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De-Weaponize the Word

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:14-16

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

One of my first jobs out of undergrad was teaching high school English, back when kids learned how to diagram sentences. While I haven’t thought about diagramming in years, it all came back while reading Ephesians 4, where one sentence runs a total of 81 words (see above.) I couldn’t begin to diagram it. But the message is hard to miss. Here’s the Tim translation: “We need to leave deceitful foolishness alone and tell the truth in love, growing in Christ, so we can mature into a high-functioning, healthy community grounded in love.”

 

This is not to suggest Gather is not a loving, healthy community. We’re all of that. What brings this text to mind is how floridly Paul describes windbags who spew doctrinal gusts to trick and deceive and promote hatefulness. Once he sets that scene, Paul uses the rest of this elegant, runaway sentence to effectively say, “Yeah, we can’t grow if we keep falling for their baloney.”

 

Now this is hard for many of us hear because some of these blowhards (forgive the pun) raised us and prayed with us and taught us the Bible. Yet, in retrospect, we can see how—for good or bad—they used scripture to manipulate and demean and clobber us, often with such craftiness we don’t want anything to do with faith or the gospel or even God. And that’s understandable. But is it viable?

 

Paul doesn’t think so. And I have to say I’m on his side. Allowing the schemers and deceivers to stunt our spiritual growth hands leaves us deprived. The way we overcome deceitful doctrines and tricky translations is by de-weaponizing the Word, knowing scripture for ourselves—not only what it says, but why it says what it says, and what it was originally meant to achieve. We start there and then we grow into deeper love for God, for scripture, for one another, and for others like us who’ve not yet found their way home.

 

That’s why our current series, Queer Theology 101, is so vital. It goes right back to the source and tests what’s there against everything we’ve been told was there. Once we sort through the misleading, often flat-out incorrect doctrines used to demean and deceive, we can move on to “speaking the truth in love.” Get some of that good word in your system and I promise you’ll grow!

 

Join us this Thursday as we work through more of the so-called clobber texts that have been abused to shame and condemn LGBTQ folks. You’ll discover going back to unlearn some of this stuff is how we find our way forward. The conversation starts at 7:30pm CDT. I look forward to seeing you!

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

Body Love

See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. – Colossians 2:8-9

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

In an infamous April 1823 letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson went off on Christian theology, saying belief that God’s existence is revealed in Jesus amounts to “Atheism” since it ignores sufficient proof of God found elsewhere. (Jefferson was a devout deist with no use for Christian dogma.) The Incarnation was especially prickly for him. He called it it a “fancy absolutely incomprehensible” and hoped “the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding” to focus solely on the teachings of his hero, a first-century Jewish philosopher from Nazareth.

 

Despite boundless respect for the man who crafted so many unforgettable American ideals (that many Americans have lately forgot), I have to say, “Pres. J, you missed the point.” The fully embodied expression of God is necessary because it models an alternative way of being that achieves the ideal. We are created to house something too great to fashion on our own. We embody love more powerful than any ability we possess. We embrace life that defies labels and transcends boundaries. That is our divine birthright. As the Psalmist famously confessed, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6).

 

That’s why incarnation matters. Our Maker took on human flesh to demonstrate what lived-in divinity looks like and how it behaves. We are flesh-and-blood organisms living in a material world with flesh-and-blood needs. And when we cynically ignore this (getting all skeptical or super-spiritual—they’re essentially the same thing) the most pathetically pious among us turn against bodies. Look at the Far Right’s obsession with bodies, not as holy habitations, but as political fodder that scoffs at God’s undeniable presence in bodies of women and queer folx and immigrants and differently abled people and people of color and anyone else who doesn’t conform to a white supremacist, patriarchal norm. The odiousness of this stuff is plenty wrong. But there’s a fundamentally faithless confession in it as well. To denigrate or oppress “other” bodies exposes an atheistic belief there’s no God inside them. I have a real problem with that.

 

Dear Mr. Jefferson, you may be correct when you see atheistic bankruptcy gift-wrapped in pseudo-Christian nonsense. It wasn’t only in your time. Lots of that on display these days. But the incomprehensible “fancy” you despise at the core of Christian thought? It’s not that hard to comprehend. It’s not even that fancy. God dwells in us fully in the same way God fully dwelt in Jesus. That makes our bodies sacred. Our choices sacred. Our lives sacred. And when we learn to love our bodies and the bodies around us—even disagreeable ones—we’ll get much closer to the divine inside.

 

Join us every Thursday through November, for a compelling Queer Theology 101 conversation that challenges all kinds of presumptions. We meet at 7:30pm CDT via Zoom.

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

 

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NO U-TURNS

Each of you proclaimed liberty for the other and made a covenant before me in the temple that bears my name. But then you went back on your word. – Jeremiah 34:15-16

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

If you were unable to be with us for last Sunday’s Gather Live, you missed a treat. We felt real freedom in our worship. It was so thick that by the time we arrived at the Communion table, I simply held up the loaf and cup and told the church, “This is what freedom tastes like.” We came very close to breaking into a holy dance. (We’ll have the video up on YouTube soon.)

 

Accepting our freedom empowers us to proclaim liberty to others. Not simply because it’s a wonderful thing that everyone deserves—of course, it is. But helping others get free enables them to join the fight for freedom. That’s the lesson from Jeremiah 34. Well, part of it.

 

The Babylonians are bearing down on Jerusalem. The prophet tells the king to free all slaves, enabling them to join the fight against their oppressors. (It turns out they were due to be freed anyway.) Then, after proclaiming liberty, the owners do a U-turn and revoke their freedom. God’s anger is chilling: “Since you have defied me by not setting your fellow citizens free, I’m setting you free, declares the Lord, free to die by the sword, disease, and famine! And I will make you an object of horror for all nations on earth” (Jer. 34:17).

 

We’re living in a perilous time with authoritarian movements and tyrants trying to revoke freedoms right and left. But God says freedom is irrevocable. This will not go well for them. Now let’s bring this a little closer to home. We want to change the world for the better. Make it a freer and more livable place. Lift our communities as citadels of justice rather than objects of horror. Throw open the windows and doors of our churches so fresh wind blows in, pure light casts out shadows, and no one is denied the Pentecostal proclamation of liberty, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:15).

 

To do that, we need more people. We build our ranks by proclaiming freedom to folks who want it. Many won’t believe it at first. Many will have experienced U-turns in other places, other churches, other family settings. But let’s show them we’re for real. Who in your circle needs to get free? Proclaim liberty—not just for them, but for everyone. Let them know freedom is possible. God wills it so. Not just for them, but because the world needs more free people in the freedom fight.

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

The Experience-Based Vision

Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”– Luke 24:31-32

 

Dear Gatherers,

 

Were your ears burning? I spent last weekend writing grant applications for us to do the work God calls us to do. That means I’ve been talking about you! One application required nearly a dozen 300-word essays, asking everything from how we gather to our demographic mix to what’s our vision for the community outreach center. So you’ve been on my mind. Well, you’re always on my mind—but you’ve been intensely on my mind these past few days.

 

One question asked to describe the “intersectional identities” involved in in our ministry. I didn’t have to think twice before writing, “The beauty of Gather is how its leadership and congregation can be placed along multiple matrices, many obvious, others less so—all of which reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the communities we serve.” In non-grant speak, all I was saying is that you can’t put us in a box. We’re not a white church or a black church, a mostly straight or mostly gay church, a Southside or West Side church, an in-person or online church. And in the end, I believe that’s what makes us a truly Pentecostal church. We can’t be boxed in. And that witness brought new fire to my heart. The word on the street about us re-ignites my soul. And if you’ve lost some fire, look at what God has already done and let new flames kindle up. Gather 2.0 is going to catch fire!

 

After Jesus was unjustly executed, two suburban brothers from his community headed back home, dejected. They’d just gone through something so horrendous they couldn’t possibly have seen it coming. Their leader was murdered in plain daylight. Gone. Except he wasn’t! He met them on the road, speaking to them with such passion that their trauma-induced blindness lifted and their hearts caught fire.

 

Gather, we’ve been through something. Let’s not pretend otherwise. But we are not abandoned. The Living Christ meets us on our road, as a community and individuals, and we need to see that. Let it set a new fire in your heart. Let experience fuel for your vision of what’s next. That’s where we’re going as a community. That’s what we’ll be rejoicing about this coming Sunday in our live worship. See you there!

 

Peace,

Pastor Tim

Remote-Control Repair is a Non-Starter

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. – Romans 12:2

Dear Gatherers,

If you’ve not been to our Thursday discussions on capitalism and Christianity, you’ve missed some of the toughest conversations we’ve ever had at Gather. The Gospels make it very plain: Jesus was no capitalist, which means if this really were a Christian nation, our economy would look very different. The Sabbath principles of freedom, equality, and rest would dominate every enterprise. Racism and supremacist thinking would be taboo. Yet in today’s toxic atmosphere of faux religion and home-school politics, can we even follow Jesus’s teaching in a capitalist system? Well, the answer is: we must. While we make our livings, do our shopping, and pay our taxes, we also live into Jesus’s principles of generosity and justice. We subvert the system by defying it from inside.

That’s also how we reverse the tide of religious harm that has weakened Christian witness everywhere. To remedy the church’s wrongs calls for a brave bunch of folks willing to subvert the system by defying it from inside. Why? Because you can’t fix something from afar; remote-control repair is a non-starter.  That really is Gather’s mission. And it’s not impossible. It’s necessary. That’s how I’ve started talking about it to people, saying, “Gather is a bunch of bruised and brave believers who are just bold enough to get in and revolutionize what church is, what it looks like, and how it works.”

All those folks who’ve turned their backs on religion? The ones the Pew Researchers call the “nones” and “spiritual-but-not-religious” crew? They’re not changing a thing. What’s more, their assumption that leaving Christianity will hurt the church bullies’ feelings is childish. If you want to stop the pain for others (and get well yourself), you’ve got to risk getting in and creating a new kind of church—something folks will recognize and find restorative.

Believing we can’t fix this is hellishly wrong. What we need is the audacity and commitment to subvert the system by defying it from inside. Our light has to shine brighter. Our witness has to be bolder. Our worship has to be truer. Our faith has to be more faithful. Our willingness to sacrifice has to make us unstoppable. Is Gather up for that kind of subversive project? Hell yeah! The conformists and con artists have had their turn. Now it’s our time to be transformers, not half-heartedly, but true to the end. Because when you’re inside you can change things much more forcefully than you’ll ever accomplish standing outside, calling names and throwing stones. Let’s get into the work of repairing the church!

Peace,
Pastor Tim

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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