Jimmy Fallon, U2 and the Kingdom of God

I came across this video recently on Facebook, even though the actual event took place back in May 2015.

Here’s the gist: Jimmy Fallon and U2 enter a busy subway station in New York in disguise and put on an impromptu performance. It’s worth a watch on so many levels.

I love this video on so many levels. I love Jimmy Fallon’s playfulness that he exudes continuously on his show. I love the U2 is willing to go along with it. I love watching the people’s utter surprise and bewilderment. Most of all I just love the joy that spontaneously erupts up on people’s face when they discover who is in their midst.

I don’t want to over-spiritualize this event, but the video did make me think about the kingdom of God and God’s surprising appearances in and around us.

Now that I am in official “ministry,” I find it all too easy to become discouraged at a lack of displays of God’s kingdom breaking forth. But is this because it is not happening or is it rather a result of not training my eyes to see and my ears to hear? Like some of the people in the video, rushing to catch their train, without noticing what is currently happening, is my life too much like this?

Worse yet, but probably truer: do I write off what I see as nothing because it looks/sounds like U2 in disguise? If I was in that subway station that day, I know for a fact that I would not have given that band another look or listen: “Just another mediocre street performer peddling for money.” How often do I dismiss the seemingly insignificant because in my sinful heart I crave the spectacular? I don’t want to hear a street band perform U2; I want to see U2 perform with all the bells and whistles.

But if I can slow myself down, internally and externally, and train myself to have eyes to see and ears to hear, I might actually notice that the street performer is more than just a street performer. I might actually notice the very spectacular and significant in the most unusual of places.

So much of the story of God at work in this world recorded for us in the Bible is the story of God using the unexpected, the forgotten, the castaways to accomplish his divine purposes. Rahab a gentile prostitute. Ruth another gentile who becomes the great grandmother to King David. And, in the midst of the Advent season, the Christmas story is the story of God showing up in the most obscure places. Easy to quickly walk past. Easy to forget. But there is the Eternal Son of God moving into our world to display God in the most profound and yet simple ways.

It did not stop with his birth—it continued throughout his life, most notably around a table in people’s home, and ultimately culminating in dying a criminal’s death. If I was alive during Jesus’ life, seeing him crucified, I would have written him off. Just another fake in a long line of unfulfilled promised Messiah (and this is exactly what happens, see Luke 24:13-35).

My simplest and quite possibly most profound task as a pastor is to give voice to the work of God first in my own life, and then in the lives of those God has me walking beside. But this takes a willingness to slow down and notice a subway station music group, which might turn out to be the best work yet.

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The Single Most Important Aspect to Holiday Entertaining

dinner-tableIn the United States, Thanksgiving was just last week, which signals for us the beginning of the Holiday/Christmas season. Most often associated with the holiday season is hospitality. The parties we go to. The parties we throw. The food we eat. The food we prepare. The people we share meals with. The people gathered around our table on Christmas.

I don’t know about you, but I often stress more about the food than is probably reasonable. I want the food to be perfect. It does not help that I am a former chef. In the restaurant the drive for perfection (which I recognize is never attainable) served me well. When customers are paying top price, they deserve my best efforts.

But in my own home it should be different. No one is paying to eat at my house, nor would I ever want them to. Hopefully people are coming because they enjoy me, Claire, and Hazelle, not because of my culinary skills. And I have extended an invitation to them because I enjoy their company and want to repast with my family.

If this is the case, and I believe it to be the case, I should worry less about the food and more about my guests.

I was recently reminded of some great quotes by, who many consider the father of modern gastronomic writing, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. He writes:

However, it must not be believed that all these adjuncts are indispensable to the enjoyment of the pleasures of the table. This pleasure can be savored almost to the full whenever the four following conditions are met with: food at least passable, good wine, agreeable companions, and enough time (page 184).

On the other hand, no matter how studied a dinner plan nor how sumptuous its adjuncts, there can be no true pleasures of the table if the wine be bad, the guest assembled without discretion, the faces gloomy, and the meal consumed with haste (page 185).

The primary purpose of hospitality is opening ourselves to another person. Or to quote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin again, “To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being for as long as they are under our roofs” (page 4). I cannot do this if I am so preoccupied with the food and the details of the dinner. This means that it’s not wise to make a buerre blanc for a Christmas gathering. This also means that if my roast burns or if the meal turns out inedible, ordering pizza will be just fine (it might also mean opening the second bottle of wine a little earlier).

As I meditate on this idea at the start of the Christmas season, I am also challenged again by Jesus’ words to me regarding hospitality:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).

Jesus challenges me that as I think about who to invite around my table, the point is never to be a tit-for-tat hospitality—“If I invite so-and-so, they might do this for me.” Rather Jesus calls me to look for the forgotten, the neglected, those who might not otherwise have a place. Jesus calls me to invite people radically different from myself over to feast and to laugh.

And let’s be honest: this is incredibly hard. During the holidays I want to spend time with the people closest to me; the people who have journeyed with me during the year. And those times are good and needed.

But are those the only people I am spending time with? How can I simplify my life, carve out space to reach out to someone who cannot repay me?

As a Christ follower, I am called to practice radical, inclusive hospitality. As a church we as Christ followers are called to practice radical inclusive hospitality. And now more so than ever does the world need to witness this radical, inclusive hospitality. And what better time than when we celebrate the King of kings and Lord of lords being born a baby in a manger, worshiped by shepherds?

The Centripetal and Centrifugal of Christian Formation

Over the past decade, I have been fortunate enough to be part of two very exciting, simultaneous conversations taking place as it relates to the mission of the church: spiritual formation and missional. My master’s degree is in spiritual formation, and the missional conversation has shaped my reading and influenced my ecclesiology immensely recently.

But if I am honest, and I am not the first to note this, these two very exciting and fruitful conversations seem to be vying for primacy of place. What is most important, especially as it relates to the nature of the church? These conversations are especially important given how fast and how deep our culture is changing and dividing, and ministry through the local church will look radically different soon.

(Side note: I am currently reading Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence. In it, she talks about how every 500 years, the church goes through what she calls a rummage sale, where a lot is re-examined and re-evaluated. Most likely we are in the midst of one. A topic for another blog.)

What if, however, these two conversations were not competitors, but rather the simultaneous nature of the mission of the church and the individual Christian life?

In his book, Imagining the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith writes, “Worship is not merely time with a deistic god who winds us up and then sends us out on our own; we don’t enter worship for ‘top up’ refueling to then leave as self-sufficient, autonomous actors…. Instead, the biblical vision is one of co-abiding presence and participation” (153). A little later he writes, “So even if there is a centrifugal telos to Christian worship and formation, there is also a regular centripetal invitation to recenter ourselves in the Story, to continually pursue and deepen our incorporation” (154, emphasis original).

When it comes to spiritual formation and missional theology, it is never an “either/or” but rather a deep “both/and.” Christian worship and formation should simultaneously be a centripetal force (a force that draws us in) and a centrifugal force (a force that pushes us out).

The centripetal pull of Christian worship and formation is abiding in Christ. It is an ever deepening experience of the heart of God towards me and all of us, namely that we are “imperfect people, clinging to a perfect Christ, being perfected by the Spirit” (Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship). I will never arrive at a place where I know the heart of God perfectly; I need to be daily, and even hourly, reminded of the fact that Christ’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The centrifugal pull of Christian worship and formation is participation in the missio Dei. It is joining with God in what he is doing to build his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As Christians, we never gather for ourselves, but rather to rehearse what God wants to do in and through us in our neighborhoods.

And these two must work together. We must be simultaneously pulled into the heart of God more and more and simultaneously pushed out into the world. But it is not done by human effort. The Holy Spirit must so invade our lives and our churches in order for this to happen. Left to our own devices, we humans will turn this into a neat, tidy program, or worse yet, 12 easy steps for growth.

What’s most fascinating about the simultaneous nature of Christian worship and formation is that when we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, we will experience both the centripetal pull and centrifugal push at the same time. As I experience and deeply abide in Christ, I will be propelled into mission. As I am pulled tighter and tighter into the arms of my loving, heavenly Father, I will be pushed by that same Father into greater and greater participation in his mission to seek and save the lost.

On This Night, We Choose to Remember

election-night-decorationsI had the privilege of leading a communion service on Election Night 2016 (November 8). I learned about this idea through reading Slow Church back in 2014. The idea stayed with me, so when I was brought on full-time at Mountain Life Church, I asked if I could organize a service for our people. Election Night Communion Services have spread to include many churches: on this website, there were over 300 churches across the nation participating (there is also a Facebook page with more information).

The idea of behind the service is rooted in understanding that as we approach the Lord’s Table, part of what we are doing is remembering that we are one body because we partake in one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17). Christ’s broken body and shed blood have destroyed the walls that divide us as people; therefore, our duty as brothers and sisters is to remind ourselves of this profound and difficult truth, and to live from this, instead of the divisive and corrosive nature of politics.

The service was beautiful, reflective, and not rushed. Robert Bartko, the worship pastor at Mountain Life, and I led our people to remember that God is sovereign and we are called to display God’s love to a very hurting, divided world. (Here is the order of service.

I must confess: it was easy to remember God’s sovereignty on Tuesday night; since Wednesday morning, I have struggled a lot more. While I will pray that President-elect Trump will lead this nation well, I found his rhetoric to be incredibly hateful at times. As a white, middle-class, Evangelical male, I don’t have much to worry about, but the question I, and all of us as Christians, must ask ourselves is this: Can we truly hear the fear, worry, and anxiety of the minorities that Trump at times seemed to target during his candidacy?

We, as the church, not only need to hear their fear and worry, but also then stand and work with them to speak out against racism and strive toward reconciliation. My Life Group has been studying the biblical book of James currently. James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

For James, looking after the orphans and widows (or you could say any marginalized people in society) is more than simply wishing them well. A little later in James, he writes, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

The Evangelical church must lead the way in the days, months, and years to come to speak and continuously speak out against racism and speak for the marginalized of our neighborhoods. But it cannot be “Whites to the rescue.” We must listen in humility to their honest, true and very real fears, working alongside them to see the flourishing of all peoples.

The way forward for the church is not seeking power and prestige, but to once again listen and discern Jesus’ words: “You know that the ruler of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

May this passage be so of me and all of us.

Benedictine Vows as a Basis for Ministry

stones-1030811_1920In my last blog post, I began a discussion on how stewardship and faithfulness complement each other based on the book Slow Church. At the end of the post, I mentioned wanting to explore how the Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and transformation might provide a basis for moving forward.

At the outset, let me make very clear that I have never been part of a Benedictine monastery; my knowledge and understanding comes from reading The Rule of Saint Benedict as well as Esther de Waal’s excellent book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. In this discussion, I recognize that this is not a one-to-one comparison—the vows a monk makes are radically different than what I do as a pastor.

Given this, the question I want to ask is: What can we learn from Saint Benedict that might help us faithfully steward the resources we have been entrusted with?

The three Benedictine vows are obedience, stability, and transformation.

Transformation

Everything starts here—the journey of being transformed by Christ into Christ’s likeness. This journey is not one of predictability or control, rather it is rooted in the mysteriousness of God, who will do his work, his way, in his time. Or as Esther de Waal points out, this vow confronts us with our love of the cozy, the safe, the predictable (page 70).

My transformation and the community’s transformation must receive its cues from Christ—his life, but more importantly his death and his resurrection. For only as I am drawn to the cross and empowered by his resurrection am I able to model his life to others. We as a community cannot live a kingdom centered life unless we all submit ourselves to the power of Christ’s passion. A key part of transformation will involve being confronted by the truth of who I am, deeply flawed but deeply loved.

I must start here daily because without this recognition I am constantly tempted to do ministry my way, in my time. And we as community must start here or else we will be tempted to control ministry or settle for the safe and cozy.

Stability

One of the keys to continual transformation is the commitment to stability. Stability is the standing firm, a radical commitment to a particular people and to a particular people. As Esther de Waal writes, “Instead of this bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another monastic stability means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God” (57).

In our frenetic culture, addicted to the cult of speed, stability forces me to slow down and pay careful attention to the particular people God has placed with me. Our culture is also addicted to fads, and the church is not exempt. But again stability requires me to pay attention to the real. Instead of escaping and dreaming of people being more like those people, stability demands me to pay attention to what God is doing right here, right now. What is God doing in our community’s life? As a pastor, what do my people need to help them be continually transformed?

If I truly commit to stability, my goal is never to force people, places, or things into my preconceived ideas of what is best. Rather I assume a posture of deep listening. I invite dialogue with others to listen, and I not only listen to what they say, but in partnership with the Holy Spirit, I discern what is below the surface—the hard work God is beginning to do that might not be visible yet.

Obedience

As we submit ourselves to continual transformation and faithful stability, this should lead to a willing obedience for the sake of the other. Of all the vows, obedience is the one met with most resistance, especially in our American culture. Few of us are eager to relinquish our will for the sake of the other. But as St. Benedict writes, “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God” (chapter 71).

We misunderstand obedience if we think of it as we did when our parents commanded us to obey. Obedience within the context of the monastery is not robotic. Esther de Waal describes it this way:

At the root of obedience is the free, humble, loving surrender to the will of God; the willing obedience which says “Yes” with our whole person to the infinite love of God, so that outward observance springs from inward assent, a bending of our free will towards the will of Christ, which will finally make us collaborators with him (page 50).

If obedience is the bending of our will to the love of God so what we collaborate with him, then obedience finds its root in listening (listening and obedience actually share the same root in Latin). Obedience begins with whole-person listening and then responding in love. In this context, then, listening and obedience are not simply cerebral, but involve a living response to what has taken place.

Obedience begins in an encounter with the Word of God; obedience and listening always begins with being able to hear God properly, but it never ends there. As we listen to God, we should be more and more motivated to listen to others.

The vow of obedience is the willing relinquishment of my will for, the sake of the other. It is about truly hearing what our people are saying. At the same time, it must move beyond that. The vow of obedience is a vow to let another speak powerfully into my life. And this is scary. It is easier to do the talking than the listening. What if I don’t like what I hear?

This fear is why the communal aspect is so important. As a community are we willing to commit together to intentionally listen first for the voice of Christ through His Word, but also in each other? If we are all seeking the same goal, namely the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, then we must trust that what God will say through others will lead to our greater freedom, again as both individuals and as a community.

As I read over what I have written, I don’t think I have answered the question I started with, but maybe that’s for a different blog. What does a church community look like who embraces these commitments and seeks to live from them?

Stewardship Versus Faithfulness

grapes-690230_1280In their wonderful, challenging book, Slow Church (reviewed on this blog), Chris Smith and John Pattison argue against the “fast-food-ization” of the American culture, including and especially the church. As a gross over generalization, we as a culture want everything quick, nicely packaged, and to be the same wherever we may be. Sadly this has seeped into the church at times, where we can be more enamored with results than with being faithful. They write:

Instead of cultivating a deep, holistic discipleship that touches every aspect of our lives, we’ve confined the life of faith to Sunday mornings, where it can be kept safe and predictable, or to a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” which can be managed from the privacy of our own home. (page 14)

Against this “fast-food-ization,” pockets of Slow resistance have arisen to call us back to a different way of being. The Slow protest began with the Slow Food movement, started by Carlo Petrini, in Italy in response to a McDonalds near the Spanish steps. Instead of the homogeneity of fast food culture, Carlo Petrini wanted to reclaim Italy’s native foods and food culture—pasta, cheese, and wine—food that expressed what it meant to be Italian to its fullest extent.

Drawing on the principles of the Slow Food Movement, Chris and John write:

Slow Church can help us unmask and repent of our industrialized and McDonaldized approaches to church. It can also spur our imaginations with a rich vision of the holistic, interconnected and abundant life together to which God has called us in Christ Jesus. The Slow Food Movement is fundamentally about the richness of a common life with the neighbors who grow our food, prepare our food and share our food. Slow Church is a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation, and an attentiveness to the world around us and the work God is going in our very own neighborhoods. (pages 15-16)

In seeking to correct the over industrialized and McDonaldized approaches to church, we will be tempted to over compensate. If fast food culture and church are defined by control and efficiency, where we seek homogeneity and easy, quick results, then Slow Church adopters might be tempted take a laissez-faire approach to church, letting come what may.

I would argue that both are false approaches, both hiding behind the appearance of being spiritual. The McDonaldized approach to church claiming they are seeking to effectively steward the resources of the church; whereas the laissez-faire approach will hide behind the claim of simply being faithful, letting God do the work that only he can do. (I recognize that these are gross over-simplifications. I see the danger lying more in the subtle ways leaders cave to one of these two temptations without ever outright saying it.)

In using the ideas of Slow Food, Slow Church finds a middle way by demonstrating that stewardship and faithfulness go hand in hand.

Slow Food seeks to elevate native food culture and traditions instead of simply importing the latest fad. This means stewarding the natural resources and traditions of the place, while simultaneously being faithful to the place. As I understand them, stewardship is making the best out of the resources one has, whether as an individual or a community. To bring out the best with what one has. Faithfulness is being observant, listening, and aware of what is present in one’s surroundings, and willing to use them for good purposes. According to this, then, I cannot be faithful without being a good steward, and I cannot be a good steward without being faithful.

I wonder if this is a far analogy: stewardship is the science and faithfulness is the art. In dealing with any living organism, from farming, to viniculture, to cooking, to church, there is always a science and an art to what we do. And the top people in the craft realize and strive to see the two harmoniously interwoven.

While this is easy to recognize, the hard part comes in putting this into practice for it is easier to live in one of the two extremes.

How do we seek to harmoniously interweave stewardship and faithfulness into the church? Stay tuned for thoughts. But in the meantime, I would love to hear from you: How have you sought to do this?

In my next blog I want to examine how the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion might provide a framework for moving forward.

A Return to Blogging

My blogging habits fell by the wayside for a couple of years due to a variety of life circumstances. But recently, I have been challenged to do so again.

This blog will be about more than just food, although food will always play a prominent role.

Now that I am working in a local church, I want to converse with those that are thinking deeply about the role of the church in this new and different 21st century. But at the same time I want to remember and learn from my predecessors whom God used in amazing ways to build His church.

I want to converse about how spiritual formation and missional church intersect and how the two desperately need each other.

But most importantly I want this to be a place where I can wrestle, and you, in turn, can wrestle with the tough questions. And through the wrestling, my hope is we can all work together to see God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Just as a shared meal around a shared table creates convivial conversation, my hope is that this blog creates and adds to the already amazing conversations being had. So please, pull up a chair and join me at the table.