Thank-You Lou Riley: An Unexpected, Powerful Spiritual Experience

“Are you Lou?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Pastor Mark, from First Methodist Cocoa Beach.”

“You’re the new pastor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come in!”

Within forty-five minutes of this awkward introduction, I would have an unexpected, powerful spiritual experience.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t like scheduling visits to shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing homes. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m actually spending time with people during visits, I’m always blessed, but it’s really hard to motivate myself to do it. It takes time to map out all the addresses, estimate travel times, and to call the day before to make sure they will be home when I’m in their area. Getting around to see everyone takes all day, and there are a hundred other things I would rather do. It’s easy to find excuses to put it off another week, and then another week, and then another week—saying to expectant family members and friends, “I really want to go visit your loved one, but things are just really busy right now.” Eventually, guilt and obligation motivate me and I drag myself out the door. Today was one of those days.

This is what brought me to Lou’s house.

Prior to this morning, I’d never met Lou. Our only contact was two months ago, when I called to set-up a visit. Despite my yelling into the phone several times, “I’M PASTOR MARK!” she couldn’t hear me and eventually just hung-up! Now I was standing at her door, wondering if she’d even invite me in.

Knock, knock, knock.

When the door open, I saw a reluctant elderly woman with obvious mobility issues. Although I too was a little reluctant, when I explained who I was, she immediately welcomed me in. My plan was to say up front, “I have many visits to make today, so I can only stay for about 15-30 minutes,” but she immediately began to talk and I didn’t have a chance to stage my quick escape.

Lou told me many stories about her life. I initially thought, “I’m going to be here awhile!” but as she reminisced about her life, I was drawn into her stories. She talked about her husband and children, proudly showing me pictures. She talked about her career, singing and dancing to entertain the troops during the Vietnam War. She explained how this provided her a chance to travel all over the world.

Excitement and joy bubbled to the surface as she reflected on her past, but then she looked at me and said, “Pastor, maybe you can help me with a question.”

“Why am I still here? I know that Jesus is keeping me alive for a reason, but I can’t figure it out. I pray all the time, but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.”

“I’m not sure, Lou. When the time is right, are you ready to go?”

“Why, yes! I want to go! But I don’t know why I am still alive. I can’t do anything anymore, other than walk around my apartment, touch all my things, remember the past, and say, ‘Thank- you Jesus.’ But I’m even a problem to my children. My daughter calls me a few times a day just to say something nice to me, and my son, Skipper, comes over all the time. But I don’t know why I’m still here.”

If you didn’t know, I’m well trained for these kinds for questions, so I started with good theology! “Well, Lou, the purpose of human life is a loving relationship with God. As we experience all of God’s good gifts, we grow in gratitude, and the more thankful we are the more we can praise Him. You have told me many stories, and I can see that your heart is full of gratitude. As you pray throughout the day, thanking God for all His gifts, God delights in you—your life is a blessing to God.”

I sat back in my chair thinking, “That was pretty good.”

She briefly pondered my points, talked a little more, and then repeated the question again: “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in to make another theological argument. “You said that you were a problem to your kids, but I think if they were here they would say that you are not a problem and that they love you very mu . . .”

“Well, yes, I know that!” she interrupted.

I jumped back into the conversation to complete my thought: “Well, maybe you’re still here because you bring joy to their lives and they still need you for some reason.”

While she was grateful for my efforts, my answers were not convincing. After an awkward pause, she abruptly said, “It’s probably your lunch time, so I should let you go.”

In that moment, I felt an opportunity slipping away. I took off my theology hat and said, “Can I tell you one more thing before I go?”

“Well, sure!”

I looked at her with complete sincerity and said, “You have really blessed me today. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, but listening to your stories has brought me joy.”

Her eyes welled-up with tears, and through a faint smile she said, “Well, maybe that’s why you are here. To tell me that I’m not worthless.”

I was stunned and broken hearted at the same time. “You are not worthless,” I insisted. “You are a bright light in this world, and you bring many people joy just by being here.”

“That’s it!”

She raised her hands in the air, slapped my leg, and look at me as if she had just won the lottery.

“Jesus sent you here to tell me that I’m not worthless! JESUS SENT YOU HERE! Jesus sent you here . . . to tell me that I’m not worthless! Thank-you Jesus! THANK-YOU JESUS! Thank-you Jesus.”

She grabbed my hands: “We have to pray now.”

“Thank-you Jesus for sending this young man to tell me that I’m not worthless. He is your messenger, and you have sent him to me today to cheer me up. I didn’t even know I needed cheering, but I did. Thank you for sending him to me. May his sweet face and gentle voice go and comfort others today. Thank-you Jesus.”

(Now I’m bawling like a baby.) She squeezes my hand and goes silent. That means it’s my turn.

“Thank-you Jesus for sending me to Lou. She has brought me so much joy in these few moments, and through her love you have reminded me of my calling. I didn’t know that I needed to hear it, but you have reminded me, too, that I’m not worthless. We are your children, you love us, and we have value. Thank-you Jesus. Amen.”

Still holding hands, we lifted our heads. As we looked into each other’s tear-fractured eyes, we both knew that we were beholding the face of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so palpable in that moment that I felt the world shift under my feet. It was one of those rare times when eternity breaks through the mundane and grace floods into your soul. We both experienced resurrection.

The irony in all of this doesn’t escape me. While God may have sent me to tell Lou that she was not worthless, God was reminding me that I’m not worthless either, and that I have been called to be a messenger of love and hope, especially to the lonely and forgotten. God was reminding me that sometimes the biggest blessings come when we are doing things that we aren’t particularly excited about doing, and that Christ is most powerfully present when people share their brokenness in moments of honesty.

Thank-you Jesus for sending Lou to me!

(The picture above is of items that Lou gave me during our visit.)

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Simple Church: The Importance of Designing a Straightforward Disciple-Making Process

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his followers: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19). This is the job description of every Christian and every church, to make more and better disciples of Jesus. This is the church’s raison d’etre.

The most important thing a church does is design a process for making more and better disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything we have and everything we do in the church is intended to be a tool for accomplishing this mission.

In the book, Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, we learn that leaders in the church are called to be designers, not programmers. If church leaders take this call seriously, then they are charged with a very important responsibility: To design a simple, step-by step process that moves people through various stages of spiritual growth. This sequential process is implemented in every area of the church, including all age-level ministries, and the staff, leaders, and members are taught to fully understand the process and work together as a unified body to move people through the steps. Anything that does not directly support the disciple-making process is abandoned.

Such a process has some distinctive characteristics. It is:

  • Intentionally designed, not carelessly thrown together.
  • Straightforward and simple. (And the simplicity is fiercely protected; we don’t lengthen it, add to it, or otherwise complicate it.)
  • Strategic insofar as (1) it is tied to the mission and vision of the church, and (2) it is structured by clearly defined, sequential steps.
  • Aimed at transforming people into the image of Christ.

 

Steps in Creating a Simple Church: Process

Clarity → Movement → Alignment → Focus[1]  

 

Clarity: The ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people. Clarity eliminates confusion. Remember, understanding always precedes commitment, so if we want people to commit to our church by investing their time, talent, treasure, and witness, they need clarity about who we are, what we are trying to do, and how we intend to do it. Without clarity it’s difficult to get buy-in, and without buy-in people usually don’t give, especially if it requires sacrifice. So, the staff and leaders not only need to fully understand the process, but they must also teach it to everyone they serve.  

 

Movement: The sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment. Movement is what causes someone to go to the next step. It’s what happens in between programs.

This means that we do not evaluate the success of our ministries as isolated units but according to how people are moving through our discipleship process. For example, we don’t say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase and nobody is complaining about the music or sermon.” Rather, we say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase in people moving from worship into a Bible study where they are growing more deeply in their faith.” We don’t focus on the number of people who attend a program, but the number of people moving from step one, to step-two, to step-three in the process that leads them to greater maturity and commitment to Christ. Hence, “hand-offs” from one step to the next are very important. Unfortunately, the church often fails to execute (or even pay attention to) hand-offs because leaders often focus on isolated programs and work in silos. Pastors need to train their leaders to pay as much attention to handoffs as the programs themselves, because programs are only valuable insofar as they move people through a discipleship process that transforms them into the image of Christ. Therefore, every program/event/ministry must fit somewhere in the sequential process, which brings us to alignment.

 

Alignment: the way that all ministry departments embrace, submit, and attach themselves to the same overarching process. “Alignment ensures the entire church body is moving in the same direction, and in the same manner” to accomplish the same mission. Everyone is operating from the same ministry blueprint, and replicates the process in their respective areas. Without alignment, the church is not a unified body but a tangled bunch of various sub-ministries that work in silos and compete for space, money, volunteers, and time on the calendar. Leaders not only fail to work cooperatively to accomplish a single mission, but they often (even if inadvertently) work at cross purposes. Achieving and maintaining alignment is painful, but failing to address misalignment is more painful and costly in the long run. (Think about your car being out of alignment. It is cheaper to get an alignment than buy new tires. It is safer to get an alignment than to risk a blow-out and possibly suffer a car accident.)

 

Focus: the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process. We only say “yes” to the best things that help us accomplish our mission by working our process. We say “no” to things that do not directly move the process forward or that are “good” but not “the best,” knowing that extra programs will compete with and pull people away from our primary strategy for making disciples.

Focus is the most difficult element to implement. It takes deep convictions and guts. “Focus does not make church leaders popular.” As you say “no” to things that the church has always done, or “no” to new ideas that don’t directly move the process forward, people will get mad at you. Despite our best efforts to explain the importance of the simple church model and how it will lead to more fruitful ministry, staff will quit, leaders will resign, and members will leave the church as we execute focus. Leaders survive this turbulent time by focusing on being faithful to Christ, being totally committed to his mission, and having faith that God will reward our obedience by sending us the people we need, regardless of who leaves. If we can’t muster the commitment and resolve needed to execute focus, then all the work described above (clarity, movement, and alignment) will be for nothing. The process will quickly get buried in clutter and soon be forgotten.

So leaders must be careful to “count the cost” before they decide to embrace the simple church model and start designing a discipleship process. Jesus says in Luke 14:

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ 31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

While moving toward a simple church model will lead to growth (both deep and wide), it requires leaders to make difficult decisions that will upset people. We have to be aware of this from the beginning so that we don’t do all the work and then fail because we don’t have the resolve to see it through.

[1] This blog post is a summary of Simple Church, chapter 3.

Recovering from Bad Religion: Rollins Summary 1

I recently started a new community discussion group, “Recovering from Bad Religion.” Here’s the Facebook event description:

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Have you experienced toxic or abusive religion? Many in America grow-up in churches that preach “fire and brimstone.” They tell us that a wrathful God watches our every move, and if we fail to live according to a strict moral code then God will punish us with eternal torment. The church derives this moral code, along with a list of required doctrines, from a literal reading of the Bible that is often anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-gay. This leaves many feeling like they must disavow everything they learned in college to be a Christian. Many cannot stomach this authoritarianism, so they leave the church and become agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” However, there is a different way of being Christian. This discussion group will provide a safe space to explore more loving and thoughtful alternatives.

 

After our meet and greet on 1/17, we held our first discussion this past Tuesday on the Introduction and Chapter One of The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins. In order to help those in the discussion group, I will be posting chapter summaries. By doing this on my blog, I hope to extend the conversation beyond Cocoa Beach. Feel free to jump in with comments, but please keep them thoughtful, polite, and kind. If you feel a compulsive need to correct perceived heresy or save the souls of participants with whom you don’t agree, this is probably not the right place for you. Comments that are not respectful, kind, and genuinely open to dialogue will be deleted.

Without further adieu, here is the first summary.

The Thesis of the Book

The main argument in The Idolatry of God is that most mainstream Christianity has turned God into an idol. Instead of admitting the truth of our human condition—that life is difficult and that satisfaction and certainty will always elude us—we turn God into a product that promises to satisfy all our longing, render us complete, remove our suffering, and give us the answers to all life’s problems. Like all idolatry, this leads to slavery and misery. In contrast, if we can get honest about what it means to be a human being in this world and let go of idols that promise certainty and satisfaction, then we can develop an authentic faith that empowers us to “joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence.” Only then, can we enter the fullness of life and be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. In other words, we don’t seek salvation from uncertainty and satisfaction, we find it amid these things.

Introduction: The Apocalypse Isn’t Coming, It Has Already Arrived

In the Introduction, Rollins argues that mainstream Christianity has become another false (idolatrous) promise: if you accept Jesus as your personal savior then he will remove all doubt and replace it with certainty, and he will remove all brokenness and replace it with wholeness. Salvation is construed as an escape from uncertainty and dissatisfaction and the promise to fulfill our deepest longings. While this logic is most clearly seen in the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which overtly promises believers health, wealth, and worldly success, Rollins argues that it’s much more widespread, but in subtler forms.

According to Rollins, this is a false form of religion, what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses,” that functions as a carrot on a stick (a promise perpetually deferred) and drives us through life without ever really changing anything. In contrast, he asks, what if salvation is not about fulfilling the desires that we take for granted, but changing what we desire and how we desire? Instead of fulfilling our hopes and dreams, what if Jesus is trying to change what we hope for and what we dream about? Rollins says:

For what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he isn’t the solution? What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question . . . . what is Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them? (4)

So instead of saving us from uncertainty and dissatisfaction, maybe we are saved within our ongoing experience of these things. In a way reminiscent of Paul Tillich, Rollins envisions salvation as the cultivation of a courageous faith capable of confronting, embracing, and saying ‘amen’ to uncertainty and dissatisfaction (5). Instead of finding salvation by escaping our humanity, we find salvation amid our humanity.

Chapter 1: The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered

The main purpose of this chapter is to describe “a lack” (emptiness, discontent, unfulfilled longing, sense of loss or separation) at the heart of human existence, which originates in the process of coming to self-awareness. It also describes the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help fill this void.

We tend to think that our discontent is the result of something that we don’t currently have, but if we had “it” then the void would be filled and we would finally be happy. The “it” could be just about anything: money, possessions, power, fame, admiration, a better job, a thinner body, a whiter smile, a more passionate sex life, etc.

The problem, however, is that we know people who have what we think we need to be happy, and they still experience the lack. Even more troubling, when we actually get what we hope will remove our discontent, we soon discover that it’s still there! This leads us to imagine that while our newest acquisition didn’t fill the void, there is still something else just beyond our grasp that will. More grasping results in more disappointment, which results in more grasping. A self-perpetuating vicious cycle ensues that renders even the most well-meaning person a slave. As we feed our appetite for satisfaction, it gets stronger and more destructive. (Think of the dynamics of addiction.)

At the end of the day, “this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive . . .” to acquire and consume more objects and experiences that we think will fix us. But it’s like playing a rigged casino game—it never really works, and the more we try to make it work the more attached, enslaved, and miserable we become.

Rollins goes on to make the radical claim that almost the entire existing church has been co-opted and corrupted by the same logic: (1) You are separated from God by sin. (2) This is the cause of a deep sense of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, (3) If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and lead a life of spiritual discipline, then God will permanently remove the void, utterly satisfy your deepest desires, and give you absolute certainty.

According to Rollins, this is how God is transformed into another product to be sold that promises to take away all your pain and make you whole. This is how God is turned into an idol and sold in a flourishing Christian industry of books, worship music, conferences, church services, etc. What we desire stays the same, how we desire stays the same, the promise of satisfaction and certainty stays the same, we just switch-out the terms. So instead of trusting more money, a better looking spouse, or a more attractive body to remove the void and give us a sense of total satisfaction, preachers hold out the same promise with more faithful church attendance, increased tithing, and a more disciplined devotional life (which, of course, requires the newest book or latest worship album).

In contrast, what is needed is not another recapitulation of the same old story, which reinforces a false (idolatrous) narrative and keeps us stuck in self-destructive consumption. Rather, we need a genuine alternative to this way of seeing the world, a more authentic way of developing a life of meaning and value. We need a radically different way of understanding Christianity that will enable us to be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. As we will see, this alternative vision can be found in the New Testament, if we have eyes to see.