Archive for the ‘church’ Category

Up and running.




It was the REFINERY Church — last Saturday morning  — and it was humming. The place was literally swarming with activity.

Walking through the site that morning, I realized that a vision had been realized. Ten years ago we set out to take an under-utilized and physically neglected church and turn it into Google. Google is a place where people can go and do what they need to do — find information, accomplish something, better their lives.

REFINERY Church —  the same. Ten years ago, when we began to cleanup, remodeled, up-date the church, we also decided to functionalize it. And as we improved the site, we also turned it into a platform for our community to come to and do good. We  gave the church away by allowing other non-profits with the same vision — a vision to empower people —  to come here and do their thing.

And now it hums.

Sometimes we now tease that everybody has keys to the church. Who are all these people in all these rooms?  We barely know! Over 20 non-profit groups now use the church. Over six hundred people per week pass thorough the site for some kind of benefit to their lives — recovery groups, mental health groups, foster care groups, family groups, study groups. We offer counseling. We give away food twice each week to hundreds of people. REFINERY is a venue for voting, parties, area school events, worship services and weddings.

Last Saturday reflected this state of affairs.In the sanctuary a band from one of our partnering churches was practicing for Sunday worship.

In the courtyard a team of young church families was digging out an area of sod to create a space for a new, larger play structure for children.

In the Gallery — a midsized meeting room —  a team from an partnering church was huddled around a table planning a holiday meal for homeless friends.

Another team from a partnering church readied the same room for an afternoon baby shower.

In one of the classrooms, Grossmont College was holding a class to train foster parents.

In the Counseling Center a Center For Enriching Relationship’s therapist (CER is a partnering nonprofit Christian counseling group) was meeting with a client.

In the basement a team was prepping to give out food from a fresh rescue program to families who are food challenged.

Out front, along E Street a team — led by the REFINERY gardener — a team of volunteers was trimming lantana and wiring up a new drip irrigation system.

That’s site empowerment, that’s healthy, that’s good, that’s the kind of good God wants for his church.

Good is when we open to teaming with other; good is when we give away what has been given to us; good is when we allow others to have the opportunity to do what they need to do to be empowered.

Good is God reaching out to our community though us.

“O life,” she said.

We’ve all said it, or thought it, or felt it.

It means, “O life, you’re so beautiful, you promise so much, and yet, you little traitor, you’ve let us down a bit now, you cad, you flit, you flipper flopper.”

The ancient turn, the classical about-face, the emotive “O,” the wistful, apostrophic, exclamatory sigh into the void — it gets precisely at the exacting ambiguity of life’s blissful-distrubatory.

I’m in the people business —  the nonprofit kind.  My young, optimistic staff and I people farm — daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.  We sow, irrigate, harvest, bundle, haul, barn, transport and distribute people — sometimes, mostly, kind of, always very gently.  It’s good work —  messy, fun, disappointing, fulfilling, exhausting.

Yesterday, I gave a talk to a room of biomes concerning the happy navigation of the various and sundry vicissitudes of the culture wars. This morning I set up a plan to pay for a disabled child’s therapy. Tomorrow I’ll work on the buildout of a new counseling center. Next week I’ll give a talk on mental illness and suicide.

It goes well. It doesn’t.

Yesterday a person I’ve been helping turned on me. Someone else I have high hopes for didn’t show. Another slept during one of my talks. Another seems to be on track to perpetually ignore reality.

Today, I am in need of some serious ice cream.  It’s an “Oh life” kind of business. They come they go; they shrink they grow.

I think that for me, the hardest thing is how life — and choices —  carry them away, like the bright orange and yellow fall leaves floating on an inclining mountain stream.

My particular brand of dysfunctional co-dependence needs people-permanence. I used  to teach full-time — in the humanities — and I used to grieve like a doleful poet when my students graduated.  My current role is better, they stay longer in a church, but not long enough.

And so it is, “O life!”

They ebb, they flow, they come, they go.

And yet, there isn’t an option; there isn’t any other kind of life, the kind without the “Hi,” the sigh and the “Goodbye.”

This life is the good life, but it’s the next one that will be more stable. Can’t wait!

“Hmm, nothing seems to be as constant as change.”

As part of my survival strategy, I’m beginning to make friends with that.

It seems to me, considering some of the final options — say heaven or hell —  that in the end of the very end, we will all get what we really want, make our own bed, choose our favorite flavor, like the bright eternal hotel we end up in and feel right at home there.

Heaven — I think —  will be perfect for the jaded, the faded, the doubters and the flouters. It will be an excellent place for all those who have been wounded by religion, by church, by false church leaders and by well-meaning but terribly damaging Christian do-gooders.

How so?

Heaven will begin with a long silence; this will be to heal us from church.

And hell?

Hell will begin with a call to worship, so that it is clear that the church endures forever there.



Think about it.

With all the pastors, elders and church leaders that end up in hell, for sure there will be church. In hell, they’ll be some slayin’ and prayin’ and capital improvements and passin’ the offering.  Churches — large and small — will thrive in fierce competition with each other, on fire to win the faithful into the fiery fold.

And what about heaven?

Well, it isn’t that there won’t be worship in heaven, it will just look more like a party than a church service.

I take this very personally.

I am confident that if I get to heaven (and perhaps being a pastor makes it somewhat questionable), I will be assigned a very low place there — far from the throne —  down by the river with the others who barely got in.

I’ll like that.

There down by the river, eating and drinking and telling jokes. We will be using some strikingly earthy language, (one of the things that will remain), and Jesus won’t mind. We will party hearty —  sing, laugh, dance, prance and spiritually enhance.


Think about it.

A good heart isn’t proven by the use of good words.

True worship isn’t church music. It is much more than that. I think it has a lot more in common with sharing your food with the hungry, and “weeping with those who weep.”

And spiritual  healing and the redemption of souls  — that has more in common with silence than sermons.

Church doesn’t make you a Christian. It won’t get anybody into heaven, I think Jesus does that, makes us fit for heaven — right?

Don’t get me wrong!

I love church, my church, all the true churches on earth. I love them, and the people in them, with all their flaws and claws, (well, not that so much), but what we are doing here is so much different than will will happen there that it isn’t even funny.

Ahead, in heaven, is healing, and peace and adventure and exploration of the stars and fun and laughter and good gardens and good food and outlandish creativity and joy that will utterly and totally eclipse and shadow and end all our feeble efforts to get it right here.

I can hardly wait.

My daughters love to be told their birth stories.

l start with, “When your mom and I got to the hospital, my eyes were already dilated to ten.”

I proceed, “I immediately asked for an epidural, at the base of my skull.”

I go on, “When you were born you weighed 11 pounds.” That was my daughter Laurel, who is now on the petite side.

I finish with something like, “You were a good baby, and you loved mashed-up squash.”

Such stories, such memories, these are the things in life that bring us together.

Birds of a familial feather — they  flock together.

The Christmas narrative bears this out. There we see that Jesus is essentially and proverbially communal. Jesus draws people together. The vivid facts of his birth narrative reveal this.

A census caused families — David’s family — to gather, by household, in Bethlehem.

When these related people were together a baby was born, the baby Jesus.

The baby drew angels, who showed up to praise God and announce the baby to some local shepherds, perhaps herding temple sheep.

The shepherds visited the baby Jesus.

We have a convergence. Everyone — in the loop on this — gets together, around Jesus.

Last week I went into the basement of my church following my nose. I smelled Christmas tamales. Sure enough, in the large kitchen below us — spiced tomato sauce, onions, pork, corn dough, corn husks. And people, a bunch of people, talking and cooking. Tamales create community.

The baby Jesus was a delicious little tamale. He drew people, like magic, to himself. The good news, the sign, the cause of great joy — it was Jesus, a divine food, the bread of life, drawing both earthly and heavenly forces together.

Caesar Augustus issued a degree, that the Jews gathered, but God issued a decree and the whole world gathered.

Joseph, Mary, Jesus, angels, shepherds, the members of the house of David all gather at the birth, later Simeon and Anna visit Jesus, then the wise men, then the 12 disciples, then the crowds of followers, then after Jesus death the nations, at Pentecost many different kinds of people, then the church, then all the earth, billions of people.

I grew up with snow. We made snowmen. We started with a small snowball, and rolled it until it took all my brothers to keep it going, and it got so big we couldn’t roll it any more.

Jesus was a snowball becoming a giant snowman. The snowball of Jesus just kept getting bigger and bigger.

Jesus is a rolling-up, he is a shoveling-up, of individuals, into something that gets bigger and bigger and includes more and more diversity the bigger it gets.

What God is doing is uniting people.

God is bringing people together. God is making a people salad. God is making tamales, God is letting down a sheet for all the nations, mixing in a bunch of different people into one meal. God’s great ultimate purpose — it’s oneness.

Ep 1:8-10

With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

God’s grand goal, Jesus’s birth, Christmas, is to create unity, to create a large, universal family. What does this mean for us?

When we are moving with the movement of God, we are moving toward more community, toward connection, toward togetherness with people.

When we come to church, we are entering the divine purpose to make us one. Community is good, it is not to be feared, it heals us from fear, from loneliness, from hurt.

We may think, “I’m hurt. I need to stay away.”

Not so, “I’m hurt, so I need people.”

I need you, and you need me.

But we need each other to be a certain way, to be sensitive, to be safe, to not harm, to not dominate, to not offend, to not judge, to get along.

Romans 12:16-18

Be sensitive to each other’s needs – don’t think yourselves better than others, but make humble people your friends. Don’t be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but try to do what everyone regards as good. If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live in peace with all people.

How do we do this? How do we live at peace, stay humble, refuse to do evil to each other?

To do this we must determine in ourselves to treat each person with respect, to be interested in each person, especially to be sensitive to each other when we are wounded or weak.


By listening to each other, by not giving too much advice, by just sitting with each other’s pain.

On Tuesday this week I was a little lonely at work. My staff didn’t come in. Then along came two friends. We sat together up in one of the rooms, and talked, shared difficulties, laughed, and let each other be imperfect, human, raw.

We talked about loss, without giving advice. We were at peace with each other’s not-perfect. We sat with each other’s difficulty, laughed about it, tried to make just a little sense of it.

This is community, this is our togetherness, not to come and act spiritual and perfect but to let our messy hair down, and to be okay with the messy journey.

In efforts to create community around the essential Jesus, we must be careful to be sensitive to each other’s need at the moment.

I’ll be specific. If someone is single, let’s not say stuff about them getting married.

The church is not a collection of married people, or people on their way to get married; it is a collection of everybody, single, married, single again, married again, married but wish they weren’t.

If someone is divorced, let’s not treat them like they are damaged goods. Who hasn’t had broken relationships, who hasn’t had people we loved turn on them?

The church is a collection of people on a journey, not people who have arrived at some traditionally approved or preferred place.

We recently decorated the house for Christmas. Before we started, it looked pretty, during the process, it  became a mess. All the usual decor got piled on the dining room table, all the boxes from the garage on the floor; the cats climbed the tree.

The process got ugly, but when the guests come this week for a Christmas dinner, the house will be perfect — well almost.

Well, not quite.

When my wife and I host groups, we always leave the bathrooms uncleaned. This is so that when the early quests arrive and say, “Can we do anything to help?”  we can include them in the family, and we can say, “Yeah, you can clean the bathrooms, and if you want there is a little laundry.”

On the way to the final Christmas meal, that great Christian celebration that will occur at the end of all time, God allows for mess.

Consider the age factor. That can be messy.

If someone is older, or young, or in the middle, at church, and they are unfinished, undecorated, we yet need to acknowledge them and let’s live out the truth that every age is of value to God and us.

Or consider sexual status, a hot button topic in the church.

If someone is gay, we must not assume that they aren’t seeking, knowing and loving God. They may seek and love God as much or more than we do.

Our job is to be sensitive, to watch our mouths, to not offend and hinder someone’s journey toward God with our judgments.

Christmas is for everyone who will receive it, no matter what they are dealing with; Christ came, he loves us, and when we believe in him, he forgives us and saves us, no matter our issue.

At church, let’s be sensitive to relational status.

If someone is alone, at church, then we must treat them like they are as important as someone who is there with a family. Everyone has family, even if not present.

Every family has value, broken ones, split ones, hurt ones, little ones. And every person has a family, even if they aren’t at church with them.

Our goal as Christians is not to make everyone into the kind of person that makes us feel comfortable, but to learn to be more comfortable with every person.

Let people be what and who they are in their stage of life. They are all in movement, all changing, but it is God’s work to refine them, to improve them, to make them moral, not ours.

We are not saying that everything is okay, that there is no sin, that there is no evil, that we have no morals or standards. We Christians do.

Someone told me recently they had never been taught how to protect themselves from evil at church.

That’s old church, and that’s not good.

Christians need boundaries. I have written this before, I will write it again, “Do not let people abuse you, sexually harass you, discriminate against you or dominate you.”

Those things are evil.

Don’t allow this any kind of abuse at home, work or church. Report abuse. Stand up to bullies. Call out racism and sexism and ageism.

But all that being said, we are still to follow Romans 1:18 and to “If possible, and to the extent that it depends on [us] … live in peace with all people.”

God is working to clean up the house, for Christmas, to create safe, good, moral, appropriate community.

Our primary job is to join God in rolling out His beautiful, growing communal snowball.

Christmas, it’s a togetherness.

The essential Jesus, he is, was and always will be, an essential, safe, sensitive, appropriate togetherness.

Many Christians view politics negatively, perhaps after the fashion of Larry Hardiman who once quipped, “The word ‘politics’ is derived from the word ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’, and the word ‘ticks’, meaning ‘blood sucking parasites.'”

Ronald Regan had a mitigated view.

Politics is not a bad profession. “If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself,  you can always write a book.”

But what did Jesus say about politics?

In Mark 10:42-45, Jesus responding to his followers when they became political, competitive and  power hungry by saying, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus opposed dominating, power hungry, competitive, self-serving leaders. Jesus taught servant leadership.

How can we apply this to politics?

Christians would do well, following Jesus, to promote and elect politicians who have servant’s hearts. Those leaders can be strong, but they should use their strength for the people, not for themselves.

Which candidate currently running for President of the United States would be the best servant of the people?

I think Jesus might say, “Look into the candidates hearts. Elect the best servant.”

I have always admired British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in this regard. Churchill stayed in London when the Germans bomb it during the blitz of WWII, even though this put his own life at risk.

Churchill’s position: “We shall go on to the end … we shall never surrender.”

That’s leadership. In the blitz, Churchill didn’t dominate his people,  but instead he identified with them, lived with them, served them.

We recently hired a woman in our church to be our REFINERY gardener. We needed to buy her a lawnmower to cut our courtyard grass. I told her we should get a gas lawn mower, with a twin turbo V-8 powering it, one that you ride on. That way the staff could even use it to get to work and back.

Instead she wanted a GreenWorks electric lawnmower, one that you push. Why? She didin’t want smelly, toxic gasoline in our church storage areas and our church courtyard.

I didn’t try to dominate her, although I am her supervisor, but instead respected her as a fellow leader. She should have the power to make her own decisions. We bought the GreenWorks mower. She is the gardener, not me. She, and her good vision for our organization are to be respected. My job is to support her, to empower her, not to control her. Jesus taught servant leadership; we Christians would do well to ask what this looks like at church, and at home. It looks like not dominating people.

What else did Jesus say about politics?

In Matthew 10:15-16 Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Jesus taught us, as his followers, to be shrewd. What does shrewd mean?

Here it means not easily deceived, not easily taken advantage of, not overly simplistic and gullible in thinking.

This is needed when Christians confront politics.

During many recent Presidential campaigns Christians have run after candidates they thought represented their values — say pro-life, or pro-family — only to find that once in office those candidates did nothing to advance those causes.

We Christians should be smarter than that, and not let candidates manipulate or deceive us by seeming to align with us on one Christian issue.

Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 commands us, “Test everything.” What should we test, politically? Going back to Jesus, we should test the hearts of our political candidates and the plans they have to accomplish things.

Before we vote, we might ask, is this candidate full of love, or hate? Does this candidate or this issue come from a place of fear, or love? Will what this person proposes work, or is this a false promise?

It is no secret that the American government has recently been stuck, polarized and bogged down by politicians who are unwilling to work together. So, we are in need of servant’s hearts in government,  ones who can negotiate, compromise when needed, get things done, serve, not try to dominate.

This brings us to the third important thing Jesus said about politics.

Jesus said, ” Love your enemies.”

We are not to hate even those who oppose us.

When George Bush was president, some of my Christians friends thought he was the devil. The invasion of Iraq sealed that for them.

When President Obama was elected, I heard a few Christians who thought the sky had fallen. Such hatred. Such lies, that he was a Muslim, that he wasn’t an American. Those charges were ridiculously untrue.

Listen Christians, you have the right and responsibility to choose candidates, and to side up on the issues. You do not, as Christians, have a calling or mandate to hate well-meaning leaders you disagree with. I don’t believe we have ever elected a truly evil American President.

We Christians are not called to be negative or cynical or despairing about government or its “blood sucking politicians.”

We should control ourselves. Jesus told us to love even our enemies and scripture commands us to pray for all our political leaders. We can disagree, we can oppose — we cannot hate. Hated is toxic. Jesus was against it.

Consider this flash point for love and hate in politics — political parties.

Which is the Christian political party; what is God’s party?

Let’s consider this conceptually.

The Republicans are pro-life, but the Democrats care for the poor, and the Independent Party claims their foundation is within Christianity.

So which one is God’s party. None of them. There is no perfectly Christian Party. One represents Christians well on one issue, one on another. And it is complicated. There are Republicans who care about poverty, Democrats who are pro-life.

We must not be naive.

We must face facts; the people on the other side of the aisle, in the other party, those who differ from us politically, even those in another form of government or even those in another religion aren’t necessarily evil. They probably even have some good points to make on the issues the country faces.

In my own church we have people from all persuasions; some have told me they are staunch Democrats, some staunch Republicans, some Independents, and yet we happily go to church together without forcing anyone to adhere to other’s political opinions.

This is because we Christians are not called to be devisive, to be unreasonable, to be narrow-minded, and we are not called to be negative or cynical or disparaging about government, about someone else view of government, even about those “blood sucking politicians.”

Our passion and calling, as a Christians, is to love our leaders, to love those who we disagree with, to work with them to bring about good and to pray for them to follow God.

I spoke to my dad recently. I asked about politics. He is 87 years old. He has always been very conservative.

When I asked him about the race this year, he said what he always says, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Wise man. Then he added. “I changed sides.”

I had to laugh. My dad, changed parties! He has never done that, but I applaud his open mindedness. He is a lover, not a hater. He is following Paul who described wisdom as being open to reason.

Love and not fear should dominate our political Christian thinking. When we  vote, we should ask, is this vote coming out of fear, or hate, or love. We Christians are called to hope, to love, to good and truth wherever it exists. Good governance is full of love.

Good governance is Abraham Lincoln, loving us as one people and preserving the Union at great cost. It is Teddy Roosevelt loving nature and preserving it though a system of national parks. It is Franklin Roosevelt lovingly shepherding us through the Great Depression.

Lastly, in terms of politics, I want to bring up something else Jesus said. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Jesus did not say government is the way, truth and life. For the Christian, our ultimate trust is in God, not government. Do we expect human government to establish Christianity on the earth?

Our government may follow our Christian morality — we want it to; it would be good for it to — but government’s role is not to teach our faith or our prayers to the people. We, the church, do that ourselves.

It is good and right to seek a just, fair state. We should do all we can do to bring truth, order and wisdom to government. It is noble to be a politician, it is a great calling to lead a nation, but we must not try to turn the state into the church, not expect the state or the government to do the work of the church.

The government can’t make people Christians.

The story goes that in 311 Constantine was marching to capture Rome when at Milvian Bridge he saw a vision of the initials of Christ in front of the sun surrounded by these words: “By this sign conquer.”

Then the narrative goes, Constantine marched his troops into the river, declared them baptized, and ordered them to paint those letters on their shields.

Historian Charles Williams says that then “All insincerity became Christian.” Legs standing in water don’t make Christians. No one can mandate Christianity. The state does not exist to force baptisms.

And yet some Christians seem to want someting like this. I have heard Christians say that we have lost the fight for prayer in schools, lost the protection of unborn life in our laws, lost the sanctity of traditional marriage. It is as if they think the government should be the church.

I personally don’t want the government teaching my children how to pray. I don’t trust they would do that well, but I do want the government to allow my children to pray — and it does. I wish the government protected unborn life, but even if it doesn’t I will protect life whenever I can. And whatever the government decides marriage is, that doesn’t change or harm my marriage.

My marriage is still sacred. The only real threat to my marriage is me. It is mine to keep sacred, and if it is ruined, it wll not be ruined by governmental law, it will be ruined by the choices my wife and I make or don’t make to deeply love each other.

We Christians are not losing. We have not lost our freedoms or our values or our own choices to be moral, and we have not lost our own definitions of what is moral.  The government has yet done very little to take away our right to personally live according to our values.

Of course, as we look back on history, there are many case of the American government running over citizens rights, but I find that when I go to church I am yet free to practice all the essentials of Chrisitanity without any governmental interference.  As for now, the first amendment of the Constitiution stands. It protects us. I expect it to continue to protect us. I appreciate this.

And consider this. Nothing the government does or ever can do cancels the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. Jesus died to set us free and so we are free indeed. No Government can do that —  set us free from sin and death — and no government can take Christ or our freedom in Christ away from us.

Christians, pray when you want. Protect life by your own choices. Love and marry as you choose, and keep your own marriage sacred by being loyal to your own spouse.

Our lives, our values, our hopes, our truths are safe — in Christ.

I like what Jesus said about politics.

What kind of political leaders can we support? We can support servant leaders. What kind of political thinking should we do? Savvy and shrewd. What best defines the good politics? It is love not fear.

What is our true source of order and stability?

It is God.

I looked at the steps above and below me. All the available space was covered — with people.

The concrete steps were literally paved with seated people — something like you might see at the Spanish steps in Rome, but different —  people with dirt on their arms and water bottles beside them, people smiling and laughing.

And moreover and thusly, they were eating pizza, set out in boxes, stacked in the center of the steps.

It was a volunteer earth care team, and we sitting on the church entry steps, after work, on a mid-week evening. We had just been digging grass out of the yard, building a decorative retaining wall and constructing a pretty, curving, decomposed granite pathway.


Earth care, water saving and beauty — and community. The new plants that will be planted at the church will use less water, flower more, inspire us and the people who walk or drive by.

And that’s the thing, the people. On the steps that evening — laughing about goofy horror movies we have seen, woofing down tasty pizza, taking a break from work — we were a collection, a collaboration, a unit, an entity, a team, a people, a family. This is good church.

This is in fact, the highest social good, our best moment.  When we refuse to stay home, when we defeat isolationism, when we come out, when we team up to care for the earth and each other, when we have social discourse, when we become a pod, a murmuration,  a collaborative — this is deep, satisfiying good-good.

Want to live well? Want to please God?

Want the best experiences life can offer?

Find people, do earth care work with them, get pizza, put the pizza in the center of the group, eat, hobnob, laugh and then look around at the beauty you are celebrating.

This is your earth; this is your human family.

When I got up this morning, I went outside. It was still dark. Venus glowed in the east. It was cool; the sky was blue-black, with a slight lightening in the east where the earth turned toward the sun.

Looking at Venus, I thought of Jesus, who has been called the bright morning star. I paused, refreshed, not alone, enmeshed in Christianity, in an kind of metaphoric, historical, institutionalized beauty.

I came back in the house and sat and talked to my wife. When we talk, we  usually connect, very smoothly, very deeply, very satisfyingly. My identity and her’s merge, we easily understand each other’s abreviations, the rhetoric of love, our freshly invented eloquences. With these we work out the subliminal deep structure of our relationship, the one that exists within the institution of marriage.

Later in the morning, I drove into work, opened the door to my office, and walked into a third institution.

My office manager came to work too. We are both well-individuated, but as we talked, worked out the plan for the day, sampled the pastry we would later serve to guests, laughed at ourselves, played our separate roles, made progress, we became a useful institutional team.

What is my life? It is a life of living and moving and having my being within institutions.

What are institutions?

Institutions are not places, they are not buildings. Institutions are the rules that structure the interactions we have with the people we know.  Institutions define the way we relate.

The national government, our church, our marriage, our school system, our economic system, even our language — all are institutions, that is, all structure rules for our relationships.

A woman told me last week that our church hurt her feelings.

I apologized. I hated that she was hurt. The protocol, the unwritten rules, the tendancy of a church to favor certain people — the unexamined structure of our interactions — these can damage. Institutions can brutalize people.

I have been harmed by institutions. You probably have too. But we have also been helped by them — medicine, art, family.

What can we do to make our institutions healthy, even good?

First, in institutions, make exceptions, regarding the rules.

Once a person didn’t meet a requriement of our church for leadership. In this case, we overlooked that one institutional requirement. We kept the requirement in general —  it’s a good one — but we made an exception in this one case. It wasn’t a slippery slope. It was just plain smart, right, fair. And it worked well. The person has proven to be an excellent leader.

This is one way we kept our institution from harming the individual — we value the individual more than the general rule.

What else can be done?

We can keep changing. A healthy person keeps changing.  Healthy institutions also keep changing. They change the rules, to address problems, to find creative solutions.

Our church is currently becoming more economically and racially diverse. So we are including more types of people in leadership. Women, ethnic minorities, young people, older people, introverts, highly spiritual people, practical ones too. We are opening the doors to a different look, to different kinds of relational structures. Some of the rules are changing, and so the institution is changing in a good way.

Today as I sat writing this in Starbucks — a major institution — two strangers got into a conversation about how to cool their houses in the current heat wave. One gave the other a new idea. This “third place” within our culture, this public office, creates a space for people to relate to each other in ways of their own choosing, and come to solutions of their own choosing.

The bottom line?

Love your institutions, use them to connect to others, to solve problems; make them work for you and others.

When I walked around the corner of the back entrance to the courtyard I laughed.

The base material was already in the walkways. “What? Really? Cool!”

John had gone crazy, imagined the future with me — an idea in my head, an landscape architects plan, a couple of muddy measurements, a scribble with a pencil, a photocopy, and there it was, a venue worthy of an event, a celebration, a bride.

Metal stakes, dirt, red string lines, subgrade, grade, top of grade, finish grade, party grade, parade grade, life-changing grade — it was a virtual outdoor cathedral in the making.

The bobcat was scooping up base, the compactor was thumping it down, and I was living it up.

Then I went inside the chapel, passing over the newly refinished oak floors, and into the worship center.

I laughed again.

The recovered pews were in, fabricated in dark, rich brown — clean, smooth, shinny, elegance. The worship center remodel was entering it’s final stages. From the lovely pendant lights to the upscale wood floors, from the newly clear-glassed arch windows to the freshly carpeted stage, the place glowed with a new-found self-esteem anchored in original Spanish Revival glory.

What is it?

It is nothing less than the reality-foundry of the divine at work.

It is not less than the God-thumping laugh-making, hope-crafting, power-mongering energy forever resident in the world’s grand, eloquent, spiritual renewal, its lovely, numinous, reviviscent and effortless renovation.

The water was high on the rocks in the flood control channel. I flew along parallel with the water, powering down the freeway, ogling the tidal flow beside me, eager now to see the marsh.

I accelerated up the overpass and swept down the other side of it, through a long banked turn, and there it was — the salt marsh, flooded. It was filled floor-flat. Where there had been mud, now there was a lake; where there had been sinuous narrow marshy channels, now there were wide rivers — marsh to bay, one body of water, with the ocean beyond, rocking the continents.

Life is tidal. I love it. I don’t. I don’t when my emotions flood me under. My experiences, thoughts and feelings, taken at the flood and not, at high tide and low tide, can be a little disconcerting.

Last Saturday evening I sat in Brown Chapel at Point Loma University and watched a band, all young musicians and singers, lead worship. People in the audience stood, some raised their hands, some went forward to stations to do art, to write, to reflect.

I did nothing. I just sat, and watched. I felt nothing. I didn’t stand. I never raised my hands. What was moving some of these worshipers, what filled them with passion, left me as placid as a mud flat.

It’s interesting, how we are differently moved.

And then again, the other day, driving my car and listening to worship song playing loudly on the car system, I broke and cried. It was a song I’ve heard many times, stored on my iPhone, but this time it washed me under.

What’s the deal? Obviously, the movements of our emotions, our spirits, these are not something we control. Our passions, our worship moments come on us as they will, not by choice or by plan but somewhat inexplicably — low feelings unscripted and high emotions unanticipated.

But despite this tidal reality, this emotional norm, we are easily made uneasy with ourselves. When others are moved by a worship service, a prayer, movie, song or other public performance, then sometime we too feel that we should be moved. In church, I have experienced an identity shift crisis over this. Should I be true to my own feelings, my own identity, or must I conform to the current group’s identity, their experience? It is common, in church, to experience a peer mandate to “get with it,” spiritually.

But when we experience church differently from others, the worship dissonance may disrupt our sense of harmony and create internal conflict. “What’s wrong with me?” we sometimes muse in worship settings. Others around me are most alive to the moment, I feel most shockingly dead.

I can stand should-to-shoulder with others who are pouring out their hearts to God in worship and feel nothing. I have even had the unpleasant experience of feeling critical of fellow worshipers, as I stood with them, and critical of the whole “worship” experience around me. It is possible, to be insanely yucked up while others are insanely fired up.

What’s wrong? Nothing. Nothing is wrong when we experience a worship disconnect more than is wrong with anyone else.

Jesus himself explained this quite nicely in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Jesus was saying that we who are born of the Spirit, the children of God, the ones who know and worship God, don’t control the coming and going of the Holy Spirit of God.

Face it, we don’t know when or where the Holy Spirit will flood us, move us, emote us, inspire us, and when He won’t.

“Duh!” we don’t control God. We don’t control inspiration. We don’t control the presence of God. We don’t control the tidal movements of God. We don’t decide when we will be moved, when not. We don’t control the inner workings of our souls. We don’t have much control over emotions.

That acknowledged, here’s the deal: Don’t try.

I’ve been through it all — the ecstatic moments, the inert ones, the high tide, the mud. I’ve been struck emotional by the presence of God. I’ve been in his presence and felt absolutely no awareness of him. We all have.

The upshot of all this?

Relax. The tide comes in, the tide goes out; that’s normal, within you, with God.

Life, worship, emotions, your own soul — it’s all tidal.

P1020582We ripped fabric for the cross.

The house filled with the sound of tearing, then came the rhythmic hum of the sewing machine and then the hiss of the iron and the soft sound of voices.

Soon there were piles of bright thread on the floor and stacks of colored strips, four inches wide — blue, green, red, yellow, black and white. Then we sewed the same-colored strips together. We ironed down the seams and folded the strips into piles of looping colors, each now thirty feet long.

It looked like we were making streamers for the Olympics. We weren’t. The colored strips, representing the nations, will be braded together and draped on the cross at the front of the church at Easter this year.  We have it in our minds — Easter is for everyone!

Steven Chan emailed me this week. His Chinese Bible study group wants to use more space at the church. I emailed back, “Yes, we’d be glad to work with you on expanding your use of the building.”

Ricardo Rivas, one of the leaders of the Hispanic congregation which meets in our building told me this week that their start time is 2 pm on Sundays. We’ll change that on the sign.

When we met to do the Easter basket project on a recent Saturday, the family from Sri Lanka was there, as well as black and white and Hispanic children. The nations had gathered to care for the poor.

On Easter we plan to read the scripture in several langages, Japanese, French, English, Spanish, Portugese and Chinese.

The Sunday after Easter, when we celebrate the communion, and our leader from Jamaica will prepare the elements. One of the members of our food team, from Peru, will hand out the bags of food after the service.

Last week my new Hispanic friend Hugo and I worked on the banners that will grace the staircases to the front door of the church. Hugo and I have a lot in common, a love for mechanical things that go fast, and a passion for all kinds of people to know that God loves them.

The first banner we will put up on the front staircase of the church,  it says, “You’ll fit here!”

They will.