Month: August 2011

Authenticity and orange chicken

I’ve had Panda Express for lunch a couple of times this past week and I’m not ashamed of it.  I will happily admit that I enjoy Panda Express.  Quite a bit, actually.  The orange chicken is top notch and the kung pao chicken and broccoli beef are both also quite good.  But I will also point out that I do not consider Panda Express to be Chinese food.  It isn’t.  Sure, they call it chow mein but that’s not really chow mein.  If you’ve ever had real chow mein at a real Chinese restaurant, you know what I mean.  So while Panda Express is good, it surely is not authentic.  Herein lies an important truth: Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s authentic.  There is a considerable difference between the two and we must be careful to recognize it.

Authenticity is an oft used word in Christian circles these days.  Just about every church you know uses it to describe one of their core values.  Most every small group, community group, life group, recovery group or whatever else sort of group there may be holds it high as a marker for their particular gathering of people.  This is completely true in my context.  We talk often of our desire for authentic relationships, authentic worship, authentic passion, etc.  But what we really mean by these statements is that we want our relationships to have some level of honesty, we want our worship to look & sound natural, not contrived, and we want our passion to feel as though it came from some place deeper than our thin, emotional surface.  The problem is, none of these things actually describe authenticity, because here’s the deal: Just because something is honest, natural, or deep doesn’t mean it’s authentic.  Again, there are considerable differences here and we must be careful to recognize them always.

So if being authentic is not the same as being good, honest, natural, or deep, then what is it exactly?  The dictionary defines the word authentic this way:

Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence.

Authenticity requires that we find our origin, our beginning somewhere else.  We might achieve a certain level of goodness or honesty in and of ourselves, but authenticity demands that we live up to a standard beyond ourselves, showing ourselves to be authentic by the unquestionable evidence displayed in our lives.

Authenticity begins and ends with Christ.  He is the way, the truth, the life, and we are as authentic in as much as we express the way of the kingdom, the truth of his love, and the gift of his life in thought, word, and action.

Authenticity cannot be achieved by skill or effort.  It is only achieved when we determine to step into the background of the story and allow God to stand front and center.  It is achieved when, and only when, we hand the pen to the Author of life and invite him to write.

Authenticity really isn’t about you or me.  It’s about the life of God pulsing within us, changing us, and expressing itself through us in real time.  It’s about the evidence of the divine illuminating the darkened surfaces of our former lives, bringing healing and restoration in the broken places, both our own and others’.

This is what I believe it means to live an authentic life.  It’s definitely not easy and I don’t presume to have it figured out by any means.  I am stumbling my way through a fairly fabricated, synthetic existence.  But I also know that there are immeasurable open spaces of freedom when we walk through the door of authenticity.  My hope is that we’d have courage enough to walk through that door and begin living beyond ourselves.

What Hybels taught me in 7 minutes

Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois hosts a conference every year called the Global Leadership Summit (GLS).  My church is a satellite site for this conference, which means that every August we host 400 local church and community leaders on our campus for a couple of days.  Truth be told, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the GLS, not because it isn’t an incredible event but mostly because I am often a hypercritical, egotistical know-it-all.  For the most part though, the speakers are top notch and the quality of content is second to none when it comes to equipping leaders, both in and outside of the church.  This year was no different.  Some of the highlights for me personally were Cory Booker, Mama Maggie, and Seth Godin.  If you have the time, check out the incredible work they’re doing.

As I think back on the overwhelming number of interesting and sometimes brilliant ideas presented this year, I realize that the most significant thing I learned wasn’t actually from a prepared talk given by a keynote speaker.  Instead, it was a brief 7 minute explanation given by pastor and GLS founder Bill Hybels.  There was a last minute change in the line up this year.  Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of a small coffee empire known as Starbucks, had been scheduled to speak for months but backed out shortly before the event.  His reasons were valid and driven by a difficult business decision made by the board of Starbucks.  The way Hybels explained the situation and the response he encouraged from leaders attending the GLS were thoughtful, insightful, and most importantly, full of grace.  While the situation was a difficult one, I think Hybels did a tremendous job of presenting a fair picture of the circumstances and extending grace when he could have defaulted to accusations and anger.  Check out the video below.  I hope it teaches you as much as it taught me about what it looks like to receive rejection with humble understanding and to extend genuine love in return.

Apathy isn’t forgiveness

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” - Martin Luther King

Imagine that someone hurts you then sincerely apologizes to you some time later.  Now, imagine that your response is something like this: “It’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.  I don’t even care any more.”  This probably sounds at least vaguely familiar to many of us.  It does to me.

When’s the last time you forgave someone?  I mean, really forgave someone?  Truth is, I think we often confuse apathy and forgiveness.  Apathy feels better because not caring doesn’t require anything more.  Someone hurts you, you refuse to care and, voilà!, just like that, it’s over.  Case closed.  Story finished.  The end (or so we think*).  But forgiveness is something more.  Forgiveness calls us back into the pain.  When we forgive, we must reengage the hurt and sift through the mess.  It requires us to return, together, to the place where the blow was dealt in order to acknowledge its harm and begin the hard work of reconciliation.  Each time one person hurts another, reconciliation is necessary.  This is the essence of forgiveness.  Our sins against one another act to deteriorate our view of humanity as a whole and reconciliation is the only remedy for this deterioration.  From premeditated murder to a child’s white lie, all of it works toward the breakdown of human relationships.  Each and every time we hurt another human being, our hearts grow just a little more calloused to the truth that we are in fact hurting the whole of God’s good creation, ourselves included.  And so forgiveness is in essence that which reorients us to see one another properly.  Paul writes this in his letter to the Colossians: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  Easier said than done, I know.  But let us try.

*Apathy is a dark chamber, fortified and safe from all emotional weight and responsibility.  But it is a lonely chamber, with no windows to let the light in.  The more we visit the chamber of apathy, the more our eyes will grow accustomed to the darkness of emotional void and it will become increasingly difficult, painful even, to open our eyes to see the light of love.  So don’t go there.  It’s cold and it sucks.  

The mystery owns us

We’ve thought too highly of ourselves for far too long.  From the Enlightenment in the 18th century to the technological advancements of this century, we’ve often confused motion with progress.  Truth is, in some ways, our incessant motion has created more problems than progress.  Albert Einstein said, “The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.”  Einstein was not pointing to the need for more ideas but instead, to the need for a brand new ideology.  For the last 300 years, we’ve erected monuments of intellect and technology and most of us have worshiped at their altars.  But something is changing.  The old paradigms are losing their stranglehold on us and we are beginning to embrace a new ideology – one driven by a predilection for wonder, awe, and mystery.  Ours is a generation less concerned with concise answers and more interested in the often slow, deliberate process of unveiling.  Mystery is frightening but lovely and we are inexplicably drawn to the vast unknown of God.

The New Testament understanding of mystery is a bit different than ours today.  In the Greek, the word for mystery is mysterion (μυστήριον).  Mysterion finds its roots in the Greek word mystes, which means initiate.  The first century audiences of the New Testament writers would have understood mystery as that which could only be initiated and revealed by another.  Someone else would have to allow you access into the mystery in order for you to grasp it.  Mystery in the New Testament was not to be understood as a sort of Sherlock Holmes story, to be be figured out and solved with self-intellect or intuition.  Rather, the mystery of God is introduced and initiated by another.  Namely, it must be revealed by God himself.

There is a wonderful story found in Matthew 17.  Jesus asks his friends what people are saying about him.  Specifically, he asks them who people are saying he is.  The responses vary.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  Jeremiah.  Another one of the prophets.  But Simon Peter responds differently: “You are the Messiah.  The Son of the living God.”  Jesus then responds this way: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”  This is how the mystery of God works.  It is revealed to us.  We don’t ever figure it out on our own and so we can never claim to own it.  The mystery owns us.       

I have a friend who came to know God in a strange way.  She was taking a walk one day and heard sounds coming from an Episcopalian church nearby.  On a whim she walked inside.  The congregation was taking the Eucharist and she was invited to participate.  Yes, she broke the oh-so-evangelical rule of only taking communion if you’re “saved”.  But the moment she ate the bread and drank the wine, she began to weep.  This lifelong atheist had a conversion experience with stale bread, cheap wine and a room full of strangers.  She explains the epiphany she had in that moment this way: “The requirement for faith turned out not to be believing in a doctrine, or knowing how to behave in a church, or being the right kind of person, or being raised correctly, or repeating the rituals.  The requirement for faith seemed to be hunger.  It was the hunger that I had always had and the willingness to be fed by something I didn’t understand.”  

Everyone hungers and thirsts for God.  Every human on earth.  Most don’t know that this insatiable desire within is for God and so they try to satisfy themselves with all sorts of things.  But it is God we are all desperate for and only he can satisfy.  And none of us will ever understand him completely.  Luckily, God isn’t interested in our understanding of him.  He is only interested in our love for, trust in, and commitment to him.  So my hope today is that we’d all sink deeply into the vast unknown of God and enjoy the journey as he reveals more and more of himself to us along the way.

Panhandlers and creation as temple

There is a community of panhandlers who live in an area I pass through on my daily commute.  I’m not sure where they sleep but they come out in droves early in the morning, covering almost every corner of the neighborhood for most of the day.  These aren’t your average panhandlers.  They can be aggressive and, more often than not, they’re drunk, high on something, or both.  Earlier today I was stopped at a light with my window rolled down when one approached me asking for change.  Before I could respond he was inches from my face, his hands clutching my door, inebriated and desperate for cash.  I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to react.  The light turned green just in time and I sped off as quickly as I could.  I’ll come back to this story a bit later, but first, a bit about creation, temples, and humanity…

In his book The Lost World Of Genesis One, John Walton writes that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 tells us the story of God creating a temple.  In ancient times, temples were the dwelling spaces of the gods.  They were the intersections at which the earth and the divine cosmos collided and it was here that the gods would make themselves most available to humankind.  This understanding of the temple existed both within and outside of the Jewish religious context.  About the Garden of Eden, Walton writes this: “The garden of Eden is not viewed by the author of Genesis simply as a piece of Mesopotamian farmland, but as an archetypal sanctuary, that is a place where God dwells and where man should worship him.”  Genesis 3 tells us the story of the expulsion of humankind from the garden but this does not mark the end of a temple-view of creation.  Passages such as Isaiah 6:3 & 66:1-2 provide a glimpse of this in the Old Testament.

In all temples there are images of the deity.  This is to remind humanity of whom they are worshiping.  When God creates man and woman in his image in Genesis 1, it is for the purpose of reminding us that there is indeed a loving God who created us all.  Imago Dei.  We are the image bearers of the divine.  The New Testament begins with the story of Immanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל), God revealing himself in the flesh, bones, and blood of Jesus.  This one act of grace creates an astounding divergence in the story.  In the person of Jesus, God decides to clothe himself in the flesh of those who bear his image.  And so, Jesus Christ is not just an image but he is God himself, bursting forth and breaking through the frail outer shell of humanity, into the reality of a new humanity.  This is why the blind could see, the lame could run, and the dead could come alive again when he was present.  This is why the temple curtain ripped in two when he breathed his last breath.  The story has changed.  We are no longer in the outer courts of the temple, waiting for a glimpse of the divine.  Now, we are the temple.  The divine has come to us and is in us.  This is why Paul asks this question in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

Back to my close encounter with the overly aggressive panhandler.  Thinking about this man, I realize he is just a shell of himself.  He is a broken and dying image, breathing but not living.  God’s desire for him is that he would be a temple, the dwelling place of the divine.  Instead, this man stands on the outside, clothed in decaying flesh, living into his own personal hell right here and now.  The moment he got too close, my instinct was to rush away as fast as I could.  This bothers me most.  I had a chance to breathe life into a dying image and invite him to become a temple but I didn’t.  And I don’t far too often.  So my hope for all of us is that we might open our eyes to see the divine potential in others.  My hope is that the church would be the bearers of the Good News that God came and is still here.  He is among us, he is in us, and his desire is to be in everyone, every single one.

Bonhoeffer and baggy pants

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Life Together)

My friend Kurt Willems wrote a beautiful blog post this morning about his dreams for the church and it got me thinking about my own dreams for her.  More to the point, it got me thinking about the countless mishaps I created while attempting to synthetically manufacture some of these dreams over the years.  I can’t recall when or where I picked up this ridiculous idea but for a while, I thought that my job as a pastor was to create or produce a community of people who acted a particular way.  This included the way they talked, what they watched, what they drank, who they befriended, and how they spent their money, among other things.  I never said as much for fear of being labeled controlling or overbearing.  But silently, I did my best to manipulate those in my church community into looking, sounding, and acting the particular way I thought best.

A few weeks ago the city of Collinsville, Illinois outlawed baggy pants.  The ordinance reads: “Pants must be secured at the waist to prevent them from falling more than 3 inches below the hips.”  Violators are fined $100 for the first offense and $300 for subsequent offenses.  I’ve never been to Collinsville but from what I’ve read, it sounds like a decent place with good people.  So how is it that good people from a decent place would pass such an asinine law?  I think it may be the same reason I led with manipulative intentions early on in ministry.  And it’s what Bonhoeffer writes about in Life Together.  It is our honest, earnest, sacrificial desire to see a community fulfill our personal dreams for that community, rather than an honest, earnest, sacrificial love for the community itself.  There is a world of difference between the two and we must take measures to navigate carefully away from the one and toward the other.

Bonhoeffer also wrote elsewhere that the church is a community of saints and sinners.  By this, he did not mean to say that some are saints while others are sinners; he posits that we are all saints and we are all sinners.  The church is most dysfunctional when it becomes a fragmented community, full of individuals fighting to create carbon copies of themselves.  I think in many ways, we try to make others look like us to save ourselves the trouble of having to work on our own issues.  But there is immense freedom in being honest with one another.  There is a harmony created amongst us when we choose love over judgement.  Communities centered on the person of Jesus Christ are called to be generous with not only their resources and time, but with their love and grace.

So whether we agree on everything or not, remember that you and I are both in this together.  We have both received generously and are called to give generously in return.  We are both called and invited by a grace beyond comprehension and completely undeserved.  And we are both loved by God the same, one no more and no less than the other.  So wear your pants however you’d like.