Posts Tagged ‘shift’

The Easter Ragman

March 31, 2017

A number of years ago, Walter Wangerin wrote a story called “The Ragman” to help us understand the message of Easter.  The Ragman is a picture of Jesus and what He has done for us on Good Friday and Easter.  Here’s the story:

“One Friday morning, I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking in the alleys of the

city. He was pulling an old cart, filled with clothes; and he was calling in a clear,

resonant voice, “Rags! New rags for old, I’ll take your tired, old rags. Rags!” Now

this is a wonder, I thought, for the man stood six feet-four, with arms like tree limbs,

hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed with brightness. Could he find no better job

than this, to be a ragman in one of the rougher areas of the city?

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into her

handkerchief, shedding thousands of tears. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was

breaking. The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked to the woman and asked,

“Will you give me your rag; I’ll give you another.” He slipped the handkerchief from

her eyes, and laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. Then

as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing. He put her tear-

stained handkerchief to his own face; and began to weep, to sob as grievously as she

had done. Yet she was left behind without a tear. “Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

 

In a little while the Ragman came across a little girl whose head was wrapped in a

bandage. Her eyes were blank and empty. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now that tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely bonnet

from his cart. “Give me your rag, and I’ll give you mine.” He loosened the bandage,

removed it and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. I gasped at what I

saw, for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow ran a darker, richer

flow of his own blood! “Rags, rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding

Ragman.

The sun was at its height by now, and the Ragman seemed more and more in a hurry.

“Do you have a job?” the Ragman inquired of a man leaning against a telephone

pole. “Are you crazy?” the man sneered, pulling away from the pole and revealing

that the right sleeve of his jacket was empty. “So give me your jacket, and I’ll give

you mine.” The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman. I trembled at

what I saw. For the Ragman’s arm stayed in his jacket, and when the other put it on,

he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

 

By now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping

uncontrollably and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling the cart with one arm,

stumbling with exhaustion, he still ran on ahead faster. I wept to see the change in

this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such

a hurry, perhaps to discover what drove him so. The little old Ragman came upon a

landfill, a garbage dump. He climbed the hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little

space on the hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a

handkerchief. He covered his bones with a jacket; and he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness his death! I slumped in a car and wailed and mourned,

because I had come to love that Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of

this man. When I saw that he was dead, I couldn’t keep from crying. I cried myself to

sleep. I slept all the way through Saturday to Sunday. But then on Sunday morning, I

was awakened by a violent light, a pure, hard, demanding light shining against my

face. I looked up, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the

Ragman, folding his clothes, a scar on his face, but alive! And besides that, healthy!

 

There was no sign of sorrow, nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined

with a clean sheen! I was in awe of the transformation, but humbled by the sorry

state of my own ordinary sameness. I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I

had seen, I walked into the Ragman’s presence. I told him my name, and that I felt

like a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes, and I said with dear

yearning in my voice, “Dress me. Dress me with your rags.” He dressed me. My Lord

dressed me. He dressed my feet, my body; he dressed all of me. He put new rags on and

now I glow in the sight of the Ragman, this Ragman, my Christ.”

 

The Advent Conspiracy

November 30, 2016

A lot of people look forward to the Christmas season each year.  And each year, a lot of people are let down.  Instead of being the enjoyable season we see on TV, it has become a time of the year that is hurried, rushed, busy and stressed.  What happened?  How did it get to be this way?  In order to change this, a number of people and churches are discovering a movement called the Advent Conspiracy.  The Advent Conspiracy asks the questions, “Can Christmas still change the world?”  The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption, and relationship.  So, what happened?  How did it turn into stuff, stress, and debt?  Somehow, we’ve traded the best story in the world for the story of what’s on sale.

How did the Advent Conspiracy get started?  It started in 2006 with five pastors who started to imagine a better Christmas practice for their own communities.  Today, the Advent Conspiracy is a global movement of people and churches resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption.  These churches are choosing to celebrate Christmas differently by Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More, and Loving All.

1)Worship Fully.  It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift up a song to God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

2)Spend Less.  Quick question for you: What was the one gift you remember getting for Christmas last year? Next question: What about the fourth gift? Do you remember that one? Truth is many of us don’t because it wasn’t something we necessarily wanted or needed. Spending Less isn’t a call to stop giving gifts; it’s a call to stop spending money on gifts we won’t remember in less than a year. America spends at least $500 billion dollars during the Christmas season, and much of that is joyless and goes right onto a credit card. By spending wisely on gifts we free ourselves from the anxiety associated with debt so we can take in the season with a full heart.

3)Give More.  I know what you’re thinking. “Wait, didn’t you just say I should spend less, and now you are telling me to give more? What gives?” The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself. And nobody modeled this more than Jesus. So what does this look like for you? Tickets to a ball game or the theater? A movie night? The main point is simple: When it comes to spending time with those you love, quantity might be important, but quality is what’s really important.

4)Love All.  It all boils down to love. Love from a savior. Love to a neighbor in need. By spending just a little less on gifts, we free up our resources to love as Jesus loves by giving to those who really need help. This is the conspiracy a few churches began ten years ago, and has since grown to an international movement where thousands of churches have raised millions of dollars to love others in life-changing ways. It’s not that there’s something wrong with the shopping mall—it’s that the better story is about loving all.

So, what do you think?  Can we conspire together?  Can we get together and come up with a more significant, more meaningful way to celebrate Christmas?  It’s not enough to say “no” to the way Christmas is celebrated by many.  We need to say “yes” to a better way to celebrate Christmas.  If we intentionally devote more time and energy to Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More, and Loving All, we can make a difference in our own lives, in our families, and in our communities.  And if we make a difference there, it will begin to spread all over the world.  Today, thousands of churches are conspiring to celebrate Advent differently.  With each new person, and each new church, we end up making a far bigger difference than we ever thought was possible.  This year, let’s celebrate Christmas by joining the Advent Conspiracy.

(For more information, check out www.adventconspiracy.org)

 

 

Leadership

September 28, 2016

Five months ago, Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times where he was talking about the state of politics in Washington DC and the nature of the presidential election we are in now.  He said that the nonstop fighting between our two political parties has left many Americans feeling like the children of two permanently divorcing parents. He said that the country is starved to see its two major parties do big hard things together again.

As a nation, we are in a time of transition.  We are facing big issues.  And we are in need of strong, capable, effective leadership.  Many people have expressed their frustration at the lack of leadership we are receiving.  We seem to be missing big opportunities to change, to address complex issues, and to discover desperately needed answers.

What is leadership?  Leadership is making things happen.  Effective leadership is making the right things happen.  Effective Christian leadership is being used by the Holy Spirit to help make God’s thing happen.  Many people fail to see themselves as leaders when they really are.  Sometimes we think that we have to be in an official leadership position in order to be a leader.  This is not true.  There are many people in official leadership positions who do not provide leadership.  And there are many people who are not in official leadership positions who actually provide a great deal of leadership.  Leadership is not about a position.  It is about influence.  If you are in a relationship, a marriage, a family, a school, a church, a business, or a non-profit – if you are in any group of people, you can provide leadership.  Even if you don’t have an official position or title.

In The Missional Leader by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, they state that “missional leadership is about cultivating an environment within which the people of God in a particular location may thrive.”  They write that “leadership is about cultivating an environment that innovates and releases the missional imagination present among a community of God’s people.”  This picture is the leader as gardener.  A leader is someone who plants seeds, waters them, puts fertilizer in the soil, and makes sure the young plants get the sun and nutrients they need in order to grow.  A gardener cannot force a seed to grow, but a gardener to do many things to create the right soil or the right environment so that the seed has the best chance to grow.

A leader is someone who encourages growth.  A leader is someone who seeks to inspire a new imagination – encouraging people to dream, to think outside the box, and to take wise risks.  A leader does not seek to control people, hold them down, or hold them back.  A leader is not someone who shames people, puts them down, or makes fun of them in front of their colleagues.  A Christian leader is someone who seeks to create a culture and a climate where people feel the unconditional love of God, where people are supported through their struggles, and where people are encouraged to fail as they develop their spiritual gifts and talents.

This is what we do when we seek to provide leadership in the church.  No human being can force a church to grow.  What we can do is lead like gardeners – planting and watering and nurturing and trying to create the right conditions, the right soil, and the right environment so those seeds can grow.

One of the great leaders we see in the Bible is Moses.  For Israel, Abraham was like their George Washington.  He was the father of their country.  Moses was like their Abraham Lincoln.  He ended their slavery and led them to freedom.  He led during one of the most challenging seasons in their nation’s history.  He led them through a very tenuous forty year exodus through the wilderness until they were finally ready to enter into the Promised Land.  When we read the book of Exodus, we can see the important leadership skills that were exhibited by Moses.  Moses is one of the key models we have for what a great leader looks like.  When we study his life, we can see how we can become better leaders.  We can see how we can vote for better leaders.

The leadership skills we are looking for in our world today can be found in the Bible.  Every one of us can be a person of influence.  Every one of us can have a positive impact on the people around us.  Every one of us can be a leader.

 

The “Good Ol’ Days” Are Not Coming Back

June 30, 2016

As I look at what is going on in our world today, I hear a lot of people voicing a deep sense of frustration.  Many people sense that the world is stuck and isn’t getting any better.  Since 2000, most people’s wages have not increased much, if at all.  Since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, many people have not seen a financial recovery in their own lives.  The job market does not seem to be getting better.  Our economy does not seem to be getting better.  Our educational system does not seem to be getting better.  Washington DC does not seem to be getting any better.  We feel stuck.  We feel frustrated.  And we feel angry.

In Yuval Levin’s best-selling book The Fractured Republic, he says that this has led many Americans to look back at the “Good Ol’ Days” and try to figure out how we can go back in time.  Many of our imaginations were shaped by the post-World War II years, where our economy was growing, jobs were plentiful, America dominated the world stage, and life seemed to get better every year.  Levin says that the Democrats keep looking back to the Great Society years of Lyndon Johnson and want to go back to that period in our history.  He says that Republicans keep looking back to the 1980 years of the Reagan Revolution and want to go back to that time.  But, the problem is, those “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.  We can’t go back in time and nobody seems to be looking forward.

We see this with the Brexit vote that was taken last week.  The United Kingdom voted to pull out of the European Union (EU).  Many people were expressing their frustration with the current realities of globalization and immigration and free trade and wanted to take their country back.  They wanted to become more British.  However, after the vote to leave the EU, the most asked question from England on Google was “What is the EU?” implying that people didn’t really know what they were voting for.  It seems as if they didn’t realize their vote would crash their financial markets, weaken the value of the pound, and put their economy in the tank.  Many wanted to go back to the Good Ol’ Days, but they are not coming back.

We see this in our country as well.  One presidential candidate wants to “Make America Great Again”, which is slogan that is looking to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which cannot be done.  The other presidential candidate talks about bringing back the financial heyday of her husband’s presidency, which is looking to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which cannot be done.  Nobody is looking forward, and people are frustrated with their leaders.

We see this in the Bible as well.  In the Old Testament, after living in Egypt for 400 years, the Israelites were finally set free by Moses, and crossed the Red Sea into the wilderness.  After two years in the wilderness, they were on the edge of the Promised Land.  But, in Numbers 13-14, it tells us that they became anxious and scared, and wanted to go back to Egypt.  They wanted to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which could not be done.  They were frustrated with their leaders – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  They wanted to vote them out of office and pick new leaders.  Sound familiar?

Today, in the United Kingdom, here in the United States, and around the world, we are still making the same mistakes the Israelites made in the wilderness some 4000 years ago.  We can’t go back to the past.  The “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.  If we keep pining for yesterday, we will never find the path to tomorrow.

Because the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, they ended up having to stay in the wilderness for another 38 years.  They remained stuck and frustrated until the whole generation who were in leadership had died off.  They had to wait for the next generation to grow up, with fresh ideas, new perspectives, and a new imagination.  They needed people who were not afraid to take wise risks, to launch new experiments, and discover a new way to live in a world that had shifted significantly.  Our God is a creative God, and we need to encourage people to be more creative.  Jesus was a provocative and disturbing Bible teacher, and we need to encourage people to teach like him.  The Holy Spirit leads people through visions and dreams, and we need to encourage people to dream.  The seven last words of the church are “we’ve never done it that way before.”  Our past should never inhibit our future.  It should always provide the foundation to build new steps to a different future.

The Israelites in the Old Testament learned a hard lesson.  They learned that they couldn’t go back to the “Good Ol’ Days” and that they were never coming back.  Because of their stubbornness, they got stuck in the wilderness for a generation, before people were open to God’s new imagination.  We don’t want to make the same mistakes today.  Whether we are looking at our nation, our world, or our church, we don’t want to keep looking to the past when God wants to prepare us for a new future.  What will it look like?  We don’t know.  But, we have to keep looking forward, not backward. We have to learn to adapt to new situations and not be afraid to start new ministries.  We have to grow deeper in the scriptures to understand fresh ways to engage the new missionary context in our world.

We don’t know what the future holds.  We are faced with a lot of uncertainty.  But, we know that God holds our future.  We know that Jesus is leading us forward.  We know that the Holy Spirit will guide us on our journey.  We know that we don’t need to be afraid.  And we know that the “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.

 

 

A More Colorful Opportunity

April 28, 2016

Back in 1965, white people made up about 88% of the population in the United States, and the nonwhite population was about 12%.  Today, people of color make up 37% of the population in the United States.  In 1965, there were fewer than 9 million Hispanics in the U.S.  By 2013, there were 54 million Hispanics in the U.S.  In 1965, there were about 16 million Asian Americans in the U.S.  By 2013, there were more than 18 million.  We are becoming a more colorful country.

The demographics of our country are changing every minute of every day.  Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90% of that growth comes from people of color.  In 2011, the majority of babies born in America (50.4%) were not white.  A baby is born every seven seconds in our country, resulting in 12,343 births per day.  At the other end of the age spectrum, the racial composition of the over-65 segment of the population is 78% white.  So, while a majority of the births in our country are from babies of color, the vast majority of deaths are people who are white.

There are about 6,048 white babies born in America every day.  There are 5,204 white deaths in America every day, meaning that our white population increases by 844 people every day.  There are about 6,295 babies of color born in America each day.  There are 1,442 deaths of people of color, meaning that our nonwhite population increases by 4,853 every day.  Do you see a trend here?

More than 90% of all immigrants to America are people of color.  In terms of legal immigration, 2,618 people are added to the U.S. population each day.  When these are added to the net increase from births and deaths for people of color, 7,471 people of color are added to the U.S. population each day, in contrast to 1,053 white people who are added to our population each day.  Clearly, we are becoming a more colorful country.

Some who have been a part of the majority, who see their numbers declining, seem to be reacting with nervousness, anxiety, and fear.  But, perhaps God is giving us a unique opportunity.  As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, what is God up to here?  Why is God causing this to happen or allowing this to happen?  Perhaps the challenges that come from our changing demographics are actually opportunities. Maybe God is strengthening us rather than weakening us.  Can we rise above the negativity and the fear of our culture and model a healthier response?

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus says that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven.” The picture Jesus gives us is that people will come from all over the world, from many countries, and many racial ethnic groups to be a part of the coming Kingdom of God.  It could be that God is preparing us for that future time by helping us get to know people from different backgrounds to understand the vast creativity and imagination of God.  We used to have to go into the world to share the good news of Jesus with people from other colorful backgrounds, but now they are coming to us.  We can now share our faith with many different kinds of people without having to leave the communities where we live.

Some people of color have a strong faith in Jesus that can encourage our relationship with God.  Some immigrants who come here are bringing about a revival in our nation as they share their faith in Christ with us.  Some people are coming here as missionaries since the United States is now the third largest mission field in the world.  What if people from other countries were not coming here to steal our jobs, but to inspire a deeper faith in God?  Why do some Christians respond with such fear, when the command found most often in the Bible is “do not fear”?  When I lived in California, I had many friends who were from Hispanic or Asian backgrounds.  I learned a lot from them, from their faith, and from how they viewed the world.

Maybe what some think is a curse is actually a blessing.  Maybe what some think is a problem is actually a solution.  Maybe what some think is a crisis is actually an opportunity.  Maybe God is surprising us again and teaching us something we need to learn.  Maybe we need to take off our cultural glasses and put on our Biblical glasses to see our world through different lenses.  Maybe we could learn to respond in faith instead of in fear.  Different is not always bad.  Change is not always bad.  Variety is not always bad.  Maybe God is leading us to a new level of trusting Him, where we realize He is still in control, and we are going to be OK.  Maybe we can all learn something new from each other.

(These statistics come from the book Brown is the New White by Steve Phillips.)

 

God With Us

December 1, 2015

Life can be confusing. Sometimes the path we walk can be scary. At times, life can feel as dark and as cold as a winter’s night. Some people feel like they’re alone – they feel like no one is smiling down on them, no one is looking out for them, and no one really understands who they are, how they feel, or what they are facing.

Strangely enough, for some people, the Christmas season is when they feel the most alone. Maybe it’s the crowds that surround us. Or maybe it’s the Norman Rockwell expectations we have that this year all the family will be together, everyone will get along, all the past will be forgotten, and everything will be just perfect – like a Christmas card.

Maybe it’s the time of the year. You step outside into the night near Christmas, and it’s dark and cold and quiet. The air is heavy, the sounds are muffled, and the only thing you hear is your own heart beating. A lot of people, deep down, feel alone. And for some reason, it can be worse at Christmas.

There are many reasons that a baby named Jesus was born into our world. But, one of the most important ones was so you would never have to be alone at Christmas. He was born so you would never have to face a dark night, or a cold world, or a lost cause alone. He was born so you would know there is someone who is looking out for you and smiling at you, someone who understands you, someone who knows your fears, someone who remembers your sorrows, someone who believes in you, and someone who dreams for you. There is someone who knew you before you knew yourself, and no matter where you’ve wandered or what you’ve done, he wants to walk through this world with you.

Why is there a Christmas? Because God didn’t want you to ever be alone. In the Old Testament, God made a promise. Isaiah 7:14 says, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Emmanuel – which means God with us.” Throughout the Old Testament, the people believed in God. They always believed in God above us. When they sinned, they believed in God against us. And when they did everything right, they were able to believe in God for us. But not God with us. Not in the way they needed Him the most.

Not with us like a mother or a father is with a child. Not with us enough to understand what it’s like to be human, a little speck in a huge universe. Not with us enough to feel what it’s like to be one soul against the world, to give your best and see it do no good, to give your heart only to be rejected, to cry at night because those you love are hurting and you can’t take their pain away. They couldn’t believe that God was with us, not like that. So they always wanted someone between God and them: A Moses, a priest, a prophet.

But God wanted to be more than God above us, or God against us, or even God for us. It was in the heart of God to be God with us. It was in his heart to be God with you, so you would never have to be alone – not on Christmas, not on the best day of your life, and not on the worst day of your life: so that what God promised through Isaiah came to pass. The virgin Mary was with child. She gave birth in Bethlehem. The child was named Emmanuel – God with us. And we call him Jesus. That story is true. It has not been made up. It actually happened. And if you ask Jesus today, He can come into your life, and be with you, so that you never have to be alone again.

(Thanks to Rob Renfroe for inspiring this post.)

The Age of Generosity

November 2, 2015

In 2009, Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote a best-selling book called The Age of the Unthinkable. In it, he describes how we have arrived at a moment of peril that not long ago would have seemed unimaginable. All around us, ideas and institutions that we once relied on for our safety and security are failing – and the best ideas of our leaders seem to make our problems worse, not better. He argues that we live in a time of ceaseless, unthinkable change, yet many of our organizations are stuck in bureaucracies that are inflexible and out of date. The unthinkable has become the inevitable, and we wonder where the leaders are who can bring people together to address tough, complex problems.

Recently, David Brooks wrote an article in the New York Times called Enter the Age of Outsiders. He said that whereas our world used to function as planets revolving around the sun, with a gravitational force that kept them connected to the center, now we live in an age where the outsiders have the greater gravitational force, and they are pulling us apart. Our political systems and social systems used to work, but they no longer do. The secular vision of capitalism no longer appeals to many people and our democratic system has become dysfunctional. We are losing confidence and heading for an Age of Exhaustion. But, he suggests, our real problems are mental and spiritual.

We can make a difference in our world if we address the mental and spiritual issues of our time. Our problems will not be solved by political solutions alone. They will not be solved by economic solutions alone. They will only be solved if we also address the mental and spiritual issues that exist beneath the surface.
One way to do this is to “swim upstream” against the dysfunction of a self-centered culture. As followers of Jesus, we have to learn to “go against the grain” and not participate in unhealthy patterns of blaming, shaming, intransigence, arrogance, and narcissism. Instead of being completely focused on ourselves, we need to pay more attention on God. Who is God? How does Jesus want us to live? What changes does the Holy Spirit want to make in our lives? How can we become more like Christ? We can become more humble, teachable, and open. We don’t have to go along with every idea, but we compare them to the teachings of the Bible and see if they are consistent with what God has revealed to us.

In this age of frustration and cynicism, we don’t want our churches to be dysfunctional. It is important that we understand who we are, what we are called to be and to do, and to carry out our tasks with competence. In an age when so many organizations and institutions have become dysfunctional, if our churches can function in healthy and missional ways, we can be an example and a witness to others. We can be a breath of fresh air to those who are looking for places of healing that know how to get things done. We can be a quiet example of what people can actually accomplish when they set aside their own personal agendas, humble themselves, and come together.

What does it look like to live generously? How does a generous heart, coupled with generous actions, change the tone of our communities? If we reject the me-first, individualistic, accomplishment paradigm of our culture, and reverse it to become generous, team-oriented people who seek the welfare of the community where God has sent us (Jeremiah 29:7), what kind of impact can we have? Can we actually be used by the Holy Spirit to bring a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11)?

It begins with God. It begins with us. It begins with our own spiritual condition. It begins with our local congregation. It begins with our neighborhood. It begins with our local community. Through our daily words and actions, we can begin to usher in an Age of Generosity. We have been saved to serve. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We have received grace to be generous with others. The more we give away, the more we will gain. The more we share what we have, the more others’ lives will be touched. The more we share our resources, the more our communities will be recalibrated. Living generously can change our hearts, our relationships, and our communities.

We could buy into the cynicism, pessimism, and dysfunction of the current culture. We could be overwhelmed by the Age of the Unthinkable and the Age of Exhaustion. Or we could let Jesus change our lives and follow a different path. We could usher in an Age of Generosity and see what happens.

 

Hope Returns

September 30, 2015

A few years ago, it seemed like the Catholic Church was a mess. They were facing so much anger and criticism around a sexual scandal with priests and parishioners and even children. No matter how they tried to respond, it seemed to be too little, too late. They never could seem to find the right words, the right actions, or the right tone to re-assure people that they were taking corrective action and addressing the root problems. It was a mess they could never seem to get out from under. In addition to this, the church was facing questions of financial mismanagement and they even went so far as to fire the Pope’s butler.

However, last week, Pope Francis made his first trip to Cuba and the United States. For a few days, he seemed to be the most popular politician in our country. People love him. Both political parties wanted to claim him as their own. Each party focused on their policies that Pope Francis supported, but said nothing about their policies that he did not support. It seemed as if everyone wanted to see and be seen with Pope Francis.

This Pope seems to have changed people’s minds about the Catholic Church. Attitudes have shifted from being very negative to being very positive. People are much more upbeat and hopeful now about the future of the church. Why is that? What happened? What has changed?

In the early days of his tenure, many in the secular media misunderstood the Pope. They thought he was changing Catholic doctrine, when he really wasn’t. What he changed was the tone in which the teaching came through. They thought he was changing the church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality. He actually didn’t. What he did change was the tone, the focus, and the emphasis. He has left Catholic doctrine alone, but has said – let’s not fight the old cultural wars anymore. Let’s focus on loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry, and caring for the poor. Let’s focus more on ministering to regular people and hurting people, rather than on preserving the institution.

Pope Francis rejected the luxuries of the position, carried his own suitcase, checked out of his own hotel room, and paid his own bill. He washed the feet of women, kissed the disfigured, and put people before rules. Instead of trying to correct all the bad things that people do, he focused on loving them back to God. It has worked. He is changing the culture of the Catholic Church. He has provided hope to people who were feeling hopeless about their church. People see him as a genuine and authentic Christian, and they are flocking to that. He has focused on both evangelism and social action. He wants people to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and he wants to meet their everyday needs. He has not been afraid to leave his privileged surroundings and go to where the ordinary people live, work, and play, finding common ground on their turf.

What we can we learn from watching this? I think there are a couple of things:
1. While many today have developed a negative view of the church, their perceptions can be changed when they see people who actually “walk the talk”. When they sense of spirit of humility and love and genuine care, they respond in positive ways.
2. There is still a deep spiritual hunger in our culture today. For whatever reason, some people have not found churches that are addressing their questions and concerns. But, when they see people with integrity and compassion, they are drawn to them.
3. We serve one surprising God. We serve a God who can bring about change in the church, in our community, and in our individual lives. Jesus brings hope to the hopeless. The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers between people. God keeps showing up in the most God-forsaken places.
4. The image of the church in our community can change, and we don’t have to throw out Biblical teachings for that to happen. Often, people listen more to how we say things than what we actually say. Both are important, but we don’t have to throw out our content to get people to respond positively.
5. I believe God wants the church to have a positive ministry in the community. This does not mean that we don’t ever talk about controversial issues, or that we have to pretend to agree when we don’t. We can be people who have compassionate convictions. We can be people of genuine grace.
6. As the church, we can’t wait for people to come to us. We have to go to them. We have to leave our homes and church buildings and meet people in their homes, their neighborhoods, our schools, and our places of work. If we are excited about our church, and if we invite them to come with us and share in our excitement, we may generate some interest and they just might come. But, that usually only happens after we have gone to them, taken the time to listen to them, heard their stories, and understood where they are coming from.

The story of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church shows us that the image of a church can change. The image of a church can get better. People can get excited about being a part of a church again. Our God can create something out of nothing. Jesus can create hope where there is no hope. The Holy Spirit can create something encouraging out of something that had been discouraging.

Christianity was founded on the story of the resurrection – what was dead has now come back to life. The God of the resurrection is constantly breathing new life back into the church. While we don’t want to minimize the challenges facing the church today, this is an exciting time to be a part of the church. We serve one surprising God. You just never know what God might do next. .

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

September 1, 2015

One of the classic movies in American culture has been the Wizard of Oz. Many of you know the story. When a tornado blows through the Kansas farmland, Dorothy gets hit in the head by a window, knocking her unconscious. She has this dream that the tornado has picked up the house and plopped it down somewhere over the rainbow. She wakes up and doesn’t recognize where she is. She’s in some strange foreign land and there are these little people called Munchkins. It’s all a big shock to her system. She has never been away from home before. She’s trying to figure out this strange, new world, when she exclaims to her dog, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

That’s a phrase that describes a lot of this unsettled feeling that many in the church have today. We look around at the world around us and we don’t recognize it. It doesn’t resemble the world we grew up in. On some days, it feels like a foreign country. There are now more people who recognize that the Starbucks logo means Starbucks, and that the Golden Arches mean McDonalds, than there are people who recognize that the cross indicates a church. Almost ¼ of Americans now claim no religious affiliation. And an increasing number of Christians in their mid-40s and younger are consciously choosing not to go to any organized church on Sunday morning. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

What do we do? How do we begin to address a world of rapid, discontinuous change that is so very different from the one we grew up in? Where do we start? How do we begin? One place we begin is by looking at the scriptures for how God’s people have done this before. One such time was in 586 BC, when the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah fell to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Their country was demolished, their temple was destroyed, and the people were demoralized. They were carried away into exile in a foreign country that they didn’t like, didn’t understand, and didn’t want to live in. They had to go through a paradigm shift. In other words, they had to shift their mental models of what the world was supposed to look like, what the world was actually like, and what they were called to do. They had to learn to live in exile.

In Jeremiah 29, God shows the Israelites how to adapt to this strange, new, cultural situation that was foreign to them. These instructions were summarized in verse 7 – “Seek the welfare of the community where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” God was telling them that they needed to move out of their homes and their buildings and engage their local community. They needed to get out and meet people. They needed to interact with the people who lived there and work for the betterment of the community. This is what missionaries do. When missionaries move into a new community, they get to know people, spend time with them, build relationships with them, find community groups to join, and seek to disciple the unchurched. They seek to build bridges with people who are not following Jesus. They work for the common welfare of the community and earn people’s trust, because they know their welfare is tied up in their community’s welfare.

I believe this is what God is calling us to do today. Rather than expecting or hoping that people will magically discover us and come to us, we need to go to them. We need to adopt this missional mindset that we are a sent people, sent out into our community by God to function as missionaries, to bless, to serve, and to heal. We love people, serve people, and make friends with people unconditionally, whether they ever believe in our message or not. This kind of approach requires that we “think outside the box.” It means that we have to be willing to experiment with new forms of worship and ministry. It means that we have to be creative and innovative and develop a new missional imagination. When the world around you shifts, and the old ways are no longer effective, it requires a lot of experimentation to figure out how to connect the unchanging gospel to a rapidly changing world, in ways that make sense to people, and connect with their stories.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s easy to get disoriented. And yet God still invites us to join His world changing mission. God continues to go ahead of us. He sends us out into our community to make a difference in our world. We are called to engage our neighbors, the people who live around us, and the community we live in. We must learn to live like exiles. We must learn to live like missionaries. God is sending us out every day. Don’t be afraid to go.

Going and Blessing

June 28, 2015

I have been rooted here in San Diego for the last 8 years. These years have been a tremendous blessing to me. I moved here when my youngest son was leaving home to go to college and a new season began in our lives. I have watched my boys become men and find their way in life. I have met so many wonderful people. I have built some great relationships and established lifelong friendships. I have wept with people, cried with people, and rejoiced with people. I have discovered America’s Finest City, enjoyed the beaches, the waterfront, the scenery, the attractions, and the weather. What’s not to like? God has brought so many opportunities my way and blessed me beyond what I thought was possible. I have received privileges I did not deserve. Grace upon grace abounds. I have learned a lot, grown in my faith, and been stretched in painful yet important ways. I see the world differently now. My perspective has changed. Jesus has continued to mold and shape me. My love for my wife has grown and she has made me a better person. I have worked through difficult relationships and seen healing take place. The Holy Spirit continues to surprise me with experiences he has brought my way. I have been humbled and made stronger because of that. I am truly blessed.

Now, my wife and I have discerned that God is leading us to a new place in our lives. This new place is actually an old place. A door has opened for us to move back home to Terre Haute, Indiana, and we are going to walk through it. It’s a place that we know, with friends and family we love, and surroundings that are familiar. And yet it’s a place we have to re-discover with new relationships to build and new people we will get to meet. Like any big move, it is both scary and exciting at the same time. I believe God calls us to take risks. I believe God calls us to take steps of faith when we don’t know how things are going to turn out. I believe God calls us to trust in Him when we don’t have all the answers. This is not always easy, but it can always be good.

This reminds me of Genesis 12:1 -3, one of the pivotal texts of scripture. “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse, and all people on earth will be blessed through you.’”

This text shows us that following God is about Going and Blessing. God calls us to Go into the world. Often this means leaving something behind. When you go on a journey, you can’t take everything with you. You can’t take everyone with you. You have to leave some things behind. God called Abraham to leave his sense of security behind – his country, his people, his household – not even knowing where he was going. It was a journey into uncertainty. It was leaving the known for the unknown – stepping out in faith. God promised to show Abraham where he was going when he got there, but not before.

Going is not easy. Going involves sacrificing one thing for another thing. We can’t have it all. Often, God calls us to give up something really, really good for something that might be even better. Who knew? Do we really trust that God will do that? Jesus calls disciples in the New Testament to follow Him. He commissions us to Go into the world and make disciples of all peoples. Following Jesus is not meant to be a static way of life. It is not meant to be stable or stuck. It is meant to be dynamic, in motion, going somewhere, becoming someone, doing something. It does not stand still. It is not a paralyzed life. It is a journey. It is an adventure. It is the road less travelled.

Genesis 12:1-3 is also about Blessing. This is mentioned five times in three verses: I will bless you, you will be a blessing, I will bless those who bless you, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. God’s desire is to bless every one of us. God loves us and God wants to add blessings to our lives. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Paul says that God can do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or think. God blesses us. But God does not bless us just so that we can be blessed. God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others. We have been saved to serve. We are called to give our lives away, to invest in our communities, to move back into our neighborhoods, and to share the blessings of the Spirit with others. We are called to love our neighbors. We are even called to love our enemies. We are called to bless those who curse us and show love to those who mistreat us. We are called to make a difference in the world by sharing the blessings we have received from God with others.

Following Jesus is about Going and Blessing. My wife and I are getting ready to turn another page in the book of our lives, and we will be going and blessing in a new way. We will be moving to a new place which is really an old place. We will be moving into some old relationships and into some new relationships. We will be moving into new responsibilities and new experiences. We are going in order to bless. We go with the hope that God might bless others through us. We go with the hope that God might bless the community through us. We go with the hope that we can join with others in going into the world to bless it with good news. This is not a surprise. This is what following is Jesus is all about.