Liberation in A Massage Parlor

This morning I went with my wife to get a massage as part of her last days of her twenties. She will turn thirty tomorrow. It was not one of those couple’s massages. I am not against those, it is just I wanted my wife to have her own thing.

We went to a national chain and were greeted with a marvelous deal. We endured the mild pressure tactics to supersize our experience with momentary and fleeting deals. It was almost like being on Deal or No Deal. We managed to escape in to the calmly lit relaxation waiting room. There were comfy sofas and a large plasma TV acting like a digital fish tank full of exotic fish.

My wife is called back first and than me. I go back to my room and take off my shoes and t-shirt. I lay on my stomach and the massage begins. My masseuse engages in a bit of small talk. “How are you today?” “Is this your first massage?” “What do you do for a living?”

I answered the first two questions honestly and with no haste. I wavered on the third. I thought do I really want her to know what I do? I weighed my options and calculated the risk and answered. I answered, “I am a minister.” I was fully hoping that would shut down all conversation and I could get in to the relaxing part of the massage.

It got quiet after my response. A couple of minutes passed by and I hear her say, “May I ask you a question.” If you know me you know I love to talk to people. I rarely turn down a conversation. Better yet meeting new people and holding court is my favorite pastime. So without hesitation I respond, “Sure. Go ahead.”

She asks me, “What do you think about Revelation? Are we in the end times?” BAM! I was floored by her question. So long relaxing moment. Hello, Mr. Lecture. I asked her if she wanted my opinion, beliefs, or what the church taught about it? She said, “I guess I want your opinion.”

I shared with her my past engagement of Revelation as a Conservative, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Charismatic Christian and how I literally interpreted scripture and sought to live it out militantly. Back then Revelation scared me and fashioned me in to a sin counting zealot responsible for everyone’s sins and had to “save” as many folks as I could to do right by God.

Then I told her how I see Revelation now. A book that describes a particular moment in time describing the horrors of Nero and the hoped destruction that would befall him and the empire he represented. I no longer felt responsible for everyone’s sin. Rather, I held on to the idea of corporate sin and worked to fight injustice and build relationships with a diversity of people.

She was sort of taken back by my answer. She inquired as to what sort of religion I practiced. I told her I was Christian, like her. She did not care for that much. She started in with an Apologetics trajectory. It brought me back to those days when I argued for people’s souls, wrapped with my Sword (my Bible), and cloaked in the unrelenting truth of God. I tensed up.

She shared with me her story. She had lived a tough life and found peace and salvation in Jesus. She left her spouse in Las Vegas to return to Oklahoma and that peace that God was calling her to.

I listened to her seeking to affirm her. She weaved in to her story solid truths and started to pick what I shared with her apart. She then blatantly offered I am not sure what you believe but I know it’s not the Christianity that I follow.

I tried to counter with, “There is room for many ways of being faithful in my understanding of God.” Then I offered up the story of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men focusing on their particular experience with the elephant in their declaration of what an elephant is. They were unaware that they all shared a particular glimpse base in their particular experience with the elephant that when shared together offered the vision of the whole. She would have nothing to do with it. She rejected my story as sounding Buddhist. She was Christian and not letting the devil tempt her with that sinful knowledge.

I lay there quiet, trying to relax. She struggled with words but she maintained the massage. She seemed to channel her frustration in to the knots on my back. I was not hurting; it actually was a good massage.

I remained quiet, determined to enjoy the waning portion of this experience. I was quiet for sometime and hoped she would be too. She returned to Revelation and what she thought about it. She expressed her desire to one day be a missionary and go to the “Third World” to save folks for Jesus. I did not want to challenge her paradigm any more. I just listened.

She went on for about ten minutes. I lay there and listened, trying to fill my peace. As I did I noticed in her words courage and a sense of daring. She and I were really saying the same thing but could not agree on the definitions, let alone the parameters of conversation. I would offer something and she would counter me with her perspective, unable to hear what I was saying.

I did the same to her. I heard the Conservative, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Charismatic Christian buzzwords and I shut down. I was not really listening to her. I was trying to figure out how to “fix” her. I pitied her and her backwards, folky ways and beliefs. I thought myself to be better than here, more educated. I felt as if I was beyond this poor, simple woman’s capability to understand who God really is.

I really started to listen and not figure out a way to change her. As I listened this time her words sounded much like Gustavo Gutiérrez. She did not say the words “preferential option for the poor” but she spoke of it in her experiences and hopes for herself in the hyperpatriarcal religious world she was in. Her words begged for liberation. Her hopes called for justice.

I listened to her and when there was a silence I asked her if she liked to read. She said she did and was always looing for a good book to read. I told her about Gustavo Gutiérrez and my favorite book of his “The God of Life.” I gave her a quick synopsis of it and tried to relate what she had been saying to what I felt the book was speak to. She did not say a word.

The hour had passed my knots were sufficiently undone. Her “healing hands” had blessed me with health. I put on my shoes and t-shirt and proceeded to leave. She stopped me with a pen and asked me to spell the name of the book I spoke of and the name of the author. She wrote it down on the prescription she was supposed to give to me for the front desk.

We settled our debt and left. I sort of chuckled when my wife asked me if it was relaxing. I told her my masseuse and I talked theology the entire time. My wife smiled and said, “Only you would go to get a massage and turn it in to an opportunity to talk about God.” Yup, I learn a lot about God from everyone I met.

Unlock and Imagine a church

The Gospel is much like the art that Lucas creates. Lucas seeks to engage and transform the environment around him as he challenges, connects, explores, and comments on what he experiences.

Lucas calls us to view the world from a lens that is honest with what and how we experience security. The Gospel calls us to do the same. The Gospel calls us to witness the world around us with different eyes and in different ways. The Gospel does not physically transform the world at first glance. The Gospel moves us as it challenges, connects, explores, and comments on what we experience and how we manifest the creativity we are imbued with.

The Gospel demands we reframe the way we engage Pressure and Manipulation. Pressure is no longer a weapon but a source for transformation. It becomes a way to call attention to injustice and aid the Other. Manipulation ceases to bring guilt and shame to the world. Manipulation in the Gospel sense overs a truth and guidance through the murky waters of human sin.

Now imagine a faith community that challenges the way we live. It demands that we become aware of the choices that we make, seemingly unaware of the connectivity to which we already hold. This faith community connects us to the reality that is already present. The faith community nurses us to health by awakening us to that newness that is offered in relationship with the Christ, which connects us to the Creator.

This is the faith community to which I desire. I hunger for that place that unlocks mystery for the pleasure of being in the mystery. I want to be part of a faith community that connects me to those deep, meaningful moments that happen to us. I want to be part of a faith community that explores the beauty of creation that surrounds us. I want to be a part of a faith community that comments upon the injustice in action to secure justice for ALL. In this, I want to be a part of a faith community that transforms as it unlocks the responsibility I hold to you, to ALL as I am awakened to the deeper self, the Other.

I want to be a part of a faith community that places security in the hands of God and demands that I arrive as I am and loves me enough to not let me stay that way. This is my hope and pray for the PC(USA). The question becomes, can the Presbyterian Church (USA) let go of the fear and hold on to the hope that exists in beyond tradition, emergence, missional, and transformation? Let not our eyes focus upon the finger and miss out on all the heavenly glory.

Death is Art: The Church needs a mess of artists.

I have had a hunch for the last ten years or so that something has been going on in the church. I remember the early post Y2K era. I was spoon-feeding my faith on church hopping. I was on a mission to fins a church home.

I went to mega churches, house churches, mainline denominational churches, non-denominational churches, and once went to a Messianic Temple that meet in a strip mall. I went to a lot of churches.

I was like an addict searching for a fix. Only my drug was Jesus H. Christ. My gear included a well worn NIV Bible, a hunger for the Word, and some clouded ideas of a faith beyond my fading evangelical norms.

I wore costumes to these various churches. I took out all of my piercings and covered my tattoos with a new GAP button-down shirt and a pair of chinos the first time I went to the Presbyterian Church that eventually became my church home. I raided Barry Manilow’s closet as I sported a look to numerous churches in hopes to be accepted and loved.

I can say with the benefit of hindsight that I was accepted in most places. I would be greeted and introduced to who ever had some kind of connection to prison or recovery ministries. Unfortunately, for that person I was not in recovery or have I ever been to prison. I once saw a film about Naval Aviators but that does not make me a sailor.

My point is my physical presence somehow challenged the folks that were already there at the church. The church I ended up hanging my hat at loved me. The pastor did all they could to reach out to me and shepherd me to health. The congregation loved on me very much. I fondly remember them and the relationships I was blessed to forge.

There were some strange folks that had no idea how to engage me. It was no different than my real life strangeness that hung on my family tree. Not everyone can have a moped-riding cousin with a jacket that has elastic bands that hold a twelve-pack! We are just lucky like that.

This church was the first time as an adult I was able to engage in a healthy way the church as a family, with all its bumps and bruises. I still long for that church and those people where my faith was refined and I first awakened to this hunch I am talking about.

There was a sense of adventure and daring. This church was heavily invested in the youth around it. Youth played a heavy role in the life of the church. I would say that the congregation was entirely oriented around the youth that lived in the community and hung out at the church.

The budget reflected its commitment to the youth and to the future church. There was never a difficulty in finding volunteers to cook meals, chaperon events, or mentor the faith of the youth at the church. As part of the staff there I was supported well. I got affirmation and love t-from the oversight committee all the time.

I accepted this as the norm and expected that this is how the church must operate. If the church wanted to bear witness to the Kingdom of God it would need to stay serious about investing its resources to the youth. This was proven time and time again in my time there.

Then I became a missionary and went to seminary. I talked shop for a few years. I volunteered here and there. I even helped plant a church my senior year in seminary. I interned at a couple small rural churches in Central Oklahoma. I got exposed to realities that differed from my almost Pollyanna vision of the church I encountered in Los Angeles.

That hunch awakened and I realized I was not alone in that hunch. The church wanted me to be a leader. The church wanted “us” to come in, bring our friends, marry and have families, and take over the beautiful churches that they had built. There was only one problem, when we came we were not all that welcomed. Well, we were welcomed but we were not invited to be a part of the church as much as we were expected to come in and replace the aging cogs of church with our new, youthful, spirited cogs and do the work of the church.

When that happened we left. Not just laity but clergy has left. We do not have the energy to continue to serve two masters. We do not have the ability to work two full time jobs. We are being asked to maintain the church of yesterday as we plant the seeds, nurture the seeds, and harvest the seeds of tomorrow.

This does not describe all the churches out there. It does describe enough situations out there that I pray we as the church pays it mind. That hunch I have had for the last decade is real. The church is killing itself. The church has been slowly asphyxiating itself on the traditions of the past.

As we struggle and seek that answer to fix the decline of the mainline church we have forgot to invest in the leaders, the people of the church of tomorrow. I know there are programs that offer education and support to some that may equip them to do great ministry. I love these programs. I am not sure it is enough.

What would happen if we focused on digital first? What would happen if we focused all of our resources towards the next generation of faith?

We are operating out of fear of provision and serving a church that has little chance in reaching out in to the great digital divide. We focus on maintaining and supporting the systems we have in place. “If we do X we will lose donors.” I have bad news those donors will die and be lost and when they are who will stand in the gap?

My hunch is that the church that shall exist in the future will be small, socially active, intentional, intimate, low-cost, and have little overhead. I am sure there will be churches that will not look like this. I think there will always be a place for big ass churches. I am sure that new growth will not emerge until the old passes on and fertilizes the seeds they have planted. I pray the Reforming Church does not forget the Always Reforming part and death is part of that reforming.

Africa fooled us again…

I found this article a while ago. I wanted to share it with y’all and perhaps gain other insight from this motley readership.

Generations of Western reformers have tried, and failed, to solve Africa’s problems.

June 4, 2007

ANYONE WHO HAS seen the film “Amazing Grace” will appreciate the parallels between the career of William Wilberforce, the politician who led the campaign against the slave trade, and that of outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Like Blair, Wilberforce had his roots in the north of England. Like Blair, his Oxbridge years were undistinguished. Like Blair, he lost no time in entering politics, where his affability ensured rapid advancement. And, like Blair, Wilberforce was strongly influenced by the evangelical movement.

The revelation of “the infinite love, that Christ should die to save such a sinner,” came to Wilberforce like a thunderbolt after he had entered Parliament. But he was convinced by (among others) the repentant slave trader John Newton — the man who composed “Amazing Grace” — that he could “do both”: politics and God’s work.

The moral transformation of England achieved by the evangelical movement, without which the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade would never have been passed, has its echoes in our own time. Today, of course, most English people are faintly embarrassed by religion and regard Americans as rather absurd for reading the Bible. Nevertheless, the English retain an authentically 19th century enthusiasm for moral crusades.

In our time, as in the 1800s, Africa has an especially strong appeal to the evangelical sensibility. There is something irresistible about being able to feel simultaneously guilty about the continent’s problems (“I once was blind … “) and capable of solving them (” … but now I see”).

The problem is, of course, that generation after generation thinks it has found the solution, and generation after generation is disappointed. Wilberforce and his friends were convinced that abolishing the slave trade, and then slavery itself, would do the trick. Yet the consequences were far less impressive than the reformers had hoped. Most of Africa remained not much better off in 1907 than it had been 1807. So, something else had to be tried, and that something was state-led economic development. No joy.

So we tried again. This time the solution was political independence. Again, disappointment. Economically, the majority of the countries in question did even worse under self-government than they had under British rule.

We tried lending them money. That didn’t work. Then we gave them aid. Many well-meaning people — led by that most evangelical of economists, Jeffrey Sachs — continue to have faith in aid as a policy, arguing that it simply needs to be better targeted, for example on the provision of free malaria nets. But economists who know Africa better than Sachs are skeptical.

Oxford University’s Paul Collier, author of “The Bottom Billion,” persuasively argues that Africa’s biggest problems are political. Corrupt tyrannies and endemic civil wars account for a huge proportion of Africa’s economic under-performance since the end of colonial rule.

Just take a look at the excellent new Global Peace Index published last week, which ranks 121 nations according to a wide variety of indicators, such as their levels of military expenditure and their human rights records. Eight out of the bottom 20 countries — you guessed it — are in Africa.

Plainly, lavishing debt forgiveness and aid on rogue regimes such as Zimbabwe’s or Sudan’s, or on failed states such as Ivory Coast, is as big a waste of money as simply burning banknotes.

By contrast, on the sole occasion when the British intervened militarily to end violence in one of their former colonies — Sierra Leone in 2000 — the results were dramatic. Freetown in the late 1990s had witnessed scenes out of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” But when I went there not long after the British intervention, it was safe to walk the streets.

Credit where credit is due. It was Blair who sent the troops to Sierra Leone and ended the anarchy there. So I don’t begrudge him his visit to Freetown last week. Moreover, Blair proceeded to give a speech about Africa that was one of the best I have heard from a Western leader. “Africa,” he declared, “has been a prime example of a foreign policy that has been thoroughly interventionist. I believe in the power of political action to make the world better and the moral obligation to use it.”

Great stuff. And pure Wilberforce.

Yet, he nearly spoiled it all by succumbing to the most widespread confusion that currently exists in the minds of Western liberals: that we can simultaneously eliminate global poverty and combat global climate change.

In a week when even President Bush seemed to concede the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, it would have been good if Blair could have admitted the truth. As Asia is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, eliminating poverty means massively increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Africa, by contrast, is making a major environmental contribution by consistently failing to achieve sustainable growth. Just take a look at the data on per capita CO2 emissions. Sure enough, this is another of the many tables in which Africa shows up at the bottom. Of the lowest 20 polluters in the world, no fewer than 15 are African. Go Africa! To save the planet, all we need is 100 years of African-style stagnation in the rest of the world.

As the careers of Wilberforce and Blair illustrate, Africa has always been good at generating hot air, particularly from the mouths of evangelically inclined Englishmen. Happily, it is only the moral climate that such emissions tend to change.