Oh God.

Sometimes that sums it up.  I have many “Oh God” types of days.

Days when I wake up and read people fighting on facebook over whatever the sexiest current issue is, that will undoubtedly pass in a week (or a day).  Fighting not to understand one another, not to learn from each other, but to win their argument.  Walking away with minds not changed, but certainly liking each other quite a bit less.

And I think, Oh God.

There are days when I talk with people who have been living homeless, or who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, or when I hear of a friend’s cousin who was incarcerated for 29 days until his trial date because he couldn’t afford to post bail…. a trial which quickly determined he was arrested because he had the same name as a guy who wasn’t paying his child support.  He was released immediately, now jobless, of course.  After 29 days.

And I think, Oh God.

There are days when I look inside myself, my laziness, my lack of love and compassion, my impatience in ministry and parenting.  Days when I’m more selfish than un, days when I’d rather just drive somewhere else, days when I wonder what how effective I’ve been in my calling.  Days where nothing seems to come easy.

And I think, Oh God.

And there are days where I look around at over exhausted parents, young adults trying to find meaning, people hiding deep hurts and insecurities because they don’t know it’s safe to be honest.

And I pray….

Oh God.

And then there are other days.

Days when I think about the way that love has transformed me.  Days when I look around and see good being done- lots of good being done- in the world, through the beautiful community that I’m a part of.  Days when I’m awed by people having family that didn’t have family before. By people who have taken the next step in connecting with God’s love in the midst of the most unlikely circumstances.  By people giving money, food, time, and love… away.  Days when I think about Jesus entering all of this….. stuff.  Entering in a way that nobody would expect, because God came in a way that didn’t allow him to say anything for years. He just laid there.  Cared for by others.  Living life long enough so that when he spoke to people, as a person… he really knew what he was talking about.

Days when I think about wonder, and grace, and love overcoming evil, and second chances, and miraculous moments, and forgiveness, and redemption of people and things, and hope, and peace, and joy….. and love.

And I marvel…

Oh, God!

safe places

To be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed this morning by the hurt in the world, especially among those that I deeply care about.  Sometimes when I feel that way, I write.  Maybe you can join me in this prayer today.

God, give us the grace to be safe places in the world.
May I be the type of person that creates safety for others.
A place where they can laugh,
where they can cry,
where they can question,
where they can wonder.

May I be a place where others can share insecurities,
where they can share triumphs,
where they can scream and yell about all that is unfair in the world
and where they can be loved in it all.

May I be a place of refuge,
a spot where others need not work when they’re in my presence,
where they can be still, be silent, and just be.   
Make me like you, Jesus.

May I be a place where compassion flows,
whether another is deserving of it or not.
Make me a place where others need not prove themselves
in order to be loved,
a place where understanding trumps the need to be right,
a place where love casts out fear.

May I be like a mirror,
a place that reflects a love bigger than I can offer
a place that helps others glimpse the true worth they are endowed with,
a place the reveals beauty that lies underneath rough exteriors.

May I be a safe place for my family,
for my friends,
for my neighbors,
for those I lead,
for those who lead me,
and for the strangers around me.
May I be a safe place for those who share my beliefs,
and for those who do not;
for those who share my experiences,
and for those who have vastly different ones.

Make me a safe place, because You are a safe place.
Amen.

 

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a shout out to non-homogeneity

We tend to be drawn to people who are just like us.  And I’m not always convinced that that’s anything we need to feel guilty about.  I love being outdoors- therefore, I tend to enjoy hanging out with people that also enjoy being outdoors.  Makes sense.  We have stuff to talk about, we’ve experienced similar things.  All well and good.  But lately I’ve been so thankful that I have the opportunity to dwell in some non-homogeneous settings. It’s bringing me life in some cool ways, and I’m becoming more and more convinced of it’s necessity for healthy personal and spiritual growth. That might be a complete article in itself, but I want to tell you a quick story of how amazed I was this past weekend by some exceptional friends who are in a completely different life stage than we are.

We don’t give people in their early to mid-twenties enough credit sometimes. That might be because many of us look back at our early twenties, and well, we might not have deserved a whole lot of credit.  Statistics fly around all over the place about how self-centered the emerging generations are, how it’s all about them, how they are the consumer generation.  But I know some people that aren’t.

I lead a church that flies on two wings- we have celebration gatherings, (“church services” to those who aren’t hip to our lingo) and then we have smaller communities- often around 20 people, with lots of kids and chaos, with whom we eat regularly, serve alongside, talk about life, pray, laugh, and learn the way of Jesus.  For the community that we host in our house, about half of us have young kids.  Not young, cute, sit-quietly-and-read-a-book kids (except Cason, THANK GOD for her!!!).  No, I’m talking about shriek, run-down-the-hallway, jump-on-your-head-and-rip-your-hair-out, laughing-as-you-bleed kids.  Mine tend to lead the way.  Ok, they’re not that bad, but the volume level in our house sometimes resembles a construction site, and at any moment one of the parents might have to run out because someone got bit, or peed on the carpet, or tried to climb through the cat door again.  There aren’t a lot of silent, reflective moments when we’re all together. Which brings me to the other half of our little community… they do not have kids.  They are singles, young adults, or have grownup kids, or other situations.  Let’s be clear.  They could be choosing to spend the evening at the pub or coffee shop, sipping on something craft-brewed in a relaxed atmosphere, talking about life and faith and watching the Phillies on the corner tv.  But no.  Each week, they voluntarily enter our chaos, holding our kids, treating them with patience, joining our experience as parents, and sometimes even bringing shrimp.  And we enter theirs, reflecting on the challenges of discovering where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do in your 20s when the world is wide open, or responding to what life is like when your kids move out and the house is quiet, or journeying through the repercussions of a difficult divorce or a lonely life or losing a family member.  And they are giving our children and our community an unbelievable blessing, by adding their story to ours. It’s so cool to see the beauty of our children having a bunch of big brothers and sisters and surrogate extended family, that love and play with them. This stuff takes us out of our comfort zone.  In this process, as with any meaningful relationship, we begin to do something that God has done- enter into the full human experience.

This past sunday night, at any given time, our kids may have been sitting on any number of 10 different laps, crawling around, yelling, even fighting- and the community embraced them with patience, and love. As a number of the guys were praying for a bit in one of the side rooms, a couple 3 year olds barged in, yelling and chatting, and all I could think of for a moment was “I’m so sorry these poor non-parents have to deal with this craziness all the time.”  But Jesus is doing something in those moments, as they smile and embrace the messiness of actually sharing life and learning to be family.  I think it’s great that when someone joins us, they might get bombed by a surprise 2 year old just randomly climbing up and sitting on them.  It’s breaking down barriers, I think.

And it’s not just the life stage that is different.  You can be in similar life stages but be so very different in other ways.  So many of us approach life and faith and big questions in different ways, and I love it.  My own faith is sharpened during discussions, I am being taught to listen, to love, and to learn about people’s stories because everyone has a story to tell.  And the more diverse the stories we have represented, the more things I’m learning about the diverse and beautiful world we live in, and how to love and build relationships the way that I believe Jesus would.  It can be fun to hang out with people just like me- but honestly, that doesn’t compare to the things we learn and the ways that we’re blessed when we move beyond the comfort of the familiar and into the beauty of the diverse.

in defense of hugging.

…..

I’m a hugger.

……..

If you know me, this is obviously not news to you.  And seriously, I apologize….kind of.  I often hug to say hello, and hug to say goodbye.  And if you’re only dropping by briefly, that has the potential for two hugs in like 5 minutes.  I know.  That’s overwhelming.  It’s not all my fault, though. My family of origin made me that way, and so they are certainly to partially to blame. I’m not completely out of control; I do usually have enough social intelligence not to hug someone who is petrified of human interaction.  Nobody wants to get slapped.  Actually, that’s more or less what this blog is about.  We don’t want to be slapped.  We want to be valued.  So, that being said…3486993182_0e7bf3568d

I’d like to make a case in support of hugging.    

Here’s why: touch is the most basic of human connections, and arguably the most important.  And slowly, inch by inch, we’re moving away from the ability to use touch in healthy ways outside of romantic intimacy.  Simply put: we’re becoming a culture of untouchables.  Now, I know all the arguments.  I used to be a pastor to high school students. While in that job, there was a general understanding that was present for all leaders in youth ministries across the country: don’t touch a kid–you’ll get sued.  The Jerry Sanduskys of the world have continued to erode our innocence, and now every touch is put into question.  Let’s be clear- keeping healthy boundaries to guard against abuse is absolutely necessary and appropriate…. but our hypersensitivity does come at a cost, well beyond young people. In a world where people are so isolated from one another, non-sexual physical touch has in many cases been completely lost, like ancient ruins that have been overtaken by jungle vines.  Is it possible to rediscover the beauty of holistic human interaction?

We live in one of the most oversexualized cultures in history, and ironically, one of the most isolated as well.  Statistics have never been higher about people feeling alone, feeling stressed, feeling overwhelmed.  And there has never been more scrutiny about the motives behind physical touch.
But can we step back for a moment and admit the truth? Sometimes people need to know you’re on their side, and an arm around the shoulder, a high five, or a hug can chip away at the despair.  Sometimes, when you find out your parents are getting divorced, or you think that you’re completely on your own in the world, or you’ve just had a really difficult day….. dude, you just need to be hugged for a moment.

I find many things inspiring about Jesus, but this is one of them.  Jesus had this countercultural ability to go out of his way to find the most untouched people in his culture- and offer them human connection.  He touched lepers, he touched prostitutes, and he refused to allow any stigma to stop him from showing love in the most basic human ways.  I love that about Jesus.  I love that in many of the mysterious miracles we read in the New Testament, Jesus didn’t just say something.  He took a hand, he touched a guys face to give him sight, he helped a lame man stand up.  More than words. He gave people access to his own humanity through touch, and I think we have the opportunity to do the same.

Jesus also told stories about the love of the father described through embrace.  There’s this story that many know as the “prodigal son” story, where a kid goes and blows his inheritance on stupid things and comes back expecting that he’s going to be disowned by his father–he’s become an untouchable– and guess what the father does?  Before a word is said, before any explanation, the dad throws his arms around his son and embraces him.  Why do that first? Do we even need to ask?  That motion communicates a more profound thought than a thousand words.  You are welcomed back.  You are accepted.  You are loved.  You are valuable.

That’s what I want to do.  I want my love to represent my father’s love.  Maybe not by running and throwing my arms around you every time I see you (let’s not get crazy here), but by refusing to play by the isolationist rules that are being adopted by most of us without even realizing it.

I remember back in 2005, during a month long trip to Zambia, when a young man about my age wanted to show me around the town we were living in.  He grabbed my hand and off we went, for the next half mile…. holding hands.  That was normal for him.  But not me!  It was both weird and eye opening, as I realized how my own culture was far less comfortable with physical touch than his was.  I learned quite a bit on that trip.

Now I’m not suggesting going out and hug bombing people (although this is awesome), or going on half mile walks holding your next door neighbor’s hand.  I know George, that would be awkward for me too. What I’m talking about is the enormous need in our culture to be connected- not through our phones, not through our text messages, not even through facebook–but through our humanity.  It matters.  And we won’t even get into all of physiological benefits of healthy human contact, like the oxytocin that’s released which boosts feelings of well-being.

The early church was in the habit, 2000 years ago, of greeting each other with a holy kiss.  I’ve yet to learn what makes a kiss holy, and I’ve got to admit that even I draw the line there.  I’m not suggesting we bring back the holy kiss.  Although to be honest I always find it kind of refreshing when I get to greet some of my Italian friends whom I haven’t seen in a while, and the lean in with the cheek air kiss, or whatever that thing is called.  I think it’s kind of cool.  I just don’t always know which way to turn my head, and that could get awkward real fast.

Maybe by choosing to intentionally practice healthy touch, we can move in a direction where we begin to break down the isolated, impenetrable walls that many of us build up to keep ourselves from admitting vulnerability.  It’s worth a try.

A hug is the opposite of an argument.  There is no winner in an embrace.  Wordless positive connections with people are becoming more and more rare, but there’s something about a simple hug that welcomes a friend into our presence; that says that you are accepted; that says that you are loved; that says that you are valuable. It’s one of the things that makes us and keeps us human.  And when we’re not comfortable or safe enough to allow someone to hug us, it can be symptomatic of a much deeper difficulty with letting people into our lives.  Maybe we start with family.  Maybe we simply admit when we need to be held, or we begin to be willing to hold one that we love when they need it.  It’s not rocket science, but it kind of seems life-changing to me.  Am I wrong?

So, if I see you sometime soon and you tell me that you’re not a hugger, I will absolutely respect that.  But guys, be aware that I’m awfully skilled at turning the man handshake into a quick bro hug.  Because brothers gotta hug, right?

everyone’s invited….

Last evening during our missional community gathering, my friend shared this quote from Gordon Cosby, a man who led a far-reaching movement of God’s love, centered in Washington, D.C.  He passed away in March, leaving an amazing legacy of radical community and care for the poor.  It’s worth sharing here, for all my friends who are a part of a church community (may we be reminded what it’s all about) and for those who have been turned off by religious stuff (may you be encouraged that your experience was NOT what God intends the church be about)……. as you read this, understand that the party is not referring to a “church service,” but to integrated life with God and others:

When we hear the invitation to claim our membership in God’s family, it’s like we’ve stumbled onto a Grace Party.  We can hardly believe our good fortune.  The sights and sounds of it are pure delight.  Abundance characterizes the whole shindig.  The most delectable manna is falling everywhere, and wine flows as though from an Artesian well.  Everyone is eating and drinking endlessly yet not being harmed because this food and wine are not of the world but New Life.


And get this: Everyone’s invited!  That’s the really good news.  No one has to crash this party, there’s no limit to how many of my friends I can bring along with me.  Or my enemies for that matter.  It’s such a blast that I want everyone to come–those with wealth or not a penny to their name, those who are down and out or who thought they had some power.  I do notice, though, that the so-called nobodies seem to be having the most fun.  It takes the others awhile to lay down everything they brought with them and start to play.

What are people doing at this party?  That’s the funny thing–we’re not ‘doing’ much at all.  We’re just being.  We’re being our real selves, relaxed and eager to help out with whatever the host asks of us.  Love is flowing all over the place.  Whatever you need, we’re ready.

Do you want someone to listen?

We’ll hear whatever you need to say.     

Are you bleeding from the wounds of the past?

We’ll soothe and bandage your wounds.     

Do you need to be held for awhile, just being quiet in a safe place?

Not a problem.  We have all the time in the world.     

Looking for respect, even reverence?

You’ll get such a does of it you’ll wonder if you can take it all in.

 
In fact, there’s so much peace and joy at this party that it can be hard to absorb.  Some of us just aren’t able to let in this much unimpeded Love and goodness.  That’s all right.  The host isn’t pushy.  We can come and go as many times as we need to until we can handle this much joy.

This is simply the nature of a Grace Party.  None of us is here because we deserve to be.  We haven’t earned any of it.  And although some of us might keep turning down the invitation, the host will never stop inviting.  And neither will we who have decided to stay.  We’ll be spreading the news of this unbelievable feast everywhere we go.  Come to the party!  It won’t be the same if you’re not there.

-Gordon Cosby

stop closing all the doors

My daughter Sariya is a firestorm of a 15 month old.  She’s loud, aggressive with her affection, and completely reckless with her body.  I can’t imagine where this comes from in her (Bethany, I assume).  But lately she’s gotten into this habit of closing every door she can possibly find. She can push any part of the door, move it with her foot, or IMG_3850head-butt it into place.  It’s quite easy for her.  The problem is that it’s not nearly as easy for her to open the door up after it’s latched.  The only way she can do that is to get a stool, stand up high enough to reach the knob, and then turn it all the way and pull.  That’s not exactly in her skill set yet, so all she does is go around closing herself off from the rest of the world, trapping herself inside, and then throwing a tantrum.  It’s kind of ridiculous to hear her complaining from inside a dark bathroom, where she has chosen to sequester herself just for the fun of being able to close doors.

I was challenged early this morning, freeing Sariya from yet another “locked in” experience, to be aware of how easy it is to close doors all around me, and how hard and more important it is to create open doors–spaces for people to connect on a deeper level, learn to love, work together, dialogue, and understand each other, without pretense. Closing doors is something that we all tend to be specialists at.  We can close a door without even thinking.  A simple comment about a certain “type” of people, a word of criticism or judgement, an unkind word to a family member, a bumper sticker, even a look…. they can all close doors in our relationships with others in the world.  Especially when we get into discussions about Jesus, and our faith.  If you don’t think like me, talk like me, act like me, then you are the other.  That kind of attitude is one that closes doors. And how easy it is for us to lock ourselves inside our worlds, especially in faith communities, and bemoan the fact that the doors are locked and it feels a bit claustrophobic.

We also close doors because it’s so much easier to not let other people into our imperfect, messed up worlds, and because we don’t know what to do with other people’s imperfect, messed up worlds, if they let us in.  But maybe it’s precisely because we feel the need to “do something” with it that we struggle to maintain openness. To be in community with one another does not mean to fix each other. At least not in Jesus-centered community, it doesn’t.

It’s so much easier to close doors than open them, but when is anything worthwhile ever easy?  “Discipleship” is the process of developing the heart of Jesus (his character) and learning to do the things in the world that Jesus did (his competency).  One of the biggest ways that we can follow Jesus is to imitate his door opening ability.  Jesus spent all of his life not just opening doors, but ripping them down.  Completely destroying the dividing lines of what was culturally appropriate, what could be talked about, who the in crowd was, and what God really cared about.

But the fascinating thing about life with Jesus is that the doors often need to open deep within us first.  We need to be comfortable allowing Jesus to shape our inner life.  Once we become open enough to be loved there, the door-closing tendencies in our outer life begin to stop.  We start growing up, realizing that we actually have the tools it takes to twist the knob and open.  We see the unnecessary foolishness of closing the doors around us.

This is tougher than it sounds.  But it will be the mark of the renewed Christianity that some of us are seeing emerging on the horizon.  The hope that those of us who call ourselves the church can truly be people without walls, who are far more concerned with learning the tools of breaking down barriers than we are with the easy little motions that keep people outside.

That world is possible.

falling grace-fully

After a full Easter weekend, our family took a much needed 36 hour respite and traveled up to central Pennsylvania to spend a day with my side of the family.  And as always, my parents had planned a number of exciting activities to do with the grandkids.  Egg hunts, wiffle ball, hot tubbing. These were great fun…. well, most of them.

The last thing that we did before leaving was breakout the old Twister game.  Remember that one?  People sprawling all over each other, falling down, laughing.  In particular, teenage boys LOVE the coed version of this game.  Nuff said there.

So back to yesterday.  The little cousins (3, 4, and 4) had never played twister before, so it was a fun idea. Bright colors, eye hand coordination, acrobatic stances.  Let me reiterate…. the idea, itself, was a good one.  Image

But the reality?  Not so much.  In fact, it was kind of a disaster.  My boys, learning about the classic Twister rules for the first time, got a pretty good grasp of how to play.  “Put your hand on a red dot.  Then, without moving your hand, put your foot on a blue dot.  Now, put your other hand on a yellow dot without falling over!”

They got that part.  But there was a problem.  From the beginning, there seemed to be an unnatural tension, an angst, in my little Millers.  The moments came pretty quickly when the color positions were too tough for them to match. That hand just couldn’t reach behind that foot.  And the body, though frantically attempting to stay put, asserted it’s autonomy from the mind and toppled over.   When that happened, I watched the boys and laughed at them as they yelled and crashed to the ground (note to self: develop empathy).  Turns out I was most definitely laughing at them, and not with them.  Because they were sobbing.

You see, my wonderful, sweet, perfectionist children couldn’t understand that the game always ends by falling down.  And since they couldn’t accept this reality, they were never able to enjoy the game, or play it fully.  What was supposed to be great fun became terrifying. They were so afraid of falling, so upset by the possibility of tumbling over, that they were paralyzed.  But that didn’t change the fact: for almost everyone, the game ends with falling.

Actually, it’s kind of the whole point.  That’s the fun of it- you know it’s going to happen, and you embrace it, and when you fall, you laugh, you roll over, you get back up, and you hop on the dots again.

But we forgot to explain that crucial bit of information to our kids at the beginning.  And since we didn’t explain that falling and laughing and getting up was a part of the game, we had unknowingly conveyed that you weren’t supposed to fall… like that was losing.  And no one likes to lose.

Some of you might be thinking, “well, Keith….. that is losing.”
Touche! But really?  The point of Twister, really, is to not fall?  Because, as I recall, the most fun moments of twister are when you fall, or when you nearly fall, because it’s impossible to hold your balance forever in that game.  Think of how awfully boring the game would be if it just went on and on for an hour just keeping an easy balance and never stretching for those hard to reach dots that are out of your grasp. As I pulled my boys into another room, held them while they cried (because they “just kept falling” and “couldn’t stay up”), I had to explain to them that falling was a part of the game.  In fact, that was what made the game so fun… it was an adventure, because you could fall at anytime. And then you’d laugh, roll around, get up, and jump back in.  They looked at me like I was speaking about a whole new world.

You mean that’s ok?

I’m allowed to fall over?

That’s what makes it fun?

We headed back to the vinyl Twister pad ready to play again… and most certainly, ready to fall. It still brought a few tears, overcoming their already imprinted 4 year old worldview, but I saw some growth.

And then it hit me. Wow. We are so the same.

Isn’t it hard embrace a reality where falling down is part of the game? Where we expect that as we stretch out, as we reach for new dots, and as we go through our lives, toppling is inevitable?

We need to learn how to embrace falling, and stop letting it paralyze us.
We need to embrace the nature of this game, and stop letting the risk of failure steal our joy, or stop our movement.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling like there are moments where my fear of falling down has stopped me from living fully.  My need to never mess up, to never fail, to impress everyone, to be successful in all that I do… actually stops me from reaching for new dots. Because I hate falling.

Nearly 8 years ago when Bethany and I recited our vows to each other, one of the most meaningful phrases we included in there was, “I give you the freedom to fail.” Boy have I relied on that one regularly!  But seriously, the knowledge that our value is not based on our performance is something that revolutionizes our lives.  It’s something that was central to the message of Jesus.

Our life over the past two years has been a series of dot-reaches.  Listening for which color, and which foot, and then trying to step there.  We’ve faced decision after decision that put us out there, precariously teetering.  And I’ve fallen, already, a whole bunch of times.  I’m getting to the point where I can go ahead and call them “failings” without a problem.  But I’m learning, as a pastor, a church planter, a leader, a husband, a dad, and a friend….. that if I’m paralyzed by fear, I’ll rarely reach out to step into the risky new opportunities that make up this adventurous, faith-filled life.

Helen Keller noticed, “Security is mostly a superstition…. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

So much of the good life involves risk.  Faith involves risk.  Love involves TONS of risk.  And we simply won’t ever risk anything if we’re afraid that things won’t work.
In our church, I want to help us develop a healthy Twister theology.  I want people taking risks, stepping out into exciting new adventures, re-imagining what the church can be.  And some ideas will flop.  Some initiatives will fail.  Some of us will be frustrated.  But we’ll hop up, smile, and know that hey, it’s all a part of the game.

I’m going to fall.  So are you. And if you think failing is failure, then you’ll never have a shot at enjoying the life God designed for us.  Laughter will be rare, and fear will rule the day.

Hopefully through Twister (and maybe a bit of healthy parenting), my kids will continue to learn the beauty and adventure of risky love, and risky faith.  And the inevitability of falling.  And the joy and laughter of living life drenched in grace and new opportunities.  And while I’m teaching them that, I hope I learn it too.