An Easter Prayer (with a little help from Luke Skywalker and Gandalf)

A guest post today from my wife, Rae Kenny. Her pen name is Wren Kenny and you can expect to see her debut novel sometime next year.

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Easter Sunday 2019 marked my turn to be Liturgist. That’s the person who leads the Prayers of People. It is where we pray for the world, our nation, our community, and needs within our own congregation. Each time it’s my turn, I pray, write, and edit for weeks. Why? Because praying for the leaders of the world, and particularly our nation, is a daunting task in these divided times. Thankfully, my heart ends up in a different place than where I started weeks before.

Without doubt being born in Britain and raised in Canada has formed by views. Every time, God challenges my heart on whether my politics are influencing my Christianity or my Christianity is influencing my politics. Trust me that my spirit was prompted to remove a lot of words my sense of humour found utterly delicious, but were not edifying for congregational prayer! And even after I finished the final draft and my heart had an adjustment, I was sitting at my desk eating my lunch and laughing at political cartoons (from all sides). My co-worker pointed this out and I was embarrassed at how easy I fall into the trap of coping with humour and becoming a mocker.

Below is the redacted version without our congregational needs.

Risen Lord, we thank you for your covenant with all living things, and our obligation to be good stewards of the gifts you have provided. As we care for the Creation, may we make wise choices in the actions we take to care for our planet.  

The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 that: “all…petitions, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In this shifting world order, let us pray for the nations and peoples of the world, that the powers that oppress and destroy may decline, and that justice, peace, and prosperity be lifted up.

Let us pray for the people of Sri Lanka who were killed or injured in the bombings of churches and hotels. Let us also pray for the perpetrators because Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, even those who bring us harm.

At Yakima Covenant Church, it is part of our theological ethos to allow for a diversity of opinions. And, we follow the Scriptures’ directive to pray for our leaders. We live in the red part of a blue state. The people standing next to you might identify as red, or blue, or purple, or not at all.

During the last administration some of you struggled to pray for the Black man from the Blue Party. If you searched into the dark and dusty corners of your heart, you found it much easier to tear him down. Now, in 2019, some of you eagerly pray for the Orange man from the Red party, while others of you haven’t been able to muster ‘thoughts and prayers.’  

I have been heartened lately by the words of J.R.R. Tolkien from the Fellowship of the Ring. Gollum is obsessed with the ring of power, and Bilbo struggles with wishing ill on Gollum. Gandalf tells Bilbo, “it is not right to be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over.”  

So, let us pray now that God will steady his hand on history and lead our elected leaders in whatever role He will have them play. We pray for President Trump, Governor Jay Inslee, Congressman Dan Newhouse, and State Representative Curtis King. We pray for our county commissioners, our mayor, our city representatives, and members of our school boards. We pray as the Bible commands us in 1 Timothy 2 that they may lead in ways which promote a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. We pray they do not stir up division. We pray they choose truth instead of falsehoods. We pray especially that they govern as if they only have one term to serve and give it their all to leave a legacy of good that benefits all people. 

In the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker is encouraged by the Evil Emperor to kill Darth Vader and give into the Dark side. He tells Luke to use his aggressive feelings and let the hate flow through him, because his hate has made him powerful.

Let us remember as we approach a never-ending, constant-spending election season that, on all sides of the political spectrum, cable and talk radio opinion shows and comedy shows designed to mock, exist for the sole purpose of making money and dividing souls. Let us remember they get paid to let the hate flow through them, and they grow more powerful when we allow them to incite our own aggression. Let us choose instead, to read and listen widely to all sides and be unifiers in our homes, our church, and community.

Let us think of the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames and picture ourselves as that vessel of God.

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Found here

Let us remember the picture of the fire destroying the cathedral is precisely what we do to our witness in the world when we scapegoat the other side and do not love the neighbour who doesn’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, or vote like us.  Let us stop tearing down the other side’s goat and choose instead to love our neighbour, as Jesus commanded.

Let us also remember as Easter people the picture of the cross shining among the wreckage, a beacon of hope, persistence, resurrection that Christ can and will rebuild us if we let him.

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There is devastation and there is hope. We are sinners and we are saints. We give you permission, Risen Lord, to resurrect the right attitudes and relationships in us.

May all blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits upon the throne. Amen.

 

 

Trading in the Trail of Tears

I recently revealed my struggle with anxiety and depression. For years it created a vortex where living any other way seemed out of place. It birthed a personal industry of what I called “sad-sack sadness.” Impenetrable. Unflappable. Ironclad. Too certain in its uncertainty to be particularly human.

It affected my persona, my personal choices – both good and bad, my relationships, the direction of my pursuits, my spirituality, and basically how I defined the world around me. 

It turned me into a desperate person, desperately seeking answers to the desperation while simultaneously spurning those same answers. I thought it my job to make thinking about it my job.

It failed.

Every time I “figured something out,” another layer yet more complex revealed itself. Of course, I saw that as a challenge and dove right back in. “I’ve got this,” I’d say to myself. “I can sort out these pieces, I’m smart.” Guess what? I am smart. I did sort them out, at least, in part. But, guess what again? I still felt desperate. Mentally unkempt. My spirit like a chaotic, post-coital bed-head, totally unprepared to meet the world.

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Picture found here

I’ve taken a lot of poor, unsuspecting souls with me down these rabbit holes. In states of unrest I’d latch on, like a rottweiler on a kitten, to anyone even sniffing around my orbit. It destroyed friendships. Decimated trust. Damaged perceptions. Devalued my own “enough-ness.”

The sadness produced a fog in which the tiniest slivers of light were rejected as imposters. And when they did break through, the habits I’d formed while living blindly in fog rejected them. At times, I’d grudgingly accept suggestions, albeit on probation. Then, too often, I’d just to shoot the bastards. 

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Picture found here

It was a lonely road indeed.

Has a friend ever kicked you in the shin to help you forget your migraine? Right. Me, neither. The reason? Suddenly the migraine isn’t quite so bad when your shin is throbbing. Um, thanks I guess. 

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Picture found here

Your “friend” has unwittingly paid homage to an idea I’m exploring: fixing something isn’t always fixing something. She with a broken leg doesn’t just require a painkiller (although offering one is the polite thing to do). She requires surgery. He with a limp doesn’t generally heal so as to avoid it. He learns to walk successfully with a limp and think nothing of it.

Could this be what Paul meant when he couldn’t get God to do much about his “thorn in the flesh?” The best he got was a rather enigmatic response, “my grace is sufficient for you.” I guess that’s what I’m learning (?)

Being human is a complex business. Not only isn’t everything fixable but, sometimes, we do better to leave what brokenness we find and learn to limp. Part of my job is to determine where limping is best and where I’ve been limping already and not really needing to. Where are my limps just cause for self-pity or attention? Are those limpy bits merely a clever cover for what truly ails me? 

What if – just consider the possibility that, for a moment at least, conceivably, all things considered, whether I see it or not, I might have more control over this than I’d imagined?

Gadzooks! You mean there’s hope for my hopelessness?

Nothing is as simple as it seems. One issue always feeds some other thing somewhere else. Nothing is completely isolated. When one thing hurts, everything else does. 

My mental state sachets with my vanity (secretly in love with my diet), which in turn is carrying on an affair with my sleep patterns, which is on record as screwing with my coffee intake who’s been seen skulking about the perimeter of my spiritual practice.

Well, you get the idea.

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Found here

Isn’t it strange how interconnected are our issues? Our demons are all inbred. One l’il beast seems always to be a different one’s aunt, sister, and best friend’s boy-friend all at once. We are not as neatly compartmentalized as we’d like to believe. 

But, this much I know. Wherever possible, I’m committed to smile when frowning makes more sense. I’m trying to sell my wholesale business in melancholy in favour of a tiny house of healthy practices that make life more livable for me and those around me (even when it feels a little cramped).

By choosing behaviours, little things I can do, I’m learning (despite all evidence to the contrary) to live contentedly. Leaning a bit more each day into the enough-ness of God in me, I see the benefits of my own weakness. I’m discovering light underneath the dark, up tucked inside the down, good hiding in the bad. Slowly (glacially to be honest), I am trading in the trail of tears. 

The return? The fail of fears. And, even though I suck at it, isn’t it worth the effort, if only to sleep at night satisfied that I haven’t lost any friends today?

Maybe I even gained a few?

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Found here

Sacking the Sorry Sad-Sack Sad

As promised, this begins a new series of posts exploring major shifts in a man’s late middle-age. Hopefully you find yourself here somewhere. 

This post has been a long time coming. Or, to say it differently, I would not have been able to write this until I was able to see clearly what has always been before me.

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Sad clown

An unprepared reading of this post title might leave one with the impression that I’m making light of very difficult stuff. I am a person who has suffered the mental illness of anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. Anyone forced to suffer such an insulting fate understands all that is involved.

This has been further complicated by a certain predisposition of personality. An Enneagram 4INFPLibra/Virgo-artist-mystic, I possess abundant proclivity toward melancholy. It is, for me, a cottage industry. Those like myself for whom daily life is often a struggle, do so under menacing clouds of grey, besodden with delicious sadness. It is a perfect place to hide. From the world. From others. From further anxiety.

From myself.

And that last thing is what I’m after. The immense internal struggles commensurate with complex personality produce a cocktail of impenetrability. Nothing gets in. But nothing gets out either. A bit like being always hungry and constipated at the same time. Different expectations at war with one another.

The result? Swirling clouds fall in on themselves further deepening woe and driving others away. I get to be, simultaneously, the life and death of the party! My winsome whimsy, gregarious grandiosity, and churlish charm act as a dare-to-draw-near and a you-asked-for-it at the same time! A bait and switch that leaves others bemused, sometimes hurt, and me, lonely.

One of the many gifts of late middle-age has been self-acceptance. Dare I say it? Self-love. Egad! To give up all that melancholy for the Hallmark brightness of joy would be tantamount to character mutiny. I’m trading Munch’s Screaming Man for anything Thomas Kinkade.

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The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

I am positioned for indictment as traitor to the very misery that has drawn so many others here with me!

I am their Captain. I love them. I write for them. I feel for them. I understand them. I am them.

But, what happens when one wakes up one morning to discover that much of the sadness has been, wait for it…chosen. I don’t mean the mental illness over which I’ve had little control and which rarely peeks out from under my medicinal assistance. I don’t mean the vicissitudes of a poetic soul given to flights of fancy and dreaming. Putting words and notes to the hours of a day, promised, unpolished, impolite, but real.

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Cabin by the Lake by Thomas Kinkade

I speak of reaching for something outside the parameters of my own horizon. I speak of faith leaps off cliffs of soggy soil into unknown places. I speak of the Herculean choice to live each day like gift, regardless of emotional fuel to do so or outcomes. I speak of changing behaviours first in a blind hope that experience will follow. I speak here of letting action determine experience, not the endless task of untying mental knots until my world makes sense.

Yeah, like I’ve ever been successful in that.

Anyone who has struggled as I have to even open my eyes some days, let alone prance along to work and be productive, will know what’s involved. My fellow faith friends would likely call this a “return to Jesus.” I love those people. They love me. They help me. They always mean well. And they may well be right.

But it’s perhaps even more elemental than that. Since Jesus dwells within, the need to “return” seems moot. I think it part recognition that I will never untie all the complex chaos sprinting around my brain. It’s far too complex, even for a smart guy like me! I simply stop the endless thinking and ply the trade of behaviour – of doing something a less troubled soul would do under similar circumstances.

Of letting God, and my own soul, sort me out in due time. If this sounds hauntingly akin to “fake it ’til ya make it,” I dare say you are right to some degree.

What if that friend, seeing my confusion, asks me to go for a walk? Instead of politely refusing under the guise of “aw, how trite, you think a walk(!) will cure this?”, I take them up on it. My mind gets to catch a breath while I deepen a friendship.

Instead of isolating myself for days at a time away from the prying eyes of others, I wade into others and let them pry for awhile. Once the lid’s off, good stuff gets poured in. Most days at least.

Instead of succumbing to yet another day of doing nothing, I do one thing on my to-do list. Just. One. Thing. Finish one and two becomes four and a day of forgetting to brain wrestle becomes the greater gift of satisfaction.

Not fool-proof, but dammit, it works! It’s like a slow out-smarting of something too smart to sort out. People who know us, know us because they want to. And, if they want to, it means they’re invested.

I let ’em speak.

Sometimes they’ll come off a bit sanctimonious like Job’s friends. Take the good with the bad I guess. Sometimes their well-meaning suggestions will feel cute next to the towering internal issues confronting me. A bit like offering an aspirin to a guy on fire.

Nowadays, I try to peal what truth I can from those little bananas. 

I don’t know how much of this makes sense. All I know is the smell of change. A slow-burn of transformation that is bringing renewed hope. By means of daily choices, behaviours, most of which feel under-nourished with the accompanying desire to do them, I’m seeing a whole new world open up. 

As campy as this sounds, I’m sacking the sorry sad-sack sad and slowly replacing it with actions that bespeak contentment.

Oddly, it seems to be working.

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Not a fake smile. Really.

 

  

A Picture Is Worth

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One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.

Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.

He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).

He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.  

The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that. 

The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.

I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.

But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.

Anticipation of Advent.

Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.

Incarnation at Christmas.

In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.

Revelation in Epiphany.

These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!

Repentance through Lent.

The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.

Resurrection at Easter.

The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.

New life at Pentecost

The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.

The rest of the story in Ordinary Time

We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.

Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.

To live.

 

2019 and Eight Years On

Given the constant pestering from my legions of adoring fans, with characteristic humility, I submit to your desire for a year-end Rob exposé. Okay, so maybe it has a little more to do with keeping up appearances and SEO ratings. Okay, so maybe I’m too lazy even for that.

Consider it a need-driven march to help lay bare some personal truths gleaned from another calendar year of living large in a small town. In any case, here’s my look back at a year, now mere hours in our rearview mirrors.

A few hours ago, that big, magical clock from which we run, upon which we hang our goals, and against which we struggle, strain, and strive for personal betterment clunk itself over from 2018 to 2019. And, in that instant, all our accumulated belly fat, financial debts, interpersonal fireworks, and personal bugaboos disappeared in plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke.

Right?

Well, for those of us who lived through it sober, ’twas nothing more than the slight rightward movement of the minute hand on my late father’s mantle clock. That is, of course, if I were awake to see the magic happen (I wasn’t).

2018. Hmm, what to say about the year. Despite being a year primarily of seeking and discernment, a kind of quiet faithfulness to duty prevailed. So much so, that I struggle to write much of anything with any real drama, sizzle or wow. A certain plodding along prevailed. A daily attention to the simple joys of waking up, having a job to do, and family and friends for whom to do it. 

2018 did see a number of significances worth mentioning, not the least of which was the end of a thirteen-year long chapter. We bid farewell to the Master of Arts program in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. I graduated from this program in 2011. It’s one of the few genuinely cool things I get to hang on my wall.

My relationship to this program is close and deeply held. As is my reverence for the stalwart souls who envisioned and implemented it so well. Through my role as musical liturgist, and resident buffoon (I never got paid extra for that),

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Mindy Caliguire, Michigan, 2010

I was given opportunity to work with spiritual luminaries the likes of Richard Foster, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Mindy Caliguire, Robert Mulholland, Reed Sheard, Valerie Dodge-Reyna, Eric Rasmussen, Elaine Heath, Michael Christensen, Robert Moore-Jumonville, Wil Hernandez, John Michael Talbot, Juanita Rasmus Dallas Willard, and numerous others. People whose books dot my shelves and whose spirits challenge my own.

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Shane Claiborne, Philadelphia, 2009
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Tony Campolo, Philadelphia, 2009

It was like letting the poor kid from the blue collar neighbourhood hang out in the executive box (is that what it’s called?) at the Superbowl (that’s the football thingy, right?). I was the starry-eyed groupie meeting his super-heroes for the first time. Not only did I meet them, but we even worked together in the process of souls intermingling at heaven’s cocktail party. It means that, now, I can shamelessly name-drop like everyone else! I’ll have one of those “wait till you hear this” kind of stories for water-cooler and narthex, post-service chit chat.

But seriously, my heart is heavy with its demise. And, yes Ms. Dion, my heart will go on, but not without a dent or two from some serious front-end collisions with God’s good people, equally hungry for spiritual food.

A rather vexing concern of 2018 was the personally arid landscape for new words. Put another way, a decided lack of writer’s cramp. Subsequently, I’d become accustomed to dropping bits and bobs of literary refuse hither, thither, and yon. 

Anyone who creates anything at all is constantly confronted by this particular demon. Hips are always a little out of joint thanks to creative-angel wrestling-tomfoolery. That said, it was not entirely without a gem here or there. Besides, like the end of an old toothpaste tube, here I am all the same, squeezing out whatever is left in the curl (because I squeeze out toothpaste properly!).

My journey in a renewed sobriety continued apace. The egg-faced embarrassment of a 2016 fall from grace is still freshly washed off and replaced by the smile of A.A. rediscovery.

I discovered the little joys of posting spiritual memes rather than multi-layered tomes.

A sermon or two found its way here.

All things U.K., longing and retrospective, coupled with growing understanding of my own lineage dotted this blog as well. I dare say, it will always be that way.

My 2017 retrospective shared much of what I continue to encounter in daily living. That is, an appreciation for the beauties of, well, daily living. What could be at the root of this humanizing of an otherwise heady mysticism? Could it be the relative lack of mid-fifties testosterone? A more ready shrug of the shoulder to that which might have destroyed a younger me? The unyielding march of days set in years, marching still faster, that offer greater calm in the storm? A good running regime? Dental hygiene? 

Whatever the case, my life, despite its fair share of discouragements and mystifying conundrums, seems to have taken on a more settled timbre to its previous, grittier iterations. How can one be anything but grateful for such?

My wife of over thirty years continues apace wrestling her first novel into submission. I’m sure more on that tale will be forthcoming. My sons, Calum (27) and Graeme (22), are struggling and reaching and hoping as young men do to find their respective places in the proverbial panoply of similarly struggling humanity. Graeme graduated from Selkirk College in Contemporary Music and Technology. Calum writes and produces music and paints houses.

Of them, I could not be more in awe.

Despite an appalling lack of inspiration (sometimes even interest), I plod along in my daily responsibilities as music and worship director at Yakima Covenant Church. For reasons best left a mystery, they continue to employ me. I think they even like me. Not everyone can say as much. And, that alone, gives me pause for reflective gratitude.

So then, like you, I stand at the threshold (such a tired, but useful metaphor) of a new calendar year. In one hand I hold my hopes and aspirations for what I’d like to see in my life and ministry. In the other, the memories and experience of all that helped fill the other hand.

And I sing songs of remembrance. Of hope. Of lives yet to touch. Of songs yet to sing in days yet to live.

Most of all, eight years on, you are so appreciated, my beloved innerwoven family. Your interest in my words, pontifications, occasional perturbations, and contemplations – my life – mean that you are as much a part of me as anyone else.

I am humbled by your presence here and your willingness to hang out at this cyber-fire with me. Let’s keep telling fireside stories together for our mutual edification, shall we? 

Thanks for just being here with me and, Happy New Year.

From Faith W – i – d – e to Faith DeeP

Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken – A Review

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Drive down any neighborhood street in America and one is struck by the sheer number of church buildings dotting the suburban landscape. They are all roughly the same size, striving toward the same full palette of programming options, and feigning ecumenism while struggling for the same group of spiritual consumers intent on gaining the biggest bang for their religious buck. All this while balancing a staff-for-growth strategy with the mortgage on a newly renovated building designed to make those same folks comfortable, happy and faith satisfied.

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One of many churches lining Main Street, America

The Christian church in North America wrestles with an image crisis. More specifically, it wrestles with a crisis over image; image over anything else. Ever since the church growth movements of the seventies and eighties that saw the emergence of the mega-church and seeker movements, we have trained ourselves well as church leadership offering a goods and services model of Christian life. The colorful costuming, extensive advertising and lavish user-friendly layouts all hint at some high-interest Promised Land investment, but in the end make us guilty of false advertising. By only catering to the felt needs of the spiritual-goods and services clientele we misrepresent the gospel’s insistence upon self-sacrifice and identifying our deepest needs.

As someone who, for four years, was on the music and arts staff at a large Willow Creek Association church in British Columbia, I was instantly drawn to encounter the newly published, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by co-pastors, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, and offer a few thoughts.

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Like so many other churches of its era and philosophy, Oak Hills enjoyed a meteoric rise from a few dozen people in a strip mall to many hundreds in just over a decade. The high production values endemic of the seeker-targeted church mentality assisted in creating a monster that “demanded to be fed.” When one stands back and looks at sheer statistics and rapidity of growth it is a hard ideology to criticize. That is especially true in our own cultural setting where we are now suffering the effects of an economic beast created through consumerist greed, unbridled capitalism and blind adherence to the free market. It has now turned to face its creator and is quite happily dining on us. The church has mimicked the prevailing culture perfectly and is paying the price. Oak Hills was paying that price. Renovation of the Church is a book that tells the story of how they recognized the high price they were paying and, instead, sought to redefine itself in an entirely new way; a sustainable way. The Jesus way.

These concerns have faced all of us to some degree. In this regard Oak Hills is no different than any other local collective of believers. What is telling for our purposes however is the ways through which they were brought into a new arena of self-reflection, asking hard questions like how to present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed, or how the cross and self-denial can possibly become the central facts in a prosperous, consumer culture. Or, how can discipleship to Jesus be the modus operandi in a thriving North American congregation? Carlson and Lueken openly share the ways Oak Hills turned to face the monster, stare it down and either tame or kill it. They chose neither. Instead, they were reintroduced to the Way of Jesus with its inherently subversive undertones.

A staff retreat to Donner Lake, California, playfully called the Donner Party, became their epiphany. “Gradually, we began to get some clarity on a troubling truth: attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ” (p. 35). Eugene Peterson would heartily agree, offering a similar viewpoint in his book The Jesus Way. How we journey is every bit as important as with whom.

The transition from their Donner Retreat illuminations to an Oak Hills steeped in seeker-church mentality to a new entity built upon spiritual formation and kingdom life forms the basis for most of the book. By their own admission, that has been a richly rewarding but deeply painful process. Faced with a crushing clash of values, they had to admit that when they turned to face what it was that was lacking, they “found themselves hungering for a life with God that had more substance, more depth, more reality” (pg. 31). Their palette of boast-worthy ministries didn’t include well-fed souls. The lives of congregants too closely mirrored those in the surrounding culture. The human spirit has an annoying way of insisting upon its needs.

The scope of the book did not allow it, but I believe that much of our contemporary philosophy of ministry grows out of an insufficient theology so tied to the culture in its efforts at relevance that it becomes incongruous with the deeper call of the transforming gospel. Oak Hills seems to have avoided some of these pitfalls due in part to their complete reexamination of the gospel they were preaching and the philosophical crucible out of which it was spawned.

As effective as the Willow Creek model has been (the authors graciously offer praise rather than subtly boasting a ‘look at us now’ motif) it unearths this cut and dried notion of who’s in and who’s out, lost and found, saved and unsaved. This is great for building pie graphs for the boardroom. It is not so helpful in determining the state of the human soul before the God who calls us to union with Godself. Too often we give the impression of having the answer to every question.Says Lueken, however, this “illusion of understanding pinches the mystery of faith” (p. 99). The seeker model is utterly dependent on this epistemological approach. Essentially, Oak Hills began to morph from a propositional gospel into an incarnational one.

It takes great courage to begin the immense and bloody task of moving a large ship like Oak Hills that has inertia, a history of success, and much to lose. The systemic change for which they had opted required and found a unified leadership. This is one of the great strengths I believe in the Oak Hills transition from faith-wide to faith-deep. If a church or organization can weather the gargantuan groundswell of change required of them, it will do so by means of careful listening to the continued guidance of the Spirit in concert with solidly committed, interdependent leadership.

What Oak Hills came up against is the inevitable result of the runaway train of self-satisfying materialism, birthed in a political crucible lacking checks and balances and designed for its flourishing, all supported by a weak and insipid theology that, in the interest of getting more customers, is often complicit in its advance, baptizing it in Christian jargon. The gospel of Jesus Christ is promoted as the best among a pantheon of available choices. As a result, the buying public views it as such; one loaf among many.

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This is the courage of Oak Hills. Says Lueken, “we began to realize the gospel is bigger and grander than a private transaction between a sinner and God” (pg. 56). Evangelicalism, of which the seeker model is the ultimate representation, is fed by the culture in an effort to preach a message about God. A spiritual formation model allows Jesus to change us, taking the culture along for the ride. It is about the God of the message.

They make the poignant observation that, if followers of Christ “are barely distinguishable from the non-churched people around us, the kingdom of God is not advancing” (pg. 87). We should not succumb to the temptation of thinking that God’s kingdom is expanding simply because our organizations are growing bigger. In fact, it is more common that the expansion of the local body, at least in the short term, is inversely proportionate to its growth deeper rather than wider. Says St. Francis of Assisi, “few be the lovers of the cross.”

Oak Hills began the process of change by first addressing their own leadership ambitions, seeing them for what they were. This needed honest recognition and open-heart surgery. Most notably, the oft incendiary nature of ecclesiastical culture wars, in this case church-wide versus church-deep, was at least partially quelled in the humble waters of their kind-hearted approach. The story is peppered with a heady, refreshing honesty all but missing in most works of this kind.

For me, the chapter on worship, alone, was worth reading the book.  As the authors are careful to clarify, the seeker movement has reintroduced the arts back into the local church. But, again, only inasmuch as it points at belief in a doctrine about God rather than an expression of God; God’s beauty and our place in the vast and mysterious cosmos. “Worship, at its best, exposes…oppressive self-absorption and invites us to root the smaller story of our lives into the larger story of God’s ongoing redemption of humanity and this universe” (p. 149). The worship of the church acts as the faith jello-mold, shaping the wobbly framework of our lives and offering spiritual coagulation.

In evangelical circles, people who do what I do are often paid handsomely because of our role in putting a pretty face on an attractional church. If we play the worship game right, we’ll be assured our market share of the paying public. In this way, Christianity basically becomes a hobby. The authors suggest however that, the deeper one’s worship theology, the less it will look like the prevailing culture. Churches will shrink accordingly. They will deepen however, something much more commensurate with the demands of Kingdom life; a life willing to forego relevance and style in favor of depth and significance. It is a radically transformed life, emerging out of corporate worship that does not “neglect issues of justice and the needs of our neighbor….Biblical worship that finds God will also find our neighbor” (p. 155, 156). In other words, the quality of our worship will begin to be reflective of the quality of our lives.

If the book can be faulted for anything (other than the occasional awkward eighth grade writing level) it would be that its short, narrative style denies an even deeper reflection of the issues involved and how they are impacting so many other churches. I would like to have heard their take on church for the de-churched; those in our midst whose relationship with the larger church has been almost irrevocably damaged. Not unlike other faith communities who are aglow in their newfound Kingdom life epiphanies, their language, although much more expansive and perspicacious than earlier in their history, is in danger of creating yet another sub-culture – a spiritual formation one – with its own language, insider jargon and products. Still, their own journey reveals a willingness to embrace the unknown and shows much promise in their ever-evolving theology and ministry.

Ultimately, this book is not just an exposé of Oak Hills Church and its ministry. Nor is it primarily arguing the benefits of the church as crucible for spiritual formation. This is a book about leadership. It is a book about the possibilities available to faith communities who are willing to listen collectively to what the Spirit is saying to the church and then act vociferously on what they hear.

A church intent on growing a faith-wide organization seeks leadership. One interested in nurturing the faith-deep spiritual life of the Body seeks training in spiritual disciplines. A church intent on growing a faith-wide machine relies on unanimity of vision and approach. One set on the faith-deep pilgrimage to the Celestial City is antithetical to the leadership sub-culture since “the church is not a sect….a collection of people who see things the same way and have bought in at the same level” (p. 109).

Beyond the benefits of its testimonial merits, the authors give us a peak into the elusive leadership in faith communities looking to become Kingdom centered. It is a great primer for congregational spiritual formation.

As a graduate of Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (class of 2011), I heartily endorse this book for anyone interested in hearing a word of hope regarding the spiritual poverty of the American church and how one congregation is finding its way.

Finally, please, PLEASE toss in the bin all leadership books that utilize corporate America as their model, the very stew of consumerism out of which Oak Hills is struggling to climb.

Use this one instead.

Soon, but not yet.

As you have seen, I am a fish on the shore right now, flipping and gasping for words to write. About anything. I’ve learned at these times to read until my eyes fall out. Others are not in this place. They’re producing page-turning material worthy of our consumption and consideration. 

One such soul is fellow blogger and faith-er, Laura Jean Truman. In a writer cop-out for which I seek neither escape nor make excuse, I share her better words here. Go, read in pride as I did, how Advent is a time uniquely prepared for both the prophet and the artist. For the artist-as-prophet.

They speak the same language. Maybe that’s why so much of the bible is poetry? Yup. I think that’s probably it.

Laura Jean, thank you. My readers will too, I believe.