Not God

Community means everything to me, but sometimes I wonder: If I were not a pastor, would I even go to church?

It is not because of a difficulty fitting in; I don’t fit in anywhere, and I really do love the diversity of God’s Kingdom. Nor do I have any illusions about a perfect community; I am rather comfortable and relieved with the fact that churches are filled with people who sin. No, my problem is that I have a keen sense of what is not God.

That hymnal? Not God.
That order of worship? Not God.
This building? Not God.
These traditions? Not God.
That Bible? Not God.

I’m not saying these things don’t matter. In truth, I value them much more than most suspect. But they are not God. “Humanity was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for humanity” (Mark 2:27). Everything about religion should be for our benefit; it should not enslave us.

Should there be some sort of respect paid to “God’s House?” Perhaps, but we will all define that differently. And more significantly, it matters more to me that you come to “God’s House.”

We do a lot more disgrace to Jesus when we tell people their poverty is because they are lazy than we do when we tie Bible School balloons to a brass alter cross.

We do a lot more disgrace to God when we speak unkindly to each other than when small children dance with joy in our sanctuaries.

We do a lot more disgrace to the Spirit when we deny someone’s giftedness because of gender, sexuality, criminal record, or personal history than we do when we allow music volumes to inch towards 8 or 9.

So sometimes I wonder. Because I do not worship the hymnal god, the cross god, the building god, the bulletin god, or the Bible god. I worship the God who created heaven and earth, the God who sent Jesus to show us a better way to live, the God who conquered death so that we might have new life. I worship the one true God who loves us.

As a pastor, I work to help my faith community distinguish between God and not God. But were I not, would I commit to a community and work as hard to keep the demons of idolatry away?

Sometimes I wonder.

Headwinds

I live in the hilly part of Kansas.

Now because of that sentence, some of you are going to think this blog post will be entirely filled with untruths. But it is true. Here tucked away in the northeast corner is a beautiful part of the state that reminds me of some parts of the Ozarks or southern Appalachia.

In fact, it is hilly enough that it is nearly impossible to find a flat section of road to run or bike. You have to dip into the bottoms along the Missouri River to find level ground. And there, you have two options. There’s the appropriately named “River Road,” which gives you a couple miles, and there’s the levee trail, whih gives you a couple miles. From my home, you can do a nice loop, going north on another road (VERY hilly) to the levee trail, take that to River Road, and then go up one of the biggest hills in town to get home.

That first road is spectacular and horrible. Though I live near the top of a hill, the first bit is a steep climb. Not easy on legs that aren’t warmed up. Then comes a fast, long downhill. After that is another huge climb, before an even faster downhill. The route levels out before you get to the levee, but I’m frequently a little toasted by the time I get there, as I was today.

But still, the levee portion is the flat straight. Those are the miles where you drop the hammer and pour into it everything you have. So as I carved around the hairpin that climbs to the top of the levee, I prepared myself to gear up and hammer down.

But as soon as I crested the levee–WHOOSH–a gust of wind almost knocked me over. My immediate relief at not falling over was quickly replaced with dread. It wasn’t just a gust. I have a headwind. I hate headwinds.

In this case, it was strong enough to drop my top speed by almost half. And I was killing myself maintaining that. And I had around six miles to go before I would be turning towards a different heading.

Somewhere along there–as I struggled and fought against this invisible force that was sapping all my energy, all my enthusiasm, all my joy–I had an epiphany.

Church can be like riding a bike. There’s ups and downs, parts that are really fun and parts that are a lot of work, parts that are exciting and parts that are quite mundane. But I also realized that we encounter headwinds too.

A headwind in a church is something or someone who uses energy, who sucks the excitement out of an idea. It may be that committee or board that no one wants to have to deal with. It may be that person who always complicates things. It may be those parts of your structure that prevent you from acting and responding in the time and way you need to.

And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. If a person is complicating things, he or she has probably been forced into a role that does not align with their gifts. A board or committee that is a continual obstacle for others probably needs some turn-over of its members, who may be getting burnt out or are (again) not in a role that uses their gifts. And structures? Structures can be changed, though changing structures will not cure our relationship ills. It will not create energy or ideas, only not consume as much.

The road we ride as a church has enough obstacles already. Let’s respect each other enough to avoid headwinds where we can. I do hate riding into a headwind.

Who We Are

“What did you say?” I asked my friend, knowing that his words were already etched in my heart.

He had been casually introducing himself in a gathering of American Baptists. The context was an assembly of academically/theologically-minded persons who wanted to think deeper about what it means to be Baptist in our world. This session was to focus on ecumenical (including inter-Baptist) and inter-faith dialogue.

Though my question was out of disbelief rather than an inability to hear, he responded anyway: “We know who we are when we are among others.”

The earth shook. The walls trembled. For a moment I thought I was sinking into the abyss.

Not because of disbelief. Not even because it was a profound statement oozing with truth. It was because he spoke my heart’s truth in a way that I never before could.

My own story of faith involves a wide gamut of Baptist denominations, churches, and institutions–ranging from hard-core fundamentalist to raging liberal. On a good day, that means I am patient and compassionate in working with diversity, recognizing that all involved likely have sincerely (and dearly) held beliefs. I want to hold the ends together. I want to keep everyone at the table. I want to involve everyone in the conversation. I want everyone’s voice heard.

And I get asked why. Which never ceases to surprise me. And my flubbed but honest answer is usually about relationships changing both parties, and how knowing someone makes it harder to elevate positions and issues over people in processes and cycles of violence and hate.

But there has always been something else, too. Something lurking beneath the surface–known and unknown, seen but not comprehended, mysterious but an intrinsic part of me.

“We know who we are when we are among others.”

Without others, I am unknown to myself. Without others, I am lost to myself.

This means two things to me. First, being around diverse persons exposes the places where we are the different and the same. I know of a church that for many years billed itself as the only progressive church in town. Surprise, surprise, when they got along to doing some ecumenical things, every other church in town had also made the same claim for the last decade. Distinctives are not that distinctive unless they are actually unique. On the flip side, we may also find more in common than we could ever imagine.

This leads to the second insight, which ties into what I was trying to say before: When you know who you are, you are less threatened by diversity. Being secure in our own identity lets us see how little danger diversity actually poses to us. It is not this group of “others” who are unknown and therefore dangerous. This is Bob…or Alysia….or Samir….or Guilherme….or whoever. You have dinner together. Your kids play together. You trust each other. This is not “the enemy,” but my neighbor.

We know who we are when we are among others.