Last in series: Why this matters
Please forgive the poor audio quality of this week's recording.
Today I am going to wrap up our current series of talks here which have been considering the “why” of this church. - Why this matters
Customarily, the answer to the “why” question for churches has focused on determining who is IN and who is OUT.
This matters because if you are in you need to say in and if you are out, you better get in. But at this church we take very seriously Jesus’ teachings that human beings should avoid spending their energy on questions of IN & OUT, that we are simply not qualified to judge who is IN and who is OUT. You know, in our experience here at this church, setting aside questions of IN vs. OUT as a poor use of our energy and attention doesn't make following Jesus matter less, it makes following Jesus matter more — today - to bring this series to a close, I want share with you aside from the fact Jesus tells us we should avoid it, why I personally have found giving attention to questions of IN vs OUT to be poor use of energy In short, it’s because I spent 20 years doing it. SLIDE The first 20 years of my life, questions of IN vs OUT, right vs wrong, acceptable vs unacceptable, were how I thought about faith. My experience of the church and the Bible was focused on figuring out what is in and what is out, and who it in and who is out, and how I can stay in and how I can manage dealing with all those who are out. I either already had the answer, or given enough time would find the answer to any and all questions of morality, and correct behavior and thinking. I understood that other things mattered to some degree, like justice and caring for those with need, but, nothing deserved the my attention, my energy, my focus more than figuring out and defining questions of IN vs OUT. And this lead me into... a deeply unsatisfied place. A place that left me fed up with faith and fed up with church. I had all the answers, but those answers left me troubled and unhappy. And It only got worse as I grew older and interacted with more people and learned more about the world A lot of my clear answers felt like they broke down against my experience of reality. I was having a hard time and was looking to the friends around me and it felt like my Christian friends, who were in, were more shallow and mean and judgmental, less there for me, and actually weren’t doing much to make the world around them better While my friends who had no faith, who were out, were present in my life, caring, supportive, understanding, and often actually doing things in their life to try and make the world a better place. SLIDE And then I did some traveling and starting to connect with more and more different kinds of people and churches in particular. And one thing I really struggled with was that the more I got to know people that came from different Christian traditions - Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Vineyard etc. I really struggled with the reality that most of these churches, like me, spent a great deal of their time talking, thinking about, and defining issues of IN and OUT. And, also like me, arrived at answers with a great deal of certainty.
However, each church was arriving at different answers of what was essential for being in. And what one church was so certain about, would exclude another church I think about living right here in Lincoln Square there are 20 different churches within 1 mile of here all believing things with certainty that are essential for being IN that are different than what the other churches believe with certainty are essential for being IN So, my faith really begun to break down and I decided that I was kinda through with Church. SLIDE However, I didn’t stop believing in God
Despite all of this turmoil surrounding my beliefs, there was something else -- something that had nothing to do with me trying to figure out IN vs OUT -- something that felt good and right in a deep way -- that stuck with me from the faith of my childhood.
It was a series of experiences.
Since I was little I can remember having experiences of feeling deeply loved and cared for, unconditionally, SLIDE by something beyond myself, by God. One story of these experiences that really sticks with me was something that happened at a pretty low point in my youth. You see, although I was fairly obsessed with figuring out what was in and what was out. I had a hard time doing the things I had decided were IN and not doing the things I decided were OUT. I just have always struggle to follow rules in my life. And so this created a bit of a toxic cocktail - a preoccupation with determining what behavior was acceptable, and a tendency to push the boundaries of what was unacceptable. This lead to many times in my life where I was overwhelmed with shame because I had crossed some line. I had put myself at risk of no longer being in. And one of these times, someone in my church, an adult and leader had found out about my unacceptable behavior. And they sat me down and told me, “you’ve crossed a line, you can’t take that back. You’ve done it. It’s never going to be the same for you.”
And when he said that to me, the shame just came over me.
And I can remember driving away after that conversation - I can still remember I was driving past a cemetery looking at the rows of tombstones But then, in that moment I felt overwhelmed with as sense of - I am still loved - I felt warm in my body, I felt like I was not alone although I was alone in the car. And I had these words go through my head that just felt different than my own thoughts and the words were. “That is not true - what he said is a lie. I love you, I love you just as much today as I did yesterday. This has not changed it for you. And I felt this internal reassurance, and the shame just fell off me like I had taken off a jacket and let it fall to the floor. And I felt great - Like even if my parents don’t understand me, even if my friends don’t understand me, my church doesn’t understand me. I feel like God - this external presence in this car - Understands me. experiences like this were a pattern in my childhood. Most of them not as dramatic. But, I can remember being a child and afraid and feeling like supernaturally calmed and given peace. Or I think of the story I told a couple weeks ago of when I was in Korea after I had decided I was done with church, and I didn’t know what I believed about anything. And I felt beyond me, caring for me - I felt the thoughts linger in my head. “It doesn’t matter how certain you are. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what you believe or don’t know what think, or don’t know what the answers are. I love you. I want to be close to you. Go through life with you.” And so, back to this point in my life when I was feeling so done with my experience of church, I was left in an interesting position.
I was not interested in what I had experienced in Church for the first 20 years of my life, but I had all of these experience of Unconditional love. Of something beyond myself, interacting with me, guiding me, reassuring me, giving me care and peace.
So what do I do with this. SLIDE What does this mean? SLIDE what am I? Like religiously speaking, what does this make me? I looked at some eastern religions - and wondered - does my experiences fit there.
I mean I am immensely helped by the self-reflection and mindfulness of eastern religions Honestly, I think they produce awesome people, writ large I think the Buddhists I have met would destroy the Christians I have met in a game of - who are nicer and generally kind people, who care about more than themselves. However, it didn’t quite fit because what I had experienced was something outside of my self - It wasn’t an act of self actualization. It didn’t feel like an act of mine at all. So, I wondered if maybe one of the other ancient Abrahamic faiths would fit for me. Islam or Judaism, I have been really helped by reading the Koran and Torah. And I admire what I see in the Muslims and Jews that I know. They have a level of discipline and commitment and connection to community that I feel impressed by. However, my experience of feeling an interaction with a higher power, who seemed to see and understand, and care for me individually and uniquely would, in those traditions, be an experience reserved for once in a lifetime prophets. And I really don’t feel like a once in a life-time prophet. And I am pretty sure that my wife would fall over laughing, if suggested this to be the case. So maybe I’m not actually religious, I wondered had I just experienced benefits that can be explained by psychology or good self help? But that didn’t quite fit either because what I had experienced throughout my life wasn’t just a general sense of healthy self-worth (like “I am okay because I’m unconditionally loved in general”)… it was specific points in time that felt relational and interactive that gave me this feeling of being unconditionally loved As I considered all this, I found myself looping back around, and it became clear that although I was not feeling what I had experienced in church.
I was in the way of Jesus experiencing the unconditional love of God - IS THE WAY OF JESUS I’m in the way of the Ancient Israelites Look at their prayer in Psalm 86:15 Lord, you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. I am in the way of the prophet Jeremiah who says in 31:3 The Lord appeared to us in the past,saying:“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. Or Jesus words - in which he reveals what he is about in John 13 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, And one of Jesus’ disciples John who expands on the implications of that in 1 John 3 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us And I am in the way of the Apostle Paul Who I think perfectly describes my experience of God, as offering me unconditional love - love not dependent on my ability to earn it 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.f I am in the way of the 4th century archbishop St. John Chrysostom Who described his experience of God like this. God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves. Of the 7th century Monk, Maximus Confessor - Who describes his experience of Jesus to be like a fire that warms a body.
The way of Desmond Tutu who echos Maximus some 1500 years later. Experienceing God is “Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire. You don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.” In the way of the writer on spirituality Philip Yancy Who talked of his experience of God by saying “One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as “those evil people” or “those poor people who need our help.” Nor must we search for signs of “loveworthiness.” Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are. And in way of DR King - whose wife, Corretta Scott King, describes an experiences of her husband’s: I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough. After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: “Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”Later he told me, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.’” When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything. SLIDE These all sound like those experiences I had throughout my childhood. SLIDE What I had experienced throughout my life was the unique and unconditional love of Jesus.
So, as Vince and I were first starting this church, when it was still an idea in our heads more than anythings. We were keenly aware of the checkered history of churches. We did not just decide to do things because “they are what churches do”. We started with only a select few building blocks on the table
This was one of them.
It seemed to us, one of the key things that people need in life never really changes, no matter how old and mature they get. It is experiencing unconditional love from God -- not just arriving at a general sense in their minds that they are unconditionally love-able, that’s amazing, yes! But you know what actually builds that in the first place and maintains it over time? Actually experiencing it. From the God of the universe. This was what we saw as the promise of starting a Jesus-centered community And that’s what we hope is part of your experience every time we gather here on Sunday, or in small groups, or the countless little ways people do community together here.
Let me suggest some ways you might put yourself in position to have these kind of experiences I’m talking about -- this morning even! But also day-in, day-out of your everyday life...
Try Praying & Build in a routine of praying.
I had a few powerful experiences like I shared, but I think I was set up to have those by my ongoing experiences of feeling loved in small ways each day.
That has been through prayer. Setting aside time and attention to seek that closeness and care from God.
So, for me. whether I do this when I lay down at night, or more frequently before I start work in the morning. I start by just taking a deep breath. Trying to calm myself, do my best to clear out my thoughts. And honestly I try not to pray for anything.
Praying for things, Like I pray for this church and my family. I often try to make that a different thing altogether. It’s great, but generally I find my attention is more on those things than looking for connection. But for this, I start by trying to be still and listen and just pay attention to my thoughts, my body, my emotions. And If I get distracted, I don’t worry about it too much. I just try to take another deep breath and bring myself back to being present in the moment.
But, really it is all about trying to quiet your mind. I know folks that do this all sorts of ways. Some people find it helpful to read a pre-written prayer like the daily hours. Or just praying through a couple psalms. Looking at a candle or fireplace. But breathing exercises are just what does it for me right now. And I have found, not every time, but often I feel close and connected. I often feel impressions and thoughts that linger in my head.
And, at this point, after building in a routine of doing this for a long time now.
I feel like I have a decent sense of what might be God connecting with me and encouraging me, challenging me. And it is in part because I pay attention to the thoughts and senses and encouragements that feel consistent with all of those passages and quotes we read.
The things that feel like a fire is warming our soul. To point back to Maximus and Desmond Tutu
Have someone else pray with you I have found it incredibly powerful to have someone else pray along with me. I just find that God shows up in some powerful ways when some else is praying for me. Like something about the act of initiating the process, the power of hearing loving words from someone else. It just works like a quick on ramp for us to experience God, and particularly experience his care and love for us. So, transition and intro to prayer time.
A hyper attention on IN vs OUT almost lead me to throw the baby out with the bathwater - And that would have been a terrible mistake, because… The baby is awesome.
I sometimes get jealous of people who didn’t grow up in Church, those who find faith later in life, because they don’t have the baggage I do.
However, I have come to be thankful for my childhood experience of Church. Because, baggage aside, one thing I did grow up with is experiences of God unconditionally loving me.
I now have over 30 years of ups and down, and failures and successes, and disappointments and triumphs, and through it all I have a log of experiences of feeling loved and seen and understood. Even when I didn’t feel understood by family or friends, or church.
So, if you are a parent here. I think this is the greatest gift you can offer your child in a faith community like this. Not stories of morality Not structures of what is right and wrong, and good and bad, and in and out. But, to facilitate experiences where our children can grow up knowing that they are unconditionally loved.
Now, I have come back to believe many of the things I used to. I have come back to find the bible and church to be an invaluable tools in my life, but not because it helps me navigate questions of IN vs OUT or Acceptable vs Unacceptable, but because it helps me draw near to Jesus, see where he is ever present in my life, because my experience of his unconditional love changes everything. When I lay down at the end of the night and I am feeling overwhelmed or stressed, or full of regret, or angry, or broken. And it feels like no one really understands me In those moments I stop and pray and I can actually feel love, unconditional love. And it makes me feel less alone, less anxious. More open, and less cynical. Feeling loved like that makes my joys feel richer, and I feel more consolation when I am suffering or mourning I feel more hope and, I like to believe, I live with more resiliency because I believe I am loved.