Month: September 2011

Trusting the art and the artist

A couple of years ago, my wife and I went on the trip of a lifetime to Paris.  While neither of us are particularly knowledgeable regarding art history, we both appreciate art quite a bit so we made it a point to visit a couple of museums in particular.

The first was the Orsay Museum, which is home to some of the most important works of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras.  Their collection includes some of the most well-known pieces by legendary artists such as Renoir, Monet, and Cezanne.  But what really stood out during my time there was Vincent van Gogh’s self portrait from September 1889.  The painting is one I’d seen and heard about numerous times but to see it in person, with all of its aged character and still vibrant colors was something special.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that seeing it up close was an unexpectedly emotional experience.  It’s also important for me to tell you that this painting was hanging in a nondescript room with a number of other extraordinary paintings.  I stood right in front it, enjoying its brilliance just inches from my nose.  There was a line on the floor less than a foot from the wall with instructions to stay behind it but beyond that, there wasn’t much keeping me from getting up close and personal with the painting.

The second museum we visited was the world famous Louvre.  Home to many of the most well known pieces of art in the world, the Louvre is more a frenzied marketplace than a museum.  The sheer size of the place is only surpassed by the chaos inside.  People stand shoulder to shoulder, vying for just a glimpse of the really “important stuff”, while rushing past all of the incredible works they never saw in their art history 101 textbooks in college.  Sadly I must admit that I was one of these people.  But I paused when I arrived at the room showcasing the Mona Lisa.  My ridiculous rush was halted by something even more ridiculous.  All the anticipation of seeing the world’s most famous painting had built to this.  A noisy room full of hundreds of people, cameras armed and ready, taking pictures, fighting the crowd to capture the moment on film, as if proof that one was in the same room as the Mona Lisa would somehow validate a certain sophistication.  I caved.  I took my camera and fought to get the perfect shot.  And afterwards, I felt embarrassed.  But the worst part of it was that I did not really enjoy the Mona Lisa.  I did not enjoy her the way I did van Gogh’s self portrait.  I did not see or connect emotionally with her the way I did with the van Gogh.  And it wasn’t just the crowd, the noise, or the urge to snap a photo.  It was the fact that the Mona Lisa is hung inside of a climate-controlled encasing behind bulletproof glass, with two guards standing nearby on both sides.

As a pastor and teacher, my calling is to invite people to get up close and personal with the truth of a loving God who desires an ongoing, personal relationship with every single one of us.  My job is to create the space for this truth to firmly grip those who come in contact with it.  And if I am doing this job well, people will experience God the way I experienced van Gogh’s portrait – intimately, personally, emotionally.  But with miserable frequency, I find myself expressing this truth like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.  I rush people in, try to give them a distant glimpse of something marvelous, all the while making certain that they don’t get too close for fear of them tainting it somehow.  Often, I am more concerned with the number of people in the room than the depth of their experience.  This must change.  Just as art is designed to be experienced up close and personal, God is a mystery we’ve been invited to sink into deeply and intimately.  If I am presenting him as an untouchable relic behind bulletproof glass, to be seen at a distance but never touched, than I am grossly misunderstanding and abusing my role.

So here’s to trusting the art and the Artist.  Come in close and see God for yourself, up close, personal, right in front of you.  And stay as long as you’d like.  There’s no rush.

A very big Gospel

“…a gospel culture is one shaped by the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus Christ, a story that moves from creation to consummation, a story that tells the whole Story of Jesus and not just a Good Friday story, and a story that tells not just of personal salvation but of God being ‘all in all.’  It tells the story that Jesus, not any human ruler, is the Lord over all.” - Scot McKnight (The King Jesus Gospel)

For many of us, our initial foray into Christendom was primarily driven by a desire for self-preservation.  We thought it best to have our own self person rescued from this doomed earth on that particular day when God deems it right to send everything to the burning fires of hell.  At least, that’s the version of the story many of us were told.  And so we say a prayer, receive sweet Jesus into our hearts, and get baptized.  I went through this process at age 12.  The most prominent reason was that I wanted to make sure I was on the right side of things when all was said and done.  I wanted to stand with the winners.  I’d been told, emphatically, that it was God’s children who were the winners while everyone else belonged in the losers circle, ruled by Satan and his  minions.  So I asked how I could become a child of God and went through the process.  I don’t mean to diminish the power of my baptism experience.  It was indeed formative and life-changing in many ways.  But my motivations were off.

In reality, the story of the Gospel is much too large to be whittled down into a micro-narrative of any one individual’s personal redemption story.  This might sound a bit irreverent or insensitive to your personal salvation experience but I don’t mean for it to be.  In fact, I think our own personal salvation experiences are only as full and vibrant as they find themselves within the larger narrative of God’s kingdom story.  Our stories find themselves in proper alignment only against the beautiful backdrop of God’s grand narrative for the world.  It is the very big, overarching power of the Gospel that breathes real life and power into our individual, personal stories of salvation.

God rescuing me from sin and death is a part of a much larger rescue.  Namely, the rescue of the whole of creation.  God is in the process of rescuing, redeeming, and ultimately restoring the whole of created order and I happen to be a part of that created order.  So do you.  And so does every human on the face of planet earth.  God’s story reaches them as deeply, as richly, and as personally as it does you and me.  The Gospel rescues more than just me.  It rescues everything.  That’s the point.  That’s why it’s the Gospel, the good news.  It’s good news for everyone.  And here’s the kicker.  It really isn’t about us.  It’s not about me getting what I want.  In the end, it’s really just about one thing.  It’s about God being all in all, as Scot McKnight writes.  Or as NT Wright puts it, it’s about God setting the world to rights.  The Gospel is the good news that out of darkness and chaos, God will burst forth in blinding light and make all things new, all things right, and all things well.  He will reign as King and we will find our peace in his perfect reign.

The death of bookstores and churches

I read a CNN article this morning about the closing of the very first Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  After forty years selling books, Borders is going out of business.  This is a sad but expected reality.  More bookstores, both chains and independents, are bound to close in the coming months and years.  Technology is leaving them behind.  For many, the ease, convenience, and efficiency of downloading a book directly to one’s digital reader of choice is a far better option than the whole go-to-the-bookstore-and-buy-a-book method.  Even for those of us without a Kindle or Ipad, online book purchases are still the norm.  Pay a nominal shipping fee and the book arrives at your door in a week!  But I’ve always loved bookstores.  I love them because it’s about more than just the books.  Author Ann Miller recently wrote this about the closing of a bookstore in her hometown: “I shall miss them when they’re gone There was no better place for grazing the written word, and for meeting the best of friends.”  I too will miss them if and when they’re gone.

I can’t help but wonder if the church is on the same trajectory as the bookstore.  There is much debate about the statistics.  A small minority say that the numbers are actually leveling out and even possibly trending toward a small uptick in church attendance in America.  Most say that church attendance has been plummeting for years and will continue to do so in the coming decades.  Younger generations seem to be particularly disenfranchised (for more insight, I recommend checking out work by Robert Wuthnow and Gabe Lyons).  Regardless of where we land on the numbers and statistics, the truth remains that the church is intended to play an integral role in the story God is writing on earth.  As the bride of Christ, she is called to be a radiant expression of the restorative and healing love of Jesus.  The church is meant to be a gathering place of what Bonhoeffer calls saints & sinners; all of us together, collectively stumbling our way through life, trying to get a grip, figuring it out step by step, leaning on each other to make certain that no one falls too hard or too far.  But it seems that in many of our churches, this tremendous calling has been dwindled down to a focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of production.  How does our church look and sound?  Are people buying what we’re selling?  What’s the winning formula to church growth and how do we reproduce it in as many places as we can?  I’m not so naive as to say that these considerations are unimportant.  The aesthetics are crucial to creating an emotional connection.  Gaining buy-in from people is key to making real progress.  Church growth and reproduction are prevalent in the New Testament narratives.  But none of these elements can replace the centrality of the communal experience that the church must offer.  And I believe that in order to have maximum effect, this experience must be a genuine, visceral one, untouched by the synthetic processes of forced or manufactured group dynamics.  Much like a really good bookstore.

My wife and I were in Portland a few months ago and got to visit Powell’s Books a couple of times.  It’s an incredibly unique place and a must if you’re ever in Portland.  They claim to be the largest new & used bookstore in the world and I believe them.  There must have been at least a hundred people in the store while we were there, although it’s hard to really know because the store is the size of a city block.  Jenny and I got lost in Powell’s and it was wonderful.  Some of the books were dusty and I felt allergic but I didn’t want to leave.  At one point I saw an elderly homeless man and a hipster kid standing side by side in an aisle, reading Philip Dick short stories.  I joined them for a little while.  We didn’t say a word to each other but there we were, communing in this equal space where we were all enthralled by the power of story.  As I think back on that experience I am reminded that this is exactly what the church ought to be; an equal space where people from all walks of life can gather and be drawn into a real community, captivated by the beautiful story of God.  So let us hope and work toward the preservation and progress of great bookstores and even better churches everywhere.

Waiting is more than a means to an end

I’ve never been good at waiting.  I get fidgety at red lights and anxious in lines at the grocery store.  I’m easily agitated when having to wait for a table at a restaurant.  I watch television shows once they’re on DVD or Netflix because I can’t stand watching one episode and waiting a week to see what happens next.  In my opinion, waiting rooms at hospitals are arguably the worst places on earth.  I don’t like to wait.  I feel as though a good life has been promised to me and I shouldn’t have to wait for any of it.  It ought to be when, where, and how I want it.  Truth is, we know this isn’t the way life works.  Waiting is inevitable.  Patience is a virtue, they say.  But maybe waiting is more than just a means to an end.  Maybe waiting in and of itself is a deeply formative experience meant to change us in some significant way.

The story of Abraham in the book of Genesis begins with a promise.  This is Genesis 12.1-3:

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Abraham receives this tremendous promise of blessing.  He’s going to be made into a great nation.  His descendants will be blessed and be a blessing to the entire world.  But the problem is, at this point in the story, Abraham and his wife Sarah don’t have any kids.  And they’re getting older.  The window is slowly closing.  On top of that, instead of fulfilling this promise right away, God makes them wait.  And while they wait, God just keeps reminding Abraham and Sarah about it over and over again (Genesis 13.14-17, 15.1-6, 17.1-5).  If you were reading this story for the first time without the benefit of hindsight, you’d think God to be some sort of cruel cosmic tease, talking big but never coming through.

But could it be that God continues reminding Abraham and Sarah about the promise before it ever comes to fruition because the waiting itself is changing them?

Could it be that the waiting is not only meant to teach us something but to actually shape us into a particular sort of people?

Could it be that God is just as interested in our waiting as he is in our receiving?

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, God comes through.  They have a son and they name him Isaac.  Promise fulfilled, all is well.  But in Genesis 22 the story takes a dark turn.  God instructs Abraham to take his son Isaac, the child of the promise, and murder him on a sacrificial altar.  Here’s how Abraham responds to God’s instruction to kill his own son (Genesis 22:3): “Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.”  That’s it.  No questions.  No complaining.  No accusations.  No bickering or whimpering.  Most incredibly, no resistance.  Abraham simply trusts God.

Like a man blinded by the brightest light and overcome by the most brilliant naivete, Abraham steps into what God lays before him without hesitation.  This is not to say there wasn’t some fear or anxiety.  In all likelihood, there was.  But Abraham was a man possessed and there would be nothing to keep him from giving himself completely and wholly to whatever God asked of him.  I can’t help but think this was in no small part a result of the formative work of waiting that had been such an integral part of Abraham’s life.

If you feel that God is making you wait, be thankful.  He is not holding us back from what’s next or keeping some good gift from us.  The waiting is what’s next.  The waiting is the gift.  It is shaping, forming, and renovating us.  It is chiseling away our rough edges of self-reliance.  In the end, the waiting is what shapes us into the trusting people of God, ready and willing to step into whatever God lays before us.