Murky & Deficit

Any good story has a setting, be it in a home, a nation, a battlefield, a street or the great outdoors.  My story happens inside the church. Whenever anyone comes to visit me in Atlanta, my hometown, I love to take them on a tour from an insider’s perspective.

I do not just take them to The Varsity, largest drive-in restaurant in the world, but I tell them the story of Flossie and Erby.  I do not just show them the buildings but I take them underground on the world’s longest escalator.  I do not just tell them about grits, red-eye gravy and country ham, I take them to experience it. We see Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthplace and his resting place a block away. I show them the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind, the location of the world premier in 1939, the place she lived when she met an untimely accidental death.  I show them where CNN was born and the Marriott Marquis, now occupying the address where St Joseph’s Hospital stood and where I began my life on a stormy Friday night in the late 1950s.

And, I take them to a street that does not exist anymore. Washington Street.  Where this small street use to offer passage there is now a parking lot.  But, before the parking lot there was a stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, built in 1963-1965 to be the new home of the Atlanta Braves, purloined from the city of Milwaukee, to be the iconic move of the city of Atlanta from small town to major player.  Here, in this parking lot, the former layout of the baseball diamond is laid out in brown brick to distinguish it from the black asphalt enveloping the remainder of the property. The spot where Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun sailed across a fence on April 8, 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s seemingly insurmountable record, is memorialized.

And then I tell my visitor, “Right here, on the edge of what formerly was a thoroughfare stood the Washington Street Assembly of God. This is the spot, right here where first base is outlined on the ground, where the altar and pulpit were located. On an autumn Sunday morning in 1959 two young, first-time parents brought a young son and dedicated him to God’s life for him. Born in a Catholic hospital to two Pentecostal parents from Washington Street Assembly of God was my beginning and I have never left the church.”

That gives me almost six decades of experience in this dysfunctional community organization.  I have loved her, hated her, commended her and slandered her. I have taken from her and given to her. I have led her and been led by her.  I have controlled her and been controlled by her.  In my hindsight, I could not have lived without this beautiful bride to be and I wish I had never known this bridezilla.

The church, sometimes with good intention and sometimes with selfish, has developed what it calls Christians – a collection of humans ascribed to the notion that Jesus is the incarnate son of God and the Savior of the world.  But, by it’s own Scripture that is not the definition of a Christian. We have allowed this family with natural DNA embedded in it to be malformed by a code of ethics and conformity the very leader of the pack never mentioned as necessary or forthcoming.  We have created a form for godliness and left the heart of relationship as an addendum instead of the center point of meaning.

As Leonard Sweet mused recently, “Why can’t we get this one thing: In the biblical drama, Absolute Truth is not abstract but personal, not expressed in abstract statements and principles but embodied in a person who empowers us not to impersonate him, but to personate him and thus personate truth.”

“Why?” he asks.  I can tell you why.  It is the one thing that separates the church we experience from the church of prophetic and historic promise. We are taught that the statements and principles are what we are after, about and are absolute. When what is not central is made central you have a problem.  We seem to have no clue of process, growth and spiritual nature – supernature – supernatural living lived into by seeing the pathway of righteousness.

I am committing the next six decades of my life to turning this around in my life and the life of those who will simply listen and consider. I will write, teach, mentor and live to personate…not to get myself right, in conformity or accepted.  I realize I cannot get myself right so He gave me righteousness. I cannot conform myself to His image but I can allow myself to be transformed into that image. I cannot try to be accepted when I already am.

That is not clear in the church, or in my experience of church – both as a minister of and a ministered to person. When institution and membership replaced communitas and commission the waters were muddied and became murky and people started living from fear instead of faith, looking to do no wrong rather than learning to live in their ascribed righteousness.  I am out to unlive that into clarity, purpose and as Len shares, ‘personating’ Jesus.

I like something else he shares, and I want to be counted in the latter group… “The church was built on mavericks, marginals and martyrs, not bricks and mortar and mammon.”

Selah.

Change Your World

When we hear the statement ‘change your world’ most of us, if we are Christian leaders, think about what we call evangelism. If we could just get people to change from unbeliever to believer, from faithless to faith-filled, from far-from-God to child-of-God, from heathen to Christian, it would change our world. However, this is NOT the angle I want to challenge myself with this week.

For two millennia now the words of Jesus’ instruction have hung in the expanse of human life for his followers, “Be in the world, but not of it.”  That statement has been interpreted six ways to Sunday, but whatever the interpretation we are at a time in history that much more suggests we are ”of the world but not in it.”

Sociologists and researchers such as George Barna tell us that the lifestyle of the world is pretty consistent with the lifestyle of those who claim the name of Christ.  Not only that, but less than 15% of all church attenders (less for those who claim to be Christian) share their faith and live redemptive lifestyles.  When it comes to the clergy the numbers are frighteningly similar. Church leaders, such as ministers and pastors, are much too busy to be in normal, everyday, embedded-in-the-world relationships with sinners and the like.

So, our dilemma is this…

  • We are like the world but we are not really relating to it very well.
  • We are not distinguished as different for a purpose as much as different because we are satnd-offish.
  • Our world is dying around us in hellacious ways and we are too busy to care.
  • We equate success and effectiveness, as leaders, by our Sunday activity instead of our weekly lifestyle choices.
  • Followers of Jesus do not have leaders who truly ‘show’ the way but rather are great at teaching it.
  • We devolve into keeping the church going instead of expanding the Kingdom by living the mandate of our leader.

So, my challenge (and I hope, yours) is to change my world.

  • Develop relationships, as Jesus did, that are intentionally redemptive. That means it has to be outside the church world.
  • Commit personally to live a distinctive lifestyle that says something about your values. Don’t choose to live as well as you can economically, but live at 80%, or less, just because you can and you can use your extra resources as redemptive tools.
  • Make Monday through Saturday more important than Sunday. (As Andy Stanley says, “Cheat the Church.”)
  • Create a discernable and visible way of life that others can reproduce in redemptive manner.
  • Simplify your worship experiences into encounters between our soul and God with the least amount of hyperbole possible.
  • Finally, get out of the world you’ve created and enter the one around you, it is God’s.

Upheaval

I sat and looked at pictures this morning of a political rally for the presumptive Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Inside this rally were thousands of supporters wearing hats, t-shirts and buttons that identified themselves as ‘The Silent Majority.’ There were printed slogans on placards with the prerogative ‘Make America Great Again.’

Outside there were placards that proclaimed ‘Love trumps Hate’ and ‘Trump is the AntiChrist.’ These were alongside wordplays on his policies ‘Deport Trump’ and ‘Gays against Islamaphobia.’ There were definite visions of our nation in contrast on separate sides of Peachtree Street at the corner of Ponce de Leon on a Hot-lanta afternoon.

And, it only forecasts to get hotter, even as the calendar turns from Summer to Autumn. The polarization and divide over issues at hand is not going to magically fade away in an avalanche of cooling rhetoric and/or dialogue.  It is too far gone. The hemispheres will never merge into one another and the poles will not move off their axis.

And, how do I stand?  I stand in sadness. There is no human solution. There is no freeing political ideology. There is no Wizard behind the curtain with words to make us feel it will all be okay. It will not be okay. I am not sure when America ever was ‘great’ in the sense it is being touted to return to. (Before you go off on me, we have been the greatest among our peers but we have too many horror stories to just be called great without a disclaimer.)

We are a nation marked by our inglorious past and helped by our glorious calling.  I do believe we are a called nation.  I cannot shake that conviction.  I do believe we have the most influential role to play on the world stage.  I do believe we are used by God, and have been, in many ways over two centuries. However, since 4 July, 1776, we have been a nation under attack. Any idea, calling, purpose, movement, mission or glory that God may have envisioned for us has been met with anti-force. We are a community of humanity whose freedom allowed us to be arrogant, hateful, demeaning and cruel even in the quest for right.  That is just the way of the world and we have not escaped that. We cannot ‘return’ to greatness.  We can aspire to it though.

I am without a party, a candidate, a rallying cry in this election. I have been for the last couple of election cycles.  Still, as an American, I aspire to greatness.  I will use my freedom for good.  I will use my calling for good.  I will use my citizenship for good.  I will use my hope for good.

Despite who the President, or the party of power, may be, I will not succumb to pitying myself or my nation. I will find like-hearted friends and colleagues to make a difference where I live.  I will pray for the peace and the prosperity of the place I have been sent, for if it prospers I will prosper.

I wonder, just momentarily because of the absurdity associated with my idea, if Jesus followers would just obey the Scripture with as much fervor and energy as they exude in the political process, pray with conviction for our leaders – even IF they might be a closet Muslim or atheist or agnostic or even a clueless Joe and hate our faith and practice – and intercede beyond the realm of flesh and blood, what might happen. The church will never do such a thing though. Why? Because we are more American than we are heavenly. We are discipled in the system of politic and treat Scripture as the kind aunt or uncle who, while giving us good advice, have no authority like a parent.

Our nation is in upheaval. What I am going to do is choose not to join it. I will live by the law of love and pray to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.  I am not very good at it, but I realize this, and only this, is my pathway to greatness.

Selah.

Leading from the Inside Out

One of the most significant books I have ever purchased was entitled ‘Leading from the Inside Out’ by Samuel D Rima. The tease of the title was as informative as the content of the book. In a time when I was devouring leadership materials I had found myself expecting from others what I did not expect from myself. I was much more forgiving and much more tolerant with my attention to matters of self than I was with others. The subtitle of the book, The Art of Self Leadership, struck me as an invitation that I had not received before.  What was I missing in the activity of gathering, motivating, designating and delegating movement toward a goal or a vision? The answer was a mystery to be solved.

And, work toward that new end I did.  I had to learn some difficult lessons and then change based on my discoveries about self.  Along the way more resources became available and I am still exploring, discovering and leading myself as I lead others in similar expressions of leading.  My life is given to developing leaders – young, old, middle aged, successful, struggling and hopeful. I think everyone is a leader of something or someone. And it all starts with leading yourself.

Kevin Cashman writes his process of understanding and leading self as a process of mastering our lives so that we are not subject to circumstance but we are capable of possessing ourselves in a position of self-control.

Jesus Christ taught it this way, “By your patience possess your souls.” He was teaching his followers, and us, that even in the most difficult of circumstances you can prevail. It is not even about being prepared for what comes but being ready from within.

Cashman gives us these masteries of self:

Pathway One: Personal Mastery

Exploring and getting to know yourself and what is important to you by asking questions such as:

What do I believe about myself and other people?

What do I believe about leadership?

What do I believe about life and the world?

Pathway Two: Purpose Mastery

Focusing on understanding and using your gifts and talents to add value to those around you

Identifying activities that are energizing and exciting

Pathway Three: Change Mastery

Letting go of old patterns to enhance creativity

Being adaptable and willing to change

Changing current reality allows a leader to see a new reality

Pathway Four: Interpersonal Mastery

Focusing on the development of interpersonal competencies

Seeking feedback from others will help to improve personal relationships

Pathway Five: Being Mastery

Using periods of peace and silence to understand one’s inner most being

Pathway Six: Balance Mastery

Taking time for self, family and friends is critical to maintaining balance in life

Achieving balance may be one of the most difficult pathways to master, but is the most important

Pathway Seven: Action Mastery

Leading as a whole person by getting in touch with one’s authentic self and expressing it to others

If you would like to interact or explore coaching in these areas, feel free to contact us at phil.underwood@crmleaders.org

Kevin Cashman’s books can be found at http://goo.gl/4hYsdq

 

Why Go?

What are you doing? Why do you even go to church services? What’s the point?

Those questions are great questions to ask ourselves. Not in any sense as questions of resignation but questions of invigoration. My answer to those questions are found in the following statements.

I am learning the purpose and point of life as God envisioned it. That is, I have discovered that my place among fellow humans is one of example. I live in such a way as to say, “I am alive to be the image of God among people far from and close to Him.”  God saw life as eternal and created it as such, but the eternal became temporary because of death. I have to live beyond death, as if I see the BIG PICTURE, and not be ruled by what I see or feel in the now. That is what I am doing.

Second answer is I attend church to be in an environment that stirs me and offers me opportunity to create friendships that help me develop myself around the image of God. I have to ask, “Do these people care?” “Do these people want the same thing?” “Are these people pursuing God or just using God stuff to cope?”

Finally, the point is making life worth something. I do not want to be the character in the story of Jesus that was given investment capital and was not sure what to do with it so he did nothing. I see I have something to invest – care and love. My bottom line is to be serving humanity as I reveal God’s love and purpose.

So, I go to be.

Hello world!

 

We live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, The Florida Keys.  Here, I have driven through beautiful vistas and over bridges that offered a panorama of horizon as far as the eye can see. I have boated around these isles and through the mangrove tunnels that surround them, out to the amazing coral reef that borders the eastern edge of this chain of coral tethered to the mainland and into the back country of shallow bay that is the ocean portion of the Everglades National Park. Additionally, I have been afforded the opportunity, many times, to fly over this anomaly of small land masses and marvel at the artistic nature of their creation and placement, gasp at the hues of color captured in the waters according to depth and sea life and wonder how it all came to be.

Now, with the ordination of calling, I live in this place. The particular Key that we call home is a Key originally cultivated as groves and gardens. It is named from that history – Plantation Key. I live on a small boating canal (without ownership of a boat) one-tenth of a mile from the where the Gulf of Mexico merges waters with Florida Bay.  I do not take advantage of my surroundings as much as I should and could. Thankfully, I do have a back porch that I can sit and watch others go out and come in on their boats, kayaks, paddle boards and even airplanes with a landing strip one-block from the house. And, I am NOT complaining.  In February of 2012 I wrote this sentence in my prayer journal, “I would like to live in a gorgeous surrounding, on the ocean, that invited creativity and peace. It would be great if it were large enough to be the place where we could plant the Gospel in people and have people over with regularity.  I want to love people and care about their souls.”

Guess what?  It happened.

But as beautiful as it is at eye level, I recently discovered things about The Keys that are unseen. In a conversation with my Dad’s brother, my Uncle Wayne, who worked in this area decades ago when my paternal family was located in Homestead, Florida, I found out that the Coral rock that are The Keys are five times more dense than concrete. He discovered this supervising the construction of a communications tower made of concrete (to withstand hurricane force winds) and the digging of a foundation to support it.

Since we have lived here there has been a massive effort to connect to a central sewer system to save the near shore waters from inevitable contamination present in a septic tank environment.  During this process there has been digging here, there and everywhere into this dense coral. What happens when coral is dug out? D-U-S-T!  Fine, gray silt fills the air and settles on everything.  Respiratory problems escalate, cleaning cycles elevate and dirt congregates everywhere. The beautiful topside is spoiled by the underlying and unseen sub-surface reality of the real Key substance.

Living here two years has shown us that the spiritual and human parallel is quite alarming.  There is an underside to this beautiful environment and, in that dirty reality lie human pain, estrangement and isolation.  The level of addiction here amazes me.  I have recently discovered, through hosting local substance addiction groups, that there are over 100 weekly support groups for addiction in the Upper Keys alone.  Almost half of all families here live under sustainable living income levels (48%).  The local high school has an under-supplied food closet to try to help the large percentage of students that go home to kitchens without food. The elementary and middle schools students use the same resource. The number of divorced people here is the second highest in the entire United States.  This is not paradise, by a long shot, when it comes to quality of life for the working class.

There is only 13% of the population that claim affiliation with a local non-Catholic congregation and 16% say that they are Catholic.  There is an aversion to the idea of church.  There is a distance from the person of Jesus.  Sherry and I are here in this environment because we are called to be missionaries in this culture.  Up until now, with the invitation to come here by an existing, fledgling congregation and their almost immediate abandonment of funding, we have existed on a razor thin margin.

We have come to realize one thing – planting a church is NOT the answer.  We cannot hang out a sign, send out postcards, and cater to the already convinced. That will not crack the culture. We need a support team of intercessors, encouragers, financiers, and even visitors and partners on the ground here. We must realign our practices with a missionary focus.

The Jesus followers we have met here are some pretty awesome people. The young adults we are mentoring are seeing and sensing this mission life opportunity and they are dreaming as largely as we are.  Some new parent couples are grasping the vision of creating a community of faith to raise their children among rather than a church to take their children to.  Empty nesters are wishing this were happening twenty years before, but glad it is better late than never.  There is a definite mission here that is pouring from the heart of God.

One of our challenges is funding.  We do not have a critical mass to raise the funds for the development of the community we have been given vision for.  We are asking you to consider partnering with us in one- or two-year increments.  This is not a life-long commitment. On an accompanying sheet, please find our ministry expansion budget and let us know if God gives you a nudge or a wink to help this mission.

Without your help we are handcuffed from releasing others and giving them the support they need.