Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The First Five Minutes Before and Following

Years ago in seminary, in one of my church-planting classes, it was said that a newcomer will decide whether to return to your church on the basis of the first five minutes before the worship service and the first five minutes immediately following. I heard that statement almost eleven years ago, and I never fully understood it . . . until now.

You see, I have not been truly a newcomer to a church since 1995. I was hired by Zion Church in 1998 so that doesn't count and then I was part of the launch of Grace Chapel in 2000, so that doesn't count either. The last time I was truly a newcomer to a church was back in 1995 when Tanya and I started attending St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fl.

But what this summer has afforded us is the opportunity to be newcomers to churches many times over. Before this summer is over, I will have had the opportunity to attend at least twenty different churches, most of them being in Lincoln. So let me tell you about our experience this last Sunday. After figuring out parking (which was across the street from the church building itself) and after finding our way to the worship hall through one of two doors we had to pick (we picked correctly. whew!), we then walked into the foyer amidst many people chatting away, clearly most familiar with one another.

We made it through the awkward stage of getting through the foyer with all these chatty people, none of whom we knew and figured out how to get our two boys (ages three and four) to the nursery. And then as we walked toward the worship hall, the greeter hit a home run with us! He stepped forward, put his hand out and said enthusiastically, "Hi, I'm Craig! Welcome to such and such church. We're glad you are here!" Truth be told, in many of the churches we have visited this summer, either we have been greeted by someone with a countenance better suited for being a bouncer at a bar or we were not greeted at all!!! We then entered the worship hall, bulletin in hand, and sat down in time for Sunday worship to kick off. The first five minutes before the service went off without a hitch! The music was good. The message was filled with the passionate preaching of my good friend who pastors the church. The church had a very authentic sense about it, very much an outward-focused, outreach-minded place with a sweetness about it.

I walked up to my pastor friend immediately following the service and Tanya went off to grab our boys. I hugged my friend and began telling him how much we appreciated being there and how blessed we were and how everyone did such a great job of welcoming us. My friend was excited to hear the good news about his church. Soon, my friend turned to greet some of his members.

And then it happened . . . I see my wife returning with our boys from the nursery. She's fighting back tears. I ask, "what's wrong honey?"

Tanya responds, "the nursery lost Calvin (our three-year old)." "What?" "They lost Calvin." "What?" You see what had happened was that Tanya had gone to the nursery to pick up the boys and she could only find Isaac (our four-year old). While she was frantically searching for Calvin, the two nursery workers were occupied with other concerns, not paying much attention to this frantic mother and finally Tanya blurted out, "Where's Calvin?" Immediate answer by the one nursery worker who actually responded: "uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . I don't know." "You don't know where my son is?" "uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . maybe he went upstairs to children's church with the older kids?" "You don't know where my three- year old son is? Maybe he went upstairs with the older kids? Where's upstairs and how do I get there?!"

Tanya went upstairs and, sure enough, there was our three-year old with the older kids in Children's Church.

The first five minutes following the service impacted our day and left an impression regarding our church experience far more so than the music (sorry Crystal and Gina), far more than the preaching (sorry Ben L. and me), far more so than the quality of coffee (sorry so many of you at Grace Chapel).

Would we have returned to that church if we were trying to find a church home? I don't know. After being a minister for ten years and very much a "friendly" to the church, I hope we would have had the maturity at least to address the difficulty of the situation with someone in leadership and see if there wasn't something we could do to make that church a better place (apart from whether we would have come to call that place home or not). In fact, Tanya was so upset she wanted to say something right there and then. I told her that she needed to calm down a bit and promised that I'd call my pastor friend this week and tell him what had happened. I know he would want to know. Plus, being a churchman, I understand we take a lot of things for granted in the church. I'm sure the people at that church assumed everyone was just "family" and that if a kid wanders here or there, that it's a bit like losing sight of your child at a family reunion, that he's going to be OK either way. How eye-opening it has been to step away from Grace Chapel for the summer to get a "fresh set of eyes."

If you are an established person at Grace Chapel, how cognoscente are you of the significance of the first five minutes before the service [seeking out new faces (by the way, at GC newcomers are often the ones sitting in the worship hall before the service, regulars usually roll in more casually), serving as a friendly and intentional greeter, helping a new mother find her way to the nursery, etc.] and the significance of the first five minutes following a service (looking to reach out and say "hi" to a new face, praying with someone in need, helping to ensure that new people know about the Geneva House, coffee, where their kids are going to be as they return from Children's Church, etc.).

Remember, the first five minutes before and after a church service will shape much of the impression with which a newcomer leaves Grace Chapel that day.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


" . . . we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door."

-G.K. Chesterton in "The Ethics of Elfland"

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Upside-Down Kingdom, PART III. (Back to Servanthood)

To return from my digression about cigars, laundry and women's ordination in Part II., some of these ideas about servanthood came home for me this last week when we spent a number of days in TN/GA with Kelly and Tabitha Kapic, dear friends from our seminary days. Timed with my sabbatical, we planned a trip months and months ago. Recently, Tabitha was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and needed to have major surgery- as of right now the surgery seems to have "gotten" all the cancer. While in TN/GA, Tabitha was recovering from the emotional and physical trauma of her operation and being a victim of cancer, tired and without much energy. We had great conversation with our friends but then a portion of our time was spent mowing the lawn, trimming bushes, watching their two little children, doing some laundry and unpacking some bags from a recent trip their kids had been on while mom underwent surgery.

I go back twenty years and cringe to think about how an unregenerate Mike Hsu would have thought about the value of a week like this last one. I get into that devil of a man's thoughts and they go something like this: "I could have done yard work and watched kids back home. Why did we pay for airline tickets to do that?" Romans 3:10-12, "As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.'” By the grace of God, I am growing to hate that old guy who used to be me.

As I mowed my friends' lawn and trimmed their bushes (and listened to Pavarotti on my Ipod- splendid!), my heart was filled with so much happiness and joy because I knew in a small way my friends would be blessed whether in Kelly coming home from work and seeing clean lines in his yard or Tabitha being less concerned that the yard had "slid" for a few weeks (cancer does consume a lot of energy and attention and take you away from regular routines, you know?) I loved every minute of being able to serve my friends in very small ways. I cry almost thinking about it- remember, this is a guy who isn't very good at serving. Thank you Jesus.

To follow some thoughts from Part II., I know I’m a pastor-elder with “authority in the church.” But the really good stuff in God’s economy/Kingdom is serving someone else’s agenda. I don’t think in a redeemed Kingdom-hierarchy, apart from office and function, that ANYONE is ever truly kept from the “good stuff.” You know what I'm saying? Kinda?

I love Hebrews 5:7-9: "During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."

It's interesting to me that in the first part of those verses, Jesus was heard by God because of His "reverent submission." In other words, though being equal with God He sought after inequality, to become "less than God by doing His will." In the second part, Jesus is described as Himself "learning obedience from what He suffered," that Jesus perfectly laid down His life for us but that He "learned to do so" as well. I wonder if the marvel in these verses is that before His incarnation, Jesus, the eternal God of the universe, second person of the Godhead, never had occasion, opportunity or reason to submit Himself to anyone or anything. After all, He was the pre-existent God from all eternity right?! that now in the accomplishing of the Father's perfect will, Jesus was traversing new terrain, that even Jesus had to learn submission and obedience to the will of the Father?!

My friends, forgive me if I have offended any of you in this three-part series. I love the people of Grace Chapel. I don't want to offend. Know that this conversation remains an open one among the leadership of Grace Chapel. So let me close this lengthy series by saying this- in my own life here are the things I truly want to learn: to delight in submission, obedience, embracing inequality and true servanthood. In mowing my friends' lawn (it was a huge lawn by the way!), I had one of those aha moments, that I was created for this, that my life only made sense insofar as it was being poured out for others, not seeking to take it up instead laying it down. Jesus once talked about someone losing his life for His sake and as a result, finding it. I've been a follower of Jesus Christ for almost twenty years. I think I'm beginning to find my life. If anyone, man or woman, wants my vocational call, go for it (really)! However, I would rather be less than all women and most men. So let me have it. Really. The Kingdom privilege is all mine.

The Upside-Down Kingdom, PART II. (Women’s Ordination, Laundry and Cigars Again)

There is much talk these days about equality in the church, . . . and here's another confession if you didn't already know it (this time about the Presbyterian Church in America) . . . our denomination does not ordain women as pastors and elders. Understandably so, to many this is an abhorrent notion reeking of inequality and injustice. Yet, I wonder if it would be so abhorrent if we (men and women alike) really understood the Gospel as being about One who did not seek equality, instead "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . . ." I'm a man (and a master of the obvious), and you might think that these things are easy for a man to say. Nietzsche probably would have called this kind of reasoning something along the lines of a teaching purported by those in power to keep people down and subservient. Yet if we really understood the Gospel and the nature of the upside-down Kingdom, wouldn't we all be striving for INEQUALITY? Would those who have the opportunity/role, whatever you want to call it, of submission and service be among those most envied in that world and held up high on a pedestal, rather than those with "authority" and "decision-making power"? As I tell BOTH partners in my many premarriage sessions, in the Kingdom of God EVERYONE is trying to go low, so should both husband and wife in the marriage relationship.

Look, I know the reason this way of thinking may seem outrageous is because we live in a fallen world tainted with injustice, corruption, abuse of power and love of self above love of neighbor. Yet, what if the "entire world" operated in this way where the higher up you go on the totem pole of power and authority, the greater servant you become? Isn't this the Kingdom we are to: 1) pray for in the Lord's Prayer and 2) work at realizing in our marriages, churches and eventually the world? Is it really a terrible world where EVERYONE is seeking to be less equal in privilege, function and prestige to the next guy? and instead where EVERYONE is seeking to uplift, uphold and bring out the best in EVERYONE ELSE (Matt. 20:26)?

C.S. Lewis once said that democracy where all functions and offices are virtually open to all people (at least in theory), is necessary because corruption and sin are present in the world. Yet imagine a world where corruption and sin are being put off and the "world order" being restored where the guy on top is the greatest servant among us. Kind of sounds like a Kingdom where the King is the greatest servant doesn't it? Sound familiar? And what if that world had a certain creational pattern in marriage and in the church that was being restored where, while the husband might be the "Head" in marriage and the church elders might be male in nature, yet Christlikeness was being formed in and among the people of those institutions, that to have authority simply meant "the right to serve the very best interests of those whom one might seek to lead"? This kind of world envisioned is radical, I know. It is so far outside the plausibility construct of those of us who our entire lives have breathed the air of democratic ideals. Can I ask you to consider that perhaps a superior notion rests on the assumption of a world order where a redeemed hierarchy exists alongside Christ-like ideals (we do refer to the vision of this kind of world as a "Kingdom" after all, don't we?). Will you at least consider it as food for thought?

Many of these thoughts have pressed in on me over the years now having been an ordained PCA pastor for ten years. I've been asked a lot over the years if I believe men are more qualified than women to be pastors. Let me just say for the record, that among men and women alike in the church, I believe myself to be the LEAST QUALIFIED to be a teaching elder, i.e. pastor. Why so? Because as head pastor, while I am called to be the greatest servant in my congregation, truth of the matter is that serving others above myself does not come naturally for me (remember my original confession in Part I.?). Yet the amazing thing is that in this arena called the Church, where the Kingdom of God is meant to manifest itself, even Mike Hsu is growing in putting on Christ and putting off sin (did you hear that?! even Mike Hsu is growing! Do you believe in miracles?). After a mere almost twenty years as a Christian, I am beginning to learn how to be a servant.

I've never viewed "having authority" in the church as a "neat thing" or a great opportunity to wield power or a "right to which I am entitled." Rather I've spent countless hours feeling so overwhelmed and broken over the responsibility of being an "undershepherd" over God's flock. No offense my many women friends at Grace Chapel, many of whom I know are pro-women's ordination, but if I told all my women friends in the world that they would never ever have to . . . (fill in the blank with the most feared or despised thing one would just as well never do) how would they/you feel? So for example, what if I came home one day and said to my wife Tanya, "honey from now on you must never ever do another load of laundry again." Would Tanya's first inclination be to appeal to inequality and injustice? Or would it be gladly to give over the function of laundry for ever and ever? I dare say that being an elder in Christ's church is not too far off from laundry as a most inglorious task! Really, there is a sense to me that any gender can have it if they want it, but upon seeing what it is, to account for peoples’ souls and pour over them in prayer with worry and concern, who REALLY, I mean REALLY wants it?

Pardon the really bad illustration, but here goes . . . though not having had one for a long time, I love a really good cigar. You know the cigar that everyone wants right? A Cuban cigar! But why? Because no one can have it (at least until the embargo is lifted). Truth of the matter is that most of the time anymore Cuban cigars aren't that good at all! As far as I'm concerned the best cigar in the world is a Nicaraguan Padron 1964 anniversario edition, see what I'm saying? Maybe the best “functions” in the church really are everything but pastor-elder work, see what I’m saying? This is weird thinking to us, but not because it is weird thinking in itself! It is weird thinking because we are weird. We live in a weird world where pastors are often made to be stars with prestige, power, accolades (and sometimes fame). But maybe in a nonweird world (the Kingdom?), the call of pastor-elder is truly a most inglorious and humble task . . . like laundry?!

The Upside-Down Kingdom, PART I. (Servanthood)

I have a confession to make. I'm kind of ashamed to say this but for the first eighteen years of my life I lived for myself. If I have a description of my childhood, I remember being bored with life and terribly self-absorbed . . . and I was really unhappy too. The Lord Jesus came into my life second semester freshman year at the University of Kansas and for the last almost twenty years, I've been learning to live within the framework of His life-giving ways. What that means is that my life has been one of putting off the "old man" and putting on Christ. What THAT means is that I've been learning how to find true joy and meaning in life by dying to my selfishness and learning how to find my greatest joy in the service of others.

The problem with me is that serving others has never come that naturally for me. I'm a high introvert, and I can also be terribly self-absorbed too. I am protective of MY time and when I am unable to have MY time and serve MY agenda, I can become terribly frustrated. You know the passage in Philippians 2 that talks about taking on the attitude of Jesus by considering others' interests as more important than your own? This has been the story of my (regenerate) life, trying to do the Philippians 2 thing. In my natural state, I would rather take up my own life than empty it. I would rather reach for power and control rather than give it up. I'd rather become great first rather than take the form of a servant first.

And I think this is the amazing thing about the Gospel that God Himself took the form of a servant. Can you wrap your head around that amazing truth? I can't. Colossians 1:15,16 talks about how Jesus is the image of the Invisible God, how in Him all things hold together and that all things were created by Him. So Jesus is the Creator God of the Universe. In our frenetically-paced lives, stop and think about that for just fifteen minutes, maybe let it soak in for thirty. Now hear the Philippians 2:6,7 part about how though being God, Jesus did not take hold of that equality, instead made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, . . .

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Cultural Engagement and Alignment, part. 2 (sort of)

OK, so I had a hard time spitting out what I was trying to say in my 05.27.08 posting. I even had a hard time explaining it to a small group of friends in Colorado this last week. But then I was reading "The Irresistible Revolution," by Shane Claiborne recently and Claiborne said it perfectly:

"My mandate is straight from the mouth of my heavenly King, through the lips of the Prince of Peace - to love my enemies - and yet I still falter. May we cling to the truth that every human being is created in the image of God. Do we believe the children of Iraq are just as precious as the children of New York? A love for our own people is not a bad thing, but why should love stop at the border? We, the people of rebirth, have an allegiance that runs much deeper than nationalism" (pp. 366-67).

Well said Claiborne. Do I recommend the rest of his book? I don't know - the book did a lot of things to me, and I'm still sorting through it all. I'll say this much- stay away from the book if you don't like books "doing things to you."

Friday, July 4, 2008

Banqueting in the Grave

Taken from "Addictions - A Banquet in the Grave," by Ed Welch, "Notice the difference between 'I'm Jim. I'm an alcoholic' and 'I'm Jim. I am part of the body of Christ. I am part of a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God' (1Peter 2:9)."

A common theme has emerged for me in recent weeks as I've spent time at the Peoples City Mission, traveled to Walthill, thought about many of the struggles of Grace Chapel people and then thought about my own life- that theme is addiction. I recently finished Welch's book and it was really good, one I recommend that as many people as possible read.

Alcoholism has utterly devastated the lives of a huge percentage of people at Walthill. When one of the Native families gave their lives to Jesus last year, one of the areas they began working on (both husband and wife) was giving up "the bottle." Yet the problem of being ruled by the bottle is so great in Walthill that this couple explained that on a few occasions other tribal members would leave a six-pack of beer on their front porch tempting them to drink again, that at times they didn't even have food in the refrigerator (and the other tribal members knew it) but that beer would be left rather than food.

I've spent time at the Curtis Center at the Peoples City Mission. The Curtis Center is the transitional housing side of the PCM where men might live for one or more years, pay rent, participate in the various PCM programs until such a time as they can find housing in Lincoln. Whenever one of the men leaves for a few days, it is standard procedure to take a UA to see if they have been "clean" during the time of being away. Most recently, I was hanging out with Chuck who directs the Curtis Center and one of the men came back from a trip only to test positive for cocaine, alcohol and a few other things as well.

I've pastored Grace Chapel people for eight years now and maybe it goes without saying but the number of men who struggle with addiction to internet pornography is quite high. My own history here is not "clean" either as one who learned about the "birds and the bees" during the early teen years primarily by watching porn (this was my introduction to the subject of sex).

Alcohol, drugs and porn- typical things we think about as we think of "addictions." Yet how many of us are addicted to things we might not think of readily as "terrible addictions"? Being addicted to success? To counting our money? Comfort? To having a sterling reputation? Being thought of in a certain way? To exercise? To work? To the approval of others? Food (even healthy food)? Control? Eating at a certain time every day (anyone here turn into a monster when having missed a meal?)? Things? Hobbies? Our way of doing things? Being right? Does not the list go on and on?

How many of us have lived with certain desires that at times mastered us more than Christ? Can any of us honestly say that we know nothing of the apostle Paul's experience in Romans 7:15, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do"? As Ed Welch says on pg. 14 of his book, "Scripture always stretches categories so that they include us all. . . . What can own you besides Christ?" You see, the underlying problem with addiction is idolatry, giving our hearts to the desires that rule us apart from the reign of Christ in our lives. And who among us lives with a heart engaged for Jesus loving Him perfectly at all times and in every way? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

My friends, you cannot tell someone who drowns his sorrows in strong drink simply to "cut it out." What happens to the Native person who thinks about the time when everything was taken from his people, when the men of his tribe were no longer able to protect and defend their women and children (some are still alive who faced these terrible injustices you know?) and the anger, bitterness and heartache begin to settle in once again? What does he do with that unceasing anger and sorrow? He numbs it with alcohol. And you are going to tell him to "cut it out"? C'mon guys, sometimes when the pain of the memory is so great, don't you see that maybe it feels better to be drunk than sober?

But what if you tell that guy, you know there is a friend and Savior who absorbed all the injustice you have known, also all the injustice you have ever committed and every injustice the world has ever known and did so without objection (Isa. 53:7) so that you might know: 1) His great love for you and 2) His promise to judge the earth one day righting every injustice ever, . . . but that in the meantime He wants you to trust Him and have your heart forged in this fiery trial so that you might know a kind of life that you never dared dream possible? In the midst of your sadness, I know the bottle is like a momentary feast, but it's only a banquet in the grave dude (I've been hanging out with Ben Loos so must employ the 'dude' language). He is the drink who satisfies all other thirsts that you might truly be free, controlled by no one or substance, only by the One who wants to set us free to live in the fullness of how we were meant to live. So the invitation of the prophet Isaiah is now the invitation of Jesus, the prophet of God par excellence (Hebrews 1:1,2), "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost" (Isa. 55:1).

So is Mike Hsu an addict? The term is a complicated one- it has so many varying associations attached to it. Let me respond in this way, "Mike Hsu is even worse than an addict. He is an idolater of the first degree." Yet Mike Hsu's life is found in a Sovereign and a Savior who has loved him and given his life for him. Growing in this incredible reality moves me, changes me and transforms me (some days more so than others) and giving myself to it is the only way I know how to battle and defeat my own uncontrollable desires as well as lead others to doing so.

"Hi. I'm Mike (you say . . . 'hi Mike'). . . . I am part of the body of Christ. I am part of a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God."