1. Why Love Makes Us Nervous

1280--Are-You-Sort-Of-A-Loser-Dont-Worry,-It-Means-Youre-Probably-Really-CreativeI was talking to a Christian pastor a few months ago and he was asking about my theology.  Which, just a side note, anytime someone asks about your “theology” usually means they think you’re wrong and want to show you how they’re right.  Doesn’t that sound like a fun conversation to be a part of?  Anywho, I began with sharing that I think God is love, at which point he quickly interrupted me by saying, “But God is also just, and holy, and…”  Well you get the picture.  Sigh.

I’ve noticed for some reason, many religious people are nervous with the idea that God is love.  It’s like they assume you’re not saying something else or they want to add on a bunch of other amendments of their own or something.  However, here it is in black and white in the Bible.

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. -1 John 4:8

Notice it doesn’t say “God is loving”.  That would mean it’s a part of who he is and he can be loving just as easily as he can be hungry.  God is more.  He is the entire definition of love.  His whole being and character demonstrate the completeness of love.  If he were to not love, he would not be God.

This is important because it helps me trust him.  Honestly, I wouldn’t trust any other kind of God.  I can’t trust the God that’s out to get me, or the God that’s just putting up with me, or the religious one with all the amendments.  If we’re really talking about meaning, faith, and eternity here, then I’m sorry, God has to be love.

That’s why he makes us nervous.

A few years back, Laura and I were in counseling.  The church I was pastoring was circling the drain and her career was taking off.  She is ferociously independent and ambitious and I was feeling insecure and like a failure.  You could see why we needed some help.  One particular counseling session we started arguing about dishes and the kids and finances.  It was starting to get heated and the counselor looked at me and gently asked, “What’s the real question Kyle?”

I quickly fired back, “Well, she’s not being supportive.”  Then I launched back into the dishes / kids / finances argument.  We went on for a few more minutes until our wise counselor asked again quietly.  “Kyle, what’s the real question you have for Laura?”

It was then I blurted out, “I’m scared you’re going to leave me!  Okay!  Because you’re better than me!”  I then turned to her with tears in my eyes and asked,  “Are you going to leave me?!”

The room fell silent as we all sat staring at the bomb I dropped in the middle of the room.  I remember feeling naked and horribly vulnerable.  I had handed Laura the power to destroy me.

You know that’s why God being love makes us nervous right?  If he were anything else, we could remain in control.  If he were out to get us we could hate him.  If he were just putting up with us we could resent him.  If he were the religious one with all the amendments we could work the system.  It’s terrifying really, if you think about it,  God being love.  It moves us closer and closer to the real questions of life that we work so hard to avoid.  It’s a nightmare to lose control.  No wonder some people prop themselves up on being right.  That’s far less risky than the alternative.  No wonder religious people stick to denominational distinctives and culture wars.  After all, if we put ourselves out there and ask the real question, God could, well, leave the room.

I wanted to start here because while there are some that get nervous and cling to control at hearing God is love, there are also some with a different reaction.  Just like there are some that get invited to a party but never come, there are others that don’t deserve to be there in the first place.(1)  See, there are some, at hearing God is love, stop what they’re doing and look you dead in the eye.  Emotion floods their eyes, and hope rattles their voice as they ask, “Really?!  I had always hoped that he was!  Are you serious?  He really is love?  Please, please, can you tell me more?”

This is written to those kind of people.  I hope you don’t deserve to be at the party either.

Now we’re getting to some real questions.

1.  Luke 14:15-24

2. Taking It Personally

breakup-quotes-hd-wallpaper-18I used to think sin was all that fun stuff God is keeping from us.  He was like the cosmic killjoy just dangling things in front of us, wondering how we’ll respond.  After all, he’s out to get me and waiting for me to screw up.  I kept having trouble reconciling that thinking with Jesus who had a reputation for being a drunk and glutton.(1)  You don’t get that kind of rep being the prudish, judgy guy with your arms crossed in the corner of a party.

Eventually, I started seeing sin as that stuff that makes me awful and evil and ugly.  His son acted as a sort of cosmic Purel allowing God to get within vicinity of me.  God was merely putting up with me while I bumbled through this life.  I could almost see him rolling his eyes and sigh every time I’d mess up like a tired babysitter cleaning up spilled spaghettios for the fifth time that night.  But again, I had trouble reconciling that picture of God with Jesus who enjoyed, liked, and even preferred spending time with the worst of sinners.  It was one of the main reasons he got himself killed.  The religious hated that this “holy man” felt at home with sinners.

My view of sin started to shift again after I cheated on Laura.  Her and I were dating toward the end of college.  I didn’t know a thing about boundaries or what a healthy relationship with a girl looked like.  My life was like a city whose walls were reduced to rubble.(2)  Honestly, it was just a matter of time.

I remember the night Laura came over to my apartment and I told her what happened.  I was sitting on the carpet and weeping at her feet.  I remember the embarrassment of answering her questions and the pain of realizing I wasn’t this “Godly man” I was trying to impress her by these past few months.  Most of all, I’ll never forget the look on her face.  It was a look of deep excruciating loss and betrayal.  In her eyes was a tremendous sorrow and even mourning.

Trust had died.

Since that day, I look at sin much more personally.  I believe it effects God in a visceral and intimate way.  I think he experiences the hurt of betrayal and the effects of trust broken.  With the cosmic killjoy God, he becomes a cop on the side of the road that I slow down for while passing and then go back to speeding the moment I’m at a safe distance.  Some people keep God at a safe distance their whole life for this reason.  With the cosmic Purel God, I can keep this arrangement to a contractual agreement.  God becomes a vending machine I insert a prayer to and out pops forgiveness.  Some people go to church their whole lives for this very reason.

My favorite story in the Bible is about the time Peter and Jesus go on a walk along the beach.(3)  Peter had just sinned royally and Jesus’ response is intriguing.  He gently asks Peter during that walk, “Do you love me?”  Of all the things to say as a response to sin.  I would have expected, “I told you so!” from the cosmic killjoy or “How are you going to fix this?” from the cosmic Purel.  But “Do you love me?”  Talk about the real question.  The humility and vulnerability of that question.  I can almost see the pain and betrayal in his eyes.  I’m sure everything in Peter wanted to run back to the cop or vending machine images.  This is getting scary close.  Yet, Jesus leans in closer and whispers again, “Do you love me?”

And that is the question, isn’t it?  It’s the question of every human being that has ever lived, including Jesus himself.  It’s the cry of humanity.  God dared to make things terrifyingly personal.  In his eyes was the same loss and betrayal as Laura and countless others.  God refuses to keep us at a safe distance or reduce things to some impersonal agreement.  He shoves aside our cop and vending machine images and is willing to make himself vulnerable and open to an even worse rejection.

Perhaps now would be a good time to pause.  I’d like to spend a few moments on the carpet and at his feet.  I want to allow that question to wash over me.  I want to resist the other images I try to make him into. I want to look him in his eyes.  I’d like to finally get honest no matter how painful.  Most of all, I want to answer him.

What will be your answer today?

1.  Luke 7:34.  Also, take a look at all the times the rejected, marginalized, and oppressed felt at liberty to interrupt and approach Jesus.  You don’t act that way around someone unless they were radically approachable, gentle, and even whimsical.
2.  Proverbs 25:28  Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.
3.  John 21

4 Encouraging Changes Happening In The Church

While there are plenty of articles being written about what’s wrong with the church (some I have written myself) I thought I’d take some time to share some positive ways I see the American church changing.

1.  Less Power.  The church has rapidly shrunk in the U.S. along with the religious right losing much of its influence.  We’ve lost much of our influence in culture and our meager attempts to protest a movie or company only seems to increase sales.  While some Christians feel cornered, I feel hopeful.  See, we’re playing on a level playing field and this has a way of purifying motives.

Last year, I arranged a meeting with several pastors in Bellevue to meet at the city hall.  City officials were there to share about the needs of Bellevue.  What struck me was how eager these officials were to serve alongside the church.  Now that the church is no longer a threat to push it’s selfish agenda, it opens opportunities to partner and serve.  When the church is no longer in charge, it humbly requests to join.  Historically speaking, the less power the church has, the more it grows.  Let’s never forget Christianity was given to an oppressed people and Jesus was a homeless carpenter.  While the church has attempted to co-op power for good, Jesus likes to expose power as a fraud.

2.  Forgetting Nostalgia.  Younger generations have grown so weary of the “Take back America” rhetoric that permeates so many traditional churches.  The church mourns prayer no longer in the public school or marriage no longer for just a man and woman.  However, this nostalgia of a “Christian nation” is false.  We were never a Christian nation unless you consider drinking fountains for certain races and women unable to vote “Christian” as well.

Thankfully, the church is turning to the future.  We’re beginning to imagine what God may be doing next and looking for ways to get involved.  The church is getting creative again because thinking outside of the box becomes easier when you were unimpressed with the box in the first place.  “What if” is replacing “what was” in a refreshing and even reckless pace.  There has been a boom in our nation of young church planters eager to dare, innovate, and dream.  As Erwin McManus puts it, “The church was never supposed to be known by it’s grip on tradition.  The church is supposed to be known for its love for humanity.”

10515245_10152719466610799_9180450038622642757_o3.  Together Is Better.  There was a time in America when people assumed you went to church and their question for Sunday was “What denomination do you belong to?” We can again thank post-Christendom for moving the church along.  Now, many younger pastors are eager to work together with other pastors regardless of denominational ties.  They are laying down their individual church distinctive in favor of accomplishing more together.  This unity can be extremely powerful.

Imagine if your church decided to rally and serve a needy public school in a low-income area.  You spread bark, help teachers prepare their classrooms, and paint some walls.  When the work is over, I imagine the faculty and staff will be thankful. They would surely think, “Wow, that church is really great!”  You may even get a nice note you could share with your congregation the following Sunday.
Now imagine, if it wasn’t just your church serving that school but ten churches in your city.  The faculty and staff will no longer think your particular church is great.  They’ll be forced to think God is great.  This is the wonderful power of unity and churches are beginning to catch on.  A friend of mine likes to ask people how many churches are in the city.  As people take guesses, his trick question is inspiring to me. There is only one.

4. No Need To Check Doubt At The Door.  For many traditional churches, they base the identity of their congregation on what they agree upon.  For some time, disagreement equaled disunity but this is changing.  Churches are making room for questions and other opinions.  They’re not merely settling for uniformity but daring to dream of what Jesus really meant when he prayed we’d be one.  A diverse group of people centered on Jesus really is possible.  Faith and doubt are not competing ideas but in actuality, make great dance partners.  This change is incredibly attractive to people investigating faith because belonging is seen as a priority over believing.  For example, see this text conversation I had earlier today:
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Aren’t we all going to find out we were a little wrong about our beliefs when we meet God face to face?  I know I will be.  Actually, that’s one of the only things I’m certain of.  If that’s the case, shouldn’t we extend the same grace we give to ourselves to others.  No one church has the corner market on faith.  People have grown tired of looking for that one church that finally got the Bible right.  Instead, the church is becoming more comfortable with it’s doubt, questions, and disagreements and what they’re finding is new sense of belonging.  On Sunday’s, we gather here because we’re not all the way there.

Tonight I’m hopeful for the church.  I think God loves people so much that he’ll move in spite of his followers.  At the same time, God is patient enough to use anyone, even me.  He’s like a father who allows his young son to help him hang a painting on the wall.  He doesn’t need his kids help and most of the time, his kid just gets in the way.  Truth is, he’d get done a lot sooner without his son’s “help”.  But that’s not the point, is it?  The father just enjoys working alongside his child.  The painting will get hung eventually.

Tonight, I’m taking my eyes off all the holes in the wall (some I put there myself).  Instead, I’m finding hope in a patient father and imagining a beautiful painting.

Dear Pastor, You care more about Easter than we do.

I spent 14 years as a full-time vocational pastor in the local church.  That’s 14 Easters I helped plan, advertise, and invite people to.  Now that I no longer work in the local church, I’m finding a rather large discrepency between how pastors view Easter and the rest of the world.  Here are 4:

easter-church-invitation-outreach-example1.  Invite Your Friends!   In my last church position, there was so much effort put into creating the perfect invite flyer for congregants to pass out to their neighbors.  Like somehow, a cool graphic is what’s gonna compel my neighbor Jim, on his day off, to walk into a building he’s never been to before, and sing some songs he’s never heard.  Now that I’m no longer working in the church, I’m realizing the invitation Jim would be excited about would be to come over for beers and March Madness.  What if getting Jim through the door of a church isn’t God’s end game?  What if Jim will never trust the pastor behind the pulpit but might just someday trust me?

2.  He Has Risen Indeed!  I remember methodical planning months leading up to Easter and the whole church staff counting down to the big day.  This year, I honestly forgot this coming Sunday was Easter. (1)  It’s not that I don’t cherish an empty tomb and hope for the entire world. Instead, I’m finding I need Jesus to raise me from the dead every morning, not just once a year.  Sure, I like to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with other people, but that’s a distant second to my time with God in the car every morning as I cross the bridge into Seattle.  I want his promise to impact me every day, not just once a year.  What if, by making the resurrection such a big deal once a year in churches, pastor’s accidentally diminish this reality for an average Tuesday in October?

3.  The Big Show.  Wow, what a production Easter has become in most American churches.  We used to increase the size of the band, decorate like crazy, and even drop 10,000 easter eggs from the sky.  Now I just see it as a desperate child trying to gain attention from their parents.  “Look at me!  Look at me!”  churches scream while clinging to relevancy.  What if God’s asking us to trade relevance for respect?  What if we gave up the big show and used that budget to serve the needs of our community instead? (2)

4.  Don’t Miss It!  We would often bulk up our volunteer efforts, parking lot flow, and seating in anticipation for lots of visitors on Easter.  The place would be packed and we’d go home patting ourselves on the back for a job not well done.  See, most visitors go to church on Easter (and Christmas) for a sort of guilt relief.  They feel some distant sense of obligation and I can’t help but wonder how the church reinforces this mentality.  I can’t help but think evangelical churches become functionally Catholic on Easter.  Ironically, Easter’s hope is that there is no longer any separation between man and God.  The debt has been paid in full.  We freely give to others because God has given freely to us.  We avoid sin because Jesus has died for our sin.  We even can go to church, because… we don’t have to go to church.

So what am I doing this Sunday?  It’ll probably involve wrestling my boys and flirting with Laura and sure, we’ll probably we’ll go to church as well.  What am I doing Monday?  Now, that’s the question I believe more on God’s mind.  That’s the question that could change the world, starting with me.  That’s the invitation the world is daring the church to offer.

1.  I was, however, counting down to the Walking Dead season finale the Sunday before.

2.  “Quit your worship charades.  I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more.  Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!  You’ve worn me out!  I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,I’ll be looking the other way.  No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening.  And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up.  Clean up your act.  Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer.  Say no to wrong.  Learn to do good.  Work for justice.  Help the down-and-out.  Stand up for the homeless.  Go to bat for the defenseless.  -Isaiah 1:13-17