Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Summer of our Discontent

When is it appropriate to paraphrase a Shakespeare quote to describe an entire quarter of a year (eg: "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun [or son] of York," . Richard III")?  That's an easy one to answer.  It's when the summer that you are occupying is completely filled with discontenting events.  When the discontents of a time period outweigh the contents of a time period.  And this summer in Colorado Springs (the summer of 2012) simply takes the cake.  In the six weeks since Star and I moved here, this poor state and the community we live in has experienced;

*  A massive wildfire in which nearly 400 homes were completely destroyed, and thousands of lives
    were displaced (the Waldo Canyon fires)
*  The death of a much beloved pastor in our church (Cliff Anderson)
*  The exit and goodbye of the former Senior Pastor of our church (Jim Singleton)
*  The largest mass shooting in US history happening a little over an hour from here (Aurora)
*  The death of one of our church's staff member's baby, a child still-born to this world
*  And to top it off...flash floods and mud slides that hit, and I mean hit, Colorado Springs last night

This short list is enough to cause even the most frigid Presbyterian to wonder weather there isn't some apocalyptic connection to these events.  What do these stones mean?  Why, in such a brief period of time, have we experienced such upset and tragedy?  Should we all prepare for the second coming, or is this just an extremely long period of "bad luck"?  Are we, like the biblical figure Job, somehow being tested by a preternatural force, or is this just our own merry-go-round and spate of hardships and cruelties?  And so, like the character Gandalf, from J.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" we stare into the fire, and pull at our beards and suck on our professor's pipes, and wonder what in the world is going on...

Of course, psychologists would tell us that what we are experiencing is a phenomenon known as "situational justification."  Situational justification is the fifty-cent term for our tendency as humans to see a pattern of behavior or action, and then ascribe meaning or significance to it.  It's the tendency we experience when we buy a white automobile and then we subsequently notice everyone else's white automobile.  It's what happens to us when a loved one dies, and we are in pain, and then we notice everyone else's pain around us.  So, one tragedy befalls us, the Waldo Canyon fires, and we approach all of life with a tragedy pair of glasses - crisis lenses which look for other tragedies.  Is this what is happening to us?  Maybe, but I'm not totally convinced.

One of the biggest challenges of being a Christ follower is having the burden of not ever knowing "why" life's circumstances befall us.  As the apostle Paul reminds us in the book of Corinthians, "For now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror ('we see through a glass dimly' in the King James); then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).  The Greek here is, as always, better.  The Greek word for "glass dimly" is AINIGMATI. AINIGMATI is where we get our word for ENIGMA.  An ENIGMA is that which eludes us.  It is a mystery which we don't know the answer to.  AINIGMATI is also connected to the word, riddle.  Paul is saying the life is a riddle.  Life is an unanswerable puzzle.  But, Paul here is doing more than simply describing the state of our lives, as a question mark, but he is giving us direction.  He is letting us know that we will never "know these things fully". We will never know "why" events such as these happen to us.  Paul might have added the postscript, "you will never know fully, so don't even try to know."

However, being a Christ follower does provide the answers to many of the other questions in life.  For example, we know:

*  "Who" is in charge of all these things - YAHWEH, The Lord God who is One
*  "How" we will get through them - step by step, following God's love and power
*  "What" the purpose of our lives is - to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength
*  "Where" can we access God's power - in loving others, in prayer, in reading scripture

But still, even after this, I would yet like to know why the summer of 2012 has been the way it has for us.  For now, I will have to satiate my curiosity by trusting in God, and reading more Shakespeare.  Because sometimes, "A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet)

All For Now,

Monday, July 23, 2012


This past week, our city, state and nation experienced one of the worst examples of domestic terrorism to happen in our country - the worst example of mass shooting -  in US history.  The events which happened on Thursday night, (7/26 - thankfully not a date which will become a memory piece, unlike, for example 9/11) in Aurora, Colorado will never be erased from our thoughts or minds.

Like all pastors who had to speak into this crisis, on Sunday morning, I struggled on the Thursday night before with what to say to people.  Do, I say that "bad things just happen, and we must learn to live with them?"  "No," I thought to myself, that's too glib.  Do I say that we must, "love the victims with a special intentionality?"  "Yes," I thought to myself, but that's not enough.  So, I decided to focus on the subject of "Evil" itself, and of the "Evil One" the one who plants seeds of division and destruction in the minds of vulnerable and broken people.  "But, even that" I told myself, tends to take too much responsibility away from the perpetrator of the event.  Wasn't he (and his name will remain a noticeable vacancy from this blogpost) a culpable, responsible participant in this terrible act of violence?

Most of all I decided not to talk about the topic of Forgiveness.  As I watched the evening news on Sunday, I saw that several churches in and around Aurora chose to focus on the topic of forgiveness - forgiving the perpetrator, forgiving his terrible act, asking people to begin to forgive the act itself.  When I saw these newscasts, I definitely respected the churches that decided to talk about forgiveness on this day, but at the same time I felt that talking about forgiveness in this setting, and on the quick heels of such a terrible disaster, was, perhaps another example of "missing the mark."

Let me insert here a strong proviso.  I definitely believe in forgiveness!!  I believe that forgiveness is at the center of the Christ following faith.  I believe that Jesus' strong endearment to forgive those who do wrong things to us, "forgive them 7 X 77" is at the heart of the gospel.  I believe that Jesus was correct when he said, "if you go to the temple and you have not forgiven your neighbor, you cannot worship God fully."  Forgiveness is a must.  Forgiveness is at the center of our faith.  Forgiveness is a mandatory dynamic of the Christ following experience.

However, I have also come to learn, in my 12 years of ministry, that forgiveness is not ever as simple as a single act of contrition.  Forgiveness is not the waving of a wand over something to make it so.  Forgiveness is not an act of FIAT that can be bequeathed, like a sentence on a criminal.  Forgiveness is a process.  While forgiveness might be an instant absolute on the part of God, it is always an unfolding event for humans.  Forgiveness is almost always a long journey that involves so many important things.

Dr. David Augsburger, one of my favorite all time professors at Fuller Theological Seminary talked in a class I took from him, about the steps involved in a true act of forgiveness.  These include:

*  Coming together by both parties in an open, honest and forthright communication about the act of wrongdoing which has occurred.
*  A mutual recognition of wrongdoing
*  A continued dialog about the wrongdoing
*  Time and a sense of space between the act of wrongdoing itself and the process of forgiveness.
*  A form of compensation or restitution, or restorative justice on the part of both parties

Augsburger once said to our class of D.Min students something I will not soon forget.  He said, "Sometimes the worst thing a pastor can do on a Sunday morning is to stand before his/her parishioners and say, 'We JUST need to forgive those who have done wrong to us."  Augsburger said, "There is just no JUST about it.  Forgiveness is a long process of restitution and justice and mercy and grace."

But we should pray for the process of forgiveness, and we should recognize that all things are possible in Christ - even forgiving despicable acts that are on their own face - completely unforgivable!

All For Now,

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

But I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For...

I used to love to fly fish, back when I lived in Boise, Idaho.  The truth is, what I really loved was the experience of standing in the middle of a river.  I would love to go out, in the middle of the week sometime, when the temperatures were just beginning to soar into the mid-90's, and I would step from a dry dusty bank, into a cool gurgling brook.  And there I would stand, right in the middle.  On the other side of the river was another shore, and yet I didn't really feel I wanted to totally cross.  The other bank was too far, too hard for me to cross into.  Behind me was the shore I had just come from.  Before stepping into the river, I was usually a bit stressed out from school, tired from a long day, burdened by whatever was on my mind.  So, I didn't want to go back, because that would mean the fishing trip would be over, and I would be returning to where I had come from.  But there I was in the middle of the river.  In those days it was almost as if I had;

One Foot in the Wilderness, the Other in the Promised Land.

One of my favorite songs of all time is the rock ballad, by U2, "But I still haven't found what I'm looking for."  The song lyrics reflect mournfully about the strange juxtaposition in this life between having all of the things that we think we want (or ever wanted), and somehow feeling slightly unfulfilled.  The lyrics go; I have climbed highest mountain, I have run through the fields, Only to be with you, Only to be with you, I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls, These city walls, Only to be with you, But I still haven't found what I'm looking for, But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.  In these lyrics, the singer Bono seems to be recognizing the challenge in this life, of never really getting to the place where you want to be, deep down into your heart.  It is as if Bono is reflecting on the challenge of having,

One Foot in the Wilderness, the Other in the Promised Land.

There are many holidays which I love.  You can't beat the fourth of July for a family BBQ.  Thanksgiving is wonderful when you are in a place that is snowy and cold.  Easter is so pregnant with freshness and newness.  However, truth be told, my favorite holiday in the year is the Christian season of Advent.  Advent are the five weeks which proceed Christmas.  Advent comes from the latin word, Adventus, which means, "to wait for."  The main concept of advent is that we are all waiting for the savior to come into the world, the baby Jesus.  The reason I love advent is because it is not quite Christmas, and it is not Thanksgiving either.  It is somewhere in-between.  Advent is a time where we have;

One Foot in the Wilderness, the Other in the Promised Land.

During the long war years of World War II, in Great Britain, the Medieval English Oxford Don and Professor (and would be theologian)  C.S. Lewis gave great talks to huge crowds about Christianity.  One of C.S. Lewis' main talks, and one which was made into a great movie was, "Shadowlands."  C.S. Lewis' talk on Shadowlands is an explanation of Plato's cave, the shadows which were reflected on the wall of our lives.  Plato was talking about the ineffable existence of life.  C.S. Lewis said, "We live in the Shadowlands.  Over the brow of a hill, around the bend in the road, what we seek after, eludes us.  We have not yet attained it yet."  C.S. Lewis seemed to be referring to the fact that all of us have;

One Foot in the Wilderness, the Other in the Promised Land.

This coming week, I will be preaching on the crossing of the Jordan River by the Israelites.  For 440 years, the Israelites had had hopes and dreams about crossing into the promised land.  And now they were about to do it.  The Lord told the Israelite priests to go before the people and carry the ark of the covenant with them.  As the priests crossed into the river, the Bible tells us that it instantly dried up, by some great miracle, and the people walked on dry ground.  When the priests reached the middle of the river, we are told, that they stopped, they lifted up the ark above their heads.  And then they praised God.  Moments later, they would build an altar in the middle of the river.  And there they worshipped God.  In that moment, the Israelites knew what it was to have;

One Foot in the Wilderness, the Other in the Promised Land

And so do we.  The balance of these two places in our lives is what it means to be human, and what it means to be a Christ follower.  We are not in the wilderness anymore, and we are not in the promised land yet either.

All For Now,

Monday, July 9, 2012

Love People One Person At a Time

About eight years ago, when my brother Jamie and I were about to start a new church development in Paso Robles, California, we were insanely eager to learn from any church that was having success.  To this end we read all of Robert Schuller's church leadership books, we plowed through The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren, we drank in all of Bill Hybels' leadership tomes. We couldn't get enough.  Our basic premise in researching these churches was that; 1.  We loved the Presbyterian Church, 2. We knew it was dying and needed to change, 3.  We were HE - (double hockey stick) bent on doing whatever was necessary to save it.

In the process of this learning binge we also met with many successful large church pastors.  One of whom was a pastor from a suburb of Sacramento, we'll call him Jim, who had started a church that we'll call, "Cyprus Brook," (even though the real name of the church is much better than that).  Cyprus Brook had grown to 6,000 members in just six years.  The truth is that we had waited about a month or two to get on Jim's calendar.  And then, when the vaunted day of meeting was about to occur, his secretary called and cancelled, and we had to wait another month.  So, it was with no uncertain degree of anticipation (and a little agitation) that my brother and I waited for a face to face with Jim.

We drove up to the church that day, and waited in the church coffee shop.  The appointed time for the meeting came and went, the time seeming to drip through the hourglass, like a bad rerun of "Days of our Lives" (has there ever been a good one?)  Finally Jim came.  He was wearing a rumpled shirt, and torn shorts, and flip flops.  He was kind and completely unassuming.  He had a boyish flair, not "Dead Poet's Society," but more, "Easy Rider."  But it didn't matter what Jim's appearance was, or what the differences in our styles of church were, or what the varying flavor of ministry was at that church, Jamie and I were focussed on figuring out what we could from him.  We wanted the recipe to the Gordian knot of church growth, and church success.  And so, we asked him what it was.  This is what he said.  "It's simple, just...

Love People One Person At a Time

Jamie and I furiously wrote those seven words on our pads, clearly expecting that more important, more complex, more nuanced information was yet to emerge from this modern day totem and prophet of all things of clerical success.  "Good," I said, "And what else...."  Jim said, "That's it, let me repeat it...

Love People One Person At a Time!

Jim was clearly a little exasperated that this simple but oh so important dictum was not permeating our grey matter in a more effective way.  So, he clarified.  "Look," there are a lot of things you need to do to grow a church.  You need to have a good name.  You need to go out and hang out at stores and have something that people need, like drug prevention therapy for moms and dads of teens.  You need to hand out Bibles at every service.  You need to have a facility that can facilitate growth.  And a lot of other stuff.  But that stuff all fits into place, if you get this one thing right....and let me repeat,

Love People One Person At a Time!!!

"I've got to go," said Jim.  "Good luck in your new church."  And with that, Jim was gone.

So, I have had the chance to reflect on this sagacious piece of advice for about 8 years now.  And I have come to see the true wisdom in what Jim was offering.  So, this is how I have tried to love people one person at a time in my ministry.  When people are talking to me, I try to be fully present in that conversation, even if it is only for 5 seconds.  When new people come to the church, I try to remember their names, and then I follow up with a phone call soon there after.  When people are hurting in church, I try to lay hands on them right then and there and pray for them.  When I am writing a sermon, I don't write it to the masses, I write it for a handful of people in church, who's names I know, and who's problems I understand.  I have tried to see the Christ following faith as not a group effort, not a mass movement, but an individual exercise in living out the gospel, in unique and REAL ways.  So, I really have tried to;

Love People One Person At a Time.

You Should Too,
All For Now,

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bless This Home

This blog post is being written directly on the heals of the 10 members of the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs (and that number is likely about to climb), and and subsequent to the loss of the 342 (and that number is also likely to climb) homes of the members of the Colorado Springs community that have recently lost their homes in the Waldo Canyon Fires.

The concept of - "Home" is a fundamental human need and concern.  The number of cliche's and pithy aphorisms that surround the medium of "home" are endless.  To list a couple of well worn ones; "home is where the heart is," "home is where you hang your hat," "hearth and home," "home sweet home," "home, home on the range," (maybe that one is a bridge too far).  And yet, even though these concepts have become cliches, we all recognize home as a place of great significance in our lives.  Home is more than a house, it is a place of mooring and hermitage.  Home is more than a place, or a space, it is a dream, and a returning, a memory, and a place to build memories.

The founding fathers of our country, we should hasten to add on this fourth of July weekend, had originally allotted the primary three fundamental freedoms as not, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property."  The basic concept, smelted from the embers of the great enlightenment, were that human beings needed property in order to have a core sense of self.

Jesus also recognized the concept of home.  Jesus' true childhood house (we should distinguish the word house from the word home at this point) was in Nazareth.  But, as the Bible tells us, Nazareth was not a home, as Jesus was very much a prophet "without honor," there - he was not welcome.  Jesus' real home was the tiny little hovel of Peter and Andrew's mother-in-law's house in Capernaum.  Jesus loved that place! He returned to it again and again and again in his life.  He performed one of his first miracles in that home, healing Peter's mother-in-law.  And just after that, Jesus healed hundreds of broken people, well into the night in Capernaum, from that home's front porch.  When Jesus was resurrected from the dead, on the third day, the Bible tells us that Jesus revealed himself to the women in the garden, and then, he bee-lined it to Galilee (I assume to Peter's mother-in-law's house in Capernaum) to be back in his - home.

So, what can we say to those who have lost homes this past week, here in Colorado Springs.  First, that we are very, very sorry that you have to go through this terrible time.  No words will be able to replace or even comfort that lost reality in your life.  Second, God did not cause these fires, and God has not caused your home to burn down because of anything you did in your life.  Terrible occurrences just happen in this life, as Jesus reminds us, when he says, "The sun shines on the just and the unjust and the rain falls on the just and the unjust."  Most important, remember, that home is not a place, or a space, but it is a concept, it is a dream, it is a conscious state of mind.  Though you may have lost a place that functioned as a "home" for you, and I do not want to even begin to dimish the significance of that place, - "home" is actually much bigger than that.

Home is Camelot!  And Camelot is a dream, that is a reality, and yet it is ineffable!

I am praying with you, whatever "home" is for you, and however it may have been singed or burned.  I am praying that God will moor you once again to his real home - which is eternal - and with us in this time and place.

All For Now,