Humility

Prepare For Justice

Last week as I walked through the Union Square subway station I saw the walls filled with post-it notes of encouraging messages left by our fellow New Yorkers. Seeing public displays of art like this reminds me of the reasons why I love this city. Whether it's in the face of terrorism, police shootings, hurricanes, or blizzards, New Yorkers know how to come together to promote justice and heal our neighbors like nowhere else.

We did our own wall of post-its at Forefront Brooklyn on the Sunday after the election. Jonathan asked us to write down what was holding us back right now and the vast majority of people wrote down words about fear. No matter who you voted for in this election, the fear and uncertainty you may have right now is a very real thing. It's incredibly important that we all remember to take care of ourselves when anxiety and emotions like this run high. This is the time to do something you love, to eat well, and care for your body. This is the time to allow yourself space to heal so that you'll be ready to stand for others when you are called.

As Christ followers we are called to stand for what’s just and generous in this world. We are called to stand for love of our enemies, for the lowly and the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, and bring light wherever there is fear.

hile post-it notes and Facebook posts can be a good outlet for healing, for sharing your feelings, and promoting love, the real work for justice starts right here in our local communities. I've been so encouraged by the leaders in our church who've already begun to find outlets for their feelings and beliefs through stepping into action and engaging in generous conversations in their local communities.

We're about to head into the season of Advent, a time to help usher peace into the world. As Christ followers we are called to stand for love of our enemies, for the lowly and the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, and to bring light wherever there is fear. Click the button below to find a list of resources for civic engagement at the local level. Keep reading for a list of resources we're gathering from people in our community who are connected to groups and ideas that encourage us all to get educated and to channel our feelings into grace-filled action.

So take care of yourself, yes, and then take action to usher in the reality you wish to see in the world. Do the work to learn more about people who have different views than you by reading books and listening to podcasts. Learn practical steps to engage in loving conversation with family and friends this holiday season. Join a small group and attend neighborhood meetings together to stand for the rights of all your neighbors. Our God can do infinite and unimaginable things, but only when we partner together.

 
 

Recommended Reading & Listening:

NPR put out an article suggesting we help bridge the political divide by reading a book that's "not for you." We love that idea. Here are just a few titles our staff is reading. We encourage you to pick up a book or listen to a podcast written by someone who believes differently than you and to learn more about the intersection between politics, the economy, racial justice, and faith in America.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis By Mark A. Noll

This American Life podcast episodes 600, 601, and 602

Revisionist History podcast episode 9 - A Generous Orthodoxy

 

RESOURCES TO HELP YOU HAVE CONVERSATIONS OVER THE HOLIDAYS:

Ashley Putnam, a leader in our Brooklyn community who also works for the Mayor's office, is co-starting a group called "Ally Be Home for Christmas." Join them for a meeting in person or check out the many excellent resources they're sharing in their Facebook group, like this one.

Our friend, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis put together a simple four question tool to help you start care-frontational conversation at the holiday table.  

Another friend, the Rev. Jes Kast, posted this article just before the election on talking faith and politics with family. Follow her on social media as she continues to write on this topic.

Check out our Six Words series (especially parts 4, 5 & 6) for sermons on why we believe in building just and generous conversations across the divide. 

 

self-care resources:

"4 Self-Care Resources for Days When the World is Terrible" by Miriam Zoila Perez

"How to Cope with Post-Election Stress" by Julie Beck

"Self-Care Tips for Those Who Are Terrified of Trump’s Presidency" by Karen Attiah

#NoLongerANimrod Resources

On Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn, Jonathan finished our RETOLD series with a message on the Tower of Babel. He challenged us through this story to realize that at the heart of our religion is the idea that equality for all and social justice for all is not just a nice idea, it’s an imperative. It’s at the heart of the story of God, and it’s at the heart of the Jesus story.

If the story of the Tower of Babel tells us anything it’s that God’s intention for God’s Kingdom here on earth includes an absolute imperative for us to promote social, financial, and capital responsibility. We have the absolute privilege of being so loved by God. Jesus's death and resurrection allows us to contribute to the end of the human suffering that exists in our world in the pursuit of power, convenience, and technology. This means we must move beyond religious platitudes and actually do some real sacrificing. 

At the end of his message, Jonathan challenged us to "no longer be a Nimrod" but to be willing to make sacrifices in the name of shalom - peace and wholeness for ALL human beings and for creation. So as promised, below you'll find resources to help you make better decisions about the clothes, food, and technology you buy. 

These are just a few of the many incredible organizations out there who are working for the good of all...If you know of others who should be on this list, email them to us! 

 

Ethical Clothing

http://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/fair-trade-clothing

 

Ethical Food and Farming

http://ethicalfoods.com

http://www.justfood.org

                                                            http://www.grownyc.org                                                                 (Forefront member and Leadership Team Member, Jen Ugolino works here.)

http://fairtradeusa.org/shopping-guide

 

Companies that provide fair wages and favorable working conditions

http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/shoppingethically/ethicaldirectory

http://worldsmostethicalcompanies.ethisphere.com/honorees/

                                                       http://landofathousandhills.com/                                                                   (This is the company that provides our coffee every Sunday at Forefront.) 

 

Organizations who support human rights

http://www.ijm.org


http://nominetwork.org


RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM IN ANY FORM


New York & Brussels

The city in which I live, work, and where my kids play is once again under a terror alert. New Yorkers are being encouraged to avoid subway "hubs" and to be watchful of their surroundings. There is a marked increase in police presence today throughout the city.

This is in reaction to the explosions in Brussels this morning. The Times reports,

Two explosions, at least one caused by a suicide attack, in the departure hall at Brussels Airport killed at least 14 people just before 8 a.m. local time, or 3 a.m. Eastern time. About an hour later, an explosion at the Maelbeek subway station in central Brussels, not far from the European Union’s core institutions, killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 106.
— The New York Times

New York is, after all a global city with many heads of state, business, and culture living their lives here. It is also the location of one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in the history of the world.

I've lived here for six years, and after awhile you just get a kind of "ache" in your gut each time you see terrorism anywhere in the world. You ache for the people that are just like you and me, leaving their homes to go to work just like every other day only to be met with terror, tragedy, injury, and even death. 

You watch the news, then you look over at your spouse playing with your kids and think, "I live three blocks from Grand Central Terminal and four avenues from the United Nations Building. Are we safe today? Will we all make it home tonight?"

Days like today feel dark. 

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus said the following words which (I think) speak to how many of us may be feeling.

On the earth, people will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world.When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
— Jesus

"People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world." Yep. That's exactly how all of this feels. 


WAKING UP

One thing we are waking up to as society is that religious extremism in any form (yes, even Christian) only breeds terror and death. 

One of my favorite pieces of writing by Aaron Sorkin is housed in an episode of his hit show, The West Wing, titled "Isaac and Ishmael."

Religious extremism in any form only breeds terror and death.

 

In the episode the White House goes on lockdown because of a terrorist threat. When the lockdown occurs, a group of students happen to be in the White House for a tour and they are required to stay inside until the threat is dissolved. 

The senior staff wait with them in the mess hall, and the students begin asking them about terrorism.

Watch the clip, below. 

At the very end of the episode, Josh Lyman (the man speaking in the clip you just watched) says something profound, which I think is something we all need to be reminded of. 

He tells the students who are paralyzed with fear exactly how to combat religious extremism in whatever form it chooses to manifest itself. He says,

You want to get these people? I mean, you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Then keep accepting more than one idea. It makes them absolutely crazy.

STAND UP

I think that this statement from Lyman (or rather, Sorkin) is a prophetic word for our time, especially on days like today. These words point us to the plan of starvation for the terror in our world.

What are we to do when terror strikes? 

Will we sit down, be silent, hide and feed the fear exactly what it wants? Or will we heed the words of Jesus;

Stand up and look up.

 

When we sit down and look earthward, we feed fear. We breed terror. All we see is tragedy. All we feel is despair. We see the immediate and not the possible. We see ourselves and not others. We act out of self preservation instead of selfless compassion. 

But when we stand up and look up, we breed courage. We see wide open skies wherein we can dream, hope, and strategize how to repair what is broken. We gain empathy for all of those who have been affected by tragedy in our world. 

In doing this, then and only then will we starve the "barking dogs" of the world. Bullies travel in herds, but I believe that those who seek peace travel in much larger herds. We who seek peace are not alone. We are many, but we must make ourselves known to each other so that we can stand together in unity. 


SOME PRACTICAL STEPS

Ask someone how they're feeling about all that has befallen our world today. Listen. Really listen to them. Try to feel what they are feeling. Letting them share openly will validate them and give them hope. It may also create an ally in the bringing of peace in our world through unity. 

Pray for the people of Belgium and other areas of the world that have been terrorized by religious extremism.

And above all, keep accepting more than one idea. Seek out the commonalities that you share with others instead of highlighting all the differences. Before doctrines and traditions, we are firstly human. And in this, we have much more in common than we may realize. 

Selah. 


Whirlwind



ABOUT THE SONG

This past Sunday we concluded our Lenten teaching series at Forefront Manhattan on The Story of Job.

As an (often) melancholy individual in a  constant state of spiritual deconstruction, Job's story has always been one of my favorites. It reads like a metaphor for my life - a story that I seem to be living over and over again.  

I think I've arrived. I think I've finally learned the meaning of it all, and then my life is swept out from under me, only to fill me with questions for which I have no answers. And it is in these places, at the bottom of bottoms where God meets me to remind me that he is God and I am not - that I am "child" and he is "Father." 

The song on the players above is a song I wrote based on the part of Job's story near the end where God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind - smashing to bits everything that Job thought he was so sure of. 

The passage reads,


Then the Lord spoke to Job from the whirlwind:

“Brace yourself because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them. Will you discredit My justice  and condemn Me just to prove you are right? Are you as strong as God? Can you thunder with a voice like His?”

Then Job said to the Lord: “I know that You can do all things and that nothing is impossible for You. You asked, ‘Who is this that questions My wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about - things far too wonderful for me.”

“You said, ‘Listen and I will speak! I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.’ I had only heard about You before, but now I have seen You with my own eyes. I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.”
— Job 40:6-9, 42:1-6

Whirlwinds. That's where God speaks to us. I think we'd just often have him speak to us while we're laying by the pool or walking along the beach. If only it were that easy. 

The greater truths lie just beyond the event horizon of the whirlwind. But we must stand there in the desert of our lives and let it envelope us, strip us, and reduce us to the core of who we really are. For this is where we meet God as God is. 

Enjoy the music. And above all, never stop searching in the desert. 

Selah.  


GOD IS NOT YOUR FATHER


The Lord does not see as people see. People look at the outer appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
— 1 Samuel 16:7

PASSING THE BUCK

Many long years ago I was a young minister, cutting my teeth on pastoral issues for the very first time. I was as green as they come, like a kid carrying around a copy of Proust who can't even read yet. 

At the time, there was a man in my church who was gay. He was ethical, moral, heck, I'll even use the word, "holy," ...but he was gay. I'd preached a sermon on how so many matters of theology are grey and that we must follow our conscience as we seek to discern truth. He loved the sermon- so much, in fact that he shared it with a bunch of his gay friends and they, too started coming to the church. 

One of my superiors noticed this influx of "the gays" and insisted that I sit down with this man and tell him the church's stance on same sex relationships or I would be fired. The stance that the church held publicly was not my stance privately, but to be honest, I was so new in ministry that I really didn't have a stance yet. I just knew that God loved people.

So I scheduled the meeting, cringed, passed the buck, and spoke the party lines. There was hurt. There were tears. There was fear. The meeting ended feeling cold and calloused. My superior thanked me for doing as I was told, and I kept my job. Afterwards, he said to me, "When you have children you'll be much less 'grey' on things in your life. Kids will teach you that there is such a thing as right and wrong."

Now at 39 years of age, with 20 years in full time ministry under my belt with two children of my own, I am still waiting on that statement to be true, but I've never witnessed it. 

 

TRANSFERENCE

There's a behavior in psychoanalytic treatment called, "transference," where we take something we've experienced in a prior relationship and "transfer" it onto a present relationship. This is common practice for many of us. We do it without even knowing it, myself included. 

I was walking my 3 year old daughter back from the store last weekend, dreading that moment in the afternoon where she refuses to take a nap and throws a fit, so I resorted to bribery. 

"Elise," I said, "If you promise me that you'll take a nap, I'll buy you a milkshake."

Her eyes lit up and she shouted, "Yay!"

"That's not good enough," I said. "Let me hear you promise."

"I promise!" she said.

"Promise what?" I dug further. 

"I promise to take a nap if you buy me a milkshake!" she responded.

My bribe was accepted. The terms of the deal were clear, and later that day she obliged, napping for two glorious hours.

 

IS GOD YOUR FATHER?

Why do we do things like this with our kids? 

I'll tell you exactly why- because we're human! We have limited amounts of emotional stamina. We get tired. We get angry. We lose our patience. We get what we want from others by incentivizing things.

"Do X for me and then I'll do Y for you."

We do this with our friends, our kids, our jobs- whatever, whoever - you name it. 

While my daughter was enjoying her milkshake, I was just sitting there watching her, enjoying her enjoying the milkshake. I started thinking back over that experience those many years ago, where I passed the buck to my gay friend. Strangely enough, that felt a lot like the "milkshake bribe" I had just exchanged with my daughter. "Do it, or you're in trouble." 

Growing up, I was always taught that God was my Father- that he loved me and would do anything for me. 

Then, I had kids and realized that I had no idea what that really meant. 

We people of faith (especially those of us who are clergy) are guilty of theological transference and it damages people. It damages them so deeply that some of them are light years away from ever being able to envision God as a perfect Father.

Why? Because we take things like milkshake bribes and how we are told to raise our children and we transfer that onto the Fatherhood of God. 

This is poison. This is poor reasoning and downright deplorable exegesis.

In other words, when I experience something with my kids, and it takes a "Do this, or else!" to get what I want, it is misguided and incorrect to follow it by thinking to myself, "I'm a Father and God's a Father, so he must be like that, too."

In moments like these I am searing into my belief system that God is a Father with mere human levels of patience, empathy, care, and understanding for his kids. He's no different than us.

I transfer my image onto God instead of God's image onto me. I cheapen the Divine, Loving Presence by thinking that it is no more loving and patient than I have the capacity to be.  

God is not your Father. 

Let me say that again.

God is not your Father.

God is your heavenly Father.

Meaning that his patience, love, and kindness are so far above and beyond our earthly love that it is utterly destructive to think that his ways of "raising us" are even, in the least bit similar to those moments where our earthly patience runs out and we resort to bribes, or say, "Do this or else!" or, "Pass the buck or you're fired!"

This is not the way of Heaven. This not the way of the Kingdom, and if you claim to embody all the attributes of the Kingdom, perhaps you're just like a kid carrying around a copy of Proust, even though you can't read yet. 

Heavenly Father, trumps earthly Father every single time, and if, when you think of God, you feel things like fear, hurt, coldness, and callousness, that is your very own heart trying to get your attention, shouting at you, "Don't go there! It's not like that! You're swallowing poison! Stop the transference!"

Selah. 


5 THINGS I LEARNED BEING WITHOUT A PHONE FOR 120 HOURS


I will not be mastered by anything.
— 1 Corinthians 6:12

THE LOSS

On Saturday, December 19, I was running late for a wedding rehearsal. I rushed out of my building and hailed a cab. Whilst in transit, I set my phone on the seat next to me and started going through my notes for the ceremony.

As fate would have it, I arrived early. (Every now and then, NYC traffic cooperates).

I exited the cab and walked inside the church. Unsure of where the rehearsal was being held, I reached inside my sport coat's left-inside-pocket to fetch my phone to call the bride and groom. 

My phone wasn't there.

I checked all my other pockets. I checked the stoop outside. Rushing back out onto the street, I looked in both directions. 

A wave of panic washed over me.

I had left my phone in that cab and it was long gone.

Shoulders slumped, I went back inside the church. Sitting down in the entryway, I opened my laptop. Thanks to the genius of the "find my iPhone" feature on all my devices, I began tracking the phone in real-time. I used the "lock" feature and displayed a message on the home screen of the phone.

"Hi. That's my phone you're holding. I left it in a cab. Please call Andrea at (•••) ••• - •••• if you have it. Thanks."

I kept tracking the phone. 34th Street. 42nd Street. 59th Street. 63rd Street. 84th street. 

An hour passed.

Another hour passed.

No one called. 

I finally gave up, erased the phone remotely, and filed a claim with 311, hoping it would show up at one of the police precincts in the vicinity where I left it. 

A day passed. 

Another day passed. 

Another day passed.

Behold, my beloved 5S was no more.  


5 THINGS

As it is for many of us, my phone is like an extension of my body. I am never without it. ABC news reports that people unlock their phones 110-150 times a day on average.

That’s 9 times an hour. 

I am definitely one of those people.

Here are 5 things I learned while enduring 120 hours sans a significant part of my "anatomy."

 

1. Walks were more meaningful. 

I noticed more around me when I was walking. Sounds, smells, trees, architecture. I realized how little I ever "looked up" in my life since I was usually staring at my phone wherever I was going.

 

2. I missed some meaningful connections with people.

I'm not one of those people who thinks that phones are evil. In fact, I missed some immediate connections with people. I connected with them eventually, it just took longer. Technology, when used as it should be, actually has the ability to connect us more quickly in meaningful ways.

 

3. I read more on one topic. 

When I had my phone, most of my reading, unless confined to a "study environment" was a frenzied jump from one topic to another. Short snippets of information-  a blog entry- a news article- a topic I could begin consuming, then quickly discard within seconds if it didn't hold my interest. During the 5 days I didn't have my phone, I was reminded how good a book about one topic can be when carried around throughout the day and read a chapter at a time.

 

4. I paid more attention to my kids

I noticed that my daughter and son were more interested in spending time with me than I thought they were. Had this always been the case? Shamefully, yes. I experienced a bit of regret when I realized that they were probably trying to get my attention all the time, but I had my head buried in my phone. 

 

5. The world still turned. 

My new phone arrives in the mail today, and you know what? The world is still spinning. Everything is okay. My life didn't collapse without having my phone for the last 120 hours.

I guess I'm not as important as I thought I was, and that is a very good thing. 


IN CLOSING

Like all "tools" in our lives, they have the potential to master us or we can master them. If there was one thing I learned through this experience, it was that my phone had just a touch more control over me than I did over it.

I thought I was going to be informationally stranded for those 120 long hours, but I wasn't. I just had to be more intentional with my time, not having "the world in my pocket." 

I actually learned some valuable lessons about my life and saw some things about myself that I didn't see before.

In that respect, I suppose the past 5 days were a gift.

Selah. 


A TRIBUTE TO THOSE UNSEEN


Through love, serve one another.
— Galatians 5:13

From time to time I get to take a break from preaching on Sundays and have the chance to observe "the machine" that is a "portable church" meeting in an NYC nightclub. 

Each time I get the chance to see the whole process from beginning to end (a team of about 50 people who give of their time on a Sunday so that the congregation has an atmosphere that is clean, safe, and conducive to worship) I am blown away by the commitment and hard work of our volunteers. 

Many of these volunteers are "seen." 

They may sing or play in the band.

They may serve on our prayer team. 

They may be greeters or ushers.  

They may serve on our audio & media team.

They  may be working with the children or youth downstairs.

They may be serving coffee and bagels in the auditorium. 

To these volunteers, I am ever grateful. We would never be able to do all that we do for people without these "seen" ones.

But there is also another group of people who are completely "unseen." 

These are those who serve on our setup team. 

They arrive between 7 and 7:30AM on Sundays to unload our van, move couches, tables, and all manner of equipment to their needed places in the theatre, then they head home for a quick shower to be back in time for church.

Why a shower, you ask? Because it's hard work. It takes sweat and stamina to make it happen. 

What's funny is that members of this team may be sitting right next to you at church, and you'd never know that they had already been there, three hours prior, literally "building" an environment for us to worship in. 

I just wanted to publicly post a note of thanks to our setup team, and all those who serve on any of our teams so faithfully. 

You have one very grateful pastor. 

If any of you reading this would like to post a word of thanks to them, too, you can do so in the "comments" field below.


Here's a time lapse video that shows all that our teams get done every Sunday morning.

THE GIFT OF DEPRESSION


For when I am weak, then I am strong.
— The Apostle Paul, Second Letter To Corinth

ME TOO

I am a people watcher.

This morning, I was early for a meeting, so I stood at the foot of the Flatiron building just watching people on their commute. You learn a lot when you stop and take time to watch people. 

Some of them seem to be engaged in a race or competition to get across the intersection first. They bump into people like a spaceship trying to rush through an asteroid field. 

Others are different. They move in a more deliberate, fluid pattern, seeming to cruise through the crowds like a glider being gently guided by the wind. 

I watch people because I see myself in them. It gives me a shared identity. Those, "me too, moments" we all experience from time to time.

Sometimes it's funny, like when I see the guy who runs right into someone, face-first because he's so lost in his phone. I chuckle to myself, "Me too."

Other times, it's developmental, showing me the person I want to be more like. I see someone bound up out of the subway stairs, stop, turn around, go back down the stairs, and come back up again helping a mother with her stroller. "Me too." I think to myself. 

We see things in people that help us learn and grow.

 

DEPRESSION

It's been reported that one in ten people in the United States struggle with depression. 

I have close friends and a few relatives who struggle with depression. It's likely that you know someone in your life who struggles with depression.  Maybe you struggle with it yourself. 

I've observed something about those close to me who struggle with depression that I rarely see in my friends who don't. 

While my friends who struggle with depression often seem to go through life tortured by all that is "dark" in the world, they also seem to possess a keen ability to recognize others who are also going through their own seasons of darkness. 

My friends who do not struggle with depression usually never notice these people. It's not that they aren't compassionate or don't care for people who are hurting. They do many kind things for many people, but this particular "gift" just isn't in their wheelhouse.

Charles Spurgeon, the British Theologian and Reformer often spoke of being touched by seasons of "melancholy." When they arrived, he found that relief only came by helping someone else who was going through the very same.

I think for many with depression, they also experience a, "me too" when they see others hurting and it causes them to stop, engage, and reach out to help.

 

A GIFT

If you are reading this and you know someone who struggles with depression, I would like to challenge you to look at them differently. Could it be that they are uniquely wired to sense human suffering on a level that you are unable to? They may be the "lens" that you are missing to see the fuller spectrum of humanity. 

If you are reading this and you struggle with depression, by all means, seek clinical help. Do all that you can by way of therapy and if need be, medicine. 

But if I might also challenge you to do one more thing? Remember that what you may think of as a handicap is also a gift. When you know what it's like to be at the bottom, you possess things on deeper levels that so many others can't (and don't) - things like empathy, shared identity, and understanding.

After all, when you've been to the bottom, you can show others the way back to the top. 

Selah.

Advent Resources for 2015

It's officially Christmastime in New York City! While it's easy to get wrapped up in the parties and decor of the season, we as the church are called to remember the true essence of Christmas...

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Anyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life
— John 3: 16

Here at Forefront we observe Advent during the Christmas season. It's a time of waiting and preparation. It's a time of compassion and giving. In these four weeks leading up to birth of Jesus, Christians around the world will embrace daily and weekly rhythms of prayer and reflection as we await the hope, peace, joy and love that comes with the birth of our Lord and Savior. 

If you'd like to join us in these divine rhythms, then check out a few of the resources below. We've recommended some of our favorite devotionals for you to walk through individually, as a family, and with your small group this Advent season. Click the links for additional resources and the pictures for direct links to buy the books on Amazon.

For Individuals:

Richard Rohr's Preparing for Christmas - Daily Meditations for Advent

This is a simple daily scripture reading and commentary that finishes with a question for reflection. The book is written on a three year cycle with different passages to read each year. This is a perfect resource to start your day or to further your journaling time. It can also be read and discussed with friends or spouses. You can get a taste of it from reading Rohr's article on Huff Post here. 

For Small Groups (or individuals):

Seeking God's Face: Praying with the Bible Through the year

You've heard us talk about this book often over the past year. We refer to it as "the Daily Office." It provides a twenty minute rhythm for you to walk through the season of Advent and the whole Christian calendar. Read more about how to use the Daily Office and how to meditate through it Lectio Divina style on your own or with your small group.

 

We Make the Road by Walking by brian mclaren

This is one of our favorite new resources that we've recently introduced to our small groups and leaders. It's a weekly study through scripture that covers the entire year in the Christian calendar. Each week covers three passages and is accompanied by commentary from McLaren and questions for reflection and meditation. The book is divided into parts to follow the rhythms of the yearly calendar. To pick up with the season of Advent you can begin your study at the start of "Part Two: Alive in the Adventure of Jesus." There are also appendixes with prayer and liturgy that small groups can use in their study together. 

For Families:

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name -  A family Reading plan for Advent

Every time we dedicate a new baby into the Forefront community, the child receives a gift of a children's Bible. We even used this Jesus Storybook to teach our adults in our ReTold series last summer. It's a well-written collection of illustrated stories from the Old & New Testaments that move your child toward understanding the significance of Christ's birth, life and death. This year we've found an Advent Reading Plan that helps you read 24 of the stories in your Jesus Storybook Bible as you walk through the days until Christmas. Read this blog post for all the details. 

FAMILY ADVENT CALENDAR

On Sundays this December our elementary students will study the Christmas story together in Kidstuf. Through it they'll learn that one aspect of God’s character is compassion. God saw our greatest need, and He met it in the most remarkable way. Our Kidstuf curriculum includes a Family Advent Calendar with a line from the Christmas story and a different action each week to get kids and families thinking about how they can show Christ-like compassion this holiday season and all year round. You can print the PDF of the calendar for your family to use here. 

For further reading:

Why observe Advent? Read this article by Rob Bell for some timely thoughts on the season.

Learn more about the Christian calendar and why we follow it as a church. Click here to find posts about Advent and the calendar on the Forefront Blog.

Listen to the Forefront NYC podcasts. Walk through Advent with us each Sunday and revisit the messages from Advent 2014 for even more great history and thoughts as we continue to once again "go back in order to go forward" as the church.

“Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”
— The Polar Express











The Spaces in Between

Reflect on the events, moments & experiences in your group and in your spiritual lives that have held the most meaning for you. Describe what the space felt like in those moments...

On Sunday, our Brooklyn small group leaders gathered to discuss how God exists in the spaces between us. We sat in silence, reflecting on the ways God is moving in the blank space between words, the space between bodies, even the space between our organs - it's all filled with God's presence. We reflected on meaningful ways God has worked in our spaces, our lives, and in our small groups over this past year. 

We described the space that surrounded us at these times using words like "vulnerable, sensitive, focused, guided, open, present." The word that came up several times was "supportive." 

What does it mean to create a supportive, empathetic space? 

First, it's important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. I highly recommend watching this two-minute video from psychologist Brene Brown and animator Katy Davis to learn the difference. You can also learn more from this great blog post. 

When someone is sharing a struggle with us, we often assume we're being empathetic when we respond with a story about a similar experience we've had personally. But that is taking the focus off them and putting it on us. Empathy keeps the subject of the conversation on the other person. Empathy requires us to not simply be nice or polite in our listening, but to dig within ourselves into a place where we can relate to their emotions. Then simply say things like: "That must be so hard for you. Thank you for sharing it with me." 

By empathizing with someone we are not agreeing to take on their issues (that would be sympathy), and we are not obligated to fix it. We are simply willing to listen and try to understand what a person is facing at the moment. Often times the best response is the simplest one..."How can I support you right now?" Support might look like a hug, a coffee during the week, a contact with another person who can help, or words of prayer. Remember, you cannot force someone to change, you can only walk with them until they're ready to ask for the support they need. 

Small groups are some of the most important places for us to practice empathy. Through an empathetic, supportive small group we can create a space where people feel safe to live into their values and beliefs. Small groups are where we begin to listen and understand what it means to embrace diversity, to develop a humble and generous spirit in a safe and loving community.

Our small groups are kicking off again this September. Join us as we each learn to follow Jesus through supportive, empathetic community. You can learn more about finding a group near you by visiting our Brooklyn or Manhattan small groups pages. 

FAITHEISM

Lock: “G _ _ _ _ _ _ it, Morpheus! Not everyone believes what you believe!”

Morpheus: “My beliefs do not require them to.”
— The Matrix

 

SEASONS

I've gone through two seasons in my life where I was on the verge of giving up my faith altogether. Nothing tragic had occurred. I didn't get sick. I hadn't lost anyone I loved. I wasn't disappointed about anything in my life. I had just come to the conclusion that my faith was of very little use to me any longer. 

As I observed the world and all that went on in it, I saw that those without faith and those with faith both suffered and succeeded in equal measures. 

A few of my closest friends identify as agnostic or atheist. They are some of the kindest, moral, ethical, and charitable people that I know. 

My larger circle of friends identify as people of faith. They are also some of the kindest, moral, ethical, and charitable people that I know. 

My non-believing friends attribute their admirable behavior to the innate goodness of humans. 

My believing friends attribute theirs to a God at work in them. 

 

FAITH IN AMERICA

We believing Americans are plagued with a strange vice. For many, God is a kind of being or presence that we pray to and do things for in hopes of receiving something good in return. 

For instance; one may want a change of career, a mate, a child, maybe even a bigger apartment (me!) and so we pray to God for these things.

We also pray for emotional things; perhaps a better mood, the courage to be more kind or to have a greater surplus of patience. 

Still, other times we pray for those we love that are suffering, or even those that we don't know who have been touched by tragedy.

But how many times have you asked God for something and never received it?

If I had to count, it would outnumber all the grains of sand in the seas. 

 

THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?

I was counseling someone in my office the other day and he said, "Jesus said that if I ask I will receive. Why am I never receiving what I ask for, even when what I am asking for is not rooted in anything selfish?"

I responded, "What if prayer is more about what it does to you than what you receive from it?" 

"What do you mean?" he said. 

I responded, "What if prayer is about the shaping of the heart and not about the getting of things?"

He threw his hands in the air, raised his voice and shouted, "Then what's the point of believing in God at all, then?"

And therein lies the capitalist, American gospel.

Many of us believe that faith, prayer, good behavior, charity, whatever, are all a means of getting the things that we want from God- a tether of sorts that transports goods and services from the divine realm into our lives of "spiritual" materialism. 

We incentivize faith. Many of our prayers are nothing more than transactions- a cost of doing business with God.

 

FAITHEISM

Like the gentleman in my office, I too have gone through the same frustrations many times over in my life.

What I have learned over the years is that my faith, my prayers, and my doing of good is not something required of me to "purchase" the things that I need (and want) from God.

The point of my faith is that it deepens my human experience. By drawing closer to God I find myself drawn closer to others, wanting to see a world that is ever on a brighter trajectory.

And you may rebut, "But isn't that what skeptics want, too?" 

Yep. It is. And that gives us a kinship that is deeper than debates, doctrines, and dogma. It makes us partners in the making of a better world. Gandhi once said that, "God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist."

God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist.
— Mahatma Gandhi

Whether spiritual or skeptical, this is what the vast God of the cosmos is trying to draw humanity toward- conscience

What of all that I believe then? Jesus. Prayer. The doctrines I do hold to? 

I would posit that these are not devices that I use to get what I want from God, nor strategies for convincing the unconvinced to believe what I believe. They are bits of grace, ever shaping me into a person of greater conscience. 

Conscience is the prize. It is the point. It is the key.

Selah. 

 

HAVE NOT LOVE

Unless we live what we know, we do not even know it.
— Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Over the past year I have been asking God for a greater capacity to love. I often find myself, because of my personality or my circumstances, coming across as cold or unwilling to bend in response to someone else’s need. During this year, I have also dived deep into the topic of socioeconomic diversity and how we treat this type of diversity at Forefront.

My version of diving deep is to read books. The Great Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. I can say I intellectually understand the structures and cultures of poverty, and, because I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I intellectually understand that all people have value and dignity.

But if I have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal… If I give all I possess to the poor and give my body over to hardship that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing.

We are a church that does. We partner with organizations like The Father’s Heart and the Bowery Mission for monthly service days, and we donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to even more organizations during our annual Celebration Generosity. We, as New Yorkers and Christians, intellectually understand that poverty exists in our city and that it shouldn’t. We understand that the homeless and jobless have value.

But do we understand that in love?

It is easy to understand poverty intellectually. Sociologists can explain the structural and cultural factors that contribute to poverty in 100 pages or less. I can read that book in an hour. But being intellectually indignant that people - other humans - are impoverished, and actually loving those who are impoverished is entirely different. Understanding poverty on a level of love is hard.

I like easy. I like being able to fit a topic - socioeconomic diversity - into a neat little box and put it on a shelf - there, that problem is covered. Once-a-month service opportunities or once-a-year outpourings of funds are good, they get at the problem at one level. One level does not fix a problem, and one level is not what we are called to.

1 Corinthians 13 is read at every wedding, but we usually skip those first few verses: “If I have not love” then all the intellectual understanding, the one Saturday a month, the yearly donation, all mean nothing. So I have been asking for a greater capacity to love, and let me tell you, it hurts. It is easier being cold and detached. When you allow yourself to love people, you end up standing in the middle of the sidewalk and crying when you hear someone’s story of oppression, because you not only know, but believe in the dignity of that person.


Every single person has value and deserves dignity. We know that. How do we live so that we believe it?

THE LIFE OF PIE

Each time you sit down to pray, there’ll be a reason not to. Do it anyway.

TIME

I am ever tormented by time. 

For those of you sci-fi buffs out there, you may have an intimate understanding of the jealously that I feel for creatures who lack the need for sleep - i.e. Vampires, Terminators, and other A.I. Machines. 

I'd even be willing to clone myself and download my consciousness into another body altogether if it meant I could free up more time in my life for the things that I want to accomplish. 

Perhaps I should look into purchasing a robot? Who knows? Every day of my life is filled with too many tasks and too little time. 

My life is like a pie that's sliced up every morning and eaten throughout the day. By the end of the day, nothing is left but the crumbs. 

I'd love to have more than crumbs left over at the end of the day.

 

THE SLICE THAT I TRADE

There is one slice that I forget to eat sometimes. Or rather, I label it as something else and eat it anyway, distorting it's intended purpose in my "life of pie."

That is the slice that is dedicated to God and God alone. My time with God is the first slice I am always tempted to re-label and trade for something else.

This is a strange paradox I struggle with being a Christian. I know that God is the very source of my breath, my life, and my wellbeing, yet I trade him so easily. 

One thing I am learning about prayer and meditation, a slice of the pie, is that there's always a reason not to do it due to the pressures of time. What's even more daunting is that I, a being bound by time, am spending some of that time trying to connect with a being that isn't bound by time at all. 

O' the confinement of matter. But it is my lot, nonetheless. I am human. 

What I can say, is that when I keep this slice as a regular part of my day, all the other slices of the pie seem to have more substance to them. They are less rushed. They are less reactive. There's a steadiness, a calmness underneath them that they lack when I trade my "God-slice" for something else.

The truth about my prayer life is that each time I sit down to pray, there's always a reason not to. But I do it anyway, because it adds depth to the rest of my life, and at the end of my day, strangely enough, there is more left than just the crumbs. 

Selah. 

ENDLESS LISTS

I grew up Lutheran. When you're baptized as a baby into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, you have the choice to then affirm that baptism later. We call this "Confirmation" and it involves going to classes taught by the pastor twice a month for two years when you're in junior high school. A stand-out memory for me was when we learned about the commandments and started unpacking what sin looks like. I remember endlessly listing on a giant pad of paper everything we do, think, or see in the world that might be sin and finally blurting out "Everything we do is sin!" 

Seventeen years later, I could still go through my day and beat myself up for the endless sinful thoughts that go through me, the judgement of the people on the subway, the negligence I show toward my dirty apartment, the far too many times that I've interrupted someone who was talking. I could scroll through news articles and be overwhelmed by the sins of big business, the needs of the poor, the brokenness in the Middle East... the list goes on and on. All of these sins are the result of selfish desire in one form or another, and if I spent my day dwelling on them all I would be living from a very dark mental place. I've been in that phase of my faith, and I have gratefully grown beyond it into a place of more grace and compassion. 

This is why I love what Justin Lee has to say about the law and grace in his book Torn.

When we started Forefront Brooklyn in 2012, this was one of the first books we read together as a staff. I reread it recently so I could talk more about it leading up to our Faith, Culture, Questions event with Justin Lee himself on Nov. 5th, and I was reminded of how much it has informed my faith.

Paul summarizes in Romans 13: 8-10 all the commandments I learned so much about when I was thirteen years old. Then he reminds us of this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Paul was talking about agape love - the selfless, unconditional, sacrificial kind of love that seeks others' good before your own - the same kind of love we talk about often at Forefront. This agape love is the kind of love Jesus brought to fulfill the law. This is the kind of love Jesus brought to set us free. 

So often when I get into that critical place, wrestling with sin inside myself and in our broken world, I remember the way Justin phrases it...are your actions selfish or selfless? When I sit down to talk with people in our community who are wrestling with hard choices in their faith and lives, I ask the same questions...are your desires selfish or selfless? 

Do you desire this new job, intimate encounter, steady relationship, material thing for selfish reasons that only please you and your needs, or do you seek agape love? Do you want these things for the good of others before your own? And furthermore, what are the fruits? Do your actions and desires produce the fruits of the Spirit in your life and the lives of others? Or do they cause pain, brokenness, distance from God?  The answers are not always as easy to define as we might like them to be. These questions ask us to examine our lives, to think critically and go deeper than we might want to go. These questions require us to sometimes change, let go, or feel pain. These questions are hard.

But it does get easier. Jonathan blogged about our brains a couple weeks ago and taught us that when we pray, when we focus in on a loving God, our brains actually begin to change. When we seek the presence of Jesus in our lives our ability to live and process our choices through agape love gets easier as our brains begin to rewire and grow. Maybe that's the scientific way to say "We become more enlightened." For me, I think it feels like being free. 

Paul says it again in Galatians 5: 13-14...

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think the American Church and so many of us as individuals are kind of torn about these questions in our modern age. They are hard questions. They sometimes ask more of us than we might want to give. 

Join us for our Faith, Culture, Questions series this Fall. Invite a friend. We're all torn at one time or another. Let's wrestle through the questions together. We're not alone in the struggle, but we're all welcome to be free. 

COLLIDERS & CATHEDRALS

(This post, inspired by Veronica Barnes).

 

PARTICLE FEVER

A few of us were at the Forefront office the other night watching the independent film, "Particle Fever."

Particle Fever is a 2013 documentary film tracking the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider nearGeneva, Switzerland. The film follows the experimental physicists at CERN who run the experiments, as well as the theoretical physicists who attempt to provide a conceptual framework for the LHC's results. The film begins in 2008 with the first firing of the LHC and concludes in 2012 with the successful identification of the Higgs Boson particle.

Whether you're interested in the world of particle physics or not, the film has a lot to say about life - our search for why we "are" and how we got here.

In one scene they show a picture of one of the colliders' four modules where the particle collisions take place and collect data. Veronica saw it and blurted out, "That looks a lot like a cathedral!" 

Watch the video below that illustrates this. 

"That looks a lot like a cathedral!" 

This thought stuck with me all evening. I woke up the next morning with it still on my mind.

 

SHARED QUESTIONS

For centuries, mankind has stared up at the ceilings of cathedrals during mass, looking for answers to the very same questions those staring at the collider at CERN are trying to answer.

-Why are we here?

-Where did we come from?

-What should we do?

-Where are we going?

-What is the meaning of all of this?

 

MY EXPERIENCE

Many would say that the searches of science and faith are opposed to each other. 

As a guy who has more than a few friends in the scientific community, I've always experienced the opposite in my conversations with them. I find that we are always talking about this search that we both share- how I am searching as a person of faith and how they are searching as a person of science.  

The scientific-search, at face value seems to be more material and intellectual, while the faith-search seems to be more immaterial and (if you will) "spiritual" - yet we are asking the same root-questions.

We are each staring at different "structures" that evoke the same questions. 

I find myself eager to understand the perspective of my scientific friends, while my scientific friends seem eager to understand my perspective as a person of faith. The conversation is always stimulating to us both, and we walk away feeling (strangely enough) more complete and close. 

 

THE POINT

Maybe that is the point of all this. Perhaps science and faith are bedfellows. If the religious community and the scientific community can learn to see each other as complementary groups, perhaps there is some sort of overlap in the middle where the thing that people of faith call "God" and the thing that people of science call "The Field" are actually guiding us toward the same destination.

Selah. 


A BIG P.S.!!!!!

Forefront is preparing a series of events that we're calling "Faith, Culture, and Questions" (FCQ). We recognize that there are questions about faith that go way beyond our heads. That's why we're excited to introduce the first speaker in our Faith, Culture, and Questions Series, "Science" Mike McHargue who will be addressing the topics of Sex, Violence, and Drugs through the lenses of science and faith. 

Check out the Science Mike Podcast and make sure to buy tickets to our first FCQ event. I can promise you that it will be worth attending. 


THE EVOLUTION OF MANKIND

WASHINGTON D.C.

I am currently writing this post late in the evening while the rest of my family is asleep. We are in Washington, D.C. getting some much needed vacation before wedding season goes into full swing for me as a clergyman. (Pray for me. Lol!)

When I'm not wearing sunglasses, I like to perch them on top of my head. I don't know why I do this, but I always have. Putting them in my pockets, sooner or later always ends up in crushed sunglasses, and I've learned that this is the easiest way to avoid that over the years.

I discovered something today while walking in the hallway to the elevator on the floor that we are staying on in the hotel. Each time I passed under one of the hallway lights hanging from the ceiling, my sunglasses would bump into them. I'm not a very tall bloke, but I'm not short either. I measure in at an even 5 feet, 11 inches.

When my glasses kept hitting the lights (which were not hung more than 3 or 4 inches from the ceiling) I realized that the hallway I was in was lower than the average ceiling in most hallways that I find myself in. 

Then it dawned on me... you're in D.C. Ryan, you dummy! 

 

HUMAN HEIGHT OVER TIME

This city is old. It began to "boom" in the late 1800's and many new structures were built to house the city's residents and visitors.

Once I reached the lobby, I went to the front desk and asked the hotel manager if the building that we were staying in was the original structure or if it was built on on older "shell." He laughed and said, "This place has been here a very long time, we just modernized it to keep up with the times."

People during the mid 1800's wouldn't be hitting their heads off of the ceiling lamps like I was. You know why? They were much shorter then. The graph below, (which only goes back to 1900) shows the trajectory of human height in the United States over the years. 

According to the chart, I am slightly above average height were you to build the graph out to 2015 on the same trajectory. This makes sense. Americans live longer now. We eat better food now (if we choose to). We have access to better things that cause our bodies grow taller than our forebears- better medicine, vitamins, cleaner air and water. 

And this is why my sunglasses were hitting the ceiling lamps. I was walking in a hallway that was built for someone who was of average height in the late 1800's.

 

PEOPLE GROW

One thing is clear about humans. We are in a steady state of change. It's gradual. It is slow. We may not see it in one, or even two lifetimes, but change does happen, even if we are oblivious to it. This happens with social things, emotional things, scientific things, biological things, governmental things, spiritual things, and just about any other "things" that are. 

Some changes are deliberate. Others just happen by the random collision (and friction) of different forces at work in the construct of the world.  

When we happen to be alive at the specific time where a spot on the chart (whatever that chart is measuring) changes, it can be alarming when we witness it. After all, we are in the very midst of a newness that has never before existed in history.

Some of us resist the newness as a kind of cursed aberration, the destruction of what we have grown comfortable with and used to. 

Others observe it, wide-eyed from afar, hopeful, but a little hesitant to embrace it right away.

Still others see it as a long awaited friend that has finally arrived. The change has come, and it is to be celebrated and embraced as the new "norm" for human beings. 

Which of these are you when change comes? The resistor? The hesitant? The embracer? 

I'd love to hear what you think in the comment fields below.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts. 

On Self-Compassion

Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

For week two of our "Misused Scripture" teaching series, our Brooklyn location looked at Matthew 5:48 and talked about developing compassion, specifically self-compassion. Many of us New Yorkers have grown to realize we're not great at self-compassion. But how are we supposed to embrace Christ's call to love others when we struggle simply to love ourselves?

One of the best authors I've found to turn to on the subjects of self-compassion and perfectionism is Dr. Brene Brown, who I blogged about here. Another great resource I referenced in my sermon "How to Be Perfect," is Dr. Kristin Neff and her website on self-compassion. Her research shows that developing self-compassion involves three elements...

Three Elements of Self-Compassion:

Self-Kindness - How are you kind to yourself? Do your perfectionist tendencies create feelings of unworthiness and failure? When those feelings arise what do you do to care for and show yourself love? Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to "Love your neighbor as yourself" but too often in our busy, competitive world we forget or struggle to obey and love ourselves. There's a great section in Susan Cain's book, Quiet, on finding your "sweet spot." Whether you're an introvert or extrovert, finding and embracing your sweet spot is definitely an important part of being kind to yourself. This post from the Indrani's Light foundation blog gives a good summary of what it means to find your "sweet spot." 

Human Connection - In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown reminds us that "our imperfections are not inadequacies, they're reminders that we're all in this together." Sometimes the very shame that we're struggling with or the pain we've overcome that allows us to best serve others. This is why our Forefront community emphasizes the importance of sharing your story and listening to the stories of others. For more on our vision for showing compassion to both our neighbors and our enemies, versus just standing in tolerance of them, read this blog post. Our society needs a socially-focused church of Christ followers to step up and stand in peace with those who stand for compassion in our city and our world.

Mindfulness - As a member of the body of Christ, the single best thing we can do to develop self-compassion is to spend time seeking God. Join the leaders of Forefront in following The Daily Office - 20 minutes of guided prayer and scripture reading each day. Dr. Neff also offers some great audio mediations aimed at helping you develop self-compassion. The more you become aware of your self-criticism and prejudices, the better you'll get at catching yourself before those perfectionist thoughts even start. Cultivating a relationship with Jesus, reminding yourself that you are loved just as you are, and returning that love through compassion for yourself and others, brings you closer to wholeness with God. We are made perfect through His grace and compassion. 

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3,4)

 

 

ALIGNING THE HEART

 

by Jenna Raup

As Christians, we talk about being disciples of Jesus regularly and constantly incorporate our modern perspective into the teachings that Jesus gave us 2,000 years ago.  “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)  Jesus knew that we would have a tough time with this command because, let’s face it, in this world we all deal with materialism, idolatry, and selfish discontentment.  I’m no exception to this tendency. 

For me, giving to the church aligns my heart with God’s plan before I have a chance to take the gift he’s given me and waste it on fleeting worldly possessions.  I had never given regularly to a church before coming to Forefront because I am a very skeptical person and, quite frankly, kind of controlling. However, I was so convicted to contribute to Forefront and have been able to see God not only working in the church, but also working in my heart and stretching my faith through this discipline of tithing. 

For me, giving to the church aligns my heart with God’s plan

God doesn’t ask us to tithe so that he can have our money, He doesn’t need our money.  God is looking for us to take our faith out of our income and put it into Him.  God gets my first fruits and it's a joy to see how he uses them through Forefront to impact lives in our church and our community.

-Jenna Raup

EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY IN FAITH

 

by Jacquelyne Read

 

In a sermon a few weeks ago at Forefront Manhattan, Ryan discussed embracing uncertainty in faith and how important that is in both your personal faith journey and in building healthy churches (listen here if you missed it). What Ryan said has stuck with me for weeks, and I began to see a parallel of this in my academic research. In particular, I have been thinking about the importance of embracing uncertainty, not only in practicing a healthy faith, but also in conducting healthy science.

I am a couple years into my doctoral research in chemistry, and this past week I got some unexpected results that threw both me and my thesis advisor for a loop. It told us that the underlying assumption (one that has been widely-held in the field for almost 60 years) on which we have built our rationale to explain my data thus far is…well, not explaining my data anymore. I repeated the experiments, dismissing the idea that it could be a fluke. All of a sudden, we were faced with the necessary conclusion: Our understanding of these systems have been wrong. 

My immediate reaction was to throw a fit, internally. I was upset, discouraged, and when I had to present my findings in a research meeting, I did so in a cynical way that displayed my frustration for the death of the model we had developed. My advisor and I had already agreed upon an outline for a publication, describing my findings within the (now) false paradigm. I had finally felt competent and on top of things for the first time since I began graduate school three years ago, but then it came crashing down because of an experiment I could easily have not run. 

When I don’t let myself question, when I don’t let myself embrace the uncertainty, I am stunting my spiritual growth and cutting myself off from the richness that lies within being honest with myself and with others.

After he got over the shock, my thesis advisor spoke some very wise words. He kindly chastised me for trying to make the data fit the theory I want––that is the opposite of good science. If the data doesn't agree, you need to dispose of your theory and come up with an explanation that makes sense of all the data. He then stated, "The objective of your Ph.D. is to leave with more questions than answers. If you leave with everything tied up nice and tidy, that is not a good thing. Your data is creating more questions than answers, and that's a good thing…that's called longevity. We try, but we don't really understand Nature."

As I sit in my lab, trying to make sense of the uncertainty that has been flooding my mind for the past week, I can't help but see the parallel to faith here. I am reminded of one of Forefront's mottos: "We are more concerned with asking good questions than having all the answers." This is incredible to me because I am learning that this is what science is like too! Good research will open up new territory for exploration and should create more questions than answers. My reaction to new questions being opened up, making my research more complicated, was an immature one; similarly, I sometimes react to questions of faith immaturely, holding on too tight to what I can understand and want to believe. This only ends up hurting me! When I don’t let myself question, when I don’t let myself embrace the uncertainty, I am stunting my spiritual growth and cutting myself off from the richness that lies within being honest with myself and with others. 

I pray that we may all allow ourselves to open up to the complex and beyond-comprehensible reality of our great God, however uncertain our view from here may be.

 

PRAYER TRANSACTIONS

“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Matthew 21:13

 

WHY DO WE PRAY?

Why does it matter? Does it matter at all, or is it just something that we do because it's always been done?

What's a good metaphor for prayer?

- Is it like exercise?

- Is it like presenting a case before a judge in a court of law?

- A business transaction, perhaps? 

Though these metaphors may all make sense at some level, they don't get very close to what prayer really is. Prayer is simply what it is. Prayer is talking to God

In the passage above, from the book of Matthew, Jesus has just entered the temple where he becomes outraged when he finds that "God's house" had turned into a marketplace- a place of exchange- a place of commerce- a place of business- a place of bargaining. 

You may know the story. He begins flipping over the booths of the vendors and then he utters these, words- "My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it 'a den of robbers.'" 

If we'll slow down and think about what is really going on here, we see very plainly what God thinks about prayer. 

This "house of God" that was supposed to be a place where people would go to talk to God had become a place of transactions. It had become a place where, as one would approach, they would start thinking things like

- What will I get today?

- Will I have enough?

- How can I get more?

- Who can I deal with to get what I want for a better price?

And this is what angers Jesus. Instead of people coming to God's house to pray, they begin to think of "transaction" as a proper metaphor for prayer. 

 

MY OWN PRAYER LIFE

The greatest temptation in my own prayer life is to do the very same. As I approach that quiet place of prayer, my mind is often occupied with things like,

- What will I get today?

- Do I have enough spiritual stamina and eloquence to get what I want from God?

- What do I need to barter with God about so that he will give me what I want?

And without even realizing it, I find myself there before God, performing transactions. Sure, they are spiritual, but they are incorrect. I am praying, but praying for all the wrong reasons. 

The truth is, when we go before God, he already knows where we are and what we are. He sees us like no one else in our life does. He knows our fears, our hangups, and our handicaps. What God is wanting more than anything is for us to just talk to him. He wants us to simply open our mouths and say whatever it is that is on our minds. 

- Sometimes this looks like asking him for something.

- Other times it is to voice our frustration about something.

- Other times it is to thank him for what he has done.

But these are not meant to be transactions. Transactions are a wrong practice, for they betray our true motives.

Transaction-prayer sounds a lot like,

- "God, I'll do X for you, if you'll do Y for me." or,

- "God I promise to be more _______ if you will give me _______."

And these are the very things that frustrate Jesus. Why? Because that isn't how this is supposed to work. 

 

PRAY FREELY

The next time you sit down to pray, I'd like to encourage you to do an internal inventory of why you are praying. Examine your motives about your prayer life. 

Are you praying to get something, or are you praying because prayer is... well... just "prayer?"

Do your prayers sound like bargaining, or do they sound like you're just talking with a friend, sharing about all that is going on in your life?

My hope is that we would learn to simplify our aims, and reform our motives concerning prayer, for we follow a Jesus who, above all things just wants to hear us talk to him about where we are.

Selah.