Friday, January 28, 2011

It's a Question of Jesus

The title caught my eye, naturally. "Tussling Over Jesus." So I clicked it. And it was worth the read. I commend it to you - click here.

In his case study, Nicholas Kristoff identifies "two rival religious approaches," and indicates they are applicable not just to the particular case upon which he focuses, but apparent in "any spiritual tradition."

He writes, "One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness."

More eloquently than many other observations, this statement identifies the disconnect that so many people sense when it comes to the church. Too many church experts identify this disconnect as "irrelevance," and then suggest remedies to irrelevance that are comprised mainly of stylistic changes.

This is not a question of style; this is a question of Jesus.

The crux of the church's identity crisis in the 21st century is Christological, not Ecclesial. People are not so shallow as to leave churches because they prefer guitar to organ (or vice versa). To suggest as much is an insult. People leave churches because they do not see Jesus there. They do not encounter God. They do not sense the power of the Holy Spirit. They are unable to become the disciples they long to become as a part of this or that particular congregation, and they want to be a part of a congregation where they can. Or in some cases, a part of no congregation at all.

And it's not that God is absent from these congregations, it's that these congregations seem to be striving to counter the presence of God by doing all in their power to emphasize "dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners" rather than serving Jesus. For many, church has become the focus instead of God, and when that happens people leave.

For the contemporary church, it's a question of Jesus.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Adoption Story

I’m pretty sure that last Thursday morning ranks in the top five Thursday mornings of my life. Come to think of it, it was one of the top five experiences of my life, period, Thursday morning or otherwise!

Erin, Cori, Wesley, and I made our way through the snowy streets of Springfield to the Juvenile Justice Center, where we walked through the metal detector and into a crowd of friends. Mark and Vickie were there with their parents and their three boys, Sam, Cody, and Ethan.

Of course, we’ve known Cody and Ethan longer than we’ve known the rest of the bunch; they came to live with us two years ago, having been taken into state care one morning and arriving at our house that same afternoon. We provided foster care for them for 13 months, and during that time we loved them and fed them and taught them to walk and use their words and we changed their diapers and read them books and … well, you get the picture.

Until the following March, when they were placed with Mark and Vickie Fischer, who became their foster parents as a “legal risk” placement, meaning that there was the possibility for adoption at some point, should their case head in that direction. We were so happy to help with that transition, as Cody and Ethan first met, then got to know, then started to love their new family.

Since then, we have been the foster family for four other kids, including three brothers who are now reunited with their mom (we went to a birthday party at their house just last week!), and the little girl here now, who has been with us since August. And since then, we have stayed in touch with Mark and Vickie who have kept us posted on all the things Cody and Ethan have been up to. From all accounts, life in the Fischer home has been quite an adventure these last ten months or so!

And the adventure started a brand new chapter on Thursday. We were there to witness the adoption of Cody and Ethan! It was amazing. It was emotional. It was unreal.

I had been there before, a few times, to attend hearings in the boys’ case. I had sat in the same room in front of the same judge earlier in the case, alongside the boys’ birth mother, before we knew anything about Mark and Vickie or even what exactly was going to be happening with the boys at all. Needless to say, the atmosphere Thursday was just about as different from those other hearings as it possibly could have been.

The small room was full with family, case workers, and court officials. The boys’ first case worker Michelle, who had become a supervisor and no longer worked directly with the boys, came just to be a part of the day. There seemed to be a buzz in the room, a kind of anticipatory joy that was contagious. Everyone felt it.

After the judge opened up the proceedings, there was a list of legalese questions that Mark and Vickie had to answer, and some official sounding things that the judge had to say. I confess I was kind of distracted because Ethan got restless and started wandering, so I got out my phone and started showing him pictures to keep him from mischief .

But then the judge said something that yanked my attention back to the proceedings. He was making his declaration, that the boys would be the children of Mark and Vickie Fischer, as if they were their naturally born children. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself. But he continued.

I’m not sure exactly what he said, but I remember hearing, “…and his name is to be legally changed to Cody Aaron Fischer…” and a few moments later “…and his name is to be legally changed to Ethan Andrew Fischer…”

Even then it didn’t fully sink in what had happened, until Vickie and Mark turned around and looked at Erin and me. Then their parents turned, then the case workers and others in the room. There were tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces, and we realized what they had done.

Mark and Vickie had changed the middle names of the boys to Aaron and Andrew. I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence that our names are Erin and Andrew, too.

To say it is an honor is not even close to sufficient. It makes us cry every single time we think about it, much less tell anyone. It is just so … I can’t think of any combination of words that would finish that sentence appropriately. We are very, very happy. We have a richer understanding of what it means to be “blessed” than we did before.

Thursday we were completely unable to say anything to Mark and Vickie about it. I don’t mean that we didn’t have the opportunity; we went to lunch with them afterwards at Chuck E. Cheese, for goodness sake! (Which by the way, was probably the highlight of the day for Cody and Ethan!) No, I mean that we were literally unable to speak of it. Every time we tried, words would not come.

As she hugged me in the hall after the proceeding, Vickie was just able to whisper, “What do you think of the names?” in the midst of her tears. In the midst of my own, “It’s wonderful” just seemed laughably inadequate. I hope that our embrace and our tears were more eloquent than we ourselves were.

There aren’t a lot of rewards for foster families. That’s not why we do it, anyway. It is hard, often heartbreaking, and frequently disturbing. So when something happens like what happened Thursday morning, we really savor it! Cody and Ethan have a forever family where they will know love for the rest of their lives, and we are a part of that. Wow!

The thirteen months they were with us will be a tiny fraction of their lives, in the end. And yet it feels good to know that those thirteen months made a real difference. But it feels even better to know that Cody Aaron Fischer and Ethan Andrew Fisher are going to grow up with a family who will love them and take care of them and help them become the amazing and beautiful people they are going to become.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Grief For Tuscon, Part 2

In the upcoming days and weeks, there will be people talking passionately about topics like political vitriol and mental illness and gun control. Please do not begrudge them this.

Many people deal with grief by trying to talk their way out of it, and they do not always listen to what they are saying as they do so. Rather than make matters worse by confronting them, I hope that we will simply allow them to express themselves as we continue our own grief work, both individually and as a community.

The only thing that another person’s grief-stricken reaction should provoke in a follower of Jesus is empathy.


This morning, my own personal grief took me to this thought: Even if the ominous political atmosphere did not lead to the Tuscon shooting, could not the Tuscon shooting lead to a less ominous political atmosphere, anyway?

I fear it may not, but hope that it somehow does.

But there have been reactive, "This was YOUR fault!" statements hurled, and equally reactive, "Oh no it wasn't" statements shot right back. Each statement comes from grief, and I really want to empathize, though it is really hard to do so.

Some will say, "This was no one's fault. The shooter was mentally ill." They will say this as if it is an answer to everything. But that's not really my point, either. My hope is that we will avoid trying to explain it at all, so that we might have time to grieve.

Yes, something led to this. Some series of circumstances culminated in the unspeakableness of Saturday morning. At some point, we might have clarity about that; or we might not. Answers will either come or they will not. And so it goes.

Seeking comfort, let us not grasp for certainty instead.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Grief For Tuscon

We call an event like the Saturday shooting in Tuscon, Arizona “an unspeakable tragedy.”

Funny how we then proceed to speak about it ad nauseum.

Maybe we should just be still for a little while.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to your God to order and provide;
in every change God faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
to guide the future, as in ages past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
the Christ who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I think we don’t mourn very well, in general. I don’t think we allow ourselves to mourn enough. We rush to rationalize, to explain, to excuse, and we do not give ourselves time to grieve. We do not give ourselves permission to mourn.

Now, I’m not talking about ignoring it. I’m not talking about closing our eyes and pretending everything is just fine, when it clearly isn’t. I’m talking about some quiet time with God, acknowledging life’s brokenness so that we can sense the wholeness of the Holy Spirit.

So let’s just be still and mourn. At least for a little while.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Worship Expectations

I had a rare opportunity to be a worshiper on Sunday, sitting in the pew with my family instead of up front as a leader. This prompted me to think about what I value in worship.

The first expectation I have of a worship service is rapport. An excellent worship experience can only happen when there is a good relationship among the leaders and participants. I rarely have worshipful experiences at conferences or workshop settings, for example (unless I happen to know the people leading worship).

Worship is the primary ongoing formational event for a congregation, and the experience of worship becomes deeper and more meaningful the better you get to know those who are leading it. Occasional services have their place, but in general to extract the worship service from the life of the congregation wounds it. While there are a few general concepts that may be discussed in the abstract, worship is mostly a contextualized phenomenon.

I want to be welcomed as a friend and invited to participate fully in the service, I want to share myself and I expect the worship leaders to share themselves with me also, I want to sense a back-and-forth between and among the worship leaders and the congregation. If there is rapport among worshipers, it allows for rapport with God.

The second is engagement. In worship we gather with Christian friends to remember God, to remember who we are and to whom we belong, and to renew our commitment to live as God intends. This is no casual get-together. Worship is not an opportunity to hang out with a few friends, sing some songs, and hear a story or two. I come to worship to do some pretty intense stuff, and I expect to engage that stuff at a pretty deep level.

That means I expect those who are leading the service to have a deep level of engagement, to set the tone for those who are gathering. The leaders must convey a sense of the importance of this event, the sheer significance of what we are doing. I don’t mean that they have to be joyless and severe. Not in the slightest. Comedians are some of the hardest working people in show business, for example.

I mean that the worship leaders have to internalize the service so well that they can lead me through it almost by memory. (I need to work on this part myself.) It means that worship leaders are never distracted by things that are superfluous to the worship experience, and are always fully present in each moment of the service. Worship leaders must be so fully engaged with the service that they pick up on the slightest logistical shifts and address them before anyone else is even aware of them.

Next, I expect elevation. The last thing I want from a worship experience is a copy of something I would experience in my day to day life. I want the mountaintop! I want to sing a song that I would never hear on the radio accompanied by instruments that I never get to sing with other places. I want to utter liturgical phrases that I would never dream of uttering in a normal conversation. I want to pray ancient prayers that dozens of generations of Christians have prayed before me. And so forth.

And I expect all of that in balance with relevance and meaning and applicability. The two perspectives are by no means mutually exclusive. To be clear, I have nothing against singing a popular song or watching a current movie clip or using the pattern of Charlie Brown’s shirt to make an altar cloth. There is nothing wrong with referring to “real life” stuff in worship.

What I’m saying is that the pop song must be infused with sacred meaning, and the ancient prayer must be infused with new life. I expect to be elevated in worship, to be given a chance to set my mind on things that are above, to seek first the Kingdom of God. I want to be taken to an alternate reality – God’s alternate reality. It’s not that I want to shut the world out; not in the slightest. I want to transcend the world in worship, so that when confronted with the world’s crap later on, I will have the hope of God that I experience in the worship encounter to buoy me.

There are other aspects of worship I know, but rapport, engagement, and elevation are my top three criteria for a truly God-centered, transformational, excellent worship service.

Monday, January 03, 2011

New "Year" Resolutions? HA! How about some "NEW LIFE RESOLUTIONS"

There are three stairways. They are called “Live,” “Grow,” and “Share.” Together, they form the framework of a healthy Pattern of Discipleship.

Each stairway is vital to a holistic life of Christian discipleship; spending too much time on any one stairway results in discipleship that is out of balance. Walking a stairway means participating in the practices of the congregation: “Live” is Worship; “Grow” is Faith Formation and Fellowship; and “Share” is Mission and Service, Generosity, and Hospitality.

The turn of a calendar is a perfect time to examine your own discipleship, and “resolve” to improve your pattern where it is needed. Ask yourself:
- Am I “LIVING” by worshiping every week and praying every day?
- Am I “GROWING” by participating in an ongoing study or class and by intentionally developing my relationships with others?
- Am I “SHARING” by serving those in need and by giving selflessly of my resources and by continually inviting others into a relationship with God?

The ads we see these days try to define our “New Year Resolutions” for us – lose weight, quit smoking, get personal finances on track, and so forth. What if we let Christ define what our New Year Resolutions should be instead of the corporate sector? We could call them “New Life Resolutions.”

Not “lose ten pounds” but rather “attend worship every week.” Not “join a gym” but rather “take a Wednesday evening Connect class. Not “watch less TV” but rather “invite one friend a month to come to church with me.” I’m not saying those other things aren’t good; they are. I’m just saying, if we’re going to use the excuse of a new calendar to improve ourselves anyway, we might as well do so in our Christian discipleship, also.

What are your “NEW LIFE RESOLUTIONS” going to be for 2011?