Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Better Quoted than Created

Sometimes words smack you in your face like a rolled up wet towel and you just have to regurgitate, or retweet in a larger than 140 character format.  I started reading Michael Yaconelli's book Messy Spirituality tonight.  Michael died tragically in a 1 car accident in 2003.   Karla, his wife, writes the  foreword and in it she imagines what he might say to you and what he definitely would say to me.  Here are his words via her imagination:

Take heart, my friends.  You are in good company.  You, with all your faults and imperfections; you, with your defects and failures; you, with your hang-ups and emotional scars; you, with all of your blunders, brokenness, and floundering; you are God's beloved, God's favored, the disciple whose name God calls, the one Jesus prefers to hang with, and laugh with.  You are the one whom the holy God of heaven and earth longs to spend time with.  You are all of this and more.  You always have been. And you always will be.

-Karla Yaconelli (March, 2007)

**God's preference for "screwups" is much more inclusive than this statement may sound, given the fact that we're all pretty much losers.  Some of us are simply more acutely aware of our all-encompassing "messiness" (to use Michael's term) than others.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Accordion at a Guitar Jam?

Several years ago, I listened to a Brian McLaren message.  He told a story. Brian was facilitating a discussion among a certain denomination's leaders.  He drew a line down the middle of a dry erase board.  On one side he wrote, "Major issues in in the Church."  On the other he wrote "Major issues in the world."  The denomination heads brainstormed both sides of the line until they exhausted their interest in the exercise.  At that point, Brian pointed out that there was no issue listed on the Church side found on the World side.  The story struck a nerve and led me to question, "Is Christianity and the Church relevant to the world? Can we survive the next century if we keep living on Planet Christian unaware and disinterested in the wilting world world around us? Does the message of the Christian faith speak anything worthwhile to the day to day life of everyday people trying to survive?"

If Christianity simply promises a better afterlife, if its main gift to this life is moral mastery and the easing of a guilty conscious, if it offers hope for the future but simply medication for the present then, yes, Christianity is irrelevant to this life.  In this sense, not only is Christianity irrelevant, it suggests this life is irrelevant too- except for securing an invitation to the relevant life to come."

On the other hand, if Christianity centers itself on the gospel, if it really offers "good news," if it does not medicate this life but heals the wounds in this life, if the resurrection isn't the exception but rather the pattern, if it offers hope for your shattered relationship as much as for your eternal destination then the Christian message is the most relevant news in all creation.  I believe it IS relevant to those living in the open sewer slums of Brazil and to those vacationing in their Swiss mansions.  Jesus speaks to our greatest desires and needs.

  1. LOVE.  I believe the number one desire of every human being is to be loved. We spend most of our life seeking genuine love, unconditional love, and relentless love (hesed).  God paints the gospel message on a canvass of love.  Love is the center, the reason, the point of the Christian faith.  God, as the perfect community of love - Father, Son, and Spirit, created from the overspill of his love. The snow-capped mountains, the reefs accessorized with dazzling sea life, the cries of a newborn, and the teaming white waters are God's love made visible.  God did not create to be adored.  He created to love.  Love is selfless.  It must have an object.  We are the object of his love and he invites us to make him the object of our love and only "there" is Love complete.  Some may say, "What about justice and wrath and worship?"  Yes, they are part of the gospel message but they are all children of Love.  Justice is Love with arms and legs.  Wrath is Love refusing to let the virus of sin destroy God's masterpiece. Worship is the response when encountering Love! If human beings ultimately crave love, then Christianity is relevant.
  2. VALUE.  Clinging to the heels of love, we all desire to be valued.  We want our existence to be worthwhile and so we strive.  We chase money so our value has a concrete measurable figure. We accumulate power, collect people and place them below us, so we can look down and know, "At least I'm worth more than 145 people."  We crave influence and measure our value based on how often others retweet us, how many followers we have on our blogs, how many copies of books we sell, the size of crowds to whom we speak to, the number of individuals who quote our words... We strive, push, pull, run, go, work, climb, fight, reach, stretch until we are exhausted.  We look back on our lives and we see we spent all our time "doing" and forgot to "be." All to feel valuable. But, the opening chapter of the Christian story says: "So God created mankind in his own image/ in the image of God he created them/ male and female he created them." God says, "You have value because I made you." If human beings seek value, then Christianity is relevant.
  3. BELONGING.  I had bouts this past summer with a loneliness so thick that, for the first time, I understood why some people contemplate and attempt suicide (note: I never contemplated suicide but understood why people arrive at that place).  Loneliness is crippling. We need relationship.  Gangs, people staying in destructive relationships, and peer pressure's effectiveness stem from our desire to belong.  Not only do we desire community; we need it. The old adage "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" sounds fierce and strong but it is a lie.  First of all, someone made the bootstraps. Second, while there may be times of "pulling yourself up" there will be more times when your bootstraps tear or you cut your arms off and you will need help.  We need to belong, to have family, to have friends, to have community.  Christianity is community!  You cannot be a Christian without belonging.  In the beginning God created a couple.  When he needed a representative to the world he raised a nation.  When he wanted to continue the ministry of Jesus on earth he bore the Church.  If you are a Christian you are grafted into a community, a people...you belong to a family of Spirit-filled beings. If we need to belong, then Christianity is relevant.
  4. PHYSICAL NEEDS: "Ahh!" you say, "Charlton, what about water, food shelter? How relevant is Christianity to such basic human needs? How can you say it is relevant when so many are hungry, thirsty and homeless?!" I would argue that Jesus, the founder of Christianity, is the answer.  When the Church kicks on all cylinders, when she lives in the Spirit, when she takes seriously the mission of Christ the church meets physical needs.  In Acts 4 the text says, "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them."  The Church didn't need to argue capitalism versus socialism versus communism to secure the best way to meet basic needs.  But rather, out of an understanding of who they were in Jesus Christ they recognized that all belongs to God: land, money, health, crops.  They recognized that they were merely stewards of God's earth and so they made sure no one went empty handed.  If we need water, food, and shelter then Christianity is not only relevant...it should be the answer.
I preached because I believed Christianity wasn't opium for the masses, or medication for the sick. I preached because I believe the gospel is "good news" for every breathing moment of your life and my life.  It is practical.  It is relevant.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rubble University: Part IV, Find a Pond

I come caffeinated, but Sunday was always a double-shot and that's how most church members experienced me -honestly, at my best.  I wore my sharpest clothes, even ironed them.  I tucked in my shirt and strapped a belt on to boot.  I'd decorate my feet with some shinny, slick shoes (smooth enough for moonwalking). Not only did I don the right "uni" I also sported the best smile I could muster.  A few minutes before leaving my office, I stood in front of myself delivering a pep-talk, "Okay!  You are going to go out there and meet people.  Some of them you won't remember their names, but smile, hug necks, shake hands...listen carefully for name hints.  And you, Brain, remember!  Remember facts, stories, illnesses, relatives, favorite foods, and prayer needs.  You can do this!"  Out I'd go into the mass of people giving it my all.  All of this, the uniform, the smile, and the engagement was merely a warm-up for the 25-35 minutes where I stood in front of the congregation and spoke passionately about my Jesus.

Not that I was insincere, but Sunday Morning Charlton often created a false perception - that the Sunday Morning Charlton was the everyday Charlton.  As if I woke up every morning with a smile, singing "How Great Is Our God" as I rolled out of bed into the Tebow position passionately interceding for Tina's Grandmother's sick Booboo Baby miniature Schnauzer while finding time to stop on the way to work to baptize runners jogging around the park pond, "Here is water, why shouldn't you be baptized?!"  People form perceptions based off data intake and the information at the disposal to the majority of Church members was Sunday Morning Charlton. That often begged one of two responses.  On one hand, some members placed me on an undeserving pedestal - saw and listened to me with rose-tinted glasses. On the other hand, others viewed me with skepticism and perhaps cynicism. "What's he up to?  What is his agenda? I'll be watching him!" 

This creates a Fish Bowl, where the congregation peers into your life, where you feel observed and analyzed with greater scrutiny than others, where you think twice about what you wear to the store on a Saturday morning because you never know who you might see, where you cannot just go to a church Super Bowl party as Charlton but feel forced to attend as Sunday Morning Charlton.  Although the Fish Bowl is magnified by your own mind (no one thinks about you that much) there is some truth to it. Don't get me wrong, most preachers/ministers enjoy aspects of the Fish Bowl, but it is a love- hate relationship. There is part of you that wants everyone to think that you ARE closer to God, more like Jesus, more patient, kind, gentle and spirit-filled than other Christians." As a result you feel pressure (some legit and some self-induced) to keep throttling at Sunday Morning Charlton speed. On the other hand, you desire to vomit all of it out, to stand behind the pulpit as Charlton, to say, "This is me! Take it or leave it!"  You have a love-hate relationship with the Fish Bowl.

If you always live in the Fish Bowl you will lose your mind!  You will be unable to relax, to breathe, or to be human. It will exhaust you. Say "hello" to burnout. Because, when you look in the mirror you know you yell at your kids, you belittle your spouse, you throw temper tantrums in traffic, you pick television over prayer and bible study, you avoid certain people from the congregation, you neglect to do the good you should do, you harbor bitterness, you gossip, you decide to buy bigger instead of giving grander, you get jealous of more successful churches, you...and it stands in tension with Sunday Morning Charlton.  The Fish Bowl intensifies the tension because you fear it will expose everyday Charlton and that everyday Charlton will disappoint the members who have placed you on a pedestal and prove the naysayers right.

That is why, preachers, you need to find a pond, a group of people who you do not impress and who you feel no pressure to impress, a group of people who know your junk, a group of people with whom you are not in competition, a group of people with whom you can laugh and play, a group of people who make fun of you, a group of people who really know you and love you anyway.  Do you have a pond?  If not, find one.

Thanks Matt Clark for always being a pond...we laugh!

[Every church I have had the honor to serve taught me so much, but regarding this topic, the Grants Church of Christ did an amazing job of inviting me into the pond and minimizing the Fish Bowl.  Thanks, dear friends!]

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rubble University: Part III, You're A Voice not The Voice

This Sunday, after 90-something million people tune into Super Bowl XLVI, Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, and Blake "Don't-know-his-last-name-and-who-cares-'cause-he-sings-country" kick back in their chairs and tune in for the next "The Voice."  The coaches' chairs face away from the stage forcing them to judge the singer by the quality of their voice alone. Each coach selects a team of contestants and cultivates them for a vocal clash to the death...okay, not really to the death but until one singer is left. They crown the victor, "The Voice" - thus, the name of the show.  Sunday kicks-off the second season.

Here's my problem.  How can you have a second season to "THE Voice?"  The article "the" suggests sole, singular, or one.  America voted for "The Voice" at the end of season 1.  So, when season 2 ends, who is "The Voice" the Season 1 or the Season 2 winner? For the sake of clarity, I'm suggesting a few different titles for this NBC show: "A Really, Really Good Voice," "The Voice of Season II", "Our Contestants are better than American Idol Contestants," "Skinny Tat, Stubby Fingers, Bleach Blond, and Country."

As a preacher, you will face the "The" versus "A" temptation: to believe that your preaching voice is necessary for the livelihood of your church, that members look forward all week to hear what you have to say, and that people listen with the same passion with which you prepare.

Here is the sober, yet healthy truth of your preaching voice. You are "A" voice not "The" voice.  Preaching IS necessary but your voice IS NOT.  God means to have his word declared! God can work wonders through your voice but preaching's survival does not rest on your voice. When you go mute, God will raise another mouthpiece.  When you leave a congregation, some members will miss you and some may leave but, all in all, the church does not miss a beat. Many times the voice that steps into your Sunday shoes is better.  In fact, recently I have had conversations with several churches who have grown significantly both spiritually and communally in the absence of a preaching minister.  In a few years, you will be a date on a church timeline or a picture in the hall.

This is not just true of you, but of all who carry the gift of preaching.  Joshua followed Moses- God's original mouthpiece "whom the Lord knew face to face."  Elijah, who prayed fire from the sky (That would be a nice Sunday AM trick!), passed the torch to Elisha.  Jeremiah epitomized the prophetic homily at the temple but he was only one of many prophets.  John the Baptist (best dressed preacher in my book) was not a shabby proclaimer of the Word and he was followed by Jesus.  And with Jesus...God's word become human (you won't ever top that). You are one voice in a cacophony of preaching voices.

If you can live out of the truth that you are "A" voice and not "The" voice you will experience more  peace and joy in your ministry.
  1. You will not bear all the failure or claim all the success. As a preaching minister, you likely tend to fault yourself when "things go bad:" declining attendance, disgruntled members, unhappy elders, disunity among staff.  You put the pressure of "success" on your preaching (and others do too).  The flip side also stands true, when things are "rockin'" you tend to credit your preaching (as do others). Your self-differentiation improves when you recognize that you are "A" voice. You keep balanced what you can control and improve and what lies beyond your ability to change.  You take some responsibility but not all and you accept some credit but offer it more.
  2. You will celebrate other voices rather than feel threatened by them.  I have served in congregations where the Preaching Minister is not the best preacher on staff. When you believe you are "The" voice you covertly protect the pulpit from those more gifted than yourself.  But, when you understand you are "A" voice you make room in your pulpit for voices better than your own.  You understand that the WORD is the key and not the voice.
  3. You will be intentional about your transition out of the pulpit.  As "A" voice you know your preaching tenure must come to an end at some point.  Therefore, whether you transition to another congregation or prepare to retire you will be intentional and adamant in securing the success of your successor.
  4. You will feel grateful instead of entitled.  Every time you stand to proclaim (or sit on the cool bar stool with the round table for your notes) you will preach with a thankful heart because you recognize that any number of voices can stand where you do.  You will preach with humility and you will consider it an incredible honor.
  5. You will study other preachers.  You will make it a habit to study the style, theology, and methods of other preachers from various backgrounds, denominations, and cultures. You recognize that other voices help improve your voice.
While on Sunday NBC seeks to crown "The Voice," I pray that you will stand in your pulpit as "A" voice.  Grace and Peace!