Thursday, December 31, 2009

Oral Roberts and the End of an Era, Part II

Oral Roberts Crusade Poster from 1957

Oral Roberts, among others, pioneered a "new" media (TV) of their day as a vehicle for spreading a message of miracles that proceed from a good God along with Oral's popular notions of Seed Faith. By this means, the former tent revivalist had extended his reach far beyond the canvas of a tent or even the concrete of a large auditorium to an audience that never had to leave their homes to hear and see him in action. Of course, other preachers and religious personalities were also experimenting with TV's promise and pitfalls. Each of them brought their own twist and carved out their own audiences. Meanwhile, the next generation of TV preachers such as Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes watched and learned.

But TV ministry is expensive. Getting viewers to underwrite the broadcasts requires a constant flow of giving which, in turn, demands a message that will constantly delight an audience rather than confront it. Television ministries, therefore, perfected their "product": inspiration.

All of this was not lost upon churches that wanted to grow large. Even if they were not broadcasting their services, they found their own ways to keep the inspiration flowing and the confrontation at a minimum. "Old school" sermons turned into inspirational sermonettes with testimonials and contemporary MOR music filling out the mix. It was Oral Roberts and others whoe pioneered this shift from the televised "crusade" to the religious variety or talk show format. Compared to a televised Billy Graham crusade -- or even the old days of Oral Robert's televised miracle services -- these programs were far more in keeping with the broader sensibilities of the culture. While it is true that Dr. Graham was still getting away with preaching a longer message with a confrontational "make a decision for Christ" challenge at the end, it must be remembered that he didn't have to keep a weekly TV show on the air!

But, once again, the revolution in the delivery of information is changing things and will, no doubt, continue to powerfully redefine the communication of Christian messages and values. The monopoly of old-fashioned broadcast TV with its several channels -- the medium that supported Oral Roberts and other TV preachers of his time -- has been replaced by cable, satellite, internet and the other Tweets and Tubes of our times. If you are reading blogs like this one, then I don't need to tell you about the power and variety of today's communication technology. Oral Roberts lived to see this revolution begin, but neither he or any of us now living can truly imagine where things will go from here. A long time ago, the printing press changed the world, and we are still living out the implications of that fact. But now we are living in a day when everyone's last name can be Guttenberg. What will that mean 200 years from now (should the Lord delay His return!)?

I recently learned of the 25 year old San Francisco Bay Area resident, Austin Heap, who figured that the world out to know what was going on in Iran in the days following their last (rigged?) election. When he found out that the authorities were blocking the abilities of the people to Twitter out footage and reports, he cobbled together something called "Haystack" which allowed the people in the streets to get around the government chokehold. What kind of a communications environment are we in when a young man in his mid-twenties can get the drop on both the government of a pretty large country and CNN? What will this mean to the propogation of the gospel and the spread of the church? I'm not sure. But it might just represent the same kind of leap that Oral Roberts made when he traded his tents for a TV studio and, in his own way, changed the world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oral Roberts and the End of an Era

In mid-December, noteworthy evangelist Oral Roberts died at age 91. For many people, Oral was a sort of quirky has-been -- a relic of America's tent revival past who traded up for TV cameras and a pioneering role as one of his generation's very first "televangelists". Of course, there is a respectable University in Tulsa that bears his name, but even ORU has had to come up with ways to survive some of its founders controversial statements and actions over the years.

So now Oral is gone and no one (trust me on this) is going to replace him. My confidence in that statement can be explained by the simple truth that Oral Roberts was a product of his times and times, as they say, have changed. But lost in the shuffle of the story of the stuttering boy from Bebee, Oklahoma who claims to have been healed by God of his own tuberculosis at age 17 is the reality that Oral Roberts changed his world, especially the Christian world of his time, even as it changed him. Several of these shifts were nothing short of revolutionary while others were merely remarkable.

For one thing, Jack Hayford (among others) points out that Oral Roberts -- the classical Pentecostal healing evangelist and tent preacher -- was a key figure in paving the way for the charismatic ministry of the Holy Spirit to overflow into the mainline Protestant denominations. Rev. Roberts' decision to join the United Methodist Church in 1968 shocked many of his oldline Pentecostal contemporaries, not to mention quite a few Methodists. For decades, classical Pentecostalism had been treated as the embarassing bumpkin cousin of the mainstream denominations by the leaders and adherents of those church systems. With the undeniably influential Roberts' crossover affiliation, the lines were blurred and the rules were changed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Oral was also visionary about his use of media -- especially television in its early days. While many preachers had been broadcasting services and sermons on the radio for decades, Oral Roberts boldly brought cameras into his healing miracle services so, as he said, people could witness the miracles for themselves. This move changed everything from television broadcasting itself (the first "reality" shows?) to American religious practice and perception. It changed Oral, too. The "new" televangelist Roberts consistently preached the message that "something good is going to happen to you" thanks to the faith promises of a "good God" who wanted nothing but "good things" for the viewers.

It was a message that was free of both fundamentalist pronouncements of impending hellfire and liberal doubts about Scripture and the historical Jesus. American viewers quickly got the message that there was a new, positive gospel in town and that was far more "inspirational" than the stuff preached in their churches. The brief, dramatic testimonies and seed faith promises on the tube opened up a new outlet and the ministry marketplace was suddenly born again. Now there was a whole new level of competition for people's time, attention and money! Once the dust began to settle it was clear that churches, broadcast media, evangelists and consumers of religious teaching would all come a long way from where they started.

Space does not permit me to continue to name all the changes Oral and his kind made in the religious landscape of their generation. However, I feel it is more important to hold up their accomplishments to the white hot light of the present times to see what shines through, what burns up and what blocks out the light altogether. That is what I will do in my next post.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

U2 Speaks on the Price of Originality

Starting into "U2: At the End of the World" by Bill Flannagan and I thought these thoughts of Bono's on their originality were worth repeating (something one cannot always say about Bono and his thoughts on every subject known to man). In this case, he actually knows what he is talking about. Oh, and by the way, in case you didn't know, Bono has, ummm, potty mouth and so I took the liberty of quoting him without spelling out the expletives...

"U2 are the world's worst wedding band... For instance, we were always jealous of the fact that we never knew anyone else's songs. That started a lot of B sides where we did cover versions and tried to get into the structure of songwriting vicariously and than apply it. This is a band that's one of the biggest acts in the world, and we know *#%&@@! in terms of what most musicians would consider to be important. 'Cause all of these bands, including this new crop, have all played in bar bands, they're all well versed in rock & roll structure -- which is also why they're all so well versed in rock & roll cliches."

Something about that statement grabs me in that it hints at the cost of originality. While there is nothing new or admirable about being original and unsuccessful, boring or pretentious, I admit that I am attracted to those who are original and, somehow, widely appreciated, successful and continuously innovative. Bono continues:

"Imitation and creation are opposites. The imitative spirit is very different from the creative spirit, which is not to say that we all don't beg, steal, and borrow from everybody, but if the synthesis of it all is not an original spirit, it's unimportant".

I think the last word, "unimportant", is the most powerful one in his entire statement. We live in an age that is overflowing with entertainment, political posturing, religious activity, economic ebb and flow and information overload. However, it strikes me that so much of this is "unimportant". So much will blow away in the wind. Including this post, but try to enjoy it anyway.

There's a price to originiality -- a risk that cannot be calculated in advance. One must synthesize, wade in, collaborate, offer up the result and hope that it stands the test. Today, I thank God for those who are willing to pay the price and share the results.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

How the Israeli Army Can Really Help the Chuch

Newsweek's feature on the phenomenal number of Israeli Nasdaq companies (Nov. 23, 2009) credits the Israeli Army for its role in contributing to the rampant innovation and ongoing success of Israeli entrepreneurs. I was struck by the fact that nearly everything in the article has profound implications for the Church in our time. Here are a few things that stood out to me:

The article poses the question: "How does Israel attract, per person, 30 times as much venture capital as Europe and more than twice the flow to American companies? How does it produce, for its size, the most cutting-edge technology startups in the world?"

The answer the writer poses credits, in part: "...the Israeli military's role in breaking down hierarchies and -serendipitously- becoming a boot camp for new tech entrepreneurs".

The stated mission of Vineyard at Home, our house church network, is to "empower everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday place". One of the fundamental components of such empowerment is to break down a rigid church hierarchy in order to equip believers to truly own the ministry themselves. While spiritual authority is a reality, it is evident that it is also fluid -- defined by mission and the requirements of servanthood -- as Jesus kept reminding His disciples (Mark 10:44).

The article continues:

"Innovation" is hardly the first word most people associate with the military. "improvisation" is even less likely to come to mind. And "flat" -- as in anti-hierarchical and informal -- would be completely counterintuitive. Yet these are exactly the attributes that employers have come to expect from young people emerging from their stint in the Israeli Defense Force."

Do our churches, seminaries and other ministry training environments empower innovation and improvisation or are they, by and large, bounded by traditional hierarchical modalities that feature a limit number of "job descriptions" within a top-down system? The article continues...

"Talk to an Israeli Air Force pilot and you will see why. "If most air forces are designed like a Formula One race car, the Israeli Air Force is a beat-up jeep with a lot of tools in it".

Most churches would be ashamed to describe themselves as "beat-up jeeps" loaded with tools rather than svelte and fine-tuned systems. But I am convinced that the mission of God needs more and more "jeeps" in our day if we are to break out of the missional quagmire.

"In the Israeli system, almost every aircraft is a jack-of-all-trades", the article continues: "You do it yourself," one pilot noted. "It's not as effective (as the complex American-style waves of air infiltration), but it's a hell of a lot more flexible".

Israeli soldiers, battling for the very survival of their tiny nation, appreciate flexibility, innovation, seat-of-the-pants decision making and broad-based empowerment given the fact that they will never outnumber or intimidate their enemies by sheer force. Is this not the position the church finds itself in, in these times? We are in need, it seems to me, of modes of empowerment that keep simple and focused ministry outreach and discipleship rolling out. We tried grasping after all the levers of power in American society and that strategy failed us. Maybe its time to move the ministry of Jesus into the everyday, grassroots, real-time/real-life quadrants of society.

The article goes on to describe the IDF as "a unique space within Israeli society where young men and women work closely and intensely with peers from different cultural, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds. A young Jew from Ethiopia, the son of an Iranian immigrant, a native-born Israeli from a swanky Tel Aviv suburb, and a kibbutznik from a farming family might all meet in the same unit".

Bonds forged under such conditions create relationships that transcend the normal comforts of social compartmentalization. Danger, mission and active duty forge new alliances. The learning curve is high and the price of failure unthinkable. Is this the attitude we have in our churches? Or have we settled for them to function more as social clubs that gather homogeneous pods of people together in their quest to hide away from all the ugly stuff "out there" in the world?

The article describes the unique and remarkable way these military associations, experiences and disciplines affect reservists as they return to working society. "Rank is almost meaningless in the reserves," he (a lawyer quoted by the writer) says. 'A private will tell a general in an exercise, 'You are doing this wrong; you should do it this way.'"

Do our "generals" in the church work closely with the "privates" in the rank and file in order to maximize the impact of our gospel calling? Are our generals truly and available and open to feedback from the "troops" along the lines of "You are doing this wrong; you should do it this way"? What would happen if we truly opened the feedback loops and ownership of ministry resources (time, talent, treasure) to "the ranks"? Has this not been the net effect of reformation and revival movements of past times? Do we really need to wait for the crisis to reach so high of a peak before we reconsider what we are really structured for in the Western church?

"Israeli soldiers are not defined by rank: they are defined by what they are good at." Now there's a notion the church might do well to embrace!

"Innovation often depends on having different perspective. Perspective comes from experience. Real experience also typically comes with age or maturity. But in Israel, you get experience, perspective, and maturity at a younger age, because the society jams in so many transformative experiences when its citizens are 18 to 21 years old. By the time they get to college, their heads are in a different place than those of their American counterparts."

Lots to think about and, better yet, incorporate into our present day philosophies of ministry, mission and church structure -- wouldn't you agree?

The article continues:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bill's "Best Of 2009" List

Okay, I lied. This is not really a "best of" list because "best" is so subjective. I'm officially calling it my "stuff I talked most about" list instead. The criteria is simply that it had to be something I personally experienced. So, here goes:

Most Talked About Musical Group: Fleet Foxes

Love these guys from Seattle. Can't get enough.

Most Talked About Theatrical Release:

It Might Get Loud (already blogged about it if you wanna look it up)

Most Talked About City:

Tie between: Seattle/Bellingham, WA

What a wonderful, beautiful, engaging and charming part of our wonderful country

Most Talked About Live Sports Event:

Watching the LA Galaxy (with Mr. Beckham) play in Los Angeles -- who knew live soccer could be so fun?

Most Talked About Musical or Theatrical Event:

I only went to one live Theatrical event (A Christmas Carol at SCR - last weekend!) so it wins and I don't think I went to any live music concerts this year -- but Robin and I got tickets for U2 next June.

Most Talked About DVD - re-watched category:

This is tough, but it is either Lars and the Real Girl or, possibly, The Fall.

Most Talked About DVD - first-time viewing category:

Probably "In Session" season one (blogged about that already, too).

Most Talked About Commentator, Radio Category -

Dennis Praeger, per usual.

Most Talked About Commentator, Print Category -

Mark Steyn. What a snappy, witty writer.

Most Talked About Guilty Pleasure:

Watching UFC bouts. There, I said it.

Most Talked About Personal Spiritual Experience:

The Miraculous "Skunkworks" Mug

Most Talked About Pipe Tobacco -

Tobacco Barn's lovely Ebony Gold blend

Most Talked About Accomplishment -

Tie between the rapid rise of my pastoral counseling practice and Robin's amazing graduation and hiring at Biola.

Most Talked About Book:

"How Healed Do You Want to Be". Duh.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Let Me Explain Myself

Finally found some language for this quest I have been on while reading Dallas Willard's "The Great Omission":

"Now, some might be shocked to hear that what the "church" -- the disciples gathered -- really needs is not more people, more money, better buildings or programs, more education, or more prestige. Christ's gathered people, the church, has always been at its best when it had little or none of these. All it needs to fulfill Christ's purposes on earth is the quality of life He makes real in the life of His disciples. Given that quality, the church will prosper from everything that comes its way as it makes clear and available on earth the "life that is life indeed...

So the greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as "Christians" will become disciples -- students, apprentices, practitioners -- of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from Him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence. Will they break out of the churches to be His Church -- to be, without human force or violence, His mighty force for good on earth, drawing the churches after them toward the eternal purposes of God?"

The Great Omission, Introduction, pps.xiv, xv

This is the thing I can't shake, the call that keeps drawing me forward, the quest that has gripped me -- to rediscover the stripped-down, simple reality of following Jesus into the everyday places as His disciple and to make Him known in environments that are not defined by "church" in the outwardly churchy sense. And I can report that after nearly a year and a half this quest is getting both easier AND more difficult. Easier, because I have been cut loose from so many distractions that used to occupy my attention and complicate my Christian walk and more difficult because it feels, at times, lonely and counter-(church)cultural. And also because I have less excuses.

I'll be 54 next week and I can tell you that ever since I was 15 this is the core of what I really wanted from life -- the opportunity to follow Jesus in a "really real" way. After all these years, I still feel like a beginner but "where else will (I) go? You alone have the words of eternal life!"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Back Into the Fray" - A Waking Vision

Daniel A. Brown, Ph.D today

I'll never forget the day Pastor Daniel Brown told me of the waking vision he had seen. He described it as a call to get "back into the fray". At the time, Daniel was a pastor at The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA where he led the college-age group.

As the vision opened, he saw a man -- a soldier of old -- coming back to his senses after having been knocked out in battle. He was bruised and a bit bloodied, but he was able to rise to his feet and survey the area around about. As he did, he saw other soldiers who, like him, were just recovering from a brutal battle.

The soldier began to move toward some of the others and, as he did, more recovering soldiers joined him. Before long there was a band of them moving along the top of some sort of hill or ridge. Their numbers grew steadily as solider after soldier collected themselves and joined in the company as it steadily moved along the ridgeline.

After a moment the "camera" (as it were) pulled back to reveal a bigger scene for, there below them in the valley, the wounded soldiers saw the "regular army" formed in their ranks and dressed in their uniforms. The regulars were engaged in a pitched battle with the enemy. As they observed them, the newly recovered soldiers on the top of the hill paused for a moment. They still had their own battle wounds. They were not dressed nicely in uniform as were their fellow soldiers in the valley below. But they had experience the "regulars" did not have. They knew some of the enemy's schemes and strategies and understood what it was to be injured and yet survive. What should the do?

The next thing Daniel saw in the vision was the streams of veteran soldiers coming down the hillside and pouring into the ranks of the regular army. There were many more of them than he had first anticipated. As they rejoined the ranks, they found ways to add their experience, their courage and their fighting faith to the regular army who, it became obvious, was better for their presence. The battle began to turn as the enemy gave ground. In his spirit, Daniel heard the Lord saying that he was calling for His wounded soldiers to "get back into the fray".

I believe it was somewhere around 1980 when Daniel Brown shared his vision with me. At the time, he interpreted the wounded soldiers to have been veterans of the Jesus People movement who had been knocked down or out in battle with the enemy. And that makes sense -- especially at that time. But I have come to believe this vision to still be a valid representation of the future of the spritual warfare of our time. It's not just recovering "Jesus People" who need to re-enter the fray but many others who, over the past years, have been wounded, bruised and bloodied but who -- upon their restoration -- have much to add to the ranks of the "regular army" of brave but less experienced brethren.

Hear His voice as He calls you "back into the fray!"

Keys to Healing a Marriage, Part Three

Key #3 - Envision Your Future Marriage Now

When you are driving a car to the store, you "see" two differnt things at the same time. You "see" the road just in front of the car and the myriad other things in your immediate environment. But you also "see" the store you intend to visit. You do this in your mind or imagination. That's why you take the roads you take. You can envison in your mind's eye exactly where you are going even though that destination is not available to your immediate view as you navigate the roads.

Now apply this to marriage. When Robin and I became engaged, I was still in my teens (19 to be exact). I could "see" Robin before me and I knew that she was the woman for me. We were young with our entire adulthood and its many mysteries before us. But we would not remain in that uniquely youthful phase of our lives forever.
Knowing this, we made vows on our wedding day. These vows included language about what we could "see" in our future. Our vows were the things that bound us to it come what may: "for better, or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health...until God shall separate us by death..." Those words expressed a vision of life far beyond where we were living it.

When healing a marriage, we must reaffirm the ultimate destination that was first described by the vows we made on our wedding day. That day, before God and our loved ones, we bound ourselves to what someone has described as a "lifelong commitment to an imperfect person". To lose this destination on the map is to throw away the map altogether. Two people who no longer "see" this vision must reclaim and recover that end point if they are to weather life's storms and finish well. If they stop living with the end in mind, the marriage will suffer and perhaps even die.

It's not a matter of whether or not other visions will present themselves to the partners in a marriage. Life will conspire to overturn what we have vowed with tantalizing imaginations of life lived with other partners and other pleasures. There is no doubt that we will miss out on these things if we maintain our foundational commitment to one man, one woman, one lifetime. But as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, that is the very nature of decision making. To make any decision is to slay some of our options so that others may live.

It is no secret that this is what God asks from us in our marriages -- to slay all other options, hold fast to our commitment, and fight to the finish: "forsaking all others, I will keep myself to her, and to her only...". This is why the marital relationship is imbued with so much meaning in Scripture. It is the very vow our God has takin upon Himself. He has bound Himself to our brokeness and imperfection despite our ups and downs: "if we are faithless, He remains faithful". It is also why we need grace (and not just human willpower) to fulfill our vows and arrive at the destination of a life lived faithfully together. It is, you might say, a God-sized commitment.

In healing a suffering marriage, we admit this, ask for help, and recall to heart what we have vowed in the hopes that our partner will do the same.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Genius of the Jesus People Movement

The genius of the Jesus People movement of the late 1960's and 70's was not the theological sophistication of it's adherents. It wasn't money, or programming, or a centrally-coordinated effort to impact youth culture launched by existing Christian leaders or sociological experts. I believe the genius of the Jesus People movement was the empowerment of everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday places - from school campuses to coffeehouses. From private homes to rock concerts. From streetcorners to city parks. "Jesus Freaks" were always looking for opportunities to take the gospel to the places and environments where the people of their generation lived their daily lives. The whole world was their mission field and "church" could happen anywhere, anytime.

As a veteran of that experience, I believe we who follow Christ now would do well to re-discover this way of life. It's not about trying to go back to the "old days". It's not about nostalgia or recreating a bygone era or somehow updating its symbols. But I am convinced that there is an inhertiance given by the Holy Spirit to the Church that remains available to us now -- especially to those of us who know better than to keep ministry within the walls of church buildings.

There are lots of things about the Jesus People that can be criticized -- many mistakes that were made. But there are things that still pulsate in the hearts of those of us who walked those roads -- including the convictions that Jesus is for everyone, that ministry if for every believer and that we don't need elaborate structures, programs or high-cost endeavors to go where Jesus is going. We simply need to see where the Lord is already at work in the everyday lives of a world He came to love back to life!

So here's my call to my fellow "vets" -- get back to basics. Rediscover your inheritance. Tap back into your passion. Find a need in some everyday place and take Jesus there. It looks different now, to be sure, but the genius of the Jesus People movement waits to be reclaimed and put into motion yet again!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wholesome Shallowness? Kong Hee

My dear friend Grady Williams told me about Singapore Pastor Kong Hee, his pop music star wife, Sun, and this blog entry entitled "Wholesome Shallowness". All those interested in the issue of committed Christians and the arts (including popular music) will find it a good and provocative read.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

U2's "Magnificent"

"I was born
I was born to sing for you
I didn't have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise

Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar

Justified till we die, you and I will magnify
The Magnificent

Lyrics by Bono and The Edge

This song from "No Line on the Horizon" soars with praise to The Magnificent -- the One who provides the center for the singer's identity, devotion and deepest experience. The song is in praise of Jesus Christ.

"No Line..." contains other interesting christological references. From the song "White as Snow":

"Once I knew there was a love divine
Then came a time I thought it knew me not
Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not
Only the lamb as white as snow..."

There is a lot about the album that feels mature -- both recapturing the best of the classic U2 sound while also extending and expanding into new territory. I find "No Line on the Horizon" to be a superior effort in general and "Magnificent" to be one of the best songs in a considerably outstanding collection of music. Listening, I am uplifted and I am focused not on rock stars, but on Him who is Magnificent.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Keys to Healing a Marriage, Part Two

It may sound counter-intuitive, but I believe many wounded couples simply do not fight often enough or vigorously enough -- for each other, that is! One of the keys to healing a marriage is the ability you will gain to fight FOR your partner instead of fighting them. This means you will become his or her advocate instead of their adversary. Doing so unlocks the marital endorphines necessary to re-energize a depressed or languishing union.

When a man fights for his wife, it often involves increasing her sense of security. A woman who feels secure is a woman who feels loved. "My man is thinking of me today", she says to herself. "He is aware of me and my needs and I matter to him. My man is my champion. He desires me physically, emotionally and spiritually. He does not resent me or consider me to be a burden. He treats me like I am his gift from God". This is what it sounds like inside a woman who is finding more and more security within her husband's love. By contrast, when a woman feels she must compete with work, hobbies or other people for her man's attention, she may display the resulting insecurities by becoming depressed, nagging or otherwise burdened.

When a wife fights for her husband, it involves increasing his sense of esteem. A man who feels esteened is a man who feels loved. "My woman believes in me. She is proud of me and she knows that I am trying hard to succeed", he says within himself. "She desires me physically and trusts that I have her best interests in mind. She is my cheerleader and she treats me as her gift from God". This is what it sounds like inside a man who is finding more and more esteen within his wife's love. By contrast, when a man feels he must compete with unrealistic expectations, other men or even family members for his wife's attention, he may display the resulting deflation by becoming edgy or despondent. He may also seek to hide in work, turn to pornography, or overindulge in hobbies or other distractions.

Fighting for one another, instead of against one another changes the tone of a marriage and lets the healing begin!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Keys to Healing A Marriage, Part One

Healing a hurting or broken marriage is not as hard as we may think...or as easy! Although a million, million words have been written on this topic, there is no doubt that a million more will be. In what follows, I humbly offer a few words of my own on a subject that really matters. They come from my experience as a pastoral counselor, pastor and my own 33 years of married life with Robin.

KEY #1: No Change, No Healing

"When an irresistible force such as you
Meets an old immovable object like me
You can bet just as sure as you live
Somethin's gotta give
Somethin's gotta give
Somethin's gotta give"

Johnny Mercer's classic lyrics describe a law of both physics and human relationships: "somethin's gotta give". When a marriage is hurting or in trouble, "same old same old" is no longer an option. Even so, a true appetite for change is not always present in those situations -- and marriages -- that are desperate for change. Sometimes the first response to marital crisis is to fall back into a deeper commitment to the familiar patterns, attitudes and behaviors that have fed the breakdown because they are already an ingrained part of our routine and identity. "Don't ask me to change", we assert. "I am what I am".

Dissect that statement a little further, and it reveals itself to be more of a values statement than an actual fact. In effect, we are saying: "I value staying with what works for me more than I value learning what works for us". The fact is, we learn how to radically change "who we are" all the time -- if we believe the change is worth the trouble to do so. When the economy shifts, we may immerse ourselves into totally new careers. When children come, we immerse ourselves in learning how to parent. When our health is threatened, we may radically change our diet, our exercise routine and, possibly, our entire lifestyle in order to avoid issues that will destroy our health or our functioning. That's why, when a marriage is in need of healing, change is the best friend we need to invite over to stay, not an enemy we need to keep locked outside.

If we value our marriage then we need do whatever it takes to heal it, build it up and renew its vitality. This means change -- often HUGE change. It can sometimes takes a gargantuan effort to UNlearn some things and LEARN others. The learning curve can feel daunting, indeed. Perhaps this is why so many marital partners seem to look for the minimum tweak to stop the squeek (in their marriage) instead of embracing the opportunity to experience transformative change. In sports lingo they refer to this as "playing not-to-lose" rather than "playing to win".

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Money is One Reason (I Like House Church)

So, today I sent out another email to our house churches in Vineyard at Home, our house church network, telling them that THEY NEED TO SPEND MONEY on kingdom stuff. I get all warm and tingly inside just writing those words! Do you have any idea how much fun it is as a church leader to write church members in order to ask them to please spend more money?

The funds they are being asked to spend (distribute, etc) are a sizeable portion of their own giving. To see how this works and how simple it is, you can simply visit our website at and click on the "money" link on the right hand bottom of the home page.

The opportunity to do church "organically" means that THEY (not me) decide how the funds are to be spent as long as it is in accordance with our mission to "empower everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday places". In the year plus since a number of us "went house church", this has been one of the big payoffs (no pun intended).

It was so cool to be a part of a pow-wow that includes teenagers and children and to decide together how to spend "God's money" on stuff we know God values! For example, our Foothill Ranch church is giving a $1,000 gift to a family we know to be in need. In addition, $2,000 is being budgeted by this group to bless the Arms of Love childrens home in the Philippines at Christmas time. And there are a couple other initiatives that will be explored in the next couple weeks. And it's not just money. It was decided that the youth and kids will work with the adults to customize gifts to the children in the AoL home including group shopping trips, handmade cards, etc. If I sound excited it is because I AM!!!!

Years ago, I was taught about the well-known "Pareto Principle." This is the old truism that "20% of the people do 80% of the work" and "20% of the people give 80% of the funds", and so on. One of the great joys of doing church organically has been to see this Pareto Principle go down in flames as literally every member -- including children and teens -- participate DIRECTLY in church life and mission. This is a dream come true.

We are definitely still in "pioneer mode" as we figure out how to walk out the vision God has given us but, I gotta tell you, learning how to steward resources as a house church family has been one of the bright spots in the journey.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Too Hard to Change Your Life? Ask Robin!

My wife, Robin, is in her last semester at Azusa Pacific University. She anticipates completing her Masters of Science in Nursing Degree with a specialty as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Maternal Child Health and a Teaching Certificate in mid-December. Following this, Lord willing, she will be teaching in the Nursing program at Biola University on the 10th anniversary of her near death head-on collision in February. How did she get here?

To watch her emerge from the roadside wreckage of ten years past only to engage the long road of recovery she has since been on has been a stunning thing to watch. Nearly ten years ago, Robin was getting around the clock care in the ICU with traumatic brain injury and fifty bone fractures. Since then she has undergone thirteen surgeries, hundreds of hours of painful physical therapy, and other medical interventions and treatments. Even now, she sometimes battles with pain at levels I will never be able to understand.

I remember the time early in her recovery at home when she finally made up up the stairs to the second story of our former home so she could see her bedroom again. Standing at the top of the stairs, she stood there weeping at the sight. It had been seven months since she had last seen our room. I also recall her first days behind the wheel again. She was driving over an hour each way to Azusa Pacific so as to complete her intensive Bachelors Degree program at the time. Taking that challenge on was very big for her and it taxed her to the limit. But she did complete the program's demanding requirements and graduated in 2003. Before long, she was hinting about going back for her Masters so she could go into teaching. How could I say "no"?

In the meantime, she had returned to work on the Labor and Delivery floor as an RN -- this time at Mission Hospital where she had been a patient after the crash. Her days there are long - 12 1/2 hours plus -- and take alot out of her. A few weeks ago, Robin fell and broke her foot in two places so she is currently on disability. But, before that, there was a period during which she was working two 12's a week, in school two days a week, teaching at the hospital for Concordia University every week and trying to study, complete papers for school and prepare for her oral and written comps (she needs to re-take them this semester). And, of course, she continues to be a mom, Stampin' Up Demonstrator, and counselor/church leader's spouse! And, oh yeah, she also holds classes from time to time for Doctors and Nurses who need to renew their NRP certification.

Her Masters Program has been mostly good, but very tough. I'm so glad to see her nearly at the finish line. A few weeks ago, she got a call from Biola University asking her to please submit her application so they could consider her for a faculty position in the new year / new semester that begins in January. Looks like her life is about to change again!

About a month ago a film crew from The 700 Club TV program was at our house to capture some Robin's story. Like everyone else that really hears it, they left a little in awe of my wife. She gives the glory to God, as do I, for what He has done in raising her back up to life. Robin is not really a showy person and doesn't toot her own horn as much as she could, so I'm tooting it for her. It's pretty inspiring to live with someone who has come back roaring from the brink, seizing life with a determined grip and pushing for change at a considerable cost. Think it's hard to change your life? There's no doubt that it can be. Think it's possible? Or worthwhile? I don't know, but before you give up on the idea, ask Robin.

(By the way, our son Andrew, who was nearly 16 at the time of the accident, was in the front of the same car as his mom. We are so proud and grateful for the many things he has acheived since undergoing such a severe trauma as survivng that horrible crash ten years ago. And our daughter, JeanneAnn, was three at the time. She is now 13 and growing to be such a lovely young lady. Thanks be to God for His mercy to all of us in the Faris Family!)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Death By Sermon, Part Two

One of the things that began my questioning of sermons (as the primary weekly tool of teaching and discipleship) began with a post I read on Jeremy Pryor's blog:

You'll notice, if you mosey on over there that Jeremy has removed his original post inasmuch as he didn't like the spirit of what he had written. I admire that. But there are plenty of interesting and worthwhile thoughts about sermons and sermonizing in the comments. I especially commend the extensive post by "Gavin" which gives much food for thought.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

At Last: I Reveal My Secret

I eat a little ice cream every night -- Caramel Delight, these days. I hereby record the following apparent benefits:

FACT: I am well-like by some of my friends.

FACT: I seem to avoid nearly all illnesses.

FACT: I meticulously obey traffic laws.

FACT: I can usually remember where I left my keys and wallet.

FACT: I just celebrated my 33rd anniversary with Robin.

FACT: I have traveled to several foreign countries.

The amazing evidence that eating ice cream has, without a doubt, resulted in these and other benefits is indisputable. I'm sure there are others, too. I commend ice cream to all my readers!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Death By Sermon, Part One

*** Sermons. I got a crate full of 'em -- mostly my own. Some are on tapes (remember them?) and in digital file. I'll give you as many as you want -- free!! Just take your pick. Not that excited? Me either -- as in I don't even want to listen to me! Makes me wonder about the value of all these sermons after all. Do we really know why we sermonize or trust so much in sermons to produce growing Christians? Some thoughts follow...

* * * *

If he is like I once was, your pastor probably spends a large amount of time preparing a sermon for delivery each week. It's likely to be high up in the job description: "must be able to 'preach' (that is, to sermonize). Each week he or she must design sermons that are engaging, biblically sound, stimulating, well-illustrated and, hopefully, applicable to the real lives of their audience. To borrow a phrase from a friend, they must somehow pump out a continous stream of "new" (if not necessarily fresh) material.

Maybe this is one reason why good sermon-givers can be well paid. Those who sermonize well may have a lot to do with attracting a bigger audience to the church -- a phenomenon known, in some circles, as "church growth".

For reasons like these, sermons tend to be delivered by pros -- or at least people who are supposed to be pros. Our job is to listen to the pros and then critique them over a ham sandwich after church is over. While listening to the 1/2 hour to hour of "preaching", we aren't supposed to think about ham sandwichs or other lunch meats, or whether the Dodgers will go all the way in the post-season, or a host of other mind-occupying distractions. We are supposed to be listening to "the word" and "the word" is supposed to have impact. This impact is measured differently in various church cultures. A "good" sermon can get people to lift their hand while "every eye is closed and every head bowed". A really good sermon will actually get people to leave their seats and come to the "altar" (i.e. front of the church where the sermonizer is standing) or to go on their knees or to otherwise become available to the "ministry time" that follows the message.

Most of you will never really understand what the sermon-deliverer (usually the pastor) goes through every week once they have left the building. They know that a room full of people just surrendered a whole bunch of their precious weekend time and attention to them. They know that either they were "on" or not-so-on that particular day and that getting people to return and keep returning requires lots of "on" days. I mean, think of what the sermonizer is up against. It is, after all, exceedingly uncommon these days for people to sit still and listen to anyone speak -- especially when the sermon or teaching may require a half hour or more to deliver. Now multiply this week after week over a number of years. Now add in the fact that your intention is to ellicit deep and enduring spiritual and practical responses in your audience. Yikes! It's easy to see why "special music", videos, dramas and other sermon-boosters are put into the mix. It's also easy to see why excellent sermonizers are like rock stars with a rare and dazzling talent.

Excellent or not, the fact is that in most of our evangelical church services the sermon is the centerpiece of the worship service as in: "come for the sermon - stay for the worship". Sermons are centered on the Bible but, even so, a lot of believers don't even bother to bring their Bibles to church. They have often been trained not to do so by the "preachers". In many cases, the pastor or speaker has presumably gone through serious effort to prepare a fine feast for their audience so that their main duty is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of the sermonizer's labor! This is why many church services are not so much "worship" services as much as they are "sermon delivery systems". The musical worship before the message is often keyed to the sermon and the follow up worship music is meant to extend the emotional and spiritual impact of the spoken message, too. Man, we put a lot of stock in sermonizing! Man, we expect a lot from these messages! So why is their "shelf life" so seemingly short?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

House Church Worship Art?

You know how it's become kind of trendy for churches to release visual artists to paint during the worship set these days? I believe it is tied to the notion that the spirit of worship is alive in the congregation and is presumably inspiring the artistic expressions of praise and devotion created by the painters and artists. Makes sense to me...

Well, last weekend at our house church, we experienced a different sort of worship art (you might say) while we were gathered together in the livning room lifting our hearts to the Lord. Right in our midst, the children were singing and praising God while quietly playing with their blocks on the floor (I like this about house church: that the kids are "in" with the grownups during worship -- as kids -- and not as mini-adults).

I had been leading worship on the guitar with my eyes closed. It was after the third song or so that I opened my eyes to see the image you are now viewing in the photo posted here. She was right at my feet and in the middle of our assembled group.

I instantly felt it was not only "worship art" of a different kind, but also a sort of prophetic word from the Lord to our small assembly. See what you think...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"In Treatment": Crack For Students of the Human Condition

Sorry if I've been a little hard to find, lately. See, we were in the Seattle area for a week and, while there, I happened upon a box of DVDs from Season One of the HBO series "In Treatment". Since then, I've been obsessively spying on a number of psychotherapy sessions involving a middle aged therapist and an array of his fascinating patients. Don't worry -- they have no idea I'm watching them or that I can hear EVERYTHING they say. And get this: I have even been tagging along with the good Doctor as he shows up for sessions with his former supervisor. You should see him engage in battle with her (played very believably by Diane Wiest) as he wrestles through his own issues. Pretty delicious stuff, you say? Yes, indeed. But, don't be jealous. There's a seat behind the one way mirror for you, too!

"In Treatment" began life as an award-winning Israeli production called "BeTipul". This HBO production features the character of Doctor Paul Weston who is played by the excellent Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, etc). In Season One, his patients include an admiring, unpredictable and beautiful 30-year-old anesthesiologist, a grounded military jet pilot with an attitude the size of Texas, a troubled young gymnast and a couple who are as volatile as a Molotov Cocktail. Meanwhile, the ever-cool, ever-focused Doctor Westin has troulbes of his own. His marriage to Kate is on the brink and his kids seem to get the leftovers of his time and attention. Sure, each episode pretty much consists of a small number of people sitting in a room, talking. However, there are plenty of ingredients here for a spicy, spicy stew.

As a Pastoral Counselor who works with Marriage and Family Therapists and Interns in a professional environment, there is plenty in "In Treatment" that I can relate to. In fact, I can't recall a more true-to-life dramatic portrayal of the powerful and mysterious aspects of the counseling or psychotherapeutic process: the mystery, the edginess, the raw honesty, the doubts, the risks, joys, intimacy, pains and triumphs. And as someone who has been on "the other side of the couch" as a client, I totally get Paul's desire to lash himself to someone he can trust in search of his own answers.

"In Treatment" is not perfect and a binge can be exhausting. There are things that are definitley amped up for dramatic effect. The language and subject matter definitely earn a strong "R" rating -- this is NOT kid stuff. Still, I find the series to be riveting, educational, bittersweet and even a little depressing (I'd like to conclude on this last point).

"In Treatment" for all its considerable benefits, reminds me of how blessed and fortunate I am to live, practice counseling, and work in an environment that honors Jesus Christ, respects the notion of "truth" and employs (where appropriate) things like prayer, Scripture and other gifts of the Holy Spirit. Over and over, the powerful moments portrayed on the screen remind me that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".

It is not religiosity that helps in this regard, but what the Bible refers to as "the light". I love the way counseling / psychotherpay can invite brute honesty, self-awareness and even a very unique and beautiful form of love. But when the Holy Spirit is honored, one's own sinfulness is accounted for, and an atmosphere of total regard and service is supplied, counseling provides a unique opportunity for two or more to "walk in the light as He is in the light" (and, according to I John) "have fellowship with one another".

I'm gonna keep hangin' with the Doc and his crew throughout the rest of Season One's unviewed discs. Furthermore, Season Two is now up and running and, as I understand it, there are plenty of new adventures to go on. But even as I feed my appetite for this portrayal of raw humanity, I will continue to miss and long for the things that only God can bring to the healing process and maybe, just maybe, I'll say a prayer for the Doctor Paul's of this world and their clients who, like me, need that mysterious thing called "grace" as they live their lives in a sharp-edged world.

Monday, August 24, 2009

It Might Get Loud, Indeed

Matthew, Chris (two of my sons) and I went and saw "It Might Get Loud" -- a fascinating patchwork of history, viewpoints, concert footage and a present day guitarist pow-wow featuring Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Yardbirds fame, Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, and The Edge from U2. The film was nicely done as it bounced around between the three personalities representing three generations of rock guitarists and their influences, recollections, various guitars and equipment, artistic distinctions and philosophies. As the audience, it was easy to appreciate the three very different musicians - the white hair, the black hair and the no hair.

It was nice to see each man stripped down to his own equipment, telling his own stories and stating his own unique points-of-view. After it was over (it was inspiring), I was struck again by the way any true artist, no matter what media he or she is working in, is a product of their decision to make a total commitment to their art and then follow wherever that should lead them. As each man in the film looked back, it was easy to see that they could not possibly have known that their love of music would take them to high places of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, they poured themselves into their craft, their influences, and their opportunities (large and small) with the result that each came up with a history quite unlike the other yet remarkably connected by a love for what six strings can produce. As Babbette says at the end of the movie "Babbette's Feast": "In the heart of every artist there is a cry: let me do my best!"

Whether it is wordsmithing, musicianship, visual or performing arts, or what-have-you, the need to sacrifice in order to produce something truly lasting and unique never changes. It is so easy to tell the difference between an truly devoted artist and a hack performer. Artists have a commitment as vivid as the blood stains left on Jack White's instrument after playing some particularly energetic shows while the hacks, well, they just go for the cheapest rewards. I know there are others (such as athletes) who understand this kind of unfettered commitment. It is always inspiring to drink in that spirit. That's why I found it worthwhile to spend time with my boys hanging out (on film) with these three musical craftsmen as they allowed us to see behind their stage personas.

I thought it was great for Matthew (who is learning the bass and getting into bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush) and Chris (who has long loved music and the arts) to sit with me and enjoy seeing "It May Get Loud". I recommend it for anyone who needs a refreshing dose of artistic inspiration!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lessons From a Festival

So, last Sunday, a bunch of us from our Foothill Ranch House Church threw a neighborhood festival in the cul-de-sac by our host home. There was a giant inflatable waterslide. There was a water balloon fight, a cake walk, a cupcake eating contest, crafts, balloons, bean bag toss games, facepainting, free hot dogs, popcorn and snow cones for all. The afternoon/evening culminated in an open air street concert featuring "Dean-o" of "Dean-o and the Dynamos" whose rapid fire songs about the value of the Bible and trusting God were illustrated by four young ladies from two families who had gone through the trouble to learn the songs in advance and provide interperative choreography for each. Too fun!

Here are some things that stood out to me about the whole event:

* It was amazing how much was pulled off by such a relatively small number of people.

* The old "80-20" rule did NOT apply (20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work). In our case, it was 100 percent participation from the host families and singles right on down to the smallest of our tribe. That was SO gratifying!

* This was not a "staff driven" or "pastor driven" event. I guest preached two services at a church an hour from the neighborhood that morning, picked up the sound system and a few other things from our storage unit, and arrived an hour before start time. All preparations were either already done or finishing up. These folks worked hard. They made and distributed the flyers, came up with the ideas, involved the neighbors, coordinated the expenses, designed the set up and did all the work. We were all very tired by the end of the day, but it was stunning how productive these people were -- all because they wanted to bless a neighborhood as the local house church.

* This was our second event of this kind (last one was in November, a couple months after we had started up). The first one was good. This one was even better.

* The cost for us to put on this event -- one that put us in touch with dozens of folks outside our house church -- was 1/3 of a month's rent for the building we were leasing for our traditional church in Rancho Santa Margarita. That's not to say our event was cheap. It wasn't. It is to say that the "bang for the buck" factor in terms of outreach was immensely greater than any of the events we used to do that depended on people coming to our church campus to experience. There is a big fat lesson here.

* In the less than a year that Foothill Ranch House Church has been officially constituted, we have put on: another similar festival to last Sunday's, a Christmas Eve service including a live nativity play (held in the garage for all to see!), an open air Easter Sunday service held on a beautiful spring day right on the street, and countless smaller touches on neighbors including a gift basket delivery / prayer session for one that had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, etc. If it is true that, in sharing the gospel, we ought to count "conversations" and not just "conversions", I cannot remember a time when so many "conversations" about Christ, the church, and the kingdom have been so plentifully initiated in such natural and even fun ways.

* In giving up our traditional church modality, we have faced new problems -- mostly related to how we will organize ourselves, care for our kids and teens, and a few other issues that are mostly about what we miss and what we were used to. But that price is so small to pay for what I have seen in terms of active participation in ministry from all ages, quality fellowship and interpersonal ministry among our small group of house church people, outward flowing stewardship of money and efficiency and MEASUREABLE commitment of our mission to "empower everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday places."

This has been a year of experimentation, lessons learned, saying some bittersweet goodbyes to the familiar, speedbumps, and so on. But I confess that -- combined with what I have seen in our other two house churches in our network and the individuals involved in them -- I'm pretty darn spoiled for ever wanting to go back to the old way of doing and being church. In that regard, what I mostly miss is the people and, in a way, we still get to have each other and the memories we have made, the growth we have gained and the love we have engendered. But when it comes to modalities of church life, I've never been more encouraged about actually seeing what I believe to be important put into actual practice.

One year later, this festival reminds me that saying "yes" to change, though difficult, can be very, very rewarding.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

King Leonard and the Lesser Poets

Bow down, Bono. Be still, Bruce (Cockburn). Van the Man, raise up your hands. And yes, you too, Bobby Dylan -- stand aside (I can't believe I just wrote that). Leonard Cohen is back on stage and you all must take your proper, lesser places.

If you don't know who Leonard Cohen is, don't feel bad. The man is in his 70's now and has not had the kind of musical career that has churned out a string of radio hits. But, if you've heard Jeff Buckley sing "Hallelujah", or even Judy Collins warbling "Suzanne", then you've been with Leonard's work, perhaps without knowing it. So subtle is his magic that "Hallelujah" even showed up in "Shrek". Not bad for a Jewish Canadian word and songsmith in his seventh decade.

I've been a Cohen admirer for some years and even spent some time with a book of his poems this past year or so. Maybe that's why, when I saw that he has just released a "Live in London" 2-CD set with a lot of his best stuff on it (and backed by a crack band), I jumped without hesitating and placed an order. Boy am I glad for my reunion with his particular brand of genius.

Now, to be fair, not everything Leonard does is mind-blowing. Some of it is simply stirring, some of it merely amazing, and some just mildly astounding. What you don't get with Leonard is a soaring, beautiful voice (more of a rich baritone sometimes half-spoken croak). But, given what it is, that voice still communicates depth, poetry and a lifetime of experiences in its own inimitable way. Compare to, say, my dear Bobby Dylan's once-supple-now-poor voice which has descended into a state of (for me) total unlistenability.

And Leonard can do Dylan as good as Dylan does Dylan. Check out these lyrics from "Tower of Song":

"I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasnt answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the tower of song"

Leonard Cohen does not have the pure volume of output of a Dylan, but what he lacks in volume, he makes up for in purity. And, one thing you can't miss about Cohen, is his obsession with religious imagery. There are few of his songs that DON'T refer to something like a midnight choir, angels, Jesus, The End of the World, judgement, prayer or some other religious notion. He has made no secret that he has long been a spiritual seeker -- even spending a year at a mountain monastery above L.A. studying Buddhism with a personal teacher. In spite of this, Cohen also freely drinks of the sensual and even erotic side of life which leads me to warn the squeamish not to look too closely into his poetry, lyrics and way-of-life. On the live album he quips that he has long indulged his fascination with studying various religions: "but cheerfulness kept breaking through". Nevertheless, he has done us the favor of reporting a few of his findings in lyrics such as: "everything beautiful is cracked, that's how the light gets in".

And how, pray tell, is it that after all these many years I still choke up when I hear the maestro sing his masterpiece "Suzanne"(okay, one of his masterpieces anyway):

"And Jesus was a sailor. When He walked upon the water.
He spent a long time looking from His lonely wooden tower.
And when He knew for certain only drowning men could see Him,
He said "All men will be sailors, then, until the sea shall free them"
But He, Himself was broken long before the sky was open.
Forsaken, almost human, He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone."

If you are searching for doctrine, don't look to Leonard's religious poetry: "I'm the Jew who wrote the Bible", he smirks in "The Future", one of my favorite Cohen songs. But if you're looking for a window that opens the soul to seeing the spiritual smack dab in the middle of the earthly, I can heartily commend him to you:

"Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant"

(The Future)

Well, I could go on but I'd rather have you spend your own time with the man, and if you still doubt his genius, consider the soaring beauty of his sung prayer "If It Be Your Will"

"If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before

I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Secret of a Happy Heart

The secret of a happy heart is gratitude. Entitlement -- to whatever extent we nurture it -- is toxic to happiness. If I feel I am owed, then getting what I want or deserve only puts me back to baseline. There is no overflow of joy. A temporary feeling of being "paid up" is as good as it gets. That has nothing to do with true happiness.

The happy in heart draw their happiness from a well of gratitude. They feel blessed because everything they have, no matter how little, is not something they are "owed", but is something grace has provided. The happy in heart stop to appreciate their blessings, even if troubles also abound. "In this world you shall have tribulation...", Jesus said. They know this is true. They have reckoned the fact that reversals, heartaches, disappointments and difficulties are part of the deal. So they focus instead at the miracles of their blessings -- great or small. They see these blessings as gifts from outside of themselves (unearned) and give thanks to The Giver that they have been so favored.

Happiness is totally a matter of perspective and gratitude. I met a man last weekend who has lost everything he once took pride in -- four houses, a marriage, abundant money -- all kinds of things people consider desireable. All gone. Losing all these things has been the hardest part of his journey. However, he reported to me that he is happier now than when he had them. Why? Because he is grateful for what he DOES have and knows that he is blessed to have anything at all.

If just having "stuff" could make us happy, then the most affluent parts of town -- Newport Coast, Beverly Hills, Coto de Caza (!) -- you name it, should be bubbling over with joyful people having excellent days every day. Look how much they have! Those should be the happiest neighborhoods on earth!! I ask you: is that your experience of these places?

And the poor neighborhoods should be places without music, without any joy, without appreciation for the simple things. Just hotbeds of dissatisfaction and entitlement. Is there no joy or appreciation among the poor? And the middle class areas should be full of people who are sort of happy but not fully because they know there are others who have more. Are there no happy middle class folk?

The reality is that we find both entitlement and happiness in all classes, in both sexes, at all levels, and in all parts of the world. The determinant factor in happiness is gratitude for God's blessings, not stuff or power or adoration or anything else. We're happy if we choose to be grateful, no matter who we are. We are unhappy if we nurture entitlement, no matter how much or how little we have. That's the seceret of a happy heart.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Are You Happy?

While I was in Phoenix last weekend, I ducked out for a bite with an old friend from high school. We hadn't actually seen one another in decades and it was great to have time for a meal together.

Over the course of our dinner we swapped stories about our lives and reviewed some of the events, choices, and experiences that had filled the passing years. We laughed at old memories, caught up on a what had become of some of our friends and, of course, updated each other on our life histories.

In the midst of all our chatter, I paused and asked John this key question:

"Are you happy?"

It is a question I ask myself from time-to-time. I am impressed by the way those three words clear the air of lesser questions and moves me to focus on my true interior state. So, let me ask you now: "are you happy?"

If your answer is a solid "yes", congratulations. In my experience, you are a pretty rare breed. But if it is "no", I wonder if you can specifically identify what it is that stands in the way of your own happiness.

Go ahead, try it. Ask yourself: "Am I happy?" and then pay close attention to what happens next.

"The pursuit of happiness is noble. It benefits everyone around the individual pursuing it, and it benefits humanity. And that is why happiness is a moral obligation."

Dennis Prager

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What Happened in Wayne's Basement

When Wayne Shuart was designing his new construction home, the Spirit inspired him to include a large basement meeting room in the design. It was the 1960's and Wayne and his wife, Mary, were committed to doing what they could to reach college students for Christ. I was no college student -- I was maybe 16 when I visited their home those several times. But Wayne's willingness to listen to his inspiration and act upon it allowed that basement to become a sort of holy place in the lives of literally hundreds of people -- both young and old.

Last night, I sat in a living room with Wayne and Mary and some other friends from my long ago days in Phoenix. Decades have flown by since we first became part of each others lives and stories. So many years have past since I first descended those steps leading down to the Shuart's basement meeting room for their Sunday night gathering known simply as "Fellowship in Jesus", but memories of what I experienced there remain crisp and alive. And not just for me. As our little group swapped stories full of agony and ecstasy, it was eminently clear that our various simple commitments to open our lives to whatever God had for us back then had taken each of us places we could have never imagined.

Fellowship in Jesus was not a big part of my early Christian experience, but my visits there allowed me to see what happened when an eminently "straight" couple openend their home to "whosoever will". When things first began in the Shuart's home, they were highly involved in Campus Crusade for Christ with a mission to reach local college students. But both the Shuarts and their dear friends the Selbys were committed to opening their lives to anyone God sent. This meant that there were many nights when drug-toting hippies would be seated next to scrubbed down cheerleaders while the lights were dimmed low and the praise, worship, prophecy and spontaneous prayers bubbled up. Last night, Wayne said he can still remember the sound of the toilet flushing upstairs as person after person concluded they didn't need to hold on to their precious stash of drugs any longer.

The Shuart's and Selby's were not "ministry professionals". Fellowship in Jesus was not their "job". It was their avocation -- the simple gift of their lives and household square footage offered back to God to use as He would in the lives of people He sent there. And, over the years, He sent hundreds. Wayne and Mary say they still meet people who, upon finding out who they are, tearfully tell them: "you won't remember me, but being in your basement changed my life". At one point, Fellowship had grown to a network of nine house churches informally knit together by the role the Selbys and Shuarts played in the lives of the couples who were launched out from their home to start meetings of their own.

Wayne says that he and Mary and Herb and Helen, though clearly responsible as "leaders", refused to call themselves by that title. "We didn't call ourselves leaders", Wayne said last night. "We called ourselves 'servants'". And they insisted that other "leaders" they raised up -- and there were dozens of them -- do the same.

When Wayne heard I was coming to town and that he and Mary were invited to join a few of us for a casual evening of fellowship, he did not remember me. This was no surprise to me since the meetings were quite large -- at times perhaps as many as 100 squeezed into that subterranean rec room. But, for some reason, Mary did recall my name and, to my delight, brought Wayne to our little get together. But oh how I remember them and the wonderful way they facilitated Spirit-transformed lives.

Before the evening was over, I was on my knees before Wayne and Mary and before my other friends asking for the Shuart's blessing. Those who know me understand that this is a very deliberate request that I have made of a select few people in my life. But there are times when I sense the Spirit inspiring me to ask for the blessing of particularly great Christians. Wayne and Mary are such people -- servants indeed -- and examples of those who has lived their lives in a simple, dedicated and continuing state of openess to the Lord and to the people God sends their way. Last night, I was more glad than ever to have been one of them.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Truth About In 'N Out

I have no illusions about the fact that what I am about to say could cost me friends and even close family relationships. I fear it could even incite violence, civil war and mass pandemonium. But I can hold back no longer. I must speak out. What I have to say is this:

In 'N Out Burger is overrated.

Okay, I'm not saying it's bad. The burgers are decent and the fries fine. But it mystifies me the way people hyperventilate about how great In 'N Out is, how they wish they had one in their back yard. I am staggered at how long the lines can be. For what? For a hamburger that -- while fresh -- is on the small side and, well, unremarkable. Most hamburger cooked at a back yard BBQ are WAY more tasty, if you ask me. And...dare I say it...I think that if I had to choose between an In 'N Out and a Carl's $6 hamburger... well, you can see where this is going.

So, go ahead. Leave me your nasty comments. Threaten my well being. Do your worst you poor, brainwashed In 'N Out minions. But it won't change my honest appraisal of the In 'N Out phenomena as one of those that is right up there with the slinky and the hulu hoop -- fun, but not all that satisfying.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Shortest Post Yet

Dan Tocchini on Facebook: "I think following Jesus is much easier than being a Christian". That little statement has really gotten under my skin.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Turns Out, It Really DOES Matter

So, when you work -- as I do -- for an outfit called "Marriage and Family Matters", you come out-of-the-box with certain attitudes toward marriage and marriages. That's why I was fascinated by the TIME magazine (July 13th edition) with a cover story about how "infidelity is eroding our most sacred institution" and how we can "make marriage matter again". Naturally, I swiped the mag and snuck it home for a read.

I was surprised to find (after all, this is TIME magazine) that the author of the cover piece, Caitlin Flanagan, is not "iffy" about the need for our society to hold to and maintain an high standard of marriage. After scolding Senator John Ensign of Nevada and the king of adultery TMI, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Ms. Flanagan gets to her point post haste:

"No other single force is causing as much measureable hardship in this country as the collapse of marriage". She goes on to say that the families of these two men "discover a truth as old as marriage: a lasting covenant between a man and a woman can be a vehicle for the nurture and protection of each other, the one reliable shelter in an uncaring world -- or it can be a matchless tool for the infliction of suffering on the people you supposedly love above all others, most of all on your children".

Noting the uniquely American propensity for "frequent marriage, frequent divorce" and the "high numbers of short-term co-habitating relationships", the author deconstructs the contemporary notion of marriage as "an incresingly fragile construct depending less and less on notions of sacrifice and obligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness as defined by and for its adult principals." She continues:

"The intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself."

It is important to pause here and observe as a pastor and counselor that marital breakdown is not always rooted in such abject selfishness. I feel privileged when I am invited to help struggling couples, conscientious and caring single parents, and young people who are doing their best to walk through the profound issues of their lives. I respect people who invest in their marriages, parenting challenges or their quest to grow up as whole as they can. Still, there is no avoiding the fact that, as a society, we are living in days when we are being forced to rethink what marriage is, how it works, how it breaks and what its effects are (for better and for worse) -- especially on children.

Along these lines, the article quotes self-identified feminist author, sociologist and researcher Maria Kefalas admitting that a single mother cannot be both mother and father to their children. "As a feminist, I didn't want to believe it," she says. "Women always tell me, 'I can be a mother and a father to a child', but it's not true". "Growing up without a father has a deep psychological effect upon a child." Another author, single mother and sociologist quoted in the article echoes these conclusions: "Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background". These sobering words ring in our ears when we come to realize that (according to the article) "births to unmarried women have reached an astonishing 39.7%".

In a day when a not-so-conservative magazine like TIME runs with an article that asserts that the contemporary collapse of marriage "hurts children, reduces mothers' financial security, and has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation's underclass", it makes a guy like me take notice.

Meanwhile, the parade of civic leaders, celebrities, religious figures and other notable trendsetters in society continues to produce astounding stories of marital breakdown and failure. Bottom line: if we want something different than what we have, we are going to have to fight a lot harder for it. As I tell couples who come to me for premarital counseling: "if you want to beat the odds of a 50% average failure rate of today's marriages, you two can't settle for an average commitment to your marriage. It must be way, way above average". In other words, even TIME magazine tells me that the founders of our counseling center got it quite right: marriage and family REALLY DOES matter.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thoughts From an Armchair Patriot

I confess that most of the time I am a somewhat quiet patriot. I know folks whose chests swell with patriotic pride quickly and often -- flag-wavers and boosters if you will. It would seem that deep and fiery feelings of admiration for America come less often to me than it does to these more robust patriots. But they do come.

I love America's history and have acquainted myself with some of her shining moments while at Arlington Cemetary and a host of other sites in and around Washington, D.C. I have read pretty extensively about the Civil War period and decently about the founders and the Revolution. In other words, I have prepared the soil of my heart for whatever patriotic feelings that may honestly arise.

The last time I was struck by patriotic lightening was not long ago. It happened to me as I enjoyed watching the new John Adams miniseries (starring Paul Giamati) on DVD.

One segment in this production depicts the Continental Congress in session as they passionately debate the question of whether or not they should declare independence from England. Once the debate comes to a close, a final vote is called for. As the tally is taken, the results become clear. At that moment, a breathless silence falls across the room. In a single stroke, these men have summarily pledged themselves, their families, and their entire futures and fortunes to the notion of standing up to the greatest superpower in the Western world and daring it to subdue them as they reach for their golden ring of liberty.

What astounds me about this it that these men are clearly not being driven to this decision by greed for personal gain, institutional arrogance or inflated ideas of their own self importance. What has brought them to their moment of truth are their convictions, their principles and even their theology. God, they assert, gives rights to men that no king or crown may tamper with or remove. Their call, therefore, is to make their stand come what may.

In the pregnant silence that follows their vote, the room is thick with the silent reverberations of: "What have we just done?" It is a stunning scene indeed.
Sitting safely in my chair, I am captured by the courage and character of my national forefathers and I am moved with awe that I am in any way a part of the country they birthed in their hearts that long ago day.

Armchair patriot? Perhaps. But I will continue to make my heart available to those shivers of inspiration that remind me of the greatness that still rises to the surface of our national story in times like these. And I pray that God will refine us as a people who will courageously live out our endowment as Americans again and again until His Kingdom breaks into this present age in ultimate consumation.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Wanderers - Apex Church

Another sign of what the Spirit is doing in our time:

Apex Church in Dayton, Ohio is a large (formerly) traditional church that has chosen to emphasize their identity as a network of house churches. One description of their congregation is as follows:

"They have over 2,500 hundred people showing up every weekend, but that is the least impressive thing about this church. Rob Turner is a great, young leader. Their church is made up of 60-70 house churches that meet on different nights throughout the week. You are not a member of Apex if you do not go to a house church."

From Apex's own website, we get this:

Apex Community Church is a network of community churches
delighting in Jesus so much that we are compelled to love, equip, and send people. As a network of house churches we desire to spread a passion for Jesus through Christ-centered communities among individuals where He is yet to be worshiped.

Apex desires to see God work as he did in the early church, as detailed in God’s inspired Word, specifically Acts 2. We created a model termed 3G (e.g. Gathering, Growing, and Going), which is our way of making sure we are staying focused on the mission and vision the Lord has given us as a body of believers.

We gather corporately for celebration and teaching, growing spiritually as house churches and going, i.e., meeting the physical and spiritual needs of others.

This is yet another example of a traditional church that has shifted to a network of house churches focused not only on their own fellowship but on "the mission and vision the Lord has given us as a body of believers".

I appreciate the way Apex has embraced their call to launch a network of house churches that are not just appendages to the Sunday gatherings but are, in fact, the heart of this large congregation. Establishing house churches that care and serve neighborhoods, provide for intimate fellowship, and provide for the training and edification of the whole strikes me as the kind of balance that calls many New Wanderers to take risks in order to pursue.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New Wanderers - Northland Church

Up to now, the subjects of my "New Wanderers" series in my blog has focused on small Vineyard churches, very locally focused. But now, we move from the West Coast to the Eastern US - Florida, to be exact. This is the story of a megachurch of 12,000 that has left behind convention in order to embrace a most remarkable vision. It is not a Vineyard church either. But it is a most compelling and inspiring congregation as you will see.

I first heard about Northland Church from my fellow house church buddy Ken Eastburn who just returned from the church after being asked to visit there. The church leaders have recently announced their desire to partner with Global Media Outreach, the Campus Crusade online ministry to God-seekers from around the world, to plant one million house churches. That is not a typo. One million.

To get a little better picture of where a vision like this comes from, I have pulled a fairly large part of the the "about" post from Northland's website in what follows. I will be researching more, but I highly recommend you take a few moments to digest the following. I find it most inspiring:

The 1990s
With the initial renovation of the facility, God brought incredible spiritual and numerical growth to the congregation.

In the fall of 1990, the elders sent Dr. Hunter away on an extended retreat to hear a clarifying word from God concerning Northland’s future. Precisely, how did God desire for Northland to accomplish its mission of “bringing people to maturity in Christ”? From that mountaintop experience, Pastor Joel conceived, and the elders affirmed, the 10-year “Journey to Spiritual Maturity” emphasis that encompassed the entire worship and educational focus of all age levels of the congregation. In this journey together, one central preaching theme was focused upon for an entire year.

Attendance figures went from 300 to well over 5,000. The staff grew from four to 90; the church went from one service on Sunday morning to seven services throughout the weekend.

In the fall of 1997, the elders again sent Dr. Hunter away on retreat to begin envisioning the next millennium. He returned with a vision of a church unrestricted by geographical boundaries.

In April of 1998 the elders and pastors unanimously affirmed the vision: Northland would become a “church distributed,” arranging the church around the relationships of the congregation and partner ministries, rather than around a physical church building. Northland is calling people to follow Christ, distributing their lives every day in ministry to others.

During Dr. Hunter’s tenure, Northland has grown from 200 faithful souls to a congregation of 12,000, worshiping at sites located throughout Central Florida and at thousands of smaller sites online. This growth forced the church’s leaders to make a decision as to the future character of the church.

Pastor Hunter remembers: “We had grown big enough to become a society within a society. If we had wanted to just do the traditional things to accommodate growth (i.e. be in perennial building campaigns, keep motivating people to live as much of their lives at the church building as possible), then we could probably have kept growing. But growing what? Another megachurch?

“We would be promoting the unspoken message that our congregation was more important to us than other congregations and ministries, and furthering the Western mentality of the rugged individualism of a church while ignoring the larger community life of the church—a philosophy that is neither biblical nor appropriate.”
The solution? Northland’s would construct a new church building that would serve as a “ distribution point” rather than a “destination.”
Completed in August 2007, Northland’s new $42 million facilities in Longwood, Florida, were built for both the local congregation and those who will never set foot in the building. The new facilities offer plenty of room—more than 160,000 square feet of space. However, the intent was never to see how many people could fit under one roof; it was to facilitate ministry worldwide with other believers.

The 160,000-square-foot facilities feature state-of-the-art technology with two-way interconnectivity that provides virtually unlimited seating for worshipers…virtually.

Congregants worship at multiple sites throughout Central Florida, where they connect with neighboring Christians for support and encouragement and to better serve their communities. Each weekend, these sites are joined in concurrent worship. A two-way video connection allows different parts of the services to be distributed among the sites and gives congregants opportunities to interact with one another in real time.

Worshipers also participate at more than 1,000 smaller sites worldwide via Northland’s innovative Webstream application.

People in Northland’s congregation continue to take leadership of nearly every ministry effort inside the church, out in the community and around the world. Elders, pastors and paid staff don’t try to control the initiatives of congregants or the connections they make, and, they don’t watch over their shoulders unnecessarily. Dr. Hunter encourages Northlanders: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.” And they do!

Together, he teaches, we can accomplish more because of our differences than we would on our own—without giving up our unique identities. Dr. Hunter concludes. “Fear and suspicion of differences limit the church’s spiritual maturity. Both spiritual and intellectual maturity, grow from differences. A distributed church uses contrasts to accomplish Kingdom purposes.”