Connecting No Matter the Differences

(Second in a series of ten posts on reaching city kids)

You can’t generalize about city kids. Cities are usually diverse, with people of different races and income levels living close. So a church within city limits is ideally a diverse congregation.

The children and teenagers in our church are Americans and immigrants, black and white, some with their natural parents and some adopted. We have kids with parents who own companies and kids whose single moms are on public assistance. We have children with autism and other disabilities.

11143420_1040266829337559_8766542514211627706_nIt can be harder to meet the needs of diverse groups than homogenous ones, but there is no more visible witness to the love and power of God than a bunch of really different people getting along together.

I’ve found that it helps me to keep three things in mind when working with diverse groups of kids in church:

   1. Focus on Jesus: Any church should be doing that by definition, but with a diverse group of kids, God may be the only thing they have in common so you might as well get right to the point. Don’t gather to have fun or give people a chance for ‘fellowship’ or provide ‘a safe environment’. Gather to worship, pray and learn the Scriptures. Gather to draw near to God together.

Many of our high school kids, at an age when kids often drop out of church, have been sticking around since they started meeting in ‘huddles’ – discipleship groups where there is a teaching about one aspect of the Christian life followed by a check-in time where people disclose what’s going on in their lives and pray. In this structured setting of confidential honesty, cultural differences no longer separate people. A kid from the foster care system and a kid from a privileged family are on equal footing when it comes to following Christ.

     2.  Have a lot of adult leaders: It is crucial that kids are safe and feel understood, so we need enough adults to monitor behavior, with zero tolerance for put-downs,  disobedience or exclusivity. We state up front that this is a safe zone, a place where      everyone gets respect. Have clear, simple rules enforced consistently. The worse kids’ behavior is, the higher the ratio of adults needed.

There should always be adults available to help kids one on one if they struggle with reading or communicating, or to remove kids who are disruptive. I have four adults when I work with a dozen fourth through sixth graders. At our summer camp this year, we added older adults to assist the high school and college interns we hired. We need as many  spiritually mature adults as it takes to establish a culture of love and respect.

        3.  Be brave: I used to worry about mixing rough, unchurched kids with sheltered      Christian kids. I was afraid they would misunderstand each other, avoid each other, hurt each other. But I wasn’t thinking about how they could bless each other. One day a guy called me on it. He said, “You’re overthinking this. Just throw them together and they’ll have a good time.” He should know. He has a household full of his natural kids, adopted kids and foster kids. Of course he is vigilant about supervision, but he’s brave too.

Every week, our pastor leads us in a prayer that includes, “Connect us in Jesus, no matter our differences.” To see a roomful of people – adults and kids, black and white, rich and poor, – all laughing and talking and playing together – that is a great joy and an answer to our prayers.

Healing 101 (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part VI)

I was taught that all those stories about healing in the Bible were just for that time, that miracles don’t  happen anymore. Then I went to a healing service and witnessed the bent back of someone I knew well, straighten visibly after one prayer. When your beliefs don’t match reality, it’s time to overhaul your theology.

File:The Great Physician at Work by F. Hofmann c. 1890.jpg

That was years ago. Since then I’ve been part of prayer groups that have witnessed the healing of headaches, backaches, depression, bulging discs, out of control eating, cystic fibrosis, a brain tumor…. lots of healing. I’m confident now that God wants to heal us and often will do it as soon as we ask. There are whole books on why healing doesn’t always happen, and how to pray for healing. In a short blog I can only focus on a first step.

Faith plays a key role. It’s like the current that connects us to God, and through which God’s power flows. Jesus said, “…Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” So we want to train ourselves into faith, just was we’d train for anything else – a marathon, new software. People talk about faith enviously, as if it were something that you just have or don’t have, like long legs. It’s not. You train for it, you exercise it, you fight for it when it’s attacked.

Faith grows when we see God directly answer a prayer, especially when the outcome is hard to explain otherwise. So we should start praying for healing. Why not start with ourselves? Then when we feel better, it will also boost our faith. Double benefit.

Here are some commonly taught guidelines for how to pray for healing (My reading has included Agnes Sanford, Richard Foster, John Wimber, and Francis McNutt) :

  • Start by praying for something that is simple. Pray for sore throats before you tackle progressed cancer; a habit of worry before schizophrenia. Ask yourself if you believe the problem can be healed.
  • Ask God for guidance about how to pray for the problem, and pay attention to the thoughts that come. You may be about to pray for a stomach ache, then realize that the stomach ache worsens when you’re around someone who makes you mad. Obviously you need to pray for healing in that relationship, and probably help in forgiving.
  • Focus on the love and dependability of God. Jesus came to show us that, so a mental picture of Jesus doing one of the things recorded in the gospels, is a good thing to hold in mind. That’s who we’re connecting with – someone who loved us enough to come to us and die for us.
  • When we’ve centered ourselves on the goodness of God, and asked for guidance, then hold in your imagination what you believe you should be praying for. If your arm is in a cast, imagine the bone fused straight and strong, and you swinging your arm with no pain. Then ask God for it, boldly, hopefully.
  • Don’t weaken your faith with some “If it be your will…” qualifier. You’ve asked for guidance to pray for the right thing, so just ask.
  • Don’t be discouraged if nothing happens right away. Keep asking. Persistence is rewarded. (Read the story of the widow in Luke 18.)
  • Thank God for healing after it happens, and tell people about it. Often experiencing or witnessing healing helps people to draw closer to God, so don’t keep it to yourself.

The Marvelous Relief in Confessing (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge Part IV)

Right by my front door is a print of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s my favorite painting based on one of my favorite Bible stories. A son who has been a complete screw-up, returns home to beg forgiveness and ask to be taken back as a servant, but he never has a chance to get the speech out.

The dad, who has been waiting for him, runs and embraces him. In the Rembrandt, the son is a mess – ragged, barefoot, shorn. He’s on his knees, head bowed to the father’s chest. The father leans over him, arms circling him, hands on his back. The expression on his face is infinitely tender.

Jesus told the story to get through to us that God is like that – always waiting, ready to meet us, hold us and forgive us. So, needless to say, this fourth post on how to spiritually recharge is on repentance.

The energy we waste trying to ignore and deny the wrong we think and do, is phenomenal. The elaborate games we play to focus on anything but our inner darkness are soul-destroying. There is a marvelous relief that comes from turning towards God, and saying, “I’m sorry. These are the ways I’ve messed up. These are the evil things I’ve thought. This is how I’m broken.”

The end goal is to be an open book before God all the time, to turn to God for help and redirection as soon as a crappy thought enters our head. But that takes time. What gets us there is a regular habit of self-examination and confession. Like meditation, described in the last post, it requires solitude.

Repentance begins with the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ fourth step, the honesty needed before healing and change can happen. Lots of people get stuck here, because it’s hard. It’s hard to face the pain of how we have morally failed, and hurt people. It’s hard to admit that many of our thoughts are greedy, angry and cowardly, that so many of our motives are selfish. Writing it all down can help us face the music and long to change.

The only reason to go through the agony of it is Jesus’ assurance (through three different stories) that there really is a God who adores us. We really do have a shot at being utterly forgiven, of starting all over again with a power much greater than our own.

Some might be helped with a framework:

  1. The seven deadly sins is a neat summary of human depravity that’s been around for centuries: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. We can take a few minutes to screen ourselves for each one. Maybe do double time on pride; it feeds everything else.
  2. You can break your life down into categories, such as God, family, job, church, friends, and examine your behavior in all those relationships.
  3. Martin Luther used the ten commandments as his guide for confession.

However you structure it, be specific, putting your wrongs into words, spoken or written to God. When you are finished, remember the promise from first John that after you confess, you are off the hook and cleansed by God. Thank God for that. We’re not supposed to wallow in self-condemnation.

When private confession is not enough to relieve our sense of guilt and set us free from the sin, then we should confess to another person, someone mature who won’t gossip. This takes courage, but it makes God’s mercy very real to us, and the accountability really empowers change.

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Repeat (How to Spiritually Recharge Part III)

 I wish someone had taught me to meditate when I was, say, two. It’s one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done, but as a highly distractable, late starter, it took me ages to realize how key it is to spiritual sanity.

Gobs has already been written about meditation, including the differences between eastern meditation (which focuses on emptying the mind) and Christian meditation (which focuses the mind on God.)  This blog will cut to a few simple steps for getting started with Christian meditation. (You don’t have to be Christian, just willing to give God the benefit of the doubt!)

  1. Find somewhere quiet where you can be alone and uninterrupted.
  2. Relax into solitude and become aware of yourself, shutting out distractions. The blog just before this one helps with this.
  3. Get physically comfortable. For most of us this does not involve twisting our legs into the shape of a pretzel. It’s nice to have your head at rest.
  4. Start with a prayer, asking God to lead you into peace and truth and protect you from spiritual darkness.
  5. Focus on your breathing, and inhale deeply and slowly. Exhale slowly. This will help you calm down and slow your thoughts.

Next, try one of the following ways of meditating:

1 .Center on what feeling or thought is dominating right now, and come up with a simple prayer related to it. For example, if you’re obsessed with a deadline and having trouble relaxing, pray, “God of peace, help me to rest.” Or if you’re angry and can’t forgive someone, pray, “Please God, take this anger!” If you’re grieving, “Father God – comfort me.” Notice these examples are really short, and in two parts. That’s so you can sync it with your breathing. As you inhale, breathe in the truth about God that you need to focus on; as you breathe out, breathe out the request for what you need. As you exhale, try to let go of tension, try to let go of anything negative and surrender it to God. You can say the words, but it may be more helpful  just to think them.

2. Instead of coming up with your own prayer, you can pick a short Bible verse, to sync with your breathing. Psalms are a good place to look. A few of my favorites: Be still and know that I am God”,  “You are my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear,” “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Pick a verse that addresses a current need, that drills a truth you want to live into. Meditating on one important thought at a time drives it deep into your being. What you want to believe becomes what you do believe.

3. Take a chunk of the Bible and read it slowly, letting it speak to you personally.      Don’t hurry. Don’t analyze. This isn’t study. Meditating is like eating good chocolate. You take it in small bites and savor it. Try reading the passage three times. Maybe a short psalm, maybe an incident from one of the gospels. The first time, read for understanding. The second time, imagine the scene – make a movie of it in your head. The third time, you can put yourself into the scene as one of the characters.

It may not click right away, but if we keep at it, meditation becomes a powerful way of stepping out of the craziness of everyday life, to let God heal, guide and renew us.

The Best Way to Save the World (Why Even Go To Church Part X)

This is the last post in the “Why Even Go to Church” series. In a culture where church attendance has fallen below 20% in any given week, it seemed to me that it could be helpful to review why going to church is central to following Christ. If we’re Christian, it’s a list of reasons we can tell  children, or recite to ourselves on Sunday mornings when we did something dumb till three in the morning. If we’re not Christian, this series has addressed why checking out a church could still be a good idea.

Before a review, I’ll cover the tenth reason : Going to church is the best way to save the world. If you go see “Deadpool”, or ”Batman v. Superman,” it would be easy to think that the best way to save the world is to beat the crap out of your enemies while wearing a stretchy costume. If you listened to campaigning presidential hopefuls you would believe that getting behind one really arrogant candidate is our only hope.

Clearly, people suck at saving the world. Here’s how God saves the world: he comes down to our level, lives with us, dies for us, comes back to life (really, not like video games) and breathes his Spirit into everyone who believes in Him. Then, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, we get together and do what he did.

The New Testament makes it really clear that the church on earth is the body of Christ – God’s means of getting it done. We commit to life together in communities called churches and we worship, preach, heal, baptize, serve, teach, and disciple more people into the life of Jesus. We function in his power, not ours. We work for God’s good kingdom, not our own. We’re all in it together with different giftings. We all matter but there is no room for show ponies. Arrogance and stetchy costumes are not necessary.

So, here’s our review of why we go to church (even when it’s snowing, even when we’re sick of people, even when we feel like binging on Netflix):

  1. We only know what we know together – we can’t live out our beliefs without social reinforcement.
  2. You can’t love people you never see – showing up is the first step to being part of a community of love.
  3. We desperately need a weekly dose of beauty to soothe, heal and renew us.
  4. Church is a giant baromenter for sins; nothing brings clarity and conviction faster than attending a worship service.
  5. Church attendance is good for our mental and physical health; many studies bear this out.
  6. Church is a place for unbelievers to check out Christians and ask questions; we should be there for that.
  7. Church is where we sing together and singing together is empowering and healing.
  8. Church is where we have communion, the ritual that centers us in Jesus.
  9. Church is the centerpiece of the Sabbath, that essential day of rest that lets us reboot.
  10. Church is God’s primary institution for saving the world.

Thank God there are all kinds of churches, from Gothic Cathedrals to bars rented on Sunday nights.  All kinds for all kinds of people. If you don’t go to one, it would be good to ask God to show you where you fit. I did that when I was sixteen and found a sweet group of people meeting in a rented hall a half mile from my house.

So, see you in church!

 

 

So We Don’t Forget (Why Even Go to Church Part VIII)

At a last meal with his followers, before Jesus let himself get killed, he gave some final instructions: Love each other, serve each other, pray together, abide in Him, and eat and drink together in remembrance of him. You could argue that the first four instructions don’t need any organized religion, but the last one kind of does. We need to be organized enough, at least, to do this eating and drinking ritual.

File:Sandro Botticelli - The Last Communion of St Jerome (detail) - WGA2834.jpgSo, the eighth reason to go to church in this series of ten, is that we need to get together to eat bread and drink wine (or something close) to remember Jesus.

Rituals drive truth deep into our beings, so Jesus gave us a ritual to repeat till his return, to ground us in the transforming truth that he died for us. He said the bread was his body, the wine his blood (Matthew 26:26-28.) He was taking all our brokenness and evil upon himself and dying to show that God not only hates what is wrong, he also takes the rap for it. (1 Peter 2:24.)

When we take in that truth (eat it and drink it) we let God save us.

That’s why we have those little chunks of bread (or wafers) in church. We’re buying in to the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re staking our lives on the reality that these things really happened.

It must be something God takes pretty seriously because Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians that the reason they were experiencing illness and early death was that they were abusing the ritual. They were using the time to pig out and be socially exclusive. Our culture doesn’t do that with communion, but some of us do gut the power of it by just going through the motions. Maybe we’re looking at what people are wearing as they file past us, or planning our pizza toppings for lunch. I’ve done that.

1 Corinthians 11:27-30 makes it clear that this doesn’t fly.  So people who don’t yet believe in Jesus should not feel any pressure to eat or drink during communion. Just relax and observe. Those of us who do believe – let’s show up, focus and really enter in to what those little bits of bread and juice stand for. It’s the last thing he asked us to do before he died.