I got busted on Sunday. We spent the Gathering focusing on the letter from John of Patmos to the church in Thyatira, a continuation of the “What Does Revelation Reveal?” series. The letter challenges the church to stop listening to a leader who allows them to accommodate to the religious and social pressures of the Roman Empire. That sort of accommodation is false worship, John states, and he urges them to re-focus on Christ.
I asked the congregation to imagine what John might say to us. What actions and attitudes do we adopt to “fit in” to our culture, and how might those actions and attitudes pull us away from God? I urged the congregation to think about this and to consider ways that they might put Christ back in the center of their lives.
That’s where I got busted. After the message, one of our congregation came up and asked, “So, will next week actually give us examples of what it looks like to live with Christ at the center?” Meaning, Lance, you told us to do something without explaining what it is. I committed one of the worst mistakes of preaching: I used Christian-ese. I used jargon, those words that get thrown around in church without being explained or expounded. I just assumed everyone understood that phrase the same way I did, and in doing so, I probably left a lot of people behind.
The idea of living with “Christ at the center” is a key component to understanding Revelation. John uses images, metaphor, and conventions of the apocalyptic genre to highlight the differences between the evil that dominates his culture and the good news of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. John reveals the dangers of living with anything other than Christ at the center of your life, which begs the question: What does that look like?
So that’s what we’re going to focus on this Sunday. See you then.
Last month I attended a gathering called Circles Conference, a two-day event for graphic designers, art directors, and other creative design professionals. It was not, in any way, intended for preachers, which is exactly what I wanted. The event attracted me because, at its core, design and art seeks to move people, to inform them and to help them feel. Good preaching accomplishes the same thing, so I went hoping I might learn a thing or two. Here’s what stuck out:
1. Think in terms of experiences
Among the many professionals that were at Circles Conference were a group of people who called themselves “Experience Architects.” These are the people who plan events, the kind of people who think about what colors the wall will be, what kinds of cups the coffee will be served in, and how big the gathering space at the front needs to be. These are the people who think about what it is like to experience this time and place, and they brainstorm ways to make it as meaningful as possible.
Circles Conference was fantastically well organized. From the vendor space layout to the visuals throughout the hall, everything supported an atmosphere of networking and creativity. What can the church learn from this? How can we make sure that once our new guests actually sit down in a seat they are prepared to sing and to pray and to listen? Church is about experiencing God, and I think we can do a lot to make sure that people are in the best headspace possible to make that happen
2. Keep an entrepreneurial spirit
The people at Circles Conference were entrepreneurs. Whether they had started their own business or they still work for other people, they were constantly thinking in terms of growth, of connecting, of taking on new challenges and doing new things. The people there were starters and doers. Every single one of them was interested in one day breaking out and doing their own thing, of following their great dream. Of not being scared of how but instead of focusing on what could be.
I am inspired by people that are more driven by the possibility of massive success then they are the fear of failure. Every single one of them seemed to understand that the people that they looked up to, at one point, and taking on something that seemed impossible, and they were inspired to try it themselves. This made me think about all the ways in which church is difficult, and how much you can hurt when you try something but it goes wrong. You have to have a bigger dream, greater Drive, a desire to do a new thing in order to power through those times when things are tough or don’t work out like you want them to
3. People yearn for reasonable work / life balance but don’t know how to do it
It should not have been a surprise to me that the flipside of talking about entrepreneurial attitudes and drive was the acknowledgement that sometimes people push themselves too far. Sometimes they sacrificed their personal life, their family life, or their social life in order to pursue those dreams. Obviously, this is no surprise to the preacher; I hear these kind of things all the time. One of the major things that I emphasize is that you keep focused on the most important things as much as possible.
With this conference reminded me is that people are desperately searching for how to make that happen. Life comes at you fast, and people need to keep reminding themselves that, at the end of the day, success is not defined by the jobs you completed or the contract you wonor how much money you made. People are desperate to acknowledge how hard it can be to balance everything. The church must lead in not only telling people that this is important, but modeling the ways in which we can navigate this very difficult territory. Think in terms of Jesus: nobody ever had a more important job to do, nobody ever had more on their plate. But at every turn, Jesus took time to step away. To pray. To be with his friends. To rest. Our God is the god of the Sabbath, the God that says it is a holy and good thing to rest. We are the proclaimers of that good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
4. Know that failure happens a lot
The speakers at Circles Conference were successful in their field. They had made iconic work and built very large, very successful creative firms. They were heroes to many of those gathered in the seats, and what the heroes wanted to talk about was failure. Every single speaker talked about failing over and over and over again. Each of them acknowledged that a great success was always preceded by setback after setback. Accomplishing anything is hard, and setting out to do new and interesting things means encountering obstacles that nobody has ever face before.
It’s unreasonable to expect that you will be the one person who goes through every opportunity and never makes a mistake. The problem isn’t failure, it’s the fear of failure that stops people from trying. Leaving the conference, I was encouraged by the idea that we can normalize failure, that we can take the sting out of it so that people who experienced failure don’t feel like they are unworthy or incapable. Instead, failure needs to be celebrated as an important part of the process of creating. Failure means that you are trying, and this conference showed that great success is only the result of that trying.
5. Teams are vital
Before attending this conference I imagined that graphic design and creative work was largely a solo experience. Imagine a graphic designer set by themselves at their desks, bent over pads with pens and pencils or working with pixels on Adobe Illustrator. I was shocked to hear speaker after speaker talked about the importance of teams in their work. People who had accomplished something remarkable had always seemed to do so with others by their side. Even those people who created brilliant ideas with ease needed other people to help them refine and improve upon what they had made. Great work wasn’t the result of one genius, it was the result of inspired people working with other inspired people.
The conference made me look at my own tendency to do things by myself, not because I don’t want the input of others, but because working by yourself just seems easier sometimes. This conference reminded me that if I ever want to make a real difference, I have to learn how to recruit and share responsibilities with other people who are passionate about the same goal.
6. Don’t judge yourself against other people
The last main theme of this conference was that everybody needs to focus on cultivating their own style. Speaker after speaker remarked on how worthless it was to spend most of your time studying the portfolios and work of other people. Too often, they said, you tell yourself you’re doing that to gain research, but in reality you’re just silently judging yourself against the work of others. That’s not how a great work is made. Instead, great work is done by focusing on what it is that you’re doing, how you can improve, and having experiences that broaden your horizons and your inspire you. Evaluating yourself against other people is a waste of time. It saps your energy, it dampens your spirits, it distract you from your purpose, and it’s stunts the ultimate goal: that you turn into the creator that you are meant to be. You are meant to create your work, not somebody else’s. Learn from others, be inspired by others, but don’t compare yourself. They are them, you are you. Now get to work.
The search for an authentic way to talk to my God.
A number of years ago I had a spiritual mentor who asked me what my prayer discipline was. “I don’t really have one, I said. I just … pray.” I had not thought deeply about the idea that there were different ways to pray, different practices and different approaches to entering into conversation with God. I thought you just bowed your head and prayed in whatever way you were able.
My mentor asked a lot about my personality in those conversations. Was I introverted or extroverted? A morning person or an evening person? What interested me, what bored me? He kept trying to figure out how I was uniquely made, what traits and characteristics made me into me. All the while, he kept tying these insights back into the practice of prayer. You need to find a habit of prayer that works for you, that is well-fit to you, he said. Otherwise you’re not being as authentic as possible, and your practice will wither and weaken.
He’s right. During that phase in my life, when I was learning to really pray, I had very little imagination for what it meant to talk with God. I would sit quietly in a chair, cover my lap with a blanket and a Bible, and I would try to emulate the very fluent and beautiful prayers that I heard in church. This worked for a while, but if you know me very well, you know I’m not a sit-in-a-chair-and-whisper-quietly type of guy. As the novelty of my prayer practice wore off, it began to take more and more energy to force myself into this practice, to force myself into a time of reflection and prayer. To force myself into talking to God. Does this sound like the way it should be?
A number of years ago I made a decision. If I was going to be a Christian, I thought, I would do so in a way that was authentic. I wouldn’t fake it or just blend in like everybody else. I would be me. After all, if God made and loved me, wouldn’t this be what God wanted? This may be most alive in my practice of prayer. Sitting down, being quiet, and closing my eyes is not peaceful for me, it’s not centering, it’s not meditative. It’s distracting; I spend so much time trying to focus myself that I end up cheapening—and shortening!—my conversation with God. So I do as little of it as possible.
I’m an extrovert, I’m active, and I like to think out loud. So I came up with a practice of prayer that celebrated the authentic me. What that looks like now is something like this: at some time in the day, morning or evening, I put on a pair of shoes and a sweatshirt with a hood. I pull the hood over my head and I head out the door. I go for a walk in my neighborhood, hood drawn, eyes low, talking to the God who made me. I speak and I listen. I pray for myself and I pray for you. I pray for the world, and pray that our hearts would be open to whatever God has for us this day. I pray on the move not because it’s better but because it’s who God made me to be. That’s the real me, the authentic me, and when I come before God in that spirit, the conversation can finally get started.
One of my very favorite images in the Bible comes from the first chapter of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is a priest, and he finds himself in exile, displaced from his homeland and far from the Temple that served as the site of his sacrificial worship. He’s in the wilderness in a foreign land, surrounded by his conquering foes, and he’s sees a vision.
It’s easy to read this text and get focused on the wild imagery; the storm, the fire, the wings, the wheels–it’s overwhelming. We forget how shocking it is for Ezekiel to not only see a vision of God, but to see God there.
Remember, in that culture, Ezekiel would have had the concept of a phyiscal spot in the Temple where God resided. As Ezekiel walked alongside the Chebar River, he would have been filled with grief that God’s home had been destroyed and that he was, literally, far from God.
In the midst of that grief, God shows up.
In that first chapter of Ezekiel, God reveals that there isn’t a place that we can travel that is away from God’s presence. Whether we stand in holy spaces or wander around lost, God is with us, as close to us as our own breath.
One of the most meaningful times of spiritual growth in my life was a season in Chicago where I worked in a corporate office. I remember walking in the hallways breathing deeply, thinking of how close I was to God even as I went about my day at work. In the midst of whatever stress or anxiety I faced, God was as close to me at work as God was during my morning prayers or Sunday worship in the sanctuary.
Next Monday a bunch of our students and teachers will head back for the beginning of a new school year. To mark this occasion, we’ll celebrate with a Blessing of the Backpacks during the Gathering on Sunday morning. This will a be a brief ceremony at the beginning of our time together, and it will serve as a reminder: God is with you. In the hallways, in the classrooms, in the ups and during the downs. God is with us, now and every day of our lives. Thanks be to God.
If you’re new to The Gathering, I want you to understand that I will never ask you to do something that I’m not also doing/have done. When I urge you to attend worship, join a Bible study, give sacrificially, serve in the community, pray with regularity, etc., I want you to know that I’m taking those same steps myself. I also do these practices not just to be authentic, but because I need those disciplines and practices to help me grow as a Christian, too.
One of the key practices in a healthy spiritual life (and a healthy life in general) is being a part of a small group of people who commit to growing together as Christians. These small groups are built on open and honest relationships, of intentionally stepping beyond normal, shallow acquaintances and creating the real deep friendship that we all desperately need.
Small groups, like all groups, aren’t intended to last forever, and I found myself missing being in a small group recently. Since my last group ended, I haven’t had a group of people who knew what was going on in my life and in my soul. I didn’t have anyone that I could pray for while knowing they were praying for me in return. I didn’t have anyone to look forward to meeting on a regular basis for no other reason than we had promised to be a part of each other’s lives.
So I picked up the phone.
Starting a small group isn’t hard, and it’s not something that you need someone to do for you. It’s a two-step process. First, you think of the people that you want to form an intentional relationship with. Second, you call them. That’s it.
Our first small group meeting is tomorrow morning. We’ll eat waffles and talk about what we want to get out of this group. We’ll commit to how often we can meet and for how many months. We’ll focus on how we can help each other, pray for each other, support each other. We’ll ask each other, “How is it with your soul?” And when we answer, we’ll know that somebody is really listening.
I want you to have relationships like these, too. Pick up the phone and call; they’ll be excited to hear from you.
The story begins with a question: “Why?” Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why did something as complex and nuanced as our lives, our families, our societies come to be? Why is it that the natural world continues to organize itself into more complex, more creative forms? Why?
The first step of the story of the relationship between God and humanity is an attempt to answer that question. Left on their own, humans love to create stories of how creation came to be, and so often these stories revolve creation myths filled with violence, deceit, and death. Left on their own, humans form ideas of gods made in the worst caricature of human weakness. Left on our own, humans form ideas that reveal creation to be ultimately chaotic, unstable, and pointless.
So God tells us a different story.
When God tells us the story of how we came to be, God doesn’t get bogged down in the details of molecular structure, energy conservation, and the myriad nuances of physics that explain how creation was made. God answers the question why. Physics can never answer that question, so God tells a story.
A story of a methodical, purposeful creation, where being is drawn out of nothingness and blessed with the very breath of God. Where the cosmos is populated with infinite diversity to reflect the depth and grandeur of God’s self. Finally, placed at the pinnacle of that creation is us, creatures filled with the breath of God, capable not only of love but of relationship, an expression of the very image of the divine placed deep inside of all of us.
When we tell the story of the relationship between humanity and God we have to begin in the beginning, with God telling us a different story so that we might understand. The world is ordered, and purposeful, and meaningful, and at the very center of it is God’s burning, undiluted love for all of us.