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I drove my seventeen year old to school the other morning. I haven’t been able to do that since she got her driver’s license so it was a nice reminder of how life used to be. About a mile from the school we saw the banners reminding us that going to school is not a casual event for us anymore. It’s a blessing we will no longer take for granted.

Dozens of signs on long stretches of highway lined the road reminding us we are strong. Marshall Strong. We need to see and hear that because there have been many times over the past several weeks when we certainly haven’t felt it. I pulled in and slowed down, not at the usual spot I had for her freshman and sophomore years, but at the place where all students will now be entering for bag searches and metal detections. As I drove away, I prayed for her and every person whose life has been terribly changed just by going to school.

A few miles later, I parked at another school. This time for work. I turned the music down and thought back over the last couple of weeks. The frantic phone call from my oldest child, trying to process the words “active shooter”, the call to my youngest child and the terror at the realization that it could make her phone ring and let a gunman know where she was hiding, the flood of tears at that moment (and this moment as I type that and remember the feeling), the sleepless nights that came later, the traumatized faces both young and old as we tried to make sense of something impossible to comprehend, the questions, the guilt, the grief over losing friends, and the fear. Not your average, run of the mill fear, but a fear I had never come face to face with before. A fear that, if given too much space and power, could ruin my life. I thought of the school administrators, teachers, and staff who, out of concern for the children they worked with, ran toward the gunfire not stopping to consider that they could be running to their own death. I thought about the great love they had for these children. For my child. I thought about the things they saw and heard and how they entered a chaos so dark and unknown to help, console, and save and then I realized this is how every Christian is to live. We are called to run into darkness and terror and help even when we’re terrified. And then I cried. Just sobbed tears of grief, exhaustion, and the reality that this is our life now and this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

I dried my tears, grabbed my things, and jumped out of the car. And then as I made my way across the parking lot I heard the church bells ringing throughout the city. I hear them every time they are played but today was different. This morning they sounded clearer. More intentional than ever and I was reminded of something better. Something eternal. Something strong enough to get us through the nightmare in which we were living. A call to worship in the very face of fear and grief.

I wish there was an easy explanation for why our society seems to be crumbling and a quick fix for it, as well. I don’t have a perfect answer but maybe it has to do with the fact that we glamorize violence and drama. Our nation, including our children (even our young children) are drug addicted and dependent. Mental illness is rampant. Family values are on the extinction list. We say we’re a Christian Nation, but we don’t take care of our poor or oppressed. We aren’t a champion for the least of these, either. We put more faith in Washington, DC than we do Jesus Christ. Our church pews aren’t filled and even if they are on Sunday mornings, our neighbors aren’t being served or loved the rest of the week. Just ask the local waiter or waitress on Sunday afternoon if we’re really the people we claim to be on the pew. We’re mean to each other on social media. Read the comments on news stories and bullies are the ones speaking the loudest. Comments on religious articles show another group of bullies. Church bullies. They’re the worst and they’re raising children to treat others just the same. We have problems. We have a society problem, a mental illness problem, a heart problem, a gun problem, a discipline problem, a government problem, a drug problem, and a respect problem. Our culture is diluted with problems. But God has not left us. If we would turn down the noise of our hectic lives we might hear the faint call to worship playing as a soundtrack to our lives.

Church, it’s time to step up. I know you’re struggling with life. I agree that it is ridiculously hard and at times, terrifying. I know some of you are stressed over your finances or with your marriages. Maybe you’re struggling as a single parent with the ex, with visitation, with child support, or the lack thereof. Maybe you’re totally completely on your own and feel so alone.

I know we all want to be loved and accepted. I know we are broken and hurt and sometimes don’t even feel like we are worthy to call on the name of Jesus let alone understand and believe it when we’re told we are the temple of God. I know we’re wrestling with the sins we’ve committed in the past and the sins we’re in the middle of right now. I know there are days we don’t even want to get out of our own beds. I know we’re busier than we’ve ever been and feel like we get nothing accomplished. I know we struggle with feelings of worthlessness, with insecurity, and with doubts. I know our children, parents, jobs, and churches can be exhausting. I know we wrestle with pride, selfishness, and gossip. I know there are times when we just want Jesus to come back so all this hurt will be over. But I know and believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that we love the children deeply and will do anything for them. So I challenge us all today to be the spiritual leaders they need. To encourage them to love God and love their neighbors. To rise above the drama and darkness that plagues us on social media platforms and in our communities. To turn off the news and open our Bibles. To return to God and commit our children to him. To encourage them to join youth groups and to get back into a church group ourselves.

Please quit believing that the government can fix all of our problems. And please quit arguing about it on Facebook. Refuse to listen to a world that tells you you’re not worthy to follow the Christ. Believe the God of Heaven and Earth when he calls you holy, chosen, and dearly loved. Shock people with your compassion and grace. Realize your neighbors need you. Your church needs you. Your children need you. They need you to speak words of light and love. They need you to model forgiveness. They need your peace and joy.

We need our people on the pews of our churches and we need our people on the curbs of our communities. We are missionaries. We are ambassadors. We are servants of the Christ. Our children need to see men and women of honesty and integrity who are preaching the name of Jesus. They need you. Yes, you! Stressed out, run down, overwhelmed, fed up, messy, broken you. Be the spiritual leaders that the children deserve. Show them that even when we’re tired and afraid, we can still be active in the work of the Lord. Rise up, bow down, and worship.

The next time someone tells you God isn’t allowed in schools, remind them of the men and women who ran towards the gunfire.

The next time someone says love can’t fix this world, remind them it already did. Now, it’s our move.

The next time someone wants to argue on Facebook, pray for them, and move on. You have better things to do with your life.

The next time someone grieves over this world, grieve with them but tell them about hope.

The next time life terrifies you, remember that it’s normal to be afraid but fear doesn’t get the final word. It doesn’t get to direct our path.

Regardless of this life and it’s trials we will refuse to let fear have the upper hand. In faith, we will radically love our families, our communities, our churches, and our enemies. We will rise above the terror. We will speak love and grace into the fire. We will refuse to stir the flames of drama and discord. We will humbly accept the mission to proclaim the name of the one who has called us out of darkness even when darkness arrives on our doorstep.

Evil may have its moments but its days are numbered. It may consume our nights but it will not win our hearts. Our God is faithful. Our God is redeemer. He is our strength, our King, and our comforter. We will endure. We will believe. We will worship.  

 

It appears we are discovering that faith based messages embedded in the arts, which we thought had no perceivable Christian connection, can become a powerful tool in the hands of artistic believers. It can widen the scope of faith for those who can’t see God outside the confines of a subculture, while creating dialogue with those who have no faith at all, or at least who think they don’t. God created everything; the spiritual and the sacred, ecology and stewardship, art and creation; everything is interconnected as an expression of him.

The 20th century was a unique period in human history. It was the only century in which the arts and faith were separated and antagonistic. Before the 20th century, the arts were an important part of the spiritual. It wasn’t the exception but the rule. It was an era when Christ’s people drove culture as opposed to seeking ways to be culturally relevant. Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Last Supper, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and Raphael’s Epiphany, all cultural icons with deep ecclesiastical roots. Oh, and monks still make the best beer.

If we could broaden our minds as to what constitutes a church activity we might not limit the life of the church to an hour per week on Sunday mornings. When leaders do that it’s easy to see how some forms of art might have a hard time finding their place. But when we recapture the idea of church life that draws us into vibrant, daily, life-changing community, then we can begin to imagine an artistic element to our body life.

Cultural dialogue is something Christians should have been doing all along in society, but were prohibited in the last century because of a flawed worldview that segregated Christian inspiration from the mainstream. Captivating culture again and giving it meaning through the eyes of faith rest solely on the shoulders of the Christ-follower. But a flawed doctrine called dualism left ‘cultural dialogue’ an unexplored arena for over two generations.

The sacred/secular schism, called dualism, theologically elevated the sacred at the expense of the secular. But to consider the secular a threat to faith is to give enormous ground to the enemy before a battle has even begun. We have claimed so little in this world. We have been like children playing in a wooden sandbox on the edge of a beautiful white sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see (and we brought our own sand).

When people come to see art, they encounter God. Whether it’s watching a dramatic performance, listening to a new rendition of Amazing Grace accompanied by an acoustic guitar, enjoying a solo, or a sculpture or painting, something happens when people’s creative juices are primed by the arts.

 

~Fred

 

A young woman preaches grace and truth and receives death threats from other Christians.

College students are hurt by their school and then wounded even more on social media by other Christians.

A preacher spends weeks agonizing over a sermon, praying it will bring glory to God and encourage the Kingdom only to be criticized, isolated, idealized, or treated as an office manager or building keeper by other Christians.

We wonder why we’re losing our children, why no one wants to talk to us about religion, and what we can do to make things better in this world. Maybe we need to take a long look in the mirror.

We are the holy people of God which means he should be influencing our actions, reactions, and words regardless of whether they are spoken or typed.

What does holy look like when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t interpret Scripture the way you do? It looks like laying down your stones and choosing grace instead. That may mean withdrawal but it never means cruelty.

What does holy look like when someone has been offended? Regardless of your opinion on the subject, holy looks like listening and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint and story.

What does holy look like for a church and her minister? It looks like an adequate salary for the vital role served. It means making sure they can afford quality health insurance for them and their family. It looks like good communication from and with the leadership. It means walking alongside them in their work for the Lord and not expecting them to carry the entire congregation. It means friendship, encouragement, and love.

In every relationship holiness looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s thinking Jesus and inviting him into every situation.

Church, it’s time we step up. We are God’s people. We know holy. Let’s start living it. The world is watching.

 

 

This year, Summit will offer two new and innovative experiences: the Global Refugee Medical Missions Experience and the inaugural Summit Film Festival.

The Refugee Experience will be a self-guided event during which participants can encounter a simulation of the sights and sounds of the refugee experience. Entering the refugee camp will lead to insights from Abilene refugees, a look at the typical day in the life of a refugee, and a chance to reevaluate the importance of Deuteronomy 10: “He enacts justice for orphans and the widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.” This Refugee Experience provides participants a brief opportunity to respond to and reflect on the worldwide refugee crisis, a crisis which demands a Christian response. More than half of the world’s 65 million refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan, or Somalia. Half of these refugees are children. The hope is that participants will become aware of the gravity of the crisis and understand ways in which they can help, particularly if they have medical experience or talents.

The films chosen for the Summit Film Festival center around the idea of “Caring for People in Crisis” and will include various feature-length films, documentaries, and video curriculum resources for small groups. The feature-length films will be Martin Scorsese’s award-winning film Silence and Facing the Darkness, the story of ACU alumnus Kent Brantly. Documentaries screened across campus include 13th, which exposes the racial inequality in the American prison system, White Helmets, the story of heroes who bravely attempt to rescue victims of Syrian airstrikes, Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, a film about the Christian poet, novelist and environmentalist, and The Resettled, which focuses on refugees attempting to make new lives for themselves after their old ones were ripped away. Viewing these films can help reveal ways we can serve and care for others as we become aware of the tragic experiences affecting the many people around the world. In addition to the documentaries and feature-length films, Summit will be screening DVD resources for church small group curriculum. These series include The Rewritten Life: When God Changes Your Story, Before Amen: The Power of Simple Prayer, Jonah: You Can’t Outrun Grace, The Shack (Study Guide), and Tony Ash’s series about C.S. Lewis, Jack and Me: Why I Like C.S. Lewis.  

May we experience the blessings of God as we all come together at Summit this September!

The church will always have an image problem in the world as what the church is about is not in line with what the world is all about. However, there is an area where the perception of the church is remarkably different than the perception people had and have of Jesus.

People see Jesus as welcoming and grace-centered whereas they struggle to see the church in the same light. If you look at those who came to Jesus in the gospels and those who were coming into the early church in Acts you find consistency. They were drawing people who were desperate for healing and reconciliation: sorcerers, pagan idolaters, the sexually immoral and so many more.

The early church was a magnet for the marginal.

Today, it seems that many on the margins would see the church as the last place to go rather than the first. We can do better and I am convinced that we will do better to change this perception. How we do this doesn’t mean we have to become more like the world. How we do this means becoming more like Jesus and the early church, not less.

As Stanley Grenz once said we must be “welcoming but not affirming” and as Jesus said we forgive with the charge to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV).

This month let’s explore how we address this perception issue. Is it more perception than reality and if it is reality where does this come from? What kind of attitude adjustments do we need to make? What texts do we need to camp out on to change the culture of our churches? I am looking forward to the conversation and as always, thank you for reading.

Renewal in your church

New Testament scholar Dr. Kavin Rowe, along with Dr. L. Gregory Jones, recently released a small book entitled Thriving Communities: The Pattern of Church Life Then and Now.1 Utilizing his scholarly knowledge of Acts, Rowe offers some remarkable and convicting observations about the life of the early church, particularly in light of the tension between the church and the larger culture. He says that Luke’s story is that God “aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life – a comprehensive pattern of being – one that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Greco-Roman world.”

What might Rowe’s observations mean for us as Christian leaders today? Let’s take a look at seven big themes in Acts:

  1. The early church constantly built and nurtured networks of disciples and communities.
  2. The early church did not remain hidden but made sure there was public witness to the gospel – whether at the temple in Jerusalem or in the pagan temples in places such as Ephesus and Athens.
  3. The early church cared for persons at the margins; the Grecian widows in Acts serve as an example.
  4. The early church taught and articulated faith as a living reality that gives life.
  5. The early church understood conflict as simply a way of identifying what was really important.
  6. The early church recognized that suffering is part of the journey.
  7. The early church engaged in prayer as a fundamental practice.

These identifying markers of the early church as observed in Acts might be worth consideration for leaders and congregations today by asking these questions:

  1. Are we actively forming and nurturing groups of disciples through Sunday school or small-group ministry?
  2. Does our church find ways of making the gospel message public in our community?
  3. In what ways are we caring for persons at the margins?
  4. Does our church teach the core fundamentals of the faith in a way that gives life and meaning to our congregation?
  5. Are we willing to explore conflict as a path to our future (or do we avoid it)?
  6. Are we prepared to suffer or to relinquish strongly held ideas, possessions, or status for the sake of God’s will?
  7. How well do we practice prayer as a way of life in our church?

I will be the first to admit that these are hard questions. But I also think they reflect well the witness of the early church as seen in the book of Acts. Maybe asking such questions and engaging in a close reading of Acts might well be a useful exercise for leaders in your congregation.

Renewal begins with God’s work. And in many cases, God is simply waiting for a church and her leaders to get serious about seeking a new and vibrant day. I can’t think of a better thing to do than to let the witness of the early church guide us.

Blessings on your work of leadership!

Carson


[1] C. Kavin Rowe and L. Gregory Jones, Thriving Communities: The Pattern of Church Life Then and Now, ed. Alissa Wilkinson (Durham, NC: Duke Divinity School, 2014), Electronic Format.

NEWS & NOTES

A glance at 2016-17

The Siburt Institute is excited to share with you its 2016-17 Year in Review. The institute’s team members cherish the many opportunities afforded them to serve and fellowship with congregational leaders across much of Texas and the nation. The Year in Review highlights new initiatives such as the Congregational Health Assessment launched in 2016; long-standing traditions, such as the ElderLink events established in 2000; and so much more, including the second year of the Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative. While there’s no way to tell all the stories and experiences that constitute the Siburt Institute in just a few pages, the document will allow you to meet a few of the people who serve and are served by the work to the institute.

A witness to leadership

In his latest CHARIS article, “I Saw a Captain in Action,” Steven Brice reflects on his experiences at Oak Gardens Church in Dallas, Texas, where he recently completed his tenure as the spiritual formation pastor. He speaks of the church’s journey through a time of transition that could have easily been very choppy waters had it not been for the skillful and thoughtful leadership of the congregation’s senior pastor, Dr. Paul Day. Brice highlights lessons learned along the way as he witnessed Day embrace, share and actualize a vision for Oak Gardens “to become a safe church for the unchurched.”

Siburt Institute matching gift challenge

The Siburt Institute for Church Ministry recently launched its first-ever major fundraising campaign when a generous donor couple offered to match up to $50,000 for any amount raised by the institute. The first five years of operating funds were graciously covered by a few donors who believed in the mission of the Siburt Institute from its inception in 2012. The challenge grant campaign now opens the door for everyone who wishes to see our efforts to resource and support congregational leaders across the country continued. If you wish to partner with us, we invite you to make a gift at acu.edu/give-siburt and your gift will be matched 100 percent!

A peek into the world of refugees

The Summit 2017 team invites you to a special exhibit at this year’s event designed as a small window into the lives of the nearly 65 million refugees in the world today. The Global Refugee Medical Mission experience will provide images and pre-recorded narration that reflect what many refugees might encounter on any given day.

To view, go to Room 115 in the Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building on Sept. 18 or 19, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; or Sept. 20, 9:30-10:30 a.m. A host will provide instructions about the self-guided exhibit that’s expected to take about 15-20 minutes to complete.

Summit 2017 will be Sept. 17-20 on ACU’s campus. Registration is free and highly encouraged, allowing the Summit team to appropriately prepare for your arrival. For more information, visit the Summit website.

Theres still time to register for Randy Harris events

  • Summer Weekend Intensive Bible Course, “Christian Ethics in a World Gone Mad: How to Cope and Even Thrive,” Aug. 4-5, ACU’s Hunter Welcome Center. Registration is $60 and includes meals. Register by July 31.
  • Ministers’ Lunch Hour With Randy Harris (A Lunch and Learn Event), “Does the Church Matter?” 11:30 a.m., Aug. 29, ACU’s Hunter Welcome Center. The cost is $15 and includes lunch. Register by Aug. 22.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS

THOUGHTS TO PONDER

“The word vision and the word see are related. If people cannot see, there is no vision. One of the best things any leader can do is to create simple pictures of organizational dreams and goals. But the leader cannot create these dreams and goals if they are not first pictorial in the leader’s mind. Without clearly drawn maps to the future, the organization remains hamstrung to the past.” – Dr. Calvin Miller, The Empowered Leader: 10 Keys to Servant Leadership

“People do not follow programs, but leaders who inspire them. They act when a vision stirs in them a reckless hope of something greater than themselves, hope of fulfillment they had never before dared to aspire to. And hope is passed from person to person. God-given visions of hope are shared, shared by leaders who see the vision with people who don’t. But sharing is more than talk. Hope bursts into flame when leaders begin to act.” – Dr. John White, Excellence in Leadership: Reaching Goals With Prayer, Courage & Determination

After a decade in full-time ministry I can say that I’m worn out. Some of you reading this chuckle and say, “Wait until forty years in, kid!”
 
Touché
 
After five years of Campus Ministry in Cincinnati, and five a Senior Minister, I’d like to think I know what I’m doing. Truth is, I have no clue. I most likely never will. I’ve come to terms with that.
 
I had a stellar education at Ohio Valley University. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a better Bible program in the world. I knew how to study and interpret Scripture. I knew how to exegete a passage. I knew Greek and Hebrew. I could write thirty pages on 1 Peter 3:21.
 
Then there’s the career readiness part: I knew how to type a resume. I had a ministry portfolio. I knew how to network. I had my heretic detector installed. I could smell a false prophet long before I ever saw them. I had audio recordings of my sermons.
 
I had knowledge.
 
Yet, I found something lacking when I left the ivory towers of academia for the local church. I found that I could use those skills I had acquired to teach and preach. I could explain the Word. I could recite the passages.
 
But, I couldn’t rest in God.
 
In ministry, we read blogs about burn-out. There are volumes of information on it. Blogs, books, and podcast reveal how to recognize it. They tout remedies on how to help someone going through it. You know, like, how smelling essential oils aids the Holy Spirit to work in you through you. How, you ask? They induce a nostalgia trip to the corner of Old Narthex and Potato Salad Potluck. It’s the scent of the color Church of Christ Brown. I digress.
 
The information is there. What isn’t there is the application.
 
The Apostle Paul writes,
 
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. – 1 Cor. 13:12, MSG)
 
We have moments of clarity – when the fog lifts -AFTER we’ve gone through something. So it is with us who labor for Christ. We get caught up in our knowledge and how much we can care for others. We pride ourselves in providing an open door every day of the year. We work every day.
 
We’re in the trenches. We’re fighting demons. We’re pulling people out of gutters. We’re traveling the globe to tell about the new Kingdom that Jesus purchased. We’re in the hospice rooms with the dying. We’re cramming our sermon and lesson prep in when we should be sleeping. We are the servants of the servants of God.
 
We are on empty. I am on empty. Our families are on empty.
 
While we preach and teach. While we serve and pour out our lives. While we miss first birthdays and family gatherings to be with the ones who are in the valley of death. While we get called back early from the vacation we’ve scrounged and saved for years.
 
We’re in Children’s Hospital pleading with God that a three-year old boy won’t die. And then, weeping in the parking garage for half an hour until we regain some semblance of composure. We’re burying people in baptism and then burying others in the cemetery.
 
We’re the first in line to get yelled at by parishioners. We watch as our families take bullets from bitter, hurting members. We get the anonymous letters full of vitriol on Monday mornings.
 
Our lives are a bi-polar, manic depression inducing roller coaster ride.
 
We. Are. Spent.
 
But let us not fall into Satan’s pity party. Let us not shy away from hard work and self-discipline. Let us not run because we’re tired, but tire because we had the audacity to run. If we trust Scripture, we know it tells us that God will renew our strength and we will not fall or grow tired.
 
We absorb some of the most vile things in this world. We see evil first-hand in the hearts of our brothers and sisters. We see sin and addiction ruin lives. We see unimaginable loss. We experience the emotions of those we help.
 
We are burden-bearers.
 
But what a beautiful thing it is. That’s why we don’t lose our heart. That’s why we don’t need self-help, but God help. We enter into the sacred spaces between eternity and mortality. We see the transformation of people who we’d discounted or judged out of the church. We see the Spirit changing the hardened hearts of the staunchest members. We experience Him chipping away at ours.
 
Let us not forget, then, that though we are in this beautiful mess, it is not a dark one. Let us not forget that we are not to rely on our power and strength, but on His. Let us not forget that God is our refuge, our strength, our shield. Let us not sit on His throne.
 
Let us not rest in our abilities or our skills. Our communication and our preparation. Our wisdom and our knowledge.
 
Let us go to our Burden-Bearer. Let us approach our Prince of Peace. Let us rest in Emmanuel.
 
Let us sit with our family as we thank God for the simple moments of love. Let us celebrate with our members when they trust God in areas that are tough. Let us mourn with those who are suffering. Let us feel what those who are mentally hurting feelings. Let us run the race. Let us have the wisdom to speak life, not death. Let us be able to say, “no” to some things.
 
But, Lord, let us not… Please God… Let us not think we the hero of the Story.
 
We are standing on the shoulders of those who went before us. We are planting and watering. Someone else will reap the harvest. Let us not think we are indispensable and irreplaceable. Father, let us know that you are… And let that be enough for our tired bones. Let us not give up, no matter what.
 
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. – Ps. 4:8
 
I’m worn. But I’m not finished. Neither are you. Have some courage. And for the love of God, sleep and love your family.
 
You and I are a mist… But God adores and loves us. He has called you to this. He has given you everything you need to run the race. So run. The world is counting on you.
 
 
 

To our dear graduates,

We pray for you to be as mighty as Samson, the world’s original “Strongman”

as faithful as David, a man after God’s own heart

as dedicated as Nehemiah, who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem

and as patient as Job, who refused to curse God for his suffering.

We challenge you to be as motivated as Noah, who built an ark from scratch

as brave as Esther, who dared to approach the king on behalf of her people

as passionate as Jeremiah, the weeping prophet

as loving as Ruth, who would not abandon her family

and as bold as Paul, who was undeterred by beatings and imprisonment.

We will pray that you will be as encouraging to others as Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement

as busy with good deeds as Tabitha, who spent her life helping the poor

as humble as Moses, whom God called “the most humble man on earth”

and as trusting in the Lord as Abraham, who followed God into unknown lands.

We encourage you to remain as pure as Joseph, who rejected the advances of Potipher’s wife

and when you sin, because we all sin, we pray that you are as eager to repent as Peter, who went out and “wept bitterly”

We are so proud of your accomplishments thus far

and are excited to see what God has planned for your future.

We make you this promise

We will pray for you, love you, and be here for you

as you embark on a new adventure

set an example for others

and as you become more like Jesus.

       -Paula Harrington and Shane Coffman

I was asked to write about love. It makes sense. If there were any month to discuss the concept of love, it would be February. And if there were any year to discuss the concept of love, it would be 2017. But this request hit me like a ton of bricks, and in a typical God-fashion, at a time I’ve had the most trouble with the concept. And in a predictable Jonah-fashion, I avoided this message as long as I could.

 

I don’t make this confession lightly. For those who know me, I have a knack of saying what I think quickly, passionately, and without much thought for those who may disagree. I get outraged a lot, and it often overwhelms my senses, floods my ears, and overtakes my mouth. When I get fired up, the whole concept of love eludes me. Like a resounding gong and clanging cymbal, I ring empty. I am anything but patient in these moments. I am proud, angry, unhopeful, and self-seeking. This past year, I have lived in a fired-up state, which makes writing this all the more difficult.

 

But it’s in the difficult we hear God speak and right now, the church desperately needs to hear his voice.

 

Our small community of believers may disagree a lot, but hopefully we can all embrace the unifying belief that God prioritizes love. The Greatest Command (to love God and love others) guides the narrative of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The Bible consistently describes God as loving. Verse after verse, book after book, this love is communicated through stories, covenants, relationships, miracles, songs, and prophecies.

 

This love is the heart of the Gospel. God so loved the world and sent his son. His son made this love the focus of his ministry, going so far as to eat with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes, telling stories about Samaritans and prodigal children and sheep. God’s son then chose death and resurrection as the denouement of his earthly demonstration of God’s unfathomable love. All this to say, if anyone knows love, it’s God.

 

It’s interesting to see how God chooses to define this for us. We grew up hearing about the Samaritan neighbor. It was practically the go-to flannelgraph in Sunday school. For me, the story of the  “neighbor”—of loving him or her—was a fairly innocuous teaching. (Probably because I never met many Samaritans in my particular Church of Christ.) It never made that much of an impact. Though Jesus’s ministry revolved around this idea of loving your neighbor, the definition he provided me seemed…open to interpretation. (And while I realize this is lazy theology on my part, it appeared that the word “neighbor” meant no more to me than the word “Methuselah” or “Gilead.” It was an ambiguous command.) It wasn’t until I understood the actual conflict between the Jewish people and the Samaritans that the teaching of loving one’s neighbor started to resonate with me.

 

These were two groups of people divided by racial and ethnic barriers, who had entirely different cultures, whose acts against one another were often hostile and violent. Jews would burn Samaritans’ villages. Samaritans would desecrate Jewish sanctuaries and harass them on their travels. The Samaritans were often oppressed and marginalized, outcasts in their larger community. They were wholly untrusted and reviled among the Jewish people. They were seen as unclean, as sinners. To describe a Samaritan as “good” would be just as nonsensical as describing water as dry. Yet, Jesus endeavors to do just that. In his explanation of what makes a neighbor, he centers the story on a Samaritan who showed mercy to a Jewish man. In doing so, he takes a relationship formerly built on hostility and violence, and transforms it into a call to love.

 

If it were up to me to define my neighbor, I guarantee that I would choose the easiest of them to love. They’d fall in and out of neighbor status based upon their proximity to my life and the least challenge they presented to me. They’d look a lot like me, with maybe one or two differences that I could tolerate. I’d pat myself on the back for being so loving. I’d then go about my day, relatively unmolested and comfortable. I’d tell my family about my good deed, and believe that I acted as God expected. I loved my neighbor.

 

That should sound utterly ridiculous to us, because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know exactly how God defines “neighbor.” It is neither comfortable nor free from harassment. God’s definition of neighbor is radical. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus would say it’s the ones who we are most hostile to, the ones we can’t imagine crossing a road with, the ones who are entirely different than us. I know immediately who this group is for me and I would bet you know who they are for you. The problem is that when I start to understand the definition the way God intends, the innocuous becomes the threatening. It requires some major adjustment and major sacrifice. It requires me to walk with those I previously found hostile, violent, unclean, and sinners. It requires me to step outside myself, and, instead, love my neighbors as I would myself. This means I am no longer concerned for my comfort, my safety, my happiness, unless I’m concerned for my neighbor’s as well.

 

Look at this teaching. It’s revolutionary.

 

And it is greatly lacking in our church.

 

We tend towards a love that does not require this kind of sacrifice. This idea of crossing racial and ethnic lines and of tearing down barriers of culture and politics and religion seems foreign to us because we’ve been in a rut. We’ve traded our calling for comfort. We’ve played it safe. We’ve barricaded our sanctuaries instead of opening them. Our love comes with strings and “only ifs” and sanctions. It has become something we give out sparsely, to people who look like us, think like us, pray like us, read the Bible like us, vote like us, and live like us. We have a hard time identifying our Samaritan because it scares us.

 

“Who is my neighbor?”

 

Is it the Syrian refugee looking for a host family?

 

Is it the undocumented immigrant working down the street?

 

Is it the liberal, pro-choice protestor at city hall?

 

Is it the murderer on death row?

 

Is it the black man protesting police brutality?

 

Is it the transgender woman teaching your daughter’s second grade class?

 

Is it the gay family adopting a baby?

 

Is it the feminist marching in Washington?

 

Is it the gun advocate at the shooting range?

 

Is it the conservative woman homeschooling her children?

 

Is it the Muslim going to the mosque next door?

 

Is it the military member going to war?

 

God is love. He compels us to find our neighbor and figure out how to walk with them down the road, instead of waving them along on the other side. He requires us to love him with all our heart, to give ourselves up for others. God shows us the most excellent way, and it is up to us to take it.

 

That’s my prayer for our church. It’s my prayer for myself.

 

May we bask in the goodness of God’s love.

 

May we find our Samaritan and get to loving them.

 

 

 

 

Kaitlin Shetler currently services as the Director of the ACCESS Ability Program at Lipscomb University. She is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and has over seven years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little-to-no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the Church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems.

While some have perhaps read The Shack as an actual account, the title page identifies the piece as a “novel.” This is a fictional story. But…it is nevertheless true. The movie, too, is fictional…but true.

Read The Shack, watch the movie, and walk with me into the world of spiritual recovery, a journey into my shack and your shack (Meeting God at the Shack, my new book). That is what The Shack is about.

The book, as well as the movie, is a modern parable. Like a parable, the events described are fictional though possible (that is, it is not science fiction). And, like a parable, it becomes a world into which we step to hear something true about God, life, and the soul. 

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15), for example, is a fictional but true story. As fiction the story has no correspondence in fact, that is, it is not a story about a specific, actual family. No one walked up to Jesus after the parable to ask the name of the son, which family he came from and into which “far country” he went. Whether it is actual history or not is irrelevant. It is a fictional tale. But the story is nevertheless true. The Prodigal Son says something true about God and his relationship with his children.

A parabolic story draws the listener or reader into the world of the parable so that we can see something from a particular angle. A parable is not comprehensive theology, but a story-shaped way of saying a particular thing. As a piece of art rather than didactic prose, it allows a person to hear that point in an emotional as well as intellectual way. It gives us imagery, metaphor, and pictures to envision the truth rather than merely describing it in prose. Rather than analyzing propositions, we become part of a parable’s narrative. We are free to experience our own life again as we are guided by the storyteller.

Parables, as the parables of Jesus often do, sucker-punch us so that we begin to see something we had not previously seen about ourselves, God or the world. They speak to us emotionally in ways that pure prose does not usually do, much like music, art and poetry are expressive in ways that transcend discursive or academic descriptions. This enables the right side (the artsy side) of our brains to connect with what the left side (the analytical side) of our brain thinks about. We can feel these truths rather than simply think about them. As a result those truths can connect with our guts (our core beliefs about ourselves) in ways that our intellect cannot reach. The truths, then, can settle into our hearts as well as our minds.

The Shack is, I think, a piece of serious theological reflection in parabolic form. It is not a systematic theology. It does not cover every possible topic nor reflect on God from every potential angle. That is not its intent. That would be too much to expect from a parable. The “Prodigal Son,” for example, is not a comprehensive teaching about God.

Rather, the focus of The Shack is rather narrow. Fundamentally, given my own experience and hearing Young talk about his intent, I read the book as answering this question:

How do wounded people journey through their hurt to truly believe in their gut that God really loves them despite the condition of their “shack”?

The parable is about how we feel about ourselves in our own “shacks.” Do we really believe—deep in our guts, not just in our heads—that God is “especially fond” of us? How can God love us when our “shacks” are a mess? The parable addresses these feelings, self-images and woundedness.

The theology of The Shack engages us at this level. It encourages us to embrace the loving relationship into which God invites us. Consequently, it does not answer every question, address every aspect of God’s nature or reflect on every topic of Christian theology. Instead, it zeros in on the fundamental way in which wounded souls erect barriers that muzzle the divine invitation to loving relationship.

So, I invite you to reflect on these themes—to process them within your own journey, out of your own woundedness, and in relationship with your own God. I invite you to walk with me through my own spiritual journey of recovery and perhaps illuminate your own walk with God.

May God hear our prayers for healing, meet us in our shacks, and love us so profoundly and deeply that our wounds become scars rather than festering sores.

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