Sunday, September 25, 2011

Being Curious

It's amazing how narrow in outlook people are content to remain. Ask someone:

Politics? Nope. Not interested. All crooks.
Race relations? Not my concern.
Hunger? I'm not hungry so why should I care?
Have you read ...? No time.
What about the euro? It doesn't impact me.
Entitlements? People should get a job.
Religion? To each his own.
Sex trafficking? What?
Educational equity? Don't know what you're talking about..

There's a whole lot of shrugging of shoulders, rolling of eyes and dramatic utterances of 'whatever' these days. Or there is the parroting of a very narrow political or religious perspective that hasn't really been though through very carefully on our part. And I wonder ...have we forgotten how to be curious?

I don't expect people to know about everything but I do expect people to know about more things than they do. We live in a global community. Our lives intersect in very interesting ways. Issues are complex. Without a desire to know about things that matter we are in danger of living lives of extraordinary selfishness and dramatic sinfulness. Without curiosity we are in danger of retreating to ugly little ghettoes of pop culture tweets and text messages where we know a whole lot about things that don't really matter.

What do we need to be curious about? A good starting point is to be curious about the things that break the heart of God. For instance, we need to be curious about things like the plight of the poor, the widow, the stranger and the orphan. That would lead us to ask questions about the distribution of resources, the best ways to deal with immigrants, and the state of health care. And those questions should lead us to an exploration of the issues and asking "how does God want us to respond.". And why do other good people disagree with me? Is there something I'm not getting?

Good prayer is about curiosity. We ask. Where should I go? How should I act? What should be my response be? And we look to a good God to speak, to open doors and opportunities.

I want to be known for being curious. For asking questions and not accepting pat answers. For being uncomfortable with the status quo and for wrestling with mystery. That means I must have habits in my life that include reading widely, listening to opposing points of view, and digging deeper to discover root causes of issues before me, and then accepting and diving into how God wants me to respond. More about that in my next blog.

Friday, September 23, 2011

In Community

I remember something ‘big’ happening to me just prior to leaving for college right after my graduation from high school. It was bigger than big. It had life changing ramifications. I needed to talk to someone. But as I looked around me I couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone within my friendship circles. Maybe it was embarrassment, perhaps fear, for sure confusion reigned in my head. So, instead of seeking help I hunkered down and closed in on myself. I needed others but couldn’t bring myself to share what I needed to share. I needed to share a secret but didn't have anyone I could trust. Talk about feeling lost.

Hunkering down and closing in on myself became a pattern. Occasionally, I'd gather my courage and venture towards openness but most times I found that what I shared got mishandled and used against me. So I hunkered down deeper thinking that what I needed was within myself. It was a lie.

I'm sharing this because I'm writing a series of blogs about what I want to be known for. Thus far I've declared that I want to be known for being present to God and available to others. I now add a desire to be known someone who lives 'in community'. What does that mean? I think it means helping to create community. It means appreciating the communities I already have, It means allowing myself to be known within those communities and to extend myself to know others. It means being nourished and nurtured by community. I think it means being rooted in community.

'Doing life alone' isn't what I want to sign on for. Been there. Done that. Not satisfying.

Let me confess something. I have some very idealized notions of what 'community' is all about. During the course of writing this I've come to realize that my idealism has gotten in the way of appreciating what I already have. And I have plenty. I have been blessed with all kinds of community experiences. What I often lack is an appreciation of them and what they mean for my life. I am blessed.

Now there's a part of me that yearns for a deeper sense of community. That yearning may lead to something new or perhaps God using me as a change agent within existing communities. In all honesty what I long for scares me a bit for it will require something more of me and force me to ask some questions about why I hold back from that which I need.

At the heart of all this,of course, is an understanding that God didn't design us to do life alone. That's never been part of His plan. It's life together. As I look at the world in which we live I have a sense that we're all going to have to rethink notions of community again. The economic, emotional, and spiritual realities of our immediate future are going to force us together in dependent ways. I think we are all going to need to be known for being 'in community'. That's going to require some major paradigm shifts and massive behavioral and attitudinal adjustments. It sounds scary but it also sounds like a great opportunity.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Available to Others

Available. Lots of people are available. Go to any singles bar and you'll find everything from newly available to desperately available. "Just give me a call if you need anything" people will say but not everyone really means it. Lots of folks are not really available but want to give the appearance of availability. I'm like that some time but I'm not proud of it.

One of the things I want to be known for is my availability to others even when it's inconvenient or what they're asking is out of my comfort zone. So I've got to ask God for help dealing with a major strain of selfishness that has managed to root itself far too deeply in my life. I've got to learn to get over myself and move towards others.

Now don't get me wrong I'm not a complete mope but I'm also not where I know God wants me to be. It's a growing edge and a golden opportunity. And I'm thankful for that.

Of course, none of us can be all things to all people and as a means of protection we've learned to set up boundaries. Boundaries are a good thing but only if we're not hiding behind them. I know people who have great on-the-surface boundaries but live selfishly and indulgently. That's not God's way. Good boundaries are necessary to help us steward our time, talent and treasure and not to keep us from the stewardship of our lives.

Even a cursory look through scripture cements the idea that God wants us to live our life for others. Even those we don't like. Even our enemies. We usually skim across those verses, pretending they're not really there. Silly of us isn't it?

I'm beginning to realize that God wants us to live lives of extravagant love. To live with open minds, open hands, open hearts, open calendars, and open pocketbooks. Too much of many lives is closed off to the possibilities only openness allows us to see. How available do you want to be? More importantly, how available does God want you to be?

This is the third in a six part series asking the question 'when all is said a done what do you want to be known for?". A couple of days ago I suggested that I want to be known as someone who is present to God. You can read the previous two posts by going to www.mike-ascend,

Friday, September 16, 2011

Present to God

In a recent blog post I wrote about what I wanted to be known for. The first thing on my list was being known for being present to God. To me that's at the center of God's purpose for every persons life.

Present to God. Words come to mind like attentive, quiet, listening, centering,solitude, disciplines, interactive, speaking, and being. All things, by the way, that don't come easily to me. I battle against them. I'd much rather do than be. I'm much more adept at talking about God than I am in experiencing Him. And that's not serving me well.

I do 'faith' for a living. I work for God. But if truth be known much of the work I do for God has it's origins in my own needs and wants. Obedience plays a role. I know enough about God's will to dutifully do the right things in the right way and often, even, with a good heart and humble intentions. But do I know God?

I can't know God unless I'm present to Him. Neither can you.

Have you ever been around someone who knows God? I have. More than a few. Some quiet. Many not. All wired differently. The common denominator has always been 'quality time alone with God'. Not just quality time either. It was good chunks of time in the presence of God. Those times were daily. Sometimes twice a day. I remember one of my bosses in Young Life named Tom Raley. Tom gave to the Lord the first hour of every day and the last half hour before going to bed. It was the habit of his life. Each day being in the presence of God was eagerly anticipated.

What is my habit?

What's yours?

We put ourselves in the presence of God so His presence can infill our life. That's where the power we are all looking for comes from. We're at our best when God is working in and through our life and we are responding to the promptings of a surprisingly talkative Holy Spirit.

So when all is said and done and people said at my funeral ..."Mike was attentive to what God was prompting. He allowed himself to cultivate the habit of being present to God." ...well, there would be far worse things that could be said, huh? Not a bad thing to be known for.

I watch people live their lives in amazing ways. Some good. Some not so much. So much of what I see is people living reactively without purposeful intention and reflection. People live life fast. Too fast. What would happen if we all slowed down and habitually placed ourselves in a quiet place allowing God to love on us and whisper his desires into the weary and broken places of our life? We would be transformed I think.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Known For

What are you known for? Aside from your shiny personality, dazzling smile and smart wardrobe what are you all about? What defines you?

I've been thinking about that lately as I've been attempting to write a personal mission statement for this stage of my life. I've been asking myself ..."what do I want to be known for?" I wanted to do it in 20 words or less. Here's what's energizing me.

Known for being:

Present to God
Available to others
Rooted in community
Curious about issues
Effective in Response

And if this is what I'm going to be known for then how do I order my life in order to make this happen? What are the habits, practices, and disciplines that support my sense of mission? And am I willing to have my calendar and bank account reflect my commitments?

I've got a ways to go in each of these areas. I know a lot about God but do I actually know Him? Who are those others I need to be available to? Who do I need to be doing life with and where? Am I willing to remain socially responsible and intellectually curious? Am I walking my talk?

What do you want to be known for? In twenty words or less can you zero in on what you want your life to stand for?

I think it was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That's true. Knowing who or what really gets our attention and focus can help drive us to the next best thing God has for us. Too many just kind of drift along in life. Intentionality is lacking.

Try it. Grab an hour. Take out pen and paper or your tablet and in twenty words or less state definitely what you want to be known for by those both near and dear and others you encounter on the journey. And then take some time asking what needs to change in your life so you can make that happen.

By the way, this is both life-giving and flat out scary. I've got a list of questions and concerns in my journal about each of my 'known for' that excites me about where I'm heading in one moment and makes me want to hide in a closet the next. Kind of thinking I'm right on the edge of adventure. Not a bad place to be.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Time to Roll

I remember September 11, 2001 very clearly. It was my second week working at Christ Church, I was living in Evanston at the time. I was in my car at Golf road and Harlem when I turned on the radio. And I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I remember pulling up to the church, anxious to be with a community of people, and immediately joined others to watch events unfold. There wasn't a lot of talk. Just people riveted to the horror we were witnessing on the screen. Then we were informed that one of our staff members, Jeff Mladenik, was booked on a plane that was flown into one of the towers. The horror became even more chilling for now one of the terrorist victims had a face and a name.

 9/11 changed everything. For awhile we came together as a nation to pray, to comfort each other, to find answers. And in the days that followed we caught a glimpse of the beauty of lives submitted to the authority of self-giving love. We remember the rescue workers and the volunteers who flocked to helped. We witnessed open-hearts and joined hands all across America.  This was a change we needed. We came together. And when we heard stories of courage and sacrifice such as those passengers on the plane that crash landed in Pennsylvania we were awed by bravery. And like Todd Beemer we were ready to roll. We were inspired by selfless giving.

 Church attendance doubled on the Sunday following the tragedy. But within a short period of time attendance waned, and the closeness of community began to splinter again. A mood swept through our country. We felt less safe, more fearful. Some say we began to distance ourselves from each other. We knew the world had changed profoundly and we struggled to come to grips with a meaningful response.

Throughout the past decade the ripple effects of our national tragedy continue to wash over us. Fear and mistrust continue to manifest itself in all kinds of ugly ways . Now ten years later we find ourselves in the midst of a global economic crisis, a mistrust of government and institutional authority, rampant incivility on the airwaves and in the halls of power, a war against terror that seemingly has no end, and racial and economic divides. For many the American Dream has been dashed and they find themselves ill prepared to adapt to a changing world. And many wonder if our moral compass has been lost.

 Of course there are signs of hope and goodness but I think it's safe to say that 9/11 ushered in a sobering reminder of what evil can bring and keeps bringing into our world. The Way of Terror leaves a very unsatisfying aftertaste in our mouth. Even the hunting down of Osama Bin Laden didn’t fill the void many felt. The fruits of terror leave us feeling empty and unsure. We try to rally around the flag, stay positive, anchor ourselves to the next best new idea or the hottest political candidate but we often find ourselves wondering, in our quieter moments, if anything can refocus our attention and reorder our priorities.

It's remarkable, isn’t it, what a small band of fanatics, submissive to evil authority, can do to change the psyche of the entire world.

 Scripture tells us that we should not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. How can that happen? I believe that there is a path leading to freedom and of hope. It's the Way of Jesus. At our church we're going to take the next year looking at how He wants us to live and where He wants us to go. It's an opportunity to get our bearings again. To check our maps, to look for the trail markers, to look at our compasses, to find true north again. We live in a tough world but we live in a world that comes with a promise for those who love Jesus ...don't worry, I will never leave you or forsake you. He reminds us that we are His masterpiece, created to do good. And guess what? There is a lot of good that needs to be done.

I want to say clearly that the Way of Jesus is the pathway to real life but I can't promise you that if you walk this path that the world we once knew will magically reappear, that your bank accounts will be full again, that your house will sell, and terror will disappear. I can't promise that. Nor would I want to. I think many of the things that are part of our American Dream aren’t necessarily central to the good news Jesus proclaimed. Here's something that is central. It's Romans 12 from the Message.

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Let me paraphrase the paraphrase. God wants us all in walking along His way. Period. Allowing our lives to be a fragrant offering. Allowing Christ and His teaching to define us. Not our allegiance to some political philosophy, not our lack of contentment, not our anger, nor our fear. He wants us to be lifted up, not dragged down. And we can’t be lifted by becoming adjusted to every cultural whim and fancy or becoming mired in a world of unforgiveness or vengeance. God wants us to be defined by what happens on the Way of Jesus through the person of Christ Himself. He and only He is the hope of the world. God wants to define us and shape us so that we are more and more like Christ. He might use our club membership, our politics, our work, our play, our position, and our use of money to help accomplish that. And he might not. He might want to strip us of our props or redeem them for His purposes so that nothing challenges His authority in our lives.

I get this sense that God wants us to roll with Him because He wants to use us to change the world as we know it.  It means being all in, deep in. I'm reminded of the words attributed to Dwight Moody who said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) "The world has yet to see what God can do with a man or woman fully consecrated to Him. I want to be that person." I wonder what would happen if we dived into the deep end of the pool of discipleship. Could we change the world? G.K. Chesterton once said: "Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting. Nope. it hasn't been tried." There's some truth in what he said. I don't know about you but I want in on the trying. I actually believe we can change the world. It's time to roll. .

Sunday, September 04, 2011


The speaker at our church today talked about loving others. Our last song was about how much God loves 'us'. It's not that the song and message don't work together on some level but I was a bit unsettled as I prepared to send our crowd out the doors.

I remember saying something like this. "Yes, God loves us. That's true. But he also loves 'them' and we've all got a 'them' in our life. And if this love relationship with God is going to mean anything we've got to learn to love those we point our fingers at." And then I prayed us out the door.

I'm still unsettled and I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it's a reaction to an individualistic, pietistic response to faith. You know what I'm talking about. It's about Me and Jesus and asking for His blessing to continue to do the things that aren't really good for my soul and are actually sinful but I feel I'm entitled to do them.

Part of the unsettledness is also a reaction to those who try to take the whole of the Good News (and it's more than personal salvation) and gerry rig it into teensy eensy pieces to justify a political or economic philosophy that can be the antithesis of what Christ actually intended.

And I am unsettled because I'd rather sing about how much God loves me much of the time instead of considering the 'them' God is always concerned about.

And I find myself guilty of self serving pietism, proof texting to justify lifestyle and attitude, and doing far too much talking about the walk instead of walking the talk.

Next week I preach on the ten year anniversary of 9.11. It has special relevance for our church because we lost one of our staff members who was aboard the plane that crashed into one of the Twin Towers. We knew early on he was on the plane and it made the day all the more chilling. And I am unsettled about what to say.

It's not hard to talk about the emotion or the feelings of that day in history. And we will. It's good to recall and remember. But many will want a rallying cry to America the Beautiful. And as much as I love our country I worry that patriotism trumps Christ for way too many. And I need to remind people of the way of Jesus which is often more than waving the red, white and blue. And in the case of 9.11 the specter of 'them' still remains and how do we find ways to love those we are naturally inclined to marginalize and perhaps even hate.

Let me be clear. Terrorism is not of God. Terrorists need to be brought to justice. Whether it happens in the classroom where a child is bullied, in a home where a wife is abused, in the words of drive by gossipers, or in the intentional taking of life by hate filled factions terrorist actions are detestable. Utterly detestable. And yet I know that world.

I've never plotted to take a life but I've done other things that have diminished another human being. And it was wrong. And at time like that how thankful I was for a God who forgives and people who loved me despite what they saw and helped me to become a human being again.

I wonder in our post 9.11 world how willing we are to make steps toward understanding, towards reconciliation, towards bridge building and open arms. The 9.11 terrorists took the willingness to trust away from us. And that inability to trust is killing us. Trust needs to be restored one interaction at a time. When we live with a mind-set that labels people 'us' and 'them' we miss out on opportunities to build the Kingdom of God. We can't afford to miss those opportunities any longer.

Pray for me this next week for the right words, the right attitude, and the right degree of biblical challenge. Pray that my unsettledness can be used by God to call people to a higher purpose and instill in them a desire to help build a country that cares about the things God cares about.