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The World Doesn’t Need Good Pray-ers

A few weeks ago as we closed out our journey on prayer at Open Door East Bay, I said that the goal of life with God is not to be a good pray-er.

The disciples didn’t ask Jesus how to pray because they wanted to pray well; they asked him how to pray because his life shifted expectations and at every turn tilted orbits toward a better world, and they wanted to live that kind of life.

The world doesn’t, ultimately, need good prayers or good pray-ers.

The world needs people who walk in the Way of Jesus – which is to say people who step courageously toward justice, are willing to sacrifice for the sake of others, and tilt orbits toward a better world.

Prayer can be a means to that end, but it is not the end.

So pray, yes, pray – not as the satisfaction of responsibility (“I’ve prayed, that’s all I need to do.”) but as an onramp to action (“what must I do? give me the courage to do that. (and then, what’s next?)”).

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Bivocational, Brokenhearted Theology, California, Church, Equipping, Leadership, Meaning, Ministry, Prayer, Quotes, Ramblings, Resurrection, The Saints, Uncategorized, Urban, Worship

Finding Solitude in the City (A Los Angeles Urban Retreat)

Having lived in Los Angeles for 7 years now, I most often think of “retreat” as a retreat from the city. I love the spirituality that is so tangible in a natural setting and often find that tangibility muffled or muted in the dense, urban setting of Los Angeles. But it’s possible to retreat in the midst of an urban jungle. Late last fall, I took most of a day for a silent, personal retreat in the midst of downtown Los Angeles. Below are some reflections on that day offered in hope that you might find space reflection in your life even if you’re trapped in the middle of a city.

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After considering finding space at a retreat center or monastery, I decided instead to retreat in the midst of downtown Los Angeles. While not the typical or idyllic retreat setting, I wanted to experiment with being present with God in the midst of a familiar urban setting. So I spent a day downtown at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

My retreat began as I exited Union Station in downtown and set out walking the mile from the station to the Cathedral. In some ways, it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage. As I walked uphill, I saw the Cathedral bell tower towering over the downtown skyline and found myself reflecting on the Psalms of Ascent and the journey of pilgrims traveling upward to Jerusalem.

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In addition to practicing silence and presence with God, I also wanted to listen and respond to God through art and creativity. Having previously spent time in the Cathedral, I knew some of the major artistic features in the cathedral (specifically the Communion of Saints and Baptistery tapestries) and planned times of reflection around them. I spent time in the small rotating art galleries placed around the sanctuary and also captured some of the features of the Cathedral with my camera. After my retreat, I read an article from Time about the construction of the Cathedral and was not surprised to find the architect designed the Cathedral in order to “provide [the] community with a sense of monastic enclosure.” 

The Time article continues:

Monasticism may seem an odd inspiration for a building as central to the larger community as a cathedral, but it’s key to this one, a high-walled enclosure in ocher concrete with a minimum of window or entryway cuts in its lower half. The mostly windowless exterior and the Spanish-mission-style walls that surround the entire compound can make the church seem to be holding itself apart from the city. The edgy silhouette is both familiar and new, not a postmodern replica of Spanish missions but a sophisticated recollection of them, one filtered through the jagged memory of the urbanized era that followed theirs. At its skyline it has the excitement of the new, but it beckons you into the past.

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During the retreat, I spent just under five hours in silence. I entered the Cathedral and sat for the last ten minutes of the mid-day mass, remaining in the sanctuary for some time reflecting on the repeated refrain sung during the Eucharist: “I am filled with Christ and it brings me joy.” I found my prayers centering on this line throughout the day, recognizing areas of my life that are neither marked by the fullness nor joy of Christ and praying for God’s fullness and presence in these areas.

The words of Henri Nouwen were also on my mind throughout the retreat. I read In the Name of Jesus for the first time in college and have returned to it many times throughout my ministry experience. As I read in preparation for the retreat, I marked and underlined many selections of the text glossed over during previous reads. This was encouraging to me, as it signaled growth and new life in my leadership despite recurring fears of inefficacy and stagnation. It also gave me greater appreciation for the depth of Nouwen’s insights for the journey of the Christian leader.

Specifically, I was struck by Nouwen’s words that “often…priests and ministers are the least confessing people in the Christian community.” Despite regular practices of confession built into the rhythm of my church community, I identified areas of my heart I have not opened up in a posture of confession and, listing these in my journal, hoped and prayed that I might experience the “reconciling and healing presence of Jesus” in these areas. Later in the retreat, I walked through the Cathedral’s mausoleum, I connected items on my list with feelings and experiences of death, loss, pain and grief in my journey.

While I found it helpful to reflect specifically and intentionally about pain and brokenness, I also attempted to balance my retreat with encouragement and rejuvenation. Nouwen writes about the mystery of leadership, that “leadership, for a large part, means being led.” Though it is a great struggle for me, one of the core hopes my co-pastors and I have for our congregation is that we would understand and grow in their identity as a child of God. As God’s child, I can fall into the arms of a loving and patient father and grow as a follower even as I lead in my congregation.

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Closing out my retreat by focusing on growing as a follower, I finished my time near the Cathedral’s baptistery where five tapestries nearly fifty feet tall portray John’s baptism of Jesus where God offered these loving and affirming words to Jesus: “this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). After time of critical reflection on brokenness, loss, and pain, I prayed that fresh reflections on this understanding and experience of God’s love would continue to provide encouragement and affirmation for my ministry going forward.

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Is Life Cheap in Norway? (Reflecting on Anders Breivik, John Piper, and Justice)

John Piper, a notable pastor/theologian from Minnesota, writes this:

Anders Breivik’s sentence for killing 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011 is outrageous. He was deemed sane and sentenced to serve 21 years in prison “in a three-cell suite of rooms equipped with exercise equipment, a television and a laptop.” That’s 100 days of posh prison time for each person he murdered, with a legal release possible at age 53. Life is cheap in Norway.

I disagree.

And I realize I’m not just disagreeing with John Piper but also with C.S. Lewis (whose essay “The Humanitarian  Theory of Punishment” Piper draws from in the above-quoted article). And if disagreeing with C.S. Lewis was not bad enough, I am also probably disagreeing with many Christians and many, many more Americans who would have called (or who did call) for the death penalty for Breivik.
But I have to disagree because all our attempts at justice – whether it be community service hours, prison time, or the death penalty – fall short. And they don’t just fall short because we lack complete knowledge over the situations we’re judging. They fall short because our attempts at justice are rooted in fear and vengeance. To speak of “justice being served” is nothing but a myth on this side of redemption.

This is not to belittle the work of lawyers, judges, police officers, etc. I have friends and family who diligently and faithfully serve in often-thankless no-win situations. But there are limits to what we can accomplish in our “justice system.”

Back to Norway. When the Breivik sentence was released, I was terribly impressed by the interviews and reactions from the Norwegian people. Heard with American ears, their commitment to a system with an end-goal of rehabilitation was highly unusual. Even with such a high-profile and costly crime, those I heard respond seemed to feel this was a fair and adequate sentence. Even in a situation, like Breivik’s, where rehabilitation may be unlikely, it was still held up as the ideal.

There can be no “justice” rendered by humans for the murder of 77 people. There is nothing we can do to balance those scales. The Norwegian system recognizes that and instead aims for the loftier and much more difficult goal of rehabilitation.

Justice is us trying to play God.

Rehabilitation is us trying to leverage our skills, abilities, and talents towards God’s kingdom coming more fully on earth (as it is in heaven).

What do you think?

I realize I’ve weighed into some areas outside my expertise – i.e. the legal/judicial system of a foreign country…so if you feel I’ve missed something, please let me know!

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Brokenhearted Theology, Leadership, Meaning, Ministry, Ramblings, Relational, Resurrection, Teaching, Uncategorized, Urban, Worship

Good Tasting Theology: The Dine and Dash, Open-Table Eucharist

In the middle of our weekly worship gathering at Kairos Hollywood this past Sunday, during our teaching/scripture time (i.e. the time when we sit and listen as a community), one of our neighbors without a home/house walked in. Being in an urban area and a low-key relational church community, having someone who is homeless come by or become a regular part of our community is not terribly unusual. We have wooden swinging doors leading into our gathering space and they creak a bit. So you can hear when it’s a bit windy outside or when someone comes in. Occasionally, a weaker brother or sister will hear a creak and take a peak to see who’s coming in or who’s leaving (just kidding, we all do this every time we hear the doors).

Anyway, this neighbor who has come around the last few weeks walked in during the middle of the service and stood in back for a while. After a minute, he approached our communion table which is set up in the center of the room behind our seating area. I was sitting near the back and watched him go up to the table and look for a minute before taking a piece of bread (gluten-free!) and taking a big bite. Most people couldn’t or didn’t see him, but I caught the eyes of a few others and exchanged smiles as he then, after few seconds, lifted the cup to his mouth and took a big sip. That widened a few eyes since we’re a community of dippers not sippers (to serve the germophobes in our midst). And then he walked out of the room.

This all went down as we’re winding down our time of listening and moving back into a time of response – through prayer, through singing, and….through participation in the eucharist. The same eucharist elements that had been snuck a bit early by the guy who’d dined and dashed.

Our community is a thoughtful and theologically engaged community. We think and talk through things quite a bit, and we try to be intentional about the richness and depth of our practices. It’s my hope (and a big part of my job!) to make sure we’re engaged in these things – thinking, talking, and experimenting through them. We tackled some of our thoughts about communion a few years back, and we never landed concretely on whether we practice an ‘Open Table’ (where all are welcome, regardless of confessed belief) or a ‘Closed Table’ (where the eucharist is restricted or reserved for those who have made a confession of faith).

I lean towards being an Open-Table guy myself but certainly understand the reasoning behind Closed Table’rs – and, if I had to guess, our community would land somewhere in the middle. But even if we were strictly a Closed-Table-community, this Sunday we would have practiced an Open Table.

Sometimes our best theology – our best thinking about God, the church, and the world – is set aside because someone walks in and takes a bite out of our ideals. Sometimes our best theology has to take a backseat to embodied reality and practice in our context.

I’m not sure whether our neighbor understood the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper or the sacramental nature of the act that he participated in. But he partook in it.

His story and our story were shared and wrapped up together in God’s story that we remember and celebrate every week when we gather at the Table.

And I think that’s pretty good tasting theology.

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Buechner on Theology

Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study humans and their ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.

– Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, 295

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On faithfulness and the church

Thus in a world of competing and often violent interests, the most faithful service the church can render is to embody the weakness and humility of its crucified Lord, thereby disclosing a fundamental truth about human beings and society: without true worship and love for God, there can be no human fulfillment, happiness, or genuine communal life.  To paraphrase Augustine, we are made in the image of God, and we are restless until we find rest – peace – in God. 

– Michael Pasquarello III, Sacred Rhetoric: Preaching as a Theological  and Pastoral  Practice of the Church, 34. 
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On crisis and liberation

I imagine, moreover, that the reason we need to think about this story of the [burning] bush and its unsettling invitation is that our society is in deep crisis.  It is clear that most of our old patterns of life together are not working.  This is indeed a time when the church may gather together in order to think and pray and act differently.  We are people who believe that God's old promises for well being and justice still persist in the world.  We are people who believe that God's resolve for liberation in the world and of the world is a resolve of urgency that still pertains to the abused.  And we are the ones who know that the promissory, liberating work of God devolves upon folk who do God's work in the world.  

– Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, 22-23. 
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