Church: Divine Household or Refined Methods?

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“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

The Spirit blows where he pleases or sometimes, he even chooses not blow at all. This should be scary to a church culture that has plans, methodologies, measurable outcomes, that guide them and determine how “church” is done. See, here’s the thing, the Holy Spirit will not be reduced to or restricted by our forms, methods, or measurable outcomes.

While I believe that smaller gatherings, in a home for instance, allows the body of believers a greater freedom to respond to God’s Spirit, just meeting in homes can become another method. The wonderfully dangerous thing about methods is that they leave us in control, feeling like we are the ones building the Church, determining her shape, her form and her methods.

So even a Home Church type movement is in danger of going the way of the institutional/larger church models, and indeed many home churches are anything but a biblical alternative with their hatred for anything other than their model (another false consensus effect in action). Any form claiming to be “the right way” of doing/being the Church is in danger of missing Jesus and quenching the Spirit of God. We need to continually ask ourselves, “Who is building the Church?”

The only one who is truly building the Church is Jesus Christ, who is the same reality and substance that replaced and reformed old models and shadows and rituals of the days of old (Hebrews 8:5-6). Jesus, the One who is greater than the Temple, greater than nationalistic Churches, and greater than our Western institutions, is among us today! What’s He saying?

As the late Brennan Manning says, “There is no need to mince words. I believe that Christianity happens when men and women experience the reckless, raging confidence that comes from knowing the God of Jesus Christ.” And it is precisely these people who become “the Church”, the gathered family of God, experiencing Jesus, and therefore able to truly offer him to those who don’t know Jesus.

We do not build a building in Roman form and call it “the Church.” We do not have special organizations or religious institutions in which we call “the Church.” What is the Church? It is the people of God living in union with Christ and His whole family within the household of God. It is the family of God building one another up into the fullness of who we were meant to be. Family discipling family, growing up, maturing, and inviting those on the margins into their family dinners, offering adoption in Jesus’ name for all who believe. That’s the Church.

Our religious procedures and techniques, even the home church kind, can be the enemies of the real Church, God’s people. Through mimicry, we can hinder the realization of what we endeavor to be. God has not called us from the building of institutions to the building of home churches or smaller, more intimate gatherings. No, He has called us to gather around his Son, Jesus, in the glorious communion of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, and give him freedom to continue to form it in new and fresh ways.

Jesus, the Christ, is the starting point. His Spirit is now in charge. He’s our life, our joy, our power, our starting and ending point. He is the form we are to conform to, which gives us freedom to gather in new and fresh ways, in patient slow ways, in seemingly insignificant ways, and in ways that are rooted in particular places, caring for a particular neighborhood or people group. Jesus gives us freedom to be the Church in new contexts and at new times, other than in church buildings on Saturday night or Sunday mornings.

Our heritage of over 1700 years of being preoccupied with various forms and methods that do not produce life, forms of godliness without power, is very hard to kill in us. The title “Methodist”, given to one of the major denominations, describes the mindset of many of the institutional churches of our day, looking for the right method.

The Reformation was more external than internal in many ways, although many great doctrinal changes were made as well. Most of the changes however, were in the material form, which led to all the bloodshed that came with the reform. Much of the reform was void of the Spirit. The doctrine of “Salvation by grace through faith” was clearly established, yet death would come to those who disagree with them. Is that what following Jesus produces? Concern with external reforms has been the center of most Catholic and Protestant reforms.

Have we forgotten that we, the 21st century Church, are represented by Israel in the Old Testament: “But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway…” Jeremiah 18:15

We are the family of God, the body of Christ Jesus, forming the divine household of the Trinity. Within the household of faith, life takes one form and one form only: Jesus. The true Church is the body of Christ without walls or divisions. What was the first century church concerned with? Following Jesus; not a method or even a movement called “Christianity”. That was the first century model and could be ours today as well. This is the form. This is Church 101, 201, and 301. The Church is nothing more than God’s family re-gathered around Christ Jesus and reconciled to one another, breaking down walls of division, offering Jesus to all, constantly reforming, and listening to the Holy Spirit to encourage and critique what she’s doing.

Religious movement is what happens among “Christians” when Christ is absent. My prayer is that God would make our religion obsolete in the face of Jesus Christ, that church would once again become a divine household of people instead of a refined form of gathering.

Slow Church and Church Growth: What is a Successful Church?

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This thing called ‘our flesh,’ or others would call it ‘the natural mind,’ has been culturally conditioned to believe that our forms and methods about how to build the Church are more important than God’s forms and methods. Now of course, none of us say this outright, rather we do what is comfortable and familiar to us to the point of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, believing this is God’s form or method, but really it’s culture that has shaped how we do it, and what it looks like. Driven by our egos and a desire to self-preserve, we often lead ourselves while saying we are following Jesus. Our desires reveal what we really want though, and we can see it in the dominant model of building and growing churches.

What’s silently tragic about this, is that we inevitably begin to care for ourselves, or our tribe first, and we quickly become ethnically, nationally, culturally, and socially divided. It has been called the homogenous unit principle by some. This idea that churches grow faster and more conversions happen when people are lead by those who are ethnically, nationally, cultural, and socially similar. This is a church growth model that has been rejected by many leaders, at least in theory, but as we look at the way their churches are still being structured, this principle is winning the day.

Again, it’s a good intentioned self-preservation, that slowly erodes our ability to see other forms that God may want for his Church. This type of self-preservation always leads to the dehumanization and oppression of those who aren’t like us. We have anesthetized ourselves from the reality that we could actually be deceived in our understanding, and prove the social theory of the false consensus effect: the tendency for humans to over estimate the degree in which everyone agrees with us.

Chris Smith and John Pattison are co-authors of the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. This book indirectly answers the question of what it looks like to be successful as a church, as Chris and John unfold a new kingdom ethos for being the Church, present and rooted in a particular place. In the opening chapter they address the danger of our culture’s commitment to individualism (which plays into the false consensus effect):

“In the Western world where individualism reigns supreme, there is unfamiliarity, awkwardness and even slowness in our calling to live as a community of God’s people. We are so accustomed to living and acting as autonomous individuals that the idea of being God’s people in the world can be tough to wrap our heads around. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient (and even considerate!) to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read Scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place. The people of God become a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.”

Our preoccupation with the question of how to build the church, what a successful church looks like, or how to build something large and significant for God, has led many of us away from the simple truth that Jesus will and is building his Church through a display people (a family). Jesus didn’t write scripture, he was Scripture, and he left us not with books, but with a community, a gathering of new creation family members.

We desperately need God to restore to us the simplicity and power of our faith in Jesus, a faith that rests in God’s sovereignty and believes that if we gather around the person of Jesus, God will grow the Church together as a new family in new and fresh ways.

Later in their book, Smith and Pattison clarify a core ethos of what “Slow Church” is: “Slow Church is rooted in the natural, human and spiritual cultures of a particular place. It is a distinctively local expression of the global body of Christ. ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood’ (Jn 1:14 The Message).”

Pastor, missionary, theologian, and author, Lesslie Newbigin, has written extensively on the nature and mission of the Church, and reminds us that the emphasis in scripture is not on church growth, that’s God’s job. The emphasis is on faithfulness. Jesus says in Luke 18:8, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Will the Son of Man find faith in the Western church, or will he find sophisticated forms and methods that have become clubs with members who are more pre-occupied with running a good business, than being faithful. We have to keep asking ourselves, have we worshiped the form of church more than we worship the one who formed the Church? Have we been more impressed with church growth models and large churches that offer everything and do it with perfection and creativity, more than we are impressed with faithful living among a local community? What really makes a successful church? Is a slow growth model that is rooted in the patient ways of Jesus, committed to building a neighborhood parish to care for the least, the last, and the lost even worth it? Is it possible for a church to be more concerned about being present in the neighborhood they’ve been planted than in growing numerically so it can become financially self-sustainable in our Western church model? This is my prayer.

Lessons from Jesus: The Family Gathering

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“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus is saying many things here, but one we often miss is that He is referring to His family gathering ‘together’ in this passage. The Greek word for “gathered” here is synegmenoi, which comes from the word sunago, which means “to lead, to assemble, to gather together”, and in this instance it is referring to a gathering at a particular place. Where is that place? Jesus makes it clear to us when he says: “In my name.” The gathering together around, or in a name, is referring to a family gathering, where families would gather together according to their ‘name.’ A family reunion of sorts.

The beloved apostle John tells us in the prologue of his account of Jesus’ life, that he came to his own [people], and [they] did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed ‘in his name’, he gave the right to become ‘children of God’,” (John 1:11-12, emphasis mine). To believe in Jesus’ name, his family tree, his divine heritage, is to become part of his family, to receive his name. The Church, at the core of it’s function, is a family gathering in Jesus’ name. Often times, in our pursuit to shape a certain form of church, we miss and lose the function.

Family, it’s the basic unit of society. It’s the place where we share our lives together; where we find belonging. It’s a place, in the case of a healthy family at least, where pretense is absent, where we don’t need our masks, where we run to for comfort and rest. In the family unit, everybody knows one another by name and “real presence” is lived out and practiced intimately, the way Jesus intended His family to relate.

If only two or three of the family members get together, it’s still considered a family get together. The same his true for the Church. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, he is there “in the midst of them”, honoring the family gathering. If Jesus is in the midst, if he is the center, the focus, the chief reason for the gathering, then those two or three, and others who are watching, are experiencing and witnessing the mystery of the Bride, the gathered Church, Emmanuel, God with us.

There is nowhere in all of Scripture where anyone stressed, directly or indirectly, the supposed importance of gathering in large numbers. The twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) Western (modern) Church has been trained and formed to do most things in a big way. “The larger the better”, we often say. Many Church gatherings of today have become incredible multimedia events, supposing that the numbers justify the means. Concerned with numerical growth, and the supposed need for the Church to appeal to the masses, this new program-driven machine, mass manufactures unique religious experiences, tailored to appeal to the interests and cater to the comfort of a specific demographic or a specific tribe or local church.

This form has been so pervasive, that even small churches have invested great amounts of money to compete with large church technology and programs. We desperately need new forms that affirm the smaller gatherings as beautiful in God’s sight if Christ is the center of the gathering, and not have the small church pastors feel like failures for not becoming the next famous pastor with 100’s or 1000’s of butts in their seats.

One of the great preachers of the twentieth century, A.W.Tozer, says this: ”One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization does not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team.”

We need to re-learn the basic math of Christ’s kingdom: 2 or 3 gathering in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God; in street terms, the Church. I like to call this the Mustard Seed Church; small intimate gatherings, patiently working together across the world to display the beauty and worth of Jesus, producing great fruit and large trees for many to come and find food, shelter, and shade over the centuries. This Mustard Seed Church is more of a new ethos than a new form. It can be experienced through larger gatherings as well, but it will take much intention and many challenges to leadership and congregants alike, to abandon the thinking that the big crowd and good feeling worship is somehow more church than the small street gathering around the corner.

But the catch to this basic family gathering is that formations come and go, and transformation is messy and slow. Picture change within your own family structure. If you’re family is anything like mine, we all love each other, but are radically different, and appreciating the beauty of diversity and arriving at a place of unity within our diversity, takes hard work, commitment to staying together, and patience over the long haul. This is what “church work” is supposed to look like; small family gatherings, patient brothers and sisters slowly maturing along with other family members, keeping their home and table open to sojourners and guests, all with a heart to be reconciled together in Christ. But as we know, families don’t always choose to live in truth and work through the pain and tension.

Jesus, in explaining the kingdom of God to his disciples, said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19) I don’t think Jesus is wanting us to take this literally, but rather wanted us to understand the nature of a mustard seed, the smallest known seed in his day, that very slowly, and slowly is the key word here, over the course of a season, would grow into a large, fruitful bush that offered much to it’s immediate environment. It’s an agricultural understanding of growth, which is slow and arduous.

The Church, like the kingdom, is organic, pliable, easily shaped into various forms, and in Jesus’ words, is like the mustard seed. By looking at a dead mustard seed, you cannot tell what the plant will look like when it’s full-grown. The pattern is in the seed and every seed is different and unique; it will bear fruit after its kind, but in different patterns and forms. In the same way, the Church has its own divine DNA and will grow accordingly as God sees fit, from era to era, and context to context.

Immediately after the mustard seed parable, Jesus shares another parable about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like on earth: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) For those concerned with Church growth, this passage ought to be on your radar! A very small amount of leaven is powerful enough to leaven a whole batch of bread.

Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name, in a home, in the office place, a courtyard, a community center, or a church building, or a downtown park, are leaven. These small intimate, intentional gatherings, are like a mustard seed, or a little leaven, that makes all those around them, watching them, rise up and become who they were supposed to be, but this is a slow process. The witness of a family gathering’s visible love for each other, declaring the love of Christ next door, upstairs, or outside, that is the purpose of being the Church.

Jesus did not send us to entertain the world, but to go into it, underground like a seed, or smothered in the middle of it like leaven in flour, with the subtle and yet overwhelming dynamic of His love, in the context of being a family. This is the Mustard Seed Church, or the Leaven Church, where just a little bit goes a long way. It is a matter of keeping the right math, or the right ingredients: 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God, or as Lesslie Newbigin says, “The Household of God.” These ingredients will always change the world in huge ways. Do you believe that?

Often times our belief is hindered by layers of Church culture that has sold us many false notions of success. Pope Francis has been an outspoken proponent of the Church reforming not in form as much as a reform of our hearts, our ethos. In one of his many profound speeches he has made, he has said this about the Church: “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church [has] to learn how to wait.” We need to hear those words and let them sink into our ethos.

“Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 of the leavened dough and the mustard seed remind us that God’s transformation comes slowly, working outward from the place where the change begins. In an age when instant gratification reigns supreme, the lesson of these parables is provocative and surprisingly insistent—but this seems to be the way God usually works in the world.” Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Smith and Pattison, 24.

The Tension

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Life is full of irony. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted, funny irony, and at others times it’s an irony that causes you to enter the tension. We want to be successful in business, but for many it comes at the cost of a healthy family life. We long and fight for justice, yet many products we buy are unjustly produced. We long to eat healthy, yet most of the “good” tasting food is full of sugar, fat, and grease (at least for my taste buds!). We want to be unified, yet we have this pull to label, box in, and identity on a certain side. We want to serve the poor, but when we do, we often realize it’s we who are being served. We pray for answers, but when the answers come, they aren’t what we’re looking for, so we miss it. We hate racism, but when we truly address it we can’t deny the small (or large) seeds of racism in ourselves. Our children are living in relative comfort, while other children are rocked by a bomb, sitting alone and bloody, scared, confused (I guess this isn’t irony as much as tragic disparity). As Christians we brag about being servants of Christ, but when we’re treated like a servant, we become angry and feel entitled to better treatment (again, this is at least true with me…) Irony, yes. Irony that produces tension.
Tension: the state of being stretched tight. These issues, when exposed to us, seem to stretch us tight, create discomfort, and the tension sets in. “What do we do with this?” Most of the time, the easiest answer is to find a way to relieve the tension, so we run to one side of the issue and neglect the other side. Problem solved. Until the next issue arises, and if we’re honest with ourselves, these tense issues rear their ugly heads every day. We can’t run from the tension, but we can deny it, numb ourselves from it, remain ignorant. We can… but could it be that these are the very things that destroy our souls. 
This is why Jesus constantly drove people into the tension. Time and time again when asked questions like, “What’s the greatest commandment?” “Who’s my neighbor?” “Do we pay taxes or not?” “How do you inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answers created tension. He didn’t give a pass to those looking for a quick way out or a quick answer through a doctrinal loophole. He pressed them to be honest, to live in to the tension of honesty, self-reflection, humility, sacrifice; to die to the habits that were killing them, and oppressing others. 
Most of the answers we are looking for in life, aren’t easy ones, or else we would’ve found answers already. And most of the time, the partial answer is mysterious and left open ended. It’s in this place of tension, where we can’t fall back on programmed responses. It’s here that we are thrown into the depths of our desires, our beliefs, and we are left to wrestle with who we truly are. Are we going to live in to the mystery, the tension, and trust that we aren’t the ones holding all things/all beliefs together? Are we going to allow the process of unknowing to shape us into a people who truly know the one who does hold it all together, at the cost (or risk) of being labeled by your own tribe as “going off the deep end,” according to your tribe’s standard, or are we going to settle, run to one side of the camp, and stake our flag on the “right” side. 
It’s in the tension where we have the opportunity to become properly tuned. Jon Foreman gives a great metaphor for tension, likening it to guitar strings that are strung tight enough to hold a tune. It’s in the tension where we play on tune. Strung too tight, we bust. Not strung tight enough, we make awful noises. If you have honest friends around you who aren’t just a fan of yours, they’ll tell you when you’re  about to bust, or if you sound horrible. When you are offended by a friend or acquaintance, you are then offered the gift of tension. Who are you going to choose to be? Are you going to run to one side and stake your flag, or will you live in to the tension of teachableness, humility? This is all too convicting for me, even as I write this. 
Right now, in this season, we have a great opportunity to live in to the tension of life without running to one side or the other, claiming the other side as demons, or wrong, or lost. I confess, I’ve done plenty of flag staking, and I am not proud of it, and neither has it produced any beautiful lovely sounding music. It won’t, because it’s not tuned. Today, we have opportunities to embrace the beauty of mystery and unknowing. To admit we’re not the ones holding it all together (or to admit that our country or tribe isn’t the one holding all things together). 
Jesus constantly broke the mold of what was right, and I’m convinced followers of Jesus are called to live in to the same ethos, to passionately stand in the middle, confidently living in mystery and certainty. Embracing the tension in our own lives first, then embracing others who are struggling to find the confidence to stand where it hurts as well.
The glory of God is revealed through a broken man. Tension. 
The cross, the greatest act of love. Tension. 
The tomb becomes a womb. Tension. 
Beauty is found in death. Tension. 
Ashes produce life. Tension. 
The way up is down. Tension. 
The way to access power is to give up power. Tension. 
To become the greatest, you must become a servant of all. Tension. 
Gain life by losing your life. Tension. 
“With that in mind, I feel like dying to myself is a daily task necessary for true abundant life.” Jon Foreman

The Body of Christ

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In the book of Ephesians, the word body in the Greek language is sṓma, which means “an organized whole made up of parts and members; a body, a collective mass.” In other words, the whole body of Christians collectively, of which Christ is the head. This word shows up in the book of Ephesians many times (1:22-23; 2:15-16; 3:6; 4:4, 11-12, 16, 25; 5:23, 30) (see also Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:13, 27; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15).

There is a very striking illustration in 1 Corinthians 6:15 regarding the body of Christ (the Church), where Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” If you are a disciple of Christ, then you are a “member”, joined as a part of the body (family) of Christ, and the parts of your body are parts of Christ’s body. And this body feels what the other parts of the body feel. It also hold the body accountable to take care of itself when it’s hurting, neglecting itself, hurting others, etc.

We’re not Christians, we’re ‘family members’ joined by and with Christ, with a mission to make His beauty and worth known over every earthly treasure. Jesus Christ has a body here on earth. It is called the Church. She has legs to go to the places that Jesus would go. She has arms to do the work that Jesus would do. She has mouths to say the things that Jesus would say. She has backs to carry the burdens that Jesus would carry.

Paul said that his aim in life was that “the life of Jesus might be made known to others in his mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). In other words, his aim is that his body might make Christ’s body real to the world. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you follow me, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Love, not self-centered interest, or nationalistic commitment over the good of your neighbor.

Since this is not alway the case, Jesus calls out religious short-sightedness in Matthew 23:23c: “…you neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” It’s this kind of neglect from among those who identify themselves under the term Christian, that misrepresents Jesus’ body.

It seems we as a church in all our forms and commitments, have often neglected the weightier matters of God:

– We’ve been far too focused on success…

– We’ve been far too concerned with entertainment and comfort…

– We’ve been far too consumed with material goods…

– We’ve been far too obsessed with being the best…

– We’ve been far too competitive with our neighbors…

– We’ve been far too promiscuous with others…

– We’ve been far too neglectful to the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner

– We’ve been far too quick to conform to the patterns of this world…

– We’ve both far too blind to injustice and the imbalance of powers…

– We’ve been far too committed to the American dream

God’s people are willing to humble themselves, receive the correction, and let God’s spirit change them from the inside out. We’ve all blown it. We’re all among those who are far too something… Christianity isn’t about perfection, it’s about death. God’s people are willing to die, to admit when they’re wrong or have blown it.

They are people who embrace brokenness, who boast in their weakness, and look for ways to serve the least, the last, the lost. Again, this is not a perfection competition, but a death sentence. A death sentence that places the Jesus follower into a tomb that becomes womb. The new birth that takes place after the death, is like ashes on forest floor, oil on dry skin, water in a dry desert, forgiveness from an enemy. A new life is willing to be poured out and consumed like the elements of communion, so that others might have access to God, or be refreshed, included,  The bride will not always look like this, but she also will not blatantly ignore these corrections either. Her heart will be soft and teachable, eventually.

The late Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, writes this in 1967 with her message being addressed to the church: “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”  “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter”, The Catholic Worker, January 1967, 1, 2.

The body is the bride. She is messy. She is adulterous. She does not act like a bride of a king at many times. She has members, and those who claim to be members, and they both shall remain together for now. She is often entangled in affairs that makes the groom cringe. She is in many ways lost. She needs to run back to her first love. She needs a conversion of the heart, not a reform of methods or a GOP who can give her the freedoms she wants. It will take humility and love to move forward, and I know God’s people will rise up to the challenge.

The Cost of the Life You’ve Always Wanted

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This summer my wife and I decided that we wanted to make the most of each weekend, and for us, making the most of it was camping as much as we could. Yes, we voluntarily signed up for packing for 6, setting up camp, putting out fights and complaints from our kiddos, and sleeping on hard, stoney ground (which used to be easier when we were younger). Crazy, not really. It’s the Phoenix heat we’re escaping. We’ll do anything to get out of the heat come summer time. It’s been a great summer, and now our kids start school in a couple weeks and routine will soon set in.

One of the reasons we wanted to get out was to ditch the heat, but something that motivated us even more was to leave the frantic pace of the city, slow dow, and learn to listen and see and smell and taste things that we would normally look past in the every day life of the big city. I have thousands of stories I could share about our summer, but one very small moment this past weekend near Williams, AZ has stood out to me. We were camping off of a forest road near White Horse Lake. We decide to take a walk and explore the forest. I’d like to say it was a great walk, but the family was divided, some of the kids were bored and one child was angry with me and all the awkward family dynamics were in full swing.

We were determined to push through it though, so we kept walking. As we did, we passed a tree that at one point in it’s life had died, or was burned at the top, as you can see in the pic. My wife stopped us and drew our attention to the tree. She has a canny eye for seeing things behind what you see at first glance. Notice the trunk, and how it just stopped growing at some point. All the glory that it promised to display has ended. The thick trunk no longer growing. I’m not sure what was going on when this tree’s life took a turn, but if you continue looking at the photo, you will notice a few more things.

There are about 4-5 shoots that have sprouted off the side of the trunk, and are reaching for the sun, now taking the water that the main trunk originally gulped for itself in years past. Water is dispersed now to younger, smaller shoots keeping alive the once promising tree. And they’re healthy shoots, with green leaves, working hard to provide a canopy in the midst of an ocean of other trees. Something else that is beautiful about this photo is all the new trees that were given birth by this once promising tree that lost the glory it once sought after. Dozens of new trees, growing, seemingly thriving, contributing to the earth what they were meant to contribute: oxygen, life, beauty, commitment to struggle through the elements.

There’s so much to say regarding this photo, and I would love to hear what others see and experience as they look at it. Some things that stands out to me as I look at this and think of the message it was speaking to me on that slow day up in the woods are:

Death gives life. Moving out the way give others a chance to get in on the action. Luxuries must be sacrificed to some degree for others to have the chance to participate. Glory doesn’t always look pretty. Beauty is diverse and mysterious. Death isn’t the last word. Sacrifice will rob you of luxuries. Inclusion means we won’t have the whole pie to ourselves. Sharing sounds nice when we’re teaching our kids to share, until the cost of sharing means we lose what was once “promised” to us. 

We live in a culture that gives lip service to kindness and sacrifice, but when the very cost of being kind and sacrificing is the cost of our own comfort, then we say, of course not orally with our words, “To hell with kindness and sacrifice.” We say this with our lives, our actions, by the way we treat others and neglect many evils right in front of our eyes. We protect our own privilege at the cost of others not having the same privilege, and we make up really great sounding ideas as to why we choose to live this way, vote that way, neglect those things, etc.

We love the Christian idea of God dying so we can live, but when the call to die comes to us directly, we say, “To hell with the Christian idea of dying.” Now again, we do not dare say that outrightly, because that would sound too harsh and make us feel like we’re bad people or we don’t believe in God or something. But our lives are lived harshly. We preach resurrection, but try to get the resurrected life before the cross. We keep broken people at arms length saying they’re not healthy for us to be around, and then turn around and say to the broken, dirty ones, “God bless you, be at peace” while the heavens weep!

We want the good life without the sacrifice. We want change, but not at the cost of our comforts and luxuries. We want glory that looks good to the eye, and loathe the brokenness that brought about glory to the Son. We want to be the large, glorious tree towering in the forest proving to be a work of beauty and strength, and look down upon those who don’t have it together like we do.

We want change. We need change. And for things to change, we must die to what we think is the good life, the glorious life. We must take responsibility for the injustices we’ve ignored or perpetuated (individually and corporately). We must allow the seeds of humility and death to be scattered all over the forest floor with new life, life that will take a portion of the pie away from us.

We’ll have to learn to share again. We’ll have to be willing to be re-ordered. We’ll have to allow the time and space and place for corrupt systems to be re-storied and re-constituted to include the ones that have been cut off in the past at the cost of the luxuries of the dominant culture. We’ll have to be willing to hear differing opinion without lashing out in anger. We’ll have to be confronted with our own privilege and not be so fragile. We’ll have to learn a new way to be human.

It will take a million deaths, but the life that will be re-born will be much more beautiful and intoxicating than anything we have seen in the past. This is what the life and death and resurrection of Jesus preaches and promises. This is the way forward. This is the life you’ve always wanted, but are still deciding if it’s worth it or not.

The Beauty of Marriage

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I’m writing this a day before my wife and I’s 17 year wedding anniversary. I have been reflecting about love, beauty, marriage, and commitment quite a bit this year. From year 16 to 17, it has been one of our more challenging years of marriage for many different reasons within and without of our family unit. Naturally, when times are tough and love and beauty have to be intensely fought for, it’s easy to think, love isn’t there, beauty is being lost in this relationship, and is it worth it to continue fighting this hard for something that seems that won’t always last on this side of heaven.

But I believe today, that it’s precisely these moments, the ones that no one is proud of, the moments we like to numb ourselves from and pretend they’re not as bad as they really are (thus the featured photo of Amy and I not looking perfect Christmas morning… with tired eyes and bedhead! She’s gonna kill me for posting this one!). It’s the moments that you want to ignore when you go to a 20 year high school reunion, as you and our spouse are putting on your best face, because the beauty of struggle wouldn’t be understood the way you now see it. The worth of the struggle in marriage, and sticking in it regardless of the resistance that brokenness has created in the midst of passion, love, and desire. This is true for any relationship, not just marriage.

Much has been written about love, marriage, beauty, and the power of belonging. This is what some of the best movies create their plots out of. The “little guy” being called into something greater than he deserves to be involved in. The outcast making the big difference as fate would exalt her. The unlikely hero, the odds stacked against the main character, only for him to succeed after a type of death has been faced and conquered. This is the beauty of the stories we all love.

When I think of this in lieu of marriage, I think of the commitment a thriving marriage must have to stay committed to the other person regardless of the situation. I think of the times one of the spouses is the underdog, the poor pitiful mess up who can’t get it right, the one who has failed time and time again, who has mud on their face and is full of shame, the one who can’t seem to shed their childish ways, etc. I think of the plots that don’t end up happy and no one wants to write about. These moments aren’t just happening at an external level for everyone to see. No, all these failures and mess up’s are mostly happening in the privacy of a marriage, in front of the person who once fell in love with you because they loved who you were and likely because of the way you (or they) wooed and pursued you.

And now you find yourself in the midst of a marriage screenplay and you may feel like the character with the odds stacked against you, except you don’t have the hope of a Hollywood screenplay ending. There’s no more pursuit, and you are in the midst of the tension… “Will I be loved if I continue to fail.” “Will she still want to “belong” together if I prove to not have what it takes in business?” What’s gonna happen if I’m honest with all the shit underneath the surface of my poor pitiful existence?” “What if he stops being attracted to me?”

It’s in the midst of these moments where we have an invitation to allow the layers of self-protection we’ve gathered around us over the years to either fall away a little bit more, or to accumulate a larger collection of self-protective clothing. Each one of us, at some point in our younger lives, encountered messages that said we weren’t enough, we needed to be different in order to be loved, we had something wrong with us, others aren’t trustworthy, pain is to be avoided, etc. And in those moments we tried on new ways of being ourselves so that we would be protected from these negatives messages/experiences.

Over the years, as children, these protective layers worked, but when we become adults, they interfere with intimacy and closeness and the challenges of a close relationship begin to create a vulnerability in you that either pisses you off or scares the hell out of you. The choice to continue the status quo of our childhood or to walk into the mysteriousness of vulnerability is now staring us down in the eyes, and we want to crawl in a hole and die, or wage war! But there is another way….

Usually, the deciding factor of which way one chooses to behave (internally or externally) is dependent upon on the nature of the marriage or relationship. Is the environment of the relationship one of love and trust, or is it one of performance and deceit? This can only be honestly answered by you alone. We know ourselves, we know our layers, and we know what we’ve anesthetized ourselves from because of brutalness of being honest about what’s really inside. And to be honest about this, will indeed take a great act of vulnerability.

Love and trust flourishes in the context of a vulnerable relationship. A relationship that has offered the grace to the screw up, the failure, the one who can’t always perform at a level of perfection. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to offer a secure place to be totally exposed, yet still told that they belong. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to communicate how significant the other person is, regardless of all the past years of messages that have said the other person isn’t significant. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to grant forgiveness when the other person isn’t able to offer one of the two routes above.

The beauty of marriage is created ultimately by God, who always fought for the wife who was childless, the man who wasn’t capable of a great speech, the outcast arrogant brother, the lying son who labored for his father’s approval, the oppressed wife who wasn’t given the protection she deserved, the prostitute who was constantly told that she was only worth the money she was offered for a night, the corrupt businessman, and the social outcast and untouchable leper.

God married himself to such people, and offered beauty in place of their ashes. Instead of asking for these people to perform, God came to them, fought for them and offered a place to belong. God came to such poor people (you and I) in the form of Jesus, and not only did he model the beauty of love, but made the reality of our poverty and death to be something that would actually give us life.

His death for our failures; this produced the greatest return ever. In the dark tomb of our failures, sin, and shame, we get caught up into a womb once again. A second conception now begins, a new birth story happens. As Jean Vanier puts it, with Jesus, a tomb always becomes a womb. And after the resurrected life, Jesus asks us to take his hand in marriage, first to receive a new life in a relationship that offers love and trust, a place of security and significance; and second, to be able to offer this relationship to others. This is the beauty of marriage.

I am thankful this weekend for a wife who has displayed the beauty and worth of Jesus to me in the midst of my narrative that has found me out as the fool, the screw up, the hypocrite. When I was down and out, she didn’t try to rescue me in a way that would anesthetize us from what was really going on. No, she courageously allowed death to take place, no matter how scary it’s gotten, so that in the burial of the tomb, the womb would produce a deeper more intimate new life, a life of vulnerability that cuts out the pretense and celebrates weakness and poverty as something rich and fruitful.

May you experience the beauty of marriage, or the beauty of love, that allows the proper parts of us to die, so the true self could be resurrected and rescued from all the self-protective layers that have kept us from intimacy from God and others. It’s the commitment to the fight, the commitment to allow death to take it’s course, to stay up on the cross as Jesus did for us, the journey of vulnerability, and the offering of second chances and grace in the worst moments in life. Put this definition of the beauty of marriage to the test, and I promise you, you’re ending will be significantly better than a “Hollywood ending.”