Sunday, December 21, 2014

Humble Help

As we wrap up 2014 and look towards 2015 I find myself reflecting on where life has gone during these twelve months. While I've had some high points (like losing 50 pounds) to be frank this year has been thematically marked by pain, depression and loneliness. A new job assignment that is not going well. Multiple family deaths, the most recent being my grandmother. Terminal illness in other relatives. Marginalization by those who share my faith.

And a very Merry Christmas to you, sir.

Throughout these long days I've looked inward and outward desperately searching for God in the midst of all this. Where are you in all this pain? Why can't I sense your presence? Why can't I feel your peace? Have you abandoned me?

When I search the Bible for hope I find passages that speak to the goodness of God.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
Jeremiah 31:3
Never will I leave; never will I forsake you.
Hebrews 13:5
You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29:13
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.
Matthew 7:11
So if God wants to love on me, wants to give me good gifts, and wants me to find Him why so much pain? How is this a good gift?

My upbringing as an American has conditioned me to pursue comfort above all. Find a steady job. Buy a nice house. Raise your family. Pay your taxes. My upbringing as a Pentecostal has conditioned me to expect only wealth, health and prosperity from God. With faith you can move mountains. Sickness is an attack of the enemy and with enough faith you can cast out any discomfort.

Both of these viewpoints reinforce the idea that the physical world, the here-and-now is what's most important and that God should be most concerned with our immediate satisfaction. But what if this life was not the greatest reality? What if this life is a starting point to a much larger and grander destination? What if the pain we experience here is a tool God uses to shape and polish us into the glorious creatures we are becoming?

Pain is the most painful when it appears pointless. But with God there are no mistakes and no coincidences. If you believe God is all-good, all-powerful and all-loving then you must accept His sovereignty over how things are in this life, even the painful moments. He is permissively allowing or explicitly causing things to happen here and you have to trust Him. Trust that he has your best in mind, no matter what our culture says about pain. Pain has a purpose in God's kingdom. As Jesus' half-brother says:
Consider it the purest of  joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4
Jesus is the Son of God, King above all other kings, Lord above all other lords. And yet He was born in the humblest of circumstances. He was not born to thunderous applause nor a fanfare of royal trumpets but the simple bleating of sheep. His human life shows a progression from painful, humble beginnings to the final destination of ruling and reigning with God the Father. Should we expect anything different in our lives as we follow Him?

I wrap up this year with a video and prayer. Father, be with all those who are in the valley. Help them to persevere, to find you in the darkness. May they rest assuredly in your grace and purpose. May they find their delight in knowing that you are accomplishing a good work in them. May they approach pain and difficulty with the purest form of joy. Shape all of us into the pure, spotless bride. And quicken the day of the glorious return of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Small Giants

During my fourteen years working as a software engineer I've been a part of various teams. Most have been healthy groups working with wonderful people while others have been less than ideal. Recently I joined a new team and was a bit surprised by one of the first assignments. My manager gave us a copy of Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service by Ari Weinzweig and told us to read it and think of ways to apply the principles to our work.

If you're not familiar with Zingerman's it is a small deli located in Ann Harbor, Michigan, and is known for taking the best ingredients to make the best food while providing the best customer service. It's grown from a deli to include a restaurant, bakery, creamery, mail-order service, training service and more, all locally based in Ann Harbor.

I was curious what we as a team of computer engineers and architects could learn from a deli but it turns out the principles Ari describes are applicable to any organization regardless of what you do. If you're looking for a good book to inspire your organization I highly recommend picking this one up. It's a quick hundred-page read and full of practical tips to work better.

This book sent me on a course to learn more about Zingerman's and their philosophy on business. There is an abundance of videos online with Ari teaching principles of leadership and organizational greatness. In one training video he describes a hog farmer in South Carolina who chooses to use sustainable, traditional methods of raising pigs rather than what large farms do. He quotes the farmer as saying, "Well, the great thing about the way I farm is when I'm really stumped and don't know what to do, I just look at what they do in mainstream agriculture and do the opposite." Zingerman's takes a similar approach. While he says they don't intentionally do the opposite of mainstream corporations in practice almost everything they do ends up being so.

There seems to be something very valuable in this idea of going counter-culture to the traditional corporate model. I'm currently reading another book, Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham, not so much from a business perspective but rather from a church one. The title alone speaks volumes.

I think today's model of a healthy church is flawed. We have embraced the bigger is better mindset and hold up mega churches as the gold standard of what to do. But what if there was an alternative? What if rather than focusing on growing numbers we focused on growing people?

I firmly believe that a healthy body is one in which all parts are functioning and contributing. No part is better than another and no part is useless. As Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth:
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts that seems to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor... God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. -- 1 Corinthians 12:21-26
Today's church appears to give honor to the presentable parts and the less honorable parts are relegated to sit quietly on the sidelines. We look to pastors as the singular source of God's message to the body. We study YouTube videos of perfectly polished worship conferences and try to mimic them because we assume this is what Spirit-filled music is supposed to be. We strive to be flashy. We strive to be modern. We strive to be big.

But what if that's not what we're supposed to be? Everyone want to be a part of something great, something larger than themselves. But why does greatness have to be put into western corporate terms? The greatest possible pursuit is a relation with the greatest possible being, the originator of all great things, God. What if his idea of greatness is the exact opposite of man's idea of greatness?

Jesus is the complete fullness of God clothed in humanity. He is the very face of our Father. And Jesus did not seem to care about worldly success. He chastised the religious elite. He spoke to the impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom. Rather than elevating everything we as westerners hold dear, Jesus seemed to elevate the down and out. He spent time with the outcast Samaritan woman living in adultery. He highlighted the distraught tax collector as being righteous. He stepped away from the ninety-nine to look for the single lost sheep. Even his agricultural parables highlighted the smallest of seeds.

Maybe the path to greatness in God's kingdom isn't through the latest auto-tuned praise song. Or the latest canned Sermon Spice video. Or the teachings of brilliant scholars. Maybe greatness comes through simple stillness. Maybe all that God requires to be great is humility and honesty. Like Paul said to the Corinthians, "His grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness. When we are weak he is strong."

Church leader, are you willing to become less so those around you become more? Are you willing to be vulnerable and weak in front of those you lead? Are you willing to trade the accolades of a successful ministry for the anonymity of servant leadership?

One final statement from Ari Weinzeig on leadership:
We leaders need to take the lead. As leaders we come last not first. We get promoted to serve more not to get served more by others. As leaders we welcome staff complaints with the same positive appreciative response we would give to customers. It is more important for us to bring coffee to the new cashier rather than the other way around. When there's a conflict between what's right for us and what's right for the organization we always do what's right for the group. We hire people so we can help them succeed. We lead the way in making it an appreciative workplace. 
Rather than choosing to be more let's choose to be less. Let's be small giants.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Somewhere I Belong

My family and I just returned from a brief vacation to San Diego. We spent a week enjoying the beach, Legoland and my favorite part of the trip, a tour of the USS Midway. On the whole it was a delightful getaway. I would be lying if I said there was neither bickering nor the occasional meltdown but, hey, that's all part of the fun of spending time together as a family.

We also had a chance to visit with my brother-in-law's family and see our new niece for the first time, a Miss Charlotte Rae. What a cutie! He and my sister-in-law certainly know how to make darling babies.

One thing I prayed for during this visit was an opportunity to have a spiritual discussion with them. Not in an awkward, preachy way but rather something natural that was full of grace and respect. Both of them are more in the skeptical camp with a pinch of post-modern relativism and agnostic uncertainty. They are very much in line with the current belief of this generation. Spiritual but not religious. All paths lead to heaven.

I eventually did get my opportunity. I wanted to tell them about the unconditional love of Jesus. I wanted to tell them that if they place their hope in his promise of a full pardon for their sins they could experience a peace that passes all understanding. I wanted to present the good news of the gospel. I wanted to but I didn't.

What we ended up talking about more was organized religion and hypocrisy in the church. Any comment having to do with Christianity ended up back at church and its judgmental attitude towards people. Multiple comments were made about how they experience more love and acceptance from non-church-goers than professing Christians. They failed to see any good reason for attending a meeting that preaches judgement for a fee.

They equated gathering in church as supporting phony charlatans, snake oil salesmen that are more interested in their own narcissism and/or bank account than genuinely caring for people. They would rather take a walk in the woods and experience God's creation in silent reverie instead of shaking hands with a bunch of strangers that really don't care about you and listen to someone pontificate for 40 minutes.

The sad thing is I really had no answer to their comments because there is a kernel of truth to what they are saying. There ARE judgmental people in church. And many leaders DO only want to make money or stroke their own ego. And I completely agree with experiencing God in nature. I personally feel closest to God when I'm alone and meditate on his goodness.

To be completely honest this is one area I've been wrestling with for well over a year. What is the point of our church services? Why do we meet the way we do each Saturday or Sunday? Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
But if I look at our Sunday morning services I feel neither encouragement nor love. What I feel is inadequacy and nonacceptance. As a more reserved and quiet individual growing up in a charismatic church I never felt like I measured up to living a truly Spirit-filled life. Anything less than running, singing, shouting, and dancing like a crazy person was portrayed as being lukewarm. One popular youth group chorus we sung put it like this:
I don't want be, I don't want to be a casual Christian
I don't want live, I don't want to live a lukewarm life
'Cause I want to light up the night with an everlasting light
I don't want to live a casual Christian life
My youth pastors reiterated over and over through their sermons, their songs and their socializing that if you aren't an outgoing, life-of-party, talk-to-everyone kind of person, you are lacking and need to pray for Pentecostal boldness. Never mind the notion that some of us are wired differently and don't enjoy these kinds of high-energy social interactions.

Today I still attend a charismatic church. And I still feel the same pressure to perform in a manner that goes against everything that makes me who I am. As a musician I used to enjoy worship songs as a genuine expression of adoration to God. I used to think music was just about the purest form of heaven we could experience here on Earth. And then I was told my music was too melancholy and not joyful enough. I no longer enjoy worship songs.

Now any time I hear popular Christian music I don't find inspiration. I don't find heaven on earth. Instead I hear cash registers. I see smoke and mirrors. I see contrived performances designed to manipulate people's emotions into getting them to do something. When I hear sermons by paid pastors I do not just hear their spoken words. I sense unspoken thoughts of suspicion about what their agenda is. Do they truly care about the people they are speaking to or are they just trying to grow their ministry?

I was recently listening to one of my old favorites, "Somewhere I Belong" by Linkin Park and found the chorus to capture a lot of where my heart is now:
I wanna heal, I wanna feel what I thought was never real
I wanna let go of the pain I've felt so long
I wanna heal, I wanna feel like I'm close to something real
I wanna find something I've wanted all along
Somewhere I belong

Getting back to the observations my brother-in-law and sister-in-law made about church, I wish I could tell them church is vital to their spiritual journey. I want to tell them we weren't made to walk the path alone. I want to say they need us and we need them. I want to say they have value and can be such a blessing to the rest of us. Maybe someday they'll believe it. Maybe someday I'll believe it. Maybe someday the church will believe it. Maybe.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Heritage Flight

Thanks to a friend at church today my boys, my father and I had the opportunity to attend the Capital City Airshow in Sacramento. I haven't been to an air show since I was a kid and it was incredible to re-live the experience through the eyes of a father with my sons. If you have never been to an air show before I highly recommend it.

The most impressive part of the event was the finale showcasing the F-22 Raptor performing a heritage flight with the P-38 Lighting, a WWII-era American fighter. The sight of past and present flying together was truly a sublime experience. I found myself awestruck with just how far we have advanced aviation in just over 60 years. A feeling of pride washed over me. Pride over what the American ingenuity has been able to accomplish. Pride that the United States Air Force has a weapon this powerful in its arsenal. Pride that we live in a country where I can freely attend an event like this with my father and sons.

A feeling of fear also washed over me. Fear for the people that will experience the destruction this aircraft will bring. Fear that we may shortly need to use this and other weapons. Worse still, fear that we are losing the freedom that so many soldiers have paid for with their lives. As we were walking out towards the parking lot I turned to my dad and said, "I sure hope they're on our side." Seeing the F-22 performing its maneuvers is impressive but also fearful seeing that much power on display. I hope and pray our leaders make good decisions and stay true to the principles this country was founded on, the shining city on a hill.

Watching man-made power, I found myself thinking about the power of God. The psalmist puts it like this.
The LORD merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born. -- Psalm 33:6 
In figuration language the author shows the mighty and immense power of the Creator. Just a breath from him caused the birth of countless stars and the creation of innumerable nuclear reactions. If you haven't seen Louie Giglio's sermon "How Great Is Our God" you have to check it out. Here's a link to the full video: If you are ever in doubt of God's power just remember he is the star-breather.

God is all-powerful but he is all-good. With him you never have to worry about his motives or that he will abandon you. He is the very definition of all that is good and lovely. He has promised he will never leave you. He has nothing but your best in mind. Can you trust him? Will you trust him? Even when his ways are painful and terrifying? When your circumstances and your thoughts are screaming to you that he has left you can you find that flicker of light? That smallest hint of a whisper inside where he says, "I'm still here." Be encouraged. If rather than trust itself all you muster is a desire to trust him that's enough for him to fan that small spark into a roaring flame. His powerful love is enough to change everything.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

No Coincidences

Have you had days that are just plain exhausting? Days where it seems the world is conspiring to find your last nerve and do the Hokey Pokey all over it? Over these past few days life has been putting its left foot in, left foot out, left foot in and shaking it all about.

We're celebrating Labor Day with my wife's family which means we're out of our normal routine. And as parents of little ones what happens when we stray from routine? Hot mess, that's what happens. "Be nice. Walk away. Use your words. Put it down. Sit at the table. Take turns. Eat your next bite, please. Calm down." These phrases flow from my lips with thoughtless Pavlovian effort. You would think after twelve years of marriage Mrs. Collins would know these things. :-)

In all seriousness it is hard being a parent. You wonder if you're having any positive impact at all on your kids. I'm still in the thick of it so check back with me in a decade. Despite all the correcting my wife and I do we both recognize that we really do have some pretty awesome boys. And we love them to pieces.

Sometimes I wonder if we get a little too preoccupied living the expectations of life rather than life itself. We create idealized views of how the world should be and get frustrated when the actual world doesn't match. And then the blame game starts. Some will blame others. Some will blame themselves. Some will blame God.

Ultimately we all have to reconcile the idealized world with the actual world. The world is what it is. And God appears to be allowing it to exist as it is for the moment. So how can God be all-loving and all-powerful while allowing broken things to stay broken? I think the answer is wrapped up in understand God as our father. As a dad I have to allow temporary pain in my boys lives to bring about something greater than fulfilling their immediate cravings. Even as a fallible, imperfect being I can see the value in deferring immediate gratification for something more worthwhile. How much more so is this true for God, the only being who knows the entirety of all ends from beginnings?

There's a known verse from the Old Testament people frequently quote. Jeremiah 29:11 says:
I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.
I've heard this in the context of the health and wealth gospel. Some people use this verse and claim that God never allows anything bad to happen to you. Once you place your trust in Jesus you should never experience problems or sickness and if you do it's from sin or lack of faith.

In one sense this is true because all evil has its root in sin. But sin entered the world long before you and I showed up. We are daily experiencing the result of mankind's fall from innocence. So, yes, sickness, disease and death is the result of sin. It just may not be your sin.

If you read Jeremiah 29:11 in context you see that God was giving this promise to encourage the children of Israel who were in the bonds of slavery. The world they lived in was very different than the idealized world they wanted to live in. Let's back up and start at verse 4:
The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia: 'Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase and not decrease. Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too. I, the Lord, the God of Israel, warn you not to let yourselves be deceived by the prophets who live among you or by an others you claim they can predict the future. Do not pay attention to their dreams. They are telling you lies in my name. I did not send them. I, the Lord Almighty, have spoken.'
The Lord says, 'When Babylonia's seventy years are over, I will show my concern for you and keep my promise to bring you back home. I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.
The whole context of this promise is that God is walking his children through a less than ideal situation to accomplish a greater good. But even in the midst of the trial God still wants them to carry on with life. Keep on keeping on because there is a purpose to the trial.

The presence of adversity doesn't mean the absence of God's love. I like how the character Reverend Graham Hess puts it in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs when confronted with the unexpected:
People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there's a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?
Perhaps the next time a trial strikes rather than ask God to remove it ask him to help you understand why you're going through it. There are no coincidences with God.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Remember the Price Tag

I was on my long run this Saturday morning, the distance and pace being neither important nor impressive. Let's just say it was long enough to break out the mango slices halfway through. Out of all my workouts I enjoy the long run the best. It's a socially acceptable manner of being a recluse and ignoring the clamor of people. I usually spend the time listening to music as it helps keep my mind from playing tricks on my body to quit early.

This particular morning I was tuned to Slacker Radio's Fired Up Pop Hits channel. One song in particular captured my ears and thoughts. "Price Tag" by Jessie J is a catchy tune that speaks to the consumerism and selling out. I won't quote the whole song, but some of the lyrics are pretty profound.
Seems like everybody's got a price
I wonder how they sleep at night
When the sale come first
And the truth comes second
Why is everybody so obsessed?
Money can't buy us happiness
Can we all slow down and enjoy right now?
Guarantee we'll be feeling alright
It's not about the money
We don't need your money
We just wanna make the world dance
Forget about the price tag
I wholeheartedly agree with these words. It's interesting to me that this sentiment is coming from a non-religious artist. If I were to look around, how many churches can honestly bring the same message? How many pastors today are making the sale come first and the truth come second? How many holy organizations are too caught up with the fiscal statement and the vision statement? How many are so busy looking at the entire harvest field that they're losing sight of the individual stalks of wheat?

I wonder sometimes if the institution of church has anything to offer humanity other than fundamentalist dogmatism. Just last week I was speaking with a friend and he made reference to young Earth creationism and how thankful he was that the college he teaches at embraces the complete, unfiltered truthfulness of the Bible. I smiled and listened politely. But inwardly I wondered what he would think if he knew that I don't believe the Earth was created in six literal 24 Earth-hour days. That's a topic for another day. I think he reads this blog so I'll have a chance to see what he says.

I think there is an inherent danger in how church meets today. We come together every week and hear the same perspective given by the same people without bothering to hear other points of view. Sunday morning is dominated by a certain personality type with a certain denominational bend. If you happen to see things differently than your leaders, keep it to yourself or leave. Don't confuse the flock with nuance.

This balkenization of the body of Christ hurts. As followers of Jesus we need to be more comfortable with people who don't think the way we think. One of the pillars of Jesus' ministry was embracing those outside the ivory tower of institutional religion. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Above all we need to listen and love. I'm convinced that all truth is God's truth regardless of the mouthpiece he is using. And it seems that he loves to use the unlikely, the weak and the overlooked.

Don't just believe what someone says because of their title, office or education. Likewise don't discount something spoken just because of the source. Take time to think for yourself and figure out what you believe. Challenge your thinking and assumptions. Be on the look out for those moments for God to speak to your heart in unlikely ways. And treat those who differ from you with grace and respect.

I admire Jessie J's talent and appreciate her artistry. She caught a truth in her song. Life really is not about money. The giver of life doesn't need your money. He wants to make the world dance. That's why he sent his son. He provides a full pardon, full acceptance of who you are, complete love without strings attached. That's what makes his creation dance. If you are ever in doubt of his affection for you, remember the price he paid. Remember the price tag.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fully Known and Fully Loved

This week we said goodbye to one of the matriarchs in the family. My aunt Kathy had a tremendous gift for making everyone feel welcomed and loved. Her cheerful manner, warm disposition and smiling blue eyes greeted you on every visit. She made sure there was plenty of food and coffee on hand while games of Hearts and Golf carried on to the wee hours of the morning. Family was at the top of her priority list, kids most of all. Along with the rest of my family and her friends I'm going to miss her a bunch.

Aunt Kathy (right) and her daughter Taunya
Death is such a roller coaster, full of all sorts of emotional mountains and valleys. Sadness over of the barrier that now separates us. Happiness that the suffering is now over. Regret over any words or actions left unspoken and undone. Hope that the comforting passages of scripture are true. Doubts that they may not be. It's exhausting.

As I grieve with my family over the passing of my aunt, I think about others I have said goodbye to. Both grandfathers, an uncle, several friends, my daughter. Especially my daughter. And the same questions I've been asking for years circle around and around in my mind. The one that lands most frequently is just two simple words: now what?

What do I do with all my questions and feelings? Where do I go to get answers? Are there even any answers at all? I feel that somehow if I can work through the crucible and fire of these trials I can somehow grasp the meaning of life and what real truth is. If I can look at, understand and even embrace the toughest parts of the journey maybe, just maybe I can see my past, present and future with more clarity and even joy.

For the past couple of years I've been reading, thinking, praying and conversing on what to do with the pain in my life. The more I examine the more I see a simple truth emerging. This seems to be the foundation upon which all of reality hangs. And it's this truth that I have to revisit over and over because it is forgotten so easily. The basic truth of all existence is:
God is love.
That's it. Simple yet profound. Easy to say but difficult to fully believe. If we are to make any progress in life we must begin with this as the foundation. Resting on anything else is like building a house on sand. Sooner or later the tide of reality will rise and wash away all we have made.

I'm currently making my way through a book by Ty Gibson called See with New Eyes: The True Beauty of God's Character. In it he starts a chapter with this line:
To be fully known and yet fully loved is the essence of our redemptive healing.
I think all the suffering we experience ultimately has its root in an issue of trust. Pain is most painful when we think God is holding out on us, has abandoned us and ultimately doesn't love us. But if we knew, really knew deep down at our core that God knows us, loves us and has nothing but our best in mind, the trials of life would lose the sting of meaninglessness and begin to take on another shape, one of purpose and care. Pain could even be embraced as a vehicle to bring about something greater than what was lost.

I used to hate Romans 8:28. And I suppose I still do, at least to the extent that people in the church use it:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I cannot count the number of times this verse popped up the first few months after losing my daughter. The context was never one of hope but of judgment. Rather than bringing comfort these words brought silence and hypocrisy. If I experienced the slightest bit of anger, sorrow or doubt that verse would be trotted out and I had to bury my true feelings under a mask of religion. To be honest this is one of the reasons I think most churches are not likely places to experience healing, especially if you've attended for an extended period of time. We are not allowed to be human because that doesn't fit the narrative of an ever onward and upward path of righteousness.

The sad reality is we can't handle other people's suffering because all of us to some degree don't trust God. And I don't think we can perfectly trust him on this side of heaven. We are uncomfortable with other people's pain because we aren't comfortable with our own pain. So we quote some pithy saying in hopes they will go away. Suffering is a reminder that the world is not as it should be. Suffering ultimately can and will bring out a hope that something much better is coming but it also needs to bring out the fear that God has abandoned and forgotten us. Just as the serpent in the garden told Adam and Eve that God was not to be trusted we still face the same temptation today. For those of us with some religion under our belts rather than admit to and deal with our fear we box it up and wrap it in the onion-skinned paper of scripture.

I forget where but I once heard someone say, "True faith is accepting God's acceptance." It means allowing yourself to be fully loved by God exactly as you are. Being fully known and and simultaneously fully loved is what makes God God. His perfection is how he has complete insight into who you are. His perfection is also why he loves everything about you. He knows your struggles and your suffering. There is no pretense with him. No need to be anything other than who you are at exactly where you currently are.

If you are in the fires of bitterness and anger God's love is with you in the midst of the flames. If you are in the darkness of depression and sorrow God's love is there holding you up. Don't run from where you are. Don't be anything other than what you are. For whatever reason you are walking through something and its very important to God that you let him into everything you experience. Church may reject you. Friends may reject you. Family may reject you. But God will never reject you. Allow yourself to be fully known and fully loved.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Home for the Broken-Hearted

I came across an article recently at entitled "7 Reasons You Should Invite (Some) People to Leave Your Church." You can read the entire article here for the seven reasons but the thing that caught my attention is the first sentence.
You spent a lot of time trying to grow your ministry.
Excuse me? Begging pardon? Spent a lot of time growing whose ministry? Wowie-wow-wow. I thought the church was the body of Christ, the physical representation of Jesus Christ's ministry here on earth. Seems pretty ballsy to supplant Jesus Christ with yourself as the head owner and visionary of his ministry.

Now I'm pretty sure if you asked any pastor if they agreed with this they would respond "Oh, no. This isn't my church. It's the Lord's church." And they may be sincerely convinced they believe it. But I'm going to challenge that a bit. My dear pastor, you may say it in word but do your actions show it when people meet?

Every church I've attended has the same general structure. The head of the church is a Bible-college-educated, possibly seminary-trained minister. Their occupational livelihood is to study Scripture, prepare a message and deliver it to the flock. They will surround themselves with some paid staff who probably were also Bible-college-educated. And when we gather together for Sunday worship these are the folks elected to lead from the front and address the congregation. They alone hold enough knowledge to rightly divide Scripture. They alone can be trusted to correctly hear what the Spirit says.

In other words it's the paid professionals who lead and the unpaid amateurs who follow.

Is this what church is supposed to be? I personally don't think so. The claim of Jesus Christ is that he alone is the mediator of humanity who removed the separation between us and God. It is through his death and resurrection that the veil was torn and we now have direct access to the throne room of heaven. This is the message of the gospel, that God is willing to go to any length to show us that he loves us, cares for us and ultimately has nothing but the best for each one of us.

When asked by a religious leader what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied it is to love God and love others. Loving God is a highly personal experience. It is an intimate encounter with the Maker and Creator of all things. It is knowing that he cares about you as an individual. There is no one in the world like you and you are exactly what God wants and longs for. Right here. Right now. He doesn't want the best you. He wants the real you. Loving God is really about allowing God to love you just as you are and not as you should be.

A tangible and physical way that God loves us today is through other people. He created us to need each other, to find a place of belonging where we can be with each other on our journey to the grave and the life to come. We weren't meant to walk life just by ourselves. We were meant to be with people. We have the desire and the need to be encouraged by others and to bring encouragement to others.

This is what I think the gathering of believers should be. The intention of our meeting should be to remind each other that God loves us. That he thinks the world of us. That we matter to him and to each other. That we are important because we have a unique sparkle and perspective of God that shines in each of us and the meeting would be a little bit dimmer if we weren't there.

Church should not be about the effectiveness of the pastor and the staff. It should not be about improving attendance, increasing giving and growing vision. It should not be measuring success the way the world measures success. It should be about growing in love. Growing in the love of God and growing in love for each other. It should be a place that embraces the outcast, brings importance to the insignificant and provides a home for the broken-hearted.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Lesson in Listening

Right now I'm reading Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success. It studies the best and brightest folks and attempts to answer the question - what makes them different? Malcom proposes in addition to raw natural talent and individual ability there is an entire ecosystem of culture, backstory and fortuitous opportunity that helps bring about success. I'm halfway through the book and recommend it to anyone interested in learning about success.

In one chapter Malcom studies Korean Air and an unfortunate number of plane crashes the company experienced, over seventeen times more than any American airline. He concludes that Korean culture accounted for this huge discrepancy. Basically Koreans are taught to respect authority without question and this carried over into the cockpit. Flight crews were reluctant to call out mistakes to the captain for fear of being disrespectful. In other cultures - especially American culture - this fear does not exist. Malcom names this distinction a "receiver-oriented" culture versus a "speaker oriented" culture. It is in this distinction God spoke something to me.

In a speaker-oriented culture the burden of communication is on the speaker. If something is misunderstood  it is the fault of the speaker not communicating clearly. The burden of conveying an idea rests on the shoulders of the speaker. This leads to terse and forceful communication, not out of disrespect but for the sake of clarity. This is the perfect form of communication in the cockpit of an airplane. Lives are at stake and there's a lot going on. There is no room for subtlety or touchy-feely emotions. Make your point clearly and directly. America. Boom.

In a receiver-oriented culture the burden of communication is on the receiver, not the speaker. There is a kind of dance involved where the listener has to read between lines, has to understand and intuit what the speaker is saying. Malcom writes:
There is something beautiful in the subtlety of that exchange, in the attention that each party must pay to the motivations and desires of the other... But [it] works only when the listener is capable of paying close attention, and it works only if the two parties in a conversation have the luxury of time, in order to unwind each other's meanings.
Did you catch the bit about it working only when the listener is capable of paying close attention? I really think this how God prefers to speak to us. He wants intimate communication with us. He wants us to pay attention to the subtlety of who He is. He wants to share time with us in stillness and silence. Listen to what the psalmist writes:
Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer... when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. --Psalm 4:1,4 
Are you feeling the pressure of life all around you? Do you feel like you're flying blind through a storm, the instruments are out and the control tower isn't providing any help? That's the time to take a page from the Koreans and pay attention to the subtle communication of your heavenly Abba. You may think you don't have the luxury of time, but in the light of eternity we all have plenty of time to unwind each other's meaning.

It's an entirely different kind of flying... all together.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Snow Cone Anointing

At church this week our pastor related a story from Max Lucado. You can read Max's post here but this is the gist of the story: his daughter wanted him to stop being a pastor and instead sell snow cones because she thought the happiest people in the world were snow cone vendors. He didn't listen to her request because he "knew more about life than she did."

The moral behind this story is that God doesn't always answer our requests because He knows more than we do and has better plans for us. While this is very true and any parent would agree that saying no to a child's request is sometimes the most loving thing to do, the story hit me in a slightly different way.

If I had an opportunity to sit down with Max, I would ask him what exactly he meant by knowing more about life. What exactly does he have against the idea of selling snow cones as an occupation? Is it because he probably wouldn't make a lot of money? Is it because he already had a occupation that suited him better? Or perhaps listening to "Turkey in the Straw" hour upon hour would just drive him batty.

I'm going to venture a small guess. I think Max holds the office of pastor in higher esteem than the office of snow cone vendor. To put a sharper edge on the point I think he thinks pastors are more important to God and impact God's kingdom more than snow cone vendors. I'm exaggerating a bit and speaking in hyperbole but I do so to draw out something I think is very real today.

I grew up going to church my whole life. I attended Sunday school, Sunday night service and Wednesday night youth group every week. I attended summer and winter retreats. And it seemed that every time there was a powerfully emotional worship service it would inevitably lead to asking for the highest possible calling on one's life: full time vocational ministry.

"Where are my future pastors? My future evangelists? Where are my next missionaries? Who will answer the call?" I have friends who answered, attended Bible college and went on to become pastors. And great for them. Congratulations. But all the while I felt like a complete outcast. I liked math and science and wanted to go into engineering. I wanted to work on technology that would make the world a better place. And I felt ashamed of this. Why, oh Lord, do you not love me as much as my friends? Why can't my life be as important to you? Why didn't you call me to earn my living in the church?

As I've gotten older and (hopefully) wiser I see how wrong-headed this thinking is. But I also see where it comes from. I see the structure of our corporate church gatherings and understand exactly why I thought the way I did. We only hear from a select group of people when we gather together. We hire professionals to run our services. We only allow properly trained people to speak from the pulpit and exegete the Holy Scriptures. Only the choicest musicians are allowed to perform on stage. We never hear from the snow cone vendors. Apparently for God to use you in His church, you need to attend Bible college, have a signed record deal and only earn holy money from God's approved organizations. Heaven forbid a lay person even think to get involved. Leave it to the pros, son.

Again, I'm speaking in hyperbole but this is something very dear to my heart. I've spent the better part of  30 years living under the assumption that working in a church is the highest and holiest calling one could ever have. And it just is not true. The church is not a physical organization or building. It is not a corporate structure headed by a pastor or board of deacons. The church is the living body of Christ. And if you trust that Jesus meant it when he said, "Father forgive them" you're a part of it. You are a citizen of heaven, a holy priest, a child of the Most High God. He has created you with unique desires and talents. Follow what you're passionate about, regardless of the name of the organization from which you collect money. There is no higher calling or vocation.

So to my pastor friends, a word of caution. Be careful about how you present what you do. It may not be as important or holy in God's eyes as you think. And to my snow cone vendor friends, keep it up. Nothing gives God more pleasure than seeing His kids bring sweet-tasting joy to the world.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Crackin' Some Fire

God has been encouraging me to take time to look for the subtle beauty of His character in everyday life. I believe God speaks to us in very personal ways - we just need to take time to pause and pay attention.

I felt one of those insights today during this fourth of July. My wife Melissa and I participated in the Folsom Firecracker 5K/10K ( It's been a while since I've run a race and surprisingly it was a very enjoyable experience. There was a large group of diverse people in attendance... or depending on where you were, a diverse group of large people. Athletes, couch potatoes, families with kids, couples, single runners, young, old - it was a slice of humanity all gathered to join in this sweaty, exhausting celebration of freedom.

During the hour or so of running I had time to observe my fellow sojourners and just listen to the random thoughts that flashed across my mind:
That old dude is in so much better shape than I am. Crap! Here comes another hill. Stupid junior high punk with his crazy metabolism; you SHOULD be beating me, skippy. Man, my nips are on fire! Why did I forget the band-aids?? How you like me now, Mr. Blue Shirt? Thought you could pass me? Not on my watch, son. Did that chick just cut the cheese? I thought I heard her... oh yeah... can't... breathe... gotta... focus... on... running...
Juxtaposed to these earthy tones was the apostle Paul and how he compared this life to running a race. I think that old Jewish Roman teacher had something in that. It's a really good paradigm of what we experience daily.

Think about it. We as humanity are all grouped together in space and time. We're progressing towards some end. We come from different backgrounds and have different strengths and weaknesses. And some of us make this thing called living look so easy. You know who I'm talking about. These folks walk with a swagger, finish early, and do their cool-down laps at a pace that's just unnatural.

Others of us are struggling on the flat and level path, to say nothing of the hilly bits. We are the ones that like to wait a bit at the water station and enjoy that cool cup of refreshment. Here's the kicker, though. We all cross the finish line. Fast and slow, provided we don't give up and walk off the course we all finish. As long as we keep pointed towards the end and move at whatever pace we can muster, we WILL get to the end.

Me and my schmoopsy-poo

I think that's an insight as we move throughout our day. Some days we're exhausted and can't seem to find our form. We see others breezing by us in shorty-shorts while our Cheetos-stained shirt is plastered to our belly buttons. That's okay. We're still on the course. Let's look around for that water station and get something cool and refreshing. The finish line is still front of us and we will cross it someday.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

I Care

You and I live in a crazy-fast world. And there doesn't appear to be any sign that we'll be slowing down. The pace of innovation, information and connection is ever-quickening. If your life is anything like mine you feel the frenzy around you in every aspect of your day: at work and at home; in your profession and in your play.

I work for one of the largest technology companies in the world. Our coporate vision is a noble endeavor, one very much in line with the ethos of the age: "Create and extend computing technology to connect and enrich the lives of every person on Earth." And at any given work day between the hours of eight and five o'clock you'll find countless engineers like me sitting in cubicles making this vision a reality.

Computers, tablets, smart phones, wearable devices, the Internet of Things - our lives are going digital in ways that make the science fiction of Star Trek less fiction and more fact. Technology is doing some wonderful things to improve the quality of our external world. Everything is becoming smarter and more efficient.

I wonder, though if this growing pace of information and connectivity is damaging our inner world. A couple of taps on our phone and we can find out the latest World Cup scores and schedules (currently Costa Rica and Greece are tied one-to-one), but when was the last time we stopped and thought about our place in this world? We can log into our online bank account and check up on how our investments are doing but how about taking the time to check up on how our spouse and kids are doing?

I get this sense that we are more connected than ever before at the expense of being incredibly disconnected. We confuse activity with objective, busyness with business. Our world talks a lot but listens very little. To quote ex-convict Brooks Hatley in The Shawshank Redemption, "The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry."

I see this idea pervading our churches, too. Our sacred gatherings, meant to quiet one's soul and hear what the Spirit says are becoming one more voice in our already noisy lives. Rather than helping bridge the distance between the inner man and the outer world, churches emphasize programs, activities and outreaches. Busyness rather than the "business" of being loved by God.

"Make the most of your life. Don't be lukewarm. Grow the kingdom. The harvest is plentiful." These are all things I've heard spoken from various pulpits over my history with church, especially those of the evangelical flavor. While these statements contain some truth they can be painful, fiery darts of guilt and condemnation to those of us who are already working hard to make the world a better place in a quieter, less preachy manner.

And thus the reason for this blog. "In Silencio Dei" is Latin for "the stillness of God." Over the past few years, God started speaking a message to me that has touched the depths of my heart. And it doesn't involve any of the typical razzle-dazzle, Tony Robbins, pep-talky cheer you hear in a Sunday sermon. It's not about doing more for the kingdom of God, in fact it's about doing less. Simply put He said: I care. Really and truly. More than you can imagine. More than you even care about yourself. I care.

My hope is that throughout these posts you'll be encouraged to take time to get away from your busy schedule, quiet your thoughts and in the stillness hear and believe those words: I care.