Spiritual Drive-Thru

Posted by on Nov 5, 2011 in Blog Post, Leadership | Comments Off on Spiritual Drive-Thru

I’m the first to admit that I love a good fast food meal.  Am I allowed to call it a meal?  Not sure but I digress.  I had a pretty good run for a while when I completely abstained from fast food and even found it to be distasteful.  Ahh those were the good old days, when I was a fast food snob (and 10 pounds skinnier).  But life threw me a couple curve balls (a.k.a, a couple of kids) and everything changed.  I no longer had time to cook healthy meals and eventually found any substantive food to be distasteful.  It all flipped on me.  I blame the evil franchises that make salty greasy food way too accessible and addictive. It’s not fair, who could withstand the constant temptation?

My husband hasn’t helped either.  When I was pregnant all I had to do was snap my fingers and he would run out at midnight in his pajamas to the nearest drive-thru to fetch me a shake and a greasy burger…you know, the kind that actually leaves stains on the carton they come packaged in.  I know he was just trying to make me a less scary human being to be around, but it really ruined me.  All the hard work I had done around fostering the right kind of cravings was thrown away right along with my skinny jeans.

I have to be honest with myself though.  As much as I would love to blame everyone else for my bad habits, the truth is painfully obvious.  I am the one to blame.  I need food.  I desire food.  And that’s perfectly natural.  But what I do with those desires is often very unnatural.  Eating food that can stand up and greet you when you order it is probably not one of my best ideas.


But there are two main reasons why we feed our natural appetites in unnatural ways…it is easier and it is easier.


This is the most uninteresting truth about human nature; we gravitate to what is easier.


And the more we do, the harder it gets to even just try.  When even trying gets too hard, we tend to just give way to our bad drive-thru habits.  You know it’s bad when you can’t even get out of the car because it takes too much effort (am I the only one who has been there?).


So what does greasy food have to do with our spirituality?


The same reason we stop eating healthy food and instead start eating the equivalent to poison is the same reason we stop nourishing our souls with God and instead stuff junk food down our spiritual throats.  For many of us, this is how it looks in an average day.  We wake up, go right for the coffee, get ready and leave for the office.  We work, talk, eat, yawn several times and drive home with our not-so-friendly neighbors alongside us on the freeways.  We walk in our house, eat, talk, do a cannonball onto the couch, turn on the TV while simultaneously opening our laptops and typing our current status on facebook (they’re not as interesting as you may believe them to be), take a mental nap, and then go out for the evening.  We come back, rummage through the fridge pretending like we are going to eat something healthy, and in zombie-like-formation stumble to our most prized possession…our beds.  Oh one more thing…we pray.  We stop at the spiritual drive-thru right before we wrap things up for the day.  “God, can I get a good heart with a side of spiritual transformation on the side?”  We usually don’t hear anything back, but we stopped noticing that a long time ago.

Are we ever going to get tired of being so hungry and so spiritually fat at the same time?  Maybe one day we will no longer be satisfied with an unfulfilled life.  And then maybe we will stop asking God for unsubstantial soul food and instead turn our lives over to Him for true spiritual nourishment.  We can’t wait for all the flashy easy drive-thru’s to shut down, especially the ones we have constructed in the pathways of our hearts, minds and souls.


God calls us to get out of the car and walk next to Him on the dusty roads of life…one step at a time.  It’s not easy.  It’s not fast.


Spending actual time with God in a moment-to-moment kind of way is what Jesus referred to as “follow me.”  He didn’t say, “Pop in when you feel like a shot of spiritual adrenaline.”  It’s not rocket science, but sometimes it feels just as hard.  Following God was never intended to be a proverbial walk in the park.  He is trying to make us just like Him after all.  And that doesn’t happen in a drive-thru.


Disappointment: Friend or Foe?

Posted by on Nov 5, 2011 in Blog Post, Resources Blog | Comments Off on Disappointment: Friend or Foe?

Life has a way of keeping us grounded doesn’t it?  There is an overused, yet true expression that says, life is like a roller coaster.  As cliché as it may sound, it does describe the inevitable ups and downs we all experience.


I, for one, am not a big fan of the downs.  Most people aren’t, but some would rather stay in the downs because it is too disappointing to let go of the ups. Are they wrong to live that way?  There is something kind of charming and deep about the melancholy soul who finds beauty in the darkness.  They write great music and paint beautiful art.  They make the downs an art form.  And some of them make a lot of money doing so.


What about the other side of the coin?  There are people who force themselves to be “up” even when there is no “up” to speak of.   You know- the kind that smiles through pain and can’t understand why everyone is so negative all of the time.  They make cheerleaders look depressed.  Disappointment is not part of their equation to make life successful or tolerable, so therefore, it simply doesn’t exist.  Up is the only way to be.  That’s their mantra.


There are, of course, the rare amount of balanced souls that fall somewhere in between.  They know how to ebb and flow with life’s twists and turns, and how to see the meaning and even sovereignty in the ups and downs.  There really isn’t a true up without the reality of the down.  Joy is only possible because pain is possible.  Victories are only possible because failures are as well.  Faith is only possible because doubt exists.  You can’t leave one behind and expect to experience the other.


It is an emotionally and spiritually nuanced way to live when we are able to embrace the presence of both highs and lows, and to become more like Christ through their often gut-wrenching tactics.  How is it that one can live with such tranquility around such unpredictability?  How is that someone can see the meaning in what so many times makes no sense at all?  And how does one face pain, when all they want to do is run the other way?  How do they, as it says in James 1:2, “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds?”


For starters, I think this kind of person has decided to believe that disappointment is not the enemy.  It is more like a friend.  This is a tough pill to swallow because let’s be honest, disappointment feels nothing like a friend when it confronts us.  The irony here though is that even actual friends don’t always make us feel good either.  Often the best kind of friends actually make us feel pretty bad, if that’s what is necessary to make us better.


There is that insightful proverb that says, ‘better are the wounds of a friend than the deceitful kisses of an enemy’ (paraphrased from Proverbs 27:6).  Better are the wounds of disappointment than the kisses of temporary happiness and good circumstances.  Pain is not the enemy.  Good conditions that make you forget about your need for more is.  We cannot confuse the two, otherwise we will be happily plugging along a wayward path while true joy eludes us.


So why see disappointment as a friend rather than an enemy?  What do the downs do that the ups cannot?  Two main things.  They reveal who we really are.  Second, they make us grow.


There’s nothing like a good whack across the face to snap us out of our sleepy and not-so-real reality.  When things are good we sort of sludge along, thinking that since things are good, we must be too.  We are half asleep as we walk through life, and as a result, we aren’t very aware of the crisp truth of who we are, and what we really believe in our core.  It’s really easy, like scary-easy, to think our faith is deeper than it really is, or believe we are stronger than we really are, or that we are better than everyone else.  Sludging through life will do that to a person.


Ups slowly become middle ground for mediocrity, where a great life subtly becomes just okay and good circumstances come to be expected.  We become just okay, and we become entitled, when all of a sudden the sting of disappointment jolts us out of our middle ground daze.  It hurts.  It is terribly inconvenient.  It yanks our gaze in the right direction.  The one that points to the way things really are.


We mostly see how things are not what they seemed to be, especially the things within.  The thin string holding it all together is seen with utter clarity when pain comes along.  As C.S. Lewis calls it in A Grief Observed “our house of cards comes crashing down while we thought it was as sturdy as cement.”  Disappointment presents a rare opportunity to cast our eyes on truth, and to have a real shot at growth.


Once the mirror of pain reveals the substance of who we are, we have a chance to see the substance of who God really is.  That he is a God who never abandons the ones He loves.  That he is a God who isn’t afraid of what you fear most.  That he is a God who is bigger than your biggest disappointment.  That he is a God who can rip you from the mediocrity you cling to and change you into someone you can be proud to be.  That he is a God who longs to be with you in your darkest hour, not just your brightest one.  That he is a God who loves us enough to rescue us from our superficial happiness and lead us into everlasting joy.  That he is a God who wants to make you more like Him, and will stop at nothing to burn His image into yours.


We are in desperate need of growth, of change, of God.  Trials and disappointments are like keys that open this gate we are terrified of, but is the only way toward authentic transformation.  As terrified as we are, whenever we walk through them (voluntarily or not), we are almost always taken by surprise at how sweet and precious the valleys turn out to be.


For it is in the darkness we reach even harder for the One who is light.  It is in the lows that we remember the heights of His love.  It is in the terrible vulnerability we find there is actually someone there to pick up the broken pieces of our lives.  He isn’t a figment of our imagination or a bedtime story.  He is real.  He is always there. And He is constantly reminding us that eternity calls from the despair of earthly goodness.

Predictable Church Syndrome

Posted by on Nov 5, 2011 in Blog Post, Resources Blog | Comments Off on Predictable Church Syndrome

“Where has the magic gone?” When I heard these words come out of my friend’s mouth, I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing.  He was referring to that intangible element of ministry that at one time, not only enveloped us in wonderment, but also propelled us forward.  We found ourselves in common territory, both with a good number of years in ministry behind us, both with a continued sense of calling to the church, and both with a disheartened view of the future.  How could we long for the future when our present was so void of anticipation or mystery?


My friend and I commiserated over the fact that we had officially fallen into the ministry rut, waking up with no great sense of joy for what laid ahead, and going to sleep with no deep fulfillment over what we had accomplished.  I know we’re not alone.


There are countless pastors, teachers, and leaders within the church who carry the same heavy burdens of monotony and wonder-less tasks.  What often begins as a fiery dream lined with endless possibilities in our 20’s, slowly settles into no more than an important job filled with what seems to be unimportant duties—endless emails, countless follow-ups, mundane meetings, and disappointed people often fill the spaces of our days.


Of course there are rich and meaningful moments, and we often work with some of the greatest people this earth will ever see.  Plus, we as ministry leaders can always take comfort in the knowledge that we’re in the service of God, and this comes with an inherent sense of fulfillment.  But make no mistake.  There are a thousand difficult moments and even more mundane ones that threaten to throw us off course, and to make us forget why we gave our lives to ministry in the first place.


Unfortunately that’s not the only problem.   The more time you put in, the more you realize the amount of problems that are knotted up within the church, some that have reached a point where they seem beyond the reach of unraveling.   In other words, we feel disheartened on two counts.  First, we feel less and less impassioned as time goes on.  Second, we feel inadequate to tackle the innumerable dysfunctions and challenges within the church.


The Church today is plagued with problems—everyone knows it. But church leaders are also aware of what church could be—of the endless possibilities and profound beauty that exist within God’s living body.


It’s a painful tension to live in. To know how it could be, how it should be, is incredibly difficult, and inspiring at the same time.  It’s kind of like sitting in a brand new Porsche that doesn’t have an engine.  You want to take this thing out and see what it can do, but all you’re left with is a beautiful shell of a car and your imagination.  To see how far the church is from the ideal, yet feel called by God to be part of the change toward what He designed it to be. The challenges can be paralyzing.


The lack of anticipation and excitement amongst church members is one of the surest markers of distress. Very few people wake up on Sundays chomping at the bit to get through those church doors and soak up the experience awaiting them. All too often, it’s like pulling teeth getting people to volunteer, start new things or even care much for what is going on in their community. Leaders end up relying on a handful of people to do what a whole community should be doing. Everyone is in this together, right? Then why does it feel like an “us vs. them” situation? Leaders and followers. Givers and takers. Doers and talkers. People simply are not anticipating what is going to happen next through God’s Church, and therefore are not engaging with anticipation.


Most find church painfully predictable, regretfully monotonous, and void of all mysticism or spirit. S SS  o, whose fault is that? Where is the root of the poisonous plant of dead faith? Are leaders somehow responsible for the church’s lack of passion and anticipatory spirit? Or is every follower of Jesus Christ the master of his or her own spiritual ship? If they don’t have any excitement for the church, isn’t that their problem?


Of course, it’s a bit of both. How can people be excited about church when they aren’t even excited about their own faith? How do leaders expect people to get excited about church when there is nothing new or compelling to anticipate, when week after week the services are, in fact, boring and predictable?  It would almost be like when my wife invites all her friends over for the season finale of The Bachelor but everyone already knows that Jake picked Vienna.  Now what fun would that be?  Of course, I wouldn’t know.  I am far too evolved to ever watch The Bachelor.  But you get my point.


But since what others do is out of a leader’s control, let’s look at the leader’s role in this dilemma of predictability and apathy in the church. There are the more visible problems leaders contribute to, like holding onto traditions and ceremonies for reasons that have little to do with what God wants and much to do with what a select few church communities or denominations want. In many cases, traditions feeding the monotony and predictability—and which don’t help people get closer to Jesus—are kept in place for far too long.


There is also “churchy” language. I’ve heard people refer to it as Christianese, and more recently as “Chrish” (Krish). I personally think we should just shorten it to Chri but I just have a thing for abbreviations.  This kind of churchy dialect keeps new people and new ideas at a safe distance, creating a stagnant and exclusive club instead of a dynamic and inclusive body of people searching for God.


Pretentious or non-thoughtful language creates stumbling blocks to people hearing God’s word. Teaching the Bible using language people from all spiritual backgrounds can actually understand inevitably infuses life and anticipation. When the language becomes an obstacle instead of a bridge, part of the church life dies. It perpetuates the apathy dreaded by all leaders.


Another more visible problem is the lack of creativity among pastors. Pastors who can barely find time to spend with their families and friends are drained of their creative energies, and less capable of bringing new ideas and originality to their churches. As a result, there is little creativity week-to-week in churches, which fuels the predictability and lack of inspiration.  Let’s be honest.  If we have a hard time sending out a creative tweet, how are we going to be original in our messages and otherwise?  Join me in resolving not to spend more than two minutes trying to come up with a witty 140-character tweet.  It just doesn’t feel right.

This also leads to another challenge. Church communities often expect pastors to be everything—a rock star, a brilliant communicator, an original thinker, a profound conversationalist, a studied theologian, a compassionate counselor, a creative genius, a visionary who is also down-to-earth, encouraging yet challenging, humble yet confident, sure but unsure, interesting but not too flashy, open but discrete, together but broken. The list goes on.


It’s a burden too big for anyone to carry. Nowhere in the Bible does it say: “Go and be a pastor who is all things to all people, master of everything and without weakness or limitations, full of wit, charm and inhuman capabilities. Now go, make the church more excited about Me.” It isn’t in the Scriptures, but this is often the silent commandment leaders hear swirling around their hearts and minds.


The good news: this is not a burden pastors are meant to carry. The bad news: there is a much heavier one they are called to shoulder.


There’s a saying that goes, “No leader can take people where they have not yet gone.” In other words, a leader cannot guide others toward a spiritual place of anticipation if he or she does not live there. Makes perfect sense, right? So much sense that it has frightening implications.


How many leaders expect others to go where they have been nowhere near? Do they experience anticipation in an ongoing way, or are they bored even with themselves? Are they excited about what God is doing not just in the world around them, but in their own hearts? Are they in step with a divine leader who is completely unpredictable, or are they always a few steps behind, trying to figure out what God is doing and if they even want to be part of it?


As a pastor and leader in a church community, you have to ask yourself these questions regularly.

  • Is your God small and finite, or is He infinitely mysterious and powerful?
  • When you pray, do you expect to hear the voice of God or do you expect only silence?
  • When you look at the Church, do you see obstinate Christians or do you see the Bride of Christ?
  • When you wake up every morning, do you know exactly what your day is going to look like or do you look forward to how God is going to challenge and surprise you?
  • When you speak, do you do so as if you are speaking the very words of God; and when you serve, do you do so with the strength God provides (1 Peter 4:11)?
  • When you imagine what God can do through the Church, do your eyes well up with tears at the possibilities or do you shrink back with a sense of defeat?
  • Is your faith alive, or is it dead?
  • Are you in touch with your love from and for God, or are you burned out and lacking the experience of His love?


The truth is there are too many pastors leading churches who have lost themselves. And it’s not just for a season of exhaustion or discouragement, but for seasons that turn into months and years.


This could be a difficult truth to face, but leaders may be the problem. If a leader is a glorified task horse for God, he or she is most definitely feeding the abyss of spiritual apathy running rampant in the church. Leaders are often their own worst nightmare.


Of course this does not work both ways. If a leader is in a wonderful place with God, this does not in any way guarantee his or her church will also be in a vibrant, magical place. However, if a leader is in a spiritual dead zone, it does guarantee the people in that church will go down too. Every time those church members walk in and sit down, they are opening themselves up to spiritual leadership, and that pastor will be taking them somewhere. To be more specific, to the spiritual place where he or she lives. Is that a beautiful or a horrible thing? Only the leader can answer that question.


So, how does one change the course of predictability and profound boredom with the church? It begins with the church leader. Leaders need to do some soul-searching. And if they find in the end they are currently serving a small God, incapable at this time of turning their lives upside down, then they have a heart-breaking choice—it might be time to step down and let someone who is currently serving a big God step in.


There is no room for a small God behind the most important podium in the world, the pulpit. Change begins with leaders, even if it’s the kind of change leaders are mind-bendingly afraid of, stepping aside so the God they originally committed to serving can finally do His work: building the Church.

On Being Missional

Posted by on Nov 4, 2011 in Blog Post, Resources Blog | Comments Off on On Being Missional

When I watched the most current Star Trek movie, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting all that much. I grew up watching Star Trek with my dad and two brothers, so nostalgia and some good popcorn was all I was looking for.  But to my surprise, I was absolutely enthralled this film. There’s just something so compelling when a character in a story undergoes a complete transformation. James Kirk was a young guy with a history of loss, and now he was creating a future of failure. He had decided that living for himself was his best bet.


But then the story takes a turn.


The residing captain over Starship Enterprise, Captain Pike, happens to break up a fistfight that James Kirk finds himself engaged in, and uses this small window of opportunity to call something greater out of Kirk. Captain Pike didn’t promise James Kirk comfort, safety or popularity. He offered a chance for Kirk to risk it all, to use his talents for the greater good, and to invest his life in one simple but powerful thing…a mission.


It is this mission which calls a more noble and sacrificial James Kirk out.


His personality doesn’t change much, but his heart changes completely.


It seems that as leaders we often attempt to persuade others to change their lives by counting all the ways their lives will improve, be enriched and more fulfilled. But we often forget to mention is that their lives must be radically devoted to a specific mission, which will demand 100% of them…nothing less. And why should we soften the call?  If any of us have experienced true transformation, as we see occur through Kirk’s life, hasn’t it been the result of giving our lives away, not grasping for more for ourselves?


God has this incredibly non-strategic plan for calling humanity unto Himself. He asks us to care more about the mission than ourselves. And that mission is nothing short of impossible; it is reconciling broken human beings to a perfect and holy God. In Star Trek, the people who join the crew of the Starship Enterprise are signing up to bring, restore, and keep peace among the different galaxies surrounding the earth. They are ambassadors and even fighters for the greatest value known to man…love.


It can be so easy to sit in a theatre in our comfortable reclining seats and admire from a distance how people lay it all on the line to fight for what really matters. But it’s a whole different story when it’s us out there in the real world. The admiration is quickly forgotten, and living missional lives becomes just another plot line for a great film, but certainly not for our actual lives.


For those of us who have this constant angst inside to change things, and for those of us that call ourselves leaders, there is a challenge that we must not forget. Our lives are on loan to us, and they are to be spent on this earth fighting for what we believe in, and on pulling others into the dangerous territory we call true love. It is love that reconciles us to one another, and ultimately, to the God of this vast universe.


We can be the Captain Pike in our own story, not only living on mission, but calling others to join this radical movement of love.


So, the next time you have the pleasure of watching a great film, nestled into that comfy theatre chair, eating overpriced junk food, maybe you should do something radical like jump out of that seat and start living it, and rather than just watching it. There is nothing like a good science fiction movie to remind you what is truly real in this life, and what’s really worth fighting for.


The Ultimate

Posted by on Oct 20, 2011 in Blog Post, Doug's Blog | Comments Off on The Ultimate

Everything You’ve Been Looking For … in all the Wrong Places

The other day I was reading again the words of Jesus in John 15 as he refined the incomplete understanding of his disciples about their unique relationship with him.  After three years of living, traveling and serving together, on the night before his arrest and crucifixion, he holds nothing back.

What hits me hard here is the explicit intimacy of his language.  In a way that makes his plea to them strikingly vivid and suddenly much more compelling for me.  For me … the die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool, never-say-die romantic who is sometimes so consumed (and confused) by dreams and desires.

Reflect for a long lingering moment on these excerpts:

“Remain in me and I will remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remainin the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit (see also 17:20,21).  Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love … I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (see also 17:3).  My command is this: love one another.”

And this, from the end of John 17, as Jesus finishes speaking to his Father about us:

“I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and I myself may be in them.”

I had to read it again.  I wasn’t just preparing a sermon this time, I was reading this as if it’s for me, as if I’m supposed to be taking this in for myself.  Jesus is in his followers, and we are in him.  His word is in us, his love is in us, his joy is in us, his peace is in us (16:33), even his glory is in us (17:22).

His prayer for us is intensely personal, severe in its warning, exclusive in its claim, and extravagant in its blessing and vision of fruitfulness.  His prayer roundly rebukes us and sweetly reassures the wild-eyed romantic in us, at the same time.  If only we take it to heart.

Here’s my problem … and yours.  Since you’re a romantic like me (even if your heart is dormant, or in massive denial, or in self-imposed exile), a romantic filled with passion for a cause, or a another person, or a favorite pastime, or a noble achievement, or an overwhelming experience, you load up your expectations on the inadequate object of your total desire.  Expectations that become do-or-die demands, even if unspoken.

The romantic is all-or-nothing.  All of your needs, you vow in your foolishness, will be met by this singular preoccupation, all of your hopes and dreams are invested here (on her, on him, on It).

But you inevitably crash into the concrete wall of reality.  Haven’t you?!  The cause cannot be sustained, the relationship loses its luster, the activity fails to excite, the highest of highs subsides.  Then we are deeply disappointed, demoralized, even devastated.  The ideal is exposed as fatally flawed, the fantasy for what it is not and could never be.

The romantic is extremely vulnerable this way.  I know!  Either he will get his game on to pursue another attractive lead — with his insatiable appetite for perfection and/or ecstasy; OR collapse into despair over an unrecoverable loss — with painful memories forbidding a reinstatement of hope; OR become a balanced (and boring) realist — with a dumbed-down, less stressful set of constantly reduced expectations, having finally learned the heartbreaking lesson to never go too high or too low.  OR pretend to quiet the passion, contain the hurt and (at least) appear composed and mature — all the while hiding the wistful, smoldering, unacknowledged craving for another taste of that elusive thrill.

What the prayer of Jesus tells us to do is … none of the above.  We are called to risk it all.  On the right relationship and the Kingdom cause this relationship empowers.  Don’t settle.  Please don’t just settle for the thing that is safe, for what you can reasonably manage.  And don’t give in to despair.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t fall for yet another irresistible come-on that can’t possibly deliver on its promise.

You were not wrong to want it all.  Even if you were tragically mistaken in your choice of providers.  Only God in Christ can bear the weight of all your needs and expectations, all your hopes and dreams, even as they get recalibrated by the One who designed you, for heaven’s sake, and knows you inside and out.  Only he loves you unconditionally, because he doesn’t need anything from you.  He already has it all.  Only he is complete and so his love is pure gift.

Only this love affair with Jesus can occupy the central place in your life.  Only this love, his love, will never let you down.  You can trust him (and only him) absolutely.  You can pile all of your cares on him.  You can count on him to make life work — and make sense out of your up-and-down, back-and-forth life.  Because in him you will find everything … including all the other people, places and opportunities you are seeking, framed by wise perspective.

Only the greatest love is enough.  Only this greatest love can sort out the other loves — drawing out the beauty that is there, guarding us against aggrandizement and deception and a deadly idolatry.  God’s love wraps himself around us and every other affection that belongs to us, powering our love so that it is freely given away without all of the maneuvers, negotiations and illusions we get caught up in when we are empty and desperate.

Our longing for intimacy and the opposing fear of intimacy are resolved by this simple straightforward proposition: the proposition forcefully represented by the preposition.  Christ in you (the hope of glory, according to Colossians 1:27), your life with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).  You can’t get closer than that.

As you consciously cultivate this love by responding to God’s embrace, by spending meaningful and satisfying times with him, by immersing yourself in the love story unfolding in the Bible, as you savor his goodness in creation, as you revel in his favor and forgiveness, as you sense his transforming presence in people, as you personalize and rehearse his breathtaking promises, as you ponder the many wonders in this world, as you contemplate the new heaven and new earth coming, as you recognize your God-given right to lay down your pride and sins and worries … you fall more deeply in love with him. You can hardly help it.

No one else compares.  But everyone else in your life will benefit from your magnificent obsession with the splendor and wisdom and mercy of God — reflected by you, out to them, because it is getting in to you.

Picture him, meet him, contemplate him, adore him — Jesus Christ, your one true everlasting love.  Everyone else you love will bask in the warmth of his love for you, in the delight that radiates from this sacred romance.

Done with Dogma, Ready for Reality

Posted by on Aug 30, 2011 in Doug's Blog, Haiti Blog, Leadership | Comments Off on Done with Dogma, Ready for Reality

Your church needs to enter a new season.  Because we’re done with dogma.  All of us.  Done.  Nobody’s listening.  Nobody cares that someone is insisting that we all believe what he/she believes.  Not even those who believe.  There is a near-universal revolt against anything that feels rigid, seems coercive and sounds judgmental.  Read Acts 15: 10 and listen to Peter deliver the death blow to the distressing demands of traditionalism.

But, don’t mistake this allergy to indoctrination as an aversion to truth, as an inevitable atheism.  Truth that makes sense of my life, that translates into my reality, that powers change inside and out … truth that is personal and practical and restorative, is incredibly compelling.

The alternative to a joy-sucking religiosity, on the one side, and a spirit-killing materialism, on the other, is a Christ-centered spirituality that leaves the others in the dust.

Take Alpha, the world-wide program that appeals to seekers and skeptics, and invites them to bring their questions and doubts to church … the very place where we don’t allow questions and doubts.  Begin at the beginning, they are encouraged, begin wherever you are and find out about God, about yourself.  At your own pace, on your own journey.  You will be respected.  Treated gently and with consideration.  In the context of warm hospitality and friendly, lively discussion.  Let the speaker in the video intrigue you with his reasoning, his everyday illustrations, his irreverent humor, and his deep insights into the heart and character of God.  And then react, out loud.  We’re all in this together.  We’ll sort it out as we go.

The greatest challenge of Alpha around the world is to convince the Christians who are hosting the gathering to create genuine connection without imposing an agenda, to listen without correcting, and to trust the Spirit of God to move a non-believer toward a divine encounter and transformation.  We are so uncomfortable, so anxious, so uncertain of ourselves and the Gospel, that we who are called to represent Christ too often try to force the issue and end up misrepresenting him terribly.  We ignore, we interrupt, we lecture, we demean, we reject, we confirm their exclusion.  Not meaning to, of course.  Or maybe we do.  This is the only way we know how to do church.  Half-heartedly, replete with platitudes, going through the motions.  It is our duty, we are convinced, to defend the fortress of faith against the onslaught of unredeemed (and hopeless) humanity.

But Alpha has been training — disciplining actually, and relentlessly reminding — the church to welcome, accept and embrace people of all tribes, with all sorts of troubles. Without loading up pre-conditions.  Except the condition of candid conversation.  Conversation around spiritual topics.  You mean they’re interested?  Around the person of Christ.  Will they consider Him?  Relating to the history and teaching and core messages of the Bible that correspond to their most profound concerns.

Alpha does all that and people come to Christ.  So, what would happen if there was such a thing as Alpha for Christians?  Because, as it turns out, many Christians take the Alpha course for their own sake.  It’s so much more enjoyable than standard Christian education fare — with the requisite expectations of conformity and congeniality, and the unspoken rule about not rocking the ecclesiastical boat.

There are new ministries being created that are extremely serious about evangelism and discipleship.  Even blurring the distinction between the two.  They are designed for this season of radical skepticism (in reaction to religious dogma), radical suspicion (toward religious institutions and authority), and radical protest (against the inauthenticity of religous proclamations and pretensions).

These ministries risk everything for the really radical conviction that God is at work here and now.  That we all need him desperately.  That we are all corrupt in some very sad ways and, at the same time, worth the ultimate sacrifice to God.  That God is strong enough, loving enough, resourceful enough and patient enough to handle our struggles and resolve the crisis of our worst faults.  That the Cross exposes us — all of us, confronting our valiant and our more pathetic attempts at self-justification, bidding us come out of hiding into the open spaces for unfiltered dialogue, true confession, and unanticipated blessing.

These ministries, these churches, practice a remarkable transparency, an astonishing honesty.  As if truth matters — and worth the humility required to live in the light of its devastating critique and delightful healing.  As if pain should not be avoided in our quest for peace.

These new initiatives that renounce self-advancement and heavy-handed control are paradoxically confident and even aggressive in their overtures to non-Christians and Christians, alike.  In fact, that sharp, smug differentiation (as if we don’t have so much in common)might be doing a lot of harm — by turning away sincere seekers before they get started and falsely reassuring those who are complacent in their pious presumption.

Aphesis (a Greek word meaning “release”) is a new nation-wide ministry that could be called Alpha for the Church, or Bible Study Fellowship for the Heart, or Campus Crusade for the Chronically Critical.  It’s almost like AA for those of us with an addiction to religion (a disability which implies we are frequently, if secretly, confused and in severe denial) … that causes us to miss the unimagined adventure of a massively liberating relationship with Jesus, that positively and dramatically affects every other relationship.

I recently attended an Aphesis training conference for group facilitators, finding it seriously biblical, refreshingly interactive, and cultivating of genuine community.  I found it stimulating, because I was constantly engaged (not easy to do), and challenging (even sometimes threatening) because I was thrust into an occasional life-and-death showdown with a dark resistance inside me to the claims of grace.  What a revelation, what a sensational discovery: grace (again!) and the freedom to receive and to give meaningful support to one another for this sacred journey.

I hope and pray that this is a new direction for the church, for your church, for each of us.  A New Testament kind of direction and application that is daring, wonderfully intrusive, shockingly inclusive, Christ-honoring and humanly-fulfilling … that will be sustained by the Spirit of God, and by these seasonal champions of God’s grace and truth.

Dancing with the Dragon

Posted by on Jul 13, 2011 in Blog Post, Doug's Blog, Resources | Comments Off on Dancing with the Dragon

In so many ways, China is the most exciting nation in the world.  The most populous at 1.3 billion.  With the most impressive, astonishingly modern, super-cities.  Like Beijing, the second largest in China at 24 million, behind Shanghai, where I recently spent two fascinating weeks.  With 21st Century urban architecture unlike anything seen elsewhere.  With a high-speed rail system that is unrivaled.  With the second largest economy, surpassing Japan earlier this year.  Acknowledged as the manufacturing giant, now number one in the world.  Lifting 300 million people in China out of poverty.  Investing heavily in multi-billion dollar projects all across the globe.  In head-to-head competition with the US and the European Union everywhere — and even dominant in many foreign markets.

China is booming!  No nation has ever come so far so fast.  All of this, in the last 25 years.  Recapturing the glory of bygone eras when China, by many calculations, was the most advanced civilization on earth.

It may also be among the most stressed … as it copes with the demands of such quantum growth.  Millions of (often mistreated) workers migrating from the countryside to the big cities — and back again.  Pervasive corruption — affecting product quality and human safety.  Inadequate infrastructure.  Enormous pressure to succeed — affecting students and professionals, the upwardly mobile.  Higher divorce rates.  Climbing suicide rates.  And a government still communist, still comprehensively socialist, and although pragmatic and capitalist to a remarkable and bewildering extent, still enforcing its will with impunity.  Wary of the Arab Spring, and any other threat to its absolute authority, crackdowns on dissident voices and movements are constant this year.

I traveled with Dr. David Eckman and a team that has been teaching in the universities in Beijing and elsewhere for the past several years.  It was another vision trip for me.  David is prized for his values-rich approach to teaching psychology. He has won great favor and is regarded, along with his associates, as a “teacher of teachers”.  He is in China 3 to 4 times a year lecturing to professors, counselors and other professionals on human psychological development, family of origin issues, assessment of cultural influences on personal growth, therapeutic intervention, and other related concerns.  This prepares them to teach thousands of young people in their classes on campus.

David earned his PhD in Old Testament … and his presentations are grounded in a biblical world view.  And our hosts are very aware of that!  They (the supervising academics who are, themselves, members of the communist party) appreciate his values and believe they are exactly what China needs to assure “harmony” in this time of transition, uncertainty and deep instability.

The two unspoken, inviolable rules are: don’t publicly evangelize and don’t directly criticize the government.  Don’t disrupt the “harmony.”  But his message (I spent three days taking in his course at one of the universities) is relentlessly Christian in its basic orientation and content — and leads to many questions and conversations about faith.  Which is not a problem.  Professor Lin, the leading authority in the field of psychology in Beijing’s vast educational system, is David’s biggest fan.

Over dinner one night, Prof. Lin asked me (through a translator) if I would be willing to return and teach a course on Leadership — for university students (one intensive 3 day class) and for professionals on their career path (another class).  I was caught off guard by this compliment and it took me about 3 seconds to respond in the affirmative.  I can hardly imagine a more stimulating invitation.

Through Eckman and his team — including a number of Chinese connections there — I was introduced to Jon Davis, the pastor of Beijing International Christian Fellowship.  BICF is 4000 strong and is composed of several ethnic congregations, with a multi-ethnic staff of pastors to serve them.  I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with about 20 pastors who have come from all over the world (Africa, America, Indonesia, Philippines, Southeast Asia, South America).  It was a very energizing scene, to say the least.

Pastor Jon presides over this confederation of congregations and has invited me to return and facilitate a pastoral staff retreat this fall.  We’ve also discussed my involvement with a network of registered church pastors that he leads.  He rattled off the topics that they would be most interested in: spiritual formation, church management, preaching, ministry marriage and family … everything I care about!

Attending the large English-speaking service one Sunday morning was interesting.  First of all, only foreigners are allowed to enter the auditorium.  You have to show your passport to get in.  Never done that before, don’t like it.  But I will have a chance to preach there when I return.

The people inside are all ex-pats and literally from all over the world.  Many of them are executives representing multi-national corporations scrambling to cut — and execute on — high-price deals in the most attractive and dynamic (and demanding?) business environment anywhere.  Pastor Jon and I have talked about a “Kingdom Ventures” type of experience that would convene these Christian business leaders with their pastors for an in-depth consideration of what it means to represent Christ while immersed in opportunities and challenges, and competing for highly lucrative and profoundly impacting transactions.

Some fun excursions were also a part of this adventure — including a tour of the expansive and lavish Emperor’s Summer Palace, just north of the city.  Walking with our Chinese hosts, as well as Dr. Sunny Arnold (who has founded 10 Christian counseling centers in the Bay Area) and his wife Glory, we traversed ancient history.  Later we explored the amazing 2008 Olympic site.  I was also treated to a taste of the bustling night life along a lake in the center of the city, escorted by Agatha and Grace, Chinese women who were members of our delightfully diverse team.

So, TLC in China.  What does that mean?  As always, our passion is to support ministry leaders in the most relevant and helpful and personal ways possible.  Again, we are continuously told and shown that teaching and training pastors in developing countries is a great need.  The area of “leadership” is always at or near the top of the list.  How to become a real leader, how to sharpen leadership skills, how to lead like Jesus, how to disciple others into leadership.  That is the cry and this is certainly our calling.

Estimates of the number of Christians in China today vary widely.  The government’s official count is 45 million.  Many other observers would go much higher and speculate that there must be 80-100 million believers.  Some would go further and guess that there are more than 120 million.  No one knows for sure but everyone agrees that the church is growing at a rapid rate.

One pastor of a house church (unregistered, and therefore very vulnerable to state interference) responded in an unexpected way to a question posed by one of our team: what is the greatest need for house churches?  Immediately he answered … “for the harvest to slow down.”  Too many people becoming followers of Christ too fast … “we can’t disciple them all.”

Please pray for TLC International — all that we are learning, planning and preparing to do — as we respond to invitations and opportunities.  And, as we consider partnering with others so we might make the most of these connections.  We certainly want to convince (even entice) American churches into relational and mutually enriching involvement with churches in other places.  My most recent trip — to Guatemala — only reinforces this.  But that’s another story for another time …

The Heart of Haiti

Posted by on May 31, 2011 in Blog Post, Doug's Blog, Haiti Blog | Comments Off on The Heart of Haiti

I was bumped up to first class on the flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince on my vision trip there last month.  Inappropriate and awkward, but undeniably symbolic.  An American in Haiti, with any sensitivity at all, is immediately overwhelmed by the stark contrast — by the devastation evident everywhere, by the grinding poverty of the place, by the despair that hangs heavy in the air.  And by the heroism of Haitians and foreign friends who refuse to accept defeat.

There are mounds of rubble from the January 2010 earthquake all around the sprawling capital, as well as layers of debris and fields of garbage.  The earthquake killed between 50,000 and 200,000 people … and has left more than a million people homeless and living in tents, in mud and squalor, out of a population of 9 million.

This land, one third of the tropical island of Hispaniola, is an environmental and ecological disaster of apocryphal proportions.  What happened to all the trees?  Where are all the birds, the wild animals?  Why are the hills burning?

At the same time, Haiti is economically destitute (with 75% unemployment) and politically rudderless (many government officials were killed in the quake).  The UN has been providing security.  A new president was inaugurated on May 15.    Let us hope …

Haiti was considered “fourth world” before last year’s disaster, and is trying hard to get back to something like survival.  The situation there is simply indescribable to anyone asking from afar.

Who let this happen?  Whose fault is this?!  Don’t get me started.

I don’t know that much, but the history of Haiti is replete with the ravages of injustice.  Perpetrated by France, first of all — forcing a newly independent nation of former slaves (originally trafficked from Africa by France to harvest sugar cane) to compensate their former masters (the French) for the cost of waging war (to suppress a slave revolt) and for the loss of servitude in the future (slave labor no longer available to France).  Awful.  Inconceivable.

The US and other countries involved in essential international trade insisted on compliance with this extortion (slaves in revolt in the New World was a disturbing precedent, rich nations dominating on the world market was considered manifest destiny).  Haiti was compelled to pay France millions and millions of dollars every year from 1825 until 1943 (when France could no longer collect because it was overrun by Nazi Germany).  It’s even worse than that, but you get the idea.

Into this devolution of desperate need and chronic distress parades a series of corrupt dictators in the 20th Century (the infamous Duvaliers, and others), further degrading and demoralizing Haiti while enriching themselves.  Even more damaging has been the appeal of voodoo — promising power (and the means of retribution) to those who feel utterly helpless.

The result is the designated slum of the Western Hemisphere.  The long accumulation of endless oppression and malignant neglect.  Haiti is an abused child, a battered woman, the victim of gang rape.  Haitians seem resigned to their unfortunate reality, to the only condition they can remember — that they can imagine.  There is an apparent fatalism — predominantly, if not universally.  And the rest of us living in the Americas have seemed quite content, over the years, with this tragic state of affairs in our global neighborhood.

After the devastating earthquake, something happened.  Many people — in the capital city and elsewhere — had to move outside.  The buildings that didn’t collapse were unfit for human habitation.  In particular, many of the buildings we mistakenly refer to as the “church”, were instantly unsuitable for hosting the church.  Which sent the church outside.

As they gathered to sing and pray and preach and fellowship in the open air, others were drawn to the sound and the spirit.  The church — with walls down and worship gone public — became a spiritual magnet.  Bursts of unplanned evangelism, followed by spontaneous church growth.  A beautiful thing.

I spent most of a day with 70 pastors in Les Cayes, out in the country, and later with 40 pastors in the capital, in Port-au-Prince.  We pored over the Word, discussed dimensions of leadership, and shared stories of the Kingdom of God advancing amidst the greatest of challenges.

We are planning to come back.  Pastor Gilbert (pronounced zhil-baer) and Pastor Louis oversee an expanding network of congregations and hosted us during this week — and have invited us to return with more teaching and training for pastors.  I’m excited, to say the least.  We hope to link pastors and churches there to sister churches in the US, for mutual edification.

These pastors are amazing.  They depend on God for everything and immediately ask Him for what they need.  When the answer comes — and it does — they are openly grateful.  Such joy in the midst of constant sorrow.  Such an intimate relationship with an ever-present, all-sufficient savior.  I am learning indispensable lessons from them.

Michelle, another traveling companion, brings an entrepreneurial project that will eventually employ several thousand farmers.  She works with the pastors to find partners in the biofuel and solar energy business that she has created.  Progress is already producing benefits — with much more to come.  Her faith and her love affair with Haiti drive her beautiful ambition.  Go to www.sironacares for more information.

This was a fantastic week.  So hard to see the suffering, so wonderful to watch leaders partnering to rebuild.  It does seem impossible — that restoration could come to these ruins, to  a place the world pities.  But, with God, nothing is impossible.  These pastors believe that … as do the children, as do many young people who appreciate all the charity but long for the opportunity to take responsibility themselves for creating livable, sustainable communities.

Please pray for Haiti — for Gilbert and Louis and all of the pastors and all of their congregations, for Michelle and others who have come to empower a new generation released from injustice and corruption, and for this next generation that dreams of what has never before been.  Will you pray?!

Please pray for TLC as we partner with pastors in Haiti, with organizations that are serving there, with US churches (such as Grace Community in Jackson and Center of Hope in Oakland) that are already making a difference, and as we bring tangible encouragement and practical training to these heroic pastors in the beloved heart of Haiti.

Mad At God

Posted by on Apr 11, 2011 in Blog Post, Doug's Blog, Leadership | Comments Off on Mad At God

“Tell me about the God you don’t believe in …” is a question I sometimes ask the person who claims not to believe. This absurd question (logically, if God isn’t real, there’s really nothing worthwhile to discuss) usually provokes a vehement and very involved response.

The nonexistence of God is apparently a matter of great interest and grave concern to the avowed atheist. The subject stirs up tremendous turbulence — and a counter-crusade against God and/or those who represent Him. All kinds of emotions get unleashed … including a flood of protest and ridicule. Somewhere inside, and for some very powerful reason, there is an astonishingly full reservoir of anger.

Glee, the immensely popular TV show, recently (April 5th) devoted an entire episode to this running — even raging — debate. The atheists are outed and come out swinging. Notably Sue (the rude, crude and hilarious gym teacher) and Kurt (a somewhat awkward, tremendously gifted kid in the glee club).

The occasion is the sudden heart attack of Kurt’s father — who now lies in a coma. Kurt is encouraged by some of his peers to turn to God. Mercedes, a sweet African-American girl, is moved to sing a spiritual in front of the class as her expression of compassion to this young man who is filled with fear, and already grieving. If you’ve never seen a segment of Glee, several times during the hour a staged musical production breaks out featuring these incredibly talented teenagers.

Kurt rejects the offer and their prayers. “I don’t believe in God,” he declares. “Why would God make me gay and then let everybody mock me by telling me it’s my choice? Does anyone think I would actually choose such misery? I appreciate your thoughts but I don’t want your prayers.” He walks out, seething.

Sue, the teacher with the acid tongue, hears that the glee club teacher is allowing “religious” music and threatens to report Will, the director of this precocious ensemble, to the school board. “Haven’t you heard about the separation of church and state?!” she taunts him in front of the principal. “You want to sing those kind of songs go over to the church of the holy trinity and mother mary and sing your heart out — but don’t take any students. You’re poisoning their minds. I’ll shut you down!” The song in question is Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You”.

When confronted about her hard-line opposition by Emma, an administrator and the stereotypically clueless campus Christian, Sue explains. “I adored my big sister when I was growing up. But then I heard people making fun of her. I prayed to God to make them stop. They didn’t, so I prayed harder. But they still didn’t stop. It wasn’t because I wasn’t praying hard enough, it’s because no one was listening. So I stopped believing.”

“Oh,” says Emma.

What do you say? To the young man in pain — whose pain is profound and multi-faceted. To the woman whose early memories are marked by bitter disappointment? What do we say, believers, to these unbelievers?

The show is called Glee — with significant irony, I think. These people — the adolescents and the adults on campus — are locked into struggles large and small. Glee is a cover. Gay — as in merry, care-free, glee-full — is a facade. A brave front. A coping mechanism. It’s survival. It’s the best you can do, given the impossible challenges you face with no way out. It’s humanity enduring without God. God … the one you can’t live without, and the beautiful idea you haven’t found a way to live with.

Sue is always unhappy and makes sure no one else is doing any better. She can be ferocious. And, according to her, it all began with unrelenting attacks on the big sister she adored, whom we meet at the end of the show in a surprising scene.

Sue and her sister are playing checkers. Sue’s sister, Jean, is disabled. Probably Down syndrome. “Don’t let me win,” her sister says to Sue, with laughter in her voice. As they continue to compete, Jean asks Sue, “Do you believe in God?” “No,” Sue answers, but devoid of her habitual sarcasm, “because everyone was so cruel to you. And God didn’t stop them.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” Jean says as she smiles this big smile that’s impossible to resist. “I will pray for you.” Sue drops her act and her tone, for once, and speaking from someplace deep inside her frozen heart, she answers softly. “That would be nice.”

It’s only television, but this is gripping. My granddaughter has Down syndrome. And I’m listening to this revealing dialogue between the sisters with a shared history. And I’m tracing the source of Sue’s meanness. And I’m realizing, again, that confrontations, arguments, preaching, pontificating and smug self-righteousness, only alienate.  Maybe intending to.

I’m inside their disbelief now. It’s quite an intriguing landscape here. It evokes a powerful empathy. This X-ray of the human heart invites me to weep with Jesus for those who are so wounded, so confused, so lost. While I am here, I am shocked by a glimpse of my own desperate masquerade — and the compulsion to superficially play a dysfunctional role in the saints-vs-sinners stand-off.

Finally, Kurt breaks down. He sings a completely captivating solo about missing his father. Singing with tears streaming down his face. Singing the Beatles’ hit “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Singing it slowly, mournfully, longingly, for his friends — and to his unconscious father. The father he will always miss and has always needed.

Mercedes won’t give up on Kurt and in a moment of disarming innocence she asks him to go to church with her. “Don’t turn away from the ones who really care about you.” Sensing her sincerity and moved by her continuing concern, he accepts.

He walks into her church with his trademark flamboyance (oh no, we think, anticipating the worst, can church handle him?), introduced by his sympathetic classmate to the congregation as an someone who doesn’t believe — “and we’re so pleased he’s here with us today”, and receives (receives what?! … stares, judgment, rejection, indifference, more evidence for his case against God?!) full acceptance. Hugs and smiles. Not a hint of disdain. Only love. Why is it so rare?!

In the next-to-last scene we listen to the choir singing “If God Were One of Us”. I like this song about God becoming “just a slob like one of us”, “riding the bus” with the rest of us. Lyrics that imagine the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word becoming flesh, fully identifying with us in our vulnerability, stripped of divine privilege, suffering along with us, experiencing every temptation, every blow. What if God were one of us …

As the choir sings, Sue saunters in to the auditorium, her perfect chance to nail her nemesis, the director, for this politically incorrect performance. Will flinches at Sue’s looming, presumably sinister, presence. “Are you going to turn us in?” he asks, resigned to the expected tirade and subsequent crusade.

Sue seems to be listening to the music. “No.”

In the final scene, Kurt is back in intensive care sitting next to his Dad. No improvement, but he’s still talking to him, holding his hand. “I can’t believe in God, Dad. But I believe in you. I believe in us. I can’t lose you, Dad. I can’t …” Just then the camera catches his Dad’s hand moving, just barely, for the first time, and then a second time. Standing, suddenly hopeful, Kurt shouts for the nurse.

Glee is just a sit-com, of course, but one that captures the mood and sensitivities and contradictions of our time, challenging believers and unbelievers alike to reconsider their assumptions, their certainties, and their unwavering antagonism toward the other, to find out about the person behind the label. And, if we dare, to discover what a gracious God may be doing behind the scenes to reach apparently unrepentant prodigals — and awaken people of faith to the faith-crushing experiences others have endured.

The show doesn’t resolve anything and delights in taking a cynical view much of the time. But, if you’re listening carefully, and dreaming of a Kingdom where redemption and healing prevail over endless distress and despair, you will invest yourself in the promise that the love of Christ does make a decisive difference. And that will take us from the underlying sadness of glee to the confounding and transforming intrusion of joy!