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Welcome! The primary purpose of this blog is to explore and encourage around what it means to be winsome and sent into the world for God's glory. If you are new here, the definition of "lighthouse-searchlight" or our missional journey is a good place to start. Come peruse the blog and add me to your RSS feed!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

hope for the church

Earlier this year Moderator Cynthia Bolbach and a group of other ruling and teaching elders posted a video entitled, "Hope for the PC(USA)."  They invited others in the church to share with the church why we believe "this to be the beginning, not the end, of what God has planned for us."  What follows is my answer to that invitation...

I have great hope and conviction that God is alive and well and at work in this world in which we live. That was just confirmed in person as I sat at the corner coffee shop and had a conversation with the manager who has become a friend, who shared some of her own personal burdens, the help she gains from her recent faith, and her desire to follow God's leading in her work and life. That she had no church background or desire to know God did not stop God from pursuing and finding her. Thankfully. Mercifully. Gloriously!

I have great hope that God is alive and well and at work in the part of the Church called the PCUSA. I see it as I share stories with friends across the presbytery and across the country. For instance, I see it in my good friend's church - a "transformation church" that has struggled to cling to life, battled the prospect of change, and embodies new life in Christ. Despite struggle and tears, even accusations and opposition, I have heard and seen the Gospel of Jesus Christ SHINE through her and those remaining to become God's church in their neighborhood. I see our presbytery responding to a vision of becoming less about institutional maintenance (survival?!) and more about asking what God is already doing through the congregations of our presbytery. Despite resistance to change, guarding of territory, and fear of the unknown, I have seen the Spirit stir and move in and among our presbytery.

I am not ignorant or indifferent to the challenges before us. John Vest's "Pathos" post earlier this year was piercingly truthful about the ways we fail and fall short. But my hope is not pinned to institutional "success," human merit, or theological position. Honestly, I have been disappointed by people all across the theological spectrum; I have also been greatly encouraged, challenged, and witnessed to by people all across that same spectrum. People are people... and they sure aren't God. My hope comes from a conviction that God's ability to move, work, help, and save is not dependent on human success or faithfulness. That doesn't let us off the hook in terms of faithfulness or obedience, but it sure keeps me from becoming hopeless.

Finally, I have great hope because of my own congregation and ministry. And lest that seem obvious or self-promoting, that hope comes precisely because of my own keen awareness of my limitations and failures. One of the ways I describe our congregation is "ordinary people; extraordinary God" - and I mean every bit of that. There is nothing I would deem good or bad, faithful or unfaithful, Jesus-centered or wayward as Hell, in the denomination that I don't also encounter in my own congregation and my own life. And God keeps showing up, stirring us up, calling us back, cleaning us up, and sending us out under the Word, sealed in the Spirit, and following the Son.

Thankfully. Mercifully. Gloriously!


Friday, May 25, 2012

training, habit, desire, and character

Once upon a time, a bedtime scene played out at my house that happens more frequently than I'd like. One of my beautiful, precious, beloved young daughters (seriously - they are amazing) lost it, started yelling, hit her mother, and kicked her sister. Having been warned only 5 minutes earlier (not to mention every day of her life) that she may not hit her mother, I took her up to her room to go on to bed. For nearly 30 minutes she alternately yelled and cried, "It's not fair! It's not fair!" After a long time of this, realizing she could not and would not listen to me, I left her alone for a time and only later was able to talk to her. What happened was also familiar - she had wanted something and was not getting her way. Though we responded to her with boundaries and expectations (like, "you need to wait for 2 minutes until this show we are all watching is over") she wanted what she wanted NOW. And despite the fact that she desperately also wanted to see the end of the show (the really not fair part!), her desire for her own wants took precedence over the rest of the family, the "rules", and even the carefully explained boundaries.

I describe all this in detail because we really do bend over backwards to be fair to our kids (as they are constantly comparing their treatment to their siblings treatment). But, despite all the fairness we could muster, when my daughter didn't get what she wanted, the whole world became unfair.

What was I doing anyway? Was I trying to make her miserable? Was I trying to control everyone around me? Was TV more important than what she wanted? Did I make up arbitrary and meaningless rules to rob her of her happiness? No, ultimately - and maybe you can't explain this to a five year old - I was trying to teach her that trickiest of human lessons, that she is not the center of the universe. I don't mean that in a mean way - in many ways, she IS near the center of my universe! But I believe from the depth of my soul that one of my chief purposes as a parent is to show her the face of God and that God is the center of the universe. This is the "missional" or "searchlight" lesson played out in the parent/child setting. Ultimately that involves teaching her that loving and serving God is more important than self. And closely tied to that (says Jesus), loving and serving others is more important than self. [But then, just to keep it challenging, I'm also supposed to teach her that she (herSELF) is important because she is created in God's image to reflect His glory.]

And as a parent, I train her for this by walking her through the steps of gracious submission to God and others again and again until it becomes habit, then desire, then character.

And anyone who has trained, coached, or parented knows, that process comes with many, many hours of "that's not fair" and even an occasional, "you hate me!" That's what stinks. It's no fun having your child rail against you claiming you aren't fair and don't love them, when nothing could be further from the truth. What I cling to as those cries rip my heart out is the conviction that I am being faithful as a parent and the hope that one day they will "get it."

I often tell people that becoming a parent was and is one of the most significant things to happen in my own spiritual life. That's because I finally got a first-hand glimpse at how God sees me and God's infinite patience and love toward me when I rail against Him in frustration. I get reminded of it every day, and that's a beautiful thing.



Re-posted from 2008

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

more than cookies, pt. 2

I was looking at some favorite posts and this one from 2009 is worth sharing again! 
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[continued from yesterday...]

Highlight #2 - Monday, March 16 (2009)

The next day we had a memorial service for Larry Wilson, the husband and father of some long-term church members. Though I had Larry a few times over the years, I really "met" him for the first time last October when I went to the hospital to pray with him. He was dying of liver failure related to alcoholism. In order to get a liver transplant, he was required to be clean and sober for six months, and attend regular AA meetings the whole time. Larry's story is a long and amazing one - too long for this space. But the short of it is that he turned to God in the process, asked me to baptize him, and started coming to church (when he could get up). His health continued to vary wildly, but spiritually he grew steadily and strongly. As part of AA and in conjunction with his new faith, he began making amends to family and friends he had wronged. I shared in the memorial service that after seeing God deliver him from near death several times during the six months, I was sure that he was going to make it and have an amazing story to tell. He did all that was required, but in the end was denied a transplant.

I talked about the story of Jesus healing the paralytic, when he said, "Which is easier - to forgive sin or to tell him to be healed, rise, and walk?" In the end I recognized that while healing Larry would have made a spectacular testimony, God had already done the real and harder miracle - transforming this man into a faith-filled child of God. His family said that the last six months (much of which was in and out of ICU) was the best six months of their relationship with him. He became a new husband and father, and their testifying to that was amazing.

The memorial service was not unlike the previous day - it was packed with people who weren't church "regulars." There was a big group from church - because they knew the family so well. There was a big group from Larry's golf club, where he spent so much time. And there was a group from his AA meetings. Those who spoke represented all these groups. And their testimony of what God did in Larry was amazing. The service music was unorthodox... Larry's son's best friend - a 13 yr. old singer/songwriter (see related post) sang two original songs to start and end the service. She also covered a Lynyrd Skynyrd song called "Simple Man" that fit well into the story from Luke 12:16ff that Larry had marked in his Bible. And we had a trio from church do a bluegrass arrangement of "I'll Fly Away" as the congregational hymn.

Kind of like the Girl Scout Sunday service, it was a wild and out-of-the-ordinary service... and it was GLORIOUS. Jesus and joy were all over it, in stories and language that made sense to everyone present.


God is alive and well and moving in the world. If we churched folks can get up and get out and follow God's searchlight mission in the world, we may just get to see some amazing things and be a part of what God is doing. Last Sunday and Monday, I got a peek!

Monday, May 21, 2012

more than cookies, pt. 1

I was looking at some favorite posts and this one from 2009 is worth sharing again! 
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Last weekend was a highlight in ministry and personal experience of worship. There were two reasons for this, though either one alone would have been a "highlight."

Highlight #1 - Sunday, March 15 (2009)

The first was last Sunday morning. It was "Girl Scout Sunday." This simply meant that the Girl Scouts who use our church were invited to come participate in worship: ushering, reading scripture, and sharing briefly during the announcements about who they are and what they do (besides cookies!).

"Simply" misses what happened altogether. There are two troops that meet in our church. One is a brownie troop (6 yr. olds) that we started. It's about half church kids and half from our nearby neighborhoods. The other is an older troop (11 yr. olds) who are all from the nearby neighborhood. They were meeting in the neighborhood clubhouse, but when it burned down about a year ago we offered them space to meet.

I remember some of the discussion when we started offering space to neighborhood groups free of charge. How is it explicitly evangelistic? How does it advance the Kingdom? We concluded that it was an expression of being a good neighbor and even if there was no direct evangelistic application, it was still a good witness and worth doing.

I had chosen the scripture text some two months ago, not knowing at that point about "Girl Scout Sunday." We had also unwittingly scheduled the children's choir to sing. In fact, until close to the last minute, the Girl Scouts were coming the previous Sunday, but when they found out I would be out of town we moved it to the 15th. So, the way the Sunday fell, I was preaching on James 2, on favoritism in the church. Funny how that worked - the sermon was on Christians not making church all about their favorite things and favorite people, but learning to follow the heart of God for the people of the world - our neighbors living right around us.

The 11:00 service was rather circus-like in that there was so much unusual stuff going on. Kids singing, moving, a long (but awesome) children's sermon, girl scouts doing stuff in an unfamiliar context. Anyway, at about 11:45 I got up to preach and gave a shortened version of the same sermon.

The long and the short of it - through a simple act of opening up a room in our church a couple of nights a month, we had the opportunity to meet, worship with, and hear God's Word on a very relevant topic with 23 young girls and their family and friends. And the scouts asked us if they could come to worship!

Check back tomorrow for highlight #2, which followed the very next day!!


Saturday, May 19, 2012

1 of 1001 new worshiping communities?

So, mission leaders in my denomination have cast a vision for 1001 new worshiping communities in the next ten years.  At a conference this past winter, one of the speakers said something like, "If we really understood what it means to reach beyond our walls and share the gospel (and broaden our definition of "worshiping community" beyond a new church building), this would be no problem at all; we'd have 10,001 new worshiping communities!"

That comment got me thinking about our Wednesday Night Experiment, particularly the group I have been a part of, and I thought, "Well, if we aren't there yet, we're getting pretty darn close!"  So, I wanted to share and reflect briefly on one of our several groups going outside the walls on Wednesday nights.

After a potluck dinner about 6:15pm every Wednesday night, I jump in my car and drive two blocks to the corner Caribou coffee shop.  It's the go-to coffee shop for the extended neighborhoods around our church and day or night there are always neighbors to be found.  For three years now, Jim Terrell and I (with an array of guests) have been playing bluegrass music from 7-8pm (how that started for us here).  Three years in, we recognize almost all of the folks showing up. 

When we arrive, there might be anywhere from 2-10 patrons in the store.  By 8pm when we wind down, there are as many as 3-4 musicians, 8-10 church members, and 15-25 patrons who come regularly for the music.  The store has put up a sign advertising the live music and each week we seem to get the regulars and a few new folks. We know the baristas by name - indeed, several have become good friends.  We know most of the regulars and have had the opportunity to learn their stories: a school teacher who likes to come grade papers and listen; a retired couple who haven't been in church in a while, but who love "the Good Shepherd people"; a Catholic mom who brings her two daughters every week for hot chocolate and the music; the owners of the music store next door sometimes drop in; and many more.  Our church folks also know most of these folks - that has been organic, not a "hunt them down and evangelize them" strategy, but a "hey, I saw you last week" kind of slowly growing friendship.

The buzz in the neighborhood has also grown slowly, because a lot of these same coffee-drinking, bluegrass-singing Presbyterians also volunteer when the neighborhood elementary school has a workday or open up our church for neighborhood association meetings or for girl scout troops to meet.  What kind of amazing word of mouth is it when I ask a visitor how they heard about our church and they tell me that someone at the coffee shop (who doesn't attend our church!) suggested they try Good Shepherd?!

Would I call it a church or a worshiping community?  Probably not a church, but certainly an example of some Presbyterians BEING the church.  Maybe not technically a worshiping community, but I tell you when we throw in an old gospel tune like "I'll Fly Away" and you hear all those voices join in - voices of Presbyterians, agnostics,  Catholics, retired, preschool, teenaged, and the other assortment of people that wander into a coffee shop on a Wednesday night - all singing along, even harmonizing... man, it sure sounds like a worshiping community to my ears. 

Maybe 1001 isn't such an impossible sounding goal after all!  :)


Friday, May 18, 2012

what is the "wednesday night experiment?"

In the Fall of 2009, we initiated what I called the Wednesday Night Experiment (original post).  I wrote:

So, on Wednesday nights, instead of traditional church Bible study in the building and on the grounds, we are taking it to the streets.  We are going to take a simple program - conversations with each other about where we see God in our lives during the week, and rather than meet IN the church building, we are going to disperse in 3s and 4s into public gathering places in the neighborhood. We are not going to evangelize per se, but to simply go where people are and be who we are - at Caribou, at the pizza parlor, walking on the sidewalk, at the public library. My prayer is that God will open doors for us to meet our neighbors. It's definitely experimental; I'll let you know how it goes!
In my view, the experiment was a great success with many wonderful surprises (live music, group home ministry, housing project neighbors, prayer needs at the bookstore).  Amazing what can happen when we venture outside of the church walls with the eyes and ears of faith!  It wasn't just going to those places though, because we get coffee and drive through the neighborhood all the time.  It was making the intentional connection between the two worlds of church and life that we so often keep separated.

In subsequent years, we have explored developing the content of the experiment.  That first year all of the groups were given the same set of discussion questions, based on the previous Sunday's sermon.  In the Fall of 2010 we had an organizational night and generated about 12 potential topics or activities and let people gravitate toward ones in which they were interested, while bearing in mind that these would be suited for public settings.

Some of these topics/activities included:

1.  Sermon discussion (like last year)
2.  Book discussion
3.  Movie discussion
4.  Headline news discussion
5.  Service/hands-on group
6.  Games group
7.  Prayer/Accountability group
8.  Scripture study
9.  Prayer walks
10. Video interviews/documentary
11. Live Music
12. Basics of Faith (to be held at church for visitors or newer Christians)

Here are links to four posts suggesting models for the experiment:
We have just completed the third year (Sep 2011 - May 2012) of the experiment, with the following groups: 'inside' book club and 'outside' book club (both involved non-church folks at points); men's group home small group, lectio divina group (met at church), and live music group.  I continued to participate in the live (bluegrass) music group and we've been steadily growing to an average of three musicians, 8-10 church members, and 10-20 neighbors.  It has been a regular and steadily growing crowd.  I hope to write a separate post about that group and some of the dynamics we've experienced there.

Friday, May 11, 2012

communication and community

The North Carolina Amendment One vote has been on my mind and heart. My heart goes out to all who are personally grieving the outcome of the vote. I have a particular grief as well, a grief over our apparent inability or unwillingness to engage each other productively and compassionately. This was (and still is) nowhere more apparent than online, particularly on Facebook and in comments of various articles and sites. Now before you dismiss this as one more pitch for civility, here’s what I see as the grievous issue: we are fighting a war with each other and we ALL are losing!

Neither “side” on the amendment issue was exempt from this. Even the word “sides” indicates only two tribes: for or against, with the other as the enemy. My Facebook wall was plastered with descriptions of a “war on marriage” and “hateful bigots” and the like. And tragically, these were not only friends of mine, but friends of each other. It’s so easy to post a sentence, label, or ‘like’ something and not have in mind the 100, 200, or 1000 friends it goes out to. I understand that we have strong opinions and feelings, but is that really what we think of each other? What is grievous to me is that we’ve lost the sense of compassion toward the other. Particularly in the last week leading up to the vote, just about every post I saw was some form of bullying (on both sides) – brute exertions of power and force to generate a desired outcome.

“If you don’t vote ____, then you are against God!” (saw that on both sides)
“If you don’t vote ____, then you are against families!” (also saw that on both sides)
“If you don’t vote ____, I don’t ever want to speak or see you again!” (again, both sides)

And this goes out to… all our friends?

I’m not saying that strong opinion or feeling is wrong; it’s not. And I’m not saying that those who lost this vote should not be grieved or even angry; that’s human and natural. What I am saying is that if anger, force, bullying rhetoric, and political enemies are all we can muster, then it’s not going to get better for anybody. If this vote was “tyranny by the majority,” then the opposite vote in another year will be the same in the other direction.

There is a better way. It is simply this: listening and understanding the other deepens community, and that is of benefit to everyone.

I did not post my position on Facebook. What I did do was sit down with the 7-8 people who asked me what I thought and listen, ask questions, and reflect together. I’d like to think they then did the same with 7-8 friends. Some of us agreed; some of us differed; each of us learned and grew in the context of friendship and respect. 

I’ll also go so far as to say that in the context of that kind of conversation, one can actually express far more of one’s deeply held beliefs and opinions than in the kind of salvos I saw regularly on Facebook and other online forums, because if you see me coming already declaring you the enemy, you are either going to fight or run. It turns out that there are a number of complex questions that we need to wrestle with as a society. That’s not going to happen in a tweet or status message. It might happen if we sit down to listen and understand. That doesn’t require you to change your mind or your vote, but it sure helps you put yourself in the other’s shoes, and that is what builds community and a common society.

If you want to know how I voted, let me buy you a cup of coffee.


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