Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Sow Sow New Year, Pt 1

"Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many day you will find it again. Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land."

Signs of the economic convulsions of our times are everywhere. There is new violence in the Middle East. Scandals continue to plague the government, the private sector and the Church. Confidence in the notion of a better tomorrow is in a tailspin. What should we be doing in times like these?

I believe Ecclesiastes 11 gives us the answer through a couple of powerful images: One of these images is to "cast our bread" another is to "sow our seed". Sowing must take place in good times and in bad. We can't predict things beyond our control. We can't wait for "the perfect time" to sow new seed. In this passage, God gives us a wisdom for all times (good or bad): keep on sowing (see verses 1 through 6). You are, in fact, living today off of seed you sowed yesterday. The person who tries to live today off of seed they sowed this morning (or plan to sow next year) is in trouble.

In urging us to "cast our bread upon the waters", the writer is not calling us to feed the ducks at the local pond. A more literal rendering of the Hebrew helps us to better understand his point:

"Send your substance [out] over the face of the water [i.e., the sea] that you may find it [again] many days hence."

To send our substance out "over the seas" is to make an investment. It is the language of exploration, of trade, of discovery. It is to put ourselves and our "substance" out there in seven or eight different ways. "You do not know what disaster may come upon the land."

Circumstances are not always under our control, but if we have been actively extending our time, talent and treasure in broad ways, we will be far less subject to the kinds of crises that inflict those who "put all their bread in one basket", so to speak.

This is not only good financial advice (diversify!), but it is a recipe for living. In good times and bad, we need to continue to press out into the potential opportunities -- to cast our bread and sow our seed -- in a variety of places where it can be blessed. In my next post, I'll write more about what this might look like, continue to refelct on the Ecclesiastes passage, and begin to make some practical applications you may find helpful.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Trillion Dollar Christmas

This Christmas, I am in awe of how many people are suddenly in severe financial crisis -- and not far away people on the other side of a TV screen -- but people I personally know. I can't believe how crazily the "Big Three" automakers are reeling while banks are changing hands right and left or folding up altogeter like a cheap umberella.

I can't believe all the empty storefronts (large and small) and the la-de-da way the US Government is throwing around words like "trillion" and the State of California is throwing around words like "15 Billion" (that's shortfall dollars, not burgers served). I can't believe this guy Madoff and his gift for pulling off a $50 BILLION dollar swindle right under the noses of his "regulators". I can't believe this Governor in Illinois or the other political song and dance men. It's like somebody changed the channel in America from The Brady Bunch to Saw II without giving us a chance to crawl under the covers.

In the midst of this madness comes Christmas, like it does every year, with its echoes of Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis and Charlie Brown. This year, however, there is a chill in the air - and I don't mean Global Climate Change. This Christmas, the lights are up but nobody's home. In fact, people are lucky if they have a home to come home to at all. It's a strange new version The Christmas Story where, instead of receiving his "major award", Ralphie's dad gets foreclosure papers posted in his front window and then drives his Oldsmobile into a ditch.

Churches are hurting too, and charities like the Salvation Army. The other day I was at South Coast Plaza where a female bell ringer was standing silently next to a kettle ("bell ringing" is now forbidden at tony malls, so it seems). In another nearby community, some mega-Grinch complained about a Salvation Army representative being allowed on Post Office property, even though this had been going on for years. They're "anti-gay" -- those Salvation Army storm troopers -- and have to be stopped says he. The powers that be said "oops" and moved the offending bell ringer to another location where far less money would be collected for a charity that is broadly recognized for its generous kindness to whosoever will. Dear God, is this what Christmas in America has come to?

My point is that sentimental Christmas is not up to this perfect storm of political correctness, financial crisis and collective fear and loathing. Santa's sleigh is stalled in line at the WalMart and not even Rudolph's red nose can penetrate the gathering gloom. O'Reilley might be handing out "Merry Christmas" bumper stickers, but instead of being a familiar traditional greeting, the phrase has become a defiant political statement along the lines of "hell no, we won't go".

What we need is REAL Christmas -- the Jesus-centered kind. That's because the Bible reminds us that the First Christmas took place during a period of political oppression, social turmoil and religious sterility. "That", God said, "is the kind of environment that is just right for my Messiah to come". This is the Jesus, the True Gift of Christmas , that we need in times like these. He is the One who climbed into this world "silently, so silently" before shaking us to the core when the time was just right.

Yes, God was at work in the most unlikely places and through the most unlikely people during the most unlikely times when His Son took on flesh and blood and walked among us. If Christmas has any real meaning anymore it is that what really matters transcends the contradictory nature of our times and drives right towards the heart of things. If you're looking for THAT kind of Christmas, here's a hint: you won't find it in Bedford Falls or Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. You'll find it, like the shepherds, tucked away and nurtured by those who are in awe of the risk, the simplicity and the power of it all.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

An Interview With Frosty the Snowman

In a JUST MY TYPE blog exclusive, I was able to snag the following interview with the illusive "Frosty the Snowman"...

JMT: So, Frosty, you've been a major Christmas season figure for some time now. How is that kind of fame affecting you?

FROSTY: It can get kind of crazy. The paparazzi are everywhere, I can tell you that, and being that everyone knows I dress in an old silk hat, corn cob pipe, a button nose, I'm not that hard to spot. I hate to admit it, but recently I hired some security.

JMT: That bad, huh? Sorry to hear that. But, moving on...I've always wanted to know: what is it that a snowman actually does anyway?

FROSTY: Well, as you know, I have a very limited season each year in which to make my mark. I usually do a couple TV appearances, run down to the village with a broomstick in my hand and play "catch me" with the kids, stuff like that.

JMT: I assume you've seen the TV biobic featuring you with The Magician and the rabbit and all. Any comment?

FROSTY: Yeah -- total trash! I've been trying to sue those guys for years for that unauthorized biography.

JMT: Wow, sorry to get you so...frosted, Frosty. That really hits a nerve, doesn't it?

FROSTY: You bet. Sure, I've had some run ins with the law and such, but mostly with traffic cops for failing to come to a complete stop -- but that story is way out of bounds.

JMT: On a different note, can you explain the origins of the whole "thumpety thump thump" thing in your theme song?

FROSTY: Sure. Originally it was: "Naaaa-naa-naa-nananana, Frosty" then that ripoff Beatle stole it for Hey Jude before we could get the song out there. So we had to go with something we were pretty sure no one else would want in a song. It was my manager who came up with "thumpity" and -- you gotta admit -- you don't hear that anywhere else.

JMT: Well, look Frosty - it's been great talking with you. Good luck on this year's appearances and all. Is there anything you'd like to say as we bring this to a close?

FROSTY: Yeah. I'll be back again someday...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Still Haven't Found (What I'm Looking For)

"For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10)

There is something about that U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" that never quite clicked with me. These days, however, I have been thinking a lot more about it. Something about it has come to capture the ongoing changes in my spirituality -- especially when it comes to the church.

I love the church -- always have, always will. But in all the years the church and I have danced together, something has eluded me in my relationship with her. I admire her inspired expressions -- the great preaching, the music of praise, worship and devotion that has both brought me to my feet and put me on my face. The care for one another and the sense of history and perspective I have learned from her. The community and connectedness I have experienced within her fellowship. I love it when I see the church engage the great social, moral and cultural issues of our times with integrity, passion and authenticity and I love seeing the vision for life together in Christ being reborn and reshaped in each new generation and in different parts of the world.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

That's the conclusion I came to the other day. I have had moments, pieces, glimpses of "what I'm looking for" in and from the church throughout the decades. There are aspects that have answered my "deep calls to deep" longings for the Kingdom of God I have experienced via church life. But my search continues nevertheless.

As I step our into our new church network endeavor and refocus my life around house church and simple and focused mission, it is awakening something that has felt neglected within me. It feels good -- and a bit strange -- like a reunion with an old friend that is at once invigorating and awkward. Nevertheless, no matter how wonderful things may become in our new endeavor, I'm sober about the fact that there is no perfect and lasting modality of church. There is no church group, no form, no ministry, no leader or doctrinal sweet spot that gets it all done for all time. I have resigned myself to the reality that, while on earth, I will ever be a pilgrim searching for more of the heaven my heart cries out for.

So, for now, what I can say with certainty is this: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for -- but I'm closer now than I have been for a long, long time."

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Not a particularly aupicious or notable age, 53, but I have a feeling I'm going to look back one day and see that my 53rd year was, in fact, an important one in the story of my life. Back when I was 52 (!), I set some things in motion in my life that, going forward, describe a very different arc than the one I have been on for quite awhile. I am told this is a good thing. Whether or not it is good is immaterial at this point. It simply "is".

Having a December b'day is interesting because the calendar is always about to flip to the next year. Minus about 30 days, it gives me the chance to say "well that year was more or less all about...". So here's my list for the past eight years since the new millenium arrived:

2000 - I finish Grad School, Robin's accident, planted the Crown Valley Vineyard. Work at Marriage and Family Matters (the first time)

2001 - Kind of a blur. Full of Robin's recovery. Surgeries. Moved to our present home on Alondra. Church plant continues.

2002 - First of the new wave of college grads (Chris), JeanneAnn begins kindergarten

2003 - Chris and Colleen marry, Vineyard leases building in Rancho Santa Margarita, ministry trip to New Zealand, Robin graduates with BSN

2004 - I go to China with Ray Sharpe and get my world rocked. Robin returns to nursing work.

2005 - I turn 50 (big wup). Andrew graduates Biola and begins grad school at Talbot

2006 - Our 30th wedding anniversary!

2007 - Matthew completes Middle School. Book accepted for publication, rewrite begins (still waiting -- hopefully next April), Robin begins grad school. Colleen (Chris's wife) graduates APU with Masters

2008 - Closed CVV, launch VCMN, return to pastoral counseling, Chris graduates from Pepperdine with MFT degree, Andrew about to graduate Talbot with Masters in N.T. -- gets engaged to Britt!

2009 - Anybody's guess...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shut Up and Give Thanks

More than one person has observed that we have become a nation of whiners. But let's not forget that America is also the only large nation on earth that sets aside an entire day for the giving of thanks.

It is a fitting move for a people who value "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Dennis Prager reminds us that there is no possibility for true happiness without gratitude. That's why the entitled are never happy, he says. If they are blessed, they are only getting what they suppose they deserve. But the man, woman or child who understands that anything good they have in life is a blessing instead of what is owed them has the opportunity to feel that blessing deep within and to lift up their head and say "thank you" -- to God, to loved ones, to anyone who has so endowed them.

I have been working on a new little spiritual exercise lately -- to stop and take a moment in my day to give thanks for everything I see around me. Right now it would be: "Thank You, Lord, for a beautiful place to spend Thanksgiving, for Robin in the other room alive, well and thriving, for my teenaged son, Matthew who is almost as tall as me, bright, kind and mature. Thank you for JeanneAnn and her incredible engagement with life -- she wants to do EVERYTHING and she keeps me moving. Thanks for the food I can see from my chair -- pies, bananas, blessings abundant and for the excitement I feel knowing that Andrew and Britt and Chris and Colleen and Charlie and Annabel and others are going to fill up the next couple days with life and love.
Thank You for the incredible sight of sun glancing off ocean water while darker clouds cast their shadows. Thank You for the opportunity to communicate these thoughts, these sights, these feelings. Thank You for it all".

Happy Thanksgiving! Is there any other kind?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What the Church Can Learn From General Motors

The irony of the recent magazine cover celebrating GM's One Hundred Years of Greatness was not lost on this subscriber to Classic Cars Magazine. A more accurate title for the article might be:

One Hundred Years of Occasional Greatness Punctuated by Several Periods of Not Getting it Right in a Big Way which has Now Brought This Benchmark Auto Maker to its Knees Before Washington to Beg For its Very Survival. Or, something like that.

For a Baby Boomer who hit town the same year as GM launched the enduring automotive icons that are the '55 - '57 Chevys, it's mind boggling to witness this industry giant on life support. Sure, they folded up Oldsmobile's tent a few years ago, but what of it? Every corporation goes through changes, sometimes big changes, in the course of keeping ever-responsive to the demands of the market. But if the old saying is true that "as goes GM so goes the nation", then the nation is in trouble (which, by the way, it manifestly is). But what does this have to do with the Church in the West? Read on...

Christendom is like GM, only with far more than 100 years of greatness to its credit. In Europe, it grew so powerful that generations of Europeans could not imagine a lives -- or even the very State itself -- apart from it. Now, like GM, Christendom is wheezing -- barely alive. Its cathedrals, monasteries and other remnants of influence are scattered about the countryside like old Oldsmobiles and the State Churches are ornamental references to a time that will never come again.

In America, the Church looks alive and well to the casual observer. One can turn on their TV, their radio or their computer and see what appears to be evidence of a thriving spiritual community with money, influence and a bright future. Drive down the street in your Chevy and you can see church after church standing on corners with invitations to "come grow with us"! But this is as deceptive as the rows and rows of gleaming new GM products lined up on a local car lot. The fact is that the traditional church in America is, by and large, about as relevant to emerging generations of Americans as the latest Buick. Like The General, The Church got suckered into thinking that it didn't have to do anything differently in order to command respect and buy-in. Like The General, the time has come for The Church to learn a lesson... fast.

Of course, the Holy Spirit is committed to The Church in a far different way than He may be committed to GM. That means there is hope. But if the plan of the Church is business as usual until the next Great Awakening hits, the road ahead will be more than rocky, it will be like trying to negotiate the Pike's Peak classic on a riding lawnmower. "I know your deeds," Jesus said to the church at Sardis, "you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Revelation 3: 1, 2). Those are words that could be applied to General Motors, but they were written to a Church in trouble. We who love The Bride cannot afford to ignore them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Best Movie in a Long, Long Time

It's called "Young @ Heart" and is a documentary about a real life chorus made up of senior citizens who perform the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, James Brown and a host of others in their own inimitable way. Watched it last night during our traditional Tuesday "Movie Night at the Faris House" and I won't soon forget it. When I wasn't laughing out loud, slapping my knee (or the couch) in joyous disbelief, I was pointing my finger at the screen and shouting "amazing!!!" I confess that I also found myself repeatedly brushing back tears and shaking my head in silent wonder.

The director of the chorus, Bob Cilman, stumbled into this gig in the 1980's quite by accident while helping to serve seniors meals in Northhampton, Massachusets. Since then, "Young @ Heart" (the name of the chorus) not only performs locally, but has actually gone on tour to places as diverse as jails, various locations in Europe and even Hollywood. Since the average age of the singers is 80, the going can be tough. Imagine trying to memorize all the words to Life During Wartime or Schizophrenia as an 80-something and you can see why. But Young @ Heart can not only dazzle you with their rendition of I Feel Good, they can also move you to tears with their version of Dylan's Forever Young or Coldplay's Fix You. Stunning.

Not only is this film uplifting and powerfully heartwarming, it is, to me, a sign of The Kingdom. These are, above anything else, real (average, normal) people -- some of them more truly talented than others -- but all with something to share if we will just pay attention. Cilman's devotion to these seniors is clear, but he does not baby them. He asks alot and gets alot. And we are the benefactors of their hard work.

The glory of God in the everyday, the plain, and "the least of these" comes shining through this remarkable movie experience. Do I recommend you drop everything and watch it tonight? No kidding!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It Takes Courage

I shouldn't like the film The Perfect Storm as much as I do. On a lot of levels, it doesn't give us much to like. The characters are not entirely loveable or admirable, their values and reasoning are questionable, and the ending is, well, all wet. Still, the picture I have in my mind of the Andrea Gail climbing the face of sixty foot waves at full throttle grabs at something deep in my soul. Perhaps it is because it just might be the perfect image of the virtue of courage.

As a stand alone virtue, courage does not get as much attention in the Bible as do faith and love. But there are, of course, places where the need for courage is powerfully underscored. One of these is at the opening of the Old Testament book of Joshua. Here, Joshua, the young leader of the Hebrews and successor to Moses, is standing on the banks of the Jordan preparing to take the land of promise at last. God counsels him to "be strong and courageous, because you will lead this people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous..." (Joshua 1: 6, 7).

In a sort of New Testament parallel verse, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to "be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love" (I Corinthians 16: 13, 14).

Faith may see the vision. Reason may discern the obstacles. Hope may rally the resources. Love may inspire the devotion. But is is courage that shoves the throttle forward in the face of whatever and ruthlessly drives us into the possibilities for better or for worse.

I am reminded by my son's recent engagement that it takes courage to get married. I am reminded by my wife's recovery from her devastating accident that it takes courage to roar back from the brink and pull down a bigger piece of life. I am reminded by my own new call as a Christian leader that it takes courage to defy convention and break new ground. It seems that courage is required if one is to step out and experience anything truly worthwhile.

"Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it" (Ezra 10: 4).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Falling in Love With the Gospel (Again)

My experience at the Organic Church Greenhouse training in Long Beach this weekend had an unexpected (and welcome) side effect -- I found myself falling in love with the gospel again.

This renewed love affair with God's Good News has been sparking up ever since I turned my attention towards establishing the Vineyard Community Mission Network. But things definitely went to a new level this past weekend as I met and heard from several people who clearly and demonstrably love the gospel and believe in its power to change lives.

As a local church pastor, I had been consumed for so long with pastoral care and church life (no regrets, mind you, but true) that a singular passion for taking the gospel to folks who need to meet Jesus on their own turf had taken a back seat in my life. But, that is beginning to change thanks to the new commitment to God's mission that is at the heart of VCMN.

The people who inspired me this weekend ranged in age from a girl 11 years old to several people in their early 30's. One young man had formerly served in full-time pastoral ministry until he made the choice a few years ago to reshape his lifestyle in order to be available to a new call. This led to him take a job in construction and to delve into the underground music scene in San Diego. Before long, he and his wife were opening their lives and their time to the new relationships they were making with people who were not believers -- sharing meals, sharing interests and -- eventually -- sharing Jesus.

One of the folks they befriended was Leonard; a young man whose knuckles were tatooed with letters spelling the words "p-u-r-e e-v-i-l". Leonard also sported tatoos of two naked women on his forearms. A sign that things were changing for Leonard was when he spontaneously began to use a Sharpee pen to paint a sort of bikini covering over the delicate parts of his naked women tatoos in deference to his new friends. Leonard eventually gave his life to Jesus and began sharing Christ with others he knew. This became the basis of a new "church" made up of new disciples who were discovering life in Christ for the first time.

The young man telling us this story was neither boastful nor sensational. Indeed, his presentation was refreshingly matter-of-fact. But there was no missing the deep love for the life-changing power of the gospel in what he shared. He was "the real deal".

The things I experienced at this training quietly affirmed that my own decisions to reshape my life and ministry hold promise if I maintain the courage to follow through. I found myself inspired to not only open my own life and time up to people who need to meet Jesus, but also to influence the people I lead to do the same -- in ways, of course, that are meaningful to them.

One of the central messages I heard this weekend continues to resound within me: our focus should be on generously sowing God's gospel seed in good soil rather than on "trying" to make plants grow. The latter, we were reminded, is something only God can do.

Friday, November 7, 2008

My BIG FAT GREEK House Church

Real life has a way of interrupting our fantasies -- even our Christian fantasies (like the one that conceives all my Christian "brothers and sisters" as a perpetually mature, harmonious happy family). Few environments jump us back into reality more quickly (and sometimes jarringly) than a house church environment.

Sure, in a larger church "family" you can skillfully maneuver your way through the crowd to be with your favorite people before and after the carefully-tailored worship service with the best possible music, first rate preaching and multi-media bedazzlement of the week. But in the house church environment of a dozen or so people, you see quite a lot more of what there is to see about each other -- which can make for some very interesting interactions, indeed.

So that's the agony and ecstacy of real Christian "fellowship" -- not the chit-chat of coffee and donuts in the "fellowship hall" at 11:30 a.m., but the blood, sweat and tears of real human interaction with people who can make your heart sing one minute and sink the next. House church reminds us that, as in the case of our family of origin, we do not necessarily choose our companions for the journey. They are given to us, for better or for worse, by forces beyond our control.

These people are "family" in the most meaningful sense of the word. They stretch our generosity, they delight our hearts, they try our patience, they hold our hand and ask us to hold theirs. They provide us with our best stories and, sometimes, our worst headaches. Living the faith up close and personal with them teaches us irreplaceable lessons about ourselves, about God, about community and about growth and change. There are those of us who won't settle for anything less.

As the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding winds to a close, the narrator and chief character of the movie (Toula) sums up her clan by observing:

"My family is big and loud but they're my family. We fight and we laugh and, yes, we roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. And wherever I go and whatever I do, they will always be there". And all the house church folks said, "amen".

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Faith is Not How You Feel

"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted". (Matthew 28: 16, 17)

I'm a feelings guy. Always have been. My feelings figure strongly into how I see my world. That's why, as a Christian, I have had to pay attention to the way my feelings color my spirituality. Do I "feel" as if God is near? Do I "feel like" I am in His will, doing the right things at the right time? You get the idea.

One of the things that comes up for me specifically in this regard concerns feelings and faith. I notice that as I am moving forward by faith, my feelings can swing wildly between Herculian invicibility and pitiful, whimpering doubt. If my feelings were an accurate and actual guage of my faith, then my faith would be subject to many rises and falls. But the record shows that, in the end, my faith has been a pretty stable and growing thing -- despite whatever doubts I may feel at a particular time. That's because doubt is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is. Even the most faithful (see the passage above) have their doubts -- even while worshipping the Living Christ as He stands in front of them!

In the end, faith is a matter of what we decide to believe in and the actions and behaviors that follow our choice to believe. Don't get me wrong: I love feelings of inspiration as much as anyone (and probably more than many!). But if I only "have faith" when I feel inspired, my faith will ultimately prove flaky.

Maybe that is why the monthly publication of the Billy Graham evangelistic organization was entitled DECISION and not HAPPY HARMONIOUS BLISS.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Go Directly to Hate! (Do Not Pass Go)

For several days, "Yes on 8" folks have been gathering on corners waving placards and expressing their support for the California ballot initiative seeking to define marriage solely as between one man and one woman in our State constitution. A few "No on 8" placards have also popped up around the area, too.

Today, however, "No on 8" supporters came out in force, holding up their signs and whooping it up as cars passed (some honking out support) on a couple busy local intersections. I was floored when I saw several of the signs on display bearing messages that accuse those who disagree with their position as guilty of "hate".

"Don't teach your children hate" read one. Another hand made sign had the four letters of the word h-a-t-e woven in among the message to vote no. Mind you, not one "yes on 8" placard had any auxilliary message suggesting that those who took the other view were hateful or stupid or evil. They were simply advocating their support for the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. But the other side is quite willing to accuse their opponents of "hating" gays and teaching the children to "hate" them, too. It made me wonder what these particular zealots would say to a gay man or woman who, nevertheless, support a "yes on 8" stance (there are some). Do they hate themselves? Are they trying to teach others to hate them too?

This whole issue underscores what is so odious about today's politics. When citizens and politicians take positions on particular issues, they often go directly to accusing their opponents of hate -- of being like Hitler or Nazis and so on. That's a convenient way to demonize the opposition and suppress real debate but it does little to advance our understanding of one another.

Honestly, I felt slimed by what I saw today -- in fact, I felt a little "hated" since I plan to vote "yes" on 8. And those who know me -- and my children -- know that hate has nothing to do with these convictions. Unfortunately, I can't fit all that on a placard.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Song of the "Chocolate" Soldier

C.T. Studd -- his very name conveys potency and substance and his life story bears this out.

In his early years he was a reknowned British cricketeer -- a hero who made his name in sports at Cambridge. Later, however, Jesus Christ became his magnificent obsession. Eventually, Studd left the comforts of home to serve God in China, India and Africa as a missionary. Not only did he serve the Lord on the frontier of nineteenth century missions, but he called many others -- especially students -- into the same service.

Studd was not a man to waste words. He called people to give their all for Christ and His kingdom without hesitation or apology. He had an understandable impatience with those who populated Christian environments but who had never done business with God and tended to flake out or shrink back when challenges appeared.

He referred to them as "chocolate soldiers" who -- though claiming to have a part in God's army -- were prone to melt away in the heat of trial and demand. His comments about these so-called "chocolate soldiers" follows below. As you read them, you may find yourself getting angry and upset about the "chocolate factories" we have built in the life of today's church and Christianity:

Studd wrote --

"To the Chocolate Soldier the very thought of war brings a violent attack of ague, while the call to battle always finds him with the palsy. "I really cannot move," he says. "I only wish I could, but I can sing, and here are some of my favorite lines:

"I must be carried to the skies

On a flowery bed of ease,

Let others fight to win the prize,

Or sail through bloody seas.

Mark time, Christian heroes,

Never go to war;

Stop and mind the babies

Playing on the floor.

Wash and dress and feed them
Forty times a week,
'Til they're roly poly--Puddings so to speak.


Round and round the nursery

Let us ambulate,

Sugar and spice and all that's nice

Must be on our plate."

Over 100 years have passed since these words were first written. Has the pasage of time only made them more remarkably relevant to our own day?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why You Hate Making Decisions

Some years back, I learned something about the word "decide" that I have often reflected upon and shared with others. When you learn more about this word, you will better understand why it is often hard to make decisions.

The part of the word "decide" that is of particular interest is the "cide" part. It is Latin and means "to kill" (as in: suicide, homicide, infanticide and so on). This means that when you decide something you are by the very nature of the act putting some of your options to death. You are killing off choices. You are slaying some things in order to empower others.

As in any death, there can be a natural and important greiving that goes with deciding. People who marry may need to mourn the death of their singleness. People who choose to become a real part of one church must reconcile the fact that they are letting go of another. People who choose to live in the country may need to mourn the loss of the city lights.

When we choose a particular college, career, car, political candidate -- you name it -- we are admitting that we can't keep our options open for ever. The gavel must fall sooner or later and, when it does, something must die. This is the other side of the blessing of free choice.

It seems to me that one of the problems of our times is that we don't like limiting our choices. We want to keep our options open for ever. We want to wait until we have more data, more certainty, more assurance, less risk. Or we may even punt and let someone else make our decisions for us. "It's too complicated" or "it's too painful" we say. "You do the killing for me".

It would appear that too many of those who declare "until God shall separate us by death" at the wedding altar really mean "until something better comes my way". Too many who sing "I have decided to follow Jesus -- no turning back" really mean "I'll try to have the best of the kingdom and the best of the world too, thank you". But, or course, to decide for the Lordship of Christ is to murder the life we might have lived under our own direction. We can't have it both ways. Really. We can't.

I recently decided to change my life in major ways and say "goodbye" to things I loved a great deal including the security of the familiar (something we middle-aged folks learn to cherish). Sometimes, I chafe against this act of decision. Sometimes I wonder if there is a way I can go back and reconfigure it again and again. But, in my more clear-headed and mature moments, I remember all those things that reinforce the finality of deciding: "pick up your cross and follow Me" (the cross being a symbol of death), "you can't steal second base with your foot still on first" (unless, I might add you are one of the Fantastic Four or the lady in the Incredibles -- neither of which apply to me). And, one of my favorite John Wimber-isms: "Faith is spelled r-i-s-k". You see, we must often decide without guarantees, when its not the perfect time to do this or that, when we can only hope for the outcomes we want.

Committing acts of decision, committing that kind of murder is, in fact, the way we grow and shape our lives. Looking back down the chain of things we have decided is our history and our history is pretty much the story of our decisions.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who Do You Care About?

We started a new VCMN facebook group. First, you sign up for facebook and put together a profile (free). Then you can join a group like ours. The group can post topics for discussion. It's a great way to connect.

Today, I started a new topic for the VCMN group to discuss: Who Do You Care About? What follows is my opening post. Feel free to visit our facebook group and read what people are adding or join in with a post of your own:

When we start talking about "mission", it's easy to get quickly overwhelmed. The needs out there are just SO huge. So, a good place to begin thinking about mission is to ask yourself who you care about. It might be a person, a family, a people group (Jr. High Students), a neighborhood, etc. But -- even if you are not exactly sure how to help them -- you find that you really care about them. So who do YOU care about?

For me, I find myself caring about young adults is their 20s and 30s. I care about them because they are really starting to exert their influence on culture and society but, to my mind, so many have been given little real help on how to live life by their elders (including -- and maybe especially -- in the church).

I want to see them become FOCUSED (a tall order in this hyperactive world) and confident. In a day when it is so important to "matter", I want to see scores of them find meaning in the simple qualities of personal character, spiritual maturity and long-term commitment even though these things are not "hot" or flashy. I ache to see the next generation of leaders raised up with their feet solidly planted on terra firma but their arms wide open to the myriad possibilities their lives will provide them to tell the world who they are and who God is in their lives.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lark News - "A Good Source For Christian News"

(Picture from Lark News exclusive story captioned: "Obama Heals Hundreds")

For those who know the pleasure of sitting down with one of those checkstand tabloids that feature Bat Boy, the Prophecies of Nostradamus and the latest chapter in Elvis's post-life life, I give you: Lark News (http://www.larknews.com/) the self-described: "Good Source for Christian News".

This month's Lark online includes the hair raising story of the youth pastor who "dropped an f-bomb" during a church board meeting, or this shocking report straight outta Pontiac, MI:

"Listeners of Christian talk radio were surprised and dismayed to learn that the same slate of programs has been playing on Christian radio stations since 1988, and that the entire fa├žade of Christian radio has been run out of a basement complex in Michigan."

For the record, Lark News has been my source for a certain sort of edification for several years now, and it is my privilege to share it with you. You can even find a handy link to http://www.bonofatigue.com/ ("It could happen to U2") there.

There is no charge to log in to Larknews.com and even read your horoscope (after harsh warnings about the biblical ramifications of astrology). Mine, for example, wisely counseled me: "Don't get bogged down in Leviticus this year". Hmmmmmm -- something to think about, for sure.

So, don't delay: go to Larknews.com and order your "Home Schoolers Gone Wild" t-shirt or catch some of the latest and hotest stories to come over the (Christian) wires.

Building the Perfect Candidate

My perfect presidential candidate doesn't exist. But if they did, they would possess certain qualities that would make them, well, perfect. I will list a couple of them and then invite you to add one of your own.

Let's see if we can build the perfect candidate.

1. They would be unapologetically, consistently and irreversibly pro-life.

2. They would tell us that the wild economic horses have already run out of the barn and propose drastic (even painful) solutions for both the public and private sectors instead of simply throwing more funny money at problems.

3. They would confront the corrupt public education system and tell them that they must now compete on a level playing field with private schools, etc.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Exchange Goes On -- and Escalates!

As I mentioned, I am in an exchange with people over at Alan Hirsch's blog over the place of knowledge and theology in the true experience of the divine. Even my son, Andrew, weighed in over there. Today, Alan re-opened the discussion with more quotes and people jumped right in.

Here's what I put up (prompted in part by a quote someone named Scott pulled from a Brennan Manning book):

Scott, my brother:

I love Brennan Manning, have read a number of his books and heard him speak on several occassions. But, wherever that quote came from, it is just… stupid (sorry!)
Do I really need to throw away EVERYTHING I know about Jesus every five years? Everything? The doctrine of His virgin birth? My fierce conviction (I’m counting on this) that He died in my place? His bodily resurrection? Do I really need to “relearn” all of that? Whatever point about keeping it real with Jesus was trying to be made by the author of that quote is, for me, obscured by the overstatement.

I get it that worshipping our knowledge of God is both limiting and idolatrous. But where I’m struggling is how the alternative is being framed. But, then again, I’ll be straight up enough to tell you I’m coming from an a particular flow of Christian experience and I’m trying to protect something that I believe matters. So here’s the deal…

I love to see God “show up” and blow our minds. I pray for it. I have a lifetime of experience in Pentecostal / Charismatic circles with 25 years in the Vineyard movement to date. But, sadly, I have seen incredibly goofy and even harmful stuff peddled to people in the name of throwing away everything about God so as to be open to the experience du jour (supposedly of Him) and I ache over the harmful backlash I have witnessee, and pastored people through, on the back side. Others, with different backrounds and experiences, may be contending in their comments for other things and I’m okay with that. Maybe they could share a little more about that in future posts.

The very alive church in Jerusalem, in Acts, testified to both the miraculous transcendence of God and to regular doses of “the apostles doctrine”. There is this thing called “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” in Scripture. There is a foundation. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”. Maybe that’s what Alan and others are trying to awaken — first, fear the Lord, then explore the knowledge. Cool. But knowledge, doctrine, the actual intellectual construct of the law and the gospel is never, as far as I can tell, cast aside. Instead, it seems to be necessary to point us to authentic experiences of the divine.

I guess I think of it like this:

If I have a container and it is filled to overflowing with water, then Praise God, my cup overflows. But if I pour water into thin air because I have no container at all, what’s the point?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rationality, Hubris, Faith and the Wild Places of God

I've been in a spirited exchange with some folks over at Alan Hirsch's blog The Forgotten Ways (it's on my blog list). You can follow the thread by clicking on his post about "When Theology Becomes Idolatry" and following the comments. Let me say that Alan's book by the same title is one of the most influential Christian books I have ever read and has been very powerful in propelling some of the radical changes I am making in my life and ministry.

Nevertheless... you can decide for myself if I am missing some important point, but I was sort of surprised by the places the conversation went -- what is being protected and what is being advocated by all (including me).

Here is my last comment post over there to pique your interest:
GiGi and company:

It is exactly about semantics, but that's okay (first definiton of the word "semantics" from Merriam Webster online is "the study of meanings"). And, as Dan Lowe points out, it would be good for us to be clear about what we mean by the word "mind" (and what was meant by the word "back then").

So here's what I mean: the mind is something like the processing center that works with both physical and spiritual realities -- the visible and invisible. The mind can percieve things that are mystery and conceptual, i.e.: the "super" (beyond) natural. But it can also manage data from the five senses, etc.

A sound mind, in my opinion, bridges the invisible, conceptual, "feeling" world to the rational, objective, observably physical world and gets them "talking to each other" between our ears (to borrow Dan's phrase).

That's why I think Scripture recognizes that the natural world reveals things about God and even praises Him, but the Bible also asserts that He is super-natural, beyond nature (including what the mind can conceive and quantify) and not bound or defined by it. I think it's a "both-and" not "either-or" deal.

I'm glad Janet is a student of theology in the apparently formal sense. I am glad she is reading Augustine and the gang and really thinking deeply about God. Alan warns that rationality is one of the biggest causes of hubris -- true enough. But rationality is also one of the biggest causes of sanity -- especially concerning faith.

I guess I want it all. I want a solid, chunky "rational" center to my faith that is orthodox and able to be communicated with clarity. And, I want an "edge" to my faith that presses me into the "wild places" of God and the mysteries of the Spirit and the Kingdom. I just think it gets a little freaky when the edge becomes the center and the center becomes the edge.

Thanks again, everyone, for sharing your thoughts

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pesky Apostles, Part 3, (in which Bill reveals a startling fact about himself)

"I believe there are thousands of emerging apostles that have gifts within them and they are not being released because we don’t have fathers that understand the apostolic calling and the [need to] release them like we should.

I believe we do have many young ministers with apostolic callings who struggle to develop on their own because there is no one in their region that they are connected to that has a heart to train and disciple them into their gifting.”

- "Apostle" John Eckhardt, Founder of Crusader Ministries, Chicago, Illinois

I love that quote. I believe it to be true. I believe that there is a tsunami of apostolic ministry that is waiting to be unleashed but is being held back and untapped. So, it's time for me to confess that part of my interest in contemporary apostolic mininstry is the result of my own growing personal desire to be apostolic. Now, before you start accusing me of latent megalomania, read on...

At the root of it all, I want to start a movement -- but not just any movement. I want to start a movement that inspires and assists other people to start movements. I want to see students start movements on their campuses, blue collar workers start movements in warehouses, factories and distribution centers, educators start movements in the school system, housewives start movements in their neighborhoods. I even want to see techies start online social networking movements in cyberspace.

That's what happens when you start to see the ministry of the Kingdom of God as a boundless network that stretches through everyday people into everyday places instead of a building-centered or superstar-revival centered physical destination.

I believe that the rising tide of network awareness in society in general and the church in particular may call out the ministry of the apostle in a way that our former models of church life and ministry simply could not. Today's "apostles", like those of the New Testament, will not make it about their superstar apostolic status (which, I Corinthians shows, was odious to Paul). As Forrest Gump's mother might put it: "apostles are what apostles do". And what apostles do, in the New Testament sense, is plant outposts of the Kingdom of God into everyday places, situations and people groups until the surrounding culture understands that Jesus is Lord.

I'm still not comfortable with calling people "apostle", but I want to be apostolic. That's because it takes apostolic people to release apostolic people. And apostolic ministry (according to Ephesians) does not stand alone. It stands alongside the mininstry of pastor / teachers, evangelists and prophets. Seems to me that we have plenty of high-visibility "pastors", some notable "evangelists", a very few reliable "prophets". What would happen if this five-fold notion of ministry leadership really came together in apostolic network movements without walls? I'm looking for how this can really happen in our day and in our time.

Today's resource-gulping ministry structures are in for a rude awakening given the economic times we live in. Apostolic ministry is lean, mean and organic. We can see that in the New Testament. We can see it in China and other places around the world today. It may not be too much longer before we start seeing it "for real" in the West.

Until then, I'll just keep praying that John Eckhardt's description of the need of this hour gives way to a new day when elders "eld" as releasing and empowering spiritual fathers, the young men see visions, the servants and handmaidens prophesy and the seed of the kingdom gets out of the warehouses and into the fruitful fields of harvest.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Those Pesky Apostles, Part 2

(A Google image search brought up this picture of "Apostle Randy Brown" and "Pastor Gayle Brown")

Earlier in my Christian life, I was told that "missionaries" are the equivalent of apostles today. I can see some reason to think this since "apostle" means "one who is sent out" and missionaries are sent out to other cultures or nations to preach, serve and plant churches. But I've met a number of missionaries since then that do not strike me as the least bit apostolic. There must be more to being an apostle than being a missionary.

I am beginning to think there is a two-pronged solution to this apostolic mystery. That's because one must recognize the unique role of the apostles (including Paul) who were hand-selected by Jesus and who exercised leadership in the First Century church. By the way, the roll call of N. T. apostles includes some uncommon names such as Matthias (Acts 1:26), Joses (Barnabas - Acts 4:36), Andronicus and Junia (feminine name? Romans 16: 7). I have come to refer to these as "capital A" Apostles. They are the foundational Apostles (Eph. 2:20) who are responsible for "the Apostles Doctrine" (Acts 2: 42), who wrote Scripture and who hold a non-repeating role of influence in the Body of Christ.

On the other hand, one must recognize that not all the Apostles wrote Scripture, not all are well known to us today and, very likely, some of those considered Apostles in New Testament times had much less influence and exercised less far-reaching authority than others (don't worry -- I'm not going Papal here).

I think that such Apostles were more likely to have planted networks of churches and exercised influential leadership within those networks. It seems possible that such "small a" apostles were not necessarily hand-selected by Christ the way Peter, Paul and John were, but were recognized as apostolic by those who were (Andronicus and Junia hold an interesting place in that sense).

This leads me to believe that "small a" apostles may have continued throughout church history to the present time -- recognized and unrecognized as such. I certainly think that some of the "Uncles" I met or heard about in present day China are apostolic. They are not pastors of megachurches or media stars (not possible in the underground Chinese environment), but they influence tens of thousands of believers who meet in small groups, house churches and other network modalities. I don't know whether any call themselves apostles or are given that label by others, but they strike me as entirely apostolic in a way directly reminiscent of N.T. apostles.

At this point, I am still uncomfortable with people introducing themselves as "Apostle Smith" as is sometimes done in certain church circles. On the other hand, it seems to me that the time has come to find some way to recognize contemporary apostolic authority and function in a way that actually means something. In fact, all five of the five-fold people gifts described by Paul in Ephesians 4 need some contemporary re-definition and recognition. We have, as I mentioned in my earlier post, asked far too much of the title "Pastor" in our time. In future posts, I will try to develop this futher.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Those Pesky Apostles

What to do with apostles in our day? For most of my life, I've been content to consign the biblical office of "apostle" to the First Century and be done with it. Some of the qualifications Paul cites for his apostleship ("have I not seen Christ Jesus our Lord..." I Cor. 9: 1) would apparently exclude the idea of legitmate apostles existing beyond Paul's time. Apostles (I was taught from my youth) write Scripture, exercise high authority in church discipline and were selected by Jesus either in the flesh (like Peter) or by a post-ressurection visitation (like Paul). In addition, Paul says that "the apostles and prophets" are at the foundation level of the Church with Jesus being the Chief Cornerstone of that foundation (Ephesians 2: 20). Again, the foundation was laid in the First Century. For a lot of people, that's "Case Closed".

Of course, for some contemporary believers, the case is far from closed. Like Robert Duvall in his film The Apostle, they claim the title for themselves and let the chips fall where they will. There is even a formal association of apostles (the ICA or International Coalition of Apostles) who are "recognized by a significant segment of the church, including peer-level apostles, to have the gift and office of and office of apostle and who have been ministering through this gift for a period of time" (http://www.globalharvest.org/index.asp?action=icafaq). Raise your hand if, like me, you find this to be a tremendously vague, suspicious and unsatisfying set of qualifications.

What is also unsatisfying, however, is the way our refusal to recognize apostolic authority in the present day has left us with a trans-local spiritual leadership vacuum that we have filled by inflating the term "Pastor" to unbelievable proportions. Even in an American context, "Pastor" Rick Warren or Jack Hayford or John Wimber or Chuck Smith or Greg Laurie (just to stay on the West Coast) are "pastor" to tens of thousands or even millions of people.
Since the definition of the word "pastor" goes directly to the role of the shepherd, it's hard to imagine anyone except The Good Shepherd Himself having enough intimate knowledge of a "flock" of that size so that they could be said to "shepherd" more than a few hundred (or less) of them in any meaningful way. But, since we've locked the apostolic office in a First Century cage, we can't go around calling these kinds of men "apostles", though -- as a compromise -- I have sometimes heard such people refer to them as "apostolic" or having "apostolic" gifts without going so far as to formally designate them "apostles". And, indeed -- none of these men have claimed the title Apostle for themselves. So, we now have MegaPastors (you might say) to go with our MegaChurches (and I, for one, am all "mega-ed" out).

In my next post, I'll continue this discussion including my current thoughts about present day apostolic ministry.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bill Faris: Counselee

In addition to returning to my role as a counselor (see previous post), I have also taken this opportunity to take some sessions with my therapist as a counselee. I first began to see Christal in 1988 while in the midst of crisis. Since then, I have changed and, to my surprise and delight, I have found that our counseling relationship has also been able to change as well. She would say that I have found ways to "use her" differently over the years, as needed. I really appreciate that this is possible in a good counseling relationship.

Therefore, with all this new transition going on my life, I booked some appointments with her again. I knew that doing so would help me to better perceive the meaning of this new season of my life experience.

Having observed me for twenty years makes the high price of each session (gulp!)worth paying. That's because I'm not just paying for less than an hour of her time but for our twenty years of accumulated insight, history and connection. It is a fact that, due to the kinds of relationships certain kinds of counseling can produce, no one knows me like Christal. This means that stepping back into session with her -- even after years -- feels like picking up where we last left off.

I have gotten a lot out of this new series of sessions and I feel so grateful for the gift Christal has been to my life. As before, I have left some of my recent sessions with her shaking my head and repeating the word "wow" over and over as I refelct on the things that we accomplish together in such a short time.

The fact is that I'm glad I know both sides of the counseling relationship. There's no doubt that being Bill Faris, counselee better equips and empowers me to also be Bill Faris, Counselor.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Counseling and Me

October marks my return to the role of professional pastoral counselor. It has been eight years since I last fulfilled this part of my calling. Back then, I worked as a part of the Christian therapy group headed by Steve and Linda Bagley (Marriage and Family Matters). I am returning to the same group (www.mfmcounseling.com)effective immediately.

There are a couple reasons I look forward to this with anticipation. One is environmental -- that is, I love the environment that is created between counselor and counselee in the professional counseling setting. It is, at its root, a grace-filled environment where honesty, empowerment, healing, truth and wholeheartedness are given preeminence. One writer calls it a "holding environment" and I have always loved that description. It is as if the environment itself "holds" both counselor and counselee in its warmth and light. Good things can happen in an environment like that.

Another reason I look forward to this goes to a word that has come to mean a great to me lately: Focus. I love the simplicity and focus of the counseling relationship. It is among the most simple and focused relationships human beings create. This focus on the counselee and his or her need introduces tremendous opportunities for things to happen that could not happen otherwise. Sometimes I feel like I am being given the tremendous privilege of watching life happen in someone else and it is almost a holy thing to behold.

I know that there is much more to counseling than this. "Magic" is mixed with hard work, ups and downs, griefs and losses and so on. That's a given. However, there is a part of me that embraces all of those things as normal to the human growth process so that (usually) I can find a way to include them in the tapestry of change and becoming that counseling facilitates.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Greek To Me

Went to the big annual Greek Festival at the St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church campus in Irvine yesterday. The weather was pleasant, the food delicious, the live Greek music infectious and the company (The Farrs, Fosters and Taits joined Robin, JeanneAnn and me) delightful.

I am making friends with a man who goes to the festival every year. He suggested we take the time to take one of the tours of the church offered throughout the festival. So, at 7:30 p.m., we joined Father Steve, the Pastor of St. Paul's, for his "tour" which really turned out to be more of a sit down lecture with Q & A following.

As a building, St. Paul's is impressive. The huge mosaic at the front is an icon of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus. These central figures are flanked by two archangels. Father Steve said it consisted of 1.2 million pieces of gold glass bits (yes, real gold) for a background along with the other multi-colored pieces that make up the figures. Father Steve explained the real gold and painstaking assembly were evidences of the church's value to "invest" in something that brings glory to God. That comment gave me pause.

Above us, the huge rounded dome area of the church featured a scene of the last judgement, also done in mosaic. The Christ figure was seated on a throne and biblical verses regarding love were featured around the base a la "Love One another", "Love Your Enemies", etc. Looking back toward the front were other icons poised along the "icon screen" at the front altar area of the church that included depictions of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the church's namesake, St. Paul. I can't even get into all the other mosaics and icons that were featured elsewhere around the building. Suffice it to say that the Greek Orthodox commitment to iconography and church edifice was (as Father Steve affirmed) very important to their tradition of worship.

After the initial "wow" factor quickly subsided, I confess I remained unmoved by all this "investment" in the glory of God. Whether it is the million dollar retablo recently installed in the Serra Chapel at the San Juan Capo mission or the things we saw at St. Paul's, I find the whole notion of edifice adornment as a statement of worship to be confusing. Father Steve (a nice, very knowledgeable and -- apparently -- spiritually alive man) went to great lengths to explain that the three divisions of St Paul's church building were patterned after the three sections of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Holy of Holies, Holy Place, Court of the Gentiles).

This, at first sounds very "biblical" until one remembers that Jesus predicted that "not one stone" of the temple would be "left upon another" and at no time in Acts or the N.T. Epistles do we see the Spirit inspiring or instructing believers to build a temple, a church or any other building -- even as a prophetic statement that such would be the case.

Of course, one could argue that under pre-Constantinian Roman persecution, such buildings were not possible and that when the opportunity arose, Christians finally did start building away. Fine. But the truly biblical notion is that God's collective people are His living temple within whom He now chooses to dwell. This is when I most clearly experience "the glory of God" -- when His people are truly in WORSHIP and in ACTION (no matter where they are at the time). While Jesus prophesied a time when God would allow the earthly temple in Jerusalem to be decimated, at no time will the Lord allow His living temple to be disassembled and defiled.

In the end, I don't begrudge believers their buildings whether they feature massive mosaics or massive video projection screens. Buildings have a way of enshrining our values -- whatever they may be. I've been in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and in St Paul's in London (along with other churches and cathedrals in England). These are architectural and historical wonders to be sure. But nothing about them inspires a deeper spirituality in me. Ironically, I saw a lot of smaller quaint and beautiful church bulidings (no doubt erected and dedicated to the glory of God) now being used as racquetball clubs, restaurants and other secular puproses now that European Christendom is on the wane. In the end I guess it comes down to the notion that, once erected, our religious buildings need us as much or more than we need them and, in the end, none will pass into eternity -- none except the living stones built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief Cornerstone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Boomer Begs You to Stop Us

I'm a baby boomer, born in '55 (a great year for Chevys and Thurnderbirds). I can still remember the first time I watched a color TV (The Wonderful World of Disney), bought a personal computer (20 meg hard drive - I kid you not) and yes, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the JFK assasination (at school).

Now that you have my boomer credentials, I have something important to say to you younger readers. To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, I have not come today to praise boomer influence, but to bury it. Please, I am begging you, rise up and break out beyond what we boomers have taught you about church, church life and ministry in general and do it quickly! The future of Christianity may well depend upon it!

When it comes to church, we boomers had our work cut out for us and, yes, we accomplished some pretty important things. We are the generation who boldly wrested "church" out of the hands of our elders and freed it from denominationalism, cold traditionalism, theological liberalism and cultural irrelevance. We (boomers) fueled the charismatic movement, the Jesus People movement and the modern missionary movement. We coined the phrases "non-denominational church", "megachurch" and "prosperity gospel". We brought folk and rock music into the sanctuary, mass evangelism to the nations, and TBN to your television screens. And, oh yeah, we also married the church to the Republican party. And this is only where the list begins!

Now that our leading edge breaks into their sixties, we need you to do what we did to our elders and wrest the contemporary church out of our hands and set it free once again.

We boomer church leaders, addicted as we are to the need to be recognized, to "succeed", and to control everything, are killing the church in America and we need you young folk to stop us before it's too late. Too many of us have become enslaved to church trendiness. Too many of our church leaders have succumbed to the lust for ever larger markets for "our ministies" so that we have harnessed the gospel to anything from rank sensationalism to vapid inspirationalism in order to increase our "outreach". Thanks to us, the gospel is now a consumable product that we continually reimagine as an undemanding and sugar sweet "companion for our journey". We have stripped it of its sting and fire and sought to restate it as a validation of our own well-documented narcissism.

So, next generation emerging believers, leaders and pioneers, do your job. Take the life of the church and the message of the gospel back to the people through your gift for social networking and your appreciation for flatter authority structures and teamwork, and your ever-growing awareness of the nations. Start house churches, campus ministries, workplace ministries and internet fellowships that don't require boomer dollars or leadership in order to succeed. Embrace God's call to justice and glocal compassion. Recover the gift of apostolic leadership by establishing fluid networks of empowered believers and call your generation to biblical morality and holiness. Most of all please, please, please ignore whatever we have taught you about how to "successfully grow churches" and listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling you directly instead.

Soon your hands will be on the levers of power and influence throughout the Body of Christ. Soon it will soon be your turn to make your contributions to the ongoing story of God. If you can find any of us boomers who haven't sold out to be your elders, then we will all gain from the relationship. But, if you can't, please start the revolution without us.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Take Your Time, Go Slowly (part two)

Now that the work is done, the people (and animals) celebrate. Something about this has always felt like "church how it ought to be" to me. Watch the earlier video blog to see the "before". What this clip doesn't show you is mass at the "offical" church in Assisi which is cold, dead and stilted.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Take Your Time, Go Slowly (part one)

In this highly stylized dramatization of the rebuilding of the chapel of San Damiano from Zeferelli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon", something is gotten right despite the fact that, throughout the film, Francis of Assisi and his band are portrayed a bit like spaced out hippies on their way back from Woodstock.

Still BSSM remains a favorite film that inspires me. This particular clip and the one showing the celebration at the completed chapel still move me. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What I Wrote to Curtis

Curtis lives in Canada and is seeking to launch a new ministry endeavor where he lives. Like me, Curtis is searching for some specific answers to burning questions about how to engage the mission of God in the next generations and in ways that are not "traditional church" planting.

I've never met Curtis, but we have a mutual friend in Eric Sandras. He (Curtis) seems earnest, sincere and a bit frustrated. He likes the fact that I refer to my present departure from my former way of life and ministry as The Quest and says that he is on a quest of his own.

What follows is a reply to some emails he has sent to me and to Eric Sandras. I thought you might enjoy peeking in on it:

Hey Curtis:

I appreciate the challenge and the promise of the place you are in. I can't believe how many others I'm already discovering who are on their own sort of "quest". A movement of some kind is being born but is still rather undefined. It's beyond the labels such as "house church" or "emergent" or what have you. It is not just about modalities of church life or the changes in our culture. It's about a hunger that God has put in people like you and me that we can't ignore.

A book you might enjoy is Dan Kimball's "They Like Jesus Not the Church". Not only does Dan share the problems, questions and challenges, he also provides some of what he believes to be helpful in addressing the issues raised.

Beyond that, I have gotten a lot out of The Forgotten Ways (Hirsch), Organic Church (Cole), and the very helpful little "Missional House Churches" by J.D. Payne.

I'm not sure exactly how the Wimber quote goes, but you seem to have stated it the way I remember it. Here are two more:
"Faith is spelled r-i-s-k"
"How many more like YOU do you want?"

One thing I have had to give myself permission to do is to slow down. I feel a compelling urgency to discover and to implement my discoveries. Part of this, I have come to see, is about the desire to find validation for the major decisions I have made to engage The Quest. I am learning to let that go and just be.with what God is showing me. I, too, still have TONS of questions, but The Quest has made me a richer man already (meaning I have grown spiritually a great deal through what I have already been learning).

Wax on, wax off! Paint the fence! Sand the Floor! Paint the house! God will show you why your arms ache so much when He's ready...(right?!)

Shalom, Shalom,
Bill Faris

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tweaker Sensitive

As a life-long pastor (making me what used to be called a "churchman"), I have long been aware of the various movements and developments in American church life. Naturally, then, I have some familiarity with the whole "seeker sensitive" notion of church.

Put briefly, the classic seeker sensitive movement produced a reconstruction of church practice away from doing church for evangelical / fundamentalist "insiders". Instead, so-called seeker churches sometimes radically reshape their worship services, classes, outreaches and activities in ways that focus on inviting and including the uninitiated. To say much more than this in the scope of a blog will distract me from my real point which is that -- while we may not have all become "seeker" churches -- many (most?) churches have become "tweaker" churches. That is, their leaders have become aware that they are shapers of church culture and feel increasing liberty to "tweak" things in ways that are informed by the seeker movement, whether they realize it or not.

Take for example the pre and post service greeting efforts and coffee fellowships, the willingness of preachers to dress casually in street clothes, tell jokes and be more self-effacing in the pulpit as they preach "felt need" messages. And, of course, there has been no small adjustment of the music heard in most worship services as well as the incorporation of fairly sophisticated video features.

Churches that would never consider themselves to be "seeker sensitive" are suddenly rushing to alliterate their values in short, punchy words or phrases, offer newcomer dinners, desserts or classes or otherwise up the accesibility of church staff, programs and practices to better engage newcomers. They become, in effect, "tweakers". It's not that they necessarily buy into the seeker sensitive modality wholesale. Instead, they instictively find their own takeaways which they then plug into their already distintive traditions.

All of these seeker / tweaker changes are based on the notion that weekend services are the ground zero of ministry. I can't count how many times I played on that theme as a pastor. My confidence that we had something really good together led to my conviction that if we could just "get them through the front door" (believers or not) they would experience something that would compel them to want more. By this means we would have the opportunity to minister to them more deeply in Jesus' name.

There were Sundays that I spoke about the "empty seat people" (or ESPs) who belonged in those vacant chairs in our worship center. I personally became obsessed with tweaking whatever needed to be tweaked in order to these ESPs to us while being simultaneously haunted by the fact that they weren't really coming much at all. Those who DID show up were nearly always self-identified "church shoppers" (and usually wonderful people) who were either looking specifically for a Vineyard in their area or a church like ours that had a warmth and friendly intimacy they could appreciate. In other words, 90% were already Christians, and, in many cases, already Vineyard-prepped.

Eight years of this brought together a truly beautiful faith community that changed my life and the lives of many of its members forever. However, no more than a handful of relatively unitiated folk fired up a first time saving faith in Christ at our church -- tweaks or not.

Honestly, I would have to admit that a good many of the tweaks eventually became tied to the felt needs of experienced Christians who knew what they wanted in a church as much as anything else. I suspect that large numbers of churches who never felt the call to go fully "seeker" know this turf or are on it even now; and so the tweaking will continue. Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder what would happen if we put as much effort into our going INTO the harvest as we have on getting the harvest to come to us?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When is a Church a "Real" Church?

* When there is a pastor (or leader, or leaders)?
* When there is worship (leader? band? song list?)
* When there is a steady place to meet?
* When regular weekly worship services are open to the public?
* When community outreaches are happening?
* When children's ministry, youth groups, womens / mens ministry and the like come together at last?

I observe that new churches and their leaders, team members and congregations often hasten to add these kinds of benchmarks of church life to their church structures. As these things come on line, it really helps the people involved in the church to feel that they are part of a "real" church that compares well with other more established works. Once their church is a "real" church, they can feel much better about inviting newcomers to try out their church and its programs. By the same token, pastors of "real" churches are not embarrased to talk to other pastors about their work. As in the story of Pinochio, it's good to finally know that the line has been crossed and the "real" has arrived.

Unlike some, I don't roundly reject traditional churches and their various associated ministries. But if those things are what makes a church "real", what about the churches in the New Testament? They didn't have a senior pastor, a worship band, youth groups, sunday schools or other accoutrements of today's churches. Nor do the underground churches in China or the spontaneously erupting congregations being formed in South America and Africa. But they seem pretty "real" to me.

It reminds me of the debate over when a human becomes a "real" human. Is it at conception, birth, high school graduation or when filing taxes for the first time? The people I hang around are adamant that a person is fully human at conception -- they are a real person, a real human at the point they are a simple fertilized egg. Why? Because, all other things being equal, nothing else needs to be added for that newly-conceived life to become a high school grad (so to speak). The DNA is all there. It is embryonic, to be sure, but it is also fully human (it won't grow into a tadpole or a cumquat but a man or woman).

"Where two or more are gathered in My name," Jesus said, "there am I in the midst". That's the embryo of the church. The church's total DNA is present in two or more gathering in The Name, with His promised presence in the midst. In a sense, it never gets better than that -- never more "real".

But what if there's no sermon, no handbells, no altar call? What if there is no VBS or ladie's retreats or recovery groups? Those things are not mentioned by Jesus. They may or may not come later-- who knows? But they won't make that "church" any more "real" if they do.

I believe that it's time we reset the bar and acknowledge that "real" churches are not defined in the ways our traditions and expectations may have led us to believe. Imagine what would happen if we empowered the notion that real churches can spring up in parking lots and bonus rooms, in break rooms and coffeehouses, on campuses and in prisons. Imagine that...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Welcome to the (Churchland) Jungle

That slashing sound you hear comes from my machete as I hack my way through the tropical undergrowth of the church world during this new period of exploration I find myself in.

AS I venture out in any direction from the relative safety of my familiar base camp, I find the path before me choked with new (and not so new) flora and fauna of every description. From high in the trees above me, the sound of screeches, squawks, buzzes and chirps rain down so thickly that I can hardly hear myself think. Let me tell you, folks: it's a jungle out there.

Over in that direction, the thick new vines of classic pentacostalism keep springing up with their claims that God has "touched down" in Redding, or Lakeland or some other locale. Miss this new move, and you will miss all the Lord has for you (and who could live with that?) As I draw close, I can feel the heat but I just can't see the light.

Over in this direction is the stately grove of the Newly Reformed whose systematic theologies and premodern certitudes rise up from the ground like the roots of the sturdy banyan tree. To be sure, this shady shelter provides welcome refuge from the summer heat but it also seems to make it hard for things of variety and wonder to grow beneath their thick canopy.

As I move to the left, I run into the tangled undergrowth of postmodernism where the emergent types have sought to hack their way through to the future. These explorers claim to be clearing a path for the rest of us only to become bogged down in the quicksand of their reactionism and trendiness.

Eventually, I stumble into the old growth forest. There, I find heartbreaking evidence of clear cutting and desolation -- the unmistakable marks of ongoing rampant theological liberalism. How sad it is to see how shamelessly centuries of irreplaceable richness and depth have been exploited by opportunists. Instead of making the land more meadow-like and habitable as promised, they have left it arid and lifeless.

Finally, I arrive at the neatly plowed fields of mainline evangelicalism. As I apporach, I am greeted by rows and rows of highly-cultivated plants standing tall in the afternoon sun. Their tenders stand by and wait for them to fruit but the crops often fail to come in as hoped for. Still, it is impressive to see how neatly the rows have been cut and how much detail has gone into each and every scarecrow that has been raised to keep out the unwanted. As I watch, I see that the hungry only stop by briefly before moving on to search for food that truly satisfies.

These are just the first impressions from my journey so far. No doubt your corespondent will file further reports down the road.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Christian TV, ABC, and the Sobbing Devil

The following thoughts were inspired, so to speak, by something I saw the other day on a Christian TV broadcast featuring an influential midwestern U.S. megachurch.

As I watched, the Pastor was making a big point on the topic of money in a sermon he was giving to the large crowd gathered in the "worshp center" or "sanctuary" or whatever other name the auditorium went by. For the sake of emphasis, he paused (on cue) as a bubbling bass line was piped over the speakers. It was instantly recognizable as a well known pop song featuring the word "money". And then, as if by magic, a shower of paper money (presumably fake) came floating from the ceiling into the crowd like ticker tape, having been shot from some pneumatic dispensers in the rafters. I'm not making this up.

All I could think of was: "I wonder how much money this sermon illustration about money cost". No, actually, that's not true. I also thought: "What on earth must people think of the Church and churches when they see this *&%#@ (sort of thing)". Or when they watch Reverend Wright damn American in the Name of the Lord. Or when they gaze upon a sprawling illustrated panorama of the end of the age standing authoritatively behind the old-fashioned preacher who seems to have the whole thing neatly figured out.

Flip on the tube (or the Godtube) and you too can witness what is being fed to the flock of God from Lakeland to Los Angeles and back and forth again across our nation in these times. Like it or not, these church broadcasts function as a sort of mirror that American evangelicalism holds up to itself. If it was merely a funhouse mirror that distorted the real image for a laugh, we too might chuckle. But no. What we see in this mirror is the actual reflection of what far too much of American Churchianity has actually become. This is what we hold up as the gospel. This is what we give our time, talent and treasure to in order to "reach the world for Christ". Not only are we guilty of guilding the lilly, but we have been doing it with fool's gold.

But then, like a lightning bolt of grace, I have seen a few other reflections glance off the illuminated mirror in my living room -- two truly edifying profiles of American churches in action neither of which were produced by Christian TV people but, in fact, by those crazy folks at ABC. I'm talking about last season's Home Makeover: Extreme Edition program.

The first episode was a two hour special on a Vineyard church in Albuqueque, New Mexico. It introduced us to a humble and godly pastor and his wife and their family who had moved into a run-down neighborhood with a vision to renew it. They opened their home and their lives incarnationally to the people there. They fed them, clothed them and housed them in the Name of the Lord. They taught them the Word of God in both word and deed. They lived among the people in self-sacrifical ways. Their commitment, over time, had begun to reveal the kingdom in a very dark place and was beginning to change things. And so, when Ty Pennington and the gang showed up to add to the story (at their expense, mind you)-- the image of the American church BEING THE CHURCH IN ACTION told a far different story.

Later, the same program featured a largely African-American church that had been ruined in the Gulf flooding. The damage had compromised not only the worship center but the food pantry from which the neighborhood was daily served. Once again, their lives told God's story without hoopla and without padding and the Makeover people stepped up to rebuild the church and re-open the kitchen that feeds the poor. By this means, another ray of divine light bounced through the nation and into the homes and hearts of viewers. Anyone open to the gospel of Jesus, the kingdom of God and the unvarnished church would not find it difficult to smell the difference between the two churches featured in the Makeover programs and so many others that promote themselves on their screens.

The whole business reminds me of another sermon illustration I once heard. In it, a man came across the devil sitting on the steps of a church building, sobbing.

"What's the matter, Mister Devil?" asked the man.
"It's those (darn) Christians," came the reply. "They really get me upset".
"But why?" asked the man.
"Because they're always blaming me for stuff I haven't had the chance to do to them yet."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Taste of Wimber

John Wimber reminded us of what is was like to come to Christ as an "outsider" unfamiliar with the Christian faith. As a believer who came to be a church growth consultant, pastor and, eventually, international leader, Wimber displayed a deep affection for the church as well as a healthy and knowing insight into the games we Christians play with God and each other. At the time I was first exposed to John's ministry, he often pointed out that "God wants His church back". What was true then is even more true today.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Love is Not Enough

One of the hazards of young love is the notion that love, in and of itself, is enough to hold two people together for a lifetime (if that annoying song by The Captain and Tennille is ringing through your skull at this point, I apologize). The fact is that love, in and of itself, does not have the power to do that. As Larry Norman poigniantly observed: "The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up..."

What is true of romantic love (and The Beatles) is also true concerning the powerful feelings of Christian love shared between people in the life of the church. The recipe for the goop that cements lives together long term must include love, of course. But along with "sincere love" (Romans 12: 9; I Peter 1:22) the recipe must also include healthy portions of deeply shared values, commonly held beliefs and a mutual sense of mission. Without these things, love alone will lose its luster and the bonds between people will weaken and even break down altogether.

These things are on my mind a lot as I lead in the launch of a demanding and radical new ministry endeavor called the Vineyard Community Mission Network. Our core group mostly consists of people who have come to deeply love each other (and me) as a result of our lives together at the Crown Valley Vineyard. As much as I appreciate the power of these bonds and respect the trust these folks have shown in me as a leader, I am also aware that love will not be enough to harness us to our mission. Love alone is not capable of energizing us to mutually accept its demands or fulfill its potential. For this to happen, our people have to buy into a different philosophy of ministry, a new set of beliefs and values and a distinct new routine (way of life) if they are going to make it through the crucible of change together.

For this reason, I have strived to not only communicate a new vision, but to also educate people about the values, facts, philosophy and scriptural keys that inform this vision. Now that a month has passed between the loss of our former point of church identity and the implementation of our new mission, I can feel the transitional strain testing some of our people. As I note this, I am convinced that those who take the time and trouble to thoroughly investigate the new paradigm I have been promoting and buy into it will likely be with us months or years from now. Those who don't won't. It's that simple.

The good news is that these are decisions that will be made in spite of our enduring love for each other and not only because of it. That's because love is not, in and of itself, a commitment. It can only lead us to the point of making commitments (or choosing not to). Togetherness, mutuality and long term commeraderie are based on things that go beyond "mere" love.

Those who have already opted out of our new endeavor, or who will do so in the future, will most likely still love me a great deal. And, of course, I will still love them, too. Love, after all, always perseveres (I Corinthians 13:7). But if we are going to embrace the changes, the sacrifices and the exciting possibilities of our new endeavor, we will need a lot more than love.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Ray Said

Okay, I can see that I never did really tell you what Ray said when he called (after suggesting that I would describe that, at least a bit). This will be brief.

Ray encouraged me about the steps of faith I (we) are taking in launching our community-based ministry network. He said he wishes he and his wife could be out here with us to help kick things off. Ray believes in what we are doing and, along with me, is still reflecting on how the things we have shared in the past will roll out into the things we will share in the future. Ray wanted me to know he believes in the vision, concepts, principles and plans I am promoting.

He went on to talk about their role in their new church home in Illinois. There are some great things happening with this church and Ray has already been asked to teach a series on evangelism, etc. But before taking too much of a public role, he wants the new young pastor to find his voice in this new congregation first. Ray is very wise.

He also pointed out some of the classic potential problems (burnout, etc) that could be brewing around this exciting new work. Ray and his wife are looking for ways to be a blessing without feeding some of the things that could ultimately undermine long term health and soundness. And, oh yeah -- Ray's wife is already enrolling people from their new church to go to China! Now, there's a surprise (not).

Ray loves the church -- from the Chinese Underground Church to the American church (large and small). But he also knows the pitfalls, hazards and inbred weaknesses of church life and tries to be honest about those things without letting them rob him and others of the blessings of church life. When I think of the Ephesians 4 gift of "Evangelist", I think of Ray (and only a few others). That he believes in what we are endeavoring to accomplish lifts my heart -- and that he called to tell me so refreshes my commitment.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ray Called (Part Two)

After speaking with Ray for a moment, he told me he felt impressed to call me. That didn't surprise me because there have been times I have also felt moved to call him too. My brother calls these mysterious and invisible impulses: "the coconut wireless".

Ray has taken on a major new direction and challenge in his life in beginning an oil company, Bethel Oil, and starting a few wells in Illinois. It has been many years since Ray was in the oil business. He had long ago left that world behind to answer a call to serve the Lord in China. A couple years ago, God called him back to the fields. At the time, oil was going for about $50 a barrel.

Ray's vision is that funds produced from the fields could be used to support missions and ministry all over the world. It's a great concept. But getting oil out of the ground requires far more than a great concept. Watching Ray find investors, work with his exploration team, prepare studies, secure drill rigs and workover rigs, try various methods to overcome obstacles, deal with weather, push through exhaustion, prepare reports, do endless paperwork, secure and maintain land leases and everything else has only raised my respect for his ability to see something through from the A to the Z of it. At this time in my life, I admire people who can work hard by faith -- perhaps for a long time --before they actually see the rewards of their labor. In our instant gratification society, it is a shining gift.

That's why Ray's call uplifted me so. Like him, I have recently changed my life in a big way. Like him, I am developing a vision that will first require a great deal of endurance before the fruit will appear. I am no oil man, but I am pioneering a new endeavor of a different kind that requires a new team, a new level of learning, a new approach and a new philosophy of ministry as well as a new lifestyle. In other words, Ray and I are each "betting the farm" on things that can only be validated in the actual doing. It feels good to talk to someone who knows something of this path.

Will Ray find lots of oil? Who can say for sure. But he's risking everything he has because he believes it is what God is asking of him. Will I succeed in developing an intergenerational community-based ministry network after having been a traditional local church pastor my whole life? Who can say for sure. But I am also willing to spend that acumulated competence in order to make a meaningful contribution that, Lord willing, will extend far beyond my own lifetime. It is, I believe, the supreme task of people at my life stage to do just that.

I once heard John Wimber talk about this phenomenon in a way I am only now really coming to understand. He was reflecting on Jesus' brief parable of the pearl merchant. In it, a man who buys and sells pearls (he doesn't collect them or hold on to them -- he is a merchant after all) comes upon a pearl that, if it could be bought, would re-sell at a great profit (Matthew 13: 45 - 46). To buy this pearl, the man would be required to sell everything he had so he could obtain the purchase price. His faith in the ultimate profitability of the pearl motivates him to go "all in" and do so. It is a gutsy move, to be sure. But it is not a senseless one if a man understands the potential value of the sacrifice.

Wimber said that he had come to see that this story was not just a parable about giving up one's old life in order to come to know Christ and have salvation even though that is often how the text is preached. Upon closer inspection, the story reveals itself as a parable of the kingdom of God. It speaks of the way of life that citizens of the kingdom should prepare to adopt if they are going to invite the fulness of God's reign within them and around them. "I came to see," Wimber said, "that this is something I will do over and over again as a believer". I think he is absolutely right about that.

Selling all to buy the pearl is something my friend Ray gets. He thinks I get it, too. That's why, when he calls me, I feel like I am talking to a true compadre in the faith. That's why I always try to pick up when Ray is on the phone.