Thursday, September 23, 2010

Questions. Hard questions.

I'm in the second week of facilitating a discussion among a diverse group of wonderful people about the important issues of our day and age. We're going to be tackling at least a few of the following questions tonight. It sets us up for a continued, honest dialog about such things as race, ethnicity, privilege, power, and class.

As you know I believe that unless we figure out ways to really talk together instead of hurling slogans, rumor, innuendo, and hate around ...we're in a deep pool of water with no way out. Hard questions among people desiring to come to some common understandings is one way to bridge the gaps in today's culture. Feel free to use them in your own journaling, in a home group or Sunday School class. If you can bring together young, old, rich, poor, white, black, brown and yellow the discussion will be richer.

The first time I realized there were people different from me in the world was…

What does the current economic recession mean to the rich?

What does the current economic recession mean to the poor?

If you consider yourself a person of privilege how does that impact the way you look at the world?

How does racism manifest itself in today’s world?

Talk about how you think class divisions and racial divisions in our country are impacting people.

Is social justice really part of the gospel message of Jesus?

Can someone truly be a follower of Christ if they don’t care about people who are on the margins of life? Who's on the margins?

What does racial reconciliation mean to you?

When you drive through a ‘city’ neighborhood and see a group of young men on the corner wearing white t-shirts what runs through your mind?

Have you ever felt you’ve been denied opportunity because of your race or ethnic background?

How has a relationship with someone truly different from you impacted your life?

Do you ever get confused as to why people of another ethnic or racial group act the way they do?

When people you know say ‘times are tough’ what do they mean by that?

It’s said that ’10:00 Sunday is the most segregated hour’ of the week. What’s the problem?

When you pass by a gated community what do the gates represent to you?

How has the amount of money you have or the lack of money impacted your life?

Do we live in a society where there is equal opportunity?

Many people who drive into the ‘inner city’ for the first time find themselves feeling apprehensive? Why do you think that is?

Have you ever felt you were being watched or targeted because of your race or ethnicity?

When someone points out that ‘so and so’ lives a life of privilege what do they mean?

When someone points to someone else and says ‘that person feels entitled’ what do you think they mean?

Is life more fair for some than it is for others?

When Jesus talked about the ‘least of these’ what was he talking about?

When you ask the average suburbanite about the ‘inner city’ what are they thinking?

When you ask the average person who lives in the ‘inner city’ about people who live in the suburbs what are they thinking?

If God called you to ‘give away all that you have’ in order to follow Him what would that mean to you?

What does ‘living the good life’ mean to you?

Would living in a diverse neighborhood appeal to you? By diversity we mean diversity of class, age, color, sexual identity, religious faith and educational achievement.

What ‘stereotype’ of you bothers you the most?

Have you ever thought that your race, ethnicity or gender ever got in the way of opportunity?

Do you think you’ve gained opportunity because of your race, gender or ethnicity?

In what ways do the people you know exhibit fear of people who are different from themselves?

What do you think being poor means to someone who is rich?

What do you think rich means to someone who is poor?

In many urban neighborhoods schools are not good, food is hard to get, there are safety concerns, and jobs are hard to come by. What causes such things?

Saturday, September 18, 2010


My wife has a great job/ministry. She gets to talk day after day with some of the great thinkers in evangelical Christianity. Those kind of thinkers don’t ignore the contributions of mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox. Her truly interesting guests have dived into the treasures provided by pre-reformation scholars and practitioners and are wise enough to know that God has been at work outside the confines of evangelicalism and certainly within that movement in great ways.

One of the great treats for me is to sit down with Anita and listen as she talks about her interactions with those kind of guests on Midday Connection. These are the kind of people I want influencing me.

Last week Anita had a couple with wide and deep ministry influence and experience on her show. My guess is that they are 70ish. They continue to have an influential ministry mentoring many. They are good thinkers. They planted some questions in her mind about where she and us were investing ourselves beyond our personal ministries. We spent some time talking about the questions they posed. The next day, on my commute, I spent some time pondering what I now recognize as the stirring of the Spirit. Three questions are flowing in, through, and around me.

1. Who are the people Anita and I are choosing ‘to do life with’ (as a couple) in an intentional manner?
2. Who are the men I am choosing ‘to do life with’ in such a deep way that I am truly known to them and they are known to me?
3. Who are the next generation of leaders I’m investing in for the sake of the kingdom?

These are questions of community, accountability and transparency, equipping and legacy. And I don’t have great answers to them.

Let me be truthful. I know a lot of people but am so busy that I am close to almost no one. Much of my work with people has a work/ministry focus so I am always bothered about how far I can go or even should go to reveal the deeper things of my life. That’s a struggle for many in ministry. And I struggle, internally, about whether or not I truly have any wisdom and insight to pass on to a new generation. For that line of thinking I am chastised by my wife.

I’m realizing that I have some deep longings.

I long for community but my introverted tendencies draw me inward and busyness traps me. I long for accountability, authenticity, and transparency. And I am realizing that I have fewer years left in my life than I’ve currently lived. So, there is a longing to give away what I have learned and am learning to others.

In some respects that happens in my current life. I am surrounded by such good people both at Christ Church and Breakthrough. And I have opportunity to counsel, mentor and encourage within those settings. I am a blessed man. Certainly, issues of community, legacy, and accountability are addressed to some degree through these ministries. But not totally.

Sometimes, what one yearns for is beyond the ‘work’ environment. Sometimes I just desire to be Mike …without title or job description and the accompanying expectations.

Anita’s interview with that ministry couple was a challenge to think differently at this stage of our life. It was an invitation to think a bit more selfishly about our own wants and needs without neglecting the commitments already established. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond work/ministry environments and obligations and ask ourselves basic, hard questions.

What do we need? Desire/ Want?

That’s hard to answer. Sounds selfish to some extent. But we are at a stage of life where we’re realizing that asking these kind of questions aren’t selfish at all. They are necessary. We’re wondering if we can create something for ourselves that might be a blessing to us and to others. And if God is stirring all this in our hearts is He doing the same thing with others we know?

My guess is that some of you reading this might need to ask the same kind of questions. At this stage of your life …what do you need, want, and desire in order to live into God’s call for you? I’d urge you to consider such questions and to be open to what the Holy Spirit might reveal to you.

I'll keep you posted about our journey.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Is lost the new normal?

Those who know me well know that I’m not a big fan of cultural theology that proclaims that it doesn’t matter who or what you believe in as long as you believe in someone or something. When someone says all you need to get to heaven is a desire to do good, go green, watch Oprah, love Bono and choose a spiritual path …and any path will do… I’m a tad bit underwhelmed.

All through the Scripture we find God deeply concerned about men and women and even entire nations who act independently of His counsel and direction. And from His perspective God thinks people are lost, like sheep without a shepherd, and needing to be found. And we’re lost because of this thing called Sin that is active and alive and wants to keep us hiding from God and living apart from Him. It has ramifications for eternity and on the current quality of our life. Lost is a big deal. Huge.

I know this about lost. It’s not fun being lost. It’s not fun being called lost. And I’ll do just about anything to make sure I don’t get lost …I’ll even ask for directions (hope I don’t get booted out of the man club). If I could have invested in anything during the past few years it would have been a gps company. Even people who never go anyplace have gps. I mean, they never leave their neighborhood and they’re punching in their destination to go to the same restaurant they’ve gone to every week of their life.

GPS is in because people know that being lost is not fun.

When my family moved to the Chicago area 27 years ago they ventured on the L to go do the loop. They missed their stop and ended up deep on the south side of Chicago. A kindly woman approached my family and after inquiring where they were headed shook her head and said ‘you’re way off course’. And explained how they could get back to the loop. She was very kind, for not only did she give directions, she offered to stand at the station with them because she didn’t consider the stop safe.

Lost is not only not fun but it can also be dangerous.

In the 15th chapter of the Book of Luke Jesus has just finished interacting with Zaccheus, a tax collector. And from the perspective of the religious score keepers of the day and age Jesus has once again done wrong. In their eyes, Zaccheus was a sleezy, slimy guy.. He was a pawn of the Romans and an enemy of his own people. And he was a very obvious slime ball because he was dealing with people’s pocketbooks. And if anything gets people’s attention it’s someone who can impact their personal ‘bottom line’. Some things don’t change.

The religious leaders had this quaint notion that ‘faith’ was for those who toed the line, who kept the rules, who at least attempted to create a fa├žade of righteousness. And then Jesus came along and turned those notions upside down. Not only does he talk with Zaccheus but he hangs out with him and in the process Zaccheus makes some dramatic changes in how he ‘does life’. And then Jesus makes this very dramatic announcement “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

To seek and save the lost. What a personal mission statement, huh? I mean that’s very dramatic. So, let me ask you a question. Do you think people you know are lost? And if they’re lost do they even know it? Do they even care? And should we care about lost people? Could you yourself be a little lost?

I was lost at one time. Didn’t even know I needed a Savior but I did. And then after I met Christ I periodically managed to wander away from Him. Every once in awhile, God has had to come find me again because where I was heading wasn’t good. I was even hiding from God and I needed to be reminded that He loved me.

At times I feel a little bit like Charlie Brown in one of his encounters with Lucy. Lucy comes up to Charlie Brown and does something that is very unusual for her. She says, “I love you.” But Charlie Brown keeps responding by saying, “No, you don’t.” And each time Lucy answers a little louder, “Yes I do, I really love you.”But Charlie Brown has been rejected so many times he keeps saying, “It can’t be true.” So in the last square, Lucy has reached the limit of her patience and she screams out in a loud voice, “Hey stupid, I love you!”

That’s a message God sends me often. And I’m thankful.

Being lost means that you have a problem. You’re not where you’re supposed to be. If it really doesn’t matter where you are and all paths are the right path …why would Jesus care about Zaccheus? Or me? Or you? Because he loves us. We matter to him. Lost people always matter to God.

If someone’s lost, by the way, that doesn’t mean that that person doesn’t contribute to the common good, aren’t fun to hang out with, aren’t moral people, aren’t helpful or are not well read or don’t have great insights, and can’t be pillars of the community. That’s not what it means. It just means that when you’re lost you’re not at ‘home’ with Jesus. You’re living far from God and not being the disciple He wants you to be.

Lost people include those who don’t know they are lost but really are. It includes those who know they are lost but are having such a good time where they are that they don’t want to be found. And it includes those of us were once found but figured out a way to get lost again. Some lost people are notorious sinners and are easy to indentify …bin Laden, Hitler, and Idi Amin come to mind. Others are the kindly school principal, the helpful policeman, and the good Samaritan who helped us when we locked our keys in the car. It doesn’t matter what title they hold or what kindness they do lost is a spiritual condition that manifests itself in a variety of ways. But basically it boils down to living life with God being a stranger. And even really nice people do that. And it’s a problem. For our purpose is to be known by God and to know Him and then to live in a way that says we belong to Him.

Jesus talks about ‘lostness’ in another part of the gospel of Luke. It’s in Luke 19 where Jesus talks about three lost objects – the sheep, the coin, and the son. All represent people who are spiritually lost. According to pastor Tim Keller …”They are lost, yet they are lost in quite different ways. The sheep is lost through foolishness, the coin through thoughtlessness, and the son through willfulness.” It’s a very nuanced look at the problem of sin in a person’s life and how it contributes to getting us lost.

Jesus tells us stories like this to help us understand that lost is both an innate part of the human condition but it’s also due to foolishness, sometimes thoughtlessness, often it’s a willful embrace of another path and sometimes it’s a combination of all three. The end result is that we end up where God didn’t intend for us to be.

Ever feel lost? What takes you off the path? Is it your foolishness, your thoughtlessness, your habit of being inattentive, or are you a stubborn, strong willed person who makes very conscious choices to do your own thing at the expense of experiencing God’s best?

Last week I sat down to talk with a young man I had just met. We met at a conference. He opened up to me and said that he wasn’t doing well spiritually. His disobedience to God was putting him on a perilous path. I mentioned to him that it sounded like he was lost. He said, “Yah man, that’s it. I’m feeling lost.” And he said it with great sadness. I’d love to say that our conversation fixed his life but it didn’t. I don’t know exactly what the disobedience was all about but I’ve got a sense that it was sexual sin. He said, “I’ve got to stand tall. Quit buckling.” And then we were interrupted by the conference and I didn’t see him again. But I couldn’t get over the sadness I saw in his eyes. It’s haunting me even today.
What will it take for him to confess to his foolishness and admit to his stubbornness? Will he be open to being found or will he live in a land called ‘lost’ where his profound sadness will become his new normal?

‘Lost’ is not a good place to be. No matter how we gussy it up and try to make it pretty Jesus is making it very clear that when someone is lost, far from Him, then there is a problem. Heaven wants the lost to be found.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Many moons I took a group of adolescent guys on a winter camping trip. We picked a weekend in late January and met in the hinterlands of northern, MN. Our intent was to camp out in tents all weekend. We hadn’t counted on the weather being as brutal as it turned out to be. When we started our hike to the camp site the temperature was 30 degrees below zero. The temperature for the weekend would not get above 10 below zero. As we neared the place where we were going to put up our tents we realized that we really needed better, more secure shelter. Only a few of us were adequately prepared for the brutal, brutal cold. If we didn’t find adequate shelter we could be in some serious trouble. Luckily, we found a nearby cabin …part of a Boys Club camp …nothing more than an uninsulated cabin for children. But as we peered through the windows we saw that it had a small stove. We broke the lock to get in and made the security of that small cabin, our shelter, our refuge from the frigid cold for two days. At any other time it would not have been my first choice. That weekend …it felt like the Hilton. By the way, we made things right with the owners of that cabin.

A few weeks ago I was coming back to the burbs from the city. I was in Hillside when some huge winds and rain came rumbling in. I pulled into a Walgreen’s. Seeking shelter. I wasn’t the only one. There were others who knew that was happening out there was bigger than their capacity to handle it.

We know about shelter. Any port in a storm sailors are known to say. But not all ports are good for the long haul, not all shelters are adequate for extended periods of time and not all shelters can stand up against deep cold and high winds. No, not any port will do. We know that. For many of us have pulled into ports that we thought were safe and secure but instead proved to be unsteady and filled with peril.

In the 73rd the writer shares his frustration and anger.. He’s been looking around and wondering why people who indulge themselves seem to be happy and those who obey the rules are getting the short end of the stick. I’m sure we can all relate can’t we?

And then the psalmist goes into the sanctuary of the Lord and exits a different person. Contrite. He confesses to a bitter heart. And out of that confession comes a clear resolve..

Then I realized that my heart was bitter,
and I was all torn up inside.

I was so foolish and ignorant—I must have seemed like a senseless animal to you.

Yet I still belong to you; you hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, leading me to a glorious destiny.

Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth.

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.

Those who desert him will perish, for you destroy those who abandon you.

But as for me, how good it is to be near God!I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do.

So, the big question today is this. Do we live in the shelter of God? And especially, when life gets tough, when we’re surprised by circumstance, when we’re humbled by uncertainty, when we’re beaten down and scrambling, and when life seems unfair … is our first instinct to find shelter in God, to be near to Him or is the shelter of God only an abstract concept? Do we seek to be near to God or do we distance ourselves from Him when the road gets tough? Is the shelter of God our normal resting place?’

A few weeks ago I was at Breakthrough Urban Ministries where I hang out a couple of days a week. Arloa Sutter, the Founder and Executive Director, had bad news for the staff. She said that the recession had finally caught up with us. We’re at the edge of our resources. For the second year in a row she announced there would be no raises. In addition, a couple people would lose their jobs. No longer would the organization be able to afford matching payments in the 401 c plan. Hard news for many people already on the edge of a financial precipice.

When she was done talking. Someone asked if we could pray. And we did. And I wondered what kind of prayers would be prayed? What I heard amazed me. The prayers were prayers of great thanksgiving. Of praise. Thanking God for where He’s worked in the past, how He has met people at point of need, and how he is already at work in the midst of this bad news. One man begin to cry and repeatedly said "Thank you Lord, Thank you Lord. You are so good to us. You are so good."

In the break that followed. Arloa said, What just happened? I said “You just kicked people in the teeth and now they are thanking God for it.”

And I thought. How could this be? So I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve come to these conclusions. My friends were jumping into the arms and shelter of a God they knew. Intimately. They prayed Scripture. Which they knew. Intimately. They were in the habit of taking in the word of God. They were able to shout, “You know what you’re doing God. We’re trusting you.” Because they’ve trusted before. It’s easy to pray, “I’m in your arms Jesus” when you’ve been in the Savior’s arms before. Their identity was secure in the refuge of a God who knew them and they knew Him. Their memory was sharp about the ways God had met them at their point of need previously. They believe that even though everything is going crazy all around you …that when you are in the arms of God nothing can harm you. Nothing.

That’s why apostle Paul could say in Corinthians 2. We will be afflicted, perplexed, struck down and even persecuted in this life but affliction doesn’t have to crush us, being perplexed doesn’t have to lead to despair, being persecuted and struck down doesn’t mean that we’re forsaken or destroyed. Paul believed, deep in his being, that there is safety in the shelter of the kingdom of God. What about you?