Friendship is a choice (or, how the church teaches me to love)

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

Would you give your life for people you don’t know? People forced into prostitution in Bangalore, or unborn babies?

Would you give your life for the Church? Paul tells us Jesus gave his life for just this thing. Jesus gave his life for the Church.

More precisely, Jesus gave his life for people, who are the flesh and blood of the Church. I can’t even begin to comprehend the motives of God. Why does he care about people who are imperfect, selfish, unkind, unthinking, unloving? How was it that Moses and God could find such frustration in fickle people, yet be fully on their side at the end of each day? That reveals a depth of patience and a quality of love I can’t fathom.

God has a vested interest in us and the cross is proof. Further, he has partnered with us through the Holy Spirit. He offers a brand of intimacy and belonging that nothing else can approach. God has literally given his life to us.

But I’m a pastor. Subtly and not so subtly, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ. We are taught the psychology of being in community without getting tangled up in it. Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. And maybe this is especially true of itinerating pastors.

Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus is teaching me something radically different here. Jesus is teaching me that it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry. Not beyond but in the midst of community.

When Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” he is teaching something radical about community. Find your friends here, he says. And when Jesus says (John 15:16), “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you,” he is challenging us to do something radical. We rejected him, but he still chooses us.

Love is a choice.

Which means I am now free to love even in the face of rejection. We are free to give our hearts to others, to community, because Jesus has chosen to live out his character in us.

In conversations with a few single friends, I have discovered there is a hunger out there for genuine friendships that don’t suffer from the fear of sexual expectation. It seems that our culture has us all so afraid of each other that we default to a defensive posture, keeping ourselves at a distance, unwilling to develop healthy, vulnerable relationships.

This doesn’t have to be.

Jesus had friends … not just disciples, but friends. John 11:5 says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” This is the one personal friendship the Bible mentions for Jesus and it includes women.

I would be lost without precious friends — male and female — who add such value to my life. Being a pastor, most of my colleagues are men (and since Steve is a teacher, most of his colleagues are women). We don’t shy away from friendship with the people God has placed in our lives. We know who we are and are able to act as responsible adults when we are with others. Our lives are enriched by this choice. Here are a few things that make our friendships work:

Transparency — Any healthy friendship requires a lack of anything resembling secrecy, especially when it is with a friend of another gender. There should be no shadow of dishonesty, nor of politics. Too often, pastors erect political boundaries that keep us from real conversations and real influence. We’ve chosen correctness over kindness. Who says we can’t be genuinely in relationship with the people in our communities? We can decide to do this without abusing relationships, simply by being honest with people about who we are. And we can do so maturely without violating the standards of holiness.

Boundaries — I control my own boundaries. I get to choose the nature of my relationships. I am not a victim of other people’s feelings nor of my own, and my reactions are a choice. All of us who follow Jesus should aspire to that level of maturity. “Grow up in every way,” Paul counseled. Surely he meant it for our relationships, too. This means I can decide how and when I can be present to others and it means I can choose to love others without fear of their responses because I know who I am.

Hear me clearly: I am responsible for my own brain, and my friends are responsible for theirs. When we practice healthy boundaries and take responsibility for our side of the fence, we open ourselves up to the blessing of good community life.

Accountability — Friends hold each other accountable for their actions. They respect and accept each other, yet they are not afraid to confront each other when the need arises. Friends depend on one another for support in times of crisis, whether emotional or material. Friendship is a relationship of trust, confidence, and intimacy. It is not southern kindness, but something deeper — a willingness to speak truth in love.

Learning to live vulnerably and maturely in relationship with others — learning to be a real friend — is a gift on the way to real life and it is the work of the Church for which Jesus died.

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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 Opie Principle

When we were in Kentucky, we lived in a little townhouse that had boxwoods on either side of the front door. In our first spring there, we discovered that snakes love boxwoods. There was a mama snake who visited us every spring so she could have her babies in our shrubbery. Sometimes we’d come home in the afternoon and find as many as fifteen little snakes sunning on the tops of our boxwoods. Which were (have I mentioned this?) right next to our front door. Eventually, we got used to them and in fact, by the time our last spring in Kentucky rolled around, Steve would just pick them up barehanded and take them across the street to a big field.

One day, I was in the front yard when our daughter, Claire Marie (she was about five or six at the time) came tearing around the house in serious distress. She was screaming that she’d seen a snake in our back yard. Because one thinks sensibly about such things when one is in the front yard and the snake is in the back yard, I thought this might be a great opportunity to help my daughter get used to snakes. I took her by the hand and said, “Sweetie, let’s just go look at it. Snakes won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them. In fact, they are usually more scared of us than we are of them.”

These are the sorts of things parents say that they don’t really believe.

We walked to the side of the house and sure enough, there was the snake. He was curled up directly beneath our dog, Opie, who was standing there staring at us, clueless about any snake in his world (Opie was never known for his intuition).  Since he was standing directly over the snake, I began calling for him to move. Seeing my concern, Claire Marie began yelling at him, too. And then Opie started barking — not at the snake, of course, but at us.

There we were, trying to get the dog off the snake while the dog barked at us and a snake sat idly beneath him.

Finally — it must have been the commotion — the snake shot out from under the dog and zipped across the yard.  It slithered right across my baby girl’s feet, at which time I was no longer a snake advocate. I grabbed my daughter. Claire Marie screeched. The snake slithered off.  And Opie remained clueless.

He never saw the snake.

And I think to myself: how many of us are sitting on top of our own snakes (think: sin, hang-ups, issues) while we bark at the people all around us and wreak havoc in our relationships as if it were everyone’s fault but ours?

The problem with this strategy is that most of the time (Jesus actually says this) the issues we have with other people are simply a reflection of our own.

So this is where holiness begins: It is not in being able to name all the sins, but in being able to name my sin.

In other words, don’t bark at others when the snake is beneath your feet.

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