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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Revival," "Alive," & "Dead"

I have a pet peeve when it comes to certain words and phrases. We all do. And sometimes pet peeves are just annoying for arbitrary reasons. But the terms "revival," "alive," and "dead" when used for churches really irk me because they say much more about human judgments than they say about the reality of God.

Alive v. Dead 
First, I can think of few things more insulting than calling a church "dead." No self-respecting Christian would do this to the face of a member of one of these "dead" churches, mind you, but they'd nevertheless think it was true. And what makes a church dead? Well it's not growing for one! How could God be anywhere that wasn't gaining momentum? But of course, by this logic we'd have to say that God must therefore be most present at churches with tremendous growth, like those of Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, or Rob Bell. Are these the epicenters of God's presence in America?

When I was young my family used to visit our grandparent's church about once a year in rural Indiana. They were Quakers but the church service looked very traditional for Protestants. But it was small. And it wasn't growing. The youngest congregants were 50 and there were only a dozen or so who attended. But I'll tell you that God was no less present there than at Saddleback.

At a party recently, I spoke with someone from a large church in Chicago that wanted to plant churches in every neighborhood. Either plant them or partner with existing churches. But it was explained to me that they only wanted to partner with "alive" churches, not with "dead" ones, i.e., only with ones that were growing and contemporary. I find this sort of judgment unusual, to say the least. It's bad theology at worst.

Another problem is that "dead" churches aren't just shrinking but they're not very fiery. They're not charismatic. Their music isn't contemporary. They aren't seen as relevant. And everyone knows the message of the gospel is to be relevant!... That's probably a topic for another post.

Revival implies death first and then having new life breathed into a church or place. But I think the whole philosophy of revival is inaccurate, as if God eventually leaves churches who aren't charismatic enough or who don't attract new visitors. Or leaves when people don't respond to the gospel.

Growing up in a charismatic, Pentecostal church, we would often go to "revivals." We'd travel around to wherever it was happening: "There's a revival in Kalamazoo!" "There's one in Indiana!" They were events, unpredictable, that just happened. As if the Holy Spirit were a rock star who traveled incognito and then appeared at random places. And we'd all flock to get a taste!

The problem with all these labels - "alive," "dead," "revival" - is that it says everything about our judgments of God and others and nothing about God's nature. If the Church is the Body of Christ, can any part of it ever be dead? Isn't it always alive? And does it have to meet our standards of growing, contemporary, relevant, young, etc. just to deserve our attention?

The Holy Spirit doesn't appear at different places at different times like a fairy. God is present to us and in all churches at all times. The difference is how are we responding to God? When are we opening up to Truth and seeing God in new ways so that our understanding is changed? That is the only kind of revival. The Holy Spirit isn't gracing some with its presence and denying it to others. No, we are all constantly given a choice of saying Yes to God, especially in and at our churches. And what makes us so sure every other church should look like ours? Not judging includes churches, people. Let's be more Christian than that.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Moving out of Fear

"I'm called to be a Catholic priest." At least that's what I felt not very long ago. I was seriously discerning my primary vocation and had been for years. After a great deal of prayerful discernment I reached a point where I felt that priesthood was my path.

Getting to that point is its own interesting story but the things I learned about discernment are really the lasting parts. Though I'm no longer in a place of feeling my vocation is priesthood, I learned a lot about the relationship between God and fear through that experience.

"Fear of the Lord" is a biblical phrase a lot of Christians have held on to but that's not the fear we're talking about here. Here it's just the regular, good old-fashioned, universal kind. It's fear at its most basic, its most primal. It's fear that cripples, that hinders, and that oppresses.

As I was discerning a vocation to the priesthood I was forced to work through a lot of fears. I was confronted with a good deal of the notions my false self wanted to cling to, which was a series of assumptions and rules I'd made for myself based on what I thought I needed, which of course is what we all do. "I can't live alone!" "I've always wanted marriage!" "What if I'm not holy enough?" "What if I make a mistake?" "What if I won't be happy?" It won't mean the same thing to everyone but to me my vocation of priesthood felt like being asked to give up my life.

But the loudest voice in my discernment process was actually fear. Finally I had to acknowledge that fear does not come from God. It never does! God does not speak to us through fear. This was actually a "rule" laid down in one of the discernment guides I read. God will never guide you to His will by making you afraid to do the opposite, as if His designs aren't good enough in themselves and He can only win us over by doing a smear campaign against the alternative.

Unfortunately that's how I used to think and how a lot of Christians do. But God is not calling us to flee from something but rather to run toward something, the Supreme Something, God Him/Herself. It's the difference between saying you married your spouse because none of the alternatives were good or saying you did it because you actually found someone beautiful, a goodness in itself.

I sometimes think that next to love fear is the most powerful emotion. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I know firsthand the power of fear to destroy your identity as being made in the image of God and to make you doubt Reality itself.

But when we know that God does not speak to us through fear, then we have freedom. Joyce Meyer speaks about the spiritual nature of fear and says "just do it afraid." Take fear out of the equation. That's the freedom we have by right. We can know that fear is not of God and then we no longer have to act because of it, or cater to it, or nurse it, or hold it, or feed it. We can still sit with it but we know it's the least important thing in the room.

Once we realize our freedom despite fear, then we can choose to quit that unhealthy job or relationship, or to move out of state, to meet with that person, to offer a family to that child, to choose a vocation that scares us, to risk our hearts in matrimony, to follow the promptings of the Spirit even though we don't have all the answers.

Though I no longer think my vocation is priesthood there are countless stories of men who found their lives despite their fears of that calling. And that's true of any calling. If you can move out of fear and move away from all of your own fear-based parameters, imagine the freedom you'll find! Maybe even the freedom to give up your life. Or to find it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Authentic God Experience

I make no secret that I'm a huge fan of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, contemplative, and mystic. And one thing Rohr talks about often is "authentic God experience." I recently spoke to a local youth group on the topic and as I was preparing that talk I realized Scripture is full of authentic God experiences. That's almost the whole thing!

I think we can define that term with various languages - "touching heaven", "Divine Union," "understanding Reality," "the kingdom," etc. But the important thing to say is that these are moments, maybe many or maybe only a few in your lifetime, when you encounter  God in a way that deeply unseats you and your false self. That's the best way I can describe it today. And we have examples of this in Scripture.

Moses and the burning bush is one of the most timeless. Here was someone running from his past, from guilt, living in his false self, (and not possessing a mature faith in God by the way) who nevertheless encountered God and came away an utterly changed person. God spoke to Moses' inmost being and completely converted his consciousness through the burning bush. And it's partly so inspiring because Moses' religious tradition and language in no way prepared him for his own experience of God. But he trusted it anyway! How many of us are prepared to trust an experience of God if it clashes with our religious parameters or allegiances?

Figures like Hannah have completely different authentic God experiences, at least visibly. Hannah wants a child partly as a way of not being shamed but also because it happens to be her heart's desire. Eventually she conceives. She knows that this is God and you can sense her joy when reading her story. How many of her peers would've believed that she was touched by God at that moment? How many people would think that God would take the form of an everyday pregnancy or a plant on fire?

And that's the point of the experience: it's for you. It has four qualities in my mind: it's Valid, Unique, Trustworthy, and Converting.

Valid because it's God initiating these. Having a moment where you realize, experientially, something of who God is is just so life-giving. All of a sudden you know that God is real and it's a beautiful world and God's in it and you're in it and God really is Love and what joy truly means and that it's a benevolent universe. You just know that you know that you know, and no one cane take it away from you.

These experiences are unique because they never look the same for two people. This is part of the beauty of being created uniquely by a Loving God. No one else can fully interpret the meaning of your authentic God experience - only you can fully realize that. These experiences are trustworthy, even when others doubt God's hand in it. If it's real, you'll know it. And authentic God experiences are conversion experiences because you walk away fundamentally changed. We're not talking about changing your religious creed here. We're talking about changing your perception.

Like Saul, you're shown something greater that converts you to a new mindset (even to a new, literal identity as "Paul"). And by virtue of being shown something so great, you see how dim the false things really are. You see reality - existence as it truly is.

We can't manufacture these experiences. Like grace, you just have to fall into it. It's a gift. But these gifted moments will feel as if they propel you toward a new mindset, a new understanding, and toward a new trust.

This was one of my less coherent posts, partly because I'm still exploring the concept and partly because I'm at a loss for words to convey my own experience. For that, I apologize. But please leave a comment with your thoughts or your own experience.