Friday, June 26, 2009

Photography by the Blind

Charlie by the Portal Photograph by Pete Eckert, blind photographer

So I am getting ready to go catch a show by renown New Orleans jazz pianist Henry Butler at Snug Harbor tonight and while looking at his website I noticed a link on his site to his photography exhibit. Nothing too strange about a musician who is in to photography; I certainly am. But what struck me as strange is that Herny Butler is blind. At first I thought I must have misread the link. Surely it was an exhibit of photos of Henry Butler and not by him. However the link directed me to Site Unseen a collection of photographs by the blind. I was intrigued by the idea so I had to see more. Sight Unseen is a very interesting and beautiful collection of photographs from several different blind artists. In some way these blind photographers capture things that those of use with the gift of seeing eyes miss. In reading the introduction to the exhibit I was struck by a profound statement,
Sight is so pervasive and powerful that it makes us unaware of our own blindnesses. We see, and this is so strong that we think we understand.

As I looked through the Site Unseen exhibit I began to think of how a blind person might actually take the pictures.
What might make a blind person click the shutter at that moment?
What sounds, what smells, what acoustics?
What type of atmosphere would conjure up a picture in the mind of someone who cannot see to compel that person to take a shot?
What brush up against a surface of an object or a person might ignite the imagination of this blind photographer?

I am thinking that tonight I want to try just closing my eyes for a few moments when I am walking around Frenchmen street, when I am listening to the jazz music, when I am with my wife and friends to see if perhaps for a moment maybe I can see without seeing. Maybe the world will come in focus just a littler bit more. Maybe for a moment I will see with more clarity, with more wonder, with more imagination and passion. Maybe I will begin to see again what has been there all along that I have become to accustomed to to recognize.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Our Father

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

Father's Day
This coming Sunday our country will celebrate Father’s Day. While many may see this day as just another Hallmark holiday to boost retail sales of ties, golf shirts, and beer mugs I want to use this blog to talk about a time when the word Father was used in such a revolutionary way that our world has never since recovered—a moment when the plans of God exploded onto the scene in just two words—Our Father.

When Jesus came on the scene, he spoke of God, not as some distant and capricious deity, but as his father. Jesus talked as if he had a special relationship with God, as if he were his own son, as if they were actually related. These were no doubt radical ideas in a world where there were so many diverse and ambivalent views concerning divinity.

While the Jews of that time thought of God as holy, powerful, and righteous, they also thought of him as distant; a distance which could only be bridged by the strict observance of religious rituals and traditions. The Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, had gods for everything you could imagine (and then some things that you can’t even imagine!). Divinity for the Greeks and Romans was superstition-on-steroids! The gods were seen as beings that must be appeased to curry favor for whatever endeavors in which one might be involved. So when it came to the divine life, matters were very insecure because one never knew if he had sacrificed enough or appeased all the deities that needed appeasing for the desired results.

It was in this climate that Jesus taught his disciples about prayer and where he let them in on the outrageous and extraordinary plans of God. Not only was God his father, he was inviting people, ordinary people of every variety, into his very family. Do you realize how utterly subversive and liberating the words Our Father were? They threatened the very foundations of all religions in the world at that time and they offered a way to God that for the first time was based not on human initiative or human performance but on God initiative.

Our Father is the foundation of Christian prayer. It is the context in which we pray. We don’t pray as outsiders or foreigners trying to gain the attention of a distant deity or as people alienated and estranged from divine life but as family members. Because of who Jesus is and what he did, we are in! We don’t have to appease God with our sacrifices or religious traditions. We don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops to gain his approval. It was offered to us when we weren’t even asking for it. It was offered to us when we had nothing to offer in return… when we weren’t good enough, religious enough, or smart enough to get there on our own. Our separation from God is over, and any apparent barriers are just illusions.

The very word father has been so devalued in our culture in recent years and for good reason. For many the word father speaks not of love, courage and strength but of emotional distance, of failed expectations, of never being good enough, or even worse of absence, neglect and abuse. However, Jesus shows us a different kind of father, a father who loves unconditionally, who initiates relationship, who is not emotionally distant, or waiting for us to get it together enough before he will accept us, but who has instead pursued us to the depths of our pain, fear, shame and estrangement and paid the ultimate price so that we could become a part of his family. This is so hard for us to get, isn’t it?

But what if we really believed this?
How would it change our lives?
What type of people might we become?

The More I Buy The More I'm Bought

I've been thinking a lot lately about the implications of living in such a consumeristic society where everything from religious experiences to people to art are valued as products or simply as a means to an end. And while consumerism is such an entrenched idea in our modern world which cannot be avoided by anyone living in a modern context, we have got to keep reminding ourselves of what truly matters.

That which truly matters--love, family, creativity, faith, relationships, and beauty, cannot be bought or sold. And whenever we try to buy these things we not only cheapen what we really want but we become a little less in the process. While I could go on about this I heard a lyric today which gets to the heart of our condition.

The more I buy
The more I'm bought
The more I'm bought
The less I cost

-Joe Pug, Hymn #101

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fear, Love, and Swimming

Last month we did a little family camping trip in Mississippi. I wanted to try and squeeze in a couple of days of camping before the weather got too oppressively hot and humid. And boy did with we score with a couple of the most beautiful days for camping that we could have ordered.

On the second day of camping we decided to pack up some sandwiches and head out for a hike in the woods. After a four mile hike and a picnic in the woods we were ready for a swim. So we all put our bathing suits on and headed over to the little lake by our campground.

This was the first time Ezra had been swimming since last summer so I wondered how it might be when he jumped in the water this time. Well he sure didn’t seem afraid to get in to the lake… that is until he was in it. In the chilly, dark waters where he could not touch the bottom he immediately began to panic and cry for me to pull him out of the water. So I reluctantly reached down and pulled him out of the lake and back on to dry land. I was reluctant to pull him out because I knew that he could swim. Just last summer he was swimming all over a lake that was 10 times the size of this one, and loving it! I have to be honest once I pulled him out I was very tempted to throw him back in. I know this may sound cruel, but it was what I was thinking. And believe me I didn’t want to throw him in to be cruel but because I believed he could actually do it. I was frustrated to see how his own fears were robbing him in that moment of the joy of swimming in the lake.

But as with many other times where God has revealed himself in the context of swimming with my kids, I really sensed God reminding me of how he deals with each of us in our fears. The truth is that while God leads us he never forces us or violates our will in the process. The one word that conveys the attributes of God more than any other in the Bible is—Love. And it is this divine love of God embodied in Jesus that actually has the power to transform each of us from within. The power of love is not in the enforcing of rules and codes and conformity but by subverting the very structures of power in the world with something far greater that get’s at us from the inside out.

The apostle Paul wrote about the attributes of love this way (Message Translation by Eugene Peterson)…
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

This list of the attributes of love is no doubt inspiring but is nonetheless depressing when I look at my own life. I know that on my best day I don’t have this kind of love in and of myself. But I do want to be the kind of person that has this type of love.

So if I lack this kind of love how might I get it?
By trying harder?
By working some kind of formula?
By reading self-help books?
No! Because even if I stumbled onto what appeared to be love—putting others first or caring more for others than myself, it could be from such a horribly dark motive such as pride. In reality this appearance of love wouldn’t be love at all but the feeding of my own ego.

No, the only way to this kind of love is to first realize that I don’t have it, then to realize that God does and that he offers it to me, and then finally to embrace the reality of this love. This, by the way, is at the heart of the good news of the gospel. The wonderful thing is that when I am open to this divine love, it begins to change me ever so slightly on the inside. It begins to overcome the need within for the approval of others, the need to be first or the best, and it changes me ever so slightly into a person who loves.

Back to the lake…
I didn’t throw Ezra back in the water… and as hard as it was I didn’t try and pressure him. I just told him that I knew he could do it and left it at that because in that moment I felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit that this is the way of love. I could have thrown him in, and he likely would have swam, if only out of fear for his life... and I might have got the results I wanted in that moment… but at what cost? The truth is it didn’t take more than thirty minutes before Ezra was back to swimming again just as he had last summer. But even if he had not ended up swimming I am convinced that simply loving him in that moment was far more important, and far more redemptive even though it wasn't my first inclination.

Each day we will encounter situations in which we can employ fear, force, threats, and manipulation to achieve the things we want and in doing so we will just perpetuate fear, anger, and alienation. But there is a better way, a higher way—the way of love… and love, the God kind of love, changes everything!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Northshore Vineyard Blog

For anyone interested in the Northshore Vineyard Church we have just launched a blog which will keep folks up to date with the discussions we are having in our small group over the summer. If you live in the Covington/Mandeville area and are interested in the Northshore Vineyard this will be a good place to begin checking things out.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Holistic War

I heard a news story yesterday concerning General McChrystal's philosophy on the Afghan War which he described as a "Holistic approach to the Afghan War". I'm pretty sure that I have never heard the word holistic used as an adjective for war. I thought that I must have heard it wrong because I didn't hear anyone on the news commenting on it but sure enough I heard right . Though I think I understand what the guy means I can't help but cringe at the use of such a phrase.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Where Is Your Church Going to Be?

Since announcing our intentions to plant a Vineyard Church in the Covington / Mandeville area (which we are calling North Shore Vineyard) a couple of months ago I have been asked two questions just about every day and some times more frequently than that.

The first question—“Is ‘north-shore’ one word or two?” On this particular question I have sided with the Microsoft Word version of spell-check and have kept is as two words (I know deciding anything based on a Microsoft program is heresy to a Mac user but at least I used the version of Word for Mac.)

The second question that I am asked, even more often than the first, seems easy enough on the surface but is really packed with certain assumptions—“Where is the North Shore Vineyard going to be located?” I realize what folks mean when they ask this question and it has something to do with the location of the building in which a Sunday service will be held. However, the implications of this question have really got me thinking. The very question implies that the church building is perhaps the central defining element of what constitutes a church. And while most folks ask this question innocently, I can't help but think that it is indicative of the way church is increasingly perceived in this day and age where the most meaningful part of the Christian faith is linked with the attending of a service in a building. Now, before I go on any further I want to make it clear that I am not against church services or having buildings to meet in. It just seems to me that this type of thinking is evidence of a deeper problem with church in our culture, no doubt tied to the highly consumerist society in which we live, where church is looked at more as a product or service rather than a vibrant community of faith and mission.

I have heard the question posed, “If your church were to disappear tomorrow would your community notice, or for that matter, even care?” While this is a very good question to wrestle with concerning mission and outreach and connection to the community, another helpful question might be, “If your church building and Sunday service were to disappear would your church still exist?” This may sound like a very odd question to ask in a country with so much religious freedom and so little persecution of Christians but I believe it is a very constructive question to ask because it gets to the heart of some of our false assumptions about church and can maybe help us to a better understanding of what church could be.

This August will mark four years since the church of which I am a part experienced the very scenario posed by this question. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area, most members of our congregation evacuated to various locations around the country, only to find that many would end up being in those places for more than a few days (some for weeks, months, and some never to return). Our old building was a mess from roof damage and flooding and our new building, which we had just been moving into over the previous weeks, was without power and had sustained some minor damage itself. So for several weeks we had no central location for weekend services and when we finally did start using our new building it was under a paradigm that had been completely altered in the wake of the hurricane.

What happened with our church in the months following Katrina was interesting to say the least. Looking back I can see that there was in fact more to the church than the building. In fact Christ-followers from our church who had evacuated all over the country began finding each other in the cities they fled to—Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houston (I was a part of some gatherings with folks from our church in the Houston area). And wherever folks from our church ended up, they did what Christians naturally do—they gathered together, worshipped, prayed, shared meals together, and did a lot of grieving and processing loss together. But what is even more interesting is the type of church experience folks began returning to back here in Kenner. In the aftermath of Katrina the Kenner Vineyard lacked the resources and volunteers to offer the previous schedule of multiple weekend services, and the lineup of classes, programs, and Bible studies that had typically occurred on a weekly basis before the storm. But amazingly even without being able to offer folks much in the way of services and programs the Kenner Vineyard began to thrive. How could it be?

What began to happen was that folks began to gather around mission—cooking and serving hot meals to people, ripping out sheet rock and carpet in flooded homes, staging job fairs, praying with people, or just sitting with folks in front of their ruined homes and listening to their stories. It’s as if the New Orleans metro area had suddenly become a mission field (really it always was, we just needed the veil pulled back a bit to reveal it again) and instead of folks just showing up to be attendees of a weekend service they were actually beginning to be the church in the community—being the touch of God to a hurting and broken world.

Was it messy? You bet!
Chaotic? At times very!
And, by the way, it wasn’t all good.
The truth is that the shaking up of everything caused some pretty ugly stuff to come up in the hearts of many a sincere believer, certainly including myself (I will no doubt address this aspect in another blog).
Yet in the wreckage of Katrina, when all rhythms of life were broken, when infrastructure was crumbling all around, when the very fabric of the culture and the government seemed to be coming undone, Christ-followers almost instinctively began to move from passivity to active mission.
The church in a very real sense had left the building!

The largely untold and unreported story of relief and reconstruction in the New Orleans area after Katrina is just how much of it was done without fanfare or hype or news conferences—by Christians. But in spite of the lack of publicity, people in the New Orleans area know the role the church played in it all. They know that when the government was bickering over how to respond, when FEMA couldn’t seem to get their act together, when even reliable non-profits like the Red Cross were stretched thin it was the church who just did what Christians have done through the ages—helping hurting people.

So back to the question—“Where is your church going to be?”
Well hopefully wherever there are broken, hurting people who desperately need to experience the love of God through compassionate humanity. It will be with at-risk children in the public schools and single moms who are just trying to make ends meet. It will be with those struggling to find their way out of addictions and those who are empty after being filled with everything this world has to offer. With down-and-outers and up-and-outers. It will be with those who are fumbling towards faith and those who are wrestling with doubts. It will be with those who gather in homes, coffee shops, the local bar and those who gather on a weekend to celebrate who Jesus is and what he has done. The actual location may be hard to pin down from one moment to the next, but hopefully the church will be recognizable not just by a building where it meets weekly but by its mission, and by a community of people who have been absolutely ruined by the love of God.