Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lent: The 90,000-Mile Major Maintenance

I am thinking about Lent. I am worried that most Evangelical Christians will not participate in Lent because they are worried about exercising shallow, vain, punitive "works righteousness." That's a good caution. We want to live in grace, not works.

Except we need Lent. We need Lent to rattle our cage. We need to be disrupted. We need to "Awake O sleeper, rise from the dead! and Christ will shine on you."

Lent is like taking your car in for a 90,000 mile check up. We don't just need the tires rotated and an oil change, we need the values set, and the timing belt replaced. Yes that's right, our timing has become sloppy. We just don't know what time it is. Perhaps we are just getting up and doing the same drill each day. By "time" I mean 'what season are we in?' 'What "right-time" is it?' (Greek: kairos) "Wake up!" The worst place to be is to not even know we are living each day without Jesus. We are sleep walking. The clock just ticks. The car is - just a car in slow disrepair.

Lent is a time of self-examination. We ask, "Am I close to God?" "Does God have my full allegiance?" "Have I bowed my knee to King Jesus?""Will I go with him to the cross?"

There are many ways to draw close to Jesus during Lent. Giving up soda or chocolate has to be some of the most silly ideas. Scot McKnight has the best book about this sort of false thing. He book is simply called Fasting. Rather than punishing one's self with abstinence (dieting?), we do better to read a book like this one. Or how about read the entire Gospel of Mark?

Lent follows the Gospel path of Jesus: a) into the desert where he is tempted and he resists; b) ministry and the journey toward Jerusalem even though everyone thinks that's a death-wish, but Jesus has a bigger story to follow; c) the cross, d) the Sabbath sleep, e) resurrection, and f) the participation of heaven, and heaven on earth (new creation and the church).

This note is but a brief cage rattle. We need the transformation of the mind (Romans 12). We need new thinking but we get there with new bodily disciplines - not only information. We need resurrection, but we should follow Jesus and go through the desert and the cross (death to self) to get there. Our aim is resurrection.  So I will leave off here with a thought from Augustine. (4th c. AD)
The body is dead - why is it dead? - because of sin. But the spirit is life, because of justice. So do we leave the body dead, then? No, but listen: But if the Spirit of of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells within you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies. So you see: now the body receives its life from the soul, but then it will receive it from the Spirit.
Get it? Now our mind, heart and strength (the soul) fight sin. But at the resurrection the Holy Spirit gives us our life. That is why we no longer sin. That is how we are physically and bodily resurrected.

Lent is the season to chew on such thick thoughts. Take the journey. Put on your boots, grab your backpack, cinch up the belt, take hold of your walking staff, set your eyes on the path, and step out your front door.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Does "Faith" mean "Belief?" No.

When I was a young Christian my relationship with Jesus was based on his atoning sacrifice on the cross, to rid me of my sin problem. I talked much about a personal relationship with Jesus. I had a personal relationship with Jesus. That relationship was based on gratitude for his atoning death on a cross. Jesus Christ was my substitute. I should have been on that cross.

This relationship with Jesus was fortified by the nature of Jesus as both God and Human: God became human and died like one of us. Christ was sinless, and that made his atoning sacrifice "perfect" because Jesus was the only sinless human, and thus his sacrifice was effectual. My understanding of Christianity was further fortified with a hope that when I die some day I will go away to heaven to be with Jesus for all eternity. My Calvinist Reformed Theology told me salvation was "a grace," a gift I never deserved nor earned.

I still believe all this. But these days it feels rather thin and cool - not very relational for all my prayers and thoughts about a personal relationship with Jesus. Something shifted within me. I grew old.

In my first half of life "faith" meant "belief." "I believe in Jesus Christ" was my very loaded faith statement. When I said those words, I meant everything I just said above. "I believe in Jesus Christ" was a creed, a doctrinal statement, and a summary of all my beliefs.

In my second half of life "faith means "trust." Sure, I trusted Jesus in the first half of life. But now Jesus and I sit together in much silence. Jesus is not my friend. Jesus is my King. I wait for him. I wait at his feet. I am his servant... and it appears I have become a favored servant. Not because I did anything special. Jesus just likes me. I don't need to prove anything anymore. Funny thing, because in my first half of life, despite all my talk of grace, trust and relationship, I still performed for Jesus; I still replaced trust and relationship with a set of beliefs.

This is all fine. I wouldn't really change much even if I could. For the first half of life Faith is called Foundationalism. We build a foundation. Or as Richard Rohr likes to say, "We build a tower." We argue doctrine and the true meaning of Greek words in the New Testament. We are right, they are wrong. In the first half of the Christian life, we have enemies.

But in the second half of the Christian life, we must jump from our tower, lose the arguments, embrace the triviality of most everything we thought was so important that it caused us to leave churches, renounce Christian leaders, pick favorite parachurch ministries, and take pride in how dog-eared and highlighted our Bible had become. We were in love with ourselves, and Jesus helped prove how lovable we were (which is a strange irony of depravity and grace). Genuine Christians have no enemies.

These days for me Faith means Trust, not Beliefs. Spirituality is more important the older we become. In the second half of life we gain a real relationship with Jesus, because we stop performing for him. We finally understand grace, and "good works" now flow out of identity with Jesus, instead of grasping control of mission, leadership and morality.

For the young Christian: beware! Beware of clipping off genuine trust and relationship for the sake of being right and trustworthy. Beware of turning Faith into Belief instead of Trust. Follow Jesus and empty yourself. Become nothing so that you may be filled up with Christ... so that you may be "In Christ."

Wait before you speak. Sit before you stand up. Pray before you think. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lakeland's Redemptive Communities

In Lakeland's context, a Redemptive Community is a midsize group - around 20 or 30 people. Redemptive Communities accommodate families, especially families with younger active children.

A Redemptive Community has three features:

Common Cause
Common Meal
Common Prayer

"Common Cause" is the most powerful of the three features. Other groups, small groups may gather around information like a book or a teaching. They may gather around relationships and attempt to gain some meaningful friendships to do life together. But a Redemptive Community (RC) begins with a cause. In Lakeland's case, there are two active Redemptive Communities that fit this definition: Anapra's Rice and Beans Community and the China Redemptive Community.

Each RC begins with a called passionate pastor or pastor-equivalent leader. They rally the vision and keep the flame burning for the cause. Others join who embrace the cause. A typical meeting of the Redemptive Community includes updates about the cause and strategies to build the cause and do something productive for the cause. Laurie and I help lead the China RC. As a part of our ongoing effort to support Jack and Hannah Liu in China, and their training up of young emerging leaders, the group members take turns and Skype the class on Sunday evenings. So we talk about how the classroom teaching time is going.

"Common Meal" is a theological point. Food is fellowship. So we break bread together and Christ is revealed, just like in Luke 24:13ff where the two disciples of Jesus are joined by the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Over dinner Jesus breaks the bread and reveals his identity to them. While we may ignore this bread-breaking epiphany of Christ, it is still true for those with the eyes to bear witness to it. The Redemptive Communities should acknowledge this truth: food binds us to each other and to Christ.

Redemptive Communities may or may not have deep personal relationships with each other. The size of the group usually keeps it from being all-inclusive intimate. Folks may have private conversations, and personal interaction and learn and care for each other, but it is not necessary. The mid-size group includes more numbers, but doesn't worry about intimacy. So for those who want a small-group experience or a covenant group experience, or mentoring, the RC is not that. In fact, the RC may feel "thin" or superficial. Kids run around and "tag" mom or dad. It is noisy and disruptive. If you want Bible study then it will be hard to accomplish at an RC.

It is better to have activities rather than information. Create activities for the kids to pronounce the gospel's presence in the RC's midst, and the hope of the gospel in the cause's location, like China or Mexico.  Language lessons might be appropriate. Plays and skits work. Kids can create presentations. The Common Meal is the gathered space, the village time and space. And RC's function more like a village than a Bible study or support group.

"Common Prayer" codifies the cause. Our China group meets for dinner once a month on a Sunday evening. So we use Vespers, or Evensong (Evening Song) prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. We adapted the prayers to include missional prayers.  And there is a time for intercession on behalf of the coworkers in China and cause. The children are asked to participate in the prayers. The prayers are liturgical, so they may start out dry. But over time liturgical prayers gain power and sway because they are repeated, which forces reflection and depth - even if they are not emotive and exuberant or heart-felt the way spontaneous prayers feel.

Evensong is nice because candles are lit during the prayers and the kids can participate. Lakeland is not very good at gathered prayer (there, I said it). But we are learning. Evangelicals value spontaneity but sacrifice depth of prayer for feelings. We don't confess, we don't give thanks, we don't pray for the world - usually Evangelicals pray for themselves. They self-appropriate the Spirit. That's permissible but it is narrow and Existential. We love to love ourselves. Yes, that's a harsh critique.

Evangelicals need a depth of mission, a self-denying, self-effacing, settled, stable, and secure groundedness. Liturgical prayers are "dry" because they don't indulge us (the private person.) Gathered liturgical prayers include everyone. Liturgical prayers are about "the we, not the me." There is nothing more beautiful than when the children join us for the Lord's Prayer and they know it by heart.How do they know this prayer that Jesus taught? Repetition.

Redemptive Communities are gaining traction at Lakeland. We are figuring them out on our own. I am sure there is a workshop on them, or some big time church is selling their best practice of mid-size group. But I'd rather we own this one ourselves. I don't want to think, "Oh man, we are not as cool as that church's midsize group program." Let us continue to explore and experiment with the Redemptive Community posture, and see where it takes us.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Attachment To God and Others

I continue to study and apply John Bowlby's Attachment Theory to church, spirituality and relational health.

I am re-reading A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, 1988. Attachment Theory is based on the idea of a child's dependency upon its mother. Like a duckling's dependent attachment to its mother figure, all of us attach or do not attach appropriately to our family of origin, namely our mother. Originally psychologists, from Freud's era (1920s) thought dependency was a sign of weakness and pathology. Bowlby thought the opposite. Dependency is good.This is a good God thought I believe.

A secure child (let's say an 18 month old) should feel comfortable exploring and then returning to its parent for "refueling" - that is, security (secure base). This is good and natural. A secure child should be upset when its mother leaves the child at the sitter's, doctor, daycare, hospital, etc. They want their mom. When the mom returns they should want them, cling to them and then finally feel comfortable exploring again. Insecure children will have a variety of reactions to their mother leaving: a) they could be very anxious, inconsolable, and be angry and mourn the loss. Or they could have no reaction. Upon the mother's return they could ignore them; or they could "punish" their mom. The insecure child may remain inconsolable with their mother. Bowlby and other attachment researchers (Mary Ainsworth, Chris Fraley) therefore make four classifications based on the loss and return of the mother:

1. a secure child has appropriate anxiety and comfort upon the loss and return of the mom. They do not avoid nor over-react to their mother upon return and are comforted easily.
2. the child may be preoccupied - high anxiety upon the mother's departure, and inconsolable upon return.
3. the child may appear unconcerned that mom left, not interact with the present caretaker, and busy its self with an object on the floor. Upon the mother's return the child may appear unconcerned and not needful of consolation or affirmation.
4. the child is fearful of the parent leaving, inconsolable and clingy to the caregiver, and remain so after the mother returns, "punishing" the mother with avoidance.

The theory purports one's attachment response or internal working method continues into the rest of one's life, including one's experience in close relationships like a spouse. God is viewed as an attachable figure. And some Christians may avoid and dismiss God as distance and not opinionated about their life if they have a dismissing pattern of attachment. They don't trust God, they place their self in the position to need God, and therefore they don't really know God relationally. God may be more aloof and more theory than intimate. Or another Christian who is preoccupied may construe God as all satisfying. This Christian is on a spiritual high all the time. However, when God "lets them down" then their world falls apart. There is no place for God now. Or they just simply lie to themselves that all the bad is meant for good and is God-sent. The secure Christian wrestles through the ups and downs of life with God present.The secure adult Christian struggles to make sense of life's trials but doesn't abandon or blame God for a long time. God is present, and they return to God and stay there. This doesn't mean they do not mourn and go through the normal process of loss: anger, disbelief and hope for reunion or a new orientation or neo-homeostasis.

I run into all the various types of attachment within the church. Some congregants expect me to be their best friend. They are clingy and obsessive. Then (inevitably) I "let them down." And if it is too much they leave. Others avoid me like the Plague. They expect nothing from me, but may think poor thoughts about me or the church or life or God - but don't say much. If they were more honest they say their don't trust and they are scared. Others are performers. They serve themselves to death. They have high anxiety about being good and doing well. They want the accolades and applause. But may still feel anxious and inadequate, like they need to do more. Unfortunately the church likes these kind because they can unwittingly use them to accomplish ministry.

In my opinion (that means I'm going to get in trouble now), these same responses play out in the various denominations and styles of church as well. The Pentecostals attract the obsessive clingy high exuberant styles, who grab a God who is nothing but a feeling experience. If you happen to run into someone who left a Apostolic styled church, and are not cynical and burned out, they will say it was all a sham, a show and big joke. It wasn't real. They are still preoccupied with God, church and pastors satisfying their wildest desires - but now they are deeply disappointed in them all. They are inconsolable.

The Attachment To God Inventory (AGI) created by Richard Beck and Angie McDonald, (Beck and McDonald, 2004) measured Christian college students in Texas, and found some correlation on attachment style to denomination, though this was not their primary aim. Catholic and "Non-Denominational Charismatic groups did not differ on the AGI-Anxiety scores, each had lower scores when compared to the Church of Christ group. In addition, the Church of Christ group had significantly higher AGI-Avoidance scores when compared to the Roman Catholic and Non-Denominational Charismatic group..." (Beck and McDonald, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2004, Vol. 32, No. 2, 92-103). They found the Church of Christ students leaned toward a more avoidant style and therefore were avoidant of God.

What this could mean is that different worship styles, views of God, theologies of sin and atonement, redemption, discipleship practices and disciplines, church ethos and culture may play a significant role in how a person chooses which church to attend and be involved with, just as within Attachment Theory a person may "choose" a romantic partner based on perceived and expected reciprocity, in relation to their own attachment needs and style. My wild hunch is that Catholics and Baptists have a more "legalistic" or moralist God and church culture need. They need to feel "bad" in varying degrees. Gen-X churches (like ours) attract "broken" men and women, which means they were "abandoned" through the excesses of their BabyBoomer parents - read "latch-key kids" here, just one example of what I've heard over the years. Years ago I had a Gen-X man tell me that he'd never received an apology from a BabyBoomer. He expect the BabyBoom Generation to apologize to him. I don't think a) he knew exactly what they were supposed to apologize for, and b) I don't think any apology would have been sufficient for him.

I have done ministry to Gen-Xers now for over 25 years, and I never found much traction with the classic Evangelical substitutionary atonement model - "as your substitute, Christ died on the cross that you were supposed to hang on - Jesus saved you, so you owe him your allegiance." But I always get a response from the Prodigal Son redemptive story: 'the Father is waiting and watching for you to come home.' Our church gravitates toward a spirituality of belonging and exploring and finding one's identity in Christ and the god-bathed universe. "Home" is a significant spiritual concept for Gen-Xers. Parenting is huge for them, even though they have had to make it up on their own. (That's okay - most cultures always have.)

Along with a small set of spirtual direction tools, I use Attachment Theory to sort through the problems of congregants. I use it to formulate discipleship patterns and plans. Contemplative spiritual, with its emphasis on "true self" (god-defined self) versus the "false self" (sin self) plays well in an adult, mid-life Gen-X church ethos.

And I have decided to incorporate the AGI into my retreatant intake information. I will conduct my own research over the next three years and attempt to correlate my findings with spirituality preferences and denominational upbringing. This should result in a better emotional/spiritual health of the retreatant. I hope the same can happen throughout the church as well.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Measuring Closeness to God

Yesterday at the office I tossed around a link to an Attachment Inventory, which I learned about while in DMin class. Please feel free to take the inventory. Here is the link:


It takes about five minutes. Be careful: you can fake it (skew it) if you so desire to fool yourself and others - but there is nothing helpful there. (Then you'll need to take the I-Lie-To-My-Self-And-Others  Inventory.)

Just so you know, this relates to my doctoral thesis. I am beginning to chase down some types of survey metrics regarding "how close to g-d are you?" This is very slippery data to collect. Most Pew, Gallup and Barna measure satisfaction with g-d or church - but not closeness. The typical survey may pursue spiritual formation practices and habits. That's good. But measuring moral behavior is NOT really a measure of closeness to g-d. Still, it may be as good as it gets. Unless there is another approach. There might be.

I am pursuing the idea of "attachment" to g-d. There is another inventory called The Attachment to God Inventory. I have it, but haven't set it up yet as a test with the appropriate profile questions... "Age, gender, denomination, etc.") The results will briefly explain the measurements.

Of course we all know there are "lies, damn lies, and then statistics." But we are left to attempt to establish some ground to stand upon - even though the ground shifts.

Stay tuned. And have fun with the inventory. You may wish to have your sig other or spouse take it too. Makes for nice discussion - unless your Dismissing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What Resurrection Means

He has risen indeed!

A far cry from merely a non-physical “spiritual” rising, Jesus’ physical body actually rose from the dead.  Jesus was NOT just resuscitated like his friend Lazarus.  No, Jesus took up his life again in a new re-created body (Jn. 10:17).  He still had his wounds (Jn. 20:27).  Yet his wounds seem to cause no pain and certainly were not fatal any longer.  What kind of body did Jesus have?  We cannot truly say:  it was still his same flesh even though some thought he was a ghost (Lk. 24:39); but Luke uses this moment to demonstrate Jesus’ real physical flesh and bone.

I am surprised how many Christians think Jesus rose only spiritually and that we too will float off to some far away place called heaven as disembodied spirits.  Remember this:  Jesus comes back to earth (Acts 1:11).  He returns.  Paul says we shall all be changed... the perishable becomes a new imperishable flesh (1 Cor. 15:42 Cf. v.52). 

Some uninformed Christians think this earth will be swept away, burned up and gone.  They are partly right - 2 Peter 2:10ff says the earth will be burned, but it is not a vanquishing fire, but rather a purifying fire - more like purifying gold, refining a precious metal.  The world’s evil “amalgam and dross” must vaporized.  “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and new earth, the home of the righteous” (2 Peter 2:13).  Paul says that all of creation is waiting to be reborn (Romans 8:19-25).  Things remain the same and yet they are new.  There is “sameness” and “newness” together.  There is “continuity and discontinuity.” Jesus was still Jesus - but he was different.  He could eat fish and yet appear in the upper room (Lk. 24:42; and 36). Like Jesus’ body, the trees and mountains, even the mosquitoes and cockroaches will be remade!  Our world will look familiar to us but it simply will not be the same.  How else could Peter call this “new” place “home” (see the above quoted passage)? 

Two points then:  one, stop thinking that resurrection means “disembodied spirits going off to heaven.”  The word “resurrection” does not mean that, never has. Two, we have work to do.  Paul says that each one’s work will be tested as though with fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15).  The wood hay or straw is consumed and worthless.  Ah but the gold and costly stones remain.  Somehow these “works” remain and are used in the kingdom of Jesus here on the new remade earth.  I have an idea that what remains will be not only the gospel proclaimed - evidenced by the resurrected people standing there!  But I think our works of justice and love will remain.  How often does Jesus or the massive witness of the prophets and the Psalms need to tell us the heart of g-d is with the poor and the oppressed?  Righteous deeds are deeds done to make economics and politics RIGHT. 

With Jesus’ resurrection the whole world changed.  All of creation was notified that soon it will be remade (Col. 1:23).  Likewise, the devil and evil has been put on notice.  We are the victorious warriors - we, the church, are in charge!  We’d do well to act and behave as though the resurrection is an actual historical event, a reality like the Apostle Paul thought about it (Phil. 3:7-11). 

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

He has risen indeed!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Now is the time to get on with Lent

Spiritual transformation is about the right time and the right place - not the "what," but the when and where.  We will change our normal living pattern.  For the Wilburn, we will eat peasant bread and drink a juice drink from the juicer on Mondays.  The kids will complain.  But the plan is disruptive.  As Rev. Dr. Craig Babb says 'we need a holy irritant".  Force something to irritate your day.  One person plans to write down three things they are grateful for each day.  This practice of gratitude is super.  It will work if she chooses the right location and time to write and ponder.

Someone else was going to clean out a junk drawer or closet each week.  If you do this, I'd lay all the stuff out on a table and then observe and journal the standout items.  Answer, "Why was this pen important?  Why was this ruler so precious?  Did my child use it in kindergarten?"  Then we chase down the memory:  look at pictures of when our child was in kindergarten, and think about how time flies, what has changed since then... who are we now, who have they become.  What tragedies have come and gone; what hope and dreams have come and gone - what are we still waiting for? 

This is the desert journey.  This is the power of restive prayer - a pondering; a turning our heart toward g-d.  This is Lent.   Do not let Lent slip out of your fingers.  Right now, today, gather your determination and commit to some practice.