What’s the thing?

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We were a bakers dozen or so.  A beautifully eclectic bunch of folks gathered in our living room last night.  Our quirky and lovable fluff-monster was there too, usually on the brick red carpet that centered our group.

The intent for our gathering was informative.  We had invited newcomers to our church over in order to share the story of our faith community, offer ways to get connected, and answer any questions that people may have had with regards to the church or faith.

As a start up community, we’re always experimenting with ways to build community and for people to hear one another’s stories.   We started hosting these newcomers desserts about a year ago and I’ve been consistently captivated by the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the folks who hang with our church.  People from various faith traditions or no faith background, from a range of careers and regions, and all with a unique expression of personality and perspective.  Getting to know people is absolutely one of the gifts of my job.

After introductions I shared our church’s story and offered some ways to get connected.  Towards the end of our time together we open up the floor for questions or comments.  There were several comments and a few questions, but one question stuck with me.

Quick disclaimer.  I’m writing this the morning after, so I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory. 

The question was something like this:  “It seems like the church is has a sense of its values and what’s important to it.  But what’s important to you personally?  What do you care most about with the church?”

Once the question was asked I did my best to restate it to make sure I was hearing it.

“When it comes to our still young and forming church, what’s the thing I care about the most?”

It was a great question, and one I was thankful to be asked.  Often people direct questions to me about our community that are more institutional or abstract in nature, so the concern for my personal experience felt nice.

As my mind bounced around in that moment considering a reply, a few different thought kernels popped open.

Is it involvement that I hope for the most? Like, for people to actually be a part of the work of the church rather than just being attendees?  For people to move from spectators to participants?

Yeah, that’s important but that’s not the thing.

Is it for our church to make an impact in our community?  For folks to be an expression of justice in a world of so much injustice?

Gosh, that’s up there, but that only feels like part of it.

What’s the thing?

What’s the deepest hope I have for the people who engage with our church community?

Over the last few months and even years our community has grown into an established and somewhat stable church, and much of my energy and focus has gone towards establishing teams and systems that get us closer to sustainability.  Because of this, I don’t think about the thing as much as I used to.

So, here it goes. My attempt to restate what I said last night and also put some more thought into it in ways I couldn’t flesh out in the moment.

For me, the deepest hope I have for our church, a work I’ve consumed myself with, is that people encounter Jesus.

For me, the Jesus story, and the experience of life tangled up with that story, with its reality and with its mystery, has been everything.

It’s formed me and shaped me towards love and empathy more than anything else.

It’s been the biggest source of comfort, strength, and hope in my entire life, and even beyond.

It’s invited me to offer and receive grace at the most vulnerable levels.

Encountering, following, learning from, wrestling with, and discovering the love of Jesus has made me who I am.

It’s in a very real sense rescued me.

It’s subverted my worldview an upended my politics.

It’s transformed the ways I see other people.

It’s sent me into homeless camps, high-rise corner offices, jungle prayer circles, holy slums, wedding altars, hospital bedsides, mountain top monasteries, sacred cemeteries, pub-theater congregations, and a increasing list of incarnate contexts that my memory can’t fully hold.

Its forced me to confront my own darkness and the darkness of the world and illuminated the ways of freedom through repentance and forgiveness.

Its a story that has been wed to my soul at the deepest level and unveiled the infinite orbits in the universe of Love.  And it’s this love that I’m still learning.

Because of my following Christ I care about justice, am learning to love my enemies, and believe in Resurrection; that new life really can happen in this world.

Jesus Christ, in all of the complexity and mystery surrounding those two identifying words, has been life, hope, nourishment, healing, transformation, joy, joyful-sorrow, peace, and more.

Jesus has been everything to me.

And if there was a word I could use to say everything that didn’t feel like an understatement, I’d use that word.

Jesus hasn’t given me all the answers or cleared up all the deep questions of my life or of our world, but Jesus has always been near.

In tears, ecstasy and everything in between, there has consistently been a presence of solidarity, hope, and still small love that has haunted me in the best of ways.  No accomplishment, possession, or experience has ever come close to comparing to the immensely rich sense that lives somewhere deep inside my being of Jesus’ love for me.

That’s the thing.

That’s the thing I hope our church can reflect and that people can catch a glimpse of.  Involvement, attendance, membership, activism, charity, and even theology- all those things are distant seconds.

To be honest it’s not that important to me if people label themselves as Christian, share my political positions, give to our church, behave in ways that match my morality, or volunteer in the community.  Those things have their urgent importance and are part of the equation, but hyperbolically speaking, those things don’t compare.  My very real experience is that those things will be transformed as people encounter Jesus and begin to walk, step by step, day by day, meal by meal, purchase by purchase, vote by vote, conversation by conversation, and encounter by encounter with the personification of divine love found in Jesus.

That’s THE thing. 

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Vocation

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I’ve been the hands of God
I’ve been the voice of love
Brought the healing balm
To wounded soldiers and children

I’ve sung with the canonized
Marched with the glorified
And broken bread with third world angels

I’ve encountered the holy under freeways
Enjoyed the artistry of homeless prodigies
And pontificated on the nature of reality with belly laughs

I’ve told the story of hope more times than my brain can hold
Proclaimed freedom for addicts every Sunday
And laid bare a million healed wounds

I’ve been an instrument of mercy in a holy symphony
Sat bedside with the injured and dying
Stood before family and critics
And preached grace for all

I’ve apologized for the sins of my forefathers
Repented for the crimes of my skin’s color
And witnessed divine orchestration on an incomprehensible scale

I’ve heard from the prophets
Seen the power of apostles
And walked with disciples

I’ve read the books
I’ve prayed the prayers
And mastered divinity

And the whole time I’ve felt like an imposter midwife as
Congregations were birthed
Organizations were forged
And a kingdom advanced

But I’m still me
Victories haven’t changed my insides
I still haven’t figured out how to be good
How to be whole

I’m caught in between the mystery
Of timeless sainthood and daily darkness
Of imago dei and a garden’s eaten apple
Of ecstatic communion and devastating isolation

I’ve been told that a hero is not those of heroic wall art
But those who endure
Thankless and nameless

Enduring not the trials of the world
Nor the work of accomplishment
But the truth of who they are
Broken yet beautiful

There is the fertile crescent of a spiritual genesis
The courage to embrace naked truth
To be let in and to let love in
To let go and open hearts

My salvation is not found in religious conquest
But in the Presence ever near
In the loneliest leadership, furthest falls, and sleepless nights.

It’s there the voice echos against the walls of a bare soul
“An imposter midwife is who I’ve made you to be”

“Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice”

“The future of Christianity belongs to the Thomas Merton kind of Christian, not the heirs of Jerry Falwell.”
-Brian Zahnd

If you’re familiar with the two individuals named above you’re likely aware of the opposite poles captured in this dichotomous quote.  On one hand Falwell represents the fore bearers of modern American ‘Christian” discourse, filled with nationalism and knee jerk righteousness that’s centered on perceived American family values.  On the other side of the spectrum is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who emphasized contemplation and thoughtful civic engagement.  As much as I’d love for Zahnd’s prediction to be right, I think we’re currently seeing something quite the opposite.  Consider this quote from Merton, penned in 1962, in the height of an imminent nuclear war.

“Here we have an issue of supreme importance in which the most vital facts are secret and in which crucial developments are rarely presented to the public in a clear, unbiased form. 

This brings us to one more grave problem.  The Christian who is misinformed; who is subject to the demagoguery of extremists in the press, on the radio or on TV, and who is perhaps to some extent temperamentally inclined to associate himself with fanatical groups in politics, can do an enormous amount of harm to society, to the Church and to himself.  With sincere intentions of serving the cause of Christ he may cooperate in follies and injustices of disastrous magnitude.

It is therefore vitally important for the Christian to control his zeal and moderate his enthusiasm for particular causes, until he can accurately estimate where these tendencies may ultimately lead.  Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice.  Impetuous and violent action must not be regarded as ipso facto heroic.  We must learn to cultivate a sound judgment in affairs that affect the very destiny of the human race. (Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, 143,144, emphasis added)

Essentially, Merton is arguing for people, especially people of faith, to develop an ability to think through the many dimensions of their current predicaments rather than be fueled by a momentary and self righteous zeal.  Unfortunately, this is not what we see today.  Instead of calculated and thoughtful engagement, we have hashtags and twitter rants.  We’ve exchanged our nuanced mental and spiritual filters for surface layer, endorphin-laden call-outs that feel good in the moment but are found lacking when it comes to bringing about actually substantive change.   I’ve seen this in myself, I’ve seen this in my community, and I’ve seen this in our government.  To make things worse, when we see others not engaging in our collective flow of finger pointing, we projectively assume that they are complicit in a perceived offense.

But what if the most rebellious thing we can do in this moment is nothing?  Nothing in the sense that we first think and calculate before we respond?  What if we had the discipline, self control, and inner peace required to not be baited by the offense-traps circulated by social and news media?

As much as Zahnd’s prediction has yet to come to pass, I’m still hopeful that some day it will, at least in my own heart.

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When feelings fade & we’re worn out; faith.

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So many of us are exhausted by the endless breaking news cycle filled with catastrophe after scandal after disaster.  When we look around our cities we see homelessness, potholes, pollution, and displacement.  When we survey our own lives, most of us  aren’t where we want to be in life.  And so our feelings evolve into cynicism, defeatism, fatigue, and apathy.   We used to care, but that didn’t seem to get us anywhere.  Things don’t seem to change for the good.  So we just stop “feeling like it”, turning to distractions that make us feel something better, and we insulate ourselves from being emotionally jaded and exhausted, settling for rhythms of life that keep us feeling good.

Our feelings and moods are pretty powerful stuff.  They can move into action or paralyze us altogether.   They are one of the most significant forces in how we make choices: “I felt like doing _______”, or “I wanted to go to _______”, or “I loved the way that he/she made me feel so I _______”.

When we’re saddened by global events we often feel like doing something about it.

When we’re angered by an injustice our mood can often drive us to speak out.

When we feel challenged by ambition and a perceived goal, we ramp up our efforts.

When we’re scared we often look for ways to minimize risk.

For better or worse our feelings and moods directly affect how we live and move in our world.   But what do we do when they’re all dried up?  What do we do when we don’t feel much anymore?  What do we do when we’re worn out?

I’ve talked to so many people who’ve entered this terrain.  They used to care more about their relationships, their careers, their faith, and the problems of the world.  But after years of going back to their feelings as a source of energy, the well has been emptied.

For those in the helping profession this might be called compassion fatigue, but I think this is more common than one category of careers, I think this is an essential part of our journeys, especially in a time when we’re bombarded daily by tragic headlines.

As I’ve wrestled through my own fatigue of feelings, reflecting back on times in my life where I was more ambitious, more inclined towards action, I’ve come to see that in many ways, I’ve lost touch with some of those early feelings, for better or worse.  Some might argue that this is a necessary part of growing up and maturing through youthful idealism, but maybe it’s not.  Maybe our feelings were never meant to carry us through the entirety of our life’s commitments and endeavors?  Maybe there comes a time when need something else to keep us going?

I recently spent time with a friend who regularly surrounds himself with the suffering of the others in some of the most dire circumstances on earth.  He’s been at it for decades.  What keeps him going is the hope of faith, something that’s hard to put into words but is an orientation of his soul around the belief that things can change.

In our world, I think we all need something outside of our feelings and moods in order to avoid apathy and lives of endless distractions.  There are dark things going on in our world, and we have the miraculous opportunity to engage them in real ways, but our feelings will never be enough.    If we rely on our feelings and moods to inform who we are than when those feelings fade we run the risk of defaulting to the norms of contemporary society.  These normative cultural currents include things like leisure, entertainment, comfort, materialism, security, and vanity.

For me, this has actually become one of the better “cases for faith”.  I need some set of values, a hope, an ethic, a story that reorients me from despair to victory and keeps me from being absorbed into the path of least resistance.  It’s not always something I feel, but it’s something that I have to choose.

In my faith tradition, this is the essence of faith, “being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see”.  Essentially in the midst of all that is wrong with the world, faith is the choice to believe in a better outcome.  Rather than avoidance or fatigue, faith is the decision to look straight into the darkest depths and believe that light will eventually shine.

In many ways choosing faith is not about having all the answers or being filled with spiritual emotions.  Faith is what moves us forward in the absence of all those things. Much like marriage vows during times of relational stress or a soldiers muscle memory on the battle field, faith happens when we align ourselves with a narrative outside our finite existence compelling us towards hope.  Deep in our subconscious we choose to live in a dimension where love wins and this choice subverts the ways we view and move in our life.

So today, with all the storms swirling around us, I choose faith even if at times I don’t feel it, even if there are many unsolved mysteries, and in spite of my human tendency towards personal comfort and security.

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Punk Rock, the Prophetic Tradition, Anti-Racism, Faith Formation, Propagahndi, and More

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One of the first punk rock bands I got into was Propagahndi.  I remember rocking their shirt at like 14 years old. Eventually, I gravitated towards some obscure British stuff from the 70s, largely because it was what my friends were into, but some of those early messages shaped some of my emerging worldview.

Oddly enough punk music (not including the late 90s-2000s pop-punk and main stream derivatives), always had a sense that racism was not a thing of the past, but that these ideologies still need to be confronted.  Whether it be songs calling out Nazi‘s or White Supremacists, or the branding on buttons, patches, and shirts, the message was clear: punk rock stands against racism.

From a faith perspective, punk rock was meant to be prophetic; a hyperbolic and shocking a way to call out injustice and disrupt the system.  This spirit, though often lost in our pacified American Christianity,  is seen in Jesus who was a poor minority living in occupied territory, executed by the empire, and also in his earliest followers who were called to reject “Caesar” and any systems or beliefs that oppress or dehumanize.  So yes, Jesus was and is punk rock.

As a young lad I learned about things like genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, secret US wars and their deadly consequences, oppression of the LGBT community, racism, political corruption and more all through the words of punk rock.  In light of recent events some of those memories and melodies have resurfaced in my psyche.

Below is an example of one such song from the Canadian Punk band I mentioned earlier, Propagahndi.  Warning: it contains some very crude language, but nothing more than what our current President is well known for.  Also, I do not condone in any way killing of other human beings, but I do support the death of racist ideologies and views.  So just in case you were wondering, that’s how I interpret the title of this song.

In our current historical moment, with our current “Ceasar”, I hope and pray for lots more great punk rock.

“Swastikas and Klan-robes
Sexists, racists, homophobes
Aryan-Nations and Hammerskins
You can wear my nuts on your Nazi chins

I love a man in uniform!

Just what exactly are the great historical accomplishments of your race that make you proud to be white? Capitalism? Slavery? Genocide? Sitcoms? This is your fucking white-history, my friend. So why don’t we start making a history worth being proud of and start fighting the real fucking enemy?

Swastikas and Klan-robes
Sexists, racists, homophobes
This one’s for the master race
My brown-power ass in your white-power face

Kill them all and let a Norse God sort ’em out!”

Dear Imposter

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A while back a friend of mine who’s also kind of a counselor, pastor, and mentor challenged me to do some writing and reflection around the part of myself that is and isn’t part of me.  Often we look at our bad habits, mistakes, and missteps as forgettable aspects of ourselves that we wish weren’t there.  Sometimes we even go so far as pretending they don’t exist.  While talking this through with my friend, he made a photo copy of a letter that an author named Brennan Manning wrote to this part of himself entitled “Dear Imposter”.  In the letter Manning addressed his imposter honestly and without shame, telling the truth on himself and an aspect of his life that is both a part of him, and not his true self.  All of this was a way of bringing to light that which is hiding in the deepest shadows of our selves, allowing those cold places to enter the warmth of light.

So here is my letter written to my own imposter.

Dear Imposter,

I’m not totally sure who you are, still trying to figure you out. What I do know is that you are part of me, and you’ve been with me for as long as I can remember. I’ve never really addressed you directly, you’ve been more like a secret friend that I hang out with from time to time. We’ve had some fun times together. You’ve been there for me in moments of pain and insecurity in ways that pretty much no one else has. When I felt the deepest sadness about my body to the point of shame filled tears, you provided me escape into a world where I was longed for. When as a child dread filled my soul in the locker rooms, playgrounds, pools, beaches, dance floors, and classrooms, you invited me into a world far away from the total and utter rejection that was hurled at me in those battlegrounds. When self doubt was so crippling that I could not move, you believed in me, though I’m learning that the me you believed in is not me at all, but maybe you, my dearest and oldest imposter friend.

Having you as a friend has had its benefits, though they’ve been tangled up with with other things like the way my headphone chords get knotted and twisted no matter what I do. I can’t be certain, but I think if it wasn’t for you, I would have acted out in my non-imposter life in ways that I may have regretted. You’ve taught me many things, and given me many highs, but you’ve also confused my eyes and left wanting my brain.

Now in these days where the weight of our beautiful and messy congregation rests partially on my body, soul, and mind, your company has risen to the occasion in the midst of the loneliness of leadership and being a pastor. Whether or not I should, I feel like I carry peoples pain, peoples stories, and even people’s hope. And in my own pain and secondary trauma, you stayed faithful. You’ve given me hours upon hours of escape, alone, just you and me, riled up on pixels and spirits. You’ve grown nearer in these last few months, and our time together has grown longer and more often. We’ve toasted our glasses on many nights, enjoyed countless films, feasted often, and disappeared together through the digital threshold in the palm of my hand into that old, new, and ever expanding universe of fantasy.

Old friend, whoever you are, it’s been real. But today, as I type on the dinning table of my still young family’s condo here in a city where we have created home and ministry, I need to say goodbye. I can’t keep you in my life anymore. I know that you’ve been there for me, but you’ve also, over time, molded me in a direction that I can’t keep going.

I hurt.

Deep down.

I’m sad.

And our old hi-jinks are making it worse, not better.

And so in the words of a man who had a friend just like you, I have a goodbye gift for you. I want to take you to where deep down, in the unsearchable depths of your being you’ve been yearning to be, “into the presence of Jesus”, that some how was there all along. I know that you might get jealous and miss the times where it was just the two of us alone, but this is what I want, this is what I need. I don’t know exactly how this is going to work, especially because I don’t know exactly who you are, but I’m going to use that ancient, messy, and misunderstood word here- faith. I’m going to have faith that the words of Brennan Manning to his imposter friend can be real for us. That, “the longer you spend time in the presence of Jesus, the more accustomed you grow to His face, the less adulation you will need because you will have discovered for yourself that He is Enough. And in that Presence, you will delight in the discovery of what it means to live by grace and not performance.”

Your old friend, 

Chris

 

In These Rooms: A Reflection on the First Step in the Search for Health

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There is this saying in recovery communities that captures something special about the  nature of trust and vulnerability that is unique to groups of people whose commonality is that they’ve all come in their ends and are looking for health.  The saying is,  “in these rooms” and it’s often used when referring to the safety and types of stories that are told at meetings.

In these rooms everyone equal and each story matters.
In these rooms you don’t need to fake it any longer, you can let our guard down.
In these rooms you won’t find judgement, just fellow pilgrims on the journey of recovery.
In these rooms you can share your failures and your successes freely.
In these rooms we’re together.

Those three words signify to many a space where we can be truly honest about our struggles, and it’s in this place of brutal honesty and confession that healing begins.

As a pastor I’ve been drawn to this concept because I think it’s an idea we all need, addicts, sinners, saints and all.  In some traditions this space was cultivated in the practice of confession and absolution, but for most of us, our lives are completely void of anything resembling these rooms.

Here is what’s tragic about this, it’s been my experience that every one of us needs this space.  We all know that we’re unhealthy and we long to tell the truth about it to another.  Our list of struggles is legion.  For some it’s addictions, others self doubt or loneliness, and others exhaustion and depression.   As I sit with people and listen, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have something along these lines, and often I become these rooms to others.   

See, I think we’re all trying to get healthy, but we don’t know where to begin.  Intuitively, we know that we’re walking through life with a limp when we could be running freely.   And so we go to things that promise health or distract us altogether, but leave us more tired and sick in the end.  We’re looking for something that will bring us life and nourishment but we end up consuming more junk food and empty practices.  In our search for health we usually try to do more when maybe we must need to be more.   Instead of faking it, we need a place where we can take off our bandages and just be the hurting, tired, and broken people we are.

This is what I think we can learn from our recovery friends, that the first step in the journey towards health is admitting we’re sick and finding a space to share this with others as they share with us.   As we become these rooms to others, we create a space for people to move towards health and subsequently where we can too.

Let’s stop pretending that we’re not sick.  Because it’s this act that actually keeps us from wholeness,  Let’s be a space place for others and also be courageous enough to be vulnerable with our own life.   Whether it’s with a friend, spouse, counselor, church, or recovery meeting, being and finding this space this is a step worth taking.

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