Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dying to Self in Exile

I've been thinking about my "exile" from institutional church. There are so many layers to this "thought" but I'll just spend some time reflecting on one- for now.

Biblical examples of the exilic experience with whom I find myself identifying include Joseph (OT), Moses, John the Baptist and Paul. Each of these found themselves "exiled" from the mainstream arena. They were in situations that placed severe restrictions on their self-perceived ability to make a difference in their world. And they either couldn't or wouldn't change it themselves. Their self-promotion had to die.

For Joseph, for doing the right thing he was placed in an Egyptian prison. For receiving a dream (he didn't make it up) from God (supposedly) he lived in obscurity. He did what he thought would be right. He shared his dream to others who were not receptive to either the dream or him. He worked hard in the situations he found himself in trying to find an escape but even when he was successful in those settings, he couldn't fulfill the dreams by his own power. It wasn't until God prompted the memory of the baker (two years after the incident he remembered) that Joseph had his moment of God-ordained destiny. In other words, someone had to come for Joseph at the right time (God's time?) to free Joseph from his exile.

For Moses, who thought he was doing the right thing in God's eyes by using his unique position as an "Egyptian" to defend his fellow Jews, a 40 year exile in Midian was arranged by God. No doubt Moses had plenty of questions and had to die to himself before God would be God (and not Moses). Even after the burning bush (and wouldn't we all wish for that!) he had to wait for someone to come get him. Aaron was God's instrument of retrieval for Moses.  

John the Baptist was the son of a priest so his future was secure. But instead of finding him doing the priestly duties clothed in priestly garb, we find him in the wilderness dressed like a nomad. Did he have a publicist? Did he create a blog and post his "ministry" on facebook? Yet all of the people WENT OUT to him in the wilderness. They came to him. I can only assume that in God's timing and in God's way people became aware and without any self-promotion on John's part, he did what God arranged for him to do until his time was over- a fact that it seems John found difficult to accept.

Paul may be the best example. Here is the Christian wunderkind, the bad boy that gets saved, a celebrity in the fold! All of the Christian world is rejoicing because the Christian-killer is now one of us. His rising star in Judaism has been converted to one that now promotes Jesus as Messiah! I'm sure that not only did the community of faith feel lucky to have this personality in their corner, but perhaps Paul himself felt that they and God were lucky to have him, too!

So it's off to exile in Tarsus! What? The elders sent him to obscurity in his home town just when it appeared that his presence was really creating "revival". He ended up in Tarsus for 10-12 years. This must've been so difficult at first. How could he have encountered Jesus, been told he was going to influence Jews and Gentiles, and suffer for the Name- and be in Tarsus? He was no longer on the Pharisaic dole and was earning a living making tents. Didn't both the Christian community and the Judaistic leaders wonder what had become of him? Why had he disappeared? Paul wondered how he was going to fulill the words of Jesus while doing NOTHING in Tarsus.

Yet it doesn't appear that he did anything to change it. Both he and those who had expectations for him had to die to those expectations and let God be in charge. Paul had to die to his celebrity and his intelligence so that Jesus would be large and in charge. So he waited. He didn't know when or if he would have a "ministry". He didn't have an alarm on his cell phone indicating when Barnabas would come looking for him or if anyone cared he was gone. But one day, out of the blue, Barnabas shows up to free Paul from the necessary exile in which he found himself.
I assume that each of these men had to "let go and let God". Each of them no doubt came to a point where they knew and accepted that God was in charge of any "ministry" they might have. It was not up to them to promote or market their "call". It was up to God to prepare AND PLACE them in His time. And it always was in the hands of others to free them from exile.

Waiting and wondering in exile.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Seeking Attention

When I know my dog's food bowl is empty, I fill it. The question is, "how do I know when it's empty?"

Since my dog doesn't have the ability to fill the bowl himself, he relies on the most available- and attentive- human to meet his need for nourishment. That would be either me or my wife. I discovered that he attracts our attention differently because we each have a different kind of relationship with him.

My wife loves cats- especially the two that occupy our bedroom. She feigns displeasure for my dog but deep down she cares for him too. She just doesn't like to admit it- similar to the posture I assume with her cats. That being said, my dog attracts her differently than he does me. When his bowl is empty, he must get my wife's attention in demonstrable and discernable ways. He will slide his empty food dish around the floor insuring that it makes noises otherwise my wife may not notice that it's empty.

I, on the other hand, am more consistently conscious of both my dog's presence and his needs. I am sensitive to the fact that he is actually emptying his bowl and anticipate its soon-to-be emptiness. There are times when I may miss the consumption of the last morsel but am quickly made aware when the dog may quietly stare at me or allow the ball that accompanies his dinner to drop from his mouth and bounce around the bowl.

The dog must do more to get my wife's attention than he does to get mine. Is there a metaphor here that shows us something about how we relate to God? Could it be that each of us learns by experience what "works" to get God's attention? God isn't different like my wife and are; that's not my point. My point is that we are different and we learn good and not so good ways to try and get God's attention. Sometimes we have to ignore or discipline our dog because his attention-seeking ways are distracting or simply unacceptable. We often experience the same response (or lack of) when we try to push conventionally unhealthy buttons thinking it will endear God to our narcissisum. ("name it and claim it" just for an example.)

It is comforting to consider, though, that God may be so fathomless that he knows how to relate to each of us and to allow our connection with him to develop through time and experience.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Scraping away the Barncle of "Worship"

Worship. Perhpas the most attractive and trendy church-word in circulation. It is the focus of church marketing and professional aspirations. It hasn't always been like this. When I was in college 30 years ago, the trendy area of institutional church-life (barnacle?) was Christian Education. It was the church staff position that was hired first after the pastor. People were into "education" and Sunday School was all the rage.

Not anymore. Where it used to be that the first building project a church would embark on was an education annex, it is now the "worship center". The church staff position in the greatest demand is "worship leader". The talk among church consumers is comparing worship environments- the best band, the light and stage, and of course, the presence of God that is felt when they "worship".

And yet, the Bible never defines "worship" as the 20 to 30 minute musical experience that is a key ingredient to the weekly church service. Paul defined worship in Romans 12:1-2 as sacrificial living. He never included soft lights that accompany slow music with relevant words and an acoustic guitar.

Worship is breathing. Worship is acting. Worship is loving (God and others). Worship is working. Worship is eating chips. Worship is exercising. Worship is.......LIFE. Life as a follower of Jesus isn't segmented by periods of time on the Sunday morning clock. Life in Jesus is just that- LIFE, everything! This would include time spent in the buildings we call "churches".

But, please, let's stop elevating music time on Sundays (re: worship) to a place that limits what it is. Let's explore life in Jesus and let our songs and gatherings reflect transformation in our expressions.

It may be hard to admit (and Whelks no doubt are uncomforatble on barnacles) but our church music time is simply reflecting if not competing with the music culture of our time. Flashy and enegetic events driven my celebrities in whom the audience can vicariously identify are what people pay for at rock concerts. The church simply offers the same thing hoping for some monetary response when the offering plates are past.

All of this hoopla has become synonymous with "the presence of the Lord". I can't tell you how many times I've heard (and perhaps said) "the Lord was so powerfully present in the worship today". Really? How do we know? Is it because we felt warm spiritual fuzzies or perhaps we even cried?

God no doubt is merciful to our need for such tangible witnesses. Unfortunately, we who limit God in such ways may be missing dimensions of truth simply because the reality of God's presence may transcend my limited expectations and definitions.

But we are hard pressed to find a collection of people who would be willing to take the courageous and risky position to be independent of the institutional accoutrements and "experience" God on His terms and not ours.

Imagine: "worship" that is not domesticated in a live band....hmmmm.