Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Retreat Chronicles V - Enjoying True Community

"We live in a numb society, feeling life's difficult things at such a fleeting and superficial level, constantly seeking our own comfort, enjoyment, recreation, relaxation, safety, and security in response, often at the expense of each other and our own souls.  This is even true in and among our church communities, where we tend to pretty ourselves up for each other and then pretend to play nice, making up that that is what God wants us to be:  happy-looking, quiet, well-behaved children.  We dare not really notice and feel each other's pain, because we might have to look at and experience our own, and there is just not enough time or compassion in the whole world for that, the well is just too deep." -- Jim Spivey
"I hear many cries for unity in the church today, while a watching world sees divisiveness (and hypocrisy about that) as our greatest failure.  Out of my experience as a surgeon with the nervous system in the human body, I would propose a unity based on tending to each other's pain as a unifying theme." -- Dr. Paul Brand
"Do you understand what I have done for you?" -- Jesus, to his followers
It's a powerful question that Jesus asked. It's one that even caused these overly committed, willing-to-do-anything, zealous followers of Jesus to pause and reflect. And I'm not talking about the first disciples at their last retreat in that Passover room with Jesus...I'm talking about the Ministry Team that I sat with at Ceta Canyon when we let Jesus ask us the same thing.
We allowed Jesus to look us as a group in the eyes and ask, "Do you understand what I have done for you?"
I'm going to be honest. I have preached between 50-60 sermons over this last year, primarily telling people what Jesus has done for them (and me). Before that I bet I've given no less than 1500 talks explaining the same thing. And doggone it if I don't just stop and look blankly at the floor with eyes wide open as I drift off into never-land trying to understand what Jesus has done for me.
It's amazing to me how pondering that question, sincerely dwelling on and meditating on that question, whenever I take the time to do it, always, always, always leads me into truer community (with God AND with people). Always. And if you'll refer to Objective #1 in the piece entitled "Retreat Chronicles I - Scary Excitement" on my blog, you'll know that that is exactly what we were trying to co-create with God at Ceta Canyon.
I will never do justice explaining what happened in me, and among us, on Thursday night of this retreat...at least not in words. I've had experiences of true community before. Shoot, I believe I'm one of the lucky ones in life who has been able to swim around and drown in it. So I know it by heart (and I mean that literally). My heart is only home in true Christian intimacy. Everything else in life is either a distraction to it or a setup for it (And even the distractions are setups in disguise).
So instead of doing the disservice of trying to write down what each of us shared and experienced, I'm going to commit my life to multiplying it as many times as humanly possible in as many settings as God will grant me access to with as many people as I can be in relationship with.
Why? Because when you find yourself in an unconditionally loving environment, that is teaching you the truth, modeling for you what it looks like to live in it, challenged to join in yourself, remembering what Jesus did for you so that you can have it, surrounded by people willing to go with you, freed to be you no matter what state you find yourself in, and celebrated when you take the real-life step of faith into this true community...you are never the same. And words won't be able to adequately describe it.
Go ahead. Test me in this. If you know any of us (just look us up at www.churchsouthwest.org under "staff"), ask us to describe Thursday night of our Ministry Retreat. We've got some freakin' talented, articulate people on this team...so ask 'em...and then listen when they finish. I bet they'll say something like, "You just have to experience it." It will also have a hint of both "I loved it" and "I hated it".
So I'm closing out the Chronicles concerning Thursday night, and concerning Objective #1 (see Retreat Chronicles I) leaving you wanting, with only the 3 quotes above as a clue. I really am sorry, but I could easily write a page about each person and the impact each had on just me, let alone try to tackle recording the entire dynamic. It's just a little too overwhelming for me to try to get my mind around.
Very similar, in fact, to the effect that the question of Jesus has on me..."Do you understand what I have done for you?" Stop and meditate on that right now, and you'll get why I'm having to move on to Objective #2:  To define what a “disciple of Jesus” is.

The Retreat Chronicles IV - The Letter

"I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." - Jesus, to his Father, about his followers

A little over a year before this ministry team retreat, back when I was discerning whether I was supposed to move to the Southwest Church in Amarillo or plant a church in Urban Houston, I wrote a letter. It was just a discerning tool, for me, but it was addressed the ministry team of the Southwest church. I was in one of those glorious moments when idealistic thinking seems to be the only worthy thinking (which is true all of the time, but only seems to be true some of the time). And after a year of ministry with this new ministry team, I stumbled upon it in an old, beat up white-pad in my Amarillo office. I read it slowly...noting how many of these ideals we were already operating under, and how many we still have before us to realize. At any rate, in the middle of our Thursday "journey in" to true community with each other, I trusted that now was the time to deliver it to the team I didn't know when I wrote it...

To my new ministry team:

We must become an authentic community of disciple makers, with each other and with those we come into contact with. We must be committed to our own and one another’s continued growth and transformation, and do so by giving each other permission into our lives hardest places, understanding and fighting against the gravity of fear, always focusing on the heart, knowing that it always takes the unusual commitment of time and courage.

For this to happen, the distance between what we are learning and what we are teaching must disappear. The commitment to “image management” with each other must be replaced by blind, “my heart is on the line here”, trust. Our usefulness, goodness, humility, mutual care, giftedness, and priority of families are among the things that must be assumed as present in each other, so that we don’t need to waste words and time making sure that each other views us as those things. And we need not be hindered by the difficulties, conflicts, and inconveniences that come from becoming so relationally integrated because we know going in that’s how its supposed to be. Forgiveness will flow freely among us, but will never be taken advantage of or used as an excuse for relational irresponsibility in us towards each other. We choose this narrow and difficult road with each other because we know it’s God’s true design for His people. We will relish in the moments that the fruit of this intimacy is sweet and be full of hope when it seems sour -- knowing that it only seems so for a time.

Prayer must become our favorite thing and acknowledged as our most productive time spent – personally and with each other. We mustn’t define or “standardize” what each person’s prayer life looks like, but we mustn’t use that freedom to define a prayer life that is less than absolute dependence. Work time spent in prayer for the body and the Kingdom and each other is the best time spent.

Scripture must become the story book that authoritatively shapes and molds our hearts. (For no one can be great and be more head than heart). We must distance our commitment to “know the Word”, with the higher commitments of “being who the Word says we are”, and “doing what it says we can do”, letting the stories shape and protect our hearts, rather than letting it’s rules simply be known in our heads (for example, we can “know” a peacemaker is blessed, or we can “be” a peacemaker). In all situations we look to the living Word, Jesus, to guide us in our choices.

We refuse to look at each other as simply “saved” and therefore “done”. We watch each other in awe as God continues to make us more perfect and pleasing to Him, and we stand amazed as God gives us each ever-growing platforms of influence on people. We acknowledge and confess pride or jealousy as it comes – to God and to each other, knowing that “saying it” has something to do with our ability to “let it go”. We see everyone we meet with the same eyes that we’ve learned to see each other with and those people feel and sense the potential freedom in their grasp just by how we look at them.

We are unabashedly about people, and as such are eager to use money and multiplication as tools to prune our lives of things and tasks that steal time from people. We are understandably reluctant to take on new tasks that would steal time from people, but excited to take on new tasks that would increase our contact with people, or “our people’s” contact with people. We are absolutely unyielding when tempted to compromise our own personal time committed to solitude, family, physical health, spiritual health, and fun because of our long term, relentless commitment to people and we help each other constantly to guard and adjust to this people agenda.

Our “jobs” are constantly being designed and discovered, constantly shaped by our personal passion, influencing of people for Christ, the priority of the heart, the goal of disciple making, the mantra of ‘doing less better’. Pruning is a skill we develop and learn to desire and look forward to, knowing that only by cutting off a fruit-bearing branch will more abundant fruit grow.

Workers in the body will be our primary “customers” that we service. We work to help workers succeed in ministry. Those willing to grow in their love of God and love of others (which is the definition of work) as a priority in their life will feel God’s approval and pleasure on them through ours. We respond to and trust workers over mere thinkers. What the skeptic, the critic, and the by-stander get from us is a challenge and invitation to work. While we love and believe in every person God sends our way, we maintain their dignity and invite them into their own destiny by refusing to adjust our life’s work according to their own weaknesses, hurts, misconceptions and mediocre desires.

We are a ‘called’ group of people and we live in and act out of the deep confidence that comes from a person who is responding to the Caller, desiring nothing but His pleasure.

Pursuing the Abundant Life of Jesus, Brian Mashburn

Friday, May 27, 2005

Fear Infection

"There is nothing to fear but fear itself." -- Doyle Corder, quoting someone famous that he couldn't quite remember
"You who fear him, trust in the LORD — he is their help and shield." - Psalm 15:11
"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." - The Apostle John
We are all so afraid. Afraid of change. Afraid of each other. Afraid of being wrong. Afraid of being told we are wrong even when we are confident we are right. Afraid of judgments. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid. We are all so afraid.
I'm interrupting the Retreat Chronicles to tell the quick story of a technology minister, Craig, who worked at the West Houston Church of Christ in Houston, TX. After years of  having to spell out c-o-f-c over and over, in person and on the phone and in emails, he changed the web address of the West Houston church website from www.westhoustoncofc.org to www.westhoustonchurch.org, which solved the minor, but frequent, irritation.
The tech minister moved to Amarillo, to the Southwest Church of Christ, and upon his arrival here, borrowed quickly on his experience in Houston, and changed the address from www.southwestcofc.org to www.churchsouthwest.org (southwestchurch was taken, probably because there are about 5 billion southwest church's in this nation), saving us, too, from the small, but regular, inconvenience of having to spell it out. Awesome...
...Sort of. I got a call today from a brother who said several have approached him wondering if this change is reflective of our move from our Church of Christ heritage (including, but not limited to, the possibility of changing the name on our church sign). From what I could gather in both the love and frustration of this brother is that this is somewhat a regular thing for him to encounter. Little, normal, innocent things take place, and they trigger people's fears. In this case, the fear of change. And also in this case, it even has the power to expose a spirit of distrust, leading to a wave of fear-invoking conversations, potentially leading even to a spirit of accusation (a word used to describe our Arch-Enemy) among FAMILY. It's amazing, and quite honestly, it outlines one of the things I'm most afraid of.
I'm afraid of people's fear. People (including me) do horrible things in their fear. As I am typing this, one of our other ministers came in to tell me that this exact same fear came up in a Bunko (some card game, I think) conversation last night...Wow. He said he's resigning...and even though he insists that he is serious, I don't think he is. He'll probably be here Sunday, loving the fearful people that we are exactly like. I think it's his fear that would make him want to quit. I know that it is mine.
Fear really is an infection. We all have it, and we all spread it to each other. As far as I know, there is only one thing that works to heal it.
Okay, maybe there are two things...love works, too. But I really think that they work hand in hand on this one. Why are we so afraid? It's so dog-gone unwise to be afraid of such small things.
Wisdom (which means, "thinking like God") actually comes from fear, but only from one kind. Fear of the Lord. Those who are have fear of the Lord are not shaken by the change of a website addresses, nor are they shaken by those who are shaken by the change of website addresses.
Fear of the Lord...It's the beginning of wisdom. Sometimes I don't think I've even begun the journey of thinking like God, the journey towards wisdom. Things like this point out that I have lots of company. God help us.
Unless God screams at us through a modern day equivalent of a burning bush, the servant-leadership of the Southwest Church of Christ has no intention of changing the name on our sign outside the building where we meet. The job we have our sites on is not nearly that easy...we intend on calling every member that meets inside the building to actually live up to what is on the sign. To be a church that is actually "of Christ". We'll know when that happens...the name of a website won't scare us.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Retreat Chronicles III - Guaranteeing True Community

"Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." -- Jesus, to his followers
We're not stupid. We know the right, churchy answers. Shoot, we're the ones teaching them to everyone we come across. This is a "ministry staff" retreat, for Pete's sake. We've committed our lives to dishing out Jesus to everyone we know. We know what Jesus told his followers...
To give up everything, all attachments to this world, and attach to him.
To die to ourselves, letting our lives be at his disposal for others.
To love each other in a way that it is humanly impossible, so that the world knows that Jesus is God's son.
But we were (once again) on the longest journey of any human being's life...the remarkably difficult and adventurous 12 inch journey from "knowing" in our heads to "living" from our hearts.
Back at Jesus' "ministry staff" retreat in John 13, Jesus had just washed his followers feet and reiterated that they should love each other in the same extreme, unpopular, detail-oriented, inconvenient way that he has loved them...and that it's mandatory if they want to be blessed.
We're not stupid. We know this story. We know this simple teaching. But here we are at our "ministry retreat" with Jesus looking at each other, wondering what the next step is. How do we love each other, give ourselves to each other, care for each other in such a way as to be a real, true blessing...and so receive one.
We needed Jesus in the room, coaching us. And we had him, in all of us. We started with prayer, pairing up with our spouses and praying with eyes wide open, heads up, looking around the room at each other, we all asked God, "Lord, let us give ourselves to these people." It was cool.
My wife and I took turns praying as we went around the room..."Lord, give us to Bruce and Edie...bless Bob and Caron through us...bless Doyle and Christy's marriage by sharing ours with them...let us be weak, God, so that Jesus can be strong to Landon and Kristen through us...give us to Craig and Vicky...give us to Kyle and Jen...give us to Jim...give us to Brad and Karen...give us to Phil and Kim..." and on and on we went. It looked right, and it suddenly felt like we sealed the deal for the course of the day by praying for it. God was going to answer. He was going to show us, coach us, and bless us in how to "wash each other's feet" today.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Retreat Chronicles II - Rules of Participation

"Do you understand what I have done for you?" -- Jesus, to his followers
I admit it...I pretty much can't do anything without checking out Jesus' life and seeing if he's already done it for me to use as a model. So, in the final days of prep for this retreat, I went straight to John's record of Jesus' final retreat with his followers. After all, what were we, if not a group of Jesus' follower's meeting with Jesus?
Did I tell you that the retreat was at a place called Ceta Canyon? Absolutely beautiful, but my nervous focus on my role all weekend made me miss enjoying it fully. Before we went there, we stopped at Feldman's Wrong-Way Cafe' in Canyon, TX, where we had a big table reserved in the back room (a "last supper" of sorts?). This is where I laid out the focus on Jesus, the Retreat Objectives (see last post), and then charted "The Journey In" towards experiencing Objective #1. A guy named Scott Peck says that the journey into true community passes through 4 stages -- something like this...
Pseudo-community - where politeness and niceness reign, boundaries and comfort zones are honored
Chaos - where emotional skeletons come out of the closet to play (this is where most efforts stop)
Reflection - a time of transition to a radical level of openness and realness
True Community - where the capacity for 'relatedness' and 'safety' reign and is given and enjoyed
And so we continued our combined effort out at Ceta Canyon by agreeing to the following "Agreements/Assumptions" with each other for the day...
1. You are here by divine appointment. (meaning you are needed, and you need us)
2. You are a participant (so be self-responsible enough to include yourself)
3. You are not the only participant (so include yourself in a way that draws others out)
4. You are safe (who shepherd's the shepherd's? The shepherd's shepherd each other)
5. Stay in the conversation when it gets difficult (conflict is 'fuel' for true community when love reigns)
6. Invite people back when the 'leave' (and 'leaving' doesn't necessarily mean leaving the room)
Lots of head nodding went on in that room along with several blank stares. All of this particular group had general agreement that true community is an ideal we would shoot for, and have experienced it at different levels and at different times, but still, nerves were a little high...but so was courage.
We continued by meditating on Jesus' question for us if we were to venture one step deeper into our relationships with each other or with God..."Do you understand what I have done for you?"
It's a meditation worthy of your pause and asking right now. Understanding what Jesus has done for you, it's width and breadth, it's depth and height, is the absolute trump card for anything that keeps a human being from true community.
I know that my son doesn't understand what I have done for him when I do something as simple as play with him. I'm sure that my daughter doesn't understand what I am doing for her when I send her a postcard when I'm out of town. I'm sure my son doesn't understand what I have done for him when I bow to God beside his crib, begging God's blessing on him. And these are relatively simple acts compared to what Jesus has done for me.
Do you understand what Jesus has done for you? Do you? If you do, people will recognize you when they see you. You are the one who lives out these "rules of participation" every day with peace and joy. Not some self-affirming trumped up version of it, mind you (like "I'm very blunt. I tell everyone what I think all the time."), but a real presence that invites the best out of the other person with little regard for what it costs you to help them do so.
Sort of like what Jesus has done for you.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Retreat Chronicles I - Scary Excitement

"Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love." -- John, talking about Jesus about to wash his follower's feet
"Unless I wash you, you have no part of me." - Jesus to Peter, who thought it inappropriate and not "God-like" for Jesus to wash his feet.
"Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!" - Peter's response, reflecting his deep desire to have total part of Jesus
I am in an enviable position. I am surrounded by men and women who are moved deeply from their hearts, longing for more of Jesus, more of life. This means that I have an intimate fellowship of people who are unified around the same race in life that I am in...not the rat race...but the Marathon of Transformation. We want, like Peter, to be immersed into Jesus...whatever that means, that is what we want. I am very blessed to have such intimate community.
I went on a three-day retreat last week with 16 of these folks. The weekend was preceded by 40 days of prayer and fasting where our leadership pleaded for an hour a day with God, asking Him to bless the Southwest church, a called out group of Christ-followers that we love and serve. The weekend also marked my first year of having been sent to this place, to this group of fellow journeyers and I confess I had high expectations for the weekend and no clue how to facilitate it or what to even facilitate...even though that particular job was clearly mine. 
This kind of thing brings out the best and worst in me. My insides feel like a car when someone hits both the gas and brakes as hard as they can at the same time. I'm fueled to 'go' but scared to at the same time. I'm ready for 'it', but not ready for 'it' at the same time. I have an important role to play, which I love and long for, but I'm not good or talented enough to play it at the same time. I never told my group that I considered canceling the retreat several times as it came upon us on the calendar. It didn't help that some of them would've rejoiced at the idea.
It wasn't until the week of the event that I felt like God exposed to me four objectives He wanted me have faith that He would deliver on...faith goals, if you will. They were:
1.      To create, experience, and enjoy the authentic, Christ-centered community with one another that we would like to create in our church community.
2.      To define what a “disciple of Jesus” is.
3.      To discover and articulate the atmosphere necessary to transform into a disciple of Jesus.
4.      To determine Southwest’s specific structure that we are to use to deliver that atmosphere.
I was energized by the thought that God would send these to us, that I would get to play a role in watching it unfold out of our community, but equally intimidated by their immensity. But Thursday came, everyone gathered, we loaded up...and off we went.
I shared the load with them first thing, and they received it with graciousness. Then we shared it with God by just tapping into our deepest desire by praying together..."Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well." It felt so good to pray that. To shamelessly ask Jesus to completely immerse us in himself felt like it was bringing a tear to his eye. At first the prayer sounded selfish to me, but as we repeated it over and over, before long, it felt like a request that just might bring a tear to his eye.
I know how I feel when my daughter Callie asks me to look at how beautiful she is in her princess dress. I know how I feel with my son Shade asks me to play in the fort with him outside. I know how I feel when my son Jakin comes crying to me asking for my comfort through a hug. I guess from one perspective, you could say they were being selfish in those requests. But from the truer perspective you would say they were asking from me what I am dying to give to them...myself.
The stage was set, we sat as the expectant audience of God's coming onto the stage, but looking at each other. We were on our way to seeing if He would deliver on Faith Goal #1...
I'm going to attempt to Chronicle what happened next, although words and time and space won't allow for it all to be delivered. But I think I need to attempt to write it so that I will remember...how good God is, how much He loves me, how He sent Jesus for this, and how I am to live it out for the rest of my life.

Friday, May 06, 2005


I have had an eventful week, inside and outside.

On the outside, I have traveled from Amarillo, TX to Malibu, CA for the Pepperdine Lectureship. I've been blessed with outstanding teaching, being shown insights from the last few chapters of the Gospel of John.

I got to sit in the airport with a guy name Randy Harris, who has taken the spiritual disciplines very seriously, and is a favorite Bible professor among students at Abilene Christian University. I didn't really get to probe his heart and mind like I would've liked to, a combination of being star-struck and another cool guy who was with us being present.

I'm rooming in a Pepperdine dorm with Don McLaughlin, who from afar and from quizzing his co-workers and his secretary, am pretty sure is the guy I want to be like, as he is like Jesus. He has graciously allowed me some face to face time, and he's the real deal. He loves deeply, relates so personally, preaches powerfully and with flexible, spontaneous dependence on God, thinks broadly, and shares intimately. He sealed my instant love and respect for him by throwing some cold water over the shower curtain at me with a junior high sort of zeal and laughter before he left the room for the day. And I got to hear him pray.

I went to a class taught by Gene Shelborn, who is a long time local preacher at a Church of Christ in Amarillo right down the street from my church. I invited myself into his life Wednesday night up at a speaker's Mocktail Party (a non-alcohol cocktail party)

I have eaten most of my meals with church family from the Hilltop church in LA, some of whom taught me a powerful community prayer form last time I was here over a year ago, that I use often when leading group prayers and love. They are pure joy. I've gotten to reunite with some old friends, most notable to me has been Greg Taylor, who has an incredible Christ-like spirit and prayed for my dad with me when I got the sudden news of my dad.

My dad got a successful kidney transplant while I've been here and is recovering great over in Houston, my wife has had a pretty difficult time back home with our three high-spirited children, and I climbed the mountains surrounding the campus last night to pray after starting the book, The Celebration of Discipline.

And that's just outwardly...and now it's outwardly time for dinner.

I'm longing for home...I leave on the red-eye tonight and will arrive home Saturday morning as my kids rise. I can't wait.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

We don't know how to love each other

I had a good cry tonight.

Tomorrow I bring Jesus' words that really challenge the extent to which we must love if we want our identity to be wrapped up in our sonship with God. We must love our enemies.

I've been listening to the people in this church. I watch how they act around each other. I see clearly the hurt behind the talk. People who love talking about loving the lost have given up on each other.

We don't know how to love each other. We don't know how to be loved by each other.

I guess I could wax philosophical and talk about how the previous generation was so private and that hinders vulnerable conversation with each other and with the younger generations, but all I would be saying is that "we don't know how to love each other."

I guess I could get analytical and explain the realistic nature of humanity that doesn't 'risk' their real selves, warts and all, unless the recipients are deemed "trustworthy", but all I would be saying is that "we don't know how to love each other."

I guess I could be rational and justify some of the deep hurt and fear of hurt that has come between my brothers and sisters because of past trauma, past betrayal, past hurtful words or actions, past lies...but all I would be saying is that "we don't know how to love each other."

I was hurting tonight because I wanted to challenge and inspire my church family to be Christ's church by really doing the hard work of loving their enemies when I realized that it is easier and less emotional for the people I've talked to and watched to imagine having love for a far-off character like Saddam Hussein than it is for them to actually go to a brother who has offended them in the ancient past and say, "I love you still." Our "enemies" are among us...they are this church's ex-spouses, ex-friends, ex-elders, ex-deacons, ex-brothers and sisters, ex-ministers...and they are this church's current spouses, friends, elders, deacons, brothers, sisters, ministers.

Jesus didn't say they would know we were disciples of Jesus because of our love for our enemies, but by our love for each other. Only tonight did I get instruction from God to point it out that for so many of us, it's the same thing.

May God's Spirit bring us to brokenness before each other, pridelessness with each other, the heart of Jesus' understanding that made him say, "Father, forgive them...they didn't know what they were doing."