One Church Sunday – Logistically Impractical Is God’s Fertile Ground

For those outside the Grace Chapel Community, last week we held one one worship gathering for all services and campuses in an arena and called it One Church Sunday. I posted a reflection called “Moments I Won’t Forget” on our Staff Blog and this post aims to process it a bit more out loud.

When the idea was first given in a staff meeting, I liked it, I think we all did. The thought of looking at the Grace Chapel congregation and thinking, “This is who we are” felt great. Of course, in reality, one gathering is never comprehensive as there are always people missing for one reason or another but knowing this would serve as some type of representation felt desirable. Who and if I may, “what” am I praying for when I pray for the community of Grace Chapel?

The hope of our time was to worship God all together, celebrate what He has been doing in our community and collectively seek what He desires for us next. The hope of us all asking God together was exciting. But I am not really a chaser of excitement, I was drawn more to how needed and appropriate this time could be for us.

Then as the previous staff post mentioned, there was the reality check of pulling off such a service. We have some really great logistical minds at work around here but as you would imagine, this was an enormous project. Between what we do with children, getting people in and out without burdening the city of Lowell, all our worship teams, and deciding to finish our service with baptism. This was becoming logistically impractical.

There were certainly a lot of questions and a fair amount of anxiety. Not to say there wasn’t any excitement, we were excited, but such things often go hand in hand.

What if only half our congregation decides to come?

What if this thing becomes a church-wide pat on the back?

What if hardly anyone brings blankets, clothing, supplies for our local organizations like we asked?

What about the traffic and parking? 

What if the mayor of Lowell and Brad Stevens fight in the green room and they both leave? 

I’m just kidding, I wasn’t really worried about the traffic ;)

What if no one decides to come down for these “spontaneous baptisms?” And what if too many people come down? (We should have extra clothing on hand. Twice as many who have signed up ought to do it).

As with anything important, the anxieties and the hopes and the questions and the passion runs high. Here’s a download of what I learned and what I was reminded of throughout the week:

Logistically-impractical is often a Pre-Cursor to God’s Greatest Work

Need to move a few million people out of Egypt while an angry Pharaoh and his army are chasing? Head for the water. Need to feed thousands of people spontaneously? Ask if anyone packed a lunch or two? Need to feel God’s presence and empowerment? Return to the city where two powerful establishments have united to erase any trace of your narrative. Then begin a public ministry in the name of your recently-executed rabbi. Oh and call him “Lord”, the same title Caesar uses – that will help.

Logistically-impractical is often a pre-cursor of the Holy Spirit’s leading and words like ridiculous and risky often create on-ramps for something amazing. Now it might sound like I’m over-reaching to compare some of the greatest miracles of Scripture to our One Church service and maybe I am. But I’m not asking for a ebenezer stone here, I’m merely trying to point out that the same God who is at work then is still at work now. For those that find it ridiculous to obey ideology from an ancient book of religious wisdom, know that I think so too. What as profoundly changed my life and what I was reminded of last week was that God’s presence is never confined by a book, or by an institution or by difficult logistics.

Just about everything about God’s work is ridiculous, impractical and at times, risky. A resurrected Jesus, weekly worship services, sharing our faith and countless other things “Christian” fit in those categories and so did this “One Church” Service.

Over the weeks as the logistics were getting worked on, one thought was coming into focus: Everything great is often logistically impractical. Graduation services, weddings and just about anything related to kids from taking them on vacation to raising them. And we do such things because they bring us a unique occasion to gather, celebrate and gain together in a unique way. We stand/sit in the heat, travel long distances, load up our gear, gather our friends, and expect something.

The second is what does it say if we do great and logistically impractical things for countless other reasons and not for something that is so central to our lives? If we believed in the purpose of this Sunday of gathering all together to worship together, to celebrate what God has been doing through the life of our church and collectively seek Him for more, then logistically impractical is part of the package (which echoes the first point, everything great is impractical).

Third, logistically-impractical is a relative term. As is often the case, doing enough in the name of God often leads to a baseline of mediocrity. To be completely truthful, many of these logistics were very difficult to navigate and there is always a lot of energy and dedication towards any endeavor that is being done once for a great cause. It felt great to have contributed ridiculous energy and time for such a time but the morning of, it still felt like bringing a picnic basket to a party of a 5000 dinner guests.

It’s around here that as a pastor I’m supposed to say something predictable and dramatic like “Then God showed up.” Hold up, I forgot the exclamation “Then God showed up!!”

But He did. As much as it pains me to sound overly-dramatic and use such cliched phrases, the words are true. I could use a different phrase of course, but what I am really trying to get it is that I was utterly humbled and excited by what happened throughout that morning. From people walking into the Tsongas Arena carrying in blankets and sheets to be donated to local partners and organizations to our multi-cultural, intergenerational time of worshipping God together, to our time of baptism.

Humbled and excited are often the two paradoxical feelings one experiences upon encountering God. And upon such experiences, the feelings and emotions run high and we wonder what’s next and we hope not to return to our fears, anxieties and settled mediocrity. It’s been my prayer that we not hold on to the high because it feels good, but to remember what God has been doing in our midst and to move towards what more He has in store. It will likely be risky, inconvenient, untimely, and logistically impractical, but if it’s truly of God, it will be more than worthwhile. I’m grateful that our One Church service brought this and more. You can read the first reflection here and watch the service here. Grace and peace. Tim



Star Wars Day and the National Day of Prayer

 I keep thinking about last week’s “Star Wars” Day and the National Day  of Prayer. Both in the same week – wow, what a time for the religious!

So a few observations:

1. Most of my friends talked about Star Wars Day than the National Da of Prayer (NDoP).

2. This comforted me, because this was true of me as well.

3. I think it’s time to reframe the National Day of Prayer to something that works for everyone.

“Star Wars” Day

In a world where we have a day for everything why not a “Star Wars” Day and a “Star Trek” Day and why not a day for that weird late 90’s movie “where earth had to fight bug planet” (my actual Google search) – Yes, “Starship Troopers” Day. Yeah, they should get one too. (Wasn’t Neil Patrick Harris in that. That was an accusation, not a question ;)

Next to R2D2, the coolest thing the Stars Wars people did was not call it “Stars Wars” Day. Going around wishing “May the 4th be with you” is a fun, harmless thing and on the surface it’s fairly empty. I take it to mean, “May some super-natural, mysterious force help you, just like it did Luke Skywalker and the other Jedi’s.” To me it sounds a lot like God’s grace, to others, it’s luck, to others, it’s the amount of midi-chlorians that can be detected (had to go there).

So I used to say that I loved Star Wars until I learned about the sub-culture of those who read all those novels, memorized the obscure names of planets, species, and characters who were on screen for a nano-second. And then the Episode 1 Phantom Menace pushed me over the edge (and The Matrix saved me. You might remember they came out the same year). Episode 2 didn’t pull me back either. It’s been watching the original series and the Vader and Son and Little Princess cartoon calendars that have helped but I digress.

But I assume this is how some people feel about “church.” There’s a long, complicated, subjective story as well. They like Jesus until they get tangled in the weird sub-culture of Christians and that’s how the National Day of Prayer might feel. Despite George Lucas’ antics and the sub-culture, “Star Wars” Day is fun, light-hearted moment that is nearly impossible to be offended by. It’s actually easier to fire a couple proton torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port than to be offended by Star Wars Day – I’ve tried.

The National Day of Prayer

A day for us to pray together? If I didn’t know anything about it, I would be very interested. Prayer is a good thing, a uniting thing, a humbly-seeking God thing, sign me up.

But when some of us hear of the National Day of Prayer, there’s a loaded context that comes with it. The advertisements are generally of American flags and Bibles and national monuments and Christian symbols. If we are asking God for an American Constantinople, I’d like to unsubscribe. I liked that Constantine was able to eliminate the persecutions against Christians but theocracies are not compatible with the Kingdom that Jesus spoke about.

There is baggage for me when it comes America and the Christian faith. I know this brings anxiety to some so I’ll do my best to clarify.  Of course, I would love to see everyone in our nation, and everyone in our world to have a true and joy-filled experience with the Triune God; my frustration arises when I hear a phrase like, “Bring the nation back to God.” I bet you God rolls his eyes every time that’s prayed and sends an angel to earth to create a pot-hole and a demon to the US Passport office (at the end of all things, we will discover a canyon in hell with a sign saying, “Missing Passports.”)

If you were to grab lunch with me, I think I could make a case on how I love this country more than you do. My second-generation immigrant family up-bringing is filled with a lot of riches when it comes to gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy. And at the very least, this has informed my take on the world. You would tell me your story and we would agree that we both truly love our land and the other nations as well. So hopefully we would also agree that when we hear “Bring the nation back to God,” we would also wonder about the other nations. Further, when we hear “back” to God, we should hesitate because of the implication that America was really as close to God as some have suggested.

I am certainly not arguing that our moral or religious climate today is a healthy one. No, I’m definitely not suggesting that. Nor am I suggesting that everyone who uses that phrase is attempting to exclude the blessing of God from the other nations. But statements like that and the context long-associated with the National Day of Prayer feel dated in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, society and perhaps it’s time for the National Day of Prayer be reframed.

If the National Day of Prayer could take a page out of the “Star Wars” Day

So in all truth, I didn’t actually boycott this day of prayer. While I didn’t physically gather with others, I am confident I joined others led by the Spirit and in the spirit of community. It’s awkward to get into the specifics but perhaps I can say it this way.

One of my favorite aspects of the story of Israel is throughout the Old Testament, God is calling for Israel to be a blessing to the whole world. From the Abrahamic call in Genesis 12 to the prophetic words in Isaiah to the story of Jonah (a story where a disobedient prophet of God goes to a decadent land that hates Israelites and they choose to repent!), God is saying it’s my love, my hope, my power in you for the world. That feels to go beyond any national day of dedicated prayer.

To be clear, heart-felt gratitude and national pride of where you came from is wonderful and noble sentiment but culture-war language and an overly-nationalistic passion leads to things like bitterness, ethnocentrism, and the wrong type of pride. You’ll lose people like anytime we detect an “us versus them” because the story I read in Scripture is God saying, “It’s you for them.”

“Star Wars” Day isn’t politicized. It might be strange, as sci-fi isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And so the comparison to prayer feels appropriate. To intentionally make a gross understatement: Prayer does not need to be politicized, or nationalized. And for some, the idea of prayer is stranger than science-fiction. That’s ok and may they be the first to experience blessing from such a day. But a day of prayer where it’s free of pretense, a day where we acknowledge our individual and collective brokenness, where we call on God for repentance and forgiveness, where we seek His strength and peace, where we ask Him to bless the people we love and the people we don’t know and the people who hate us – a day of prayer that really is about prayer. Yes, I’d sign back up for that.

May the grace of God be with you :)

Baltimore and Freddie Gray – What I’m Praying For & What I’m Reading

Just as I was finishing up an earlier post on what’s been going on in Baltimore, news broke out that six officers are being charged in the homicidal death of Freddie Gray. As you know, the speed of the investigation caught everyone off-guard and I felt the need to take a step back and pause. 

While I grieve so many things about all of this, the thought of a self-inflicted spinal severing is something I am having trouble imagining and I’m grateful there will be a trial by jury as further investigation is needed. There’s a lot more to happen on a number of levels concerning due process, community-healing, and we know the road to reconciliation is a long and windy one, so let us keep walking together and seeking justice for all. 

That said, the predominant thought rattling in my head is something like, “We are still here as a society and it feels like we’re going to be here for a longer time than expected.” Despite all our progress, despite the many wonderful stories (and we have been amazing ones), there is an enormous amount of bitterness, anger, and hopelessness felt by so many regardless of skin color and these moments continue to bring out so much of our ugliness as a society. Thus, the question of, “Can we be a better society to more people and if so, how?” feels like the question worth asking.

Such a question assumes that being a better society would be easy, that it would just take a few tweaks here and there, a fix up ahead and of course, a piece of legislation to be passed and all would be well. Many such measures will be needed but what is even greater above all will be a change of heart throughout our country. This was my problem with Franklin Graham’s comments of merely listening to the officers and I have a similar issue with the rhetoric of fixing “the white man.” We all need fixing, from Freddie Gray, to the officers being charged, to me and you.  [Read more…]