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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How Much Does God Really Have of Me...or You?

"God has all of me there is to have." William Carey
"The research has consistently shown over the past two decades that the lives of born-again Christians are indistinguishable from those of people who do not claim Jesus Christ as their savior." George Barna 
" In other words, most Christians have a relationship with God that could be described as "active but stalled" - a connection that has plateaued in its passion and influence, despite the continued commitment of time and energy to religious activity." George Barna
A few weeks ago, Jim LaMontagne gave a talk at our Sunday gathering in his Beyond Us: How God Moves Us Beyond Ourselves series. Talking about Abraham, he included a response William Carey gave to a question about his success as a missionary. As noted above, Carey said God had all of him; he was completely dedicated to the ways of God and redemptive mission of God - 100% commitment.
It got me thinking about what percentage God has of me, of my heart and will? While a number doesn't necessarily reveal much, and will inevitably be a subjective ranking at best (I'll skew it to a higher number most likely), it can be a helpful glimpse, especially as an aid to honest self-assessing, where I really am.
In my heart of hearts, I want it to be 100%, especially since I've been in Northampton. It makes little sense to me to be less committed. I don't like the spiritual dissipation of chasing after the wind blowing from the world's useless greeds and lusts. After all, what higher aspiration in this world could a person have than being a "fully-devoted follower of Jesus Christ?" The privilege of serving the King of kings ranks as chief in my estimation. At the same time, I've experienced lukewarmness and distracted indifference over the years. In my spiritual growing, I've been detained by other activities which sparkled but turned out to be fool's gold. As Barna notes, I've been "active, but stalled," "plateaued" on vast mesas of wandering or going after a brass ring that ends up to be tin foil.
As I think about it, God having all of me means his ways and his Kingdom mission are my pearl of great price. Therefore, being a husband, father, grandfather, spiritual formation catalyst, drummer, and friend all draw a bead on an overriding Purpose. My time, talent, money, stuff, hopes, dreams, and rights becomes means to achieve the End to which I've been summoned. There is no compartmentalizing "sacred and secular." I don't go to church; I am the church (you know what I mean). Being a Jesus-follower is a full-time gig with no time off or retirement as long as I'm on this side of Paradise.
I've been "working out my salvation" for almost four decades. It's not been pretty, but God has much more of me now than he did when I crossed over into the Kingdom  in 1972. I have a passion to see Christ glorified in this world and to see people snatched from the jaws of desolation in this world and the next. I love Jesus and have come to believe he actually loves the quixotic likes of me. There is so much evidence. 
So while I'm not completely confident he has all of me just yet, I can say I want him to. I can also say I hope I can get there while I'm still on this "terrestrial ball." Yeah, I know I may not be able to recognize it even if he's grants me 100% status, but he has my full permission to get me there.
The question is what about you dear reader? Can you say with confidence, "God has all of me there is to have?" If no, what do you still withhold from him? Why? With the Holy Spirit guiding you, take an inventory of your heart's true allegiances. Where are you compromised because of besetting or past, unconfessed sin or still holding onto the word's pleasures, attainments, privileges and distractions? Where does fear keep you doggedly pursuing safety and security? Where has disappointment and setback lead to detachment and indifference.? Where are you just tired and have given up? Worse yet, where are you kidding yourself thinking that your current "religious" commitment is just fine?
What if God actually had all there is of you to have? What would it look like? What would you need to change, and today for that to happen? How would your life be different?
Does it matter to you? It should.
Ask Jesus to do whatever it takes to get you there, and I really mean whatever it takes. As you read that sentence, notice if there was resistance or detachment, subtle or otherwise. Ask God to identify it right now. It's indicates where you really are in following Jesus and what really stands in the way of full surrender and inviting him to make you 100%.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Exploring the Practice of Bible -Thumping: Elevating the Percussive Discourse.

 A few days ago I caught a glimpse of an interview with Kid Rock talking about not wanting Bible-thumpers running the government, and I began to wonder about the practice of Bible-thumping itself. I'd never given it a thought before. I'd always assumed a thump was just a heavy, dull sound, leading me to wonder about the actual methodology of Bible-thumping. How's it done? And why would the Kid not want them in the government? The thumping sound could be annoying, I guess, if it's incessant and loud, but was Bible-thumping so?

As a drummer, I'm always interested in the percussive possibilities of various sound sources and have used all manner of "found-objects" over the year to create interesting, nuanced sounds for improvisation when afforded the chance, but I'd never included the Bible as having any real potential in that regard. I've been a Christian a long time and have never seen anyone actually play the Bible. I've read and studied the Bible. I've discussed it. I heard it taught and preached, and have done so myself, but I've never heard the Scriptures actually thumped, with or without skill. I've read all sorts of books on Church history, Christian theology, apologetics, even Christian art and aesthetics with nary a mention of thumping. Why the silence in the Church and the annoyance in the overall culture?

What's weird is non-Christians seem to know about it, and don't like it. How are they privy to Bible-thumping, whereas I being a Christian of 39 years cannot point to one experience of the glories of the WORD-thump. I would think it'd be the most sacred of the percussive arts, including Psalm 150's call to praise God with the tambourine and clashing of cymbals (my favorite). While I get that zero non-Christian bands use a Bible-thumper, but what's weirder still, neither do Christian bands.What's going on here? Maybe playing the Bible requires a level of mastery few are able to achieve. Perhaps it's a theological issue, i.e., the Scriptures should be studied and preached, yes, but not played - especially when they're being preached. I agree with that.

Not to be deterred by my questions, and being the intrepid seeker I am, I decided yesterday to try Bible-thumping after church - didn't want to draw attention! I picked up my trusty bonded-leather NIV Study Bible, put it on my lap, and began to explore the idiophonic landscape. I noticed a few things right away:
  • Playing with the full-hand extended produces a fat thump bringing out the lower tones of the leather tome especially at the fleshy "heel" similar to a small bass drum. Sweet!
  • Playing with the tips of the fingers yields a warm, mid-sized tom sound, adding a little more definition and variety to the thumping milieu. Also, single stroke rolls make more sense with this technique.
  • Playing on the spine with the thumbs or fingers yields a higher pitch a little like a snare drum, especially if you snap your wrists to give the thumbs some velocity.
  • Bible-thumping with a bonded leather instrument yields little resonance, a drawback in my mind. I can see that it could be a special effects percussion instrument rather than the main groove-keeper. It would also need to be miked well, unless in an all-acoustic setting.
I also tried my hard-bound and thick ESV Study Bible to hear the differences of a hardcover playing surface. I took off the dust jacket because it produced an annoying and thin paper rattle. I immediately did not like what I heard. The hard cover has a more brittle sound emphasizing the attack. There is no resonance or warmth whatsoever. I doubt devotees of the thumping arts would use these inferior instruments accept for special effect, although I can't imagine what musical setting would benefit.

In the final analysis, I don't really get why non-Christians always speak of Bible-thumpers in the pejorative. My experience with the leather NIV produced a warm, low-volume, unobtrusive sound suitable for playing around the Christian campfire or in small groups. It's much less dominating than a djembe or tambourine. And, we're literally bringing the Word into worship in a fresh, new and exciting way by using it!

So I have a dream that soon legions of Bible-thumpers will join worship teams all over this great land. They will humbly take their places in youth group sing-a-longs and on retreats. Bible-thumpers will add their voice to small group worship and Women's Conferences. Master Bible-Thumpers who have serving hearts and creative fire will join the songs of joy and freedom in churches big and small.

Let's bring home Bible-thumping and elevate the percussive discourse! Selah!!!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Decoding the "I'm Spiritual, Not Religious" Response.

I don't know how it is where you live, but here in Northampton, and I suspect throughout New England, if people don't outright confess radical indifference or atheism, they might retort when engaging a Christian: "I'm not religious; I'm spiritual." Another translation might be: "I'm not into organized religion, especially Christianity."

If you get a chance to poke further you'll hear organized religion is full of rules, long list's of do's and don'ts, especially the don'ts. Religion is an antiquated, exclusive club filled with judgmental, narrow-minded, out-of touch people who feel better than others. Religious people have the right religion and everyone else is wrong and hell-bound if they don't see the light from their myopic perspective. They also don't practice the core tenets of their religion in any rigorous way. There also Republicans, Tea Partiers, and/or Glenn Beck fanatics.

Now don't get me wrong, I know there are plenty of people who  believe deeply in, and are dedicated to spiritualities of all sorts, even those they've created or cobbled together themselves. They are humane practitioners of spiritual/ethical concepts or ancient traditions, and want the planet to be a better place to live for all because they practice their beliefs sincerely. They also love the freedom of an individually-tailored spiritual ethos. Such an ethos has no strictures beyond what they hold, and can be altered at will because they determine its shape without fear of judgment or censure.

Writing what I'm about to write is in no way intended to discount, belittle or mock what someone else believes. All of us are made in the image of God and are to be treated as such, even if I vehemently disagree with them. Civility will out.


Having perceived or experienced the judgmental, hypocritical, controlling and destructive sides of religion so evident all around me, I choose a better option, one which seems more humane to me.
I can shape, practice and change it  if I so decide, without pressure or censure from others. It reflects what I value and feel and reflects who I am, not what someone else says I should be. In so doing, I maintain my integrity and self-determination. Besides, no one can be really sure their god is the God, can they . . .

Upon thinking about it, here's where I've landed about people who see themselves as spiritual not religious:

1. They might have a concept of a personal God or they might not.

I've noticed someones being spiritual doesn't have to include a personal God, an actual transcendent Being who created and sustains the universe. It can be expressed as a type of cosmic consciousness or feeling of the numinous. There is something binding all humanity together and it's of "spirit," but not a personal Deity everyone must acknowledge or follow. This belief is fluid, organic and must not be codified in a system of rules and strictures or it turns into a religion. Some of these folks may see themselves as ethical Deists, but that's as close as they come to an actual God. There may be a God, but who can know for sure. Others will tap into a god-conscious through certain esoteric practices, a kind of we're all part of the god energy and need to develop or release it. There is no need for an anthropomorphized deity.

2. They are not particularly interested in imposing their personal spirituality on others.

Because being spiritual for these folks is a matter of individual choice, they support the freedom of everyone to define and practice their own spiritually. Existential individuality and sovereignty is highly prized. Why would anyone impose their beliefs on any one else who has a perfect right to choose his or her own belief. To each his/her own in matters of the spirit. It's a core value by definition.

3. They might not be very concerned about appealing to universal Truth to verify their spirituality. 

Akin to the above, another central tenet of being spiritual is that Truth is what a person deems it to be at any one point in time. Your truth is your truth and mine is mine. All truth claims are relative (well, except the universal truth that all truths are relative, but why nitpick) although intuition synchronized to the Universe or connecting psychic energy can lead to a person's truth. So someone cobbling together her spirituality accepts her spirituality is true for her and doesn't particularly wrestle with the need to anchor truth claims to an authoritative, universal standard binding everyone which verifies and give weight to individual belief. Apparently, it's not necessary because a person's truth will morph into what's seems true at the time based on new messages or intuitions. It can be discarded for something more spiritually helpful, captivating or seemingly powerful.

4. Their set of beliefs may be systematic or not, but most aren't.

As I noted earlier, most of the time people who see themselves as spiritual, but not religious tend not to sit down and carefully think through and craft a system of spiritual beliefs. They're not looking to create a new religious cult others can follow (there are notable and tragic exceptions, the Branch Davidians, for instance). The bulk of spiritual people tend to want something simple and portable, not complex and cumbersome. For them its mostly a no fuss, no muss enterprise with few requirements beyond what is helpful or feels right at the time.

5. They might be reacting to troubling experiences they've had with religious people, especially Christians.

I suspect most of you have had conversations with people who'd had painful, maybe even traumatic, experiences with Christians or churches. They'd grown up in a church or had an encounter with someone who hurt or deeply offended them by their behavior. Their response was something like, "If this is what Christians are like I want nothing to do with them or their churches." They've seen egregious examples of hateful, abusive, or hyper-critical believers in the media and distanced themselves from the faith. They maybe OK with Jesus, but his followers are hypocrites. While it's generally never fair or accurate to judge everyone for the behavior of a few, the reality is many spiritual people can point to troubling experiences with people who called themselves Jesus-followers. They hold Christians to a higher standard or see them as outrageous and mean-spirited hypocrites.

6. They tend not to hold a view of eternal judgment in their spirituality. 

Most people who are spiritual, but not religious have trouble conceptualizing hell or any other place of eternal judgment. They cannot imagine a supremely good God or Life-force condemning people to eternal punishment for sin. Yeah, we've all done stuff we're not proud of, but does it really warrant being condemned forever to a horrific place like hell? In fact, even the idea of sin is overblown in their thinking. They might admit that people are not perfect. We all make mistakes. While they agree some do very bad things, they view life as a kind of opportunity to become the good people they really are, or exemplars through the practice of spiritual exercises taught by shamans, and settling into their own true divinity.

7. They might cobble together bits and pieces of other spiritualities to create their own.

Most spiritual people I've gotten to know who actually practice some sort of belief have cobbled together a personal spirituality that is a fluid amalgam of Buddhism, Humanist Psychology, Neo-Paganism, magic, Eastern mysticism, Gaia and parapsychology, Holistic healing, and New Age syncretism. The process for creating this patchwork of belief is generally not done systematically, but grows over time from exposure to people and popular ideas about god flowing through our culture from time to time. Because there is no commonly-held theological framework from which to examine and test the veracity of a spiritual concept people are free to pick and choose what appeals to them from one point to the next. It's all fluid and organic. Besides, who's to say any particular person's spiritual belief is more right or true that theirs? What works for me right now is what matters.

8. Being a good person may be the sum total of being spiritual to them.

I've found the point in being spiritual and not religious is learning to be a good person as defined by their individual ethic or morality: while we're not perfect, as long as we are trying to be good, were on the right track. In fact, some of these folks may be paragons of human virtue, exhibiting what Christians would see as an exemplary person. The problem is that it assumes all of us can be good on our own if we really put our hearts in it. First, we define what is good. Second, we determine if we are being good. The problem is there's no proof our being good will merit anything in the end if there really is a Holy God who requires an accounting for our motives, attitudes and behaviors. Again, because there is probably no holy and perfect God who will hold us all accountable for our life. There is no objective judgment, and we are all "free" to do the best we can. It all will work out it the end somehow. (I hear a faint whistling in the dark right now)

9. Their spirituality may be tied to feelings induced by substances or intense feelings and experiences.

There are folks who've experienced the numinous from being high. For instance, I knew a man who spent an afternoon lying on a beach in Mexico after taking peyote and experiencing a spirit he was sure was an angel or God. It shaped his spirituality profoundly. We know drugs can create altered states of consciousness where the demonic can manifest and deceive people into thinking they have seen God.  Also, intense and sustained emotional states, especially of joy or pleasure can do the same. If a person has an extraordinarily moving experience of Beauty or the mysterium tremendum they may feel they have encountered God in some abstract way. This kind of induced spirituality can be very convincing, but doesn't necessarily entice them to explore what they see as religion in any way.

10. Lastly, there is a group of folks who'll say they're spiritual and have absolutely nothing to back it up. They've never really given any thought to what that means. It's just a reaction to get you off their back. If even have a chance to pin them down you'll get a mish-mash of pop culture blather, at best.

*  *  *

Given the above, how might a "religious" person communicate effectively with a spiritual person?

First, look for some sort of common ground. I think it's fair to say most people lean toward (there are resolute exceptions), for a Reality outside of their daily experience which offers peace, hope, meaning, joy and promise for a better existence. We have longings for more of something, even if we can't put a name to it. People also want to be loved and validated that they matter. A spiritual person may have similar spiritual values as a religious person. Those can serve as the basis for a genuine conversation. Both kinds of people long for more of meaning, for being loved and taken seriously, for hope, peace and having their needs met. We can begin where we agree.

Second, respect the other person's belief no matter how strongly you might disagree with it. Treat them as you'd want to be treated regarding something important to you. Do not be threatened by what they believe, including their criticism of your beliefs (you know, "sticks and stones . . .), if it is offered. Listen well. What is their heart saying in their words? What you're looking to inspire is honest dialogue to bridge understanding. So you might say things like"

"Obviously your spirituality has great meaning and importance to you. Mine is too."

"Help me understand how you got there and what it gives to you." Why are you convinced it's true?"

May I tell you why I believe so deeply in what I've experienced?"

What happened that made Christianity or church so unattractive to you?

Third, what you're working toward is being able to build a relationship where you can continue the dialogue with the person, especially people you work with, live next to, or have some other common experience with, such as your kids are on the same baseball team. You'll know you have established a real relationship if either person can ask questions which challenge the other person's belief without causing rancor. Because you've gotten to know and trust each others good intentions through shared values and experience, you can venture into potentially threatening issues without destroying the relationship. You may end up agreeing to disagree, but the door remains open for reflecting the love of Jesus to them in other ways. Your humanity has connected with theirs and it feels safe to both of you.

I've seen deep friendships built despite rigorous dialogue around opposing beliefs about the existence of God - John Marks and Craig Detweiler, for instance. All of us should have those friendships. Perhaps doing so is akin to Paul's statement: "To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." (1Corinthians 9:22) Without really caring for people and identifying with their common humanity, there will be no basis for relating beyond the superficial or impersonal. They are not targets; they might be someones mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife, grandparent, significant other, care-giver, neighbor, etc.

Decoding the "I'm spiritual, not religious" retort is a matter of knowing what is and isn't being said in that response, and then looking to build a bridge of dialogue which can subversively dismantle assumptions and misconceptions on both sides. We need to get good at this. Shying away from "uncomfortable" interchanges over matters of God is exactly the opposite of what God summons us to. On the other hand, neither are we to be drawing people into pointless arguments other to prove we're right.

Jesus-followers are responsible for enticing genuine dialogue so we have the chance to speak the truth in love and open others to the heart of God. He is the One who changes a heart, but we need to show up, engage, listen wisely, befriend and converse with respect, and a fearless desire to lovingly draw people to the One who wants them in his family.

Friday, March 4, 2011

inward/OUTWARD Spiritual Formation: The Missional Matrix.

Last night we launched imagine/Northampton's first 14-week inward/OUTWARD Spiritual Formation Workshop. The goal is to link intimacy with God through the spiritual disciplines of listening prayer and reflection on how he is forming a person's heart after his heart with the call on every Jesus-follower to take up and exercise the primary identity of being a Kingdom-revealing missionary. The two are inextricably linked in the call to love God from the core and one's neighbor as oneself by living transparently in a way which opens them to Jesus.

I have to say in my 37 years of "working out my salvation," learning to listen to God, and accepting the call to embrace a core identity of being a missionary have formed me spiritually in ways other aspects of the Christian life have not. Both have revolutionized my grasp of the "normal Christian life," changing me profoundly.

So here's how I currently understand the missional matrix, matrix being defined as "a situation or surrounding substance within which something else originates, develops, or is contained."

First, inward spiritual formation is the Holy Spirit-birthed transformational process where a person becomes aware of the God who is really there. He or she assents to, not just the possibility of this God, but the fact of this God. It's an "I know that I know that I know," affirmation because of encountering him. The eyes of the heart have been opened, the blind see what before was hidden from view. The mind begins to grasp what the heart has yielded to and spiritual formation begins.

That formation grows as the love relationship deepens between God who transcends Space and Time, and the person who has opened to him. Because Jesus became "one of us," we're able to come near him. Intimacy with the One who's so far beyond our meager comprehension is developed  through real-time interaction of the Spirit and the person in dialogue whether by means of the Scriptures, prayer, worship or following him in missional service.

I've found over the years in my formation and through helping many people grow spiritually that the deepest and most lasting transformation comes because the heart has become convinced of the love of God. Intimacy is most a matter of the heart. The mind understands what the heart has come to experience in relationship to God, but if the heart remains distant, the mind has limited grasp of intimacy.

So in the Workshop we begin with Listening Prayer. If people learn to discern God's "still, small voice" they can find intimacy with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Much of what God says in this interplay of intimacy has to do with his desire for the person to draw close, trust him, change, surrender, obey and follow wholeheartedly. His words address the whole person, but as:
  • a loving Father to a child,
  •  an affectionate Friend to a friend, 
  • a faithful Lover to his beloved,
  •  a masterful Teacher to his student,
  • a beneficent King to his valued subject,
  • a good Master to his loved bondservant.
Even when he instructs or corrects his children in listening prayer, study, or deep contemplation, it's never to crush the spirit by belittling, mocking or harsh accusations (that's the adversary's modus operandi). There is no rage or vitriol. His words are meant to teach, inspire, convict, transform and mature his people leading to life and freedom. In learning to listen to God we're being trained to hear his voice and know what he cares for. Our ability to discern his ways in and through us is fine-tuned. We walk by faith to be sure, but it is informed faith coming from knowing his voice whether we are listening, reading, thinking, looking, doing or reflecting.

I hope you're beginning to see how intimacy with God is inextricably linked to living the primary identity of being a missionary. The missional way of life centered on incarnating the redemptive Kingdom of God in all our comings and goings flows from having spent all sorts of intimate time alone with God, just as Jesus went out into the lonely places overnight to be with his Father. Can you imagine what those conversations must has been like? The Father and Son in complete unity on the verge of dismantling Satan's assault on Creation, defeating the curse of death, and setting the stage for the Church to be about intimacy and unity!

Simply put, hours built up being alone with God listening and reflecting, equip any follower of Jesus to bring the Kingdom to people who can't see him. We are all called to go forth and make disciples. Because our hearts become deeply fond of our Abba, Savior, Lord and Comforter due to his astounding goodness, beauty and truth, we want others to get to know him. Living in a world awash in suffering and sin, and seeing people held cruelly captive to every manner of evil sparks compassion in people who've come to know God's heart.

Inward spiritual formation trains a Jesus-follower to see opportunity for loving service which breaks down walls. Because he or she has come to know and trust the voice of his gracious Lord, a readiness for engaging people gradually can take hold. God can direct such a person in the moment to interact with someone, or see an opportunity to offer grace and help. Followers accustomed to hearing God's voice respond more readily when he summons them to connect with a stranger or ask a question which opens a spiritual dialogue with someone for the first time. Such readiness becomes a way of life, natural, not forced or canned. It fits the person's personality and is not some script to robotically follow.

The reality remains, Jesus is out in the community doing Kingdom work already and we are summoned to be with him as he does so. When we know how to hear and discern his prompting, we put ourselves in the middle of what he's already prepared the ground for: salvation, healing, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and warehoused, befriending a street person, helping a prostitute leave the life, spending time with elderly shut ins, helping a co-worker mend a marriage or deal with an out-of-control teenager, taking an addict to AA, or even relocating to another country to live the Gospel for the poorest of the poor. The opportunities for outward spiritual formation are endless. Drawing inward propels us outward because we encounter Jesus and the heart of the Father for the world.

So our current inward/OUTWARD Spiritual Formation Workshop aims at helping our folks learn the inward disciplines so they can move out more and more in the Kingdom work they were hand-picked for.

If you've questions as to our availability of doing this at your church, let us know by 1.) responding here, 2,) emailing at, or 3.) calling the imagine offices: 413.585.5830.