The Unpredictability of Community

How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! – Ps 133:1

This month I’ve been thinking about what makes community authentic. I’m sure we can trade stories over well-meaning groups that never quite satisfied. We don’t want to just occupy the same space at the same time. We want to be involved in a community – a tapestry of relationships that goes deep. We want to share and be shared with, to know and to be known, to care and be cared for. A place of refuge, but not just a retreat. We want our community to be a place of growth and dynamic activity.

Tucked at the end of a series of 15 Psalms called the Song of Ascents, we have this Psalm that consummates the worshipper’s ascension to Jerusalem. These psalms were sung annually during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the devout literally ascended to Mount Zion. I find it interesting that the two Psalms that conclude these songs are about community. They exclaim the beauty of worshippers being together and experiencing the blessing of the Lord together. It’s almost as if the climax of experiencing God’s presence in Zion is a corporate one. That is, the fullest  joy that comes from experiencing God’s presence is one in which it is shared, not privatized. Community, then is a canvas on which to experience the fullness of God. In other words, community maximizes our relationship with God. Let me explain two ways this is so. Continue reading

Fanatical about Judgment Day

Well May 21, 2011, 6:00 pm (EST, CST, PST, etc.) came and went without much fanfare. After hearing way too many jokes and puns about being left behind – yes, I added to the l’esprit du jour – I thought it would be only be right to close off this topic with some final reflections.

1. I feel compassion for those who really put their money, time, and even their livelihood into this false prediction. Yes, they were fanatical. Yes, they were wrong. Maybe it’s the pastor that God is shaping in me, but I feel so sad for those who wanted this to be true and believed it thus. I’m ashamed to think back that from the time I heard about the predictions, I never once considered that I wanted it to be true. I simply joined in the ruckus that mocked the audacity of Harold Camping’s claim. There are people out there who are severely disappointed today, people who are regretting their way of life for the last year. They are embarrassed, isolated, perhaps disillusioned, and confused. Who will help them understand the truth? To still believe in Jesus and follow him?

2. I am humbled by the passion of those who pursued this to its end. As fanatical as these doomsdayers seem to be, I am reminded that C.S. Lewis defined a ‘fanatic’ as someone who is just a little more committed and devoted than you are. I want to be that fanatical and devoted. I want to be that invested into something such that my whole life is banking on it, but I want that ‘something’ to be TRUE. I want passion + knowledge b/c as Pascal said, “Passion without knowledge is dangerous.” I realize that I’m far too moderate and reserved in my undertakings, far too ‘realistic’. The other day I was talking to a student who had stopped dreaming about her future because she needed to be ‘real’. God is not calling us to be ‘realists’ as much as he is calling us to be ‘idealists’ who believe in a kingdom that has come and is coming, a God who can do impossible things such as calling the dead to life and forgiving sins without compromising justice. The doomsdayers have taught me that the world takes notice of passionate fanatics who are willing to leave it all to respond to the call to ‘follow me’.

But many who read this will say, “Come on, Mitchel, don’t go off the deep end. Don’t be one of those. Do you know what you’re risking?” And it’s my succumbing to those opinions that will relegate my life to mediocrity for the kingdom. Everything in its right amount of moderation – not too committed, not too lackadaisical. Such is the formula for lukewarm and ineffective discipleship in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.

As a final picture of a passion worth being fanatical about, yesterday my church celebrated seven baptisms. I got to baptize four people whose testimonies spanned the gamut. One simply grew up in a Christian home and this was the next logical step in her faith journey, yet another was a rebellious teen who had come home at last. Still another grew up in a Muslim context, in a refugee camp on the other side of the world and five years ago came to our church through World Relief. There were four other testimonies as miraculous and awe-inspiring as those. I’m deeply impressed with the vision of something that no person can explain away. While some may be looking up into the clouds, selling their possessions, and making preparations for the ‘leap home’, the reality is that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. As I think about the testimonies I heard yesterday, and the songs we sung, and the Word we read, something yearns within me to see more of that. At the end of the day, it’s not just about programs and bigger movements. The thing I want to be fanatical about is the moving of the Spirit of God amongst people such that our lives are lived in greater holiness, servanthood, and devotion.

God, stir in me a passion that my heart cannot contain! A passion that the world cannot explain! Open my eyes to see the things that really matter, and unite my heart to fear you, to be about the things that remind the world that heaven and earth have begun to overlap in the resurrection of the Son of God. Let me be fanatical about souls! And even so, come quickly!!!

Bicycles and the Questioning of Faith

My friend pointed me to an article by Sean McDowell and asked me to comment on it based on a shared experience some 18 years ago. One quote really resonated with me.

“So I hit a point in my life — as many young people do — where I was asking deep intellectual and existential questions. And it wasn’t enough for me to believe something because my parents did. I had to find the truth for myself.”

I was a graduating high school senior at the time, and he was volunteering in a student ministry at a nearby church. I remember that season of life as one in which I was reconsidering faith and church. Everything seemed so old and familiar to me. Having grown up in the church, I wondered if my relationship with God was really something of a supernatural sort or merely the product of my upbringing and the social contexts I found myself in. I had grown disillusioned with my faith, and I was visiting nearby churches to see if it was just my church or something deeper in my soul.

I recognize that this is something that most Christian teens go through having counseled and shepherded many teens through this (some successfully, others not so much). I have thought long and hard about why this is, and more importantly, how to help parents navigate that season of the faith journey. I came to the sneaking suspicion that the disharmony of that season was an important part of my faith journey because it upset the status quo and in many ways, enlivened what had become stale. I know that there’s a risk of suggesting some sort of dualistic understanding of disharmony and harmony here (as if to say that the harmony is defined by the disharmony and wasn’t harmony unless the disharmony happened), but that’s not what I mean. Genuine faith does not by definition need doubt to be genuine. What I mean is that the disharmony, the disillusionment, the dryness, and the questioning plays a critical role in the ownership and personalization of faith. It gives my faith its unique contours.

I was glad to find that my sneaking suspicions were not my own. C.S. Lewis commented on this in a short essay called “Talking About Bicycles”. Walter Hooper collected this and other short, journalistic essays in a little volume called, Present Concerns.Present Concerns

I found this short article to be so profound in thinking about my own journey. You can read the article for yourself to understand its context, but let me tease out the major takeaways for the topic at hand. Lewis cites four stages that humans go through with sort of experience of something: war, politics, love, faith, even love.

Unenchantment. This is the period where you are ignorant and uninformed. You have no knowledge of the subject matter, nor do you care about the subject matter. The sign of this stage is usually ignorance or even disdain based on that ignorance.

Enchantment. This is the stage when you first become enamored by the subject. That first crush. The joy of swinging a golf club. Cuddling with a dog. Realizing that God created everything. Understanding that God loves you. The sign of this stage is a nascent and sometimes naive passion.

Disenchantment. This is the stage when the subject loses its luster. The reality of familiarity sets in. That crush becomes a distant memory. The frustration of the game gets to you. Disappointment and reality cloud your vision. The Good News becomes the Old News. God’s love becomes distorted into a man-centered, egotistical pity party. The sign of this stage is disillusionment, boredom, and even cynicism.

Re-enchantment. This was to me the most perplexing and eye-opening part of Lewis’ presentation. Lewis suggests that in this stage one experiences true enjoyment of the subject because it is rooted in the reality of what that subject is. The Enchantment stage was necessary because it gave you a taste that something was out there that could really satisfy your longing for love or passion or joy. (In fact, Lewis calls it such in his quasi-autobiography, Surprised by Joy.) However, through the Disenchantment stage, you come to realize that what you thought was the true was only a shell, a mirage of the true thing that you now experience in the Re-Enchantment stage only you can’t come to understand the reality of it without the memory of that mirage. I know, it’s a bit abstract and complex, so let me try to apply it to my own faith journey.

I think you can see quite easily how the unenchanted, enchanted, and disenchanted stages applied to me. As I church-hopped for those couple of months, I was expressing my own disenchantment with the church and with faith, and it was a necessary step to free me from the ‘illusion’ of my own naive faith. I say ‘illusion’ because I don’t mean that my faith wasn’t real. I only mean that it was a taste of something much more real, much deeper. As I didn’t see God working at my church (even the language betrays naivety), my enchanted view of an ideal, vibrant youth group didn’t materialize, and it pushed on my mirages and illusions of what I thought community should be. It exposed my enchanted faith as a mere taste of something more real – a deeper faith where faithfulness and presence, stability and endurance are to be valued over personal taste and ‘fit’. The loneliness and questioning of that time of disenchantment didn’t just challenge my faith, it reimagined it into something more real than it was before.

The moral of the story is this: I am so grateful for that time of disenchantment (some leadership theories call it ‘isolation’ or ‘wilderness’), and I attribute several factors during that time that got me through. In a future post, I will talk about and solicit specific ways parents, pastors, and friends can help one another navigate the cycle.

1. Patient friends and parents who allowed me to wrestle and ask my questions (even though I was very cynical and arrogant).

2. The grace of God to protect me and preserve me even when I wanted to self-destruct.

3. Gracious counsellors who decided for one reason or another to find out why I was doing what I was doing (or at least help me process it for myself).

I can say with great thankfulness that although the cycle has repeated itself several times over the last 18 years, I am experiencing an ever-growing Re-Enchantment of faith that I pray helps enchant (and one day, re-enchant) my sons, my wife, and the sheep God has entrusted to me.