Going Behind the Veils

A few days ago I was at the post office, and as I was waiting in line a woman entered the line behind me wearing a burka. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then I heard the woman speak. She sounded like a young American teenager. Though I hadn’t intentionally thought about it, my subconscious had told me entire story about this woman triggered only by my seeing her burka –  the story of a Muslim woman who’s come from the Middle East, and probably speaks English as a second language. I was shocked when I heard no hint of an accent in her voice, let alone any sign that she wasn’t 100% fluent in English.

I decided to pray for the woman as I left the post office. I began by confessing to God my prejudice. But I was quickly challenged by God. I could feel God saying (not audibly, but in a spiritual way), “Is prejudice what you really need to confess? You made assumptions about who she was that were false. That much is correct. But you didn’t make any judgments or conclusions about her value out of those assumptions. You don’t need to confess prejudice. Confess the veils.”

I hadn’t made any value judgments about this woman based on her burka. But I did allow her burka to keep me from knowing who she really is. Granted, that is in a sense the purpose of a burka. They’re veils that prevent people from fulling “knowing” who’s behind them. When chosen freely by a woman, a burka or other form of a veil is a form of modesty. But veils can also be a form of hiding, maybe even distorting who we really are. (For the record, I’m not suggesting the woman in the post office was attempting to “hide” or “distort” herself, only that a person could if they wanted to.)

Of course, this is something we’ve all done at some point or another. We “dress for success” in a way that makes us look like we have it all together to veil the deeper feeling that our life is in shambles. We put on airs of confidence, sarcasm or carelessness to veil feelings of pain or fear. We may add some helpful rhetorical devices to our speaking, veiling the selfishness or hate that’s behind our words. In these instances, we miss out on being more fully known by those around us. We miss out on deeper friendships, and being more fully loved.

My church and community are in a season when veils are very tempting to put on. The start of the new academic year means that many new people are moving to the neighborhood. The Upper Room is constantly welcoming new people; Graduate Christian Fellowship is too. When our social circles change significantly, whether as the newcomer or as the welcomer, becoming someone we’re not is all too easy. We can cover up our weaknesses, heartbreak, struggles, fears and brokenness, and try being the person we’d rather be without going through the hard work of transformation. These veils prevent genuine friendship and community from happening.

Pursuing genuine friendship and community means going “behind the veils.” It means dropping our own veils, and creating a safe place for others to drop theirs. When we do so, we’ll give one another the gift of being fully known, and fully loved.

Filling the Water Jars: On Being a Deacon

Upper Room‘s leadership team is beginning the process of appointing deacons. It’s an exciting benchmark for us. It means we’re growing – both numerically and spiritually. It also means we’ll likely see open doors for new ministries in the church. However, it also raises a question for us: What is a deacon, anyway?

I think for many of us, our memories of deacons ministries in our churches could be summed up as: “It must be better than this.” I was ordained as a deacon back when I was a teenager. In my church at that time (though perhaps only in my perception), deacons did five things: 1.) assist the elders and pastor in serving communion, 2.) serve the donuts, punch and coffee during fellowship hour, 3.) take the flowers from the sanctuary on Sunday and deliver them to  shut-ins, 4.) serve on a church committee, and 5.) collect and deliver baskets of food for low-income families around Christmas time.

In retrospect, all of these were actually quite important tasks. Aiding in the performance of sacraments, creating hospitality,  visiting those on the margins of our community, doing the ecclesial work of the church, and  feeding the hungry all really matter. At the time, though, most of it felt mundane. And frankly, it was probably my own fault. Assisting in serving communion seemed like something anyone could do. Serving donuts and coffee felt like a thankless job. As a teenager, I knew nothing about sitting on a committee. I did see the value in delivering flowers to shut-ins and food to the poor. But those tasks seemed less frequent than the other three. How can being a deacon be more about caring for people in real ways? How can we have the eyes to see the  mundane tasks of being a deacon with importance?

At our business meeting last week, I introduced Upper Room’s leadership team to the office of deacon by first introducing them to three Greek words in the New Testament: diakonos, diakonia, diakoneo. These words could mean, respectively “deacon, the diaconate (or ministry of deacons), and to serve as a deacon.” Altogether, these words appear more than 90 times in the New Testament. But rarely are they translated “deacon.” This, of course, is for good reason, on the one hand. The words have a wide range of meaning, and don’t always refer specifically to the office of deacon as we know it. Sometimes the words refer to the work of servants, attendants, administrators, etc.  However, when the office of deacon was established, the title almost certainly connoted a more full-breadth of the words’ meanings. To understand what a Deacon is supposed to be, we need to have a fuller understanding of these words.

So, being the Greek language geek that I am, I handed my leadership team a list of all of the verses in the New Testament where diakonos, diakonia, and diakoneo appear. I told them to read as many of the verses in context as they could, and then we would share what we learned. We all, myself included, were stretched, even surprised, by what these words meant and what the implications are for being a deacon. We were all amazed at where these words appear and how they’re used. Perhaps I’ll do some followup posts on other verses we talked about. But for now, my absolute favorite appearance of these words comes in John 2, the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Normally diakonos is translated “servants” in this story. Read it below, though with the word “deacons” substituted:

1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

5 His mother said to the deacons, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

7 Jesus said to the deacons, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the deacons who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Through the lens of this story, being a Deacon is about faithful obedience to Jesus. It’s about witnessing Jesus’ miracles in ways others don’t get to see. It’s about a special place of intimacy with Jesus.

Mary’s instructions to the servants/deacons in the story could make a good charge to newly ordained deacons: “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” Be a faithful servant, attending to every word you hear from Jesus. And expect to see miracles. I’ve said before about this chapter of Scripture that the reason the wine tasted so good was that it came from the fruit of obedience. When we do the work that Jesus calls us to do, we can expect Jesus to reveal his power in ways we wouldn’t otherwise witness.

I wish I had this perspective back when I served as a deacon. I may or may not have done anything differently, but I would have approached what I did do with a different attitude. I would have seen myself as one of the servants filling the water jars. I would have served communion knowing that I was doing the physical work that sets up a miracle that Jesus would do in our midst. I would have visited shut-ins with the understanding that Jesus was going to be there too. I would have approached church committee work as an opportunity to listen and discern the voice of Jesus together, wondering what miracle he was going to do next. I would have served donuts, coffee and punch looking for Jesus to show up in the fellowship that was experienced. And, who knows, maybe I would have expected him to spike the punch!

As Upper Room continues to press into this, my prayer is that our whole church, and especially whomever God calls to be our first deacons, will see the ministry with all of the humility, potential, and power that this story calls us to. Who knows what Jesus will do next when we obey?

From Consumerism to Testimony: What Makes a Good Church Website?

I spent a decent chunk of time last week updating the content on Upper Room’s website. It’s gotten me thinking about what makes a church website good. Some of the standards, of course, are the same for any website – appearance, ease of navigation, etc. But are there certain content or features that churches should include on their websites? These church websites all look great, but the content is all pretty much the same – information about service times and other events, ways to get involved, information about the church’s leadership, core doctrine and values, etc. All are fine things to include, and it’s likely that this is information that visitors are looking for. At heart, though, limiting content to this kind of information is nothing more than marketing and consumerism.

I wonder if churches can go deeper and communicate something more meaningful. What if instead of making church websites primarily about information about activities for people to get plugged in and about setting your church apart from other churches, they were more about testimony? What if church websites were deliberately presented as invitations to “come and see” what God is doing in the midst of the community?

Here are a few possibilities I can think of:

– Written reflections from members of the church about what Jesus is teaching them. (This is actually one of the things we’ve added to the Upper Room website. You should check them out.)

– Testimonies of how different members of the church came to faith. Written testimonies are fine, but posting youtube videos would be a great way of giving people faces and voices to associate with the church before they even arrive.

– Stories from first time visitors about their initial impressions and experiences of the church. (Although I would only recommend this if your church is hospitable!)

This type of content would not only testify to God’s work, but it would also show that the church is a community of people experiencing God’s grace together, and not just  a group of people consuming the same religious goods.

What other types of content should church websites include?

When God’s Plans are Not Mine

This past week has been one of my busiest of the year in graduate student ministry. It was new student outreach week, or NSO, as acronym-loving InterVarsity staff like to call it. This was technically my second NSO as an InterVarsity staff worker. Last year, though, I was in the beginning of the planting process and had no students. So, it was just me and some brochures, trying to recruit new grad students to start a new fellowship at CMU. Thankfully, those efforts were successful. So this year, my NSO work involved more than just inviting people to a fellowship that didn’t exist, yet.

With my missional core, we planned a barbecue, a kick-off worship service, and two international student outreaches. We also arranged for some publicity as new students arrived.

Almost nothing went according to plan. A lot of our publicity efforts fell through for various reasons. It rained, a lot, on the day of the barbecue. No new students showed up for the worship service. For one of our international outreaches, only one new international student showed up. Quantitatively, this NSO seems like a disaster. If I would have been told two weeks ago that this is how NSO was going to go down, I would have expected to feel discouraged by now.

Thankfully, though, and even to my surprise, I’m not discouraged. In fact, I actually feel a deep sense of satisfaction. As I look back, I see how God worked in ways that I couldn’t have planned. I think of our international student outreach, where a returning international student met and talked with an American pastor for English conversation, only to discover that he once visited her small hometown in China, and that she once lived in the small town in Ohio where this pastor now lives – only a few streets away from his house. I think of how the small attendance at our worship service enabled us to prayer-walk the campus, and pray in each grad student’s office for their work and witness there. I think of how the rained-out barbecue led to being able to offer lunch to over 20 people the next day, including 6 newcomers to Pittsburgh.

All of this has taught me three encouraging lessons:

First, I think of Jeremiah 29:11, which begins “I know the plans I have for you…” This verse is quoted by a lot of people. It’s almost a cliché. However, I think I still need to be frequently reminded that these are God’s words to me, not my words to God. Much of what God did through our NSO activities couldn’t have happened had things gone according to my plans.

Second, even before NSO started, God had been bringing to my mind the parable of the mustard seed. Everything about this NSO was smaller than I had anticipated and planned for. It all seemed insignificant and tiny. Praise God, because Jesus says that’s how the Kingdom of God starts coming.

The third lesson came on Sunday when I praying the midday prayer office. One of the written prayers had this line: “Grant that those who labor for you may not trust in their own work but in your help…” I realized when I prayed this that much of my planning for NSO was an act of relying on my own efforts. Rather than trusting God to bring our fellowship in contact with new students, I was trying to rely entirely on emails, fliers and postcards. I spent more time in logistics than I did in prayer. I became an event-planner rather than a minister.

Nothing in the past week seems to have gone according to my own plans. Pray that this continues to be the case, and that God brings to completion the good work he started this semester!

I Am Not the Holy Spirit: Reflections On The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor

I am not the Holy Spirit. An obvious statement, yes, and one that I would never deny verbally. In action, though, I often live as if I am the Holy Spirit, and I suspect I’m not alone in this behavioral blasphemy. As Christians, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is within us, guiding us and forming us into the image of Jesus Christ. Often times, though, the Holy Spirit I claim to follow bears striking resemblance to myself. He seems to have the same personality as myself, the same desires, and the same thoughts. From my perspective, it’s not just the Holy Spirit who seems to resemble me. Even as I interact with others, I project myself onto them. I enter dialogue with another assuming he has the same values, the same basic assumptions about life, and the same worldview. I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem, but maybe that, too, is a projection of myself on the rest of the world.

It’s this interaction with the Holy Spirit and with the “other” that John V Taylor addresses in The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission. Taylor was an Anglican bishop and theologian, doing most of his work in the mid-twentieth century. He worked for sometime as a missionary in Uganda, and brings a missionary perspective to his work. The Go-Between God was first published back in 1972, and is now considered a classic theological work. (In fact, the edition of the book I read is from the SCM Classics series.)

Drawing heavily on Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Taylor’s main point of the book is that the Holy Spirit primarily works as a “go-between.” In other words, when individuals meet and converse, the Spirit is not merely “in” each of the individuals, but is His own personality working between them. If life were a drama, the Holy Spirit would be a separate character with his own personality. To use another analogy, used by Taylor, if a conversation between two people were represented by the equation 1+1, the Holy Spirit would be the “+”.

Not only do we need to see the Holy Spirit as his own character, Taylor goes on to explain that the Spirit’s function in the mission of God is to draw people together, to be the “+” in the 1+1 equation. The Spirit does this, Taylor argues, by helping people to see other individuals and entirely “other” than them. To help people to realize that the other person in the dialogue sees the world through entirely different lenses shaped by their own experiences.

Taylor draws out numerous implications for Christian mission. Among them, he writes of the importance of listening when doing evangelism or interfaith dialogue; that before the gospel can be proclaimed by one person to another, the evangelist must understand the worldview of the other. Taylor devotes an entire chapter to the pentecostal movement, and explains that the rest of the Church needs to learn from them in order to become more aware of the Holy Spirit’s personality and action. What I found most striking, though, was Taylor’s chapter on prayer in the Spirit. Taylor first explains, “To live in prayer, therefore, is to live in the Spirit; and to live in the Spirit is to live in Christ… to live in Christ is to live in prayer. Prayer is not something you do; it is a style of living.” And he later continues, “…we are saying that the essential missionary activity is to live in prayer.”

This, of course, is nothing new, but the type of prayer Taylor went on to recommend I found intriguing. He called it the “prayer of stillness.” The first step is to still the mind. (For what it’s worth, Taylor suggests Yoga or Tai Chi as methods to do this.) Next, he says to focus your awareness on another object – a lit candle, a glass of water, etc. When entirely focused on the object, the next step is to begin to think of it as a symbol of Christ – the Light of the World, Living Water, etc. – and then to slowly replace the image of the object in our mind with the person of Christ himself. The value of this type of prayer, I think, is that it brings us into deeper awareness of the Hearer of our prayers. We realize that when we pray, we actually are speaking to someone else. This awareness can then move toward those for whom we’re interceding, prompting us to pray for them without projecting ourselves onto them.

The Go-Between God has been published for nearly 40 years, now. But I think it’s a much needed book for ministers and missionaries today. In my pastoral work, and my campus ministry work, I’m often struck by how eager people are to take advantage of a listening ear. On more than one occasion, strangers I’ve met for the first time have shared with me deeply painful experiences of brokenness from their past, and longings for their future. Our busy and individualized society is increasingly isolating us from one another, and it’s leaving people with the desire to be heard and to be known by others. And I suspect that in the midst of our busy-ness, the Holy Spirit too is calling out for us to listen and to know Him. The Go-Between God paints a picture of the Spirit that just begins to scratch the surface of the Spirit’s personality, and the personality of humanity, and invites us to dive deeply into further exploring the deep mysteries of the Spirit and our neighbors.

Embracing Sonship: On Being Young in Ministry

Last month, I spent a week in Chicago with my fellow InterVarsity Grad and Faculty Ministry staff for our national conference. The theme was ministering across generations, and some of the conversations from that week still have me thinking.

I was particularly struck by the insight of one of my more experienced colleagues, who said that his ministry with students has evolved over time from ministry as an “older brother,” to ministry as “the young uncle” to ministry as a “father.” In other words, as he’s gotten older, the way in which he’s related to those around him  has changed.

This has left me thinking for some time now about my own stage of life as a young, single, minister. In fact, I learned at this conference that I’m currently the youngest grad and faculty ministry staff worker in all of InterVarsity. Being young in ministry is difficult in any context. I’ve found it particularly difficult in doing ministry with faculty who are much older than me. My colleague’s reflections now have me asking: What does it mean to do ministry as a “son”? What is an appropriate way to do ministry with people older than I am?

The first thing that came to mind in response to this question is the commandment: “Honor your father and mother…” Honor can be a form of ministry.

Realizing this has revealed to me some of my own baggage that keeps me from doing ministry well with faculty, or anyone older than I am. My preference is to do ministry with people who are sociologically lower than I am. Most often, this has meant working with people younger than me. When I was in college, I led a middle and high schooler youth group. When I moved onto seminary, I began ministering to college students. Now that I”m out of seminary and am a working professional, I do ministry with grad students. In the times when I’ve been ministering to/with people older than me, I find another way to see them as lower than me – as less well off financially, less educated, less spiritual. In the occasions when I can’t find anything like this, as is often the case with older, well off, well educated and deeply spiritual Christian faculty, I immediately assume that I have nothing to offer in ministry.

But I do have something to offer. If nothing else, I can honor them. I can admire their work and insights. I can come to them for counsel and advice, and even submit to them as Jesus submitted to his parents.

I think there’s still more to learn from what the Bible teaches about sonship to inform how ministry can be done as young people. So, I’ve recently begun a journey through the Bible, looking at all of the places where the word “son” appears (it’s going to take a while!). I’ll (hopefully) continue to post thoughts that I think are significant or helpful for me as they come up.

Are We All Called to Be Fishers of Men?

I’m writing this from Madison, WI, where I”m spending 10 days in orientation for my Graduate and Faculty Ministry work with InterVarsity. We began the orientation talking about calling, and we studied the call of Jesus’ first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Something that the group immediately noticed is that Jesus approaches and calls Simon Peter, James and John at their place of work: catching fish.

What’s also interesting is that Jesus not only approaches them there, but calls them in such a way that he speaks directly into their job. After the miraculously large catch of fish, Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching men.” This comes to fulfillment in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Peter preaches the gospel and a “catch” of 3,000 repent and are baptized.

Previously, I had always thought of the call from Jesus to be “catching men”  as a universal call to all of Christ’s followers. (I also always felt a bit of guilt for not converting 3,000…) I’m now thinking though, “that catching men” was a call uniquely given to the first disciples. Most of us aren’t fishermen, and consequently, most of us have never seen 3,000 people come to faith at once.

We do, however, all have particular work that Christ speaks into. For instance, my Dad is an auto mechanic. Would Christ come to my Dad and tell him to be a ‘fisher of men,’ or would he rather say, ‘from now on you’ll be a mechanic of men.”? Thinking about my Dad’s service to church, this actually makes a lot of sense. My dad has never preached the gospel to 3,000 and seen them convert, but he has served as a Stephen’s minister, a ministry designed to meet people individually in their brokenness. Granted, my Dad doesn’t “fix” people in this ministry, he merely walks along side them, but a ministry like this fits the mindset of a mechanic much more than a ministry of mass evangelism.

As one who does ministry in the academy, I also wonder: In what manner does Christ’s call speak directly into the work of those in the academy? How does the work of a teaching professor or research professor influence their ministry in the Church and on campus?

Christ doesn’t only call at the lakeside. Christ calls in the classroom, in the lab, and in the office. He calls in the home, in the studio, and in our neigbhorhood. He calls us all with the universal command to follow, but also calls each of us to particularly ministry for which we are uniquely suited. Will we listen and obey?