You gotta Cooperate with Change

Change_ExitSignI’m tired. Not physically, but mentally, maybe a bit emotionally. And I know why. I’ve deliberately put myself in a place requiring a change in my attitudes, in my perspective, in my limited world-view. It’s part of the “Radical Acceptance” journey. But I’ll tell you what: change is tiring. It can be exhausting. And part of me really just wants to back out, withdraw to my former comfort zone, and find some peace.

Peace is good. But it’s a state of mind, not a goal. I mean, if we seek to always “find” peace, we’ll never put ourselves in any kind of stressful situation — situations that cause us to grow. Instead, we’re supposed to stretch ourselves, step outside our immediate and little lives, and wrestle with life. It’s in the struggles that we discover our true character, and it’s only after a great struggle that we can really appreciate our victory. And somehow, by holding God’s hand through the struggle, through the unsettling changes, there we find peace and security. He is there with us in it all, and we can always fall back on his love and support even when everything around us is being shaken up. We find peace in him, not necessarily in our circumstances.

So, I can’t back out. I can’t go back to my familiar church, to comfy environments, and non-threatening people. I’ve whined too often in the past (at least in my prayers) about wanting change, wanting something new, to see God’s love for real and to experience his power and his presence outside just my prayer closet. People who work with the poor and oppressed, the Mother Teresa types, often talk about finding Jesus in the faces of those they serve. I’m not in their league. I haven’t put myself out that far. I’m just stretching a LITTLE right now. And I’ve met some truly wonderful people, people with genuine hearts of gold, people who care, and who desire to serve God and their fellow human beings. Along with them, I’ve met some who are a little rough around the edges, and I often seem to slice my fingers a little on those edges. But hey, I’m no well-polished saint by any means either, and I know some them have grimaced at some of my comments, been abrased by my rough edges. Guess we’re in a mutual blood bath right now. Eventually, I expect, calluses will form on both sides, and we’ll get used to each other. But for now, I just have to gut it out. Hey, if they can put up with me, I can certainly learn to accommodate some of them. Who knows? When I can truly walk in that “radical acceptance”, when I can genuinely love people without wanting to trim off the edges that grate me the wrong way, or recast them in my own image, I may actually become of some use or make some kind of real contribution.

My mom sent an email today, commenting on Oswald Chamber’s remark that “No amount of enthusiasm (worked up zeal) will ever stand up to the strain that Jesus Christ will put upon His servant.”  She said that a desire to serve God is not enough to keep us going, nor will our lives demonstrate a real love of God. Our desire alone will not be able “to stand the strain” that Christ puts upon His disciples. We need a revelation of Him, who He is, and what He has done for the sin problem in our lives. We need the Holy Spirit moving and working within us, motivating us. In other words, we can’t do it in our own strength.

And I guess that’s where I’m at right now. I was motivated by my desire to see a change in my life, to actually make a difference in this world and in the lives of people around me. I wanted to be an agent for the Kingdom, a useful tool in God’s hands to help his people. And prompted by a little revelation that I needed to learn how to love people as they are (not as how I’d like them to be), I’ve stepped out a little, and moved into a circle where I see God at work, where I know his heart is. But God’s work can be ugly sometimes — at least to us. It’s definitely got its challenges. And I’ve gone as far as my own “desire” can take me. I need to experience the master’s hand recrafting my heart, touching my mind, opening my eyes. I need the Holy Spirit working within me before he can effectively work through me. I’m gonna need his strength to get me through to where he wants me, to where he can use me. Because I’m tired. Change is hard, and sometimes I just don’t want to exert the energy.

But nothing worth anything ever comes easily. Change takes guts. Success, achievement, and a fulfilling life don’t come to those who sit comfortably on the sidelines. If you want to make a real difference, you gotta stop resisting the stretching, and cooperate with the change. Even when you’re tired. Reminds me of what the Apostle Paul said when he was worn out: “when I am weak, then am I strong.”  I’m on a new road now, changing lanes from ones that point to familiarity, comfort and security, to ones that lead to new horizons, increased usefulness, and greater personal fulfillment.  I’m taking the exit out of familiar territory.  And yeah, it’s a little taxing.  A little more demanding.  But the “same ole, same ole” just isn’t working for me anymore.  And I’m really curious to see where this road takes me.  I’m gonna need more of God’s strength to see me through some of the turns ahead, but I guess that’s not a bad road to be on after all.

Holy Kiss — Holy Cow !

This little adventure into “Radical Acceptance” and checking out this new church is making me think about a lot of things, and rethink a lot of others. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not generally a touchy-feely kind of guy. At least not with people I barely know, and certainly not with people I’ve just met. So if I meet you in person for the first time, you can safely expect a hardy handshake. Pastor Neill is not like me. He’s a hugger. Worse, he’s a kisser. Me? I tend to think that kissing is reserved for loved ones. It’s an act of intimacy shared with only a few — despite my years in the Middle East where public displays of affection were the norm. So that first Sunday at church as the congregants filed out the door, and the pastor normally (in my experience) shakes everybody’s hand, offering a kind word on the way out, I was caught a little off guard when Neill gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I quickly regained a grip on my composure, smiled, made some off the cuff pleasant remark, and went on my merry way. Okay, so that’s just him; no big deal. A little odd, maybe, but no big deal.

I’ve had a few lunches with him since then, trying to get to know the guy better, to figure out what’s his deal, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and most importantly, if I want to hitch my wagon to this train. So I’ve got questions. And with years of theological training under my belt, I’ve got a lot of them. Sure, I was knocked off balance by the audacity of his vision and approach to church, but was it really kosher enough for me to make this my new home? And the hugging/kissing issue came up during one of those lunchtime conversations. I don’t remember his precise explanation so I may be mischaracterizing him, but I was left with the impression that it all ties back to making people feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. But the truth might just be a lot simpler: that’s just the kind of guy he is and how he expresses himself.

I didn’t waste a whole lot of time analyzing it. Like I said, it might not be my style, but it’s really no big deal. But today I did start thinking about it again. Isn’t this really inappropriate? Isn’t it crossing that line of intimacy that should be reserved for loved ones?

And then it came to me. That is exactly the case. The whole mission of the Church should be to bring God’s love into this world, to show people that they are accepted and loved, and to mirror that love in real life. As a pastor, Neill is the visible representation of Jesus on the earth. We all are, of course, but as “leader” of a church, he is in a more conspicuous role. For better or for worse, people do look at spiritual leaders differently; they expect more of them and hold them to a higher standard. And in that capacity, as the representative of Jesus, shouldn’t he act like Jesus would? And doesn’t God actually (not just conceptually) love everyone? Wouldn’t he want them welcomed and embraced as intimately as he knows them? Suddenly I saw the kissing in a whole new light. Jesus knows every person who walks in those church doors, and he loves them dearly. Wouldn’t he kiss them? (I mean, I know he’d kiss me, right?) If the pastor’s goal — our goal — is to tend the flock in Jesus’ place, then what better way to show the people that they are loved than to treat them like close family? What better way in this world of hurting people to say “you are loved” — even though we’ve just met?

Okay, I’m not too likely to pick up this habit, but it does make me want to reconsider hugging. On any given day, a significant percentage of the people sitting in the pews will be hurting, will be going through some hard times. And in congregations comprised of people regularly rejected by family, society, and especially the church, that percentage will be even higher. The need to model God’s love is all the more urgent. And an innocent hug or kiss on the cheek becomes all the more significant. It might be just what they need at that moment.

So the next time the pastor gives me the holy greeting, I’ll try to restrain my initial reaction, accept it for what it is, and offer up a quiet prayer. “Thank you, Jesus, for your love.”

Just one more factor to consider in rethinking how we do church.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Thes 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)

Adventures in Radical Acceptance (Round 2)

shocked_face50“Tried out a new church today. Jesus was there. It was a very nice welcome.” That was my Facebook status a few weeks ago after I’d decided to strike out on a new adventure.

When you’re restless, when you’re bored, when you’re tired of the same thing day in and day out, you start looking for something new. And that’s where I’ve been, oh, I don’t know, for the past two years or so. And with that latest revelation that my next step would either be helped or hindered by how I handled “radical acceptance”, I was keeping my eyes (and my options) open. So I decided to start by trying out a few new churches. I like to do that periodically anyway, just to keep tabs on what’s out there, but now I was doing it with an eye toward a real change, not just a temporary change of scenery.

I should first clarify that my ecclesiastical wandering eye was not the result of some turmoil or blow up at the church I’d been attending for the past five or six years. I wasn’t mad at the pastor, there were no quarrels with members of the congregation, and there was no conflict driving me out. I was simply looking to stretch myself, find new growing opportunities, and I’d become comfortable and too complacent there. It was time to shake the tree a little and see what fell out.

So after revisiting churches I’d attended years ago, and checking out a new high-energy type church a few times, I decided to try something more along the lines of “radical”. I’d seen advertisements for a congregation I instinctively knew I’d be really uncomfortable with, and I decided to go. It was a small, Bible-believing church with an emphasis on outreach to the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community. Over the years, I’d been to a few gay-affirming churches, and they’d always kinda left me wondering why they bothered. Okay, that’s a bit judgmental and harsh, I know. They tended to be more liturgical, less Bible-based preaching, and generally more socially or politically activist. That’s fine, I guess, but it’s just not my style. And I fully expected this new church to fall neatly in that same box. I got there just a bit late, wanting to kind of sneak in attracting as little attention as possible, do my reconnaissance unnoticed, and escape with another undercover adventure under my belt. But it was not to be.

When I arrived, I was stopped on the stoop by several of the congregants, and engaged in some light banter. That in itself was remarkable. I’m usually one of those guys who barely tolerates the dreaded “everyone, turn to your neighbor and greet them in the love of the Lord” moments, screwing a smile on my face, and counting the seconds till I can sit back down in my seat and be left alone. But these people were genuinely friendly, and we actually had real conversations, not just idle words to fill in the gaps before service began. That was nice; it was refreshing. Hey, real human interaction. Who would have thought? Then came the music part of the service. An electric piano, drums, and three or four worship leaders led with a mixed list of songs, hymns, and choruses. And as we were singing, the atmosphere suddenly got warm, heavy and peaceful. And there it was, thick as a blanket covering all of us: the tangible presence of God. People behind me began weeping, I was in communion with my God, and the pastor and leaders up front recognized the presence and honored it. They didn’t rush on with their program. The didn’t fiddle with their microphones uncomfortably, they didn’t tell us to sit down to start the announcements or take up the offering. They simply began to sing some of the same songs over again, lingering in the honey air, not wanting to break their attention off the love that was flowing from us to God and so evidently from God back to us.

Knowing that the church was a haven for the gay community, I’d expected to be put off by people fitting the wide range of stereotypes. Obviously, it’s not because I disapprove of homosexuality, or even find it theologically problematic. I’ve done the Bible study, and God has spoken to me specifically about it, so I’ve long since made my peace with this controversial topic in the Body of Christ. But I’ll admit that I am uncomfortable around some of the more … shall we say, flamboyant … aspects associated with it. I’m blinded by the outward appearance, disturbed by some of the unconventional behavior, and find it difficult to connect with the real people underneath. And this is what I’d come to confront. “Radical acceptance”, remember? Could I step into this situation and see people as Jesus did? Could I overcome my own superficial prejudices and let the love of God do its thing?

There I was, surrounded by all kinds of people: gay and straight couples, friends and families, mothers and children. And yes, there were those blatantly fitting the stereotypes that made me uncomfortable. And the presence of God was there, placing his divine seal of approval on them all. These were his beloved children, people whose hearts cried out to him, who raised their voices in praise and worship of him, men and women who loved him because of his grace to them — grace denied them in other churches. And I felt comfortable there in the house of God. Jesus was there in a very real way, how could I not?

Later, I had lunch with the pastor and several of the church members, and as we talked I grew more convinced that God was actively at work. This was real. This wasn’t just a religious performance or going through motions. The pastor spoke about a few of his plans that shocked me, disturbed me, stretching my perspective in very unsettling ways. Yet, picking my jaw up off the floor, I found myself continually smiling. These were just the kinds of things Jesus would do. Yes, they were unconventional, even questionable, challenging my views of the Church, but they were motivated at the core by a love for people, for a desire to bring them to Jesus. Maybe I’ll risk offending some of my readers and write about them later, but I was excited by the vision, by its radicalness. By the heart of Jesus.

I’ve still got my boatload of issues to work through. That experience didn’t knock all my roadblocks down in a single day. But I recognized the stretching. I felt my heart being expanded, my narrow vision being broadened — and God’s fingerprints on the entire experience. The truth is, if you want to be of real service to God, you’ve got to love his people, and you cannot shy away from controversy. Fear of shaking things up or stirring up a little attention will only hold you back. And that means overcoming your hang-ups, and learning to love people unconditionally. It means embracing radical acceptance.

I’d wanted to shake up the tree a little, and I did. This was a step in that direction. And I knew I’d be back for more. Because when it comes to God’s Number One priority — people — a little “radical” is not something to avoid. It’s a God thing, and it’s good.