May 2010

journeying toward a new story

“The process of growth is brutal.”  That may be the single most honest quote in this book.  Part of the realization that comes with seeing that this story is not about me and it’s all about Him, is that as I learn and grow and play my role in His story, it may come through great accomplishments or great pain.  

Tim states on page 48:  “When a person decides to embark on a journey, he or she begins an undertaking whose destination and outcome is often as unpredictable as it is unseen.  In fact, not only do we often not know where we are going, we do not know who we will become or whether we will even recognize ourselves at the end of our paths.”  While I’m not at the end of my journey, nor am I any sort of expert on where I am in the journey, I can attest that 15 years ago, I can’t imagine the path that I’ve traveled or where I now sit.  I’ve drifted from a conservative denominational stance to one that might not even be considered genuine from that same point of view.  

This journey has come at great cost.  Having founded my faith in a conservative upbringing, it was very similar to the realization that Neo encountered in The Matrix when he chose the pill that opened his eyes to what else was really going on around him.  No longer was I able to continue on that same path.  No longer was I content to ignore the rest of the story.  And that left me understanding how Moses must have felt as he headed for the desert – a nomad, that doesn’t fully understand where he’s going, but insisting on being faithful even if that means not having a home to which he was accustomed.  

Much like Tim’s description of finding a few people that found themselves on this same path, I was fortunate enough not to journey by myself.  I couldn’t find a church that was willing to embrace this honest journey, but my friend Art had discovered this conversation that was beginning and was willing to let me catch up so we could walk part of our paths together.  While much of that time is remembered as painful for me, I’m forever thankful for having a friend that understood and didn’t think I was any crazier than he or this group of people scattered across the world that were experiencing the flaws in the systems in which we led.  

For me, the transition from a place of discontentment began with a community outside of the church that was simply organic.  There was not intentional goals set to bring us together, but it happened none the less.  There weren’t pre-planned lessons or opportunities to share our stories and forge a bond, it just happened as we spent time together.  Our community grew out of spending time together.  This group of people reminded me of what the church does right – when we don’t screw it up.  It allows us to share our lives with each other.  It allows us to cry together, and laugh together and everything in between.  

I never once felt like I was distanced from God during that time in my life, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever be content to sit in a church again.  And for a guy that knew he was called to a leadership position within the church since he was nine, made for a confusing time.  Much like Tim’s account of crying out to God, “surely, this can’t be all that you intend”, my path changed directions.  Or at least I began gaining a clarity that had escaped me.  And I began looking for a place in a church again.  And as he states on page 62:  “I was tired of the via negativa, the negative way whereby you determine what something is, or what you believe about something, by what that something is not, I wanted to be for something, not just against something.”  

At this point, my story and my wife’s story flip-flopped.  While my journey began out of an intellectual search, her’s was triggered by a series of emotional losses.  Because I would tell her story from a second-person viewpoint, I’m going to leave it at saying we agreed to give the organized church one last chance and try a small gathering of people that seemed to be sharing life more than building programs.  This group, at a point of their own pain and vulnerability, changed my life.  

It was my time at Mosaic Jacksonville that brought on my kairos.  It didn’t happen on a given Sunday when a certain message was shared.  It didn’t happen through one of the worship sets that flipped a switch in me.  It just happened along the way as I began to share my life with a few guys.  That has taken me through an ordination process that I had all but given up on, allowed me to minister in dozens of churches and denominations around NE Florida and SE Georgia with a group of people that are more concerned with a healthy church that seeks God than a budget or program, and led me back to a congregational experience on Sunday morning.  

Fifteen years ago, I thought I knew where I was going.  Looking at how differently that portion of my journey has gone, I have no idea where God is going to lead.  As I finish this particular portion, I’m left realizing that most of what I’ve written remains from a first-person viewpoint and thus suggesting that my journey has been about me.  To me, it’s very real and has had a profound effect on me.  But what I must also recognize is that my path may be to intersect yours.  And that may be the plan He has.  Because no matter how much it feels real to me, there really is this bigger story going on where my name won’t even merit recognition in the credits at the end. 

What story are you telling?  Is it the same one you’ve always told or are you on a path to something new?  

much love,
– mark

“rediscovering the power of story”

I need to begin by letting you in on how I’m going to proceed with this.  Each book that I read drops thoughts in my lap that make me consider who I am, where I am and how I am.  Sometimes it’s easy to gloss over those questions, but it’s those questions that I’m going to seek out and try to get you to consider and ponder as well.  I confess; I’m happy to ignore the answers to these and simply keep on doing what’s in front of me.  But I believe there’s more to these questions and more to this story that we’re engaged in when we allow ourselves to recognize the roll we are playing.  My hope is that together, we’ll engage our story, however similar or different it may be and become better at what we do.

I met Tim Keel several years ago in Atlanta at a weekend gathering where we sat in conversation with Walter Brueggemann.  Tim’s approach to leadership and openness to admit that he didn’t have it all figured out appealed to me and put him on my radar of people that I could learn from.  This book has been out for three years, and in terms of what some of this book talks about, may make some of the modernity and postmodernity discussion sound like history.  Whether it’s old news or brand new, I’m confident that it remains contextually relevant to the story in which we’re engaged.  And I trust, having not read the book prior to inviting you to journey with me, that Tim’s insight will provide us with opportunities to examine who we are as leaders and people.

Like Tim, I grew up in a story-telling family.  I remember the best parts of family gatherings being the time around the table talking.  My grandparents had two full living rooms full of furniture, but more often than not, the stories were told face-to-face around the dining room table.  And what stands out to me about that is that they were stories that were lived and re-lived from a first-person point of view.  I remember thinking as a kid that some day, I might have a story to tell at that table.  Early on I was drawn to recognize that we are engaged in big and little stories where we might play an insignificant role or might be center stage with all eyes on us.  But whether we acknowledge it or not, we were, and are, engaged in a story.

I also grew up in the church and by my own direction now find myself a mutt of theology and doctrine.  Having taught and lead for much of my adult life, it wasn’t many years ago that I recognized that I too, like Tim suggests on page 36 have gone “to the Scriptures in search of certainty… systematically, seeking to extract principles from them.”  It’s not that I wasn’t looking for the story, but the story was secondary to the information that was buried and trying to be understood.  I know there were lessons to be learned around the dining room table at my grandparent’s house, but it was the story that engaged me (and still instilled the lesson).  How had I missed the story that the Scriptures were telling?  Why hadn’t I engaged that part of my faith?

Along with that recognition came my realization that my faith was based out of what I knew and not who I knew.  I knew my God, at one point in history, became so distraught with His creation that He decided to nearly start again.  So He picked a Godly man, put him though public ridicule while he built this huge boat in a desert.  Then He flooded the earth and started over with just what was on the boat.  There’s a few lessons to be taught from that story.  What I had missed was the rest of that story.  When the water’s subsided, that Godly man got off the boat stripped down and got publicly naked and drunk.  That part kinda hits home – makes it a little more real and engaging – let’s me in on the imperfect status of a man that God might choose to use.  But that part of the story gets left out and doesn’t fit nicely on a flannel graph in Sunday School or in the sermon notes on Sunday.  But it’s part of the story and deserves to be told.

It was my own struggle with modernity and postmodernity that led me to be in Atlanta and have the opportunity to meet Tim.  When he talks about modernity’s story on page 41 as being “the one we are struggling to live in today. We are independent, autonomous knowers, objectively encountering and engaging the world rationally as we progress toward a good future and away from a past clouded by ignorance and superstition” – this is where I struggle to exist.  I’m comfortable thinking that I’m in my own personal bubble with my own little God journey going on.  But I know that’s such an insignificant portion of the story in which God has me.  It overlaps with so many other subplots.  And unfortunately, I know that my role may have points that don’t work out the way that I would hope or expect.

That lesson has taken on a life of its own before my eyes.  I’ve had the benefit of having Godly people live out their pain openly and honestly before me.  When Quincy and Jennifer’s baby Ransom was delivered without the typically expected sound of a baby’s cry, they didn’t hide their story from us.  They allowed me to deliver their story at the only funeral that I’ve officiated.  Thankfully I didn’t have to try to put their story in my words – they gave me their words.  Their embrace of a God who had taken them through a time that didn’t make sense – but was still His plan and done for His glory.  They lived that out over and over and became a story that I’ll never forget.  Not because of something that was said or a child that I missed, but because of a faith that withstood a story that from my point of view sucked.

Tim has two more lines in this first chapter that I can’t blow past.  Both on page 43.  The first speaks to why I believe my faith to be in the shallow state that it is – “Thus, our faith became domesticated, made in our own image, deprived of its wildness.”  And secondly, with the realization that I don’t have it together, but living in a church culture that likes to tell their story as if they do have it all together:  “It is a story about living in tension, not trying to resolve it.”  The past five years, I’ve been learning to live in the tension between man and God, church and world, here and there, us and them, me and you.  I don’t expect to always land on common ground or to find that happy medium – nor do I always want to.  But I do hope to be faithful to the role God has for me in the tension.

I invite you to share what stood out to you in this first chapter.  Each week, I’ll cover another chapter and give my own commentary.  Feel free to comment on my thoughts and/or state your own.

much love,
– mark