Love One Another…

“To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.” ― Cornel West

“Christ instructs us to love our enemies, which does not mean a submission to their hostile agendas or domination, but does mean treating them as human beings also created in the image of God and respecting their human rights as adversaries and even as prisoners.” ― Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It

As we rapidly approach election day, I find myself worn out by all of the vitriol and rhetoric that further divides an already divided population.

Last night, after making the mistake of watching the news, I found myself spending time in prayer. From time to time, I write down my prayers. Last night was one of those times.

“God, forgive us, for we are so easily tempted to place our hope and trust in the kingdoms of this world. Help us to remember as your followers that we are neither Republican nor Democrat, we are Christians. Our hope is not in a political leader. Our hope is not in a political party. Our hope is not in a political platform. Our hope is not in the Supreme Court. Our hope is in You and You alone. Help us to remember that You call us to be one as you are one. Help us to remember that unity is not about voting, it’s about love. Help us to remember that our allegiance is to You. Where there is evil, let Your light and love overwhelm and defeat it. Where there is disunity, disruption and injustice, bring Your peace, justice, mercy and love. Help us to remember, love, serve and care for the hurting and broken, the least and the lost, the overlooked, the outcast, the marginalized, those living on the fringes…may they experience and know your love. Help us to recognize the role we play in creating and sustaining division in our world. Help us to recognize that there are times when our political allegiances damage our witness. Help us to see that diversity, in all manners, is wonderful, beautiful and powerful. As we head to the polls, as the results of the election are shared, let love be our guide. In our interactions with those whom we agree and especially with those whom we disagree, let love be our guide. While we may not vote the same, let us “love alike”. Help us to love one another. God, heal our land. God, save us from ourselves. Amen.”

“Disagreement itself is not the problem, passionate disagreement is not the problem, rather the inability to put aside disagreement in nonessentials for the sake of Christian unity is the problem.”
― Charles E. Gutenson, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide

“Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful.”
― Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals

“The kingdom of God is neither blue nor red, tea nor coffee! The church must stand in prophetic tension with Constantinian political systems and never underwrite or accommodate itself to a partisan political world order, including American democracy.”
― Mike Slaughter, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide

“Some folks may be really bummed to find that “God bless America” does not appear in the Bible. So often we do things that make sense to us and ask God to bless our actions and come alongside our plans, rather than looking at the things God promises to bless and acting alongside of them. For we know that God’s blessing will inevitably follow if we are with the poor, the merciful, the hungry, the persecuted, the peacemakers. But sometimes we’d rather have a God who conforms to our logic than conform our logic to the God whose wisdom is a stumbling block to the world of smart bombs and military intelligence.”
― Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals

“We have been seduced by sound bites. It is difficult to imagine how we are going to have an intelligent conversation around complex theopolitical issues as long as the average news consumer in America is willing to be sound-bite driven. We face a sorry state of affairs in our culture when few people seem willing to take the time for nuanced discussion on the complicated challenges we face. Politicians of all parties have been willing to foster this sound-bite mentality because it has worked for them. Most Americans work hard and are faced with too little time and too many distractions to study the issues well enough to make an informed judgment on them. As long as news consumers are willing to be manipulated by sound bites and are unwilling to commit the time to understand the complexities, we will continue to see artificial and simplistic distinctions drive too much of our conversation, resulting in divisions and disagreements that rarely get at the substantive issues.”
― Charles E. Gutenson, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide

Thankful for the Day and My New Friend “Tran”

I have started a new routine of taking a morning stroll after consuming an appropriate amount of coffee. While these walks are definitely beneficial for my physical health, they are essential to my spiritual and emotional wellbeing. The mornings are generally quite and I’m able to spend some time centering myself before entering “work mode”.

On this morning’s walk, the moon was still brightly lighting the western sky. It was truly a thing of beauty. As I made my way towards a slightly wooded trail, I noticed how I could see the reflection of the sunrise on Parkview Regional as the moon hovered over. I snapped a picture that fails to capture the wonder and awe of the moment.

As I continued to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, I spent some time in prayer for those at Parkview. The hospital is a place of healing, hope and restoration. And yet, at the same time, it is a place where people encounter pain, trauma and grief. In this place, some will celebrate the joy of new life or the victory of restored health, while others will grieve the loss of a loved one.

While walking towards and around PRMC, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (courtesy of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein) provided the soundtrack. Talk about beauty! One of my favorite moments in all of musical history comes at about the 20:04 mark. I get goosebumps every single time I hear this…

As I began to head home, the sun rising in the eastern sky began to paint a new picture of awe-filled beauty. Again, even with the advancements of iPhone cameras, one simply cannot adequately capture the moment.

As I continued walking, Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love provided the soundtrack. Bill is one of my favorite songwriters. I found myself singing out loud to “Farther Up the Road”. I especially love the second verse and chorus:

Now some will steal your garden
Some will sow their weeds
Yeah, some will rob you good and blind
Just to see you bleed
Honey, cover me with roses
This sack of bones and skin
Come and breathe upon this spirit
‘Fore winter settles in

Checking out of this cheap motel
With the wind all in our souls
God shows His face farther up the road

As wonderful as all of that happens to be, my absolute favorite part of my morning walk was running into my “neighbor”. Every morning, at about the same time and location, I pass an older gentleman who I refer to as “Tran” (fans of “New Girl” will understand).

Every morning, “Tran” smiles while pointing at me with one hand while giving me a thumbs up with the other. If “Tran” had a soundtrack, I believe it would feature Simon and Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song” played on repeat. I mean, every time I encounter “Tran” those familiar lyrics come to mind…

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobble stones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy

I believe “Tran’s” daily message to me is, “Slow down and take it all in.”

This morning, I passed “Tran” and then found myself walking behind him. All of a sudden, “Tran” just came to a full stop. I found myself thinking, “What is he doing? ”

Then, out of nowhere, 5 deer ran no more than 4 feet in front of “Tran”. In response, “Tran” started waving at the deer and loudly laughing. After they passed, he turned to face me, smiled, pointing at me with one hand and giving me a thumbs up with the other. He turned back around, continued laughing, started walking and gave me a wave as he made his way down the path towards his home.

Hopefully we can all take some time each day to slow down and appreciate the beauty that is all around us. I honestly think it’s the only way we can survive this mixed up, crazy world!

Flowers in the Weeds

The fear-based, hate-filled rhetoric that is currently flooding our airwaves and newsfeeds is mind-boggling. Regardless of which side of the political coin you examine, they both utilize methods that tap into the worst of us. Fear, hatred, manipulation and creating a sense of chaotic mistrust seem to rule the day.

Worse than that, much of the fear-based, hate-filled rhetoric is being championed by many within the Christian community. Again, regardless of which side of the political coin you examine.

I struggle to come to terms with that…a faith based on the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor has too easily embraced a platform motivated by fear, hatred and the pursuit of power.

To be honest, in response, I find myself struggling to come to terms with my own anger, hatred and rage. I have to shut down the airwaves and newsfeeds because I begin to boil over. Those who know me best can see my “fire eyes” and recognize that whatever comes next will not be helpful or loving.

There are faithful Christians on each side of the political spectrum. However, each side accuses the other of compromising their faith in order to support their candidate. And, let’s be honest, it’s true. Those supporting either political party have to make some concessions in order to sleep at night. Don’t even get me started on how troubling it is that there are only two political parties that have the platform.

I encourage followers of Jesus to read the Sermon on the Mount and spend some time in prayer before heading to the polls or filling in their mail-in ballot. After that, if you can reconcile voting for your preferred candidate, go for it. If not, remember it’s okay to not vote for either candidate. You can still cast your votes for local and state candidates. But, if at the end of the day you find yourself saying, “Well, it’s the lesser of two evils”, think about what that means. The “lesser of two evils” is still evil.

So, in order to remain in a relatively healthy mental and spiritual state, I have to shut it down. That often means going for walks and listening to skateboarding podcasts!

On this mornings walk, I made my way through an overgrown, weed-filled trail near our neighborhood. The sun was beginning to peak through the clouds. And, I found myself taking in the beauty of my surroundings. Even within the weeds, there are flowers and signs of beauty.

I was reminded of the old Five Iron Frenzy song, “Dandelions”. The lyrics remind us that God sees flowers in the weeds.

Lord search my heart
Create in me something clean
Dandelions…You see flowers in these weeds

It seems like our world is being overcome by “weeds”. I wonder what it would be like if we began to see flowers instead of weeds? I wonder what would happen if we began to turn off the angry, fear-filled, hateful noise and focused on the signs of beauty and hope that surround us? I wonder what would happen if we began to choose love over hatred, anger or fear?

It Makes Me Wonder…

There is a lyric in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” that I often find myself cynically singing when I read the paper or watch the news.

“Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder”

Last night, I watched about five minutes of the Chiefs/Texans game. I have very little interest in the Chiefs or Texans because my NFL loyalties are split between the Bears and the Colts.

Anyway, I wanted to see what the opening game of the season was like. With the limited number of fans and other coronavirus-related procedures, I just wondered what football will look like this season. Not only that, I must admit that Mahomes and Watson are exciting quarterbacks to watch.

The five minutes I watched were relatively boring and uneventful.

This morning, while enjoying a wonderful cup of recently roasted Costa Rican beans from Old Crown, I watched the morning news. It seems like I had missed the controversy.

Players and coaches from both teams gathered for a moment of unity. The goal was to symbolically call us towards racial unity and equality. In reality, this is something we should all be praying and working towards. It doesn’t seem like this should be a controversial moment, right?

Well, some fans, not all the fans, but some fans were not having it. Audible boos could be heard as the players and coaches locked arms in a display of solidarity. Booing during a moment of unity, really? Let us remember, this was a limited crowd. The fact that the boo’s could be heard indicates that this wasn’t a few inebriated fans in the end zone. Again, I understand the majority of the crowd either supported, were indifferent or simply tolerated the moment. However, some audibly expressed their frustrations that these highly paid athletes would use their position to call for unity.

Texans defensive beast, J.J. Watt had this to say, “The moment of unity I personally thought was good. I mean the booing during that moment was unfortunate. I don’t fully understand that. There was no flag involved. There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”

As a Colts fan, I’m conditioned to root against Mr. Watt. However, on this day, I find myself standing in agreement with the man. J.J., I really don’t understand the booing either.

In some ways, the booing is unfortunate. In other ways, the booing is damning. Folks, we have lost our way.

On the eve of 9-11, some fans found it appropriate to boo during a moment of unity. The tragedy of 9-11 momentarily united our divided nation. We banded together and displayed genuine care and concern for one another.

What does it say about our nation when some are so brazenly bold as to think it appropriate to boo a moment of unity?

I suppose they were just exercising their freedom, huh? Some will attempt to deflect and say, “Well, what about all those violent protestors?” Yep, the violence displayed in some of the protests is an inappropriate expression too! But, the boo’s also reminded me why we protest.

I just don’t get it. Yet, at the same time, maybe this is a teachable moment?

Some people question why politicians, celebrities, athletes, religious leaders and others protest and keep the issues of social justice, racial justice, equality, LGTBQIA protections and other concerns in front of us.

The audible boo’s from some in the stands last night remind us that there is still work to be done. The voices that are defending those boo’s remind us that there is still work to be done.

Yes, we’ve come a long way. But there is still work to be done.

“Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder”

By the way, if you want to hear an amazing cover of “Stairway to Heaven”, check out Frank Zappa’s reggae-esque interpretation of the tune on the album, “The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life”! The horn section taking the guitar solo…gets me every time!

Majoring in the Minors

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Christians have a way of majoring in the minors. In fact, given that matters of the Church are not the area of focus for rocket scientist’s, that may not be who we would want to call when it comes to the Church.

So, let me rephrase…it doesn’t take an experienced church consultant to figure out that Christians have a way of majoring in the minors.

Think about some of the things that we Christians spend a great deal of time focusing on…

  • Dancing, drinking, smoking, playing cards, tattoos, having fun in general
  • Style of dress (if you dress casually that must mean you take your faith casually, right?)
  • Care of the environment (if the rapture is going to take place and there is a new earth, do we really need to take care of this one? Yes, yes we do!)
  • What areas of the building the children can use and the overall appropriate behavior of children (didn’t Jesus say something about having faith like a child?)
  • Pews, chairs and tables (what kind and whether or not someone is in “my” spot)
  • What type of coffee and donuts to serve (wait, that one is pretty important!)
  • What to call “deviled eggs” at the community Thanksgiving meal

One of the more obvious ways we tend to major in the minors revolves around styles of worship. While it is not the only adventure in missing the point, it is one that just doesn’t seem to go away. We have beaten the dead horse of the “worship wars” for far too long.

Unfortunately, our focus on which style of worship is most effective has reduced “worship” to “music”. Worship is so much more than the songs we sing. Worship is holistic – it is built into the very way we live and move and have our being (thanks Acts 17). Worship is about the head and the heart connecting with God in transformational ways. Church “experts”, consultants, pastors and leaders helped create the ongoing worship wars.

For years, churches were encouraged to start “seeker sensitive” services to reach the unchurched. We should make people comfortable, remove as many “churchy” things as possible, and then do the old “bait and switch.”

Churches were encouraged to start contemporary worship services to reach young families. If there’s anything young families are looking for in a church, it’s the latest, unsingable release from Chris Tomlin.

Churches were encouraged to have an “edgier, more modern” style of worship to reach young people. I’m not even sure what this one means because I’m 45 and I’ve aged out of “modern”.

But, here’s the deal…it hasn’t worked. With the rise of the worship wars, the Church has experienced a slow, steady decline. The number of people actively engaged in the life of a faith community has been on a downward spiral, while those professing no religious affiliation (often referred to as the “nones”) have been on the rise.

Let’s be honest, we’ve done it to ourselves. We’ve focused on the next “quick fix” to compete with the church down the street, rather than on our call to love and serve our neighbors as we go and make disciples. We’ve been so focused on the latest trends and styles, we’ve put more energy into that than loving and serving God by loving and serving our neighbor.

So, we start a “seeker sensitive” service that is shallow and nothing more than a self-help seminar. It doesn’t “feel” like church because we remove every aspect of “church” as possible. Willow Creek, who led the “seeker” charge, released a study a few years ago that revealed that, while they reached amazing numbers of people, they struggled to make disciples. People just weren’t maturing in their faith. They were swept up in the “show”.

We start a contemporary service. In many churches, contemporary worship often sounds like a cheesy, soft rock rip off. Many contemporary services reflect a musical style that is 10-20 years behind the times.

Next, we begin an “edgier, more modern” service. I’m pretty sure all that means is less lighting, louder music, skinnier jeans, more hair product, and the potential use of loops, programmed drums, and a shiplap background.

Then, there are all the variations – cowboy church, hip hop church, dodgeball church and so on. Those outside the worshipping community just might see it all as another gimmick to lure them into the doors of our facility.

Of course, traditional worship folks aren’t off the hook either. We tend to be a bit elitist (“our music is better, our musicians are trained, our choir can read music, we show respect to our faith”). And, we’re just as competitive with the traditional churches around us as the contemporary churches are with one another. And, let’s be honest, some churches offering traditional worship lack passion, quality and creativity.

Now, none of the churches I’ve served have struggled with any of this. All the churches I’ve served have been perfect…at least while I was there…and according to me!

Here’s the deal, it’s all an example of majoring in the minors. Our worship style shouldn’t be the main thing. Our preference for a particular style of worship is just that…a preference. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, we should not place varying levels of superiority, effectiveness or holiness based on a style.

Churches shouldn’t worry about becoming something they are not. Churches should figure out what they have the capacity to do well and then do it well. If that’s traditional worship, be the best traditional church you can be. If that’s modern worship, be the best modern church you can be. If that’s dodgeball church, be the best dodgeball church you can be (“if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”).

We gravitate towards stylistic preferences because we happen to connect better in some environments than others. I get that.

While I have a great deal of experience leading contemporary worship, I prefer more traditional, liturgical styles of worship. I prefer hymns over praise choruses. I appreciate and connect through the liturgy. However, I try not diminish one style over another.

Worship is a matter of the heart. Music is an avenue to usher us into the presence of the holy. Hymns and praise songs have an opportunity to teach theology, to tell a story, to bridge a gap between human experience and the mystery of the holy.

If we are ready and expectant, we should be able to worship regardless of the style. When entering a place of worship, maybe we should begin with a prayer – “God, open my heart to experience You in this time and place.”

Worship style isn’t the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. If the worship style helps point others to Jesus, then it’s an acceptable style of worship! While it might not “work for me”, it might work for someone else…and I need to bless that, rather than diminish or dismiss it.

Let’s be honest, as I pointed out before, the Church is steadily losing ground. Shifts in worship style have not proven as effective as the experts would have led us to believe. There is not a quick fix.

To be honest, I don’t know many unchurched folks who even know what traditional or contemporary worship even is. Surprisingly enough, there are not many unchurched people listening to Christian radio. I don’t know many unchurched folks who are hoping we’ll sing the latest release from Hillsong United. I don’t know many unchurched folks who are hoping we’ll pull an obscure Charles Wesley hymn out of the hymnal.

Emerging generations have less and less experience with the Church. What they know about the Church might be from a wedding or a funeral (neither of which really reflect what we do on a typical Sunday – though some worship services feel like a funeral!). What they know about the Church might be from watching “7th Heaven” on Hulu because it was on the recommended list.

When someone bravely walks through the doors of the church, I’m not sure they are looking for a particular style. I’m not sure they are looking to be entertained. My guess is that they are looking for connection. They are looking for an inclusive spirit that says, “You are wanted here.” They are looking for something beyond themselves that provides a sense of purpose and direction. And, that is not dependent on they style of the songs we sing.

Maybe rather than worship style, we should focus on creating a safe, welcoming and hospitable environment for all. Do others feel safe, welcome and wanted in our congregations? If not, we need to wrestle with that more than with the style of worship.

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, we should focus on creating an honest church, led with integrity. The latest religious headlines do not shine a positive light on Christians and the Church. Deception, dishonesty, lack of restraint and a great deal of hypocrisy seems to rule the day. How refreshing it might be if Christian leaders would be willing to admit that we could be wrong! What could happen if Christian leaders were honest, rather than put on a show to keep up appearances?

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, we should focus outwardly – looking for those gaps in our community the Church could fill. Could the Church become a lighthouse of hope for the marginalized, outcasts and most vulnerable among us?

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, we should be focused on our role in seeking justice for all. Could the Church play a major role in healing the woundedness, brokenness caused by the sin of racism, sexism, bigotry, and all of the phobias and isms that have infected our world?

Maybe instead of a focus on worship style, theology is much more important. There are some churches with incredible music – both contemporary and traditional – that possess lousy theology! They lure you in with amazing music, and then unveil their twisted and oppressive theological perspectives once they believe they have you hooked.

Maybe we just need to stop trying to diminish one another’s efforts. Instead, we should celebrate, support and encourage one another. It shouldn’t be a competition between congregations and styles of worship. Our enemy is not the church down the street! We should be the biggest fans of the church down the street. When they score a win for the Kingdom, we all win!

When it comes to styles of worship, can we agree that it’s a matter of perspective?

Find a church that works for you. Find a church that offers a style of worship that helps you connect with God and others. Maybe you’ll even discover that it doesn’t matter if you sing hymns, choruses, or spend 30 minutes in quiet contemplation – but, it’s the connection to the people, the stories about Jesus, and the hope that is shared that matter most.

Let’s keep the main thing, Jesus, the main thing!