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Weekly Update

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

CLICK HERE TO JOIN OUR WEEKLY DISCUSSION

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

CLICK HERE TO JOIN OUR WEEKLY DISCUSSION

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

CLICK HERE TO JOIN OUR WEEKLY DISCUSSION

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

 

CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Make Room for Doubt

Dear Gatherers,

 

Not long ago I had the rather unpleasant experience of speaking with someone from a major theological institution. She was doing some market research and wanted to know my views about the direction her school was headed. The move du jour seemed to be a kind of one-size-fits-all training applicable to every kind of religious thought and conscientiously (or self-consciously) changing the language to avoid sounding too this or too that. I listened for a while but eventually interrupted her to ask, “So what do you folks believe these days?”

“Why?” she countered.

“I’m just trying to figure out your mission. What are you trying to do?”

“Oh, yes, do you mean are we still Christian? You picked that up, did you? Well, we’re de-centering Christianity.”

Now it was my turn. “Why?”

“Because it’s dying. Surely you’ve seen the Pew Research. Americans are leaving churches in droves.”

The survey reflected what I’d been hearing for a while. Churches were folding as people opted for brunch and baseball over hymns and homilies. But did that mean Christianity was dying? Or are those churches in decline simply falling short? In his book, Faith After Doubt, Brian McLaren says this “falling away” is the result from many Christians’ inability to tolerate doubt. In the post-evangelical age of biblical inerrancy and unshakable certainty, merely suggesting you have questions can put you in socio-spiritual limbo, leaving you alone with your uncertainties.

 

How is that healthy for any individual, community, or faith? When did “knowing” replace believing? In our hyper-competitive world of know-it-all, over-achieving A-students-for-life, have we lost our respect for doubt? That may be why congregations are dwindling. The sermons and discussions may have no teeth. The community’s lived experience may be pallid and cold. The theological waters may be so shallow it’s not worth the plunge.

 

At Gather we’ve always loved questions… always embraced doubts… always made room to ponder big ideas with healthy suspicion. Why? Because we’re a faith community. Starting this Thursday at 7:30pm, we’ll look more deeply into doubt and faith. We’ll draw from McLaren’s book. But we’ll make sure we leave space for healthy discussion. Don’t miss one week in this series. It could be everything you need right now in your own faith formation. I look forward to seeing you all!

 

Peace, and blessings

Pastor Tim

Marking Time

Dear Gatherers,

One of the lesser noted aspects of Holy Week is its real-time observance of the Passion. Each year, we move from the procession into Jerusalem to the Resurrection at the very same pace the disciples experienced them. While Advent reduces the events leading to Christ’s birth to six weeks and Pentecost is a one-off celebration that glosses over the 10-day waiting period between the Ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival, every tick of the Holy Week clock is felt.

By Thursday night, the disciples are worn out and unnerved with uncertainty. A lot happens after the noisy entry into the Jerusalem. On Monday, Jesus goes back to the Temple (having scoped it out the night before) and starts a riot. On Tuesday, he curses a fig tree and spends hours confronting the Temple elite. Then he withdraws to the Mount of Olives to give a master class in apocalyptic discourse, confusing everyone. (All of this has to be exhausting to witness.) He and the disciples apparently plan to take Wednesday off. But their rest gets disturbed when a woman anoints Jesus in a gesture that foreshadows his death. Meanwhile, Temple officials plot to kill Jesus, a tricky task that gets easier when an insider named Judas shows up. Thursday finds the disciples rushing to arrange the Passover feast, a major undertaking since they’re in a strange city and affiliated with a known troublemaker.

They don’t yet know Thursday is their last night with Jesus. (He will reappear on Sunday, but not as one of them.) And in the Gospels’ accounts of the Passover meal we find Jesus using every available means to imprint on their spirits the meaning of this moment. A basin of water, a loaf of bread, a pitcher of wine, and words—so many words.

As we have done from our first Holy Week together, Gather will revisit this moment, holding it up in fresh light, inviting new realizations to break through our familiarity with the story. This year we’re taking an interactive approach, combining scripture with other texts and meditations that come to life in brief exercises to bring us closer to the texts. I pray everyone in our community makes time to gather for this service. And when you do, please have a few items ready to enable your participation:

  • A bowl or basin filled with water (and a towel)
  • A portion of bread
  • A glass of wine or juice
  • Pen and paper

Once you pull the pieces together, join the Zoom at 7:30pm CDT. This will be a non-replicable, unique Maundy Thursday experience. I look forward to seeing you then.

Peace,
Pastor Tim

 

CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE MAUNDY THURSDAY SERVICE

Live Versus On-Demand

Dear Gatherers,

 

Few of our studies generated more positive response than our Lenten series based on Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. I’ve had quite a few emails and calls from people saying how much his approach to faithfulness has moved them. This week, he pushes us toward a way of being that demands active engagement: “When the totality of our daily lives is lived ‘from above,’ that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death” (136). His thoughts are especially poignant at this juncture, when we are—quite literally—returning to life, reentering a world we can no longer control with masks and distance and protocols, resurrected into the messiness of mundane uncertainty, where latent fears of strangers and randomness can’t dominate our every thought and move.

 

For two years we’ve lived on-demand, clicking our way through each day, struggling to keep our physical and emotional and spiritual needs met from a distance. And there’s been much speculation about what life after COVID will be like. Will we prefer private dining and home entertainment and out-of-synch faith practice? Or will this two-year wilderness—the longest Lent of our lives—heighten appreciation for living from above in real-time engagement instead of the less nourishing on-demand way we’ve settled for?

 

This Sunday we remember how Jesus—facing certain death—took his people into the city that would try to destroy him. He could have opted for on-demand distance: keeping a low profile, celebrating Passover quietly at home, avoiding friends and foes alike, preferring the safety of his own rooms and routines. Except Jesus couldn’t live on the down-low. He and his followers marched into Jerusalem without shame, live and out loud. When the nervous set scolded them, Jesus rebuked his critics, saying, “If they were silent, the stones would shout!” Yes, living from above is noisy and inconvenient and personally demanding. But if Jesus’s supporters had checked in at their convenience, there would be no Palm Sunday… no live event that points toward what happens when we choose life that cannot be conquered by death.

 

We have sterling opportunities for live, real-time religion this week—Thursday’s Zoom study and Sunday’s live, in-person worship—with more coming during Holy Week. Time’s up for on-demand survival religion. We’re stronger when we’re joined in real-time, living from above together. I look forward to seeing more of you in person, on time. You’re a vital member of this Beloved Community!

 

Peace, with much love,

Pastor Tim

MULTIPLYING MORSELS

Dear Gatherers,

When I’m feeling especially insignificant or of little use (which is more often than you know), my inner jukebox cranks up a song from childhood, the wondrous “Feed the Birds” number in Mary Poppins. As a kid, I only knew the song from the soundtrack. (Movies were “worldly amusements” that diehard Pentecostals avoided back in those days.) Yet even without visuals of the bird lady on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the quiet lyric gripped me:

Though her words are simple and few
“Listen, listen”, she’s calling to you
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag”

What may seem like so little to us can often be life-sustaining nourishment for someone else. A gentle word, a random gesture, a moment of going further than most—modest morsels we offer from our crumpled bags of kindness are vital bread for others’ souls. This is why Jesus constantly teaches to offer more than is asked of us, doing for others what we’d want for us, treating folks how we’d like to be treated. In other words, we’re called to go beyond meeting obvious needs; we’re called to make lives better and calmer and more hopeful.

Henri Nouwen calls this “being bread for the world”—allowing ourselves to be given for the wellbeing of others. In theory, this is an idealistic almost impossible request. Who can do such things, especially when keeping our own families and relationships and selves going? But I’m convinced such thinking results from a lost sense of scale. In God’s economy, morsels get multiplied. We don’t need to have all the means and answers in our bag. Just a few crumbs from your hand and my hand and other hands and whole needs get met. Lives get saved. Hope gets restored.
Though her words are simple and few
“Listen listen,” she’s calling to you

Sometimes the God’s voice finds us in unexpected ways, like the stooped form of a character actress in a classic film—breaking through just as loudly and forcefully as an angelic visitation. My friends, we have been taken, blessed, and broken to provide morsels that feed the world. How do we understand this beautiful demand better? That’s what we’ll talk about this Thursday as we continue our Lenten study, Fasting and Feasting. Join us at 7:30pm CDT. You’ll be glad you did!

Peace, with much love,
Pastor Tim

CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE STUDY

THE HIDDEN SELF

Dear Gatherers,

 

One of my favorite contemporary Christian songs of the past few years is “New Wine.” It opens with a line that sort of grabs you by the collar: “In the crushing, in the breaking, you are making new wine.” (If you don’t know it, you can hear the Gather version here; it begins about 37 minutes into the service.) What I love most about that lyric is that it takes us from struggle to outcome. First, the breaking. Then, the wine. Having spent some time in Napa and a few European wine precincts, that resonates with me. The grapes may be beautiful strung along the vine. They may look delicious. But until they’re broken, their inner beauty and taste remain hidden. Their potential is unrealized.

 

Part of the Lenten project is breaking, splintering surfaces and disrupting appearances to find what’s inside us. In a world where appearance is everything, this time of fasting and consecration opens us up. Quite often, no one is more surprised than we are with what we discover. There is sweetness in us that we haven’t yet developed a taste for. There are textures in our spirits that we may overlook as ordinary, when in fact they make us unlike anyone else. Finding the hidden self is part of our journey—the good and the bad and the ugly that, after crushing and breaking, yield new wine and bread for the world.

 

This Thursday we look more closely at this idea of being broken, along with why feasts are so central to our Christian tradition. (They may feel disconnected, but they’re not.) Plan now to be with us this Thursday at 7:30pm CDT, as we contemplate brokenness as part of our discussion of being and becoming beloved. I’m really looking forward to this time together!

 

Blessings, with much love,

Pastor Tim