The Church Gathers To…

I’m now in the bonus episodes of The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill. The episode Everything is Still Falling Apart has this quote that had me saying, “Heard.”

The whole purpose of the gathering of the church is to prepare people for their encounters with death…Everything we do runs in the opposite direction. It’s all in the direction of triumphalism. It’s all in the direction of how great life can be if we get our act together or follow this leader.

Mike Cosper is referring to the writings of another leader. It richly resignates with me. It seems like another way to paint the picture of living for the kingdom of heaven, not building treasures here, etc.

In some odd way this thought validates what I’ve often told people. If I had a choice between participating in a wedding or a funeral, hands down I pick a funeral. Whatever you call it, life celebration/memorial service/funeral, everyone comes with a reality check in their minds and souls. So much room exists, so many impactful moments are possible in the days surrounding the passing of a loved one. If we are prepared, we don’t miss them, and they have the potential for even deeper joy in our sorrow than we experience in other expected, highly anticipated, and tremendously prepared for joyful life moments.

How’s your church preparing you for death? Probably not a question you’ve ever asked. Which probably indicates it’s worth answering.

Photo by Antoine J. on Unsplash

Caved, Endured, Benefited from The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill

I completed a journey today I didn’t want to take for two reasons: a little bit of pride and a little bit of anger mixed with fear. I caved, mostly from the encouragement of two friends. I’m glad I did.

At my pace, the journey took almost two months. Necessary stops and starts to digest, to breathe, to clear, to process. The journey took me to expected and unexpected places; some I knew I needed, some I surprisingly didn’t know I needed. I’m glad I endured.

The journey was listening to the main twelve episodes of The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill podcast. One description of the podcast reads:

Hosted by Mike Cosper, this Christianity Today podcast takes you inside the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle-from its founding as part of one of the largest church planting movements in American history to its very public dissolution-and the aftermath that followed. You’ll hear from people who lived this story, experiencing the triumphs and losses of Mars Hill, knowing it as both an amazing, life-transforming work of God and as a dangerous, abusive environment. The issues that plague Mars Hill and its founder…aren’t unique, and only by looking closely at what happened in Seattle will we be able to see ourselves.

There would be no point in retelling the story. There’s plenty of that available. Rather, I wish to encourage those like me resistant to giving the podcast a chance to consider these thoughts:

  • We can learn from failure. Along with learning, we can also grow. In order for both to happen, we have to set our minds for them. We can listen to this story, pass judgment, shake our heads, drop our jaws, defend, sweep, have any of all the possible reactions. But if all we do is emotionally react, CT’s work has been in vain. If the message is received like a Netflix binge, we have missed the opportunity to learn and grow. If you are a person who doesn’t want to miss the opportunity, it’s time to cave.
  • There is such a thing as church trauma. If you’ve spent any time in the church, you know it. But what you probably don’t realize is trauma’s impact, subtleties, layers, history, and power. Under so many holy labels, trauma is happening right now. And the danger is we don’t even realize it. Wolves are feasting. If you are a church leader, paid or volunteer, who feels powerless to speak about what’s troubling your spirit, it’s time to endure.
  • Stories are sacred and deserve dignity. Our desire to avoid pain inhibits healing. Our wish to consider it “not my problem” disregards the wounded’s sacredness. Facing our fears, weeping with the discarded, listening to the angry, offering safety, and naming evil must be available in the church. If your church makes these things unavailable, it’s time to listen and restore.

Several moments in the hours of these twelve episodes I felt these words by Mike Cosper:

Part of what drew me to this project was my own history. The fact that even from a distance, I heard echoes of my experience and the stories coming out of Mars Hill. The more time I spent with that story and especially the more time I spent with these people, the louder those echoes got. Now, having seen the story go back out into the world, I’ve genuinely wept at how many others are hearing their experience reflected here too.

Aftermath, December 4 episode

I’m better for having caved and endured. I’ve benefited from meditating, weeping, discussing, and repenting. If someone has encouraged you to listen and you’re resisting, odds are you will also benefit. It’s time.

That time Jesus said, “None of your business.”

They could not have looked like promising revolutionary material. That they should see themselves as deliverers of Israel was ludicrous. Their grasp of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection was still tenuous and their perception of their future confused.

What was going to happen on the political scene? What role would they play? Seated among the young olive trees they asked him: “Do you plan to restore Israel’s sovereignty?” Many eyes were turned on him.

“None of your business” was the effect of his retort. “That’s God the Father’s affair. He currently organizes the political scene. Your job will be to bear witness to me not only here, but in broadening circles throughout the earth” (see Acts 1:4-8).

Chapter 4, On Being a Signpost, of The Fight by John White

These three paragraphs start White’s chapter teaching on what it means to bear witness. This “none of your business” interpretation is of verse 7 where Jesus is quoted, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

As I read this, I was reminded of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29. The receivers of his message were not unlike those hearing Jesus’ message in Acts 1. They had a lot of questions. In their confusion and reaction they were tempted to believe and pursue just about anything, including doing what made sense for self-preservation without yielding to the all-knowing and all-powerful work of God.

American Christians would do well to listen to Jeremiah and Jesus. Our actions and words too often sound like we’ve got it all figured out, like we haven’t really heard what was said. Too often, the voice of God is hushed by our demands and declarations, in essence telling him how to do his job. Too often, we ignore the truth that it’s none of our business.

The Soul Of Shame (book review)

I first mentioned Dr. Curt Thompson’s blog Being Known over a year ago in this post: https://johngregoryjr.com/2021/04/25/storytelling-finding-joy/. After listening to the majority of the episodes and hearing references to his books, I finally got around to reading one. Thanks to hoopla, I just finished The Soul of Shame.

Like the podcast, this book is one to be revisited. Like the podcast, it’s not over your head. Like the podcast, it breathes life into its consumer.

We become what we pay attention to.

Chapter 2, How Shame Targets the Mind

If my highlights are an indicator, apparently my attention got stronger as I moved from chapter to chapter. The first four chapters build the case for the universality of shame’s reach. Then starting with chapter five, Thompson explains shame’s role in the biblical narrative, how it impacts our own narrative, and the remedies that produce redemption.

Honest vulnerability is the key to both healing shame-and its inevitably anticipated hellish outcome of abandonment-and preventing it from taking further root in our relationships and culture…To be human is to be vulnerable…God is vulnerable in the sense that he is open to wounding. Open to pain. Open to rejection. Open to death.

Chapters 5 & 6

Thompson declares that shame pushes us into isolation to keep us from pursuing being human, being vulnerable. To counter shame’s work, Thompson encourages us to understand our cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11-12), pursue nurturing communities, and renew our vocational creativity.

We will not be rid of shame this side of the new heaven and earth; rather, we grow in our awareness of shame in order to scorn it…There is no more significant place for us to counteract shame than in those venues where we spend most of our waking hours. In these places we are called to be agents for creating goodness and beauty, but these are the very places where shame is more than willing to do its most effective work.

Chapters 7 & 8

A word to the church: Thompson believes “the family of God is the crucible in which we learn what real family is about and in which the what and how of education is ideally imprinted into our souls, transforming both our life in our biological families as well as all that we learn about our world and our place in it.” The church gets the opportunity to help people choose between shame and love.

I encourage you, especially if you are in a place of influence and leadership, to read The Soul Of Shame. Shame won’t like you for it. Your soul will.

Let’s Seek a Better Understanding

Last week I was given a book to read. Each page has grabbed me, but none like the start of chapter five, “Defending Slavery at the Onset of the Civil War.”

Let me share a few lines.

As historian Mark Noll has written, no single individual characterized the conflict better than Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was inaugurated for his second and very brief term as president in 1865, a Union victory was on the horizon. Robert E. Lee would formally surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, just a month later. Rather than gloat about his military success, Lincoln’s address struck a somber and reflective tone: “Both {Union and Confederacy] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully”…Throughout the conflict, Christians of both the Union and the Confederate forces believed that God was on their side.

This startled me. Change a few elements of the storyline, and I feel like he’s describing today’s America.

We should be startled. We should not be divided.

We should be humbled. We should not be puffed up.

We should be listening. We should not be yelling.

In his review of Tisby’s call to repentance, Daniel Williams ended with these words:

Racial reconciliation, Tisby argues, won’t occur without confession of sin and repentance from white Christians—a repentance that some Reformed churches have already started to model, but which hasn’t yet occurred en masse. With God’s grace, it can occur. For those seeking a better understanding of what this confession and repentance might entail, Tisby’s book offers a helpful guide.

History does not have to be repeated. Let’s seek a better understanding.

Every Circle Grace

Grace is an interesting topic. In my years in the church, the focus of grace has mostly been on the grace we receive from God. Rightly so. And during this Lenten season, it deserves top of mind.

Devoted followers of Jesus’ teachings believe we are to give what we receive. Everything we receive from God we are to pass on. Love. Mercy. Forgiveness. Faithfulness. And even Grace.

My observation is we tend to gift grace in various degrees. Some people give themselves plenty of grace…much more than they give to others. Some people disproportionately give their family members grace in comparison to others-some more, some less. One amazing observation that stands out more and more is the grace people in the church give to themselves compared to the grace they give people outside the church. Again, it goes both ways. Some people give better grace to their fellow churchgoers while others give better grace to those outside the church.

For better or worse, I’m the latter. For the record, neither is correct. Grace is to be shared with all people equally.

Looking at Jesus’ relationship circles, we observe supernatural grace giving. He gave Peter as much grace as he gave the woman at the well. He shared his grace equally with Nicodemus and Judas. His mother and Pilate both received appropriate grace. What an example he left us.

I most often fail at giving grace to those in my closest relationship circles. That awareness provides growth opportunity so whether in the next hour I engage a stranger in the store, a friend on the phone, or a colleague in the office, my grace is for every circle.

Jesus practiced every circle grace. His resurrection power says, “So can I.”

Too Comfortable?

This quote is a screenshot from a Sunday morning message given this past week by Pastor Jordan Easley of First Baptist Church, Cleveland, Tn. He’s in a sermon series entitled “How the Church Acts.” In this message, he addressed that the church is to be made up of people who live with purpose. It wasn’t a message that churchgoers haven’t heard before, but this statement shed a different light on the message.

What is a non-negotiable anyway? My words-something that a person won’t budge about. For instance, I’m an Alabama fan-not going to budge on that one. I don’t eat brussels sprouts-pretty sure that’s not going to change. You get the point.

So when it comes to churchgoers, how is it possible that they have non-negotiables? According to Pastor Easley, it’s possible because they’ve become too comfortable. He wasn’t necessarily referring to being too comfortable in our lifestyle; he’s referring more to our view of God, our relationship with the Giver of Life both now and forever.

This statement made me think the rest of the day. Made me question what non-negotiables I may have. Made me wonder if I could be drawn to making some and what would be the result. Made me wonder enough that I’m sharing it with you.

Non-negotiables won’t exist in heaven. Makes me want to eliminate them today.

A Toe-Dip Re:Christian Nationalism

I follow Pastor Jarrod Jones’ blog. His last post expressed his feelings following January 6. The title? No More of This. Pretty well expressed my sentiments.

In the blog, Pastor Jones used the term “Christian Nationalism” three times. This line of content and dialogue isn’t my normal pool, but I’m going to dip my toe in. Why? Because I believe most of my fellow American Christians need to enter the dialogue. And I’d rather not sit this one out.

I felt pretty good about what I understood the term meant, but I decided it would be helpful to read how others-more learned and versed-were defining it. And it wasn’t hard to find their viewpoints. In an article published in December by The Gospel Coalition entitled “Christian Nationalism vs. Christian Patriotism” by Thomas Kidd, Matthew McCullough was quoted to define American Christian nationalism as “an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.” 

I then found notes from Christianity Today‘s Quick to Listen podcast episode that aired January 13. The episode title was “Christian Nationalism is Worse Than You Think” and featured Paul D. Miller, a research fellow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Miller said this: “Christian nationalism is a political ideology about American identity. It is a set of policy prescriptions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. It’s not drawn from the Bible. It draws political theory from secular philosophy and their own version of history as well.”

These definitions are alarming. They are most alarming to me because they convey what I’ve observed more and more in my own experience in the church. I must add, in the American church. Why the addition? I haven’t traveled much internationally; but in the three nations I’ve visited (Belarus, Jordan, Guatemala), I had the opportunity to visit and attend worship with fellow Christians. On reflection of those visits as I returned to worship in the States, a glaring difference emerged. Those believers love their countries; they are proud to share about their cultures and accomplishments to the visiting American Christians. But that doesn’t lead them to expect what American Christians expect when it comes to politics and freedoms. They seem to know where the line is between worshipping God and worshipping country. For example, the idea of arguing over the placement of national flags in their worship center would be foreign to them and would never reach the pitch of causing permanent division in their church body. So imagine their reaction to seeing the usage of Christian flags in the Capitol’s desecration.

One day following January 6, Relevant, in an article about the rise of Christian Nationalism, recounted the April 2019 shooting in California where 19-year-old John Earnest walked into a synagogue and opened fire, killing one woman and injuring three, because he believed killing Jews would glorify God. We Christians, who love our country but love God more, have the opportunity to set things right, like Reverend Mika Edmundson. Reverend Edmundson is the Presbyterian pastor of the church where John Earnest attended. He expressed after the shooting that his church bore some of the blame for Earnest’s beliefs. “It certainly calls for a good amount of soul-searching. We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him.”

Church leaders, American Christians, we can’t pretend we don’t have some responsibility for January 6. We can’t pretend any longer.

Photo by Štěpán Vraný on Unsplash

Prayer for Assumers

I pray you’re better at this than I am. It’s a work in progress. Unfortunately, it’s a thing for many professing Christians. I’m talking about assuming.

There are many reasons why we do it, but none of them are good. Assessing society, it seems unlikely Christians recognize assuming’s impact when we make assumptions based on…

…where someone goes to church, or that they don’t. (In 2020, are they attending in person or online.)

…how someone is dressed.

…how they respond to current events.

…what they drive.

…where they live.

…where they went to college, or that they didn’t.

…what we read, hear, or observe about them.

…what they are or aren’t passionate about.

…how they view past history, or that they don’t.

…what we believe the future does or doesn’t hold.

This prayer by author Stephen Mattson was on my Facebook feed today. It spoke to me because I had already confessed more than one assumption today-assumptions made in church of all places. As I said, a work in progress.

I’m grateful God’s mercy and forgiveness are unending-something assumers should add to this prayer.

Uniquely

Recently-well, before “stay in place orders”-a ministry leader stopped by the office to leave some information. He was with The Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network. Check out their website; you’ll learn some things like I did.

One of the pieces this leader left with me was a book, Uniquely Bivocational: Understanding the Life of a Pastor who has a Second Job, which I’m reading now.


For sure, there are unique things to consider about a man finding himself living this out. However, after reading chapter 8, The Need for Balance, there are general things for believers, and particularly any ministry leaders, to keep in mind. For instance, here’s the list of twelve keys to achieving balance Gilder mentions:

  1. Put God first in your life
  2. Establish priorities
  3. Link your calling to your calendar
  4. Have a clear purpose and direction for your life
  5. Be proactive rather than reactive
  6. Maintain a clear conscience
  7. Find an accountability partner
  8. Have a family council
  9. Find the secret of contentment
  10. Realize you are not superman
  11. Make regular deposits into your emotional bank
  12. Do what you do as unto the Lord

Look like a list that could help your balance? 

Yes, I’m reading this book as designed. But I’m finding that much of it could be generally applied to anyone desiring to live as God would have them-Uniquely.