Why My Friends Call me Whiskers

“I’m curious, like a cat. That’s why my friends call me whiskers.”

– Will Ferrell (as Harry Carey)

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My son Madox is the youngest of four boys. And because he’s (almost) 9 and our oldest is 15, sometimes family conversations go over his head. Sometimes we use words he doesn’t understand. And one of the things I admire about my youngest son is that when he doesn’t understand, he asks questions. “What does ‘concussion’ mean?”

I think most children are like this. They aren’t afraid to ask about what they don’t know or understand. They don’t pretend to “get it,” in order to keep up appearances. If they’re not tracking with something they just ask. Sometimes it’s awkward, “Grandma, why do you have so many wrinkles?” “Mom, why does that old man have hair growing out of his nose?”

But somewhere along the way, I think we’re taught that asking questions, giving space to our curiosity is a sign of weakness. We come to believe that we should have certain knowledge and therefore we feel embarrassed. So we stifle our curiosity.

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I was thinking the other day about how much I admire adults who are curious. I enjoy conversations with people who wonder about the world, about why things are the way they are, about themselves, about relationships and about obscure branches of knowledge. I love the exploration of ideas together. I love it when a good friend says to me, “I’m curious about you and you…” Curiosity gets my energy up.

Nothing is quite so boring as having a conversation with someone who thinks they know it all and thinks they’re gifting you with their knowledge.

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So how does one cultivate curiosity?

The first step towards cultivating curiosity is to let yourself off the hook about what you don’t know. You know the things you’re embarrassed that you don’t know? Well, there are plenty of others who don’t know them either. I promise. So be gentle with yourself.

When I read some writers, I’m embarrassed about my lack of knowledge of Shakespeare. I wish I had been taught more Shakespeare in my formal education, but for reasons that aren’t relevant to this post, my Christian school education (high school AND college) didn’t make space for the Bard. So whenever people reference Hamlet, or random characters from famous Shakespearean plays, I have no idea what they’re talking about. And I have a choice. I can feel shame or just admit, I don’t know.

Which leads us to step two towards cultivating curiosity: follow your curiosity. Any curiosity will do. In fact, if you want to be a great conversationalist (one of my personal ambitions), your random, voracious curiosity will make you a great dinner guest. You’ll find more things to connect with people about, and you’ll just be a well-rounded person in whatever the conversation. Think about your last dinner party. The interesting people are the ones who have knowledge of the things you didn’t expect.

Liz Gilbert in Big Magic tells the story of how her novel The Signature of All Things began when she started following her curiosity about flowers in her garden. You never know where your curiosity will lead. It may lead to a new hobby, new friends, a new career or a new place in your relationships.

Curiosity “is like a box of chocolates, you never know what yer gonna git.” (I watched Forest Gump for the first time in probably 20 years over Spring Break. What a great movie!)

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I originally set out to say in this post that for me, curiosity is the supreme virtue. It’s not. That would be overstating. But, for me, it’s really, really important. It’s something I like about myself, and I like being around people who exhibit a great curiosity about the world.

So, what are you curious about? What do you want to explore? Who do you need to talk to? What do you need to read?

Whatever it is, follow your curiosity.

(Right now.)

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Oh, and by the way. I don’t think my friends actually call me “whiskers.” At least I hope not. But I do know, that I’ve had friends tell me that one of the things they like most about me is my voracious curiosity, and that I read widely. The result is that I know a little bit of stuff about a lot things. But, more importantly, I’m having a lot of fun!

And it doesn’t just extend to hobbies or historical interests, but it’s also about my approach to theology. I think we should be endlessly curious in our faith. (But, maybe that’s a post for another time!)

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It’s When I’m Crying That I’m Strong

I was having breakfast with a friend a month or so ago, and he was telling me about recent experience that had led him to tears. Big, fat tears of regret and pain and darkness. And, worse, it was in front of other people. So we talked about tears.

There’s a macho man myth that says “real men” don’t cry, that to be a “real man” is to be unaffected, to be a “real man” is to deny the things that hurt us, to be a “real man” is to brush yourself off and get back up again.

But, here’s the conclusion my friend and I came to: when we cry, when we embrace what we feel inside, that’s when we’re at our strongest.

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It takes no courage, no particular strength to avoid pain. Anyone can give himself to the pursuit of pleasure that denies or numbs the darkness. In fact, according to psychologist Terrence Real, in I Don’t Want to Talk About It, his book on male depression,

“There is a terrible collusion in our society, a cultural cover-up about depression in men.

One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above. He who has been brought down by it will most likely see himself as shameful, and so, too, may his family and friends, even the mental health profession. Yet I believe it is this secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives. Hidden depression drives several of the problems we think of as typically male: physical illness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, failure in intimacy, self-sabotage in careers.

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And I guess if a man doesn’t want to face his pain and would rather numb and ignore his inner truth, it’s his prerogative. But, I know in my own life, when I don’t acknowledge my inner realities, it comes out in less-than-ideal ways.

When I don’t enter into that space of honoring my emotions, when I’m not brave enough to face my inner truth, when I cheat and make a bowl ice cream, binge watch TV, pour a glass of scotch in place of facing my inner truth – it comes out sideways. My wife, my boys, my friends, my employees – they pay the price for my cowardice.

So, last year on my Sabbatical, I determined that I would face some of my own inner demons. I named some of my ugly truths. Some of them I named only to God. Some I named only to Jennifer, some I shared with others. And I learned some things.

First, I learned that not everyone is safe. As a “verbal processor,” I too often feel regret for the things I say in a conversation. I’ve learned that not everyone is safe. That’s not to say that other people want to harm me, but I’ve learned in time that I don’t feel safe when people don’t reciprocate. In time, I will come to think that I’m being judged or “managed,” and I’ll grow resentful.

I’ve also learned that not all truths need to be said out loud. Some I just need to acknowledge my truth in my own silence and solitude. (I read a novel on the beach over Spring Break in which there was this great line: “Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste.”) I’m thankful that Jennifer doesn’t name all her truths to me!

And I’ve learned that I’m not a “wallower.” I don’t like to stay in tearful places very long. But I at least need to acknowledge my hurts, my brokenness, my sin – whatever darkness there is – and I need to feel it so I can get up and move on.

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So, here’s my manifesto:

When I cry, I am strong. When I name my doubts, when I embrace my failures. When I’m neither dismissive nor wallowing, when I choose to wrestle with the hard stuff, when I come back and apologize when I’m wrong, that is the true Charlie being his bravest self.

When I avoid, when I run, when I hide, when I choose to numb my pain. When I refuse to say “I’m sorry,” when I say the words, “I don’t want to talk about it”; when I try to be a macho, successful, American male who is unaffected by unkind words, intentional (or even unintentional) slights, heartache and rejection, that’s Charlie being his most cowardly.

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One final thing:

I’m fortunate that along the way, I’ve made plenty of friends like me. Men who are willing to be brave, to deal with their darkness. Men, who out of their love for themselves, their wives, their children, their friends are willing to be their bravest selves.

You know who you are. We’ve cried in restaurants, hugged in parking lots and declared our love for each other. Thank you.

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Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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Where I’ve Been

Hi! Remember me?

I’m the guy who used to post on this blog.

Okay, it’s only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like FOREVER!

I have a real post simmering, but I just wanted to check in. I was meeting with one of the leadership teams in our church earlier in the week and had to give a report. And in giving the report, I recognized how much has happened in the past month. So many good things. So here’s a quick rundown.

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For the second time, our church hosted Clare Loughrige to teach a workshop on the Enneagram, and then she stuck around to teach at church on Sunday. The people of our church have come to love her.

On a personal level, hosting Clare in our home for the weekend is a real job-perk for me (and for Jennifer). We’ve both come to love our interactions with her. She’s a skilled spiritual director and asks probing/insightful questions in a gentle way.

As a pastor, it’s so good for me to get to interact with people outside of the church. It helps me get perspective.

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The next weekend we hosted Rob Morris. Rob is the cofounder and president of Love146. (You might remember that I went to Southeast Asia last fall with Love146.) I think many of us who know of Love146 were familiar with Rob’s story and had expectations, but he blew us away. (Link to the Teaching.)

And again, personally, I had the opportunity Saturday night to sit up super-late drinking whisky with Rob and a couple other guys. And it was one of those great, mutually stimulating conversations when time flies and you’re sad when it’s over. So good for my soul.

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And then it was Holy Week, and I spent 4 evenings sitting around a table at a local bar talking about Jesus with some people, and I loved that.

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And then, as soon as service was over on Easter morning, I walked to our already-loaded van and took off for Spring Break with my family.

What did the Deans do on Spring Break?

Nothing. We walked the one block from the house to the beach and back. We ate, slept, read, watched movies, played games, listened to Hamilton (a lot) and rested.

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Okay. Those are all my excuses. That’s where I’ve been. That’s why I haven’t written much. Life, in the last month, has been full of good conversations. Of course, between those good things there have been hard conversations, people have left our church, I’ve gotten angry at things and been wounded by others. But that’s life, ya know?

And so, that’s why the blog has taken a back seat. I’ve just been super, super busy, and have had lots of other things going on in my life and in my head. I hope to get back to a more normal schedule next week!

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Let it Breathe

Every morning I receive a handful of emails from sites I’ve subscribed to. I get my morning news from the Skimm, I get a thought about the Enneagram and I get a “truthbomb” from Danielle LaPointe. Yeah, I know, some of you are thinking “cheesy, self help, mumbo jumbo.” And you’re right. Most of the time.

But occasionally, one slips through my cynicism filter, and I find myself thinking about it hours, sometimes days, after. Like this one from a couple weeks ago:

Truthbomb_996

I’ve only drunk really good bottles of wine a couple times in my life.  I mostly drink the $10 stuff, and I’m not enough of a connoisseur to really know the difference. But if you drink a really good wine, they tell you that you’re supposed to decant the wine. Let it come into contact with the air. Let it breathe. (Especially if it’s an older bordeaux or cote du rhone with heavy tannins. Whatever that means!)

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Is this a season of heavy lifting? Have you been thinking hard about complicated issues? Have you been reading, studying, leaning into difficult conversations? Is there hard relational stuff you’ve been facing?

This isn’t normal life. Growth and change nearly always come in fits and spurts. We grow intensely for awhile, in response to crisis or because we got inspired by an idea, or someone we love pushes us to think or live differently. And, if you’re anything like me, it tends to consume you for awhile. This thing is all you think about, it’s all you talk about, you feel consumed with it.

But then, after we’ve done the work, we sometimes need to stop and “let it breathe.” We need to go on hiatus, refuse to talk about the thing. We need to go back to enjoying life as it is, to be with people we’ve been in intense discussion with and not talk about the thing that we’ve been talking about for the last several months.

Sometimes we need to take our new idea, new way of being in the world and let it breathe to see if it even works. And in this time, we don’t make big decisions, we don’t react to what’s going on around us, we just let our thing sit and be what it is for a little while. What we need is a period of normal life, doing normal things with the people we love.

(Yes, I’m looking at you, Imago Dei Church. Some of us need to “let it breathe” for a bit. Amen?)

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In May, Jennifer and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage. And by “celebrate,” I mean our two youngest have baseball games that night and I have a meeting at church. It should be hot.

20 years have been very good to Jennifer and me, and I hope to write about how much we’re still in love and growing into each other after 20 years in May. But sometimes, in the course of a 20-year marriage, you find yourselves at loggerheads. There are times when you feel like you just aren’t connecting, and no matter what you do to try to repair things, everything is misunderstood and hurtful.

In Addie Zierman’s new book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, she describes her own 11-year marriage like this: “It had turned out to be about becoming comfortable with each other’s silences — about the paradoxical way that pulling back and giving each other pockets of space draws us closer.”

By my nature, I want to keep pushing through these times. I want to make it better. I hate it when my closest relationships are “off.” But I’ve learned in 20 years, that sometimes you have to let it breathe, you have to give things a “pocket of space” so you can draw closer. Sometimes, even in the midst of tough relationship stuff, you need to do fun things and promise not to bring up whatever is you’re struggling with. You need a cease fire.

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No, you shouldn’t run away from your problems. I’m not talking about quitting. With the people we love and in the hard situations we find ourselves in, we will only be better by pushing through, learning what we need to learn, becoming what we need to become.

But sometimes in the middle of the struggle, we need to stop and let it breathe.

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Know Islam. Know Peace (in Peoria)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
— Jesus

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Several months ago, I heard a report from the BBC that vandalism crimes against mosques in America were on the rise. You don’t have to be an avid follower of the news to know that anti-Muslim rhetoric is getting increasing airplay in certain sectors of American society. In fact, just in the past few weeks, in a neighboring city, one man caused an uproar when he posted silhouettes in his yard of a man holding a gun to another man on his knees wearing a turban. In news reports, he defended his lawn decorations by quoting the Bible and Jesus.

Ugh.

Given the rising rhetoric, in December I finally took the initiative and sent an email to one of the local imams: “Hi. We’ve never met, but given the current anti-Muslim climate of this country and the mandate of my religion to be a peacemaker, I just wanted to say that I’m your friend. Let’s meet for lunch sometime.”

Within about a week I found myself having a long lunch with Imam Kamil Mufti, during which he challenged me to use my voice, to speak up for peace, to educate people to think differently about Islam. And he told me about his idea to have an open house at his mosque sometime in the next couple months.

Tonight was that open house.  The event was called “Know Islam. Know Peace.”

I’ve never been so proud of my community.

Local news is reporting that in excess of 700 people showed up at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria. I, and nearly everyone I talked to at the event, was blown away by the number of people who turned out to show support for Muslims in our community.

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I’m writing this just a couple hours after the event and here are a couple of my impressions:

First, I was blown away by the hospitality shown by the Muslim community. From the minute we arrived, they were the ever-gracious hosts, welcoming us, giving tours, answering questions, circulating the aisles handing out water during speeches and then feeding all of us amazing Afghani food. Just this past Sunday, I was teaching our church out of Luke 22 and one of the things we noted is that Jesus defined leadership as those who serve. I saw that lived out tonight. I felt honored and humbled to be the recipient of their kindness.

Another impression had to do with the speeches. The room was full of civic leaders, religious leaders and politicians and the dais was filled with the same. When I first saw the long list of those who would be giving speeches I thought to myself, “Oh no, this is going to be a long night.” But I was so caught up in the event, that I forgot to look at my watch until about 75 minutes in, just before Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Anshai Emeth took the stage to finish out the evening. Nearly all the speakers had something significant to add to the evening.

And finally, it struck me tonight that Jesus’ words, – “Blessed are the peacemakers” – don’t have any qualifiers. He didn’t say, “Blessed are the Christian peacemakers,” or the “American peacemakers,” or anything else. He just said that those who make peace are blessed. So, tonight, I was struck that the Muslim community is blessed. And Imam Mufti is particularly blessed I know others have worked with him, inviting those they know, but Imam Mufti and his community are the ones who reached out to build a bridge for peace.

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When Mayor Ardis stood up tonight to give his speech, he was visibly moved, as I think many of us were. I know I had goosebumps throughout the night. And he said to us, “I don’t know that I exactly have the words to describe what I feel.” He went on to talk about how proud he was of our community – both the Muslims in Peoria for hosting the event and also of everyone who showed up at a mosque – many of us for the first time in our lives.

I said it at the top, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this community. It was beautiful to see people of all kinds of faiths supporting, honoring and defending each other’s rights to religious expression and being peacemakers.

There may be a world full of ugly, ignorant anti-Muslim rhetoric “out there,” but in tiny Peoria, IL, there are at least 700 of us who will stand up for peace, stand up for love and refuse to demonize “the other.”

I think this is the way of Jesus.

(To learn more, go to peaceforpeoria.com)

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The Dynamics of Mutual Submission in the Church

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  – St. Paul to the church in Ephesus

Over the past couple of months, at the church I pastor, we’ve been having a rather intense conversation. The way I’ve been framing it is this: “What is the church’s answer to our LGBT brothers and sisters in terms of how they are supposed to live?”

You can listen to the podcasts on our church website, but in short, we’re deeply indebted to the work of Ken Wilson and his book A Letter to My Congregation. In the vein of “3rd Way” thinking, (you can read about how Ken Wilson’s church does it here) our church recognizes this matter as a “disputable matter,” analogous to what Paul is addressing in the early church in Romans 14.

We don’t have all the particulars worked out, but we’re close.

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Because this series has been so significant, we’ve only been having one service on Sunday mornings in which I’ve taught. Then, in the second service time slot, we’ve opened the floor for conversation.

The reason for this post is because someone on our leadership team asked me to repost what I said to wrap up the conversation this past Sunday. I wasn’t part of the question and response. I had asked two people from our Leadership Team to field questions. But, I couldn’t help myself at the end; I just had to say one last thing.

So, this is a little awkward, quoting myself, but by request, here’s the transcription, with only minor edits:

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“I hope what you all hear is there’s lots more discussion to be had on this. I want to encourage you to continue to have this conversation. I think that the questions that you’ve asked the Leadership Team this morning are good and pointed and should be asked. I invite you and encourage you to ask every pointed question you want to ask of us.

In the space of Romans 14, here’s what scares me. There are some of us sitting here saying, “If the Pastor performs a marriage in this room, I’m leaving.” And there’s some of us that say, “If the Pastor does not stand in this space, in this room, and do a marriage, I’m leaving.”

I think what Paul was saying in the tensions between Roman 14:13 and 14:21 (and throwing in a little bit of Ephesians 5 here) is that we’re all supposed to be for the other side. The “conservatives” are supposed to be the ones saying, “I don’t want to put any obstacles in the way of you following Jesus. However you have to follow Jesus, my desire for you is for you to follow Jesus as best you can.” That’s what the conservatives are supposed be saying. Not, “How do I make sure my voice is heard?”

The “liberal” side is supposed to be saying, “If it’s going to cause problems in the body, I don’t have to get married here. I’ll lay that down. I’ll get married somewhere else.” Not, “I have to have that just like everybody else.”

The Scriptures are calling us to actually take the opposite side of what we want to take. That’s when the body looks beautiful. That’s what a good marriage looks like. It’s when we say to each other, “I don’t have to have my way in this, what do you want?” That’s what it’s supposed to be.

I feel like we fail sometimes when we go into our camps and we say, “I am not getting my way in this, and if I don’t get my way I’m leaving.” That’s where I think we’re missing it as a church. That’s where we miss the whole thing that Paul is talking about in Romans 14.”

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Just last night one of our leaders asked me, “Do you really believe it? Do you really think people can live like that?”

Truth is, it’s super idealistic to think that people — especially us rugged, individualistic Americans — are going to submit ourselves to anyone. Confession: it’s hard enough to submit to my wife and I’ve made promises to do so. (And I really, really, like her and making her happy is one of my most favorite things in the world.) So, at one level I’m really cynical that this will actually happen in the church.

But at the same time, it’s a beautiful picture of what the church might be. I have a wedding message that I’ve used for years called “The Beautiful Dance,” in which I talk about how the best dancers are submitting to each other, working with each other in harmony. Yes, that might be idealistic, but the romantic in me can’t let it go, and even if it’s hard, and even if I’m a bit of a hypocrite and even if I think only a few will actually do it, I’ll keep preaching the ideal. (Because that’s what we preachers do.)

 

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Why I am a Progressive Evangelical

Last fall, I was at a meeting of progressive evangelical leaders in Minneapolis and one asked me, “so, are you okay with both words – progressive and evangelical?”

Gulp. I actually, don’t really love either one.

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I grew up in a denomination with the word “conservative” in the title, and it was a badge of honor. We were conservative in nearly every way. Our politics were conservative, our clothing styles were midwestern conservative (which means “trendy in New York 5 years ago”), and most of us were conservative with our money.

Of course our theology was conservative. And I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, it’s just who we were. Like I said, we were proud of our conservatism because it distinguished us from the theological “liberals.” And I did mean “liberal” in a pejorative way, because in our minds the liberals were the people who didn’t love, respect or venerate the Bible in the same manner as us and therefore were questionably Christian.

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As I started reading more widely and interacting with more “liberal” Christians, my views changed.  In time, I stopped calling myself “conservative,” adopting the label “evangelical” in its place. For years, I proudly described the seminary I attended and the megachurch I worked at as “broadly evangelical.”

But like “conservative,” “evangelical” eventually didn’t fit either. In time, like high school sweethearts slowly drifting apart in their college years, it seemed evangelicalism was heading one way, and I the other. The things I loved most about evangelicalism – vigorous discussions about the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the broad inclusion of many denominations and a passion for changing the world -— got subsumed by other ideas that I could no longer endorse -— narrowing definitions of who’s in and out based upon a couple “litmus test” doctrines, an over-identification with the political right and a seemingly growing confidence about our own “rightness.”

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Eventually, I gave up the labels. I couldn’t bring myself to associate fully with any one group, author or position, so when we started our church 8 years ago, we didn’t associate with a denomination and we didn’t label ourselves. Instead, we exchanged the convenience of a label for the complexity of answering “what kind of church ARE you” with lots of head scratching, stammering, stuttering associations and denials. In fact, these days I’m mostly comfortable describing our church as a group of “used to be’s” and “if not for Imago I wouldn’t go to church” misfits.

And every time I describe myself or my church I’m again frustrated there isn’t an easier way to say who we are, some kind of label that wouldn’t make me want to gag. And more importantly, I’ve felt very alone in Peoria, Illinois, wishing there were other churches like ours, other pastors to talk to, bounce ideas off of and share resources with. I knew they were out there, but I didn’t know how to find them.

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Since my time in Minneapolis, I’ve become friends with some of these “progressive evangelicals,” and together we’re working to create a network of churches like us. And while I’m still uncomfortable with labels, it’s the juxtaposition of those two words — progressive and evangelical — that is wooing me into the fold.

As a homegrown Midwestern boy, I’m only progressive by Midwestern standards. Yes, many people in Peoria think I’m the “emergent boogieman,” but in the broader conversation I’m fairly conservative. When I sit in rooms with those theological liberals whom my tradition warned me about, I find they really do love God, seek to follow Jesus and are engaging in a conversation with the Bible and culture, but they see it through different lenses.

And I’m only evangelical in that I love the passion that my tradition has for sharing the Good News. Of course, my theology about what the “Good News” is has distanced me from my roots, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And I even have hopes that my tradition will change in time.

I was recently in New York, meeting with some of my progressive evangelical friends, and there’s a certain joy I have in knowing that as progressive evangelicals we leave both groups -— the progressives and the evangelicals — scratching their heads wondering exactly who we are. Maybe that’s as it should be.

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And this is why I’m proud to be working with OPEN, “a network of progressive evangelicals fostering a just and generous expression of the Christian faith, renewing a focus on people, poverty, the planet and peace.”

Do we all agree on everything? Nope. Do we all have differing ideas and strategies about people, poverty, the planet and peace? Yep. Is “progressive evangelical” the best label to choose? I don’t know. But I don’t think you need to agree to all the labels in order to partner as friends. Maybe this is the difference between a “denomination” and a “network” — a “network” implies a much looser association, a connecting point for ideas, resources and relationship — than a denomination does (at least in my own mind).

But here’s what I know: there’s enough overlap, camaraderie and synergy between us about “a just and generous expression of the Christian faith” – however we each uniquely express that in New York, Minneapolis, Denver, Peoria, or Morgantown, KY – that I want to be part of this community of people “up to something together.” And that’s why I’m a progressive evangelical.

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With Trembling Hands

Yesterday at church my hands were trembling as I stood up to teach.

I’m not a nervous speaker. When I used to pastor at a megachurch, standing in front of large crowds didn’t unnerve me in the least. And while putting on a microphone and talking about the mysteries of God and the universe, doubts, and abstract ideas like love, justice and forgiveness would freak most people out, it’s just the thing I do. No big deal.

Except for yesterday.

We’ve been having a tense conversation in our church for the last couple of months. We’ve been having a conversation about what the church should say to our LGBT brothers and sisters. And really it has been a conversation as we wrestle with the Bible, tradition, reason and our own experiences. (We’re not Wesleyans, per se, but we’ve always found the Wesleyan Quadrilateral useful in our deliberations.)

And so, since the beginning of the year, we’ve collapsed our two morning services into one service during which I teach, and we’ve set aside the second service time for conversation. We’ve welcomed people to ask questions and make comments, and every week during this series, I’ve walked away feeling so in love with these brave midwesterners wrestling with big issues.

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As the pastor, I probably think about these things differently than most. As pastor, it’s not about theoretical ideas about morality, but rather about relationships. And it’s not just about my own story and experiences, but rather the collective story and experiences of everyone in the church. Ken Wilson, in his excellent book A Letter to My Congregation describes it this way:

“The members of a congregation have a commonly held conscience on many, but not all, matters. A pastor stands at the crossroads of a congregation’s conflicted conscience. It’s a congested intersection, this place. Standing in the middle of it can be dizzying, frightening, awful, especially under the intense scrutiny that comes with religious controversy.”

And so, yesterday, as I prepared to stand up and say things that would challenge nearly every one of us, my hands shook in nervousness and anxiety.

Help me, Lord Jesus, to be faithful to the pathway you seem to be leading me down. Help me to say what I say with grace, humility and kindness.

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I’m a lucky guy. I sometimes hear stories of pastors who come into conflict with their congregation and lose their jobs. Or I hear stories of how parishioners leave a church angrily, “telling off” the pastor as they go. Yes, we’ve had a few of those, but not very many. The church I pastor is filled with kind, lovely people who, I believe, really believe Jesus when he says that everything hangs on how we love. Again, my experience is reflected in Wilson,

“Strangely, very few of you have actually asked me this question directly. Congregations learn to read their pastors. And many of you sense that I’ve been wrestling with this one for a long time. You’ve heard sermons that indicate a certain lean away from the traditional consensus, perhaps. I suspect that some of you haven’t asked me where I draw the line because you haven’t wanted to put me on the spot. Others haven’t wanted to situate me, your pastor, on what you may regard as the wrong side of an important moral issue. Or you may just be nervous for me, for us. In any case, I want to say: thank you.”

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I’m writing this on Monday morning. I feel emotionally spent. I could have spent the day in bed, which is why so many pastors take Mondays off. (They also tell us to never write our resignations on a Monday. Good advice!)

I actually don’t remember much of what I said. I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, but there are times when I’m so “in it,” so focused on what I’m doing, that afterward I don’t remember the specifics. I’ve thought about listening to the podcast, but that sometimes leads to self-loathing. (Oh do I hate the sound of my own voice!) We’ll see how I feel in a couple days.

What I do know is that when I preach that kind of sermon, with that kind of emotion and intensity, I feel super-vulnerable afterwards. (I know from talking to pastors, musicians and other artists this is common.) I feel vulnerable because it’s not just a task I performed but, rather, I feel like I’ve given a part of myself to a whole bunch of people at once. And so, my tendency is to want to run and hide – to find any excuse to get to my office and close the door as fast as possible.

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In my younger years, I needed a lot of praise in these fragile moments just after the sermon to satisfy my fragile ego-self. But I’m learning that what my ego wants almost always leaves my soul feeling hollow. So I’m trying to learn to pay attention to my soul. My honorary-big-sister-even-if-she-doesn’t-know-who-I-am Liz Gilbert says,

“I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

I would add, in addition to wonder, my soul also longs for intimacy. In that moment, I need connection with my wife, boys and friends. I need my most intimate friends to tell me, “You are loved.”

[This by the way, is the greatest gift a church can give to their pastor: the freedom to have their own intimate circle of friends, even if those friends don’t attend your church. Yes, your pastor should be friends with everyone at some level, but your pastor also needs an intimate space of people who can authentically say, “We will love you regardless of anything about you that is ‘pastor.’” Let your pastor have a circle of people to whom they can say, “I need something from you,” so they don’t need it from the congregation.]

After the service, my wife grabbed me in the center aisle and hugged me, and my good friend sought me out as I was trying to escape into my office and gave me a hug and reminded me that I’m loved. And my closest circle – the ones who know that I need them – tended to my fragile self throughout the day with texts and love. That’s what my soul needed.

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My hands were trembling yesterday before I got up to speak to these beautiful people that I get to lead. But there’s goodness here. I think I said some things to challenge all of us. And, to the best of my knowledge, I’m leading our church down the pathway that is right for us. It’s not easy. And there will be sadness and tears to come.

But we’re together in this.

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They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love (by our love)

We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord.

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love (by our love).

This dirge of a song – written almost entirely in minor chords – was penned in the 1960s by a parish priest in Chicago’s south side. Peter Scholtes wrote it for his youth choir for a series of ecumenical, interracial gatherings when he couldn’t find an existing song to express the unity of the groups gathering.

Somehow, I’m pretty sure when we sang it in my church youth groups and at Sunday night church (where we got to wear jeans and sing “casual songs”… gasp!) we didn’t sing it in the spirit in which it was written.

Speaking only for myself, I think I meant it exclusively in the context of the room where I was singing it. What I meant was something sort of like this:

We (young, white, middle class, conservative Baptists) are one in our beliefs about the Bible and probably some other stuff, including the Spirit (who, by the way, does NOT cause people to speak in tongues!).”

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I’m a Protestant. At the root of our identity as Protestants is Martin Luther standing at the Diet of Worms declaring, “On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And while historically, I don’t believe Martin Luther exactly intended for the fractures that ensued, protesting, splitting off, starting over, creating one’s own thing based upon one’s ideas about God, church, etc. became the calling card of Protestants. (If you want to get overwhelmed, go check out the Wikipedia entry of “List of Christian Denominations.” YIKES!)

Occasionally, a denomination starts out of geographical convenience or a sense of community and fellowship that emerges amongst friends. Most often though, new denominations start when our beliefs about God convince us that we can no longer worship or partner with our fellow believers. And sometimes this is true. Several years ago, I was meeting with a monk and we talked about the eucharist and worship and how we would each be welcome in each other’s’ church and how praying together seemed right and good, but neither one could take the eucharist in each other’s church because of our theological differences.

This is fair. Some differences really are so significant that they get in the way of worshipping together. But, even in this conversation where we respected each other’s differences, we looked for our unity in Jesus. (And, I’m completely comfortable going to mass and receiving a blessing from the priest, rather than the Eucharist. I wouldn’t want that to be my experience every week, but I’m cool with it when the occasion arises.)

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But can I be a bit ornery? Can I play devil’s advocate for just a minute?

Isn’t our unity as believers supposed to be found in Jesus? Isn’t our unity supposed to be found in the eucharist, no matter what we believe happens to the bread & wine? Isn’t it possible to say, “we might have different ideas about God, but we agree that Jesus is the center of our unity”?

Sometimes I feel like we’ve bought into the whole stupid enlightenment idea that we are defined by our thoughts about God. But it seems like Jesus is more concerned with our posture in relation to God – that we live in a posture of following after him.

And following Jesus looks like this: love.

“Hey, Jesus. You say a lot of great things, tell a lot of perplexing stories, but boil it down for us to a headline: what’s the greatest commandment?”

“Love God,” Jesus replied, then continued, “And the second command is like the first. Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. Everything else hangs on these two.”

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I’d like to imagine Mr. Peter Scholtes sitting at his keyboard trying out lyrics…

“They will know we are Christians by our right beliefs about God.” I hope not, because we’re all wrong somehow.

“They will know we are Christians by our stance on abortion/gay marriage/health care/political affiliations.” The church can’t even get anywhere close to a unanimous answer on these!

“They will know we are Christians by our morality.” Dear, God, if this is the case, we are screwed. Even our clergy have a hard time keeping themselves pure!

“They will know we are Christians by how great our band sounds and how much fog the machine rolls out onto the stage.” <facepalm> I hope no one actually says this.

“They will know we are Christians by the wittiness of our t-shirts and/or bumpers stickers.” “Faithbook: Jesus wants to put you in His Book. Do you accept?” (Here’s a pinterest board of the Christian t-shirts…again, YIKES!)

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“They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love).”

So simple and so difficult at the same time. I think this is the problem. Understanding what Jesus is saying is simple but it’s really, really hard to love well. Especially, when the standard is my own love of self. And so, we opt for the easier pathway: t-shirts, morals crusades, and intellectual positions about God.

Yes, I know this whole choosing to love, choosing to do the hard thing, choosing to stay in it (whatever “it” is), when what you really want to do is run away is hard and messy and not always clear. But this is the pathway of Jesus.

“They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love).”

(the photo is of Sarah Bessey’s book Out of Sorts)

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