Transparency is the new black (or, why every church ought to make room for testimonies in worship)

It could be the imagination of a pastor who thinks her people are just the best but I would have to say that if there’s one thing we’ve done right at Mosaic, it is that we’ve encouraged this faith community to be brutally honest with each other. We’ve made the testimony a cornerstone of our worship experience and we’ve heard just about every possible story. Guys who pulled guns on their wives. Moms who endured the incarceration of children. Children who endured the addictions of parents.  Every conceivable addiction, including porn.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. We don’t do this for shock value; it has been God’s call on us to model vulnerability. We see our stories as good and God-honoring gifts.

We are like children who have just discovered the outside hose on a hot day. It is a great freedom to be able to share without shame what we’re dealing with and where we’ve come from. We are learning accountability, too, because real and healthy transparency requires not just courage to say our own truth, but also to speak the truth in love to each other.

Transparency comes with a cost. For starters, it is a great way to downsize a church. People don’t naturally know how to hold grace and truth together in the same hand. When folks get honest about their lives, some head for the door. It isn’t the kind of “church” they signed up for. Often, we hear comments like, “We love what you’re doing at your church. We don’t need it, but we love what you’re doing.”

As if only some people need truth and grace.

We’ve also learned that by speaking openly about our addictions and habits, we’ve opened doors for people to come to us and become accountable for getting healed. We’ve discovered that you can’t just tell your story and sit down. Every admission is really an investment in the life of someone who will come forward when they discover they are not alone. Because this is the case, our folks are learning how to care for each other spiritually, and they are learning what “call” feels like.

I believe every worship experience should include an element of testimony, and not just the “facebook” kind where everything turns out picture-perfect at the end. It is also worshipful to stand and say, “I realize I’m not there yet but because of Jesus at least I’m not where I was.” At Mosaic, we’ve experimented with all kinds of testimonies — interviews, scripted stories, unscripted “glory sightings,” videos … whatever it takes to help our people live publicly this faith they’ve embraced.

Sometimes I invite our folks in worship to ask me, “How is it with your soul?” They do so, collectively, right then and there. And then I share with them how it is — really — with my soul. Not like the stage is a counselor’s couch, but as if my people want to hear how Jesus and I are faring together these days, and what I’m learning through scripture and prayer. After I tell them in a minute or so how my spiritual life is progressing (or not), I invite them to share with one person near them. Right then, right there … in worship. And they do it. It is beautiful to watch. We are learning how to be with each other spiritually, not just socially or emotionally. Our people also practice this kind of sharing in small groups, of course, but the story of Christ’s work in a life is something we ought also to celebrate within the context of worship, because spiritual formation is a confession of faith.

The testimony is an act of worship. To say that Jesus is relevant and has power to change me (even me!) is to confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

And though real transparency is not cheap, I don’t think I could go back to “church as usual” now that I’ve experienced this way of doing life together. The love our folks have for each other is rich and the healing we’ve witnessed is real. There is a lot of love and grace in an atmosphere committed to being non-judgmental. We haven’t thrown our theology out the window, but we have learned to embrace the stories as gifts and to use them as instruments of grace.

It is what Jesus said in John, chapter 3. Anything that comes into the light belongs to him. Knowing that, why would we want to leave anything in the dark?

Maybe this thing we’ve found that costs but counts is what that guy found in that field. I’m thinking about the one Jesus told about the guy who found a treasure, then went and sold everything he had so he could go back and buy not just the treasure but the whole field. Maybe he discovered exactly what we’ve discovered: that a community possessing the treasure of transparency is worth everything we’ve got.

When is the last time you shared your story in a public setting? Or when have you made space for people to talk personally about what God is doing right here, right now?

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The most profound theological truth you’ll hear this Christmas …

I’m thinking about the two sides of me. There is the person I am and the person I want to be. Those two people are always at war with each other inside my brain. On my good days, I somehow manage to act like the person I want to be, but have a little stress seep into my life or a conflict with someone, and the person I actually am shows up. I turn into something I don’t like. When the me that I actually am shows up and shows out … well, few things are more frustrating or disappointing.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. The fact is, we all live divided lives. We all know that deep pain and disappointment of finding out all over again that we are really two people fighting inside the same body for control. Knowing what we know about ourselves, we ought to be all the more awe-struck by the glorious theology beneath the Christmas story.

What we celebrate at Christmas is the fact that God came to us in human form. Theologically, this goes much deeper than a picture of a baby in a manger. The technical term — hypostatic union — wipes away the warmth of that image but invites us to consider the incredible gift of this cosmic reality.

The hypostatic union. Brothers and sisters, this is good theology. This is the term for the perfect melding of divinity with humanity. He who was fully God became fully human — two distinct natures in one Person. Jesus Christ held together both the power of his divinity and the experience of his humanity … perfectly. He entered in, in order to fully identify with us and became the first of a new humanity, something completely different that made everything new for everyone else.

His birth did not erase the fact that he was the Word who spoke all creation into existence in Genesis chapter 1. His death did not negate the fact that he was the Warrior who battled with death and won in Revelation chapter 19.

Fully God, fully man. If you slight him on the God side, you’re a liberal who tends to focus on his teachings and example without embracing his cosmic power. If you slight him on the human side, you’re in danger of unitarianism — unable to accept the unique nature of the Son or his humanity in the temptations, his frustration with fallenness, his suffering on the cross. Jesus resisted sin, because he felt it. He loved his enemies as enemies because he sensed their opposition. He forgave people because he experienced the grief of their sins against God. He experienced life as a human, but perfectly.

And because he has made perfect peace with these two parts of himself, he is able — Spirit-Man — to offer us both pattern and permission to find peace with our two halves. Jesus has accomplished in his body through the perfect union of divinity and humanity what we all long for most: peace.

In other words, Jesus is the answer to that fight that goes on inside us. The one answer with power to speak peace into the divided mess that is us is the perfect union of Father with Son — of deity with humanity. Because he has broken through that barrier for us and now lives in perfect unity within himself, Jesus — fully God, fully man — has carved out our pathway to peace.

So what do we do with this bit of theology? We use it. We trust it and then we live it. We start acting as if Christ’s work is sufficient to heal our divided selves. Even if we don’t feel it we can “act as if.” We can begin to practice the peace that Jesus has shown us in himself. We can act as if our biggest internal battles are won. Act as if our recovery is complete, even if we’re still on the journey. Act as if our relationships are healed, even if they are still in process. Act as if our physical health is improving, as if our depression is healing, as if our finances are stabilizing. Act as if we care, as if we need community, as if we have a heart for others … even if we are still under construction.

This is the gift of good theology. It teaches us who we are, and then it shows us how to act.

And that makes Jesus — Word Become Flesh — all the more worthy of our worship.

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Brokering Hope in a Barren World

“Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” – Luke 1:18-20

I just love Gabriel’s grittiness. I love his righteous indignation, and even the hint of impatience with Zechariah’s inability to see beyond the room in which he stands. Gabriel does not appreciate being questioned. You hear echoes in his response of God’s conversation with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” Evidently, citizens of the Kingdom do not suffer ignorance or short memories well.

Do you realize who you are talking to? I am Gabriel! I have announced some of the greatest cosmic moves in the history of the world. And now you are going to doubt me? Just who do you think you are?

A good question, because Zechariah is a priest. He should know better. He surely knows the scriptures well enough to have detected a theme of barrenness and late-life births as one of the more prominent themes. God has used barrenness over and over to hint at great reversals designed to move his cosmic plan forward.

Consider these:

  • Sarah was nearly 100 before she had a child.
  • Rebekah was barren until Isaac prayed.
  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was was described as barren until she finally had Joseph, who delivered Israel from the barrenness of a famine.
  • Manoah’s wife was barren until she had Samson, who delivered Israel.
  • Ruth, Boaz’s wife, was barren (widowed) until she had Obed, who begat Jesse, who begat David who was the king out of whose lineage Jesus would come.
  • Then there was Moses, who was barren of speech. And the Shunnamite woman who had no oil or food.

And then there was Hannah. Her husband was Elkanah and he had two wives. Hannah was his favorite but she had no children, and it was killing her. She cried out to God in her despair. She wrestled with God over this. She hated her situation. But she hung in there with God. She refused to let go of him. Eventually God gave her the desire of her heart. She had a child named Samuel who would grow up to become the prophet-priest who would anoint Saul to be king. Saul would raise up David in his household and David would eventually become king. Out of his lineage the Messiah would be born.

Hannah’s hope became Israel’s salvation.

In God’s economy, barrenness always points toward hope. Barren people who bear children are breeders of hope. Barren people who wait prove the power of hope. Barren people who never conceive prove that God is faithful even in the deserts. By their willingness to hang in there with God, never mind the circumstances, they prove there is life in the desert … purpose in the desert.

Even more, barrenness has the potential to reframe our hunger so that it leads toward something other-worldly.

I am part of a group walking through the book of Revelation and this week, we spent time white-boarding everything the final chapters of Revelation teach us about the character of Heaven. We listed the kinds of things we love most, along with the awe and wonder of John’s vision. It stoked our yearnings and led us back to barrenness. What if one of the purposes of barrenness is to show us how to hunger for something we can never realize in this life?

What if barrenness can be redeemed by being reframed?

Those who have suffered the deep, aching loss of life without children, or the deep, aching loss of a child taken too soon from this life, may know better than most how to hunger deeply for something we won’t see this side of Heaven. Others of us may have children but still suffer from unfulfilled dreams, lost loves, thorns in the flesh we can’t fix. What if the redeemed purpose of those deep longings and unfulfilled dreams is to stretch us more earnestly toward the Kingdom of God, where all pain and tears have ceased, where all longings are finally, fully realized?

What if barrenness is redeemed when the hunger it produces is refocused on Heaven?

Isaiah seems to hint at this idea when he writes, “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy …” Paul picks up on this line from the prophet when he talks about the “Jerusalem Above” and our place in God’s family as children of the promise. There is certainly the sense in the biblical narrative that hungers can become holy when they turn toward the Kingdom.

If John’s charge was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” then perhaps this is the substance of readiness: to become so hungry, so thirsty, so moved by the thought of the Kingdom to come that nothing short of that can possibly satisfy us.

Nothing.

As Advent begins, we are in the position again of making ready a people prepared for the next coming of our Lord. Remember that. Our work is to side with those waiting to catch a break, with those frustrated by unfulfilled dreams, with those grieving losses, and to cast among them an imagination that reframes their hungers so that the Kingdom is exposed, so that the second coming becomes their passion.

This is the work of the Church at Advent. It is to become what Carl Medearis calls a “hope broker.”

In your writing, preaching, living, testifying, may you so expose the hope found in Christ Jesus that those on this side of Heaven can’t help but yearn past the temporal toward the eternal.

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