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Friday, May 27, 2011

Are You Still Fascinated With Jesus and His Kingdom Way?

Over the last few months, through a number of ministry activities where God has challenged me to raise the bar in talking about (and trying to live) what it means to follow Jesus in light of what he actually said was the way, a persisting thought occurred to me:

"The people I've read about in the Scriptures and in books written by or about Jesus-followers who had a substantial, faithful Kingdom influence on their world, were all utterly fascinated by Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom."
An uncommon passion and remarkable devotion characterized their following him. They were gripped and they persevered in it even if their lives were consistently hard, or they suffered mightily for their devotion. They were captivated, enthralled and so taken by him and his message that they surrendered their hearts and followed hard after him until death. They were broken men and women for sure, but they lived from a single-minded fire in their bellies.

Conversely, I thought how throngs of us in churches all over America, if we honestly and courageously reflected, would realize we live from accommodated, divided, tepid hearts in matters of authentic discipleship. We're deeply embedded in the American Dream (or our cherished version of it) which defines the good life as one of pursuing our preference for comfort, security and fulfilled aspirations. As Americans, we instinctively place a high value on the freedom to pursue what promises to make us fulfilled and content - what gives us personal meaning. In that sense, we are substantially-devoted followers of the American Promise of individual "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But over the last few months, I've talked with a number Christian people completely enmeshed in lives becoming increasingly unmanageable. As a result, they've sunk into a spiritual malaise much like sleep-walking. The demands of actually following Jesus as he speaks of it in the Gospels appear impossible given the frazzled lifestyles most of us accept without "counting the cost" of so doing. Truth be told, many of us are enslaved to debt, fracturing busyness, and the strain to maintain our particular status quo, i.e., "It is what it is."

I also realize that the lukewarm followership many live is not what Jesus modeled and summoned them to, perhaps not even what they "signed up for." The problem remains they're so entangled in the spiritually unexamined way of life they accommodate and its overwhelming consequences, they've come to a kind of  spiritual stasis, and have gradually sunk into the religious duty of mostly just showing up at church on Sunday. I know that's not what initially pulled them to Jesus, but it's now what they've settled for and worse, come to expect.

So I've done a little thinking about what is this fascination with Jesus, and subsequently adopting his way. Here's what I've come up with so far:

1. Jesus fascination is a work of God offered to all his people, but we need to persistently desire and long for it.
2. It grows from the accumulated benefits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus through the spiritual disciplines, especially listening prayer, study of the Scriptures (particularly the Gospels), and reflective examination of how a person is actually living.
3. Jesus fascination is best modeled and passed on by individuals in a consistent "life on life" relationship.
4. It is also nurtured in a community of believers who are jointly habitually working on following Jesus, and living his way of life guided by his subversively redemptive values.
5. A person fascinated with Jesus will "be in the world, but not of the world"; his or her fascination gradually will not be surrendered to the prevailing worldly or surrounding cultural fascinations and loyalties.
6. Jesus fascination will result in a man or woman willingly embracing what matters most to him, and obediently conforming all to his values and way of life, whether it be through career, raising a family, recreation, use of money, time or talent, etc.
7. Jesus fascination ultimately will lead to a habit of joy, a transcending humility, a freeing life of love, stubborn peace, and surprising Kingdom transformations.

I realize fascination with Jesus is not a feeling or a project or the domain of the spiritually elite. It's a gift of grace to a heart which longs for authenticity, depth and making a difference through service in the Kingdom. Fascination is not just admiring Jesus from the pew, focusing mostly on sin management as the best we can do, helping the pastor if he asks every once in a while. Nor is it listening your favorite Christian music and reading your favorite Christian authors. It's not even taking that once-in-a lifetime mission's trip or singing in the choir.

It's more a matter of the transformed, rejuvenated heart and will. Paul summed it well in 12:1-2 of his letter to the Church in Rome when he said because of the extraordinary mercies of God, our reasonable (intelligent) response is to present ourselves to God as "living sacrifices" utterly surrendered to his purposes and glory. Paul also warns us, therefore, not to be conformed outwardly to what the world (in rebellion from God) continually tries to entice us to prize, submit to, and live. Because we are literally new creations in Christ we should not submit. Rather, Paul says we are to change our thinking so that what is presented to us by the world, is put it to the test of God's standards, and thus we can apprehend what is valuable and pleasing to him. Therefore, fascination is a 24/7 response of worship, i.e., surrendering all as a fascinated living sacrifice, fully engaged and fully devoted.

If you can't say this about yourself, don't settle for "Oh, well." Complacency stinks. Go talk to someone you admire and ask for help. In fact, ask God to begin clearing the jam-packed decks of your life so you can find a mentor and become trained to follow Jesus with all you've got. When everything's said and done, it doesn't matter nearly as much as you think about how important you are to the business right now, or what your neighbors will say if the lawn isn't mowed every Saturday, or your kids need to be on every sports team known to man because, for sure, they'll be complete failures in life if they aren't. (You know I'm poking a little fun, right?)

The point is Jesus is summoning you to pick up your cross and get on with it. Did I mention He's the Lord of all and he picked you to follow him from a fascinated and courageous heart?

At the same time, some of you, I know, are tired and discouraged. You are living under great stress and pressure. The problems you face seem infinitely more than there are solutions. Maybe sin has got you ground down and your life is hidden or out of control. Perhaps you've been hurt by people in the church and question if any of this is real at all. Maybe church and Christianity just seem boring and pointless. Even so, the reality is, because it's the living God we're referring to, whatever has dulled your heart can be revived by him. So earnestly pray for fascination, and go find someone who is fascinated by and following hard after him. A simple conversation can open God's fascinating future for you. Try it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Third Spiritual Paradigm Shift.

def:"paradigm shift": a change from one way of thinking to another. It's a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It just does not happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change.
 Another use of the word paradigm is in the sense of Weltanschauung (German for world view). For example, in social science, the term is used to describe the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual perceives reality and responds to that perception. Social scientists have adopted the Kuhnian phrase "paradigm shift" to denote a change in how a given society goes about organizing and understanding reality.

Recently, I experienced a spiritual epiphany. Based on noticing I was spending more and more time studying what it means to be missional in following Jesus, including how to help others at imagine do the same (the inward/OUTWARD Spiritual Formation Workshop, for instance), I realized I was experiencing a paradigm shift similar to two previous shifts which revolutionized my Christian worldview. Each shift has deepened my understanding of walking in the way of Jesus. They've altered my reality to the degree I could not return to what how I'd lived before.

Paradigm Shift #1: Becoming a Christian.

When Christ opened me to the reality "he is," my life took a turn. A true metamorphosis had occurred. I was a truly born a second time, a "new creation in Christ," full of wonder in the new world the eyes of my heart saw for the first time. While I was still a jazz musician living in Boston with friends I'd come with from Albuquerque, I'd found something which remained very foreign to them (ultimately separating us), and utterly new to me. My life's trajectory was now altered in ways, at the time, I couldn't even imagine. I had no idea what lie ahead, but I knew an encompassing new reality was opened to me, a strange and magnificent new way of being tugging me inexorably into the enticing unknown. Many years later in my second spiritual paradigm shift, I'd recognize whispers of this new way were near very me, but I couldn't make them out.

Paradigm Shift #2: Inner Healing, Learning Listening Prayer, the Spiritual Gifts, and Retreat Ministry.

At about age 35, the Holy Spirit deemed it the appointed time to jostle my world. I was not in on that conference call. Nevertheless, change was foisted upon me. First, it came in the form of entering into a year-long journey of substantial inner healing. I had father issues mucking up my emotional works and putting severe limits on my confidence as a man. I went kicking and screaming, but I went and Jesus painstakingly unbound me. I experienced what it was like to not have emasculating fear and self-hatred.

Soon after my year of unbuckling, my brother-in-law, Steve, called to rave about a book he'd read concerning prayer. I've always known him to be a man of prayer, so when a man of prayer tells you a book has revolutionized his prayer life, not to mention his painting (he's a world-class artist), you pay attention. I bought the book, Dialoguing With God by Mark & Patti Virkler, read it and began to get up in the wee hours to listen to God with my journal in hand. What happened to me was as monumental as my conversion. I heard God's "still, small voice," and he told me things about himself and me that opened to me intimacy with him. Another deepening happened and I've never been the same. In fact to me, listening prayer is part of the "normal Christian life."

About that same time, my brother, Stacy (who is a pastor in Albuquerque with my sister-in-law, KayKay), called me out of the blue saying that God wanted me to be baptized in the Spirit. Such baptism had never been a burning issue with me. Tricia spoke in tongues, but it was always a quiet and intimate, personal prayer language. No big deal to me really. So, he visited. We talked for a day or two. On the day he was to leave, he and Tricia prayed over me. Nothing happened, so I went out to the backyard by myself and told God if this was something he wanted me to have, I wanted it. Voila! All this stuff bubbled up from somewhere, and I was hearing sounds coming from my mouth new, exotic and wonderful. Not only that, just after I was prayed for in church for the gift to teach, and in one way or another I've been doing so for 25+ years. I now experienced an intimacy with, and trust of the Holy Spirit beyond what had been a part of my life. A new reality opened to me, changing my spiritual awareness.

In 1988, Tricia and I, through another God-breathed set of circumstances, were invited to take the Elders from our church (The Barn) on a retreat. We'd never led a retreat. We knew how to listen to God, so we listened and put together a 3-day retreat from what we knew, and God blew their socks off. We were invited to take residence at the Center For Renewal, and gradually lead the church through Listening in Christ Retreats. In that same time, our counseling and spiritual direction ministries were birthed with no initiating from us, and we witnessed God use us to help people heal and experience the intimate love of Jesus for them.

My entire world would focus on such work through the late 80's and up to 2008. It was how I experienced the Presence of God most clearly, and what I saw as the way Christians were to live. Before my own healing and introduction to the contemplative spiritual disciplines, none of what I spent those 20 years doing was on the radar screen.

Paradigm Shift #3: Taking on the missional way of following Jesus and being church.

In the late fall of 2007, I came down with shingles and for almost two months was flat on my back. While the pain was very unpleasant, the fatigue was numbing, except . . .

As is my wont sometimes, I will purchase books which seem to leap to my attention, even if I have no express interest at first. In each spiritual paradigm shift, God has enticed me to books which would turn out to be pivotal with what he was doing in me or would do through me. So on the nightstand I already had Frost and Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come, Erwin McManus's An Unstoppable Force, and Greg Cole's Organic Church. I don't know why I had them. Keep in mind, church planting had never been an aspiration of mine. So I opened the books because I needed something to occupy my mind, and I felt unmistakably nudged to do so. The idea of living a missional way of life exploded in my head from there. I was hooked.

Within months, I and others became convinced we were supposed to plant a church in Northampton and take up the missional way of being church. None of us had ever done that before. It was compelling and 3 families voted with their feet to head north.

It has not ended with getting to Northampton. My paradigmatic shift has gone has gone further. Now, I can't imagine returning to my former way of walking with Jesus, or being part of a church ministry. Neither were pointless or unfruitful. I had rich times with dedicated lovers of Jesus. It's just that my eyes have been opened as profoundly as I when knew Christ was real at my conversion, or as I heard him speak to me the first time in listening prayer. My spiritual world morphed and became both unfamiliar and as if I'd been made for this new iteration.

I understand so much more about Jesus and his lion-hearted, revolutionary, subversive, counter-cultural, redemptive mission, what the Kingdom is and how it actually works, what the Church is supposed to be in the world, and how all believers are missionaries by definition whether they embrace it or not. I see church structure and culture differently, how leadership is supposed to work, and how we are to break through walls that stigmatize, neglect, oppress and divide peoples. Justice and love and freedom fill my thoughts in a way they never did. Love is the means by which people open to Jesus and choose to give themselves away in life-giving service.

While I still counsel and do spiritual direction, I view my role as a Spiritual Formation Catalyst in a more pastoral, mentoring, discipling way. I want to equip people who cross over imagine/Northampton's threshold and stick, to be fully engaged and devoted followers of Jesus their Lord and King. I now spend time getting to know and helping folks I'd shy away from a few years ago. I see their humanity, not their societal tag. I never did that before. I want to influence the community for the Kingdom.

Each paradigm shift has been God's work. Each links together providing a spiritual foundation for what he summoned me to next. Without each, I'd not have found any of what he called me to.
In reality, I don't know if the third is my last shift this side of heaven. I know seeing Jesus and his glory will pretty much be the zenith. What a curious and remarkable (for someone like me), journey it has all been. I foresaw none of it.

Perhaps my most fervent hope is that what these shifts were set to accomplish in and through me will do just that and more, so as the books are closed on my life, I fulfilled what I was made to do in spite of myself. 

Wouldn't that be marvelous. Make it so, Lord.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Little Window Into a Bigger Picture: Northampton Street Life.

As it often happens on the street, the incident unfolded quickly and ended almost as quickly - a wisp of life amidst the homeless and the addicted.

Steve is an alcoholic veteran with a serious back problem and a gentle soul. He mans his position just a few paces up from us on Main Street. There, he often stands all day long and into the night with his walking stick, cardboard sign, and assorted milk cartons waiting for kind strangers to drop a few dollars (more often coins), into his coffee can.  He is neither aggressive nor belligerent. He merely asks and waits. Every few days he will use his "earnings" to get lit up. Other times, he'll get something to eat or use it for some other need.

I've been talking to Steve for a year or so and have a soft spot in my heart for him. He's not a bad man. He'll call himself a "screw-up" hanging low his head when he does. I see the face of Jesus.

So Matt, Karen, Tricia and I were heading home from a lovely evening of catching up over dinner together last Tuesday night. We were standing in front of our building saying good-byes when a commotion caught our attention. I turned to my left and saw Steve chasing (in his back-injury, hobbling sort of way), and yelling at three guys walking toward us. At first, I couldn't tell what the issue was, but Steve was yelling, and it was obvious from his agitation, they had done something to him.

I'd seen these guys before. Two of them are serious alcoholics and often cause trouble when they're lit up. One of them has been here for a while, the other for a few days. The third guy hangs with them, but is a more quiet drunk.

As they got closer to us, Steve confronted them and watrying to recover what one of them was holding. I saw it was the American flag he puts in a milk crate to signify he's a Vet. Steve caught up to them, yelling to beat the band (filling the air with obscenities) and demanding his property. He was able to snatch it back while his outrage smoldered. He wasn't going to let this guy take from him a piece of his identity. As the trio walked past us with Steve trailing behind, the thief was smirking. They rounded the corner and Steve, stopped just to our right and screamed something about they were messing with the wrong guy. He was still livid.

As he turned back and saw us. He recognized our faces softened, and apologized for his language. I asked him what had happened and he told me one of the guys took the flag and wouldn't give it back unless he coughed up five dollars. He wasn't going to have any of it and the brief altercation ensued.

We told him his response was understandable given the attempted  theft and bullying. We affirmed his right to protect his property and defend himself. A few minutes later as Matt and Karen were walking home, we stopped by his "spot" to make sure he was OK. He'd calmed down, verbally rattled his sabre a bit, and seemed genuinely grateful for our concern and affirmation.

I point out the incident because it's a pericope (lit. a piece cut out from) of what people living on the streets in Northampton experience regularly. The streets are mean, and when you mix drugs or alcohol with the human lust for dominance, it can be viciously ugly and sometimes tragic. These guys push each other around. They are always probing for weakness, and looking to steal from one another. The strong exploit the weak with relish.

On the other hand, the incident we witnessed reminded me of the winsome beauty Christ-following community can reflect to a world riddled with meanness and inhumanity. Our response to Steve's personhood calmed him down. We affirmed his value by supporting his right to defend himself and protect the little he has. We gently spoke life into the senseless chaos that erupted around him.

Granted no one died or even was hurt (at least physically), but the pain and outrage in him was palpable. It threatened to remind him once again that he doesn't matter, no one cares and he doesn't really exist.

Jesus had us there at that moment to tell him just the opposite. I'm grateful for that.