Another unemployment lesson

In my last post, I shared some lessons that I learned through 7 months of uncertain unemployment. Of course, the truth is: I’m still learning. And the lessons continue. Here’s one more that I don’t want to slip through the cracks, unnoticed.

And this lesson starts with this simple idea: Be careful of pious phrases. We church people are really good at church lingo and spiritual slogans. Sometimes these phrases are true, and deeply so. But sometimes we speak words we want to be true, we hope are true, but they’re not — at least not in the way that we think.

So, sometimes we say things like: Don’t worry. Just trust God. Pray harder.

Are these words true? Of course. Nobody wants to worry. We all need to trust God more. And who among us thinks our prayer life is ever good enough?

Speaking phrases like this, while true, are usually not helpful. They can often have the opposite effect of what’s intended — instead of helping people connect more with God, they may in fact make them feel as if they are the reason for their struggles. If only I had more faith, or prayed more diligently, I wouldn’t be in this situation.

No. No. No. That’s not how life works. We don’t pray ourselves out of bad stuff, and into good stuff. Instead, we learn to trust God IN the difficult circumstances; oftentimes it’s the hard stretches of life that stretch us beyond pious platitudes, into surrender. A surrender that recognizes that, more than quick fixes and simplistic answers, we need to simply hold onto God right where are. And sometimes it’s a steel cable that seems to bind us to God; and other times, it feels like a thread.

In fact, maybe what God wants most for us during times of duress isn’t clear; maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that He wants us to cling to Him, to trust Him in the darkness, and just take the next step.

Which leads to a couple of other phrases I find of questionable help: God’s got a plan. It will all work out in the end.

Just the other day, I heard about a person in prison for his faith in a country known for its opposition to Christianity. Separated from his family, he has faced 361 days a year in solitary confinement. Now, imagine that on one of the 4 days a year he is given an opportunity to talk with people, you are one of the ones who gets to visit with him. What are you going to say? God’s got a plan? It will all work out in the end?

What if he never gets released from prison; never gets to see his family again? Is that God’s plan? Is that how it all works out in the end?

Now, on the one hand, we have faith that God is working through even the worst of circumstances. And we know that things will work out in the end — even if the end is the End of All Things. But lots of bad stuff happens in this life, and some of it doesn’t get fixed in this life. God will work out all things in the end; we have this promise. But it might be that, in this life, His plan is not to open all the doors we want opened; to make smooth all our paths; to make clear every step we take. In fact, as I heard John Ortberg say recently: sometimes God’s plan is that we use the freedom he has given us to make a choice. It might not be the best choice; it may not take us down the path we hoped it would. But, as Ortberg points out, God is more concerned with our character than our circumstances. And His plan might be less about walking through the “right door,” than it is about the kind of person we are becoming as we make the choices that take us through the doors we decide to walk through.

But overall, my concern isn’t so much with what well-meaning people say; it’s why. And often, I think we toss around pious phrases to people because we don’t know what else to say. In fact, I think that oftentimes we speak a spiritual cliche — like, at a funeral home: She’s in a better place — because we are trying to remind ourselves that this is true. Standing next to the casket with a mom who has to bury her child, we don’t know what to say because there is no way to explain this.

So I wonder if what we are doing when we offer a religious cliche is, in fact, speaking to ourselves. Running into a friend whose husband just walked out, we have no answers. So we give voice to what WE need to hear. It’ll be okay. God’s in control. All things work for good, after all. Speaking these words to our friend, we are in fact also seeking to console ourselves; to make sense of the senseless. To try to hold onto truth when the world is falling apart.

But when we stop trying to speak to ourselves, or come up with the perfect words to speak to our friend in need, we might find this deeper truth: what people need in times of need are not words, but someone to walk with them. Not pious phrases, but presence. Because, it’s easier to drop by and say something spiritual than it is to come alongside and do something practical. It’s easier to speak a cliche than it is to walk with them through the uncertainty.

As I think about the season of life I just went through, the people who were the most helpful were the ones who didn’t have all the answers — but were there for me, anyway. There were times they didn’t know what to say — but they stayed there for me, anyway. The reminded me of biblical truth, by words, yes; but even more by what they did. They showed me God is faithful by their faithfulness.

There was an episode of “CSI: New York” about 10 years ago where one of the detectives, Mac Taylor, befriends a neighborhood kid. The two are walking home from a community event when Mac notices a thief escaping the scene of a crime. He tells Ruben, the 10-year-old boy, to go straight home. The detective begins to chase the criminal, but doesn’t catch him.

Later, Mac is at the crime lab, and he sees Ruben’s dead body; he had been killed by the escaping thief. As he walks away, one of the female cops come up to Mac, looking for advice. What do I say?, she asks. I’m not good at this kind of thing. To which Mac Taylor responds, Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing.

Here’s the truth: None of us is good at that kind of thing. But not having the right words to say is, I believe, one of the first steps in acknowledging that words don’t change the reality that life can sometimes be downright crappy. Recognizing that doesn’t mean that our faith is weak or shallow; it doesn’t mean that God isn’t real and present. It simply grabs hold of the fact that maybe, when we stop talking, we give ourselves, and those walking through the Valley, an opportunity beyond hearing truth — to experiencing it.

For when we were in our deepest valley, when we as creation were in our greatest need, God Himself moved beyond words, to presence. God moved beyond giving Law, to showing Love. For when we had no answer, God answered most clearly, showed Himself most powerfully, by walking with us, becoming one of us — for the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.

Unemployment Lessons

I recently started a new job, working for an organization called Hope Collaborative. HC provides in-school mentoring for students in need of extra support; my role will be to help recruit, train, and encourage mentors as they come alongside students. I’ll also serve as a resource to schools as they seek to help at-risk students. I’m excited about the opportunity, and grateful to have it.

But getting to this point — well, it has been a unique season. It began last August when I walked away from a very good position at a very good church to step into the Great Unknown. At one of the job interviews I’ve had since last summer, one person in the room said, “Life involves risk. Tell about a time you took a risk.”

The first answer that came to mind, and the first one out of my mouth, was: “You mean, like quitting a job when you don’t have another one to step into?”

I’m not sure that was the answer he was looking for; I’m not sure it was the answer was looking for. But it was the answer I chose. To give. And to live. And perhaps for the first time in my nearly 5 decades of life, I think I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they describe a season of life by saying: I don’t want to go back and live it again, but I also don’t want to go back and be the person I was before all this happened.

That sentence has more meaning to me now, though I’m just beginning to really understand it. But as that understanding grows, here’s some of what I think I’ve learned during the 7 months of “I-have-no-idea-what’s-next….”

One: there’s a lot of hard work to be done in this world. Let me just be honest here: I was insulated from that. I haven’t had to do hard physical work since perhaps my college days, when I spent a summer working in a warehouse, and another as a carpet cleaner’s assistant with Stanley Steemer (and, yes, the broken Chinese figurines and the broken lamp were both my fault; it was a long summer).

Since last August, I have pulled carpet. I’ve cleaned out houses with decades of dirt, detritus, debris, and even doo-doo. I delivered packages during the holidays. And in all of that, I realized how much harder it is to do that work at 49, than it was at 19.

And while I was doing that work, I began to pay attention to how people paid attention to me. While I pulled their carpet and delivered their packages, I noticed that some folks were pleasant and kind. They said hi, and even offered me a Coke or a candy bar. Others were focused on their agenda, and they kept on moving. But there were also people who seemed to act as if I wasn’t there; almost as if they wanted to avoid me and the work I represented. They needed the service I offered, but it was almost as if they felt that if they just kept their head down, or turned away, the work would get done — and they wouldn’t have to be a part of it in any way.

Which leads to a helpful lesson for all of us: Notice people; the ones right in front of you. Get to know the person at your office who cleans your bathroom and empties your trash. Be kind and generous with your server. Think once, and then twice, before criticizing the $11/hour worker who cleans the floors or bags your groceries. Better yet, smile. Be kind.

Right after I wrote my first draft of these words, I stopped by the bathroom in the office where I work. There was a guy cleaning it. I thought: I just wrote about the importance of not overlooking people; maybe I ought to practice what I preach. So I got to talking, and learned his name is Eric. And he told me that he used to mentor in the very program where I am now working. Eric shared his story, and offered some helpful insight.

Turns out — the guy cleaning my restroom has a story to share. As does everyone you will encounter. How many will you take the time to get to know?

Which leads me to another lesson, one I desperately need to learn: Be present in the moment. One of the strange dichotomies of ministry was that I so often felt busy that I felt too busy to be with people if I hadn’t already planned to be with people. Chance encounters and crises were often seen as challenges to my schedule, instead of opportunities to be present with the people who had come my way. With a schedule that almost always felt full, a to-do list never ending, and an even longer list of people I needed to visit — I often let ministry become more about checking things off than checking out what God was up to.

Perhaps this is why my new role is the right job for me at the right time. I have the chance to encourage mentors and share opportunities — in a context that doesn’t feel like there’s always something else I should be doing. (It also helps that I am only scheduled to work a set number of hours; when the work day is over now, it’s really over. Ministry never felt that way.)

In a way, I feel like I’m detoxing from the constant sense of urgency to do the next thing. Instead, I’m just now beginning to learn to be in the moment; to truly be with the person/s I’m currently with; to receive the gift of now.

So, I’m learning to stop and talk to my neighbors when I take out my trash. I’m learning to shoot baskets with my son even when I’m tired. And perhaps in all of this I’m learning a lesson I should have learned a long time ago: ministry often happens when I stop worrying about doing ministry — and instead, just receive the moment, and the people, who are right in front of me.

 

Ways to Worship

The surprising thing about the New Testament is that it gives very few particulars regarding how the early church worshiped. There are important clues, yes. There are key elements, for sure. But the NT is surprisingly light on liturgy. There simply is no simple formula (though churches I’ve been a part of my entire life have followed a very similar one — something like: 2 or 3 songs, communion, offering, sermon, invitation, announcements, closing prayer).

I think this “lack of a liturgy” is intentional, and is an invitation to be creative and culturally relevant in whatever context a church finds itself. So, expressive dance works well in some places, and would be shocking in others. Video is a great communication tool in some parts of the world, but completely inaccessible and unnecessary in others. There are a number of ways to worship, and those who help lead are wise to consider culturally appropriate and creative ways to invite folks into God’s presence.

But the New Testament’s flexibility when it comes to the ways we worship does not mean there isn’t a way to worship. In other words: we can (and should) come up with different styles of worship — but this should not detract from some essential elements that worship should include.

So, when it comes to worship, whether it’s in Louisville or Laos, South Africa or Southampton, Guinea or Guyana, I think it should include these key components.

First is Scripture. When we gather as God’s people, scripture is a vital component. Whether it is sung, spoken, prayed, dramatized, or proclaimed — or, better yet, all of those — it is scripture that most clearly presents the voice and the will of God. Now, I doubt most folks with disagree with this. But what we believe, and what we practice, often don’t seem to be in sync. For example: how often are 80%, 90%, or even more of the words that are spoken and sung and ad-libbed from the stage our words, instead of God’s?

I have been preaching recently at a very small congregation. I’ve enjoyed sharing with them, but, honestly, they don’t really need me. Sure, it’s nice for them to have a preacher each Sunday; and I’m glad they’ve asked me to come. It’s good for them to have someone open the Word. But the simple truth is: they don’t have to have an outside “professional” come in each Sunday. One (or 2 or 3) of them can get up and read some scripture on Sunday, and speak a word or two of encouragement — and they will hear from God (which, apparently, is what happened in the church in Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 14).

A second essential element of worship is response. If God speaks through scripture (and whatever words of encouragement we might add), then His speaking demands a response. And so, in most churches I’ve been in, we invite folks to make a first-time decision to follow Jesus and be baptized.

That’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. For the Word of God always demands a response, of every one. Sometimes that response is a first-time decision, but 90% of the people in our churches — a number that is higher in some, lower in others — have already made that decision. So, we shouldn’t just invite the 10% to make a decision; we should invite everyone to respond. Sometimes, that might look like weeping and repentance; other times it might involve arms raised and joyful shouts.

Worship should be a place where confession is included; where repentance is spoken — where prayer isn’t just the words 2 or 3 men pray from the platform. Instead, prayer is the essence of our response. Prayer must be what we invite everyone to speak and to share, to sing and to silently voice.

While I’m on the subject of response: one way the churches I’ve been part of include response is the Lord’s Supper. Communion is an important time to touch and taste the Word of God — and to respond. But in basically every church I’ve been in, communion is almost always a silent, solitary affair. While this is ok, it doesn’t seem to have been the practice of the early church. Again, in the church at Corinth, we see communion as very much a community affair — one where sharing in communion involves looking out for your fellow believers (see 1 Corinthians 11).

Imagine the opportunity we would provide people if we carved out more space for response — through communion, and otherwise. As one example, think about what it would look like to have a worship service where people were invited to go and say “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Can I pray for you?” — and we then gave worshipers 10 minutes to do just that, during the service, with anyone in the room.

Awkward? For some, sure. Impossible? In some circumstances, yes. But I believe that a core element of worship has to be response — a response that is rarely solitary.

This leads to another element vital to healthy worship: community. Worship as a church must be done as a church. Of course a person can worship God alone on a hike in the woods. But it’s not complete. For worship of God always involves relationship with others. We never worship in isolation, even if we are alone — for worship always changes us; a change that impacts, and involves, others.

It is simply not true, biblical worship if we sneak in the back, talk to no one, and slip out before the final prayer. Sure, some folks need to do that as they figure out the church thing. But for those of us who “get” the church thing — even if just a little bit — then church is simply not about any one of us, but instead is about all of us; coming together to hear from God, and be changed by God to be more like Jesus, empowered and driven by the Spirit of God.

So, dance, or not. Raise your hands, or not. Clap, or don’t. Use instruments, or just a keyboard, or none at all. Meet in a building, or under a bamboo tree. Wear blue jeans or Brooks Brothers. But don’t miss what is essential to worship itself: the Word of God, which calls for a response to God, from all who gather as the people of God.