Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The Burtitization of our church continued with flair Sunday night. He walks in, reeking even more of tobacco-ey likker-breath- and thrusts one of the tightest grips on my right hand that I can remember since I used to get in gripping contests with my high school buds. He seemed happy to be there.

He whips out his wallet, garbles something about the "envelopes".........(I knew what he was getting ready to do. He wanted to give an offering and I was feeling uncomfortable because I wanted him to know he wasn't obligated to give- he was our guest. I knew that he worked at a pizza place and that money is an issue for him, especially since he whipped out a twenty. I glanced into his wallet in that instant and saw no other bills in there........did he realize what he had just done? Okay..........way too much analysis, then and now. I chose not to impugn his dignity in his gift and received it with joy on behalf of Veritas.)

I tell him I am glad to see him (and I was). I wondered how he would react with twice as many people as last week? He still ate at the table with Jason. We started a verse-by-verse study of Revelation. I would soon find out his response to that as well.

Later, my wife calls me to inform me about her conversation with Burt of which I only heard a snippet to the effect of, "can I be honest with you?" His honesty concerned the book of Revelation, to which he opined, "I don't believe in that sh-t."

Cathy also said she smelled smoke in the bathroom and found an ash on the floor. That was pretty awesome. You know there's some trust built up when you can sneak a smoke in a near-total stranger's bathroom.

Who said church done this way wasn't messy?

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

There's a guy in the church that meets in our house who has a nifty knack to reach out to people who are down and out. He has a way of making friends with those who are kind of out there on the fringe. What's more, is that he brings them to our gathering.

"Jason is bringing his friend, Burt, tonight" my wife noted at some point on Sunday.

I wonder what he's studying in school?

"He's gone to go pick up Burt" my bride of 10 years remarked as I stared quizzically at Jason's guitar case now laying in the floor.

I bet he's a freshman or a sophomore, since he has no car.

"Glenn, this is Burt."

I was now beholding a 44 year-old man, staggering into our living room, brazenly attempting his slurred introduction through snaggled and missing teeth. His teetering reminded me that perhaps he was struck with palsy. Or maybe years of alcohol. He appearance betrayed his age by ten years easy.

We fellowshiped with this stranger sitting contentedly at our table. So Jason and I went into the kitchen with Burt. Our church never eats at the table. We are happy to circle up on the floor or couch and spill tea and watch my German Shepherd snatch up morsels from the carpet with lightning-fast precision. "Respectable people don't do that" Burt admonished us.

Over our pizza Burt pokes fun at Jason and we all laugh. I recognize a connection between a lonesome 44 year-old drunk and a disciple of Christ cleverly disguised as a college student. I watched with fascination and entertainment as Burt told of how Jason always came to pick him up and take him to work (when in actuality Jason's only done this once). But by now we've been told by Burt of how his family's all passed away and Jason is a good friend.

Burt quietly made his way into my recliner as we moved into our teaching time. We were looking at Matthew 5 where Jesus tells us we are the light of the world. Our discussion goes on for 20 minutes and finally Burt interjects with a voice louder than necessary for a room with people only feet away from each other.

"You know- you all don't know me from Adam. I hope you don't mind if I speak right now. I could be a robber and could come back and rob you all. But you let me into your home and let me eat with you. And Jason's been a friend." Burt cracks on Jason again and we all laugh- again.

Then Burt calls me a knothead. You see, thanks to my wife, even total strangers are told of how I pegged my nugget on the corner of the entertainment center when trying to get my TVator to work with my laptop. I guess the pump-knot was unmistakable. So I sit on the floor and take my medicine while more laughter erupts.

Then Burt asks me a question that I shall never forget as long as I live.

Through a face squinched with incredulity came: "Why did you let me come in with you and eat? Answer that for me teacher-man" (or something to that effect).

Was this a set up?

But I looked at his eyes and his mouth agape......he was wanting an answer. I knew what this was about now. I swallowed hard as I gathered an answer. The air was rife with fertile reality of the Kingdom of God.

This was no teachable moment for Burt. He had already gone through the Spirit's lesson that night. Ironically, what God wanted us to know came in the form of a question from a drunk. Sure, I gave an answer about this was what Jesus' people are really all about......accepting, inviting, regardless of who we are or where we've been......but I think mostly to see if I believed it or not.

Jesus taught from my recliner Sunday night. The rest of the night I just plucked blackberries.

Thursday, February 06, 2003


a mini-theological review

"There are answers to almost every question."

Postmodern filmakers today, without hesitation, dabble freely with esoteric and peripheral issues of spirituality- often going into the annals of other cultures and their religious traditions to explain/validate/bless their experience of being human. In doing so, they seem to hope to speak to something common to us all while tapping into the mystery of the "Other".......that whisper, that perception of a reality/person beyond our existence that instills meaning into the rubric of life.

Consequently, what often results is an amalgam of mushy neo-paganism sometimes cleverly masquerading under faint echoes of authentic biblical Christianity. Should a film find its voice from within the Christian worldview (and it truly rarely does), then the foray therein leaves us wanting more, wiping our lips clean from the bitter taste of superficiality.

Every now and then, a motion picture emerges with something very godly to say, and strikingly on target theologically. M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is just one of those films (released August, 2001 and in current release on DVD).

Anyone familiar with Shyamalan's work thus far probably camps in either the "love him" or "hate him" settlements. Widely acclaimed as the next "great" storyteller of his generation, Shyamalan tackles the "alien movie" genre with a flamboyant respect for not insulting our intelligence with cheap thrills, often relying on the anticipation of the unknown to weave the story.

Since I'll reveal things about the movie that might spoil the plot for those who haven't seen it, I do so to make a case for a Theology of Signs, MunkeBites-style. (If you haven't seen it, read no further.........watch it and come back).

Can one "do" theology without intention? Can an undertaking with the sole purpose of storytelling/storyselling (film making) end up painting a picture that helps us understand the nature of human suffering and the character of God? More to the point, does God reveal himself even through decidedly non-Christian agents? If so, what does "Signs" have to say?

Even if the title itself is a double-entendre playing into the message of the movie, it makes a bold statement regarding the doctrine of providence. Notwithstanding the fascinating storyline and atmosphere of the movie, what ultimately emerges is somewhat of a theological gut-check- posing questions our piety had previously been loathe to express- but nonetheless "sensed" behind the veil of our perception of free-will, God's power and the reality of a depth of suffering almost foreign to most.

The word providence comes from the Latin, providere, which is a combination of two words- pro "before" and videre"sees." This double meaning.... fore-seeing, seeing before, making provision for what is foreseen- is the umbrella under which all theology or doctrine is done and can be, arguably, therefore understood. The doctrine of providence basically asks, "how does God care for his creation?" Everything else conceptually falls underneath that basic epistemological question. It is the story of the compassion of God that intersects the scorched and hallowed ground that is human tragedy. It is the core construct behind the words of the song that muses, "he's got the whole world in his hands" and begs the question, "and just HOW does God hold this world?" Providence is more than mere theological academic exercise and reflection.........we take out our hearts and examine it while it functions outside its normal place and explore it. This is intensely personal and painful.

This is what Mel Gibson's character, Graham, does- only his heart drops, shatters and he is left rummaging for replacement parts. We pick him up, having lost any semblance of faith in a benevolent "father" who seems blind, and somewhat impotent. Through his own intention, he has abandoned his place as a Catholic priest. The honest anger he has toward God is balanced begrudgingly on his shoulder and it takes an alien invasion to knock it off. But not before he has lost his wife in a freak accident.

The pain Graham experiences borders on the blasphemous. Thoughts and words emanate from his heart that we would dare not entertain. In one scene, as he is holding the limp body of his slowly dying son, he spews forth a vitriolic harangue toward God and caps it off with an "I hate you!" At that point in the movie, my piety lurched forward, defiantly wanting to remind him "God didn't do these things to you." At the same time, I just wanted to be beside him, speechless, motionless and answerless.....just "there."

As a chaplain at the University of Louisville Hospital (a Level I Trauma Unit), I found there are no answers for the father of 19 year-old college student who wonders where God is in the process of his son lying brain dead whereas- 3 hours prior- the boy had just left to celebrate a birthday on his first weekend home from school. There are no answers for the daughter gripping the jaundiced and emaciated 85-pound body of her father as to why he had to trade in his liver for a life of alcohol. It was the first time in my life where I faced that kind of suffering. It was the first time I confronted such forces of human chaos and became closely acquainted with the experience of God-forsakenness. It was the dividing line in my seminary career because God ripped out my heart and put it back together again. If he hadn't have done so, I felt I would have crumpled.

There is indeed a suffering so deep, so incomprehensible that warrants the experience of God-forsakenness, such as what Graham wades through. When the rage of hell impinges upon human frailty and existence, we sense the rampage of chaos that lurks on the fringes of creation. And despite all the attending demonic fury (as personified by the alien invaders), we sense something in the divine Personage that won't let us go. In all of the mundane rituals of life, we can't escape the faint whisper that promises ordo ab chaos. How is it that the God who is absent is still the God who is "there?" How can it be that God indeed mediates his presence in his perceived absence? What is the form of this providential activity of God? I contend that the denouement of Signs poignantly illustrates the providence of God in the face of incalculable human suffering in a strikingly accurate fashion.

History is replete with the rising and falling of evil regimes that incur monstrous tolls upon human suffering (Nazi Germany, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, September 11th). Consider Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who was forced to view a child being hung at the camp:

For more than half and hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking, "Where is God now?"

I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is he? Here he is.....he is hanging here on this gallows......."

That night, the soup tasted of corpses (Night, p. 62).

Sometimes it is only in the midst of (or after) the fire that we can ascertain the ways in which God was providing. The glasses of water left behind, the failed baseball career memorialized in the bat hanging on the wall, the cryptic words of Graham's dying wife once relegated to the neural misfirings of a dying brain.........were all puzzle pieces- seemingly small and insignificant at the time- that divinely came together and became the deliverance of God. But none of it made sense until it had to. These all factored into their victory over the alien threat because God was standing on the frontside of their unfolding human stories and wove together with purpose and creativity a beautiful tapestry of ongoing human history. God works with all the factors that are available to him in any given moment.......no matter how miniscule. And the materials God uses? Human agents. In thus doing the work of providence, God interacts with free-willed human beings in the freedom of their decision making. The way God provided for their survival was defined within their own specific historically defined context. All the glasses of water left behind by the little girl was poison ammunition against the alien being. The non-sensical utterance, "swing away" was the command (and release) for Graham's brother to really knock one out of the park (and beat the alien marauder senseless so they could escape). Only through the contingencies of all these interconnected relationships did the pattern of God's providential activity come to light. Graham found faith, his brother found purpose, his son found life- all within the context of family.

We may never enter the garden of suffering of a Father Graham or an Elie Wiesel. But should we embark upon the suffering of God-forsakenness, we do so in light of the Christ event, Who hanging on a gallows of sorts also experienced God-forsakenness (Mark 15:34). There are no answers here, only a coming alongside of a Lord Who knows the fullest extent of what it means to be abandoned unto death. While we cry out for answers, we discover the presence of the Lord standing in our midst, already having been beaten and accused. Sometimes He comes in His power, crumpled with us in the corner. And He knows us.....He even knows our lot. Even while those closest to us can only muster the strength to snooze at the gate, no one but Jesus can fully enter that garden of suffering we may be called to enter.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Been feeling a bit lonely lately. Been looking at what my life has looked like since jumping off of the "traditional church" ship back in '99 and there has been a common theme.....this twinge of loneliness. I was told it would be like this. I was told to hold on while this roller coaster slammed me through the good/bad, the successes/failures and that the movement between the two extremes would be jarring. Sometimes it just seems that between the two, the turbulence seems the same and who knows what is success and what isn't? I know I'm not the only one daring to do something for God in times like these. Sometimes I'd just like to know that I've connected to others in the same ministerial boat, but for two and one-half years, I still don't feel like I have. I seem to get close the water's edge, but my arm floaties don't measure up to everyone's inflatable dinghies. I've trudged my way through thus far in search of a mentor/friend who could guide me on this journey. However, there are possibilities on the horizon and new friends.

Most of the people in my denomination who are available to me either don't know about us or are skeptical about the kind of animal we are grooming here, so the attention is patronizing or absent altogether. I was supposed to find my own mentor when I landed on field, according to my denominational superiors. How do you do that when: 1) you know next to no one; 2) 80% of the churches in your association either have no idea you are here or are diametrically opposed to your mere presence and are plateaued or declining. From within and around our association, I've tried and seen the formation of groups of somewhat like-minded church planters and seen them fall down. I've entertained the conversations that point to nothing more than lofty, yet empty aspirations to create relational accountability. Then, poof........

I intuitively sense what the problem is and it's no one's fault. Everyone is just relationally maxed out. Everyone already has their inner circle and can only maintain so many relationships at one time. How hard it is for a stranger to infiltrate an established accountability network of good buddies. That's just the reality of being an unknown, yet forging ahead in relative obscurity does get wearisome. Have I missed something/someone along the way? Why does it seem like the very ones I could learn from the most- those who have been down this road a lot longer than I- can't slow down to pick up a vagabond? I know it's not their intention but it still feels lonely. Why is it no one has taught me how to reach out?

Perhaps I am a bit presumptuous. Mentorships and mutually accountable friendships and discipling networks don't happen spontaneously. I know what I see and sometimes envy in others is the product of much relational time and investment. Am I even willing to scrutinize my own woundedness here? What is it about church planting that taps into the fountains of loneliness so easily? Why do I need to be needed? Sometimes all it seems to be about is giving. There are some things I need to receive too but there just isn't a whole lot out there right now. I just don't want to be like the Voyager Probe of Church Planters, drifting further away while still beaming out fainter and fainter signals.

For you, my 5 faithful MunkeBites readers...........a glimspe into the foolishness of church planting from my vantage point.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Now I can safely say that I have been "broken in" by a contingency of the Saturday night Metro bus riding regulars who frolic to and fro from party to party. Last Saturday was to be my first 8-3am shift on a route here in Oxford. I had heard stories about the shift, but they smelled more like the stuff of hyperbole and legend. Now I know better.

I should have taken the clue when the conversation over the radio amongst other drivers was about how we needed to turn off the rear heaters so the partiers wouldn't throw up. I wondered if someone was going to heave, how was I going to prevent it and keep my attention on driving at the same time?

One group of 15 decided to momentarily bring to my bus their party celebrating a girl's 21st birthday. I got patted on the head like a puppy dog and amidst chants of "new bus driver!!" some drunk chick decided to flash me not once, but twice. To top it off an hour later, another drunk girl up-chucked on my bus. This all made the foot races the drunk guys would have with the bus up the streets pale in comparison. And I was on the slow route.

I kept thinking, "....now, what about the state of drunken stupor is fun?" You get to swim in your own vomitus; you get to imperil your life and the lives of others by showing how you can outrun a 36,000 pound diesel behemoth; you get to reveal your privates before total strangers. What's sadder is that for some of these, the deepest experience of human community and friendship they will have is that someone held their head up so they could puke in the toilet. Now isn't that a true friend?

"Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging; and whoever is deceived thereby is not wise." Proverbs 20:1