, and those who are alone and lonely in nursing homes. I need them all in my community, because I need people to model healthiness for me (at any age), and I need people who need me, my encouragement, my presence, and the spirit-lifting presence of my young children. I need the long-term perspective, wisdom, experience, and counsel of the old. And I need reminders that I, too, will be old one day, and will desire to be treated with dignity, respect, care, and honor.

I want all of this – brace yourself – NOT PROGRAMMED. I want it organic. Wouldn’t that really be community?

Can the church encourage people of all life stages and ages to simply be with one another? Can the church model that, by having leadership that represents all these (adult) stages and ages?

Can we, especially the believers among us, get off our homogenous hamster wheels and pursue friendships – genuine, not the Facebook-only variety – with people of all stages and ages? Can we choose to live in neighborhoods that have them all present? Can we make an honest, strategic effort to foster honest community? At least starting with the people we do know?

Can I?

Published in: on October 26, 2011 at 12:23 am  Leave a Comment  

Goose Bump Worship

“If I get chill bumps it’s worship, right?”

Caveat: I love Hillsong, Chris Tomlin and all his metrosexual friends (yes, Crowder, that includes you), and any gathering of believers in which Jesus is honestly lifted up, through music, as worthy of praise and adoration. I like the music…I like the sweet keys, the soaring strings, the plaintive guitar picks, the shredded electric, and the rhythm section that can send my emotions reeling with the pitch-perfect brush on the high hat. Oh, yeah, I LIKE feeling like I am gathered with the tribes around the throne of the Lamb. It’s moving, sometimes deeply.

Oh, and there’s not a thing wrong with it. Did I mention that?


All the same….

I’m beginning to wonder why exactly we do music like we do in our “contemporary” (American & evangelical) churches. I feel certain most of us who lead musically, in whatever capacity, genuinely desire to glorify Jesus and see the congregation worship him. And so, we talk a lot about “creating an atmosphere for worship” and other similar phrases. We arrange the instrumentation and vocals to maximize emotional impact. We arrange other elements of the service, too – videos, communion, candles, responsive readings, the lighting – all to “create an atmosphere” where people can hopefully be free of distractions, calm down enough to listen to the message, and emotionally connect with God, either for the first time, or the millionth.

I just wonder if that’s the best approach. Because it leads to these kinds of comments after a worship service:

“I just loved the music today; I felt so close to God.”

“Wow, that video so made me cry; honey, let’s do give some money to that mission team.”

“That was nice but I like the way Charlie Hall did it at the last Passion conference better; I got into it a lot more there.”

Is this what we’re aiming for, as worship service leaders? Chill bumps, tears, oohs and aahs? Those things are fine, but are they the definition of a “good” worship service? Should we even be aiming for such a thing as a “good” worship service?

Check out the few references to corporate worship in the New Testament church. Personally, I don’t get the impression their gatherings consisted of one contrived (yes, I said contrived) emotional mile marker after another. Amazing, unbelievable, miraculous things happened at their gatherings, but all those things were at God’s initiative: the Holy Spirit unmistakably visiting, prophesying, answered prayers (many involving believers in prison…hmm), hearts opened to the gospel by the Holy Spirit. I doubt it was ever because somebody cued the strings at the right moment, or edited the testimony (via video) so it wasn’t too long-winded, or closed the shutters to imbibe a different mood.

Browsing the New Testament narrative, it looks to me like the early believers, at their best, prayed, believed, obeyed, and then got out of the way, and, at their worst, took matters into their own hands and caused problems.

Do we think we can manufacture what only God’s Spirit can do? I think we often try – with good, though misplaced, intentions. And with self-centered, emotionally-dependent, and quite possibly shallow results.

So what’s the solution? Throw out all the Darlene Zschech songs, or just do them badly? Keep the fluorescent lights on and quit buying those hazardous if mood-enhancing candles?

Nah. I want to keep the Hillsong music, and I want to do it well, but only because I want to offer my best to Jesus in worship because he deserves no less – not because I want to play on someone’s heartstrings like only the Holy Spirit can or should.

It’s not the elements themselves (or even the striving to do them well) I’m questioning, it’s the thinking behind them. I suggest we do music, the Lord’s Supper, and all the various elements we’ve somehow decided belong in every corporate gathering, with the recognition that only God’s Spirit will actually move a person…and we may or may not be able to immediately tell if that’s happened. I suggest we do away with the thinking that “creating an atmosphere” is any guarantee that God’s Spirit will indeed work like we think he should. Sometimes worship services go badly indeed, in our judgment, and people still get saved.

I LOVE that God is not dependent upon us, nor obliged to us!

Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 1:03 am  Leave a Comment  

The Church Franchise Trend OR Church Locavores Unite!!

I’m wondering what happened to local congregations being led by people who live there.

Anyone else noticed this trend for churches to get big and then plant additional “campuses”? What are we, a state university system? What happened to sending out missionaries to plant local churches? Why are mega-churches planting campuses? Is this compatible with the New Testament church, or Paul’s missionary/church planting approach? I’m just wondering.

Because it sounds suspiciously like a franchise to me.

Look at the similarities:

Starbucks pretty much worldwide:

  • Same coffee
  • Same tea
  • Same pastries
  • Same sandwiches
  • Free wi-fi
  • Same décor (and lack of sufficient comfortable seats)
  • Same condiment/creamer counter
  • Same cups, mugs, and small appliances for sale

This is all well and good for a mongo coffee franchise. When you walk into a Starbucks, whether it be Manhattan, Seattle, or Bangkok, you’re not looking for local flavor. You’re looking for familiar, dependable, no surprises.

Multi-campus churches:

  • Same logo
  • Same style of décor
  • Same “feel” – style of music, methods of outreach and community service, flow of worship service, approach to child care and age-graded Bible study/small groups
  • Same DNA as the “main” campus

Is this really a local community of faith? Nah, it’s a branch of the main campus, as surely as the University of South Carolina has a main campus and branch campuses. You can start your studies at the branch campus, but at some point you’re gonna have to make the pilgrimage to the main campus if you ever expect to earn a degree. Apparently higher level teaching can only occur where the message is closely watched by central command. It seems like main campus leadership is afraid of local leadership getting off-message.

Here’s what I want to say to that “senior” pastor: It’s great God called you to City A, and planted you there in that church to lead it in service to the Kingdom and its community. That’s awesome. You’re obviously doing a good job, and my hat is off to you. Do keep it up. But if God wanted you in City B as the teacher in its church, don’t you think he would have put you there? This isn’t the Billy Graham Evangelism Association. You’ve been called to pastor a local congregation. DO THAT.

Am I old-fashioned to want the dude who’s teaching the Word to me on a weekly basis to be a dude who lives in my community? I want to be able to run into my pastor at the grocery store, at the downtown park, at the movie theater, at the Starbucks out in our slice of suburbia. I want my pastor to know what’s going on in my community because he lives there.

I want my church leaders to be personally invested in the life of my community and our congregation. Simultaneously, I want to be personally invested in their lives, too.

The late and great missionary Roland Allen, in his classic Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, puts it better: “The elders were really of the church to which they ministered. They were at home…Thus the bond between the elders and the church to which they ministered was extremely close.”

Earlier in the book, speaking of Paul’s tendency to plant a church and then skedaddle (my paraphrase), Allen writes, “By leaving them quickly St. Paul gave the local leaders the opportunity to take their proper place, and forced the church to realize that it could not depend upon him, but must depend upon its own resources.”

What a brilliant strategy – let the local believers, whom God has called and gifted with precisely the gifts needed for that local church, lead, and thereby grow in their giftings, while the church grows in faith.

Kinda different from a franchise, eh?

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 1:06 am  Comments (4)  

The Church Search, v. 2011 (including an amazing contextual reference to the Youngbloods)

Family worship – Always interesting with toddlers


1. I’m well aware there’s no such thing as a perfect church – and I’m not looking for one (my presence would ruin it if I found it!).

2. I’m also well aware that the search for a church for me is not, actually, about me. The church belongs to Jesus (even if she forgets that often, and badly). She doesn’t exist to make me or even my family “happy,” but to serve her Lord, above all. I search for a church home because it’s Biblical, and because I want to be in a community of faith where God can love me through people, and love people through me.

There, those done, allow me to elucidate exactly what kind of church I would LOVE to be part of…An ideal many believers would join me in drooling over, and a description every church you visit will tell you fits them to a tee (or will by next year) – which is, we all know, exceedingly doubtful.

1. Orthodox belief. Bible-based and –focused, no weird doctrinal teachings or practices. By “weird” I mean outside of orthodox Christian belief as passed down since the time of Christ and the canonization of the Christian Bible. Duh.

2. Multi-generational. Young people need old people. Old people need children. Middle-aged people need old people. Teenagers need old people. Children need teenagers. A church without old people is lacking the wisdom of years and long-term perspective. A church without young people is lacking fresh-faced zeal and a future. “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”

3. Multi-ethnic. Unless you really do live in a place where everyone around you looks like you, everyone in your church shouldn’t look like you. And please don’t point to the one black/Latino/Asian family in a room full of white people – I’m referring to a meaningful blend, not a quota-qualifying representation. What is the power of the cross if not to call people from astonishingly disparate backgrounds to the raucous, stunning, indescribable wedding feast of the Lamb?

4. Missional everywhere. Meaning the church member who volunteers with Big Brother or Sister, but doesn’t volunteer in the nursery, is still considered missional and not berated for “failure to serve.” Meaning the church asks her community what they need, and delivers, in the way and attitude of Jesus. (Does your community need a big fat block party? Or does it need tutors at the middle school? Okay then.) Meaning international missionaries aren’t sexier than the self-supported servants at your local homeless shelter. Meaning ministering to the homeless isn’t limited to sending over some blankets at Christmas, but volunteering to spend one night a month at the shelter, maybe even something crazy like adopting a couple of those stinky homeless men and walking them out of the shelter and through a whole year of 12-step support, job training, and personal, spiritual, and relational transformation. (Imagine.) Meaning “service days” don’t consist of trimming shrubbery at your property tax-free facility, but actually serving someone/some group in need. Meaning church members learn how to share their faith in natural, non-weird, non-contrived ways with co-workers, neighbors, friends, family members. Basically, meaning “missions” is not an element of the church, but its essence.

5. As enthusiastic about worship as one of those rabid (S.C.) Gamecock fans on opening day. Honestly. The one thing we know for sure we will do – and do LOTS OF – in heaven…is worship. Might as well get used to raising our hands and falling on our faces now, because we sure as heck will then, you know what I’m saying? And I refuse to get more excited over the vindicating deal I got at the mongo Kohl’s sale last week than I am over worshipping my wonderful, sweet, glorious Jesus. So let’s clap and jump and raise a hand (or two!) in the air when we sing about joy and victory and glory. Try it yourself, fellow believer; I promise it won’t hurt. But at least don’t look at me funny if I indulge, okay?

6. Not angry. Not about the so-called “culture wars” (please – don’t we have love AND truth to spread around?). Not about politics; Jesus carried no flag but his Father’s, and we carry no flag but his. Not about foreign policy and the affairs of nation-states; they are temporal, and the kingdom we belong to is eternal and unshakeable. And, for the love of all that is decent, not angry about non-essential doctrinal disagreements or, worse yet, denominational disagreements. So sit down and cool off already. (Be involved, yes, but only to the extent that these areas have something to do with #7.)

7. Angry. Furious, actually, at the true injustices in the world, the ones we know Jesus would be mad about: Poverty, and, worse, apathy towards and neglect of the poor. Violence, from the home to the military combat zone. Abortion. Human trafficking – okay, can we just call it slavery again? Will that better galvanize the Church? The willful and self-centered destruction of our (excuse me, God’s) planet. If we call it bad (planetary) stewardship will that better galvanize the Church? Broken relationships: bitterness, unforgiveness, neglect, and superficiality in marriages, in families, among friends, between communities. Oppression – physical, spiritual, financial – all born out of a greedy grasp for power, itself born out of idolatry (“I am God”). Racism. Sexism. Neglect of children, the handicapped, old people, and all others with little to no voice. Oh, yes indeed, my church should be livid at these things, and should say, along with the T-shirt I saw recently, “I refuse to do nothing.”

8. Sweet. Sweet love between members. Sweet warmth to visitors. Sweet and tender, so sweet and tender, to non-believers, that to each one of them the church person may be the aroma of Christ. Especially sweet to children, to old people, to the poor and marginalized, and to the alien (the immigrant) in their midst.

The rest of my preferences are skin-deep: style and size of building, style of music, style of preaching, size of congregation. But the elements listed above are what I’d really, really love to be part of.

Published in: on May 7, 2011 at 2:00 am  Leave a Comment