Saturday, February 18, 2006

All Jumbled Up

The thing about being away from my blog for so many days is that there has been a whole bunch of stuff I'd like to write, but couldn't get to. And now some of it is no longer timely. (Like my thoughts on Valentine's day, for instance. The world has commented on it and moved on.)

So I've got this whole jumble of stuff that I could write about. (I typed "writhe" just now and had to correct it. Wonder if that means anything?) Its all clogged up in the writing orifice and in need of a plunger. So I'm going to plunge in as it were, and just see what happens.

First, I want to point out that the writers I mentioned in my last post are not my fellow bloggers. They are a group of far flung free-lancers I manage at work. (I use that word very loosely, since I'm not much of manager.) Those folks contribute technical articles to the two magazines I edit. We pay them pretty well, so we're supposed to get stuff we can print. But I spend a great deal of time rewriting what some of them submit these days, and I find it very frustrating. Its one of several reasons why I haven't had time to pursue my own writing, here.

Second, we had the largest group that we've had in a long time at our Thursday night unHome Group, on one of the wintery-est evenings in quite a while (two Weeks ago, now). There was a warm fire in the fireplace, and everyone was bundled up in sweaters, laughing, wise-cracking and horsing around. I took a place next to Keith in front of the fireplace and let the heat radiate into every inch of me. It was just so Norman Rockwell, I finally began to relax. I had been in a minor panic not a half-an-hour before, trying, for the nth time that week to come up with something for the group to do. It was my turn to lead and I had scoured the Bible, looking for an appropriate passage to for us to discuss. Nothing had jumped out. I had been reading in Hosea, but that seemed a bit bleak. Several times during the week I had seized upon a passage, briefly, then thought better of it.

All that was totally unnecessary, of course. No one in the unHome Group would care even if I showed up and said, "Sorry guys. Just couldn't come up with anything. Let's just do whatever." It's been done. And this group can do "whatever" till dawn like a symphony. But I wanted to find something. I wanted us to grasp some more of this thing we call the Christian life.

The reason? I think we've stumbled on to something, this crazy unHome Group. We began as an official Home Group at a local church five or six years ago. A number of people have come and gone over the years (one year we gathered to help someone move in or move out about once a month!) but there's a core group that has been together for the entire time.

We're no longer an "official" group at that church. It's a long story, but ultimately we got to the point where no one in the group wanted to have the job of the Official Home Group Leader and attend the Home Group Leaders Meetings at the church as our official representatives. So our status is now unofficial: Our little leaflet was taken off the church "Welcome" rack. No one is given a map to our place of meeting. We are no longer mentioned in the announcements or the bulletin on Sunday morning. In fact, less than half of us still attend there. Several of us have moved on to other churches or are looking, and some of us are, at least for now, what has come to be called post-congregational. Lest you think we're some kind of fringe group, let me just say that we count among us some of the most dedicated, hard-working church leaders and church members I've met in a lifetime of experience with the church. Several have sat on church boards multiple times. Two led a church for over a year as unpaid, lay leaders when the paid guy had to leave, handling all the "stuff," including preaching and counseling. Several helped lead a healing mission to the U.K. and have taught on healing for years. Most of us have led small groups and been on various core leadership teams of one kind or another. Several work for mission-sending agencies. Several others have recently returned from long-term missions work. All of them, without exception, love God and seriously want to follow Jesus. But in the sense that the institutional church tends to think about it, we're now officially leader-less.

No, we haven't quite gone the way of the Shakers and Quakers. We don't just sit and wait. Although, sitting silently and waiting is an important part of what we sometimes do. We have some rudimentary organization: Each week, someone has the task of leading our worship time, and someone else leads a discussion -- or rather, reads a passage of scripture and asks a provocative question or two. And then we dive in. And someone else brings some sort of snack. Rick keeps our calendar, so we know who's volunteered for what. Sometimes we don't get it right (see "whatever" above.) But if we don't, we don't freak out or wonder if we've Missed God's Will or we're Backsliding.

We've all been there and done that. Along the way, we've seen it all and got caught up in or dabbled in most of the Movements that have swept through The Church, including the stuff that's currently debated: Church Growth, Seeker Sensitive, Church-as-a-Business, Emergent. Truth is, that most of us are ... well, just a little tired of it all at the moment. Phyllis probably said it best. We're submergent. Off the map. Unplugged. Underground. We think we like it that way.

We're a church of refugees. We've accepted our status as strangers and sojourners on the earth. We're in recovery. Recovery from Churchianity: We still struggle with Getting it Right. We still worry that we're Not Good Enough. But less so. Grace is beginning to penetrate all that. The Holy Spirit still shows up. Healing is happening. And there is that camaraderie that one sees in soldiers who have been to war and know that it is hell. And know that what they fight for is each other.

In fact we were joking Thursday night about whether we were now a "cult." We can joke about it because, of all the groups any of us has ever been a part, I'll wager this one is the most unlikely to become a cult. Cults are all about defining you through conformity. Rules, written and (often) unwritten determine your beliefs and set the standard for your behavior. There are "ins" and "outs." About the only rule we've got is that one sacred commitment that now characterizes American Armed Forces units: "No one gets left behind."

We're fiercely committed to that idea precisely because The Church has left so many bodies in its wake. When you've been a church leader as long as some of us have, you know that's true. You see behind the veil. Phyllis the other day called it Collateral Damage. It's that high-sounding euphemism highly placed officials use when civilians get killed or maimed because they got caught in the cross-hairs as the guns are aimed at The Enemy. But its the wrong term, actually. What the Church has done for centuries is shoot its own soldiers.

That's not my opinion. It's an undeniable fact: Many of what some segments of The Church call "saints" were not martyred by the Roman Legions, or Emperors or mobs of pagan unbelievers. They were killed by the Church itself, while it was acting in its official capacity. Take for instance the folks who printed the Tyndale Bible in England -- the mighty prophetic visionaries who took the first steps to secure for us the right to have our own copy of the Scriptures in our own tongue? The Church executed them as heretics.

Yes, I know. The rack, garotte, burning stake and drowning stool are no longer part of the ecclesiastical tool set (thank the separation-of-church-and-state folks for that), but for every acknowledged martyr celebrated now for his or her holiness, there are thousands of ordinary folks in the pews, to this day, who suffer a silent death of the soul, unsung, unfed, uncared for, regaled with scripturally adorned admonitions that basically add up to "get healed by getting with it and getting to work," traded as commodities by pastors whose job has unfortunately become the building of the more attractive pens in which to corral the other guy's lost sheep. Success comes to him who invents or at least jumps in front of the newest fad (Prayer of Jabez, anyone? Health and Wealth Gospel? "Dream Teams" ... sorry folks, I just gotta be honest, here) or manages to wring the biggest building out of his parishioner's pocketbooks, or has the musicians with the hottest CD, or hosts the most spectacular trips to the Holy Land, or the biggest Prophecy Conference or Leadership Seminar or whatever it is that becomes a substitute for sitting and listening and crying with and helping and healing and nurturing, and praying for, and loving and laughing with INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE who need someone to be WITH THEM and NOT DESERT THEM and WALK WITH THEM and ENCOURAGE THEM and meet their practical needs if they can't, day after day after day, without giving up, and without all the fanfare and hoopla. Somewhere, somehow, that essential task so easily gets lost, all jumbled up in the mad dash to reach The Goal, to get in line with the New Teaching, to top the last Big Event.

What people really need from a church is as simple as one, two, three:

1) Pick me up.
2) Don't drop me.
3) Get me to my destination.

Something our little unsung unpublicized unHome Group is learning to do very well -- without programs, buildings, sound equipment, big budgets and, frankly, without paid staff.

Church is wherever you find it. More about the three next post.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Ever have one of those days?

I'm having one of those weeks, dealing with:

Writers who can't write.

Networks that don't network.

Programmers that can't get with the program.

A boss who's going through a bossy stage.

A budget that won't budge.

A printer that only prints yellow and cyan.

A 56-year-old mind that still wishes it was 19.

A 56-year-old body that has the gall to act like its 56.

A church that doesn't feel like church anymore.

A 24-hour day that seems to have lost the hours I used to give to me.

And consequently, a blog that sits idle.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Spidey Returns

A couple of posts back I wrote about a spider who spent the better part of an hour exploring my bedroom ceiling ("Spider Eyes" - 01/21). Last night, while I was cooking supper, my younger son, Mark, opened the refrigerator door and said, "Dad, there's a spider in the fridge."

I came to look. "Where?"

"In the back, between the milk and cranberry juice."

Yep. There it was, immobilized by the sudden flash of the refrigerator's light bulb. Although I had no idea, really, the romantic in me immediately assumed it was the same spider that had inspired my recent post. Because my hands were covered with beef fat (I was in the middle of patting out four huge lumps of ground beef that were soon to be the famous "Daddy Burgers" that Mark and I traditionally consume on Friday nights), I made a brief mental note to "do something" about the spider first chance I got.

Commercial break: Since bloggers I know have gotten into the habit of sharing recipes, especially for comfort food, here's mine for "Daddy Burgers":

Whole wheat buns
Ground beef (form into thick, bigger-than-bun patties)
Sharp cheddar cheese (five slices off the end of the brick per patty)

Cook briefly, flipping once, in George Foreman grill, then arrange cheese slices on meat in whatever patterns happen to suit the cook's whim of the moment. Microwave until cheese drools all over. Place on buns, add salt. Eat.

Yeah ... that's it. It's a guy thing, okay?

And now, back to our story: Anyway, I got distracted. I cooked. We ate. I remembered suddenly that I had an brief appointment to go to that evening. I returned tired and went to bed.

When I woke this morning and stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes before crawling out from under the covers into the cold of my room ... I remembered.

The spider was still there, down in the corner behind the cranberry juice. I don't really know much about arachnids, but even I could tell it didn't look too good. The legs on the right side of its body were extended, but those on the left were sort of curled inward. And the spider's soft blackish grey color had faded to a sort of mottled, spotted beige.

Sheesh. How did you get in there, anyway. I chided, in my head. I immediately had this mental image of the spider shinnying down from the kitchen ceiling just as I opened the fridge door, and then getting trapped inside as I shut it. Oh, so it's my fault, I muttered mentally, suffering a wave of guilt. He could have been in there all night, in the cold and dark.

I know. I know. You arachnophobes out there are rolling your eyes. But you have to understand my situation. My oldest son, Tony, who is tough and fearless in many ways, is an arachnophobe of gigantic proportions. (You didn't sing "Itsy, bitsy spider, up the water pout," to this kid.) Worse, underneath that tough exterior beats the heart of a small child for whom the movie Bambi crystallized a life-long animal rights ethic. I kid you not. If a puppy and a mere adult human were both about to be struck down by a Mack truck and he could only save one? He would save the puppy, no contest. Although spiders scared him to the point of panic when young, he couldn't bear the thought that I would kill one.

When he was five years old, for instance, I once came home from work to what appeared to be an empty house. After Hullo-ing a few times, I heard a muffled, "We're in here." I found Tony and his mother locked away in a bedroom. "There's a spider in the living room," she said. "You have to get it," (By "get it," of course, his Mom intended some form of swift execution.) "But don't kill him," said a worried Tony. I adopted my best Joe Friday manner, asking where in the living room. How big is it. "Big," she said. "Really big," said Tony, eyes wide. Turns out they had been hiding away all afternoon. That spider could be long gone. So I had my work cut out for me.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Make some noise. Shout out dramatically, "Aha, there you are," open and close the front door and declare an "all clear." That's what you'd do. But these two were way too smart for that. They needed proof. The procedure was that I had to find and then trap the spider, show them that I had it, and then my son would follow me out to the front door and watch me set it free outside.

For years, I kept a small drinking glass and an old 3x5 card on the window sill in the kitchen for such emergencies. The glass had become the designated spider-trapping equipment when I inadvertently used it, one time, instead of a paper cup. After disposing of the spider, I placed the cup in the dishwasher only to be told by Tony's Mom that a glass that had touched a spider was never going to touch lips again, hers or anyone else's. Because it was transparent, it worked well. Tony could view the spider safely and it made my job easier. I took said equipment that day, dutifully searched for and finally found a rather smallish spider (God knows if it was the right one) and followed procedure.

Tony, now 20, is still wary of spiders (he won't admit to be scared.) On the other hand, Mark, who came along the following year, will suffer no qualms this morning. Spider in the fridge? Sucks for him. He thinks we're all idiots and finds the whole business hilarious.

So as I gazed at the spider curled up against the cold in the back corner of my fridge this morning, my training kicked in. I found a folded sheet of paper, and hoping to coax the spider out of the corner so I could trap him, went to work. As soon as the edge of the paper contacted his legs, he curled up into a ball, and rolled into its center. I wouldn't need a designated glass for this one. I gingerly bore the victim to my apartment door, and carefully rolled him off in the hallway, where the carpet met the wall. There the spider sat, immobile, still curled up. Not moving. I actually got down on my knees and breathed on him, to try to warm him up. Nothing

Bummer, I thought. Too late. Rest in peace, pal.

I came in and closed the door, but after a few minutes I couldn't resist having another look. Spidey was still there, backed tightly into the crevice between carpet and wall, but the legs on his right side were almost fully extended. Not dead. But not moving, either.

I came back out a second time a few minutes later. Still there, but this time, all eight legs were fully extended.

A few minutes ago, I took another look and ... gone! I looked along the wall, over the carpet, on the ceiling. Nowhere in sight. Awesome. I'll be able to look Tony in the eye.

And I thought of Psalm 139, hands down, my absolute favorite:

O Lord, You have searched me and You know me
You know when I sit down and when I rise
You perceive my thoughts for afar
You discern my going out and my lying down
You are familiar with all my ways

You hem me in -- behind and before ...
You have laid your hand upon me
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me ...

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your Presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there
If I rise on the wings of the dawn
If I settle on the far side of the sea
Even there you right hand will hold me fast
If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
And the light become night around me"
Even the darkness will not be dark to you
For darkness is as light to you
For you created my inmost being
You knit me in my mother's womb
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made ...

All the days ordained for me
Were written in Your book
before one of them came to be.

How unlike us is God. The Creator of the unsearchably vast Universe -- in comparison to whom we are far smaller than the itsy-est, bitsy-est spider -- always knows where and how we are. He never gets too busy and forgets. Though we enter this world stained with the sin of a thousand generations, God has no phobic fear of contact. He needs no glass and 3x5. And no matter how far we stray from the web of his care, he searches us out, casts light on our shadows, rescues us and breathes on us the Breath of Life.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The "Authority" Thing

This week I read several posts at blogs I visit written by folks in various stages of recognizing or recovering from bad experiences with people who hold official positions of authority in the institutional church. After reading one that made me feel especially sad, I e-mailed a friend of mine a sketch of my practical philosophy (if it can be called that) for dealing with authorities of all types (in our out of church).

I had never written it down before, but in the few short minutes it took to write it, I managed to crystallize what I'd learned from my long, painful experience (26 years in five churches) into a couple of paragraphs. Since it was there and has served me fairly well, I figured it might be helpful to someone else. So I've cut-and-pasted it here, with a few modifications (that I couldn't resist making):

For some time, I've been on a sort of "provisional headship" track -- although I just now came up with that term as a way to describe it (and it even makes me nervous to have given it a technical-sounding name -- God forbid I should write a book entitled, "Provisional Headship.") What I mean by that is this: When asked by an authority to participate in some enterprise or other, basically, I'll agree to perform a single task, no strings, provided there are certain things understood (that's where the "provisional" comes from). Provisions are as follows:

First, I'll put myself under so-and-so's authority for that task only, and -- provided I'm not asked to do something illegal or clearly damaging to myself or others -- I'll do what I'm asked to do. I don't waste a lot of time trying to tell so-and-so how I would do it, or suggest a better idea, or get too creative. (Exception: Unless asked to comment or add creatively to the process, in which case I'm still careful, because I've been asked for input from leaders who really didn't want any input, but feel compelled for sake of projecting the PC image, that they should). I usually just ask them what they'd like, and I do my best to do it pretty much their way -- after all, it is their thing.

Second, I'll do it provided the leader understands that my saying yes once is no guarantee I'll ever say yes again. (And to be fair, I turn that around and say, over and over to myself, that I have no call to assume that if I'm asked once, I'll be asked again.)

Third, I don't make formal long-term commitments. Period. I just don't have that kind of control over my life right now. But I volunteer, on the spur of the moment, without being asked, whenever I can. That I can manage.

Fourth, and most important, I don't EVER agree to be flattered into anything, by anyone, no matter how attractive the ministry or the leader seems to be on the surface or how good the attention make me feel. (Many people who aspire to church service and/or positions of leadership do so to feel better about themselves, and it's always, always, always a train wreck. That was certainly true for me, although I was hardly in a position to recognize it at the time. As soon as you say "yes," of course, the flattery stops, and you find out too late how important the flattery was to the equation.) I also resist all appeals couched in "ought" or "should" language or anything that implies I might derive from the task a sense of importance or belonging:

"The church needs you."
No, it doesn't. It needs the power of God. It needs Jesus. It needs the Holy Spirit.

"But the church needs it."
If there's no one wildly excited about doing "it," (the ministry or task) then no, it really doesn't. A children's ministry, for instance, run by enlisted personnel rather than heartfelt volunteers is worse than not having one. Scratch an "unchurched" or an atheist, you often find a kid who grew up in a Sunday School run by conscripts.

Lest I'm accused of having a low view of authority, let me add that, in fact, I have a very high view. Always have. Always will. The Biblical character David, the apple of God's eye, had a high view of authority, and he's my model. Even after the prophet Samuel anointed him King of Israel, as Saul's replacement, David refused to take his rightful place by force, and twice refused to kill Saul when he had the chance, dangerous man though Saul was. David would not lay a hand on what he called "the Lord's anointed." On the other hand, David wasted no time staying in the presence of any authority at whose hands he could suffer harm. He got out, just as many of my friends have recently done.

David did what they had to do to keep himself safe, even though it twice cost him the very position for which he had been anointed. And he left to God the difficult business of dealing with anointed leadership gone wrong.