Why THIS Church Matters

Our church is going through a season where we are facing difficult budgetary constraints for the first time in our history. And so we’ve been talking a lot about “why does this church matter?” This is (one) of my answers to that question:

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Last week I got briefly distracted on Facebook by a Washington Post article about the Noah’s Ark replica that creationist Ken Ham built in Kentucky. While the article was mostly about Ham’s intention to build more theme-park style Bible attractions, the article also reported that the “single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown [sic]…”

Groups like the ACLU have been critical of the project, specifically the organization’s discriminatory hiring practices that should render it ineligible for state funding.

“As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply.”

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Yes, I read the entire statement of faith. And yes, it represents a very conservative evangelical view of Scripture, theology and the world. I think most of you who would read this post probably aren’t that conservative.

However, it’s a loud view. It’s a definition of Christianity that gets a lot of airtime both because of media interest and also because part of what makes evangelicals “evangelical” is their boldness about their faith, their willingness to “stand on street corners” and wear their faith on their collective sleeve.

But this is what concerns me: many modern people are rejecting Christianity because “Christian” to some has become synonymous with a strictly literal reading of the Bible, rejecting evolution and judging homosexuality (their word, not mine) to be a sin (among other things).

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This is why I believe the progressive evangelical church matters, and specifically why I believe that my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, IL – matters.

Listen, I’m not going to throw stones here. If you know me, you know I disagree with a lot of things in the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith. I think some of their beliefs are harmful and unhealthy. But I don’t feel compelled to call them “heretics” or anything like that.

But I do hope to offer a counter-narrative. I do hope to say to everyone, “there are many ways of being ‘Christian.’” What makes us “Christian” is that we’re all followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We believe his words, his teachings, his “way” matters, and it’s still worth following, 2,000 years later. It’s worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about, it’s worth orienting our lives around.

We don’t agree on lots and lots of things. But even though we disagree, we can still worship together, we can still argue together, we can still serve the poor and take communion together. THIS is what I think Jesus means when he says, “ that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

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So here’s why I think my church matters. In the midst of an increasingly polarized culture where being “right” is more important than being loving, kind or civil, our church insists on 3 things….

The unity that Jesus is talking about in John 17 as the most significant form of witness.

That how we treat those at the margins is central to the “gospel.”

God loves everyone just as much as he loves Jesus. Everyone.

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Vulnerability in the Pulpit

I love to talk about preaching (or teaching or talking or lecturing, or whatever you prefer to call what I do every Sunday morning). When I get with other pastors I nearly always ask what they’re currently preaching or about their process. This post is about preaching. Read at your own risk. (HA!)

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“Did you ever imagine that what we call ‘vulnerability’ might just be the key to ongoing growth? In my experience, healthily vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change, and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a kind of constant openness to the other — because it would mean others could sometimes actually wound you (from vulnes, “wound”). But only if we choose to take this risk do we also allow the exact opposite possibility: the other might also gift you, free you, and even love you.

But it is a felt risk every time.

Every time.” [emphasis in the original]

– Fr. Richard Rohr (w/ Mike Morrell), The Divine Dance

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Sunday morning, I grabbed a mostly-blank red journal off the shelf for a project I’m starting to work on. I wanted something small that I could keep with me and collect ideas as they came.

When I opened it, my eyes fell on a page where I had written the following title: “Things that are messed up in my head right now,” and on the page was a list of things I was struggling with in the late winter of 2015. Most of the stuff on the list I’ve worked out, worked through and am in a much better place. (Example:  “Tired,” was a big one as we neared the end of our house-building project.)

I showed it to Jennifer, and I shared the list with a friend Sunday night in an unguarded moment. But today I ripped it out and threw it away. It’s too vulnerable. Even reading it all this time later makes me feel bad stuff inside. And while I felt a certain sense of accomplishment reading the list, it also represented some of the most broken, fragile places inside of me. Places I’d rather just hide most of the time.

The real truth? Sometimes I choose vulnerability, but other times I hide.

Like everyone else, I can vacillate wildly between “I want to be vulnerable,” and “I want to hide.” And sometimes, even mid-conversation, mid-sermon, mid-writing, I find myself changing my mind about how safe I feel and how vulnerable I choose to be. Or I regret sharing too much, or not enough.

But, I think the only pathway to growth is vulnerability. (I know I’ve said this before. But I have to keep reminding myself, so I’ll keep saying it in case it’s helpful to anyone else.) The only way to find my truest self is to say the true stuff with people who can carry the weight of it with me.

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I think church is supposed to be this kind of place. It’s supposed to be the kind of safe place where we can say our truest thoughts/feelings/intuitions about God, ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Everything I’ve said up to this point, I’m sure I’ve said before, but here’s the real point I’m trying to get to in this post — I think pastors are supposed to lead the way. We’re supposed to model what it means to live in an appropriately vulnerable way with our church. And, beyond that, I think we’re supposed to model it in our private lives as well, being appropriately vulnerable at the right times with the right people. Being gutsy. (But not foolhardy!)

This is what I love about recovery groups. They jump right past the images we all want to project and get to the vulnerability, “My name is _____, and I am an alcoholic.”

But, as Richard Rohr notes, this “always feels like a risk. Every time.”

The day I’m writing this is my study day. I intentionally keep my calendar clear on Tuesday mornings. I stay as quiet as possible, with as few interruptions as reasonable. I study the text, and then move towards teaching the text.

The temptation – every time – is to keep it clinical, theological, “factual.” But, deep in my bones, I don’t think that’s the “job.” I think the “job” is to take the text deep inside myself first — to pay attention to where the text is speaking to me, to ask what the text means in my context and then, with an appropriate level of vulnerability, to invite others into the same experience.

But that feels risky. Every time.

My friend Ryan Phipps – built a meme. And I love it:
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My hope is that somehow I can do both: I can be elegant and vulnerable. In some ways it’s easy to elegant. It’s easy to stand in the pulpit, and give the appearance of knowing everything cold and having it all figured out. But it’s simply not true. So, if I have to choose, I’ll choose vulnerability over elegance. (At least when I feel brave.)

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Making Things Right

Last Friday night, I spoke at our church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry. I gotta say, I love this community of people. There’s something refreshing about meeting with a group of people that starts with “I’m a mess,” rather than, “let me pretend that I’m all put together.” This is a rough sketch of some of the things I said.

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Step 8 (Alcoholics Anonymous): We made a list of all people we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Principle 6 (Celebrate Recovery): Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I have done to others except when to do so would harm others.

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I remember being taught growing up that all sin was a sin against God, that ultimately it wasn’t really about the “other,” but rather that I had offended a “thrice-Holy God” who couldn’t stomach my sin. There wasn’t much teaching that I remember from my childhood about making amends. There was a whole lot more about making sure we had squared up with God than making amends to people.

Since then I’ve talked to Catholics and learned that there’s more language in Catholicism about making amends – about doing penance for our sin. But again, saying “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” is more about shoring up one’s relationship with God than about making amends with a fellow human being.

But the geometry of the cross hints at something more. Of course there’s a vertical axis – but there’s also a horizontal one as well. To put a finer point on it, my sin hurts the people I love. Left unchecked, unamended, ignored, my sin erodes my relationships with people.

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The famous story of the Lilliputian Zacchaeus is particularly instructive here. In response to Jesus calling out his name in the midst of the crowd, of inviting himself to dinner at the house of a known “sinner,” Zacchaeus offers to give away half his wealth and four times whatever he has cheated anyone out of.

A simple “sorry, my bad,” doesn’t suffice.

Feeling bad about it doesn’t do anything either.

Nor does confessing it to God and saying special prayers.

The story of Zacchaeus is that when he is confronted by love (more on that in a minute), he responds by making things right with the people he’s hurt, to the best of his ability. Yes, the vertical is important — and Jesus declares Zaccheaus to be a “true child of Abraham” — but Jesus’ declaration is in response to Zaccheaus making amends.

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When I teach, I prefer to dialogue with my audience. I just don’t believe that I’m the full embodiment of wisdom on any given passage or that the Holy Spirit speaks exclusively to me. So, on Friday night, I opened up the floor and we had a conversation. And one of the attendees pointed out this startling realization: Zaccheaus doesn’t make amends because Jesus confronts him. Jesus doesn’t demand that Zaccheaus make amends. Rather, Jesus simply moves toward Zaccheaus in love. He calls him by name, invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home (a BIG deal in a hospitality-conscious, honor society), and Zacchaeus responds to love.

We think the we get the right behaviour out of people when we shame them, make them feel guilty, harangue them, yell at them, and put pressure on them to do the right thing. But Zacchaeus does the “right thing” when he’s confronted by the love of Jesus, the acceptance of Jesus just as he is.

We’re loved, then we change.

Too often — especially in religious institutions — we want change first, then we’ll offer love, which is just the opposite of how Jesus interacts with people throughout the gospels.

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Hmmm. Good stuff to think about, I think.

I walked away from Friday night surprisingly challenged and moved. It’s funny sometimes — when you’re “the speaker” and you open up the floor, you end up getting more from it than the people you’re speaking to, I think.

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Embracing a Tragic Sense of Life

Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)

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Last week, my social circles were abuzz at the tragic passing of a 35-year-old mother of two. We watched the Facebook updates over the last couple of months as she struggled, and then, last week her husband and children, surrounded by many in our community, mourned her passing. Also last week, an earthquake in Italy killed more than 200 people. In Turkey, near the Syrian border, a 12-year-old (!) suicide bomber walked into a wedding and killed 50 people. While closer to home, most of us shake our heads at the bluster of the American political process and wonder “Is this really what we’ve become?”

At the same time, there have been beautiful sunsets of late, vivid canvases of blue, orange and yellow across the sky and the weather has cooled, hinting at fall. A couple Sunday nights ago on an unseasonably cool evening, I sat with a few friends around the first fire of the year and it was simply gorgeous — beautiful weather, challenging and thought-provoking conversation. I’ve been running again, I’ve lost about 15 lbs since the middle of the summer and I feel good in my body — stronger, with a high sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I come home from work, and most days I run and then ride my “runner’s high” throughout the evening. Life is good and beautiful.

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These seem to be the twin rails that life always runs on. The beautiful and the tragic, walking hand in hand. Nearly every day we hold on to both; some of us carry the beauty and tragedy in our own bodies. (We met an amazing woman in Texas this summer who actually carries a heart pump in a backpack, and still found it within herself to smile, hike, and enjoy her beautiful family!)

But in the beauty and tragedy, I believe we’re faced with a choice. Some of us wallow in the tragedy — we get mired down in it, all we can see is the darkness, the underbelly, the pain and the struggle. And others of us refuse to acknowledge it. We deny it, stuff it down, numb ourselves with wine, television, and food; we surround ourselves with only best things, insulating ourselves from the tragedy, telling ourselves that if we just ignore it, it will go away, it will resolve itself.

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Richard Rohr says part of the journey towards maturity or wholeness is that we embrace what he calls the “tragic sense of life.” We embrace both rails — that life is always beautiful, and life is always tragic. Yes, there are evil people committing injustices in the world, but there are also heroes doing achingly good and beautiful things too.

Jason Silva, in his video “Existential Bummer” (one of many like it in his Shots of Awe YouTube channel), pushes us to the same idea in relationships. He says that when we love something/someone, we embrace Rohr’s “tragic sense of life,” in that we recognize the transience of all things — that nothing we see, nothing we experience will last. But instead of moving towards detachment as Buddhists teach, we “rage against the dying of the light” as in the Dylan Thomas poem above. Instead of detaching, we embrace both the beauty AND the transience at the same time. We love and we ache. Maturity recognizes it’s always both.

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Rohr writes that this embracing of the tragic sense of life is really at the heart of the Christian story — God is always taking the tragic and working in it and through it. God has not chosen in history to simply eradicate the evil, the tragic, the darkness, but to work surreptitiously through it. It’s a long quotation, but I love how he says it (the emphasis is in the original):

“If God has not learned to draw straight with crooked lines, God is not going to be drawing very many lines at all.. Judeo-Christian salvation history is an integrating, using and forgiving of this tragic sense of life. Judeo-Christianity includes the problem inside the solution and as part of the solution. The genius of the biblical revelation is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates falling to achieve its only promised wholeness, which is much of the point of this whole book.

Jesus is never upset at sinners (check it out!); he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners! Jesus was fully at home with this tragic sense of life.” (Richard RohrFalling Upward)

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So, which rail do you lean on? Are you denying, numbing, insisting only on the beauty of all things, or do you tend towards wallowing in the melancholy and tragic? What do you need to bring balance? How might you embrace the “tragic sense of life” today?

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Back to School, Back to Better Rhythms

Some people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). That is to say, sometime in the winter months here in the Midwest, when there has been cloud cover for something like 100 straight days and the ground is brown and frozen and there are no leaves on the trees and it gets dark at 4:00 in the afternoon, some people struggle with depression.

My SAD is a little different. My SAD starts to settle in around the first of August, when it’s hot and steamy outside. It’s not so much about the actual season for me but rather about the metaphorical season.

Every year, when school lets out in late May, I’m so happy. It’s so good to throw off the shackles of regular bed times and being on kids’ case about homework. The freedom of the first days of summer are so life giving! And because I have a highly flexible job (both a blessing and a curse sometimes) I can take a day here or there to do stuff with my family, or I can shift my hours, going in early, so I can leave early to get to a baseball game.

But by the beginning of August, the lack of structure, the lack of rhythm starts to work against me. The freedom that was so invigorating and life giving in late May becomes the very thing that keeps me from the disciplines that nourish my soul.

And so, to that end, today I’m celebrating the return of my children to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids, and we’ve had a great summer together. I think Jennifer and I find ourselves enjoying our children more and more all the time. But I need them back in school so I can get myself back into the rhythms that make me healthy and productive.

I need to get back to the rhythm of reading. For all of my adult life, reading has been the thing that stimulates my creativity. It’s the fuel that helps me formulate my thoughts about the things I teach and the conversations I have with people. Reading – both fiction and nonfiction –  inspires me to see the world, myself, and God differently. I’ve been in a reading slump that pre-dates the summer. But I’ve been carving out time in the mornings to read again. And I was shutting off Netflix and reading in the evenings again, until the stupid Olympics happened. But that will be over soon.

[Disclaimer: in the Dean house, we are Olympics junkies. We’ll watch anything. People jumping on a trampoline? Check. People riding dancing horses? Why not, as long as the horse gets the medal? The television is never on in the Dean house as much as it is every couple of years during the Olympics. So, I have nothing against the Olympics, except that it does screw up my reading discipline!]

I need to get back to the rhythm of good discussion. One of the things I know about myself – and I know this isn’t true of everyone – is that I need regular, life-giving, good discussions in my life. I need groups of people around me who want to read, talk, think and interact about ideas. I think it’s related to the rhythm of reading, but in time, reading without discussion becomes a bit empty for me. I’m not sure what this looks like in this season of my life, but I’m playing with some ideas in my head.

I need to get back to the rhythm of regular exercise. The combination of kids’ baseball, a pretty severe hand injury, and oppressive heat have done their toll on my rhythms. Once our summer travel ended and my hand healed, I started back on this one and since the first of August, I’ve been aggressively working out. I can’t tell you how good it is for me to drown myself in sweat, to push my body to the point of throwing up. It’s good for me to feel the ache of well-exercised muscles. It’s good for my body, and I don’t exactly understand the connection, but it’s good for my emotions and for my soul as well.

And related to exercise, I need to get back into a rhythm of eating well. Right now Jennifer and I are doing something of an extreme diet. And I hate wacky diets, but there is something good in this season about being a little extreme. It’s a good detox from a summer full of feasting. I read an author a couple years ago (I think it was Shauna Niequist) who suggested that there should be seasons of feasting and seasons of fasting in our lives. The problem is, at least in our circles, it seems that it’s always a season of feasting. So, embracing a season of fasting, embracing some austerity in what I drink and eat is good.

And finally, I need to get back into a rhythm of prayer. And by prayer these days I mean ALL the ways that we communicate AND commune with God. For me, that doesn’t mean long lists, or wordy prayers. It more like written prayers – The Prayer of St. Francis, Thomas Merton’s “Prayer that Anyone Can Pray,” Celtic Prayers – and quiet meditation/contemplation. In the last week it’s meant reading Richard Rohr’s Yes, And… in the mornings quietly, slowly and then giving myself quiet time to ease into my day.

So, happy back-to-school day.

I hope that you, like me, find and pursue the rhythms of your life that sustain you and make you whole.

 

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On Doing the Work

One of my sons started this thing almost as soon as he learned to talk. When we put him to bed, just before we closed the door, he’d yell out to us, “I love you more than you love me.” What he wanted from us was an argument. He was asking for us to reaffirm our love for him. I don’t know where he picked this up; it’s not something we’ve ever done with any of our other kids, but somehow it spilled out of his psyche.

And I totally get it.

I was talking to some friends a couple of weeks ago, telling them how in my worst moments, I am looking for approval from other people – signposts to know that I’m loved/accepted/desired. And one of my friends said to me, “Where is God in your self doubt? Isn’t being loved/accepted/desired by God enough for you? You’re a pastor for goodness sake! Get yourself together, man!” (Okay, I made up the last two sentences. That wasn’t actually what was said, just what I thought to myself.) Ouch.

I choked it down, but in a word, no. Not really. In those darker moments, it’s not enough for me to be loved by an immaterial, Spirit being. I need real-life words, touches, affirmations. At least I need those things unless I actively work at it. I know, based on my personality type, I need a good support structure, but when I do the work, I need it a little less; I find myself a little less needy, a little more self-assured.

Don’t feel sorry for me. We all have our internal struggles. The more I study the Enneagram and the more I talk to people, the more I’ve come to understand that even the people who project “I’ve got it all together,” really don’t. (And in fact, the more they project that image, the more unhealthy they probably are.)

Your struggle might be like mine – believing that you’re loved. But your struggle might be believing in yourself, or lack of self-confidence, or apathy, or self-loathing, or not caring. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is what you’re doing about it.

For me, I literally have to sit on the floor in silence and concentrate on love. I have to keep coming back to the place in my mind where I am wrapped in God’s love for me. I think I’ve said before, either here or in a teaching, that my perception of God has always been “perpetually disappointed with me.” And no matter how much I fill my head with knowledge about God’s love, I have to practice the experience of being loved by God to change anything inside of me.

And often, I get away from my practice. I get away from my silence and solitude, contemplative prayer, meditation, whatever you want to call it. But, one of the most helpful things I’ve learned in the past year or so is that it’s not about accomplishing something but returning to the practice that matters.  I won’t ever be able to quit doing the work; I will always have to return to my practice, and maybe that is the accomplishment.

So, here’s the question: What is the work you need to do? What’s your practice? What is going to help you overcome whatever your struggle is? Do you know? Maybe you need help finding your practice, maybe you need to talk with a spiritual friend, maybe talking with a spiritual friend IS the practice.

Whatever it is, do the work.

(He says, mostly to himself.)

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Embracing Messy and Complicated

A year ago this week, I began a 3-month Sabbatical.

Even now, 9 months after it’s over I could tear up if you started asking the right questions about the state I was in, what I was feeling at the time, and the healing that happened in me.

Let me name some convergences that have intersected in my life over the past year, starting in Sabbatical and moving forward.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong. Taught me the ideas of “the story I tell myself” and the importance of “rumbling with my story.” So good. So important to my own good mental/spiritual/emotional health.

The Enneagram. I’m fully “in” on this personality tool. I would talk about it all day, every day, if there were people to talk to (hint! hint!). I’m a Type 3: “the Achiever.” That affects how I see everything. And I fall in the heart triad, where I’m always going to be dealing with my feelings about people. That’s just the way it is.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. I just re-read this book about spirituality in the second half of life last week. And everything in his book resonates deeply with person I hope to become. (Someday.) (When I grow up.)

We had a small exodus of people who left our church in the months after I returned from Sabbatical. Many of them left without saying goodbye, they just quit coming. Part of me gets it. That’s part of church leadership. People come, and people go. But at another level, it’s caused me to distrust almost all of my relationships. It’s rattled my cage quite a bit – more than I probably am willing to acknowledge most of the time (see my Enneagram Type).

There’s other stuff.. But this isn’t the right place.

The net sum however, of these convergences is that at 42, I’ve really had to lean into the interior journey, to understand myself better. Those of you that are long-time readers, you already know all this. And I’m not broken in the same way I was a year ago, but I’m choosing to stay in the journey – to keep pushing myself to stay curious.

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“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton

Frankly, I still feel like I’m kind of a mess some days as I try to sort out how I think and how I feel, how I understand myself and how I discover more of God. And most of the time, no one else but Jennifer knows. She sees me brooding, hears my hurts, listens to my questions-without-real-answers. She patiently  listens as I rumble with my story and reminds me no matter what I feel that she loves me and is committed to me.

But if Merton (and pretty much every other spiritual writer I’ve read) is right, the only pathway forward to wholeness is through a deeper understanding of the self. Even John Calvin said “It is not possible to know God without knowing yourself. It is not possible to know yourself without knowing God.” And so I’ve ventured in some forums to try to say my raw truths. And most of the time, I feel deep levels of regret and embarrassment, what Brene Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.”

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And then, this afternoon, reflecting on my 1-year-Sabbatical-iversary (it’s Monday as I write this), I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s post “I need to tell you something” on her Momastery blog about her divorce. It’s beautifully written. It is honest and brave and true and sad all at the same time. And then, there was this one line, where she’s writing about why she feels the need to write a post announcing her divorce that caused my to catch my breath:

“I will be messy and complicated – and I will show up anyway.”

Yes.

I know that it freaks out some people when I choose to be messy and complicated. And it probably drives some people away, because we all love our shiny, manicured false images. But here’s my manifesto – and I say this not because I think I’m particularly good at it all the time, but rather, I say it as aspirational – as the person I want to be:

I, Charles, will be messy and complicated and I will show up anyway.

And I will choose messy/complicated because I believe it’s the ONLY way forward to wholeness. I was talking to a friend about this and I said, “to me, the only people who insist they aren’t messy and complicated are the people who might as well wear a sign on their heads that says ‘UN-self-aware.’” We’re ALL messy/complicated, whether we know it or not. I guess I just want to own my messy/complicated and so I can move through it and learn and grow.

So I will choose to be messy/complicated in my marriage, in my parenting, in my leadership, in my relationships. And I will continue to fight my desire to run away, to hide, to sulk and to bury my feelings in ice-cream and whiskey. This doesn’t mean I always need to do this externally, but sometimes it will. (God help me discern the difference!)

Listen, I promise, messy/complicated won’t be a permanent state. Messy/complicated is a place, but you move through it as you rumble with your story, come into new knowledge of yourself and learn new ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world. And it doesn’t mean I’ll be messy/complicated with all of you either. I’m discovering the right times, right places, right people to be messy/complicated with, where I feel safe, affirmed, and then gently pushed.

And I guess, if it makes people uncomfortable, or it makes me less desirable as a pastor, leader or friend, then so be it, because this is the only road to wholeness. It’s the only road on which I will find my true self and thus find God. This road is more important than all the other things. (Again, as I edit, this is more aspirational, but I’m working towards it.)

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But this post isn’t just about me. Mostly, I’m good. I’m not in any kind of crisis or major turmoil. But rather, I’m trying to embrace messy/complicated as a way of life. You move through it, you circle back around, you move through it again. You learn and grow and keep learning. There is no such things as “arriving.”

I’m writing because I want to say to you, “stay in it, show up, embrace your messy/complicated and ‘do the work.’” I’m inviting you to choose messy/complicated because sooner or later life will hand you messy/complicated and either you will prepared for it, or you’ll have to catch up to it when it comes. I’d rather be prepared.

So, today, schedule that coffee with the friend/pastor/therapist/spiritual guide/guru you need to get messy/complicated with. And be brave, my friends. We’re in it together.

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It Works (Until it Doesn’t)

I was sitting in a workshop a couple of weeks ago learning about personality theory, and the trainer said something regarding self-awareness:

“Things work for you right up until they stop working.”

What she meant is, we all see ourselves in a particular way, we all move about the world with a particular lens through which we interpret and interact with the world. And we will continue to use our lens until the lens stops working. But when that way of being doesn’t get the love we long for, or a person or situation confronts us, pointing out the myopia of our lens, only then will we change our lens to allow for a more holistic picture, a new way of being in the world.

Here’s what this looks like in life:

You take a job at a new company. And you love the new job, and the new people, and the new company. But then, over the course of months/years, a series of things happen, you change, and the new job stops “working” for you, so you dust off your resume and start looking for another new job.

-or-

You have a relationship. And in the beginning, this relationship just worked. When you first started seeing each other, you loved every new thing you learned about the person. And then circumstances changed – sometimes quickly, sometimes like quick sand – and it didn’t work anymore. So you go through the painful process of breaking up.

Jennifer and I were talking about this a while back, and we came up with the analogy of pulling at the threads of an old sweater. Sometimes you start to pull at something – a belief, a idea, a major life change, a career path, a relationship – and the whole thing just comes apart and you have to get a new sweater.

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With all apologies to my Baptist friends, this is what happened to me, starting in my final year of my undergrad at a Baptist college. I started pulling at the threads of my understanding of God, the Bible, and the church. Recently – over the past couple of years – I’ve been pulling at the threads of my own self, trying to understand the lenses I use to interpret and interact with the world.

At some point along the way, thinking about God as wrathful just didn’t work for me anymore. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it wasn’t “disobedience,” it wasn’t that I just wanted to believe whatever I want. Rather, it’s been the slow pulling of threads. One thought led to another, led to a book, led to a teaching, led to a reflection, led to an experience, a conversation with a trusted friend or spiritual guide, and pretty soon the sweater of my Baptist upbringing fell apart. What used to work, for the first 20 years of my life, didn’t work anymore. It worked, right up until the time that it didn’t.

This doesn’t mean I hate Baptists. (I know, if you’ve known me over the long haul, you know I went through a deconstructive stage where I was full of piss and vinegar…but that was only one stage of the process. A necessary stage, I believe, but only a throughpoint, not the destination.) I know a lot of people who are still Baptists – it still works for them, and that’s okay. And if they ask me questions about my beliefs, I’ll gladly have a conversation – but I don’t need to convert them, or make them see things my way. It still works for them.

And yes, there have been moments (probably all of them) when I’ve questioned the path I’m on. There are times I feel like I’ve let people down in my life because I’ve taken a stance different than their own. And at times I’ve been admittedly ungracious and unfair to my traditions as I “kicked against the goads.” But, I’ve come to believe that complexity, vagaries, dualisms and doubts — not certainty — ARE the essence of my faith.

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I was listening to a podcast in the car yesterday, driving home from Chicago, and the guy talked about how he was a Baptist, then he was a Charismatic, then he was into Eastern Religions, and then he referred to his current belief system as “whatever the road I’m on now is.”

I like that.

Baptist worked for me (until it didn’t). “Seeker church” worked for me (until it didn’t). Calvinism, Pre-Tribulation Eschatology, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, Dispensationalism all worked for me (until they didn’t). Progressive worked for me (until it didn’t). And now, I don’t know what categories to use. I’m pretty happy just being on “whatever road I’m on now,” trying to learn from all the traditions.

And I want to find God in the morning,

and in the tired hands of dusk.

At the mouth of the river and down by its feet.

Anis Mojgani, For Those Who Can Still Ride in an Airplane for the First Time

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Here’s the point of this post: I frequently hear of people who are starting to pull at the threads of their faith and and are scared, because the sweater feels flimsy and they fear the loss of their childhood God and the rejection of their faith communities. And I just want to say it’s okay. It’s okay to pull at the threads. It’s okay to raise your hand and say, “This doesn’t make sense anymore,” it’s okay to read books that are outside your tradition. When you do, you’ll find a whole community of us happy to be on “whatever road it is we’re on now.”

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Empty Bucket Theory

Let’s pretend for a second you’ve never met me. You know nothing about me except my name. In your mind, the category of Charles Dean is an empty bucket in your mind.

Now let’s pretend you meet someone and they say to you, “Charles Dean is a HUGE Cardinals fan. He loves watered-down light beer and his idea of a good time is a tractor pull.”

If there’s nothing in your “Charles Dean bucket,” you will probably just accept everything that was said about me without question. Why would you question anything you heard? If there’s no filter, there’s nothing in the bucket that would cause you to be skeptical. Those statements — I like the St. Louis Cardinals, I love watered-down light beer and my idea of a good time is a tractor pull — are not beyond the imagination. In fact, you just might assume that all Cardinals fans love watered-down light beer and tractor pulls. (HA!)

But if you know me, if there’s knowledge about me already piled in the bucket, there are filters for new information. If your “Charles Dean Bucket” has sufficient information piled up in it, you know that I hate the Cardinals with a righteous fury, I prefer craft beers (bring on the IPAs and dark beers!) and I have almost no interest in going to a tractor pull.

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Take the same idea and apply it to interfaith dialogue for a minute.

For example, if I know nothing about Muslims, if the “Muslim bucket” in my head is completely empty, and I see something on Facebook declaring that all Muslims are secretly trying to take over America and impose Sharia law on the rest of us, I might tend to believe it. (Especially if it aligns with my own religious impulses. Moral Majority anyone? Which is, I think, one of the reasons conservative Christians seem to be the ones most fearful about Muslims. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

If we are going to engage in meaningful dialogue with or about other religions, we have a responsibility to fill up our buckets first.

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But how we fill up the bucket matters. If you want to fill up your “Charles Dean Bucket,” you won’t get a very objective sense of who I am if you only talk to my biggest critics, or even if you talk only to my closest friends. You’ll get the most quality information in your bucket when you allow me to fill the bucket.

If you want to understand Muslims, let them tell you what they believe. Read the Qu’ran, talk to a Muslim, ask questions. Listen.

If you want to understand Democrats let them tell you why they see the world the way they do. Read liberal editorials with an open mind, talk to your friends about their views instead of just assuming you know why they think what they think. Listen.

If you want to understand why transgender people are conflicted about which bathroom to use, ask them. Let them fill up the empty bucket called “what transgender people think/feel” in your head. Listen.

This is one of the problems, I think, with Christian education. To the limited degree that we studied other religions in my formal education, it was always Christians telling you what Muslims/Buddhists/Jews believe. And there’s no way to do that without skewing the information. (I’ll admit that may be an over sweeping generalization of Christian education, but it was surely my experience. For example, the books I read in my formal education about Islam were predominantly by Christians writing about how Islam is wrong.)

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But all of this requires us to do the work. It requires us to get close enough to the people we consider other so we can ask them questions and allow them to fill the empty buckets in our head. It requires us to listen to other people with an open mind.

I’ll quote my friend, Stephen McKinney-Whitaker (I also quoted him in my last post, but it’s good, so you’re getting it again.):

“Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.”

So, who do you need to listen to today?

Maybe it’s an interfaith thing. Maybe you need to listen to a flesh and blood Muslim tell you what he or she believes rather than just believing the rhetoric you read on your Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s an intrafaith thing. Maybe there’s someone of your own faith who holds their belief in a different way than you do and you need to listen to why instead of just simply condeming or critiquing.

Maybe it’s a relationship thing. Maybe you need listen to a spouse, friend or family member and hear what they’re thinking or feeling.

So, go love well and listen to someone today.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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