Youth Retreat Day One

No rain this morning, but we still started an hour later than planned.  “Liberian time,” they call it, but we all know it’s the case in so many places in the world!  I especially enjoy being in a place where lateness is not a sign of incompetence or rudeness.  In our household, we call it TDD (time deficit disorder) but by Liberian standards, I’m downright Swiss in my time-keeping. 

Action Faith member Nancy led worship this morning and evening with her beaming smile, lovely alto voice, and abandonment to the rhythm.  For Americans, the rhythm is the most direct way into worship because the lyrics are often difficult to decipher.  Two other young women and a young man played beaded gourds.  The amount of sound produced by these “stringed” hand drums is startling, but the greatest magic comes from watching the elegant hand and body movements with which the gourd-players keep the beat.

The day consisted of a bible study and two talks with a lunch break in the middle.  After worship came Genesis 37, 39 & 40 with some fun playback moments dramatizing the auctioning off of Joseph (played by the pastor’s young son of the same name) to the crowd of Ishmaelites (the rest of the attenders of the retreat), and Joseph’s dejection after being forgotten by the cupbearer after successfully interpreting his dream.  A local youth pastor presented a thorough gospel message from Genesis 3 and several passages in Romans about the fall and our need for a savior.  He continues tomorrow to explore what it really means to be a Christian.  Finally, Kate and Anthony spoke about the role of the Holy Spirit and its manifestations in gifts and fruit (the “rice” of the Spirit, Kate referred to it, as she was trying to explain that we gain daily nourishment from the presence of the Spirit in our lives and Liberians eat more rice than they do fruit).  We had a makeshift ministry time during which we invited anybody who wanted more of the Holy Spirit to come forward.  Four young people came forward (2 male, 2 female), and we laid hands on them.  Then we invited any others who wanted more of the Holy Spirit to come forward to pray, and these first four then prayed for the next 8 or so who came forward.  The number of those receiving and extending hands in prayer eventually doubled, and then we spent some time praying for those who felt a desire for the gift of healing to be at work in their lives.  We then prayed for those who wanted to move in the gift of prophecy.  And lastly we prayed for those who wanted to move in the less public gifts of mercy and service.  These young people were hungry for more of God, and though there was some uncertainty on their faces, there was no uncertainty in their  faith!

In the evening, three of the four who had asked for the gift of healing were invited forward, after the talk, to pray for about 5 people who expressed that they were ill or in pain and wanted healing.  This being Africa and not suburban USA, these young people prayed loudly and with physical forcefulness.  (Thankfully, there were no healing prayer injuries!)  We hope to spend more time later in the week adding more tools to their repertoire when it comes to praying for other people, such as the pre-prayer interview and the mid-prayer check-in.

The highlight of the evening was a rousing talk by Alfreda from Ecclesiastes 12:1, in which Solomon exhorts his readers to remember their Creator while they are in their youth.  Alfreda commanded our full attention and called us to live a life worth living and without regret:  follow the Lord now, do not delay!

Attendance during the day was about 75, and about half that tonight.  Those who are coming are very invested, and we are getting to know several of these young people in a deeper way.  So much promise!

I was struck by passing interactions with a 12-year-old boy whose name, it turns out, is the same as my 3rd son, Matthew.  He stared at me through most of the morning worship; I assume because he doesn’t get to watch many white men up close.  (He need not know how unlike most white men I may be!)  He asked to have his picture taken with me in the afternoon and also with Anthony and Kate.  For this boy, and for many of the young men and women, there is a vulnerability toward those who visit from the US because they realize that their future may be somewhat dependent upon the “kindness of strangers” to quote Tennessee Williams.  The truth is that their access to education may be limited unless they find some “sponsor” to financially support them.  Rebuild Africa seeks to redirect the focus of young people in this situation onto the Lord and onto their own desire for self-development.  It is easy for a Liberian young person to get fixed on the outsider and to become discouraged or dejected if they cannot find someone to “sponsor” them.  A dilemma for all of us.  

In Jesus’ words, the harvest is ripe for the picking, but the workers are few.


The History of the World, Take One

For:  The Institute of Contemporary and Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen’s University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt.

In the beginning, God was so happy and satisfied and at peace within His own communal bigness that He wanted to share Himself with others. So He created a world and a living community through which He could express His expansive, cutting edge goodness.*

The crowning achievement of the world God created was humankind, male and female, fashioned in the likeness of this good Father.  It was the Father’s desire, hope, and determination that man and woman – two chips off the old block – fully enjoy, embody, and share His goodness with a family of human children as well as with the lush, beautiful, resource-laden and regenerative landscape of created beings and things into which He placed them. The world around them reflected the glory that shone from within them which was a small token of a Glory which predated them.

That man and woman were engendered with the capacity to procreate without the Father’s direct involvement showed a level of magnanimity and security on His part. Not only were they like Him in bearing, they could be free to become like Him in their actions. At a cellular level, they could create again and again.  This delighted God and did not threaten or offend Him in any way.

But gender and sexuality also revealed a paradox. While humankind was engraved with the grand image of their Father and able to recreate, they were also marked with limitation. They were not, in and of themselves, able to represent God fully as individuals. They could only truly reflect Him in complementary, fruitful, and peaceful relationship with each other, with God Himself, and with their bloodline. Through fulfilling their mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to rule and reign together as equals, to exert loving dominion over the creation, they could become  partners with God, but they could never work Him out of a job. He liked it too much, and He was the best at it. 

Man and woman were like God, but not quite. God was Other from them, and they noticed. Just as they noticed (and were initally thrilled by) the Otherness of each other, they discovered a downside to both Othernesses.  It threatened their security and offended their pride.  Alas, the Otherness of God and the Otherness of gender were the vulnerable links in the chain of life. It was at these precise points of Otherness that an enemy attacked, wounded, and forced a breaking of ranks. 

An odd thing happened when humanity tried to grasp at God’s Otherness – they became ashamed of their limitation and believed that God disapproved of it too.  They covered the bodily symbols of their paradoxical fertility and limitation – which overtly had nothing to do with their choice to say No to God – and hid in the pretense that God would not see, understand, or forgive their foolishness. 

The key and fatal ingredient which prevented God’s plan from being fulfilled without anguish – first in the cosmos, and then on the earth – was God’s own choice to grant freedom to His creation. By setting all created beings (including angels and humankind) free to choose Him and thus free not to choose Him, God allowed for the possibility of evil – that is, the capacity to Say No to the very source of Life and Goodness, and in so doing, to believe one is doing what’s best.

The first to Say No became God’s primary and ultimate adversary, though this enemy was created and limited himself. Having gone first, this enemy had a unique vantagepoint from which to attract others to follow the defiant path of this freedom. Because he fell and crashed first, he was the founding member of the old bad boys network. Others kowtowed to his primacy for millenia, causing him to shore up his limited authority into a seemingly unstoppable realpolitik. His one aim: to use the creation to dethrone its creator, leaving himself as the default chief of the created, ultimately justifying to the cosmos that his No was the best choice.

The freedom with which God created and released His creation was a consequential freedom – once it was exerted, there was no taking it back. There was no “sorry, I didn’t really mean it”, no “let me rethink this”. From the moment of “Let there be light” rang out the possibility of a permanent darkness. God felt that life was worth the risk.

And God also knew a secret – that this freedom was a redeemable and reclaimable freedom.  It could be renewed and reestablished, but not without a confrontation with the consequences of the rank-breaking. Generations and generations of Nay-Sayers cast a huge shadow over creation, building the Enemy’s case. Glimmers of restoration were promised and tasted by humankind, always at God’s initiative. These glimmers were always fruitful, always defied, and always pointing toward a full circle – a happy end reminiscent of a happy beginning.

Again, God was not surprised or threatened by this turn of events.  It simply gave Him an opportunity to reveal how far superior He is to His entire creation, and how powerful His goodness is that it could account for every No until all of creation could again say Yes to Him. 

(*You’ll have to forgive the limitations of language and pronouns. This God is not a man yet He chose to assume the masculine role of Father of this world.  It’s a metaphor.  Metaphors are wonderful, but metaphors never say it all because the listener is, by definition, impaired from hearing it all.  Hence, the need for and gift of the metaphor.)

Leanne Payne’s 2 cents

For:  The Institute of Contemporary and Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen’s University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt.

I’ve been enjoying Leanne Payne’s recently published memoir, Heaven’s Calling. She’s been a major influence on those who have been a major influence on me, especially regarding how to pray and how the human soul heals.

In telling her own story (which she noticeably didn’t do when I went through her Pastoral Care Ministries School in Wheaton 10 years ago, but which she does do in this book!), she speaks of having an “experience orientation”. What she means by this is the propensity to have her practical theology (what she lived each day) dictated, and severely limited, by whether she felt God’s presence.

She describes having a major paradigm shift in her 20’s which freed her to focus more on the incarnational reality of Christ, rather than her own feelings of his presence. (In a nutshell, incarnational reality is a C.S. Lewis term to describe the quiet and simple realization of the Holy Spirit’s presence in and with her – and thus the kingdom’s nearness – at all times.  Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God is another great source of description and inspiration for this way of approaching God.)

These concepts have commingled for me with N.T. Wright’s discussion of heaven and the kingdom of God in Simply Christian. In his chapter on the Holy Spirit, Wright describes a downside of relying too much on feelings when it comes to the Holy Spirit. He seems to imply that too much reliance on feelings may reveal that we actually don’t believe in the interconnectedness of heaven and earth (his “option three” worldview), but rather we may believe that heaven only occasionally, and from a great distance, breaks in to earth (his “option two” worldview):

“That is why people who have assumed a worldview something like Option Two have looked for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work, not in the quiet growth of moral wisdom, a steady, undramatic lifetime of selfless service, but in spectacular ‘supernatural’ events such as healings, speaking in tongues, wonderful conversations, and so on.” p. 128

Wright goes on to emphasize that he’s all for those supernatural things, but not at the expense of the slow-grow incarnational reality approach:

“What I am saying is that Option Two sets up the wrong framework for understanding what is going on.  In particular, it excludes that sense of God’s presence and power which already exists within the ‘natural’ world.” p.128

If I’m understanding the implications of Wright’s argument, it resonates strongly with Payne’s observations:  this bias toward feeling or the ecstatic may be an outworking of insecurity and lack of confidence in the ever-nearness of the kingdom of God. The person who doesn’t believe in the nearness of heaven, yet desperately has need of  it, may require a dramatic and emotion-laden experience of the Holy Spirit on a regular basis IN ORDER to calm and settle the underlying disappointment that heaven is so far away.  Uber-faith may be a cover for unbelief in God’s kingdom come.  This helps explain the ironic lack of the fruit of the Spirit in the wake of the Holy Spirit power-encounter which I’ve sometimes experienced and beheld in others.

This helps me to understand why I can get claustrophobic in a highly pressurized Holy Spirit or intercessory setting, and have found myself at times running out of such meetings to remind myself that there are such things as stars and hot summer nights, children playing and a walk in the woods.  These ‘natural’ places, far from church buildings and loud worship music, seem not to be religious at all, and yet God is equally alive and active there.

This is provocative for me as I try to discern the healthy role of emotion in my experience of God, the kingdom, and of worship.   On the scale between highly emotional and highly not, I am highly the former.  For me, tears and/or laughter often accompany the recognition of truth about myself, the hearing of direction from God, and the sensing of the Holy Spirit’s power.  I feel a lot.  I feel deeply.  As attested to by those who know and love me most, I can’t seem to hide my feelings very well.  It’s my gift and it’s my downfall.

Such an emotional bias has gotten me into trouble, as Leanne Payne describes.  I have wasted much energy in a funk of anger or frustration or despair – even as a Christian.  As I’ve come into the middle of life, I’ve realized this has got to stop or I will wear myself out (not to mention the people around me).  The older I have gotten and the more authority I have wielded as a leader, I’ve become more mindful of the amount of damage I can do when I don’t restrain even spiritually-inspired emotion. 

So when I read about emotions being unhelpful in establishing a solid relationship with the Lord, I’m tracking.  And at the same time, I also get how emotion-phobic Western culture can be.  And I find myself surrounded by people (often men) who don’t know what they feel or who would much rather deflect it with a joke than actually feel it.   I feel their lack of feeling deeply as it leaves me one man out at times.

Enter Dan Wilt’s reaffirmation of the importance of emotional expression in contemporary worship, as stated in his Essentials in Worship Theology
“There has been in the Church a long-existent notion that expressed passion and emotion should be somehow separated from the high and holy act of worship.  This idea stems back, in a substantial way, to highly Greek-influenced conceptions of God… that He is somehow restrained, rationalistic and emotionally dispassionate in the way He interacts with His people.”  p. 51

To put it all together, I guess I see a spectrum taking shape:

1) There are some for whom feelings are verbotten. They don’t feel feelings, trust feelings, or engage others on a feeling level (unless they absolutely are made to). 

2) There are some who feel along a wide spectrum of positive and negative feelings on a regular basis (read daily) in order to know that they are alive.  (I counted myself in this category for most of my life, and I probably believed that this was the standard of emotional health for a stretch of it.)
3) The new and attractive possibility is the middle path.  To be the person who can and does feel deeply – their own feelings as well as the feelings of others around them – but does not need to feel anything in order to access God or to exert faith.  Feelings are to be felt.  Kingdom business is to be done.  Both are essential.  The feeling world and the kingdom of God interconnect (like heaven and earth) but they are not coterminus. 

This is my understanding of the Vineyard model of “naturally supernatural”. In concert with Payne and Wright, I’ve been taught in the Vineyard that we don’t need to drum up feelings or hype in order to see the kingdom manifest.  At the same time, when we are truly interacting with the living God, the tears will flow and the laughter will bubble up.  Better to let it out and risk being seen by others as weak.

How glory goes

For:  The Institute of Contemporary and Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen’s University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt.

With all this talk of heaven, I find myself returning to my first experience of listening to the final song of Adam Guettel’s musical, Floyd Collins.  I discovered this play 2 years ago, though it came out in the mid to late 1990’s.

Based on an actual historical event, the play depicts Kentucky native, Floyd Collin’s, search for the perfect cave in the 1920’s.  The opening song sequence follows Floyd underground as he discovers what he set out to find, and dreams about the glory it will bring him as people travel from miles around to see ‘the great sand cave”.  

The aural metaphor for Floyd’s dream of glory, which is wonderfully captured in the original cast recording, is Floyd singing with himself (using the tech magic of digital delay) as his voice echoes off the inside of the huge cavern he’s found.

Floyd goes home to tell his family, but upon his return to the cave, gets trapped under a rock (ironically, only the size of a leg of lamb).  Floyd never sees the light of day again.  His dream of glory comes true in part, but not in the way he expected.  People do come from miles around as efforts are made, unsuccessfully, to dig Floyd out of the hill.

Cheery subject matter for a musical, admittedly.  But this music is highly unusual – tender, soaring, open-hearted, tense, at times overly complex, and confounding.

Well, the way things can often go for me when I’m discovering new music is that I don’t get to the end in a linear fashion.  It took me weeks to get past the dazzlingly crafted opening song sequence.  It took me multiple listens to understand what was happening (musically, thematically, in the storytelling, etc.). 

A few weeks later, I was sitting in the car, waiting in line for the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.  My wife had gone to grab a bite to eat, and for some odd reason, I chose this moment to listen to the final song of the show, “How Glory Goes”.

Having read the liner notes, I knew this much.  Floyd Collins didn’t make it out.  A movie had been made about this incident, which according to the liner notes, was a rather cynical and mean-spirited send-up of an America that would capitalize on one man’s tragedy.  This show’s composer is a grandson of musical theatre great, Richard Rodgers.  He’s likely not a person of faith.  (I later learned he is Jewish.)

How would this show end?  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this!

Floyd says, “I’m ready now, Lord.  I know I weren’t no Sunday school Mama’s boy, but faith is lookin’ for somethin’, believin’ whatcha can’t see. ” 

He sings, “I’ve had faith all my life!”  (I’m more like Floyd than I care to know, digging around for glory in my fantastic, unreal scheming.  As a spiritual director once said to me, “You are the cave”, and indeed, I sometimes get stuck down there in myself.) 

Then Floyd says to the Lord, “I want to ask you something…”, and the body of the lyric follows:

“Is it warm?  Is it soft against your face?
Do you feel a kind of grace inside the breeze?
Will there be trees?
Is there light?  Does it hover on the ground?
Does it shine from all around or just from you?
Is it endless and empty and you wander on your own
Slowly forget about the folks that you have known
Or does rising bread fill up the air from open kitchens everywhere?
Familiar faces far as you can see, like a family

Do we live?  Is it like a little town?
Do we get to look back down at who we love?
Are we above?  Are we everywhere?
Are we anywhere at all?
Do we hear a trumpet call us and we’re by your side?
Will I want, will I wish for all the things I should’ve done?
Longing to finish what I’ve only just begun?
Or has the shining truth been waiting there for all the questions everywhere?
In a world of wondering, suddenly you know, and you will always know

Will my mama be there waiting for me?
Smiling like the ways she does 
And holding out her arms as she calls my name
She will hold me just the same

Only heaven knows how glory goes
What each of us was meant to be
In the starlight, that is what we are
I can see so far”


My wife returned to a weepy husband (not a rare experience for her). 

Here was a song that captured the “nearness of heaven” emotionally, and it blew me away that a secular (I assume) playwriting team (Tina Landau & Adam Guettel) chose to tell their story for this end!  Heaven is nearer than we think.

What’s more, and here I realize I’m spoiling it for everyone (but let’s face it, who else but me and a small minority really CARE about musical theatre as a means to access God!), the song doesn’t end there.

An image from earlier in the play that contributes to the pop of this final moment is the stars in the night sky, especially as they are evoked by the cavern’s shimmering refractions of the lamplight.  Floyd’s brother has gone into the cave for him, and vows to get his brother to safety.  While with his brother, he reminds Floyd of the mess of stars they saw on the night Floyd discovered the cave.  He comforts his brother with the hope of the coming daybreak. 

And finally, just before “How Glory Goes”, Floyd experiences a hallucination in which his brother and sister appear to him, singing about how he’s been rescued and his glory dreams have come to pass.  The musical bit that came earlier in the show in the form of Floyd singing with himself becomes, now in the dream sequence, Floyd singing with his brother and sister.  Sweet and playful.  And, of course, unreal. 

It is the voice of Floyd’s father that brings him back to the harsh reality that he’s still trapped.  The moment of Floyd’s final realization that he is about to die is accentuated by the sudden disappearance of echoes.  Floyd sings into the darkness, but there is no response.  He’s alone.

Back to the final moment of the song, “How Glory Goes”.  Floyd sees beyond the cave into the night sky, “In the starlight, that is what we are…”  And suddenly, magically – “I can see so far!” – the echo of his voice returns.  Floyd whoops and yodels, as he did at the beginning of the show, on his way to actual glory in heaven which he has accessed through earth and rock.

I, for one, am glad that this is not sentimental hogwash.  These are apt and moving metaphors for the reality that I live and love in. 

On the way to Martha’s Vineyard for our anniversary, a foretaste of heaven comes in the form of my wife who understands me and doesn’t roll her eyes.

A fifth echo?

For:  The Institute of Contemporary and Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen’s University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt.

Is the obsession with money and provision really only the root of all evils? Or is there something of God in it? Rampant materialism aside, there is such a thing as quality, and it’s better to own something than to rent it, to have it be quality than to have it be cheap. While I think this could be considered a part of Wright’s justice echo, it seems to have its own life.

suspension of belief/suspension of disbelief

For:  The Institute of Contemporary and Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen’s University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt.

I was struck by Dan Wilt’s response to a webinar caller during the Brenton Brown interview.

I hope I’m getting this right, but I believe he talked about the theological concept of “the suspension of belief” as an important tool in exposing unhelpful embedded theology in order to establish more truth-based deliberative theology.

This expression reminded me immediately of a term used in theatre, “the suspension of disbelief”. That’s what an audience does when they enter the story and accept the “unreality” of the stage and the set and the actors as reality.

The character trait that comes to mind to describe these skills is empathy, the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see things as they see them, and to share in their pain. This seems to me to be an important tool in my worship leading. And, at the same time, a real danger.

As a people person who tends to tune in to others’ feelings acutely, I can get distracted in my worship by empathizing too much with those I lead. Maybe they’re not so into it, and I become overly concerned about my choices and what I might do to help them reengage. Or maybe someone else is wanting to go to another level, but that desire is in conflict with the aforementioned person (two rows behind them) who would rather we stop all singing immediately.

If I become impassive to these layers of humanity, and unresponsive to “what’s happening in the room”, I don’t think I’m serving them well. But if I become overly concerned with how everybody’s doing, I can lose connection with the Lord, and then what good am I? I
go back and forth between having to close my eyes and open them to maintain my focus and balance their realities and my own.

Somehow, the metaphor of the worship song presents me with an opportunity to “suspend my disbelief” (or is a better word unbelief?) in the nearness of God, and just enjoy Him, regardless of how I’m feeling.

Add to that the ability to “suspend my belief,” and I am now better able to interact with others’ unbelief, whether it be expressed as a choice not to follow Jesus, or, in the case of many a believer, a choice not to engage in worship in the face of distractions or, more commonly as of late, unsatisfied expectations based on personal preference. By “suspending my belief”, I become able to empathize with their dilemma and to try on what the options might be from their vantagepoint of unbelief, and to create some on-ramps for them to engage in worship from where they are, be they believer or unbeliever.

So “suspending my disbelief” seems to help me connect with God better, and “suspending my belief” seems to help me connect with others better.  This coming in and out of myself can be exhausting, but at the same time, I find Jesus as my model and my very active partner in it.