Thursday, January 19, 2006

Relationships are Fundamental

I've recently picked up Leonard Sweet's book, "Out of the Question"... Into the Mystery." The premise of the book is that true meaning comes not from answering questions about God, but in living in the mystery of our relationship with Him. I'm captured by the following sentence: "What's important is not things themselves, but relationships between things. In fact, nothing is ever one thing or another, but rather a relationship between things."

This means that nothing in life has meaning in and of itself. The meaning of a thing is defined by its relationship to others. It's long been known that our self worth or value is formed and defined as we interact with others. How many are in counseling today because a parent or teacher or spouse ill-defined who we are! A baby without human interaction starves an emotional death. This computer I am typing on is of no value until I turn it on and interact with it, and give it the name "computer." Or the classic question: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound?" Well, who cares? Until a human being interacts with that fallen tree (grinds it up it for fertilizer, builds a home, etc.), it is meaningless whether or not it makes a sound.

This leads me to what seems like a heretical statement at first. Even God has no value wihtout relationship. What value is God if he's out there with no universe to rule, no human beings to shape, no creation to nurture? So he's out there all alone with no influence. What does that matter? If you don't believe that God's value is found in His relationships, we have only to think about the Trinity. In the infinite existence of God, He has been always in relationship with Himself (Father, Son, and Spirit). And He deepened the meaning of His own existence when he created us and entered into relationship with us.

This explains why God says the greatest commandment is to love God and love others. Or why Micah says that our fundamental purpose is to "do justice [live fairly and with dignity in relationships with other], love mercy [extend grace when injustice occurs], and walk humbly with your God [allow your value to be defined by your interconnectedness with God]." These are all relational activities.

This is why coming to church or experiencing a worship service or attending a class are meaningless rituals in and of themselves. They are just "things" until they become tools for connecting us in deep communion with our Creator. No wonder God "hates" our sacrifices when there is no heart in them.

"God, help me to connect with you deeply today. Not just to write about my relationship with You, but to enter deeply into it. Amen."

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King

I've gotta admit. I'm a little miffed that the church office is open on MLK day. I know... the bylaws don't give us this day off, and the bylaws take years to catch up with the times. One day, we'll take this day off with the rest of society, but for today, the office is up and running. But that's a good thing - for me. It reminds me of how far I've come in this issue of race.

When I went to college, my roommates confronted me one day about my apparent "racism." Racism? What were they talking about? They pointed to a few racial remarks and jokes I had told. I explained that in Texas, we talked like this, but meant nothing by it. After all, the three of them were from New Jersey and New York! They were too uptight, I said. But I thought about what they said and began an inward journey to understand what I truly felt deep down about people of other races.

My lifechanging moment came in 1998 when Imani came into my life. As a "temporary" foster child in our home, Imani was as black as one gets, and 18 months old. I remember holding her the first time. She tried to kiss me. I wondered deep down inside if that was ok! Maybe I wasn't where I should be after all.

Little did we know God would keep her in our home for nearly two years, and it changed me significantly. Imani stopped being black shortly after we got her. I remember walking through restaurants wondering why people were staring. Then I'd remember how it must have looked for a white couple to be loving on a little black girl. Imani came to me as a stereotypical little African-American and left our home a beautiful angel. Every time I see a little black girl, I pray she has a daddy who feels for her what I felt for Imani.

So, I look back and I think about what my roommates said. I have to concede that while I may not have been a racist in the classic sense of the word, I had stereotypes in me that were wrong.

I can't say I've ever preached a sermon directly about racism. Not sure exactly how to preach it. But I think God has given me a chance to preach on it in a very different way. I'm happy that taking in a black girl and making her my child, and recently, forging ahead to hire an African-American music minister... these have challenged the people around me, and that's far more valuable than a sermon.

I listened recently to a speech from MLK just 24 hours before he was assassinated. King spoke of how God had carried him, like Moses, to the mountaintop. That he has seen the Promised Land. That the future of black America was strong. Ten years ago, his speech would have done little for me. Yesterday, it moved me deeply. And I was sad that our small office staff couldn't take the time to join their families to remember the strength of this man's character and vision.

I'm glad that I'm miffed. It reminds me of just how far God has brought me.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

What Kind of Revolution?

Someone commented to me recently that "George Barna [Christian pollster] has left the institutional church." Wow... be frustrated with the institutional church... I can understand. But leave the institutional church. So I bought his newest book, Revolution. Here's a summary of what I've read so far...

Currently 70 percent of Christians depend on a local church for their spiritual intake and outflow. About five percent use alternative forms of Christian communities, and the rest... well, they don't do much at all.

Barna predicts that in 20 years, only 30 percent will channel their spiritual activity through a local church, and 30-35 percent of Christiansl will look to these alternative communities. In other words, people will give up on the institutional church in droves. The best churches will survive, but many will die.

The most shocking part of the Barna's book is that he seems to endorse this direction. Critical of the programmed and inch-deep spirituality of local churches, and hungry for a deeper, first centry kind of community experience, Barna seems to believe that many will leave the small "c" church and live out a big "C" church experience. So, instead of depending on a few hours a week for spiritual community, these future revolutionaries will begin living it out in 24/7 kinds of ways.

Part of me hopes desparately that Barna is wrong. And another part of me hopes deparately that he's right. Oh how I pray that this will spark the local church to see that we cannot continue to depend on a weekly worship experience alone to bring spiritual transformation to people's lives. The coming generations are hungry for more. They'll get their spiritual "charge" through the internet, music, iPods and who knows what else. They won't need the church for that. But they won't find true, authentic community through digital media. But will they find it through the church?

I personally hunger for a deeper kind of community than I'm experiencing now; hungry for an experience that flows not only through group worship services, but through coffee shop conversations, IM discussions about a daily devotional, a drop in from a friend, and relationships that naturally bring accountability, encouragement, and community to my life.

I realize, most will set Barna aside and think he's lost his sanity. I pray we who believe in the work of the local church will work to prove Barna wrong (or at least change the direction of the coming trend). In my ministry leadership, I will work with much greater vigor to help Christ-followers know a first century house church experience to complement the present corporate church experiences.