Archive for the 'Church' Category

What’s wrong with the world? I am.

I thought that as I aged I would become more wise and understanding of how to deal with evil in the world.  There are times when I wish I was more tolerant of evil for my own sanity.  Case in point – an older gentleman at my church decided to tell a university student to stop talking on his cell phone in a very curt and rude manner today at the worship service at my church.  Me? Let it go?

No way.

I tracked him down, and sternly told him that was not acceptable behavior (all while quivering in anger and fear at confronting someone at least thirty years my senior as his “elder”) for becoming a welcoming community.

Wouldn’t it just be easier if I could accept evil? Why don’t I just let it go and make my life easier?

G. K. Chesterton, when asked to write an essay by The Times of London on the subject, “What’s wrong with the world?”

Chesterton gave this simple response.

Dear London Times,

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G. K. Chesterton

As much as I and other folks like Bono in today’s New York Times still expound on the problem of evil, and the church’s lack of response, the problem will never be addressed in full until we come to understand in our minds, hearts, hands, guts, and soul that the problem lies first and foremost within us.  Bono lauds Buffet and Gates – but they give out of their abundance, not sacrificially.  What if Buffet and Gates chose to give sacrificially in solidarity with those who they seek to serve – like the woman who gave her two copper coins?

The values that I and other staff have had for becoming agents of justice and righteousness in the world have infected many of our students.  One of the blessings that I have seen over the years is that many of my students have been involved in the global engagement summit at Northwestern University – a way they can engage the campus, partner with those who are far from God in engaging God’s purposes.

Sometimes I wonder if what we are seeing is an authentic revival of the activism we saw in my parent’s generation in the 1960’s that could truly change the world.

At others I cynically wonder if it’s just youthful optimistic high from an overdose on the self-esteem movement that will crash at the experience of real evil – the kind that etches it’s way into your mind and heart like a tattoo that can never be removed.  Students who I have taken among the poorest of the poor suffer often suffer from depression because the despair they encounter is contageous.

Sometimes I wonder if they will cope in the same way we saw those 60’s Hippie’s that today drive the SUV’s, built the big homes, ran businesses like Enron and Arthur Andersen, and now blame others for our planet’s problems.

Those are the days when I want to throw in the towel, and wonder if it is really worth it…am I just enabling a faith that is a “college thing” that will die once students hit the real world and the hot idealism is tempered.

This is why I need hope as much as any – for giving up means I’m just as much a part of the problem.

Today was especially impactful – when the liturgy of my church gives words when I have only groans.

O Risen Christ, you asked for my hands, that you might use them for your purpose.  I gave them for a moment, then withdrew them, for the work was hard.

You asked for my mouth to speak out against in justice. I gave you a whisper that I might not be accused.

You asked for my eyes to see the pain of poverty.  I closed them, for I did not want to see.

You asked for my life, that you might work through me.  I gave a small part, that I might not get too involved.

Lord, forgive my calculated efforts to serve you – only when it is convenient for me to do so, only in those places where it is safe to do so, and only with those who make it easy to do so.  Father, forgive me, renew me, send me out as a usable instrument, that I might take seriously the meaning of your cross.

Then later we sang from Christ is Alive:

“In every insult, rift, and war, where color, scorn, or wealth divide,

Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, where even hope has died.

Christ is alive, and comes to bring good news to this and every age,

Till earth and sky and ocean ring with joy, with justice, love, and praise.”

The hope of Easter is that Christ is alive.  Hope is only needed when it seems absent, and that the hope of all was killed made hope disappear.  But the resurrection proves that death doesn’t win in the end and that my job is just to hold on, be faithful, and not give up.  The setbacks of today will be pushed forward with or without me,  just as he will make all things right in the end and judge justly. Or as Fydor Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov,

“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”


Saturday: Waiting

Last night was much about waiting in the Emergency Room for a diagnosis of my friend – it was very difficult.  But one of the things we did to pass the time was talk about when he lived in Israel and experiencing Easter there.

The big thing in Jerusalem is not Good Friday, nor is it Easter Sunday. It’s Holy Saturday.

Holy what?

Exactly – here in the west we don’t celebrate Holy Saturday…because what would you do on this day? Nothing. Jesus didn’t die, nor did he rise again.

Which is exactly what those in Jerusalem are doing (or did) right now.  They gather together and await the flame to be passed from person to person to person and then walk out together.  It’s their belief that the Spirit came on this day and arose Jesus from the dead on Sunday.  The fire represents the Spirit.

But really, I think this day typifies what it means to be a Christian.  Philip Yancey, one of the most influential authors in my life, ends his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, with this profound truth:

The other two days have earned names on the church calendar: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet in areal sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. What the disciples experienced in small scale – three days, in grief over one man who had died on the cross – we now live through on cosmic scale. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillmentCan we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettos and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth? It’s Saturday on planet Earth; will Sunday ever come?

That dark, Golgothan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.

It’s a good thing to remember in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name. I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-ld live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana.  In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.”

Waiting is hard for me, but I’m learning. I’m learning to believe in hope, and to perservere that hope is certain and Resurrection Sunday is comin’.  That the not-yet of the Kingdom will be now, and that someday all sad things will be made untrue.

I’m waiting.

Unexpected Goodness: Good Friday

I’m blogging from the emergency room.  My housemate is feeling some severe abdominal pain, and we both think it’s appendicitis.  We’ll see what the diagnosis brings.  But it was certainly unexpected, to say the least.

So was the last ad on the waiting room television: “Viva Viagra.”  Is it me, or is that just weird to see in an emergency room?  Or the Hannah Montana film preview?  Unexepected, to say the least.

Good Friday is my favorite church holiday of the year.  It seems appropriate that something unexpected happened on the day – because it’s unexpected that we could ever call this day good.

Think about it for any length of time – why do we call this day good?  It is only seen as good in retrospect – but I wonder what it would have been called by those who experienced it as it happened.

I never celebrated Good Friday growing up – Maundy Thursday was great because it was when the Lord’s Supper was instituted, and we would arise early for the sunrise service for Easter Sunday (complete with a great potluck afterwards)

My church celebrates Good Friday in a very solemn way – with a Tenebrae service of darkness.  The service is at dusk, and the last sunlight is softened by the blue stained glass as darkness comes. The seven last words of Christ are read, with seven sets of seven candles lit throughout the sanctuary, With each word that is read, one of each candle set is darkened until complete silence and darkness sets in.  Through sad, mourning songs, my soul opens up in pain and I truly feel deep sorrow.

Kinda like my housemate right now – who is in a lot of pain.

I’m hoping that it isn’t appendicitis – but if it is, the pain led to a deeper understanding of the weight of what was real.

I wonder if the pain that was felt on the first Good Friday (when we didn’t know yet it was good) by Jesus was more about the physical suffering or about being abandoned by his Heavenly Father.  How could goodness be found in such tragedy?  The weight of what was real was Jesus screaming on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the first time in all time, the Son of God became God-forsaken.

There dying as a criminal between two thieves, bloodied and humiliated, was the God of the universe, who endured pain and shame until he committed himself into the hands of his loving Father.

How could this Friday be good? Because, as Jurgen Moltmann sais, “God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.”  The older I get, the closer I hope that day is.

On Feet and Maundy Thursday

I have a toenail fungus.

I finally got embarassed to the point of getting it fixed when a certain friend pranked me with a pedicure, and I felt so bad for the nail technician (or whatever you call the person who hacked away at my blocks of feet.)

It’s kinda gross – the nail gets all yellow and thick.  I finally went in about three weeks ago to get medication for it, and there is a sad side effect to the drug. Since the drug slightly effects the liver, I’m not able to enjoy adult beverages.  So, no tasty malt beverages for 3 months.

Feet are an interesting thing.  One of the common faux-pas I had in Egypt was crossing my legs and exposing the bottom of my foot to the person next to me.  It’s basically the equivalent of giving your neighbor the finger in the Middle East.

More than once I caught myself doing it, and learned how to apologize in Arabic real quick.

What is it with feet, anyway?  I was at a baby shower yesterday, and the father-to-be noticed that the first three cards all had little baby feet on them.  They are cute…

…until they look like mine when you get old.  All calloused with toenail fungus.

Ewww.

It makes me think even more about what happened on Maundy Thursday.  Maundy is a derivative of the latin mandum, or command.  It’s when Jesus washed his disciples feet and gave them the commandment to wash one another’s feet.

If you’ve never participated in a footwashing, it’s a trip.  There is nothing like looking at someone when you are sitting and they look you in the eye and wash your feet.  I remember clearly in Cairo when one of my students went out of her way to wash my feet.  I was speechless, and there is something that gets me everytime when I read John 13.

Why would Jesus ever stoop so low as to do the offensive task of washing his disciples feet? The line that gets me every time – “he loved them to the end.”

I’ve read each of the gospels probably close to 100 times. Maybe more. I’m still fascinated each time I read that line.

He loved them to the end. To the end of washing the feet of those who would deny him and betray him.

He loved them to the end. To the end of enduring their stupidity, yet welcoming them back and restoring them from their guilt and shame.

He loved them to the end.  To the end of allowing them to doubt and leave and return and believe.

He loved them to the end.

Facebook & Fasting: A Sacramental Life

I grew up in a great church, but there were some things I didn’t really understand.  Like the church calendar.  The only thing I really got as a kid was the whole advent thing – primarily because I had to watch my younger brother and sister as kids fight over who would put up the December 24 ornament on the homemade advent calendar Mom made.  It almost came to blows sometimes…and you wanna watch out for my sister. She can hold her own.

But outside of advent – Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost…none of those really made any sense to me.  If you had put me under durress, I probably would have been honest and said that Pentecost was for those weird people with the Holy Spirit  (I was wrong), all I thought about Epiphany is that it was a good idea (I was ignorant), and Lent was what those “cathlicks (in Flannery O’Connor style)” did.  And people were always giving up stuff for Lent (I was uniformed).  In college, some of my catholic brothers gave up drinking, smoking; one gave up pornography, etc.  I saw it as a time to give up vices for a short time in order to pick them up again later after Easter.

Plus, I grew up a good evangelical kid – and I was told that we weren’t under the law, we were under grace. And we didn’t have to do those things anymore – we could be free in Christ.  So, all that other stuff was just extra.

So because of my experience, I had a pretty lame understanding of some of the deepest wells of spiritual disciplines available – particularly during the lent season.  Introduced to these in a small Vineyard Church plant in Hyde Park, and fleshing them out through becoming a Presbyterian has helped me understand some of the rhythms of the church calendar, and the power of sacramental theology – that is, an embodied spirituality. Augustine called the sacrament a “visible sign of an invisible reality.” 

I want to be careful and not think of sacraments simply as symbols – they aren’t.  Gordon Smith helped me understand this.  Think of a wedding ring.  Ask a married person, and that isn’t just a symbol. It brings them back to the moment when they put on their best clothes they ever wore, looked at their spouse, and realized this was who they wanted to spend the rest of their life with.  It’s not just a symbol – it reflects a deeper reality. 

If we think of persons as having primarily one of three centers of intellegnce, residing in the head, heart, and gut (look at the Enneagram for more on this) most of our spirituality in the Evangelical subculture focuses on the head and the heart.  We have amazing theologians who have written billions of words that help us understand more about God.  We have beautiful music and art that gives strong emotional reactions that help us be in touch with the feelings inside of us.  But for those who have intellegence in intution, the gut, there is a different kind of spirituality that typically connects well: embodied spirituality.  Sacramental spirituality.  We feel it, and our will is brought to the forefront and we meet God in a different way.

So in recent years, I’ve developed a fondness for the eucharist/communion/Lord’s table that I’ve not had before. It means a lot to me.  I enjoy Catholic mass because it centers on the Eucharist – not the head sermon, not the heart music.  It focuses on the body sacrament – a visible sign of an invisible reality.  

Lent seen as giving up a vice is incomplete to a sacramental spirituality.  It makes fasting a means to an end – where, as Scot McKnight says, fasting should be a response to a divine moment.  Grieving, really.  Grieving to respond to sin in our lives, broken relationships between us, and injustice all around the world. We are embodying the reality of our planet, and we use fasting to tell our bodies how the world hungers for righteousness and justice.

So here’s how I’m working this out in my life: I’m abstaining from facebook for Lent.  Sorry to my friends, but I’m realizing that as much as I want to think I’m indepenent of what others think of me, I still play to the crowd sometimes.  I got in the Facebook game at first because a student who didn’t return my emails said only his professors communicated through email.  I didn’t want to be seen in the category of curmodgony old professor, so I caved.  Now it’s a part of my routine, and even too much so sometimes.  After reading Al Hsu’s recent blog and Newsweek, I was further convicted and realized it’s time to take a break and abstain from Facebook for a good while.

I will make an exception on Sunday, because in the Lenten tradition, Sundays are times where you celebrate.  And I will spend some time on Facebook for Sunday to reconnect with the friends I so dearly love.  But I don’t want to be seen for my status update or my pithy comments – I want to be known for my character and perhaps abstaining for a time will be helpful for my soul.

I’ll also be fasting once a week, each of those days spending time identifying with the oppressed of another continent.  Using fasting as a sacramental response to the injustice of the world will help me remember that it’s a privilege to choose what and when I eat, and the freedoms I have aren’t to be taken for granted.

This is the most extensive preparation for Lent I’ve ever made – so I hope for it to be an enriching experience where I feel the absence of something for the sake of grieving the loss, and clinging to God in the process so that my heart, mind, and body may be fully in tune with reality – a sacramental life.

What does an elder do, anyway? How does one “eld?”

My background growing up in church was anything but formal.  It started in Fulton Church, the church my grandfather pastored and I grew up in.  When he arrived there in 1962, they rustled up everyone and their brother and had all of 22 people show up for his first service.  7 of them were Bilhorns.

There they all showed up – some in their boots from milking, others who got a little more dressed up.

The church grew, but it kept it’s down-to-earth flavor.  Proof? Dad still plays the banjo once a month to lead singing in church.

Yes, a banjo.

During my student years at IIT, I had great experiences two racially and socio-economically diverse churches on the West Side of Chicago, and another phenomenal experience being a part of the Hyde Park Vineyard in it’s early planting years.  All of which where pretty raw in nature – and I suppose it was that that attracted me most.  I’m not one who cares a whole lot about things that glitter.

So if you had ever told me that I would grow up in a church in the country, mature in the church in the hood, and I wondered what was next.  When I moved to the North Side of Chicago and was to select a church, it took me a good eight months to find a place.

Boy was I surprised when I felt a tug inside when I started attending a Presbyterian Church in Evanston.  I attend a men’s breakfast to find out more about the church, and this retired Presbyterian Pastor named Lou decides to pray for me as I am launching a new season and career in my life in ministry among college students.  I tingle a little bit and sense that for some reason I was called to be here.

I could barely spell Presbyterian, and didn’t really even know what it meant.  The only thing I knew about being a Presbyterian is that they had the nickname, “Frozen Chosen.”    But I walked into this beautiful, ornate sanctuary with stain glass windows that I could stare at for hours, there was something that just drew me to the beauty.

There was more than just the church building.  Presbyterians follow a liturgy and the church calendar – something at first I thought was completely inauthentic at first.  But as I read prayers of confession, as I learned to follow the church calendar, I learned more about rhythms and seasons and what once seemed like confining wrote prayers have become freedom to give words to my deepest feelings.  A sense of beauty in architecture, art, music, literature, and rhythm have served as a firm foundation despite having transition all around me all the time.

On Sunday, I was installed as an elder of the Presbyterian church where I worship.  I was a little surpised to be asked, because I’m much younger than the other elders and taking a job that defined me as old is not what first came to mind.  But as I prayed, thought, talked with friends, I realized how much I do love my church and what a privilege it is to serve in it.

I wondered what it really meant to be an elder as I walked into the service – but that day I seemed to get my answer. I walked in and sat down and one of my students saw me after being abroad for the fall.  Another friend from a group I met with weekly sat next to me with her 2-year-old son who decided to give me the silent treatment.  Another friend from longer ago was visiting back at the church after he moved away and we spoke briefly on his new location.  A friend who I knew when was single, crying that she wasn’t dating anyone, got married a couple years back and announces to me that she’s pregnant.  I give her a big hug and we agree that celebration is in order.

I stand and walk to the front of the church during the installation of elders and go through my vows.  The remaining elders, past and present, come pray for me, including Lou.  He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “I got your back, Andy.”

I smile, and realize later the irony in the scene.  It was Lou’s prayer that God used to touch my heart, and now as I’m being ordained to lead in the church, Lou is once again the one praying behind me.

After the service, I continue to talk with friends in the church.  Others greet me who have never met me and assume I’m important now that I’m an elder.  Hardly.  If they only knew…

What does an elder do, anyway?  How does one “eld?”

I know the qualificaitions from the Scriptures, but as I sit and think about it, it’s really it’s more about who I am than what I do.  And as I reflect on my conversations the folks in my church, I remember it’s genuine friendship that is essential in following Jesus.  Pursuing God in the company of friends is one of the greatest gifts we have as we have the opportunity to truly know others and be known.  We need each other.

Whether it’s in the country in Fulton with banjos, the underserved west side of Chicago with hip-hop, the diversity of Hyde Park unplugged, the slums of Cairo and Mexico City with clapping of hands and singing, the villages of Uganda with hand drums, or among the over-educated in the North Shore with a pipe organ and liturgy, I’ve seen that the church is at it’s best when it loves Jesus enough to have authentic friendship where we know others and are truly known and fulfilling God’s purposes in the world.

However one “elds” that is what I hope to understand better in the next few years.


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