Monday, August 30, 2010

Just another six-letter word

Based on the number of hits this little blog o’ mine gets, I’d venture to say that sometimes, God uses me to write something that speaks to the heart of some people. Now, statistically speaking, the percentage of people who actually write me to express their thoughts about what I have to say is roughly .00034% of the readers that the counter tells me have read or visited this site.

This means, in Southern vernacular, some a' ya’ll need ta start talkin’ to me more.

Some of that I say generates more emails than others (like this, this, and this). Recently, the entry I wrote about church shopping (or, as Steve Taylor first referred to it, going on a steeplechase…a pun you may or may not get) caused a couple of folks to write me directly. Some people agreed wholeheartedly, expressing similar frustrations or experiences, while others asked for clarification. Specifically, what the heck are Ashley and I looking for in terms of a church home?

Now, I would not presume to speak for her, so allow me to just say what it is that I’m looking for and how – in the words of the Prophets Edge and Bono – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

MY ADJECTIVE OF CHOICE: The term “authentic” gets tossed around so much in church-speak and Christian-ese that it has, in some ways, lost its power and meaning. I find it beautifully ironic that the number of churches who put on a fa├žade or shiny veneer to show how authentic they are probably wouldn’t get the joke they’ve just made. I guess what I’m looking for is better summed up in the word “honesty.” Honest leaders. Honest parishioners. These are my/our scars. These are my/our mistakes. This is what I/we have learned. This is where I/we need to grow. This is where I/we are good at something only through the mercy and grace of God. We’re not the “IT” church. We’re just a bunch of ragamuffins.

OVER MY HEAD, I HEAR MUSIC IN THE AIR: Contemporary. Traditional. Blended. These are just words without the soul to back them up. To me (and yes: I understand the juxtaposition in my musical snobbery stating this), I don’t really care if the worship music rocks. I don’t care if it’s practically a chant. I’ve had the experience of hearing a band playing that was pitch- and note-perfect, but pretty much a clanging gong (see also: I Corinthians 13). I’ve had the experience of hearing some of the most tone-deaf and out of tune musicians in the world play with such amazing sincere worshipful beauty that the “mistakes” in their performance transcended any perceived auditory insults and connected me with God in ways I never thought I could.

GET THE HI-TOPS AND KOOL-AID OUT: Theologically, I’m not looking for a church, denomination, or even pastor whose words I match up with 100%. That way lays group-think and you're probably only about a handful of automatic weapons away from an FBI raid. Yes, there are some non-negotiable aspects. Yes, I do feel like the mission and the heart of the body is something I can stand behind and support. But really – I don’t think I’ve EVER attended a church where the pastor and I agreed on everything, and I know that I’ve never been in a position where I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with all my fellow laypeople in what we specifically believe. Case in point: one Saturday morning back in Athens, when someone who would become one of my nearest and dearest friends and I were having breakfast and debating theology at 8:30 in the morning (because, really, what ELSE is one to do at 8:30 am on a Saturday?), I stymied the dickens out of him when we started talking about predestination. To this day, I don’t think Ryan and I line up 100% with what each other thinks, but we have such a deep love and respect for one another that we’re willing to listen to the other, see where their perspective is coming from, and then eventually capitulate to the fact that I will forever be right and he will forever be wrong. (Just kidding…mostly…)

I guess what I’m looking for can ultimately be summed up as thus: I’d like to have a teacher who can engage my heart and mind with what God has laid on their heart to speak about (note: “kewl” multimedia and/or stone-washed jeans are not a requirement). I’d like to meet people who don’t come across as monochromatic, either on the outside or the inside. I’d like it to be a celebration (note: this does not mean a rockin’ song set of exclusively Chris Tomlin tunes) of friends who come together, who WANT to come together, to connect into one another’s lives. I’d like for Kai to have a chance to play with other kids. I’d like to see ways I can get involved with the mission and heart of the church, either by serving in it or in some aspect within the community.

I’d like to have love expressed. I’d like to have love shown.

Oh, and coffee. Good coffee is a must. Otherwise the whole deal is off.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Vered by Any Other Name...

I recently finished facilitating a half-day of teambuilding exercises at Erskine College for the Student Life Assistants (SLAs) who live in the residence halls there. Basically, the Dean of Students, who is a buddy of mine, called me after Ashley and I moved to Columbia and asked me to come in and work with his students, because (a) he had a need for someone to come in and do it, (b) he stated he knew of the quality of the work I was capable of from our previous experiences working together, and (c) he knew the students would appreciate and that I’d get a charge out of being able to tackle teambuilding from a faith-based perspective.

Now, once I was able to clear the cobwebs from my mind and focus on this, my first true student-affairs-driven activity in almost two and a half years, and after I shook the stage fright out of my system (I know that some of my friends may find me incapable of this, but come on; even I knew that I was going to be a bit rusty) I’ll admit it: I had fun. I enjoyed it a great deal, and I think the students may have been able to glean at least one bit of useful information from the three hours we had together. Did it inspire me to want to ditch my status as a stay-at-home dad and take up the mantle of working schlub in higher education again? …not really. Yeah, it reminded me of why I first got into working with students, and again, I had a WONDERFUL time (and about 87 quazillion additional ideas for the next opportunity if I get asked to do something like this again), but I’d still prefer to sing my kid to sleep any day of the week.

Anyway – what really struck me was one simple sentence uttered to me as I was walking out the door. I don’t recall who said it, but as I was waving goodbye to my batch of new BFFs, one of the SLAs just said, “Hey – best of luck to you in your ministry.”

Now, as anyone who has ever spoken at a conference or in public can attest, there are times when you just react to what is said to you. You’re so wrapped up in the moment, that the reality of a phrase spoken in passing might not hit you at the time that it is said. You may do what I did – namely, you smile, say something like “Hey, thanks, man” while continuing on your progress out the door…and then about four seconds after you’ve gotten out of sight, you begin to process what was said.

“Best of luck in my whotheheywhatnow?”

This one sentence really just affected me – not in a bad way, and not really because I was confused by the frame of reference I think he was giving it in (that of me being a stay-at-home parent, chronicling the exploits of Kai & me, detailing them for a book – but shh; that’s our little secret). What really hit me was that last word.

Ministry.

Not because I was offended by it. Not because I was haughty over it. Not because I was even unsure why he might call it such. I was just taken aback because, well, I’d never really seen it from that point of view.

To me, what I do and why I do it is just my life. It’s a tangible, physical manifestation of the love that I have. It’s not a burden, although it might induce a few headaches and frustrations every now and then. It’s not something I am required to do, but something I felt called to do. It’s as much a choice as it is my nature. It’s part of my identity, but it’s not really how I define myself.

It’s simply me.

Whether it’s an expression of or action precipitated by my faith, or me just smiling and sighing to myself to entertain Kai while I change his poopy diaper for the fifth time in a given afternoon, I just do. I just act. I’m just myself. It’s just me.

Which, once I stopped to think about, is poetically and beautifully comparable to how a certain Creator defined Himself: I Am.

And then I started to think: maybe the witness we as believers are supposed to have might be more effective if we simply and honestly just acted out of love, out of our nature, and out of our heart instead of trying to encapsulate what we do as a “ministry.” We who profess to believe sometimes get too hung up on what umbrella of “ministry” an action might take place under – and sadly, many times from the perspective of leadership in a church, what line item on a budget this ministry action should be paid, for not what effective action in love it should represent. When we stop to give money to someone, do we do it because it’s what our heart compels us to do, or do we do it in the name of and framework of a ministry? When we feed someone who is hungry, what would be a better answer to why we do it: “I do this out of love” or “I do this out of ministry.” Yes, I realize that to many people, these two terms can be interchangeable and at times mean the same.

I also realize that number of those people are already in the church.

I’m not stating all this to say “look at how cool and Christ-like I am in that I just act out of love.” That’s a little too Pharisee in the Temple for my tastes. I was just a little surprised when I stopped to look back at the trajectory of my life, taking account of those actions taken in love that have meant the most to me – everything from the 706 to That Thing at 8 – and I see that they could all be defined as ministries. Heck, a number of them WERE defined as ministries.

I simply saw them as extensions of myself. As expressions of myself.

As expressions of love.

And I thank God for this ignorance of humility.

And I wish that it could be manifest in more areas in my life.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kinda puts a new spin on it when Jesus calls Himself the Alpha and Omega

Maybe I’ve been working in higher education for too long. Maybe I’ve been on either side of a church pulpit one too many times. Maybe I’ve had one too many sleepless nights with deep thoughts. Whatever the reason, God always finds ways to make my mind connect with weird and random parallels that many people might not see.

Now that Ashley and I have settled in to a rhythm of sorts here in Columbia, we have one last little box to tick off before we can declare this place as home: finding a church. Now, for some people, this is a relatively simple exercise. You have denominational ties. You have friends who attend a specific house of worship. You attend based on the proximity of the church to where you reside. You don’t give a crap about going to church and this isn’t a priority to you.

But for those of us who don’t have a readily accessible network of friends to hook into and attend church with, for those of us carry baggage or scars from other churches we’ve attended, for those of us who don’t have a strong pull (or repel) for a specific denomination, and/or who want to find someplace that’s…well, authentic…this is a difficult struggle.

Which makes me just roll my eyes and sigh deeply when I look around and realize that trying to find a new church is a lot like going through rush. (For the non-Greek/non-collegiate amongst you, this means pledging a fraternity or sorority.)

Think about it: you’ve just moved to a new community, much like it’s your freshman year at college. While you’re still in orientation, you start to determine how you will want to spend your time – what organizations you will want to join, if you will. You seek out this specific group of like-minded individuals. You show up at a house. Everyone you meet for the first time is all smiles and they’re welcoming you in, telling you how great it is to meet you. Everyone is dressed nice – I mean, you don’t want to come overdressed or underdressed. Otherwise, what might people think about you in that first impression? The people in this house – the brothers and sisters, if you will – tell you ad nauseum about the community within the house, about what all they do out in the community to interact with or help others (almost as if it’s a service project of sorts). These first few meetings are very shallow in some ways, very surface level: you’re both sizing up one another, trying to determine if you’re a good fit for one another. Nothing is wrong with the organization. No dirty laundry. No cracks in the veneer. Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.

After a period of weighing options, if you decide to join a specific organization, there is a period of pledging; or, if you prefer to cal it thus, a membership class. Now, as a layperson/chapter member, one might begin to see that some of the brothers and sisters who courted you so heavily at the outset may not be exactly who or what they claimed to be. Some may be extremely shallow, speaking ill of others houses, organizations, or even others members of your own group. Some may believe that your house exists only to edify your local chapter or your national affiliation/denomination. Some may be there only for the party aspect that comes from being a member. Some may be there only because they’re a legacy: mom/dad/aunt/uncle have always belonged to this specific chapter.

If you get elevated from a layperson/chapter member to being able to obtain a leadership role, you may begin to see even deeper into the problems in your house. Your chapter president may not be as active or deeply involved in the lives of the members as he or she lets on in your weekly meetings. You may be asked to take on additional roles or responsibilities you don’t think you’re adequately prepared for. The leaders above you may start to ask for you to volunteer more and more of your time for the organization, never looking to see how you’re managing your time, or to see if you’re balanced.

After some time, it may get to be too much for you, and you go Inactive.

Now, this does not mean that all the people you meet while pledging or after you join your group are bad. Some of the closest friendships I still have to this day (shoutout to Texas) came from my time in the trenches in my organization. I just have the luxury/millstone around my neck in that I can see this funky little allegory (as stated above) from a number of various angles.

I just find it ironic that in a number of churches, the leaders of these organizations probably attended a private, religiously-affiliated institution for their Bachelor’s degree. And the vast, vast majority of these institutions do not have a Greek system with nationally-affiliated fraternities or sororities. Funny that pop isn’t the only thing that will apparently eat itself.