A Hidden Center

Tonight, I turned out the lights on the 2011-12 school year at ASU Wesley Foundation.

You’d think I would be happy about that, what with all the financial struggles and building breakdowns and relationship drama that goes with any year in a campus ministry. And after a month like April—when college students seem to lose their minds for a few weeks—God knows I could use the break.

But it’s a bittersweet thing to have to turn the page on this year’s Wesley crew. We’re saying goodbye to some great people and cherished friends. And so it goes.

Once the last of our students had left to make a Wal-Mart run, I turned off the lamp and sat in the chapel for a long time. It’s a small, sparsely furnished room with poor heating and homespun furnishings—nothing you wouldn’t find in any other Wesley Foundation on any other campus. And it doesn’t get nearly as much use for prayer and meditation as I would like from our students.

Still, there is something vast and mysterious about our little chapel, especially when we’ve come to the end of the school year. It’s as if it wants to tell stories of hidden hurts, or quiet thanksgivings, or prayers in the dark. I can feel the strain of growing up, the pain of loss, the comfort of friends.

The chapel whispers stories it could not possibly know, at least not firsthand. It reminds me of conversations on mission trips or bike rides, of tableaus at retreats and texting conversations that were never spoken aloud.

Why is it that all these things come back to me here, instead of in the settings where they actually took place? Why now, in the dark of an empty chapel?

I think it’s because this is our center, our spiritual home. We as a group don’t spend much time in here, not compared to our homes or dorms or classes or workplaces. But the things that hold us together on the deepest of levels all have their roots in the work of God among us.

No place signifies our relationship to God more than the chapel, where we can be ourselves without pretense and without fear. We may forget its relationship to our souls and even neglect it for long stretches. But God continues to call us back into his embrace, to step out of our frantic lives. And when we finally step back into the place of our spiritual center, we find that God has been working in and with us even when we weren’t aware.

For Wesley, the chapel is our home. Even when the lights are out.

I’ll be waiting eagerly for fall.

Transformation

Transformation requires change. Change, however, does not imply transformation.
Exhibit A: Pittsburgh.
Last weekend, Denise and I made our first ever visit to the Steel City to visit our friends Erik, Lisa, and Steve. Although we found the city–especially PNC Park–captivating, it was missing one key piece from our mental picture.
Namely, steel.
Pittsburgh is a very old city, by American standards. British, French, and native Americans all laid claim to it in the mid eighteenth century, when the conjoining of rivers made the region of strategic importance as a military and trading post. Only a few generations, later, however, the land had been stripped bare and put to use, its century old cottonwoods replaced by steel mills that belched thick, soot filled smoke. Pittsburgh was a place of productivity, but also of grime and pollution.
Efforts to clean up the city made some strides after World War II, but it remained a gritty industrial town. By the time the bottom fell out of the steel industry in the 1980s, Pittsburgh had changed from picturesque town to what one writer described as “hell with the lid off.”
Recognizing their dire straits, city leaders went to work. They rebuilt the economy around robotics and finance, and they set out to attract tourists. Downtown mills gave way to cultural districts. Smog cleared out of the valley, once again allowing those atop Mt. Washington to look sown on the rivers and the land between. The city, which had changed so much in its two and a half century existence, underwent another radical makeover–this one not the result of military necessity or industrial logistics, but of careful planning with an eye to the future.
Not just change. Transformation.
In the hours since we said goodbye to our friends, I’ve spent considerable time thinking about this difference. I am not afraid of change–as if fear could do anything to stop the world from changing anyhow. Yet I’m constantly reminded that I live in a world where the climate is rapidly changing, and I can do almost nothing to stop it. I work in a church that is aging and declining, but that continues to whitewash its exterior to hide its paltry understanding of God and God’s work. I often experience change as a piece of seaweed might experience the tide. Like it or not, I can’t help being carried along.
But there are other forces at work, even as much of what I’ve always known crumbles. I believe God is not satisfied with change, that he wants real transformation–change with some direction, some purpose, some essential alteration in the fabric of our being. I believe Jesus when he promises he is making all things new.
Transformation is change that is going somewhere. It is far more costly. But also far more important.
Pittsburgh’s transformation has bern radical, and who’s to say it is complete? Even though it’s still called the Steel Citu, another nickname has grown in popularity of late it is also called the City of Bridges. That sounds like a vision worth striving for.
For all of us.

Fishing with Lasers

“It’s an acronym. Light Amplified by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Look it up.”

I did. Anytime a student at ASU learns something in class he or she thinks is worth sharing, I do what I can to encourage that behavior.

As it turns out, Logan was right. Once called “a solution looking for a problem,” lasers have found applications all over modern life—everything from supermarket checkout to precision machining to massive weapons to those annoying little red pointers that are so tempting to eight-year-olds and college students alike. Is there anything a laser can’t do?

Try fishing.

I suppose there are plenty of technicality minded people out there who could propose a way you could fish with a laser. If the military can produce one large enough to take down an airplane, surely they could blast some fish out of the water (so to speak).

But practically speaking, the best thing for fishing is not cutting edge technology created through the foundations of Quantum Mechanics. It’s a simple hook with some sort of bait, and maybe a rod and reel. That, and time.

Which is where this metaphor really hits me.

In the past several weeks, I’ve been more of a laser than a fishhook. My calendar has been booked, the demands on my time incessant. I absorb the energy from the project, aim myself in its direction, and burn until the job is done. Then it’s on to the next thing in the never ending list of obligations and opportunities. That’s my life. That’s a lot of people’s lives.

But it’s not our calling.

Once Jesus visited the house of his friends Martha and Mary. While Mary sat down and shared stories with Jesus, Martha did all the cooking and cleaning and fretting over all that had to be done. Finally, she’d had enough of her sister’s laziness. She snapped at Jesus to order Mary off her duff and into her duty.

But, of course, Jesus doesn’t take orders. He explains that their relationship with one another is more important than all the fussing Martha was doing. As it turns out, being busy has nothing to do with being a follower of Jesus, much less a friend.

Elsewhere in the stories, Jesus tells his disciples to be fishers of people. It seems to me that most of us contemporary church people take his command to heart, but insist on using the wrong equipment. We want to generate energy, to concentrate every available resource on the target we have set for ourselves, whether in mission or members or dollars.

Still, all of our focused efforts will never catch fish. Even for commercial fishermen, with their nets and traps and modern equipment, ultimately have to take the same basic approach as the kid at grandma’s pond: throw out some bait and see what happens. Play a hunch and wait.

If we have a common golden calf in our age, it’s being busy. We worship the frantic pace of our lives. We never stop for anything.

But what if we did?

 

Pay Attention

I try to pay attention in church. I try, and I fail.

Easter Sunday was no different. This time, at least the cause of my distraction was related to church. In fact, it was the Easter scripture.

Unfortunately for my friend Marsh, he was the only one in hearing distance when my revelation hit me.

“Psst. Hey, Marsh! Did you catch that thing about Jesus?”

Marsh looked at me as though I’d just claimed to be Mary Magdalene. He shrugged.

“The women—all the disciples, really—they don’t find Jesus where they are looking for him.”

“Yeah,” Marsh said. “He’s not in the tomb. You do know it’s Easter, right?’

“Right. But I don’t just mean the tomb. I mean afterward as well. The disciples never find Jesus by looking for him. He always appears to them on his own terms. In the garden, in their prayer meetings, at the seashore. They never summon Jesus. He calls the shots.”

Marsh scrunched up his nose and studied me. “Are you becoming a Calvinist?” he said.

I’m not. At least, I don’t think so. But I haven’t been able to shake that idea. I can’t find a single instance following the resurrection when Jesus appears because someone places an order. He comes to whom he wishes, when and where he wishes.

If that personality trait extends through time to today, we religious professionals have reason to be uncomfortable. We’ve spent weeks preparing for Easter, rehearsing choirs and praise bands, crafting a sermon packed with our best material, trying to find some way to harness the momentum we feel on this holy day and parlay it into greater investment in the church by our churchgoers.

The problem is that it almost never works the way we hope. People resume their busy lives. Summer vacations start. We step back into the grind of administration and visitation and preparation for the weekly grind. By Christmas, we’re grudgingly throwing away drafts of sermons with titles like, “Where the Hell Have You Been Since Easter?”

If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that all our efforts to get people to come to church will do nothing to conjure Jesus to us, much less bring us the kind of success that we assume would come with such an appearance. If there is a spiritual lottery for church success, the odds are stacked against us, and we can’t do anything to change them.

My hunch, though, is that we don’t need to coax Jesus to us. He is the one who searches us out, and when he finds us going about his business, he tends to show himself in ways we don’t expect.

Perhaps our neurosis about church participation isn’t the way to find Jesus. If we call him Lord, we admit that he is not at our beck and call. He shows himself when he is ready. Perhaps the best we can do is try to be about the work of loving God and neighbor when he does.

And, of course, to pay attention so that we don’t miss him.