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Beyond fig leaves…

In ministry to youth since my college years, there have been many psychologists, sociologists, neurologists, and even parents who have attested to the teenagers’ quest for “self” discovery.  Throughout adolescence, floods of hormones and new/heightened neurological abilities for cognitive and social connections (the ability to “think” from anothers’ perspective) allows young people for the first time to be more fully aware of the self they not only are – but the self they are perceived as by others.  The fact that the “self” perceived by others might be different from the “self” they believe themselves to be – becomes realized.  (For more on this, here’s an awesome article you might be interested in.)  This ability actually grows and deepens throughout adolescence, and combined with modern technology can become a labyrinth from which young people need – not rescue, but guidance.  I’m also convinced that many of us “adults” (myself included) are sucked back into our adolescent years, in terms of the practices evoked by these opportunities.

This goes back to our very first presentations of a crafted “self-image”, as human beings.  Today, we see it in the duck-faced 13-year-old girl or the 15-year-old male flexing in a mirror – both affixed as a “Profile Picture” or even just an update.  The statement is implied by sharing (even if not understood), “This is the image I’ve chosen to represent the ‘self’ I’m curating for you to perceive me as.”  This is not a new desire.  Our first img_8561attempts at this are found in Genesis 3:7, as Adam and Eve sew fig leaves together out of a desire to cover up their true “self” which they’re shamefully aware has been marred.  They want to be perceived without the humiliating nakedness and vulnerability, and so they put on leaves and say, “This is the image I’ve chosen to represent the ‘self’ I’m curating for you to perceive me as.”

To this, God responds with the hard truth about what has happened.  He also replaces their garments of leaves which cost nothing, with garments of skin which we can assume cost the lives of animals.  God seems to suggest, “You may cover up, as this level of vulnerability is a heavy burden.  But it comes at a price also.”  We see here a prophetic illustration, that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Not as payment, but as a direct result – living in a way that chooses our own presentation of “self” above the “self” God has created us to be, will always lead to death – whether of relationships or literal.  This is not something that weak people “fall into” as an activity, but rather something we are each born into as a state.

Thomas Merton wrestled with this same concept in thought & prayer: “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not.” (Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, 1978)  (Note that “sin” here is less about morality and more about ontology.)

We are not left to struggle with this tendency toward the “false self”.  We believe and proclaim that Christ has provided a New way of being (ontology again!).  Galatians 2:20 declares that our “self” is “crucified with Christ” so that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV)  Scripture reveals to us this Freedom is not only something offered to us, but invites us to understand that the very activity of sacrificing our “self” in order to receive the “self” that is alive in Christ is our act of worship! (Romans 12:1)  It is in this New-Creation-living in the life of Jesus that we discover and move toward the “self” God has created us to be. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So how do we guide young people, and how do we respond to a technology culture that constantly invites us to purposefully curate our own “self” for the sake of how we’re known by others?

  1. Understand where the desire for “multiple-selving” comes from.  A certain level is healthy and expected:  What foods do I enjoy? What music/culture/comforts/fashions do I prefer?  What art do I appreciate/contribute?  During the adolescent years especially, our cognitive abilities develop in ways that allow us to “try on” variations of who we might become.   Most of us even continue into adulthood with more than one “self”, and seek to balance these expressions of our identity.
  2. Understand where the desire for a “false self” comes from.  Scripture reminds us we are born into a state of sin that brings death (Romans 5:12).  To deny this is our nature, and just try to “be good” or “be strong/successful/attractive”, etc. is to throw on fig leaves and hope for the best.  We come to God, confessing our naked vulnerability, and accept the price He has paid-to reconcile us in relationship – offering a restored “True self” that exists in the Love of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Offer every expression of our “self” to be an opportunity to worship God, not bring glory to our “self”.  Whether on social media, in classrooms, in the living room, or wherever we find ourselves.  “Offer your ‘self’ as a living sacrifice…” (Romans 12:1)  This means daily (and a life of) prayer where we bring our whole “self” into the presence of God.
  4. Pray.  Together, and individually.  In prayer, we enter into a redeemed time and space where we discover the Loving God whose image we were created to bear, and are shaped/empowered by His Spirit toward how that can happen today.  Here we become less and less influenced by how we might be perceived by others, and in declaring Jesus as Lord – give weight to who God has declared we are becoming in Christ.
  5. Love.  Love God as the source of our True Self.  Love others, not as the “selves” they might curate for better or for worse, or as the “false self” ascribed to them by others, but as the “True Self” they are in the light of Jesus Christ.  Finally, love the True Self God has set you free to become – united with God in the Love and power of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

One Year.

One year ago I was on my way to the D6 Conference in Texas, along with our new lead pastor and another pastor friend we picked up along the way.  I was attending the conference both as a “Pastor of Family Life”, but also as an intensive study course personally administered by the president of Wesley Seminary toward completion of my MDiv.  It was a great week of learning, dreaming and praying over what God had in store for a church family I loved with a new pastor I was blessed to also call a friend.  I ended up being able to share a spoken word I’d written as part of my coursework with the entire D6 Conference!  As we went home from that week – we had no idea what would happen in the year ahead.  We certainly didn’t imagine the year we’ve had. 🙂

This year we’re traveling to the D6 Conference in North Carolina, along with our spouses.  The four of us look forward to some great time praying and casting vision over what God has in store for this church family that we love – and we’re blessed to img_8338all do so as friends.  But my wife and I are also attending as a couple on the edge of launching into full-time missionary work in Gyor, Hungary!  We’re scanning the topics, and trying to figure out what seminars/speakers might equip us for the work on the horizon as well as the work we’re aiming to finish well.

This past year I’ve finished my MDiv, something I never thought was part of my life plan.  It seems when you hand God your life and ask Him one step at a time “What would please you here?” – He actually seems to suggest things you may not have imagined.  Not in an anxious “Oh my goodness, I’d better not miss out on any tiny decision that God may have an opinion on….”  But more in a mode of living toward receiving and responding to the flowing Love of God out into and for the sake of His Kingdom announced and arriving in the world through changed lives, people set free and restored relationship.

All this to say, the past year has brought some changes for sure.  The year ahead seems to be filled with quite a bit as well.  We’re going to be selling our home soon, and moving into a short-term rental.  Then we’ll move to Hungary, and learn a new language both literally and figuratively as we learn to join the living Word in a new context.  Thankfully, we’ve been shaped for years already by the Word who became flesh.  So #D62018, 2019, and beyond…here we come…

(If you haven’t already, check out our website for the family missionary adventure that has already begun!!)

 

We Are Seeking…

img_7747In 1965, the Jamaican Methodist church was seeking a year of renewal.  Sir Hugh Braham Sherlock,  a Methodist leader also known at the time for writing the Jamaican national anthem “Jamaica, Land We Love”, helped pen this incredible poem & hymn as a prayer for God’s people to sing in unison…

Lord, Thy church on earth is seeking

Thy renewal from above;

Teach us all the act of speaking

With the accent of Thy love.

We would heed Thy great commission:

“Go ye into every place;

Preach, baptize, fulfill My mission,

Serve with love and share My grace.”

 

Freedom, give to those in bondage,

Lift the burdens caused by sin;

Give new hope, new strength, and courage

Grant release from fears within.

Light for darkness, joy for sorrow;

Love for hatred, peace for strife.

These and countless blessings follow

As the Spirit gives new life.

 

 

In the streets of every city

Where the bruised and lonely dwell,

We shall show the Savior’s pity,

We shall of His mercy tell.

In all lands and with all races,

We shall serve and seek to bring

All the world to render praises,

Christ, to Thee, Redeemer, King.

Amen.

 “Lord, thy church on earth is seeking.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 22, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/l/lord,-thy-church-on-earth-is-seeking.

Faith Seeking Understanding…

One thing I never seemed to learn in college, was how much I loved learning.

The hidden nerd within me fell asleep around 5th grade, rolled over restlessly with classic literature around late high school, and remained largely dormant until around 2004.  Full time ministry and life had created a need to grow academically, spiritually, Biblically, and theologically in new ways.  I found mentors who helped me discover books that would stretch me – both by affirming what I believed, and by challenging it.   I took a few classes through the Free Methodist Church, and surprised myself with high grades, before being ordained in 2009.  I considered “continuing education”, but with the beginnings of parenthood, I decided to wait.  I wanted things to “calm down a bit” before I jumped into a Masters program.  (This is where all parents everywhere laugh a bit at my naivete.)

Finally, in January of 2015 I began my MDiv through Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan Seminary.  We had 3 growing children at home, and a 4th daughter trapped in the DR Congo since late 2012, that we weren’t sure when/how we’d bring home.  I’d waited long enough, and life didn’t show any signs of “settling down”.  My senior pastor at the time encouraged me to check it out, and it seemed like here was a program that not only “allowed” you to be in ministry while learning, but actually embraced your place of service as a primary lens through which your learning would be taking place.

I was really glad I waited until life was “calm” before continuing my education. In June 38848820_10155885768936747_2625269017031475200_n2015 during an on-site intensive in Marion, IN we received word that our daughter’s health was failing in the DR Congo.  That launched a trip to Kinshasa to care for her needs, and over the next half a year worked out a move into foster care to make sure she’d survive until we could bring her home.  We were finally given permission to bring her home in early 2016.  We purchased one-way tickets in the middle of the semester and found ourselves trapped without any idea when we would be allowed to leave Africa ourselves.

After a few weeks, we finally made it home on March 31st and I dropped any summer classes in order to soak in these first moments together as a family.  This pushed graduation back, but was well worth the change, and Wesley Seminary professors and advisors encouraged these moments.

I picked classwork back up that fall, just as the new school-year was beginning. (Remember – I’m also a full-time youth pastor here!)  Things started to find a routine, and our youngest daughter was learning both English AND what it meant to live in a family context.  Then 2017 arrived.  Our lead pastor announced he was leaving, and I found my own position precariously perched on the edge of the unknown.  I accepted a slight pay-cut, and increased ministry oversight in order to stay and even fill-in through that summer many ways until a new lead pastor arrived that fall.  We survived all of this because of our amazing church, volunteers, and the Holy Spirit for sure.  Life was busy, to put it mildly.  Through it all, classes continued.  Graduation was coming in late 2018!

In November of 2017, God decided to pull another trick that apparently He’d been working on years before.  He slowly (very slowly!) made it obvious that we were being called to full-time missions work in Hungary!!  It was a difficult but exciting thing to announce, and we’ve been slowly starting to work out the details. (We’d love to come share at your church/group!)

All of that to say – life didn’t slow down.  If anything, it was as if life said “Oh yeah? Gonna start a degree?  Take this!” and began ninja-kicking things.  Still, the crew at Wesley Seminary, our amazing church friends/family, and the Love of God have helped us navigate these days.  As I finished my final “Capstone” class in Marion, IN last week – I’d urge anyone considering taking a step like this – pray, and step forward.  If you’re in ministry already, don’t wait for “things to calm down”.  It has been a great blessing – personally, professionally, and spiritually.

Zion & Babylon

(By Josh Garrels) Listen now?

Oh great mammon of form and function

Careless consumerist consumption

Dangerous dysfunction

Described as expensive taste

I’m a people disgraced

By what I claim I need

And what I want to waste

I take no account for nothing

If it’s not mine

It’s a misappropriation of funds

Protect my ninety percent with my guns

Whose side am I on?

Well who’s winning?

My kingdom’s built with the blood of slaves

Orphans, widows, and homeless graves

I sold their souls just to build my private mansion

Some people say that my time is coming

Kingdom come is the justice running

Down, down, down on me

I’m a poor child, I’m a lost son

I refuse to give my love to anyone

Fight for the truth

Or help the weaker ones

Because I love my Babylon

I am a slave, I was never free

I betrayed you for blood money

Oh I bought the world, all is vanity

Oh my Lord I’m your enemy

Come to me, and find your life

Children sing, Zion’s in sight

I said don’t trade your name for a serial number

Priceless lives were born from under graves

Where I found you

Say, my name ain’t yours and yours is not mine

Mine is the Lord, and yours is my child

That’s how it’s always been

Time to make a change

Leave your home

Give to the poor all that you own

Lose your life, so that you could find it

First will be last when the true world comes

Livin’ like a humble fool to overcome

The upside-down wisdom

Of a dying world

Zion’s not built with hands

And in this place God will dwell with man

Sick be healed and cripples stand

Sing Allelu

My kingdom’s built with the blood of my son

Selfless sacrifice for everyone

Faith, hope, love, and harmony

I said let this world know me by your love

By your love

Oh my child, daughters, ​and sons

I made you in love to overcome

Free as a bird, my flowers in the sun

On your way to Mount Zion

All you slaves, be set free

Come on out child and come on home to me

We will dance, we will rejoice

If you can hear me then follow my voice

After the Applause…

The recent speech by Chris Pratt at the MTV Movie & TV Awards has been a big hit.  There’s a reason – it’s great content spoken publicly by a man who seems to have been transformed by Jesus.  It no doubt has, and will continue to, encourage people even as it makes them laugh.  It will challenge some, though it may be that those willing to listen are those who are already making an effort to live a life shaped in the pattern of “good” he offers.

I definitely don’t want to come across as a “hater”.  I think Chris Pratt seems like a great guy, and I’ve definitely laughed at his incredible talent as he’s carried more than one movie on his shoulders alone.  But I do want to push pause for a moment – as the “likes” and “shares” are gathering, to help us recognize what is happening.  On a popular culture stage, Pratt shares what seems to many to be a Christian message to millions.  He does so boldly, and is applauded for his words.  In a world filled with so much evil, hate, and brokenness, where many Christians feel like “outsiders”, it seems here is a champion we can get behind and support.

Unfortunately – his message here is not specifically Christian.  Anymore than America is Christian.  Anymore than Grandma Martha (not mine specifically, but in the general sense) who goes to church every Christmas and Easter is Christian.cp.award

In fact, his message is so close to sounding Christian – just like America & Grandma Martha – it may be incredibly dangerous in its’ ability to make everyone feel like they’re doing alright.  Let’s set aside his words about pooping in public for a moment (great hilarious advice), and examine the words that touch on our topic:

  • “Breathe. If you don’t, you’ll suffocate.” – Wise words here, that can be interpreted in many ways.  The patterns of Sabbath offered in scripture remind us of our need to unplug from performance-based living.  Likewise, life cannot be all about “me”.  My life must also flow outward toward serving & loving others.  There’s a huge movement these days toward “Mindfulness”, and “Meditation”.  As followers of Jesus have allowed the goals/pace/practices of the world to become our own, we’ve lost our unique sense of being “Sabbath-shaped”, and pointing to a Jesus who has set us free from such things as our source of peace (Matthew 11:28).  This has left the world to discover new – but often empty, wells of self-awareness and self-derived peace.
  • “You have a soul. Be careful with it.”  This is great advice, but stops short of answering “How?”  Psalm 23:3 reminds us, “He (the Lord) refreshes my soul/life.”  Scripture also warns us that being really clingy & controlling with our soul/life – may be against what Jesus wants.  Matthew 16:25 “For whoever wants to save their (soul/life) will lose it, but whoever loses their (soul/life) for me will find it.”  Instead, Matthew 22:37 urges us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our (soul/life), and our  mind.
  • “Reach out to someone in pain.  Be of service, it feels good and it’s good for your soul.”  It’s true – neuroscientists have proven that acts of serving others increases levels of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.  As for our “soul”?  Again – yes, it’s all over scripture that we should serve others.  But this is not given as a prescription for the health of our soul, which kinda makes it a self-centered activity.  It’s given as an illustration of what Love looks like.  The purpose is always to join the already-active Love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, that the world might become more aware of His Love (Ephesians 5:2).
  • “God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that.”  This one sounds so specific, and yet leaves God unnamed and vaguely wanting the “best” for each of us individually.  Who is this God that is real?  What does such love desire/accomplish?  What happens when such a God “wants the best” for every athlete competing for a prize…or “wants the best” for every undocumented immigrant and President Trump simultaneously?  So what does the God of Abraham and Isaac as revealed in Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit actually “want” for each of us?  Read his prayer for us in John 17.
  • “Learn to pray. It’s easy and so good for your soul.”  Again an appeal to do something because “it’s good for your soul”.  What is prayer?  Is it the same as mindfulness and meditation?  We know prayer doesn’t have to be on our knees bedside, or in a hidden room – although these are both great traditional experiences.  Scripture says “Pray Continually”, which seems to infer prayer can be something that weaves into every moment of our lives.  Foundational to the word “prayer” in the New Testament, would be communicating our desires/will in God’s presence.  When Jesus taught his disciples “how to pray” (Matthew 6), he closed with “your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”  In this prayer & life of Jesus, we’re reminded that to pray is not because it’s “good for our soul” in a generic way, but specifically because it shapes us by the Loving will of God for purposes much larger than human desires/will would ever be aware of.

Finally, his #9 rule.  There is so much here, and I’ve already written a bunch.  But seriously, all of that was icing on the cake.  Here is the central issue that is worth a pause for clarity.  I’ve got to post the entire thing:

“And finally, number nine: Nobody is perfect. People are going to tell you you’re perfect just the way you are—you’re not! You are imperfect. You always will be. But, there is a powerful force that designed you that way. And if you’re willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. And like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood. Do not forget it. Do not take it for granted.”

So much of this goes against the message of Jesus, even though I don’t think that was the intention.  Let’s take it slowly:

  • “Nobody is perfect…you’re not! You are imperfect. You always will be.”  There’s truth in here, but it’s lacking the Truth (capital “T” for Jesus)  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invited his hearers “Be perfect, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  The good news of the gospel isn’t our imperfection, but the fact that Jesus invites us to be perfect.  This doesn’t mean perfect in performance, or that we’ll never make mistakes.  Perfect in Matthew 5:8 involves the “telos” or end/goal/completion.  We are able to be “perfected” as we find ourselves being made complete in the love of Jesus described by the entire message of Matthew 5.
  • “There is a powerful force that designed you that way.”  Again, truth without Truth.  There is a God, revealed in Jesus, that designed us (Psalm 139:13-18).  But we were not designed to be imperfect.  As mentioned previously, we are invited by Jesus into a new identity (2 Corinthians 5:17) that offers healing from the condition caused by being born into a world broken by self-centered sin (Romans 3:23, 5:19).
  • “Grace is a gift.  And like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood.”  This is the closest Pratt gets to actually proclaiming Jesus.  Unfortunately, the culmination of his message that weaves in American patriotism, potentially turns Jesus into a hero on the battlefield that would offer a pattern for unhealthy war-themed hero worship.   There was no cosmic war for independence as a Kingdom of Jesus, and the “freedom we enjoy in this country” (and worship at times) is rubbish compared to the Freedom offered in God’s Love which is revealed in the crucified Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  To learn more about that freedom, that love, and that grace – grab a Bible and head to a church nearby where people are figuring out what it means on a daily basis.

This is only beginning what should be much longer conversations and prayers on each of these areas.  As I’ve said earlier, Chris seems a great guy who loves Jesus.  But when millions of MTV viewers applaud his words, we should ask ourselves – are these words that actually contain Jesus – who was despised & rejected?  Or are they applauding the words, because such words inadvertently lower the bar to reveal a false God created in our own image who is okay with everything the way it is – and just wants us to be nicer & accept his acceptance?

I know God can use the speech, and has.  Just like he uses the messed up words I offer and live…thankfully.  But I was reminded recently that a living theology is “faith seeking understanding”.  Also that God’s “theology” (“theo” meaning God, and “logos” meaning word) was literally – JESUS.  So for our faith to seek understanding, means examining any theological statement (especially those applauded) in the Truth of Jesus Christ…in whose name we pray.

Also…I realize others heard exactly the opposite of me.  So….sorry?

 

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