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Flattery Gets You Everywhere

Dear Gatherers,

 

Quite often my reflections here begin with an image search. This week the focus is on how following God (“imitating God” is how St. Paul describes it) positions us to speak truth and goodness into the lives of people we meet. So I Googled “imitating God” and got ticked off, because most of the images were of fathers walking on beaches with little sons. The silliness of casting God as a papa figure we all want to be like when we grow up!

 

That’s a big part of the problem in so many Christian circles. The supposition that God is the only adult around and we’re all toddling along, unable to think and do and decide for ourselves, too immature to imitate or follow God for ourselves. It’s that kind of toxic mentality that enables many self-professing Christians to ignore responsibility for their actions, with no concern about how their “God’s got it” nonsense that translates into an endless list of social, moral, and ethical failures.

 

The divine imitation that St. Paul describes is how we position ourselves to “go for God”—not in the selfish sense, but more literally, as God’s transformative presence in the world. We are the voice of love at the table where racist relatives speechify about “those people.” We are the arms of acceptance in situations where folks are outcast or denied because of their identity. We are the heart of justice when we see hatred codified into law and social custom. We are the feet of protest that take to the streets when outcry must be heard and witnessed in mass numbers. We go for God. And in going, our actions translate into something more powerful than words. People see God in us.

 

Is imitation the highest form of flattery? In terms of faith, it gets you everywhere. I can think of no better way to give God praise than following God’s ways, yielding to God’s will, and measuring our reflection in God’s word. During this coming Sunday’s YouTube worship, our own Shea Watts will bring these ideas to life—without the Hallmark daddy images and the “not my job” nonsense imbedded in them. Don’t miss it!

 

With much love,

Pastor Tim

Found in Translation

Dear Gatherers,

 

Our uniqueness as individuals is an exciting and empowering idea. We all have special gifts. God sees and loves us exactly as we are. But does the blessing of individuality start and stop with us? Suppose the traits and tendencies that make you unlike anyone else were also intended to create a sort of language others could relate to—a way of talking and being and living that people could translate and use to find more meaning in their own life stories.

 

Sharing what the writer Brené Brown calls our “faith narratives” enables others to move forward. As I reflect on the power of our stories and how they translate, I especially love this passage from Brown’s 2015 bestseller Rising Strong, where she describes her research on shame and vulnerability—and how people reclaimed their stories:

Over half of the participants who talked about experiencing shame in their faith histories also found resilience and healing through spirituality. The majority of them changed their churches or their beliefs, but spirituality and faith remain important parts of their lives. They believed that the sources of shame arose from the earthly, man-made, human-interpreted rules or regulations and the social/community expectations of religion rather than their personal relationships with God or the divine.

 

Then Brown gets to the point: Our faith narratives must be protected, and we must remember that no person is ordained to judge our divinity or to write the story of our spiritual worthiness.

 

Our stories matter. Your story matters. This Sunday we’re blessed to have our own Michelle Hughes preaching about the sacredness of story. We look forward to seeing our Chicago Gatherers in place and ready to rejoice in the power of our diverse narratives—and for those of us unable to be there in person, catching the service later in the week when it’s posted on our YouTube channel. Don’t miss this powerful worship experience!

 

With much love,

Pastor Tim

Religious Rehab

Dear Gatherers,

 

Lately my head is swimming with so many thoughts. Headlines about the monkeypox surge’s impact on same-gender loving people. Will this be another time when pulpit quacks scapegoat queer folks as eminently dangerous to society? Wildfires blaze out of control. Will many self-identified Christians persist in minimizing climate change as “a sign of the times”? Pope Francis in Canada apologizing for yet one more heinous betrayal of trust by his congregation. How long will the sins of a few poison Christianity as a whole? The campaign to enslave child-bearing Americans moves from the courts to the polls, based on an irreligious assumption that legislating against freedom to control our bodies somehow “respects life.”

 

These sick-world symptoms—and so many more like them—can be traced to a nasty strain of toxic theology and paralyzing fear that finds many reaching for the spiritual equivalent of N-95 masks and sanitizer, some going so far as to practice a kind of social distancing that leaves them isolated, anxious, and angry, terrified of getting too close to anything that even hints of religion. What’s more, the atrocities and tragedies dominating our newsfeeds suggest the only way to escape the worst of religion is rejecting all of it.

 

But right religion is life-changing and often life-saving. We know this at Gather. We tell how our lives have been changed and we consistently see what happens when we practice what Jesus preached. We also know how radical it is to believe healthy faith is possible. None of this is late-breaking news. For as long as there’s been good faith, there’s been poisonous beliefs. For as long as faithful people have dared to trust God’s power and healing, doubters have sought to undermine the hope that trust creates. In fact, we see this in two stories we’ll look at during Sunday’s YouTube worship—two near-tragedies that play out in the bodies of women. By the end, both are forever, literally changed. Their transformation comes from courage to defy toxic religion.

 

Religious rehab is necessary if we have any intention of overcoming rotten religion. To do that, we must embrace healthy religion—the kind the Apostle James describes when he writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

 

See you this Sunday at 5pm on YouTube!

 

With much love,

Pastor Tim

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Something in the Water

Dear Gatherers,

I love to reimagine scenes from scripture in contemporary settings. For instance, the famous late-night discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus—where the leader discreetly engages the rabbi—is usually pictured as a courtyard talk. A soft breeze blows through the palms. Moonglow provides mood lighting. The famous words—“You must be born in again (or anew)” (John 3:3) and “God so loved the world” (3:16)—are spoken in gentle whispers.

Suppose we rethink the dialogue in a brightly lit motel diner. It’s late. Pools closed. A few customers in the place. Staff talk across the room as they refill the saltshakers. No need for quiet. Just a bunch of nighthawks, some alone, a few pairs, lost in their own concerns.

Nic (we’ll call him) opens: “If you weren’t a teacher from God, you couldn’t do what you do.” Jesus ignores the compliment and gets to the point. “You must be born anew before you can see God’s kingdom.” Okay. And how does that work? “Born not only by water, but by the Spirit… Only God’s Spirit gives new life” (John 3:5, 8).

The server tops off the coffee. Nic looks through the big windows to an empty, bright blue swimming pool across the way. Suddenly he figures out the connection between water and Spirit, why Jesus’s followers are so into baptism. Re-experiencing natural birth in some way makes spiritual birth a felt, lived, multisensory event that implants itself in memory. Suddenly the pool offers Nic a chance to feel something like faith as a means of finding faith.

It matters not when or how we were baptized. Ever so often it’s good to return to the water and reclaim the experience (even if we have no memory of it)… to know it in a new kind of way… to feel fresh life and possibilities, visceral faith and clear vision. That’s what we’ll do this coming Sunday at Rainbow Beach, 77th & Lake Shore Drive. We’re going back to the water!

Bring a lawn chair. Wear shorts or pants you can roll up. Flip-flops are recommended. We’ll step into the water and get back in touch with this transformative idea that rebirth is a gift to all. If you’ve not been baptized, contact me at 312.399.3910 and we’ll welcome you to the water too. Or, if you’re not so sure, we’ll still want you to be part of this time together.

See you this Sunday, dear friends. (And bring your friends!)

With much love,
Pastor Tim

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Happy Anniversary!

Dear Gatherers,

A few heartfelt thoughts on our three-year anniversary.

On June 9, 2019, we gathered in the chapel of Pilgrim Congregational Church for our first live worship experience. Over 50 people showed up (including our brother Chris White from Scotland). It was Pentecost Sunday. We set a lot of things in motion that would become standard operating procedure at Gather. We had a theme (“Firefall”). We built the service around an open and welcoming Communion table. We combined contemporary music and hymns effortlessly. We felt the power of authentic community. And (as promised) God met us.

Less than a year later, when the pandemic came along, our move into a virtual worship was effortless. We became one creative team. People who never made videos became iPhone masters. People who never sang in public joined the worship team. We sent in pictures. We read poetry. We worshiped indoors and out. We got emails from folks we’ll never meet saying how encouraged they were. God met us.

Could we hold on to our fervor and intensity? Could Gather get back on its feet as an in-person faith community and resume the work needed to live into its vision as an outreach effort in communities under stress? As COVID lifted and people returned to more complicated lives, we struggled in ways nobody saw coming. Commitments were tested. Time wasn’t as available. Novelty wore off. Two things kept us going: a faithful core that refused to give up, and a God who always showed up. And here we are three years later. Still standing. Still going. Still Gather. Waiting and watching God work.

This Sunday we celebrate three years in classic Gather style. Popping up in a backyard in Bronzeville. Gospel and hymns and a thumping house beat. Food and fellowship, anchored by an open Communion table. Coming for the worship. Staying for the dance. Enjoying faith and friends. Loving a God who constantly surprises.

In my spirit, I feel a turning point this Sunday. We’re moving into a new era of growth and outreach. The God who never fails is a God who always provides. We’re not calculating losses. We’re opening our arms to blessings. New people are coming. New energy is surging. God is about to shower down blessings we won’t be able to contain.

It’s going to rain! A super-soaker! Can you feel it? Come out this Sunday and watch God work!

Your servant,
Pastor Tim

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Sweet Wonder

Dear Gatherers,

 

When I was kid, people around me talked about Jesus all the time. They’d tell how they found Jesus to be a bridge over troubled water. (Yep, that’s where the phrase comes from.) They’d talk about finding him to be a friend in time of need. They’d explain how “he may not come when you want him, but he’s always on time.” Somewhere in the outpouring of love for Christ somebody would shake their head and say, “We serve a wonderful God!” My grandmother, Mama Wolfe—who publicly styled herself as a reserved, well-mannered lady—could often be heard singing loudly to herself, “O sweet wonder! O sweet wonder! Jesus the son of God!” That’s all there was to the song, and the more she sang it, the better it sounded.

 

These days, we don’t talk or sing like that too much. Every generation devises its own language and way of doing. Frankly, a lot of how we talk and sing feel better to me—more honest, less pie-in-the-sky, more relevant to our lived experience. But in the transition from one generation to the next we inevitably lose traditions we should reclaim. As I’ve been thinking and praying through our Thursday series, Faith After Doubt, I keep bumping up against the lost treasure of wonder. It’s a rare gift these days. We need to get it back.

 

What would happen if we held on to wonder? What if the joys of feeling mystified by things we can’t understand stuck with us? What if we reconciled ourselves to accept some things are simply bigger than reason and often better than anything we could dream up on our own? What if Jesus got so big in our minds all we could do was shake our heads and say, “He’s a wonder in my soul!” (That was another favorite in my grandparents’ house.)

 

Think about the speed bumps you may have raised just reading the previous paragraph and you’ll get a sense of how quickly we cheat ourselves out of wonder. That’s what we’ll be discussing this Thursday night at 7:30pm CDT. We’ll see why wonder is vital and why it’s risky. Bring your courage and come on in!

 

Together in wonder,

Pastor Tim

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The Faith Project

Dear Gatherers,

 

We often refer to Gather as a “faith community,” a euphemism most likely coined in hopes of moving away from trigger words like “church” and “religion” or “congregation” that suggest imposed conformity and dogma. I’ve always liked “faith community.” It’s warmer, more inclusive sounding. But it still draws a circle of sorts, creating borders, soft and porous though they may be.

 

As we’ve been working our way through Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt, I find myself leaning into project, a term pinched from music—particularly hip-hop. In that context a “project” is a collection of songs an artist works on to forge a cohesive artwork, often released as an “album,” but nonetheless understood as a project. (This week Kendrick Lamar released his new album, “Mr. Morale & The Big Stepper,” coming several months after rumors he was working on a new project.) The project is a work in progress; the album is the result.

 

The more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that Gather is a faith project—a work in progress, a collaboration of many artists pulling their hearts and minds together to make something original while also showing no reluctance to bring in older works and ideas that get transformed into something new. What will the final product, the album, be? How will it be received? Will it ever be finished? It’s not clear. We keep going by faith, believing in one another and what we’re discovering as we combine our gifts and questions and convictions into a collaborative work.

 

The faith project. I think this also what McLaren is getting at when he writes about Harmony as the fourth stage of faith, where the dualisms of simplicity, the layers of complexity, the stops and starts of perplexity point toward equilibrium where doubt and belief coexist in constant flux. McLaren says this kind of faith is expressed in love that understands uncertainty and will not judge or reject doubt and doubters as faithless. I think this is what the apostles keep pointing toward in their reminders that we are a work in progress.

 

“What we will be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2). “I am confident of this, the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it” (Philippians 1:6). “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus, for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).

 

If we have enough confidence to envision ourselves, one another, and our community as works in progress, then Gather is, in every way, a faith project. That awareness creates harmony, because it makes room and liberates all of us to be exactly who we are, where we are, knowing that God is doing something in each of us. This Thursday, we’ll do some serious thinking about harmony and transformation, evolution and the faith project. Join us at 7:30 CDT for an invigorating and reassuring conversation!

 

Love,

Pastor Tim

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No Easy Way Back

Dear Gatherers,

 

During the pandemic I developed a bit of a podcast habit, wading into rivers of thought I don’t often swim in. One spot I splashed through was contemporary evangelical thought. I knew the waters. But years of absence—and the gift of free time–allowed me to test the currents and tides presently affecting our conservative cousins. I purposefully sought out podcasts hosted by younger people, since young folks frequently embrace trendy ideas as the only ideas. Match that with innate evangelical fervor and you’re going to get a clear taste of what’s trending. (And trendiness matters to evangelicals, where marketing strategies have eternal implications.) My instincts weren’t too far off.

 

I didn’t get very deep before bumping into a familiar seminary word: deconstruction. Hearing it in a conservative Christian context was a bit jarring, though, because deconstruction is a theoretical discipline intent on reducing a thought to its essence. Based on the work of 20th-century (devoutly agnostic) French philosophers, deconstruction in the liberal academy verges on destruction. You keep pulling at the pieces and breaking down the language until there’s little more than questions and misgivings left. That’s got to be tough in environments where certainty is a premium staple.

 

As I suspected, in evangelical corners, deconstruction has a different flavor. It tries to maintain core doctrines like biblical authority and purity and implacable faithfulness despite deeply conflicted feelings about the movement’s traditional indifference to (and even hostility toward) science, human sexuality, and multiculturalism. In other words, evangelical deconstruction seeks to distill perplexing theology down to simple faith that admits unease with long-held doctrines. As the sincere podcasters twisted their logic every which way to get the desired effect—a process all too familiar to liberal theologians—I kept thinking, “Simplicity is not so simple. It only takes you so far and once it drops you off, there’s no easy way back.”

 

How do we move beyond simple dualisms of good and evil and complex ideologies that turn faith into conquest? How do we clear sufficient room to pull our beliefs apart, deal with their messiness, and realize we may not get them put back together as neatly as they once seemed? If, as often say around Gather, doubt is an element of faith, then we have to admit dissent is essential to doubt and faith. This Thursday at 7:30pm we’re going to deconstruct these concepts. (See what I just did there?) And it’s probably going to be a messy conversation—meaning, you don’t want to miss it!

 

See you at Gather!

 

Peace in perplexity,

Pastor Tim

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New World, New Wonder

Dear Gatherers,

 

Two weeks and change have passed since Easter and already it feels like a blip in the rearview mirror. Our days are so packed with things that need doing and diversions that need tending it’s hard to keep track of time. But I wonder how the hours passed for the first disciples. Did they crawl? Was every day a minute-by-minute ordeal wondering when—or if—the Risen Christ would manifest in their presence? Or did time fly in those first days after the resurrection? Was there simply so much excitement and possibility and activity that each day ended before it got started?

 

Easter is easy for us, because the story is pre-made and generally accepted despite its logical challenges. Before we’re old enough to measure the implications of resurrection, we’re told it’s understandable. Except it’s not. Everyone lets on like it’s comprehensible when it’s more than human intelligence can fathom. We’re asked to accept a premise beyond our grasp. Now step into the shoes of Mary Magdalene or Peter or Thomas and look into the eyes of a dear friend you buried, who now stands in front of you, hands outstretched, a loving smile on his face, and strangely alive, actually more than alive—more alive than he was, than you are, than anyone could ever be (or so you thought). How do you put all of that together?

 

Who know how long it took the disciples to figure out they were living in a new world defined by a new wonder? How do you measure your days after learning death is not the end? How long will it take to recognize there’s something more compelling than human enterprise at work in us? This Sunday we continue our journey to Pentecost by looking at the post-Resurrection new world filled with new wonders. Join us on May 8 for our next live service, with guest preacher Colin Knapp bringing a powerful word. We meet at 5pm at 9Twenty-Eight at 2144 W Van Buren. Come for the worship, stay for the dance!

 

Peace and power,

Pastor Tim

Stuck

Dear Gatherers,

 

In Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt, we meet a young aerospace engineer who says, “For most of my life, I’ve been addicted to certainty.” It’s understandable for a scientist, whose career is founded on measurable outcomes, predictability, and laws of physics. But, as his story unfolds, it takes a while to realize his skill set isn’t easily transferable to his faith journey. He joined a faith community where answers were abundant, but questions were scarce. Not only was the prevailing mindset “doubt-free.” The culture was hostile to questioning the embraced orthodoxy. Ask at your own risk.

 

When the young scientist raised concerns and doubts (prompted by the group’s blind support of a politician with a problematic past and aversion to truthfulness), he was warned to stay inside the box. “Question one moral absolute and you’ll soon be questioning everything,” he was told. As a believer, he had been conditioned not to question. But as a scientist, he’d been trained to interrogate multiple possibilities. The group’s dismissal of doubt as taboo thrust the engineer into cognitive dissonance. On one hand, he valued the certainty his friends equated with faith. But if everything his community seemed so certain about really was true, why did testing their beliefs—asking honest questions and raising ethical dilemmas—set off so many alarms?

 

Certainty worked for the young engineer—until it didn’t. “I felt I was creating my spiritual home, my fortress of faith,” he says, only to discover he’d constructed a prison. He was stuck. While he didn’t want to move backward, certainty kept him from moving forward into a more satisfying way of living that valued differing perspectives. He began to understand “certainty and faith are vastly different things.”

 

Our discussion this week will focus on the value of doubt as a catalyst that gets us unstuck from our certainties (whatever they may be) so we can embrace a more complex understanding of faith and how it works in a real world. Plan now to join us this Thursday at 7:30pm, clicking the link below. As those who joined last week discovered, this will be an amazing and challenging conversation!

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

 

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