Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kingdom Campaigning

Ok, I lied. I said I wasn't going to blog here again until 2011, but being a week away from mid-term elections I just had to spell out some questions I've been pondering. With the airwaves, ad space, and cable news shows filled to the brim with political ads desperately seeking our attention, I am amazed at how many candidates are dragging out their opponent's dirty laundry in an attempt to make themselves look better - falling into a mode of running againstanother person - as opposed to spelling out a plan to tackle the complex and difficult situations many of our communities and states are facing in the weeks and months ahead. In the current game of campaigning, what it boils down to for us as voters is to determine which of the candidates is least troublesome to our conscience and then submit our vote as an act of support for them - albeit a hesitant, halfhearted support. Is this really all we should expect from candidates? A change in how we campaign is desperately needed.

So I've been wondering...

1. What if candidates, particularly those professing to be Christians (a large percentage?), remembered that because of what took place on and after the cross Jesus endured they were set free from sin and there is no longer any condemnation? How would their message change and how would their attitude to other candidates change? How would campaigns (and their ads) be different if candidates did not bring up the pasts of other candidates?

2. What if, during debates, moderators had the guts to cut off any remarks made by a candidate that in any way attempted to judge the other candidate(s)? What if instead of finger-pointing the candidates took the idea of leadership to heart and pointed out all the positive things the other candidates had to bring to the table and offered ways to help them improve even more? Sounds backwards, doesn't it? But wouldn't you vote for a leader that made the people around them better?

What questions does all this political banter raise for you?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Update and new blog

I know, I know, it's been a while since I've posted here and for that I apologize. It's not that I've stopped writing, it's just that I've stopped writing here. I hope to return to this blog again in 2011 but for now you can catch me over at a new blog I started a few weeks ago titled "The Gospel According to Dave Matthews Band" http://ga2dmb.blogspot.com.

So until I post here again, Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I'll see you in 2011.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Myth of Full-Time Ministry

Otto Scharmer, a consultant to some of the world's largest and most influential organizations, typically begins his consulting conversations by asking the same thought-provoking question: What question is your work an answer to?

Sit on that for a moment or two. It's deep, isn't it?

A friend of mine, whom I'll call Tim, told me that when he started working in the insurance industry he would often get up and go to work repeatedly forgetting, even ignoring, the purpose behind his work, which was to provide financial protection for others in the case of an accident or catastrophe. He said that not long after starting his job, he fell into the trap of thinking that he was just there to push some paper around and collect a paycheck. In fact, he described his typical day like "wading into the water alone without catching a wave and then swimming back to the shore at 5:00."

Years later, Tim woke up to the reality that he was not in his position to ultimately serve his company or earn a paycheck. Rather, he was in his position to more intentionally serve the people who trusted his company. What he learned about these people was that while they appeared to be financially well-off or at least secure, many were not. So from that day forward, Tim committed to personally connecting with as many of his company's trusting clients as possible to learn more about their financial situation and express his care and concern for them. What happened over time was that Tim and many of these trusting clients developed friendships beyond their contractual connections, and soon work became an outlet for Tim's ministry of providing free financial counseling to help people and families climb out of debt.

Tim's story is just one of thousands who have discovered a larger, more meaningful purpose to their work. Instead of quitting their 9-5 job and entering "full-time ministry" in a church or religious organization, many people are discovering that they're already in positions of "full-time ministry", serving as store clerks, accountants, stay-at-home moms, etc. just without the robes and collars (or flip-flops and t-shirts, if that's your tradition). The idea that "full-time ministry" is a calling for only a few select super-holy people is bogus. Anyone who professes to be a follower of Jesus is already in full-time ministry, whether they know it or not. It may just not take place in a church building.

Tim's response to Otto's question evolved over time from "How can I financially support my family?" to "How can I offer financial liberation to those who are desperate for it?"

How would you respond to Otto's question?

Perhaps it's too complicated to articulate your question right now, so a better question to consider might be "What question would you like your work to be an answer to?"

May the hours you spend at work each day be filled with opportunities to serve others and may you be a force for good right where you are.

Monday, April 26, 2010

We need new soil!

It's planting season here in the Midwest. Warm temperatures and dry spells lasting several days have propelled farmers into their fields where they're spending numerous hours behind the steering wheels of their large and sophisticated pieces of equipment planting seeds in the ground.

Unlike its counterparts in the more mild regions of the world, where farming happens all year round, planting season in the Midwest seems to carry with it a strong sense of revitalization and renewal as the once frozen soil comes to life to serve as the container for growth and potential fruitfulness of the crop. And every farmer knows that the condition of the soil is what determines the quality of the crop.

For the soil to generate healthy growth and do its best work (i.e. produce a high yield) it must be healthy itself. Conditions such as too little top soil or too much water will limit the fruitfulness of the crops. At the front end of planting season, much work goes into preparing the soil to be as healthy a host as possible for the crops. Year after year, farmers begin their planting season by first tending to the condition of the soil so that it's prepared to be a healthy host come time to plant seeds.

Imagine for a moment what the crops would look like in a field that did not have its soil tilled and nourished before accepting seeds? Words like "stunted" and "unfruitful" come to my mind, don't they?

In many ways, churches in North America are a lot like unprepared soil. Sure, they started out with the right purpose - wanting to serve as a container for the growth, and fruitfulness of the seeds planted in it - but over time (sometimes just a couple years), and for whatever reason, these same churches have lost sight of that purpose and are now trying to raise crops without tending to the source of their crop's growth. Churches have fallen in love with the crop and have forgotten about the soil!

Research shows that in North America, in general, there is an inverse correlation between the number of years a church has been in existence and the number of disciple-making disciples it produces. In other words, the longer a church survives, the fewer disciple-making disciples it produces.

To combat this trend, some have argued that we simply need more new churches in the world (those with a great chance of having the right purpose in mind), and so for the last forty years, church planting programs, conferences, and resources have been developed by church planting experts to fuel a movement of church planting across North America and the world. This, I believe, is not the best approach to take as it may only perpetuate the trend of spending hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of time building long-lasting but ultimately unfruitful organizations. The policies, procedures, and strategies that have been developed over the last half a century are no longer effective today. So what should we do?

What we need, I would argue, is to create spaces within our faith communities to dream about a new kind of soil. We need to return to the questions of the soil, so to speak, and ask ourselves, "what are the essential elements we must embody as followers of Jesus to be obedient and fruitful ourselves and then help others be the same?" I have some thoughts on this but I'd like to hear yours first. What do you think? What would a healthy container for the growth and fruitfulness of Jesus-followers look like?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Missional Easter

In the weeks leading up to Easter I've been asking myself, "What does a missional Easter look like?" And for weeks, I've struggled to find a helpful image...until this past Thursday. I was reading Luke's version of Jesus' death and resurrection and was struck by the stories that immediately follow his resurrection.

As Luke shares with his readers, the disciples of Jesus were quite amped up after discovering that Jesus' tomb was empty - that he was no longer in there - and yet they didn't have any physical evidence that he had truly been resurrected. In fact they were not fully convinced themselves that he was alive again. Perhaps they were just cautiously optimistic.

One post-resurrection story on which Luke spends a significant of time is one of Jesus appearing to two of his disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, which happened to occur on the same day of his resurrection, post-Passover (Luke 24:13). While walking along the road, Jesus shows up and walks alongside Cleopas and his mate who do not recognize him. They have no clue who he is. In fact, Cleopas treats Jesus like a newcomer to the area, wondering why Jesus had not heard about all that had happened in Jerusalem in the last few days. I picture Jesus trying not to laugh in response to Cleopas' questioning. Imagine that scene for a minute: here's Jesus, who three days earlier had been arrested, beaten, ridiculed, stripped naked, and hammered to a Roman execution stake left to suffocate to death. Jesus finally surrenders his spirit (breathes his last breath) and dies. Three days later, Jesus is resurrected by the power of God and now stands in front of two of his disciples who wonder if he is aware of what just happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. If I were Jesus, my response would be something like, "Yeah, I'm fully aware of what happened." Seriously Cleopas! It's all quite humorous really. Anyway, back to the story.

As the story goes, these two disciples don't recognize Jesus until much later in the day - not until after sunset when they share a meal together - and only then are their eyes opened to who he really is. Now in the Jewish culture, the next day began when the sun went down. For example, the time after sunset that we would call Sunday night the Jewish culture would consider the start of Monday. (Read and reflect on the creation poem of Genesis 1 for more insight on this). But that is not the point I want to make here.

What I find really interesting here is that Jesus chooses to have people recognize his true resurrected self for the very first time in the midst of a post-resurrection (post-Easter) meal. The two disciples with whom Jesus shares the meal later point to the way he broke bread during the meal as the key moment for their recognition of him. One could say that it is in the post-resurrection breaking of bread, or the post-Easter sharing of a meal, that Jesus reveals himself to others.

We could dig much deeper into the post-Easter activities of Jesus, but my original question remains unanswered: what does a missional Easter look like? If living a missional life includes practicing hospitality (sharing meals), and if Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, perhaps hosting a meal on Easter (be it breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner) is the closest encounter the people you know might ever have with the resurrected Jesus.

Perhaps in the sharing of a meal - whether it be friends, neighbors, co-workers, other followers of Jesus, family, strangers or even enemies - Jesus might choose to reveal his fully alive and resurrected self to those present, some of whom might even encounter him for the very first time? If Jesus did it once, he just might do it again.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The heart of missional living

In my attempt to keep up with all this talk about being "missional" I can't help but wonder how future generations will interpret this movement of sorts. In 50 years, will the missional movement be viewed more as one of radical service, generosity, and devotion to Jesus, or as an impotent, top-heavy, cognitive exercise that produced little more than some occasional service projects and new terminology for our lackluster ministries? I pray that it's the former, yet with all the conferences and books being produced with "missional" in their titles, I do have reservations.

Just as we teach our kids that what's popular is not always right, so too must we as missional leaders regularly ask (and be asked) if what we're doing is in alignment with the historical ministry and present guidance of Jesus. I've read and heard stories of churches simply tacking on more service opportunities to their ministries in which their already overly busy members can participate and then proclaiming themselves to be missional. Now I'm all for service, but if the pursuit of more service is an attempt to jump into the popular missional movement so as to somehow satisfy our deep desire for significance, then we need to stop and question our motivations. The missional movement at its core is not about more service. If it was, we wouldn't need God. We could simply set up shop as a charity and call ourselves missional. That's not what the missional movement is primarily about. Rather, it's about something much less noticeable at the outset.

At the core of a missional lifestyle is the difficult and deeply necessary practice of listening - listening to God, listening to others, listening to ourselves. Where some people and churches want to immediately jump into action as a demonstration of their being missional, living an intentionally missional life actually requires us as individuals and communities of faith to create space for listening to occur. Jesus demonstrates this when he is led into the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4). So too do his first followers as they wait in Jerusalem for the promised Spirit to arrive (Acts 1-2). As much as we want to go out and prove ourselves to be followers of Jesus, we must resist the urge to step out ahead of the Spirit.

There will come a time when we need to act, and act with a servant's heart. But first we must listen, not just to one another, not just to those who have gone before us, but, most importantly, to the Originator of the missional movement.

This leads us to three critical questions for missional living:
1. How are you intentionally creating space to listen?
2. How do you know if what you're hearing from God is truly God?
3. What would an obedient response to God's missional invitation look like in your context?

Following Jesus today is just as difficult as it was 2000 years ago. Doing so will require everything of you, but once you step into that journey you realize there is no one else you'd rather live your life for.

If you have a story to share about your own following of Jesus, I'd love to hear it. Please feel free to email me about it.

As you step into the world, may you go in the name of the risen Christ who will always be with you. And may you develop the habit of listening and responding to God. Perhaps you'll be surprised by what you hear.


Friday, March 19, 2010

The Issues Behind the Issues

Upon moving to a new city last summer, I sought to answer this question: what are the needs - both obvious and hidden - that God wants to meet in this community and how can I join him in doing that? To answer that question, I decided to take a tour of the city, and guess who I invited to be my tour guide? None other than one of the sergeants of our fine police department (I'll call him Sgt. Tom).

So on a recent Saturday night, Sgt. Tom and I patrolled the city. For four hours I rode in his patrol car, asking numerous questions about the city, its people, and their issues in hopes of gaining a fresh perspective on the city, my city, our city, God's city. And while I didn't participate in a high speed chase or provide back up for a drug bust, I did experience moments of great surprise.

One of those moments occurred when Sgt. Tom drove us through the parking lot of a shady motel and pointed out the issues of each person who called that motel home. One by one, he rattled off the issues as if he was reading through a class roster. "This person struggles with ____ and this one is in therapy for ______" and so on and so forth. What blew me away was not the depth or intensity of the issues he shared but that he was fully aware of the issues behind the issues! One person's drug addiction was actually a symptom of a much deeper issue in his life: his inability to find a steady job. Another person's petty theft was a direct result of her unhealthy relationships at home. What struck me about Sgt. Tom was that while he knew he had a job to protect and serve the community, he took that responsibility a step further.

Sgt. Tom's desire was to change the status quo for the community he lived in and loved. He sought to lower the level of domestic violence and see that each person who desired to work could find gainful employment. He sought to truly understand each person he encountered so as to get at the root of the destructive behaviors they were demonstrating and then provide them with an opportunity to change. It wasn't enough for him just to lock people up for the crimes they committed; he wanted to see them become changed people who changed their city, his city, our city, God's city. This is redemption.

The tour of the city opened my eyes to the issues behind the issues and I'm grateful for the opportunity Sgt. Tom provided me to learn about them. I'm now dreaming about the next steps to take so as to stop the vicious cycles of destructive behaviors that get passed down from generation to generation.

Here are two questions for you to consider:
1. Who can you connect with to learn more about your city so as to discover the issues behind the issues?
2. After learning what those issues are, what steps will you take to see change come about for the good of your city and its people?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fear and Love

In the spring of 2007 I was wrapping up my master's degree and contemplating where to go and apply everything I had learned in my studies. In my head, there was only one option for us: Michigan. My wife and I had moved from Michigan to California two years earlier so that I could go to grad school, and being familiar with the cultural landscape of the region it made a lot of sense for us to move back. We scheduled a trip to visit the community from which we came fully expecting to experience a strong tug back toward that place. As the trip neared, our excitement grew about the opportunities we would encounter and the re-connections we would make. It would be as if we went on a long vacation and now we were coming back! Everything would be the same!

As you can guess, things weren't the same. While we thoroughly enjoyed connecting with friends and visiting our favorite places, we never sensed that God was inviting us to go back there. Needless to say, this threw us for a loop as we had not considered another option. What do we do now?

Over the next several months were spent time in prayer and discussion seeking to understand two things. First, why had God not called us back to Michigan? And second, where was he inviting us to go? As the weeks turned into months we began to feel what everyone seems to feel in times of uncertainty: fear. For me, fear is like walking through a maze while blindfolded. The longer an uncomfortable situation persists the more I feel like I'll never get out of it and there's nothing I can do to get out. It's exasperating! I can't see! If only I could see then I could find my way out and put this feeling of uncertainty to rest!

One morning, after several months of what felt like wandering around aimlessly, I was sitting alone with God and asking him what he had in store for me. The response I "heard" caught me a bit off guard, but it was as clear as the ocean by the beaches of St. Petersburg (I've never been to St. Pete by the way, but I've seen the "untouched" photos). God said, "You are right where I want you to be." What? Here? In Pasadena? What could you have for us here?

My wife and I never considered living in Southern California for longer than we needed to, but now God was asking us to essentially open our eyes to all the opportunities around us to demonstrate his way of life with and among others. Why had we not considered this option before? I'll tell you why: fear! Our fear of the unknown had blinded us to what God was doing in our midst. We kept looking elsewhere, especially back to the familiar land we had come from, and realized we were not being led to those other places. God has us right where he wanted us.

Many who sincerely seek God's will in times of transition find themselves dealing with this beast called fear. And if I've learned anything from my own times of transition, it's that fear quickly fills the void when I am blind to love. I'm not talking about the romantic kind of love here, I'm talking about the love God has for me and for others which propels me to serve. Perhaps this is why we never read of Jesus being fearful. He was so confident in God's love for him and others that he could peacefully and gracefully enter any situation or setting and serve people with complete joy, openness, and freedom.

Perhaps you're in a time of transition or are wondering what purpose God might have for you and your life. If I can only say one thing to you, it would be this: God deeply loves you and thoroughly enjoys being your Father. Let that sink in for a while. After it does, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the situations and settings you regularly find yourself in and ask, "Who can I serve in these places?" You may find that God has you right where he wants you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The beginning of change

Change is not a foreign term for anyone who's been alive the past 2 years. President Obama's election campaign was driven by it. The air waves and cable programs have overflowed with deafening voices shouting about it. Change seems to be a constant topic of conversation, if not a constant yearning within every one of us.

If change is what we want most, then we have to ask some very difficult questions. Oftentimes, the underlying question during discussions about change is "How can we bring about change?" This is not a bad question as it points toward a desire to provide a better way of life for others. Below the surface, this question demonstrates a realization on the part of those engaged in the discussions that individuals, sub-cultures, and even whole nations are not as independent as they once thought they were. We're not alone on this planet!

With the help of those studying chaos theory, we're discovering that the actions of an individual in Wichita can have a profound effect (positive or negative) on a group of people halfway around the world. In fact I just saw a news report today about an 8 year old who is raising money to purchase much-needed school supplies for Afghan children. Think about that: an 8 year old in America improving the literacy rate for a whole region of students in Afghanistan! Amazing!

Individuals who engage in the process of serving others often share in one way or another how doing so makes them feel more alive, more human. Imagine that! Acting generously toward others actually makes us more alive! And yet these initiatives are seldom sustained and the people helped often revert to their previous lifestyle.

Change experts like Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline)have proclaimed for years that true, authentic, lasting change begins with our own personal transformation. In other words, if we want to change others, we must first change ourselves. While the idea of personal transformation being the beginning of larger, societal change may be revolutionary to some, Jesus followers for centuries have pursued this journey of personal transformation. As a result, we've taken on disciplines like fasting, listening prayer, and giving to others which have developed into larger annual traditions like the season of Lent that we are in right now. These practices have brought about the transformation of many individuals over the course of a few thousand years (including myself) and they are perhaps more necessary now in our current time in human history than at any other time given the historical levels of chaos and brokenness evident around us.

Most people want to see change come about but are usually less than willing to do what is necessary to begin the change process. Tough questions stare us in the face when we talk about change, namely, "What are we willing to change about ourselves?"

As someone who has spoken with many about the process of change, there's one thing that usually prevents people from beginning their own process of personal transformation: fear. Fear is a real obstacle for most people and yet it's the one thing that Jesus reminds us not to embrace. I need to double-check this, but it's been said that the most numerous commandment from God in the Scriptures is a variation of "do not fear." If we can live without fear, what kind of change could we see come about in our lives? Beyond that, what kind of change could we see come about in our neighborhoods and in our cities, even our nations and world? Living a life without fear is possible and you can start right now.

As you consider your own process of personal change, take some time to think about who you would like to come alongside you in your journey. You can't change all by yourself. You'll need someone's encouragement and support as well as their tough (but necessary) questions to help you move forward. If you've never had a coach, I encourage you to consider getting one. I have one and it's changed my life. If you'd like to give coaching a try, feel free to contact me. I'll be glad to walk by your side during your process of change.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ministry and planning

Ministry is not the same as strategic planning.

Having connected with hundreds of ministry leaders and served in various communities of faith for the past dozen years, it's interesting how ministry has turned into a practice of strategic planning. Attend any number of church conferences this year and you'll find that a significant percentage of the sessions are devoted to helping attendees become better strategic planners. One person's success becomes a strategic plan for hundreds or even thousands of others to seek to emulate. I call it the "Willow Creek Effect." Is that what today's ministry leaders really need? More advice from people on becoming successful? Really?

Now before your mind goes any further, let me say that there's nothing wrong with planning or from learning from others. In fact, the Proverbs of Solomon are full of insight on how to seek advice from others when making plans (Proverbs 16 is good place to start). Yet even the best of plans can be thwarted when the Spirit of God blows through town and through our churches.

With increasing frequency I'm hearing stories from ministry leaders (primarily in North America) who are putting down their conference manuals and strategic planning guides in order pursue a more simple and faithful (faith-filled?) practice of planning. Instead of immediately calling a meeting to discuss the problems staring them in the face, ministry leaders and teams are turning to God to seek his guidance. Instead of talking to one another, people are listening to God. Instead of trusting the latest book on ministry success, leaders and teams are learning to trust God by believing that his creative Spirit is actually living inside of them and is begging to reveal His unique and amazingly creative plans to them and their communities.

Out of these listening sessions are coming some powerful ministries, like the group in Wyoming who is now providing haircuts and shaves for oil field workers who otherwise wouldn't receive such care. God's not asking you to be great, just obedient. And by being obedient, you find yourself participating in ministry.

Perhaps you're in a similar situation as some of the leaders I've spoken with were - overwhelmed with meetings, bogged down by petty arguments, feeling dry and impotent in their leadership for a community of faith which was created to participate in the abundant life of our Creator God. Who can you talk to about these thoughts and feelings? How can you carve out an hour a week to listen to what God might be saying to you? What plans might God have for you and your ministry?

If you'd like for someone to come alongside you in this stage of your journey, someone who has been there himself and can understand what you're experiencing, feel free to contact me. I'd love to hear what God is saying to you.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The practice of straddling

In our attempt to answer the question, where does God find us? it’s probably good to start with God himself, namely Jesus. In the Gospels, we find Jesus preparing for the movement of God by spending the majority of his ministry life with one of two seemingly opposed audiences: his community of faith and those who were not yet living the Kingdom way of life. Perhaps those were the only two audiences available to him, but the thing that amazes me about this is that Jesus was comfortable around both audiences. He had the uncanny ability to do what I like call “straddling”, that is, to position oneself with one foot in the world and one foot in a community of faith without favoring one over the other. This posture of straddling is more difficult than we think, but it can be done!

Perhaps the most important step in developing your ability to straddle is to discover the audience you primarily find yourself in, and then take intentional - and sometimes bold - steps to engage more frequently with the other audience. My friend Tom Clegg wrote a book a few years ago titled Missing in America in which he encourages readers to identify something they love to do (e.g. a hobby) and then go and do that "something", whatever it is, with the audience they spend the least amount of time with.

For example, while living in southern California within a community of faith I found that I spent the majority of my time with brothers and sisters who were committed to following Jesus. Now as someone who loves to play basketball, I (along with some of my friends) determined not to join a church basketball league where we would be surrounded by even more Christians. Rather, we joined the city league where we could more deeply learn about and invest in the lives of those who did not participate in a community of faith.

By playing basketball in the city league, my friends and I were able to develop relationships of trust with a few young men, which created opportunities for us to respond to the promptings of the Spirit to share the love and grace of God with others. Had we not practiced the posture of straddling, we would have missed opportunities to grow in obedience to God’s leading.

Having spent a significant amount of time with others who do not yet know or follow Jesus, I'm now much more comfortable investing my time, resources, and energy in their lives. In fact, it may even be time to re-assess my practice of straddling and determine if I need to invest more time and energy in the lives of fellow followers of Jesus. We're never equally balanced as straddlers; rather our weight/momentum will constantly shift from one foot to the other. The important thing is to know when it's time to shift our weight so as not to get stagnant and neglect the other audience.

The practice of straddling raises two practical questions. First, what audience do you most often interact with? And second, what intentional steps can you take today to more deeply invest in the other audience? If you'd like some help as you develop this practice of straddling, let me know. I'd love to come alongside you and encourage you in your journey.

May you learn to see and respond to God as you participate more engage more regularly with the other audience.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Where do we find God? part 2

If you read my previous post, you'll remember that a more accurate question to ask is "Where does God find us?" From my previous post we can see that there are no limits on when, where, or even how God will seek us out. He’ll even use donkeys if he wants to for goodness sake (Numbers 22)!

When we look at the life of Jesus, many say that his 30+ years of life were all part of God’s plan of salvation, and I believe that to be true on a large, cosmic scale. Yet when we pause to reflect on the regular rhythms of Jesus’ life, we find him more often in a mode of preparation than in a mode of planning. Jesus’ posture of preparation is perhaps what some today might refer to as the “missional life.” Whatever we want to call it, followers of Jesus are invited to take on his posture of preparation so as to live as Jesus would live in the 21st century world in which we find ourselves in. Within this posture of preparation I find at least 3 practices around which we can orient our lives around starting today, the first of which I’ll discuss in this post.

First, there’s the practice of solitude, or what some call the practice of disconnecting from the world and its demands. In times of solitude, we discover (or rediscover) that our true identity – that person who God sees – does not depend on what we do as much as we think it does. In times of solitude, we encounter very few if any external distractions which positions us to listen for the whispering voice of God. And if we hear clearly, you and I will hear God reminding us of the people you and I are created to be: a beloved child of God who is blessed to be a blessing. This is an identity we cannot escape no matter how hard we try because it’s an identity given to us by our Creator and not one we conjured up or worked for on our own.

The practice of solitude is ultimately not about doing all the talking by bringing our requests before God. Rather, solitude is about being shaped by the voice and presence of God; it’s about being reminded of who we are in the eyes of our Creator. Turning off our smart phones, sitting still, and emptying our heads and hearts of the roller coaster of distracting thoughts and emotions so as to position ourselves in a listening mode is difficult to do today, but it can be done! Jesus often disconnected from the demands being placed on him by those wanting to hear another teaching or see another miracle, and at times he left people hanging. He even disconnected from his own community of disciples at times to sit and be still before his Father. Jesus simply made the choice to regularly return time and time again to a posture of listening to and receiving from God.

I recently started to use the following exercise in my practice of solitude. When I enter a quiet place, I’ll take a pen and paper with me and once I settle into a comfortable position I’ll extend my arms in front of me with my the palms of my hands facing down. It’s in this position that I’ll slow my breathing and I’ll speak before God all the thoughts, emotions, and things to do that are filling my head and heart. If there’s something critically important that comes to mind I will write it down and forget about it. This exercise can take anywhere between 5 and 45 minutes for me, depending on the day and the situations I’m involved in. But once I clear my head and heart of all that’s going on, I turn by palms upward and ask God to speak. It’s in this time that I simply listen with my entire being for the whispers of God. I won’t share any specifics about the things God has spoken to me during those times of solitude, but I will say that my times of solitude have profoundly shaped my self-perception as well as my perception of others and of God. There have even been times when God hasn’t said anything and I’ve simply enjoyed being in his presence. Whatever the outcome, the practice of solitude is always worth my time.

By practicing solitude over a period of weeks, months, and even years I’m certain that you will be a different person as a result. I know that the more frequently I practice solitude the more I am attuned to the activity of God all around me, whether it is in the heart of my neighbor or in the changing of my own thoughts and attitudes. I sense that I see life more clearly and hear people’s words on a different level than when I live at a hurried and distracted pace.

Preparing for the movement of God by practicing solitude will not guarantee that you will be the first to notice where God is at work when he begins to move, but it certainly will prepare you to join in when you do notice.

So what would it take for you to take on the practice of solitude in your life? What might God want to whisper to you during those times of solitude? I pray that in your times of solitude God will remind you of who you were created to be and that you will live differently as a result.

Practices 2 and 3 are forthcoming.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where do we find God?

The question of where we find God is one that’s been asked (and answered) by cultures since the beginning of time. The Incas looked to creation, namely the sun, to find God. The Greeks sought God in their minds, which resulted in the separation of physical space into sacred and secular. Therefore the need for temples (sacred spaces) arose and these temples were viewed as a place to find God. Similarly, American culture looks to a modern day temple (i.e. a synagogue, mosque, cathedral, or church building) as a place to find God. We even have street signs and GPS systems that tell us when we’re approaching a religious center, perhaps as a means to put our road rage on hold for just a moment as we drive by. It’s an interesting posture that we take toward our modern day temples and one that I would argue is not what God intends for us today.

The Scriptures demonstrate that for first century Jews, going to a synagogue was a deeply ingrained practice of their society. And yet throughout the Scriptures we find a strong challenge to the very notion that we need to go somewhere to find God. For those who seek God today, our draw to a church building or cathedral is similar to going to a zoo to see wild animals confined to cages. We know that when we go to the monkey cage, we’ll find monkeys. So too, we think that when we step into a church building it is there that we’ll find God. The problem is that sometimes we'll do that and God doesn't show up. This is an interesting approach to finding God, but the Scriptures demonstrate over and over again that our question of “where do we find God?” is not the question we need to be asking. The better question that the Bible asks of its readers is “where does God find us?

Numerous examples demonstrate where God finds people. With Paul, God found him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9); with Peter, James, and John, they were found on a fishing boat (Luke 5); and with Samuel, God found him in a temple (1 Samuel 3). Even in the story of creation, it’s God who walks through Eden seeking out Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:9). In fact, it can be said that many in the Gospels were found by God on the street as Jesus taught them and touched them. The obvious lesson that these stories teach us is that God is not limited to one place of residence or another. With that, it's apparently not up to us to tell God when to show up and how to meet us, rather it’s God who determines when, where, and how he will encounter us.

Beyond that, there is a deeper challenge in this question of “where does God find us?”

In many of our pursuits to find God we end up making plans and then asking God to “show up.” Having participated in that approach to ministry for several years, I have to say that I felt a lot like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz as I attempted to orchestrate the movement of God in the lives of others so as to bring about transformation. While such an approach was exciting at times and I did see God move in the hearts and lives of others, it also was overly dependent on my ability to plan and even my ability to manipulate others, so much so that it produced much doubt and frustration in my life. And sometimes God didn’t show up in the way or at the time I expected him to, which only added to my doubt and frustration.

In recent months, I’ve come to the conclusion in my faith journey that it’s not my job to tell God when to show up and in what way to show up. Rather, my job as an obedient follower of Jesus is to be as alert as possible throughout my day so that when God calls and invites me to join him in his work in the world I am prepared to go. The simple way I communicate this to others is with this saying: we cannot PLAN for the movement of God, we can only PREPARE for it. Preparation, I have found, is actually much harder than planning, and yet it’s exactly what God asks us to do. So what does preparation look like on a regular basis?

Check out the next post for my response to that question.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Second behind...?

Last night I was flying home from Springfield, Illinois and because it's a small airport our flight was the only one scheduled to take off for the rest of the night ...or so I thought. After boarding the plane and leaving the gate, we rolled to the end of the tarmac at which point I assumed the pilot would simply turn the corner onto the runway and begin his acceleration. Not so. Instead, we slowed to a halt, paused for about 10 seconds and then the pilot's announcement came, "Folks, this is the pilot. We are currently second in line for takeoff so it should only be another 2-3 minutes." What?! Second in line? Behind who? Was there a father and son duo on the runway flying their remote-controlled plane? Was there a flock of geese lining up for takeoff? Was Balloon Boy II preparing to lift off? Who in the world was ahead of us in line? Since I was seated in the aisle I couldn't get a good look at who (or what) was ahead of us and honestly I can't say I heard another plane's jet engines roar or any geese honk during those two minutes we sat on the runway. But sit there we did. And after waiting for 2 minutes it was our turn takeoff.

Thinking about all the possibilities about who or what was ahead of us made me laugh, and it still does. I wonder how I can get my hands on the airport's activity report.