LBCSkyline.jpg
Posts in Bill White
Pale Blue Dot - Ash Wednesday

My friend Jordan Wanner sent me this picture a year ago. I found it a great way to meditate on Ash Wednesday... that day when we launch into Lent, a season of reorientation that helps us see ourselves in correct proportion to God. 

The picture that you see here is from the Voyager 1 Space Probe, taken as it was leaving our solar system in 1990. It was 3.7 billion miles away when it snapped this shot. In the brownish sunbeam to the right, about half way down, there's a tiny pale blue dot. That's us. That's our entire planet.

Astronomer Carl Sagan captured the humility that such a picture should inspire in us. 

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Christian author G.K. Chesterton said that pride is seeing oneself out of proportion to the universe. I think that pale blue dot is a helpful reminder. Stare at it for a while. Ponder just how small this entire planet is. In words that are spoken over the faithful each Ash Wednesday,

"For dust you are, and to dust you will return." 
     - God, spoken to Adam in Genesis 3:19

Ponder these things, and then ponder just how small you are. And how great our God is- to see us, to know us, to love us. 

 

It Doesn't Feel Like Church

I invited Javier up on stage to speak to the congregation about his experiences at City Church.  I’d given him no time to prepare – I ran into him before the service and asked if he’d be willing to share just briefly during the sermon, and he’d said yes.

Here’s my favorite part of that interview:

Me: Thanks for coming up here, Javier.  How long have you been coming to City Church

Javier: About three months.

Me: So were you a churchy person before you came?

Javier: (laughing) No!

Me: Well why in the world did you start coming?

Javier: I didn’t have anything else to do on Sunday mornings.

Me: You mean you were basically bored so you figured ‘why not?’?

Javier: (smiling) Uh-huh.

Me: So knowing that you’re not a very churchy guy, and now you’re coming every Sunday and even getting involved in groups – how does it feel to be into church now?

Javier: It doesn’t feel like church.

 

Maybe that shouldn’t be our goal – to ‘not feel like church’ – but I must admit I thought that was a remarkably generous compliment that Javier gave City Church. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis, wrote about a new kind of faith that he saw dawning in the West.  He called it “religionless Christianity” – a move away from church as an institution and away from God as a useful idea.  In a letter written from a Nazi prison on April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer described his thoughts about the state of Christianity: "You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to... What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today."  I feel a lot like that.  Others might be worried by my thoughts. I wonder what Christianity really is.  I don’t think it’s what I’ve thought it is.

Bonhoeffer, again writing from prison, says that “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God,’” the result being that “‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”   The ‘God’ he’s speaking of is the ‘God’ of religious Christianity—the God who makes great campaign slogans and coffee cup inscriptions, who demands flowery prayers and four-spiritual-law evangelism, and who can be found on Facebook posts and in the abstract systematic theologies of the modernists.  Bonhoeffer rejoiced to see that ‘God’ fade.  And he was hopeful for the rise of the religionless God, whom he saw in Jesus.                        

Give up your good Christian life and follow Jesus.
- Garrison Keillor

My spiritual director (basically, my mentor) was thinking this through with me and summarized it this way: “We’re so much safer when we’re disoriented.  We’re so dangerous when we have all the answers and have everything nailed down.”  I’ve been on a journey of letting go of so many of the answers I’ve had, seeking instead to find Jesus.  As I’ve been de-religion-ifying my life I’ve found so much more freedom. And yet it’s also a real loss to not have those closed systems and neat answers to rely on and to give structure to life.  Religious Christianity provided me so much security and predictability that it’s been hard to let go.  But I’m trying to respond to the prophet, Garrison Keillor, who said, “Give up your good Christian life and follow Jesus.”

The end result, I hope, is what people like Javier are experiencing.  It may not feel like church, but we’re getting Jesus.

Reflections on the Election

Dear City Church of Long Beach,

       My son Timothy’s candidate did not win yesterday’s election.  Here’s the text I got from him early today:

Psalm 46 was especially poignant this morning:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall… Be still and know that I am God.

       Pretty thoughtful for a 17-year-old kid.  It was helpful for me to be reminded that God is God, and that I am not.  And that God has a lot of experience dealing with nations that are in uproar.  I want to accept His invitation to be still and trust Him to be God.   Perhaps that will help me sleep better tonight.

       I have friends who voted Republican, friends who voted Democrat, friends who voted Independent, and friends who chose not to vote.  Some are celebrating.  Many are grieving.  All are my friends.  I wonder, what does it look like for me to be their friend (and possibly pastor) today?

       As I was praying about that question, I stumbled onto the Apostle Paul’s engagement with these issues.  Immediately before Paul starts in on politics (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…” Romans 13:1), he lays the foundation for how to go about being political creatures.  He writes,

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.  Romans 12:14-16 

       I wonder what it would look like if those of us who followed Jesus took these words to heart.  Paul assumes that it’s not always going to go well for us – that we are going to experience persecution.  That means our enemies are going to exercise power over us for our harm.  Can you imagine if, as a community, we responded to that harm with blessing instead of cursing?  The watching world wouldn’t know what to do with us. I suspect that’s exactly what God would be saying to us as a church right now – what if we committed to blessing people today instead of cursing them?  Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t protest or work for change.  But how radically different would we look if we went about those activities with the attitude of Jesus?

       I think Paul’s next words speak to those of us who did not vote for Mr. Trump.  We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice.  That may seem impossible to you.  I suppose that’s fitting since the One we follow loves the impossible. His call is to recognize not only the positive aspects of the people who voted for Mr. Trump, but also the positive aspects of what they voted for.  Can you do that?  Can you seek to understand them and value them and honor them?

        Then I think Paul speaks to those of us who did vote for Mr. Trump: mourn with those who mourn.  I’ve been in touch today with a number of friends who are hurt and fearful because as a woman, a queer person, or a person of color they experienced the election as a rejection of their worth as people.  Many others feel a real sense of loss and anxiety because their values have not been validated.  Jesus calls us to understand their pain and to actually enter into it.  Can you do that?  Can you see why this election result would be so painful for them, and can you grieve deeply with them?   

       Finally, Paul invites us all to live in harmony with one another.  That’s just downright crazy.  All of us, in harmony?  Our nation is so divided, so full of anger and hatred and cursing and name calling – how in the world could we be united? 

       I’d like to suggest a very simple starting point.  Would you come to the communion table on Sunday and participate by taking the bread, dipping it in the cup, and eating together with your church family?  I would like to suggest that our deepest unity doesn’t rest in what we agree on, but in what has been done for us.  Our unity is not ideological - it is sacramental.  So come to the table of grace with the rest of us.  That table is set for all of us who don’t have it together, for all of us who look to the One who gave himself freely so that we could experience grace.  And I suspect we’ll find that we step towards each other by the simple fact that together we’re stepping towards Christ.

In him alone, 

Bill

A Personal Conversation About the Supreme Court Decision

My friend Barbara and I disagree on a number of things. We see religion very differently, for example. And I suspect we’ve got a some differences about economics and politics as well. But we’re neighbors, and she matters to me. And I think I matter to her.

Barbara has been very grateful for the recent Supreme Court decision about gay marriage, in part because she’s been with her partner Maureen for 18 years. She has posted about her support of the Supreme Court decision on Facebook and has been dismayed by some of the hateful rhetoric she’s received.

Recently she mades some posts on Facebook in light of the pain she’s experienced. After reading her post below I decided to respond.   With Barbara’s permission (and Mary’s), I’d like to share the conversation.  I’m grateful for these neighbors and these conversations.

1484.png

By Bill White

I'm Going to Get in Trouble for Saying This

I met my neighbor, David, out walking one day and he and I and a few other neighbors got together recently to play A Game of Thrones board game. For Memorial Day, they brought their families over to my house for a barbeque, and then we played games afterwards.

 

As we were swapping stories over burgers, someone asked how we met, and Katy shared how I invited her to a bible study back in the day when she was a beer-drinking rugby player. After some laughter, one woman (whom I’d never met before this night) looks at me and timidly asks, “Are you a pastor or something?” Oh boy, now it’s on. “Yes, I am,” I said, and I asked if she’d had any experience with religion.

She talked some about growing up in Southeast Asia and then mentioned that she knew some Christians.

“Oh,” I said, “Is that good or bad?”

She asked what I meant, and here’s my honest reply: “Well, it seems like a lot of Christians are assholes.”

A couple of the guys set down their beers to laugh out loud and comment, and one of the wives gave a mischievous look at her husband, who threw up his hands saying, “I didn’t say ‘asshole’ – he did!” His look at me suggested he was quite glad I had.

“Yeah but you were thinking it!” his wife said. “I know you’re thinking of my mother!” At which point he freely confessed that yes, her mother came to mind.

“Well,” she paused, “she IS an asshole. And the biggest hypocrite I know. I can’t believe she says she follows God but has so much hate in her. She’s told me three times I’m going to hell.”

Thus began a fabulous conversation with lots of honest sharing about people’s experiences with religion and about how radically different Jesus is.

I suppose I shouldn’t have said the “a——” word (especially since my mother reads these blogs), but it’s the honest truth. The more we admit that Christians are messed up, too, the more real our conversations will be about the spiritual journey.

By Bill White

Why God Gave Me Teenagers
 My son's first driving lesson. He's loving it.

My son's first driving lesson. He's loving it.

Right now my wife and I have the, um, privilege, of parenting a 14 year old girl and a 15 year-old boy. It’s been quite the journey (and really a ton of fun). Recently I’ve suspected God did this to us because he wanted to teach me how to pastor. Sure, there may be more reasons than that why God gave me teenagers, but I think learning how to pastor is a big one.

A few years ago, knowing we were on the cusp of having a teenager, our wise friend Audra, who is a physician, sent us along some parenting advice. I’ve reread it any number of times. I just want to highlight two of the lines in it.

Key advice #1:“The ultimate goal of parenting the adolescent is to work yourself out of a job.”

There are a lot of other things I tend to think are my ultimate goal when it comes to raising teenagers. They mostly center around my kids agreeing with everything I say and doing everything I say. (Can I get an “Amen!” somebody?)

But as my friend’s advice went on to say next, “When parenting young children, the parent is in control.” And you can do the math on what’s next. I’m not solely in control anymore. And that’s actually a good thing, because how can my kids ten years from now know how to handle money responsibly and make good moral decisions if I never give them any space to do so now? I won’t be hovering over them then – so I’ve got to start figuring out how to stop hovering so much now and instead to train them to do things themselves. As the parenting advice said, I need to work myself out of a job, which is really hard.

As a pastor, that’s the story of my life. A part of me just wants to go around playing God and telling people what to do all the time, with my ultimate goal being to have my congregation agree with everything I say and do everything I say.  Fortunately most of the time I suppress this side of me (I worry sometimes about how it seems like this really is the goal of some pastors). But my real goal is actually to work myself out of a job. My goal is to see people at City Church learn how to feed themselves spiritually, how to lead others, and how to engage the world without me holding their hand. The first century Christian, Paul, puts it this way: to present everyone mature in Christ.

Teaching my son to drive is a living hell parable for me these days. I could only tell him so much before I actually had to surrender the driver’s seat to him. One of the things we’ve discovered is that screaming at him from the passenger’s seat is ineffective both at insuring safety as well as at building closeness. Talking with him from the seat next to his seems far more helpful, with perhaps the occasional shriek allowed for emergencies. And that’s about the same balance in pastoring – mostly talking, with the occasional, more directive and strongly worded challenge. Because ultimately, I’m not trying to make ‘little Bills’ but instead ‘little Christs’, which is whatChristian originally meant in the first century. And that’s just not possible if I always occupy the driver’s seat.

Key advice #2: “Time Out is now for the parent – practice walking away.”

It’s a little bit embarrassing to admit how badly I need this advice as a parent, but it’s so true. How many times have I had to excuse myself from the table or the room and walk away in order to control my anger? Sure, my 15 year-old may have rolled his eyes one too many times or my 14 year-old may have complained about my dinner selection yet again, but the key is watching what goes on inside of me in those moments. The biggest clue is when I want to kill them. That usually means that I’m due for a time out. Sure, they may push me, but ultimately my response is my responsibility and no one else ‘makes’ me do certain things (like screaming at breakfast or slamming on the brakes on the way to school drop off, for example). I actually need some space to see the anger, insecurity, fear, and anxiety in my heart and deal with those, instead of just dumping all of them on my kids.

Fortunately, God gave me a teenager just before I started planting a church. The timing couldn’t have been any better.

Virtually every day I find myself needing to take a time out because of some situation at church that frustrates me, stresses me out, or angers me. Actually, it’s more like three times every day.   The reason that I need so many time outs is two-fold: firstly, I work with sinners and secondly, I’m one too. As a marriage starts to blow up or someone criticizes my preaching or an adolescent gets pregnant – all of the sudden there’s all of this goo in my heart that churns like quicksand sucking down a wildebeest. And if I don’t walk away for a bit and take some deep breaths and talk to Jesus, all my struggling just accelerates my demise. Trust me, I know this from experience.

That’s why God gave me teenagers – to train me to become a pastor. Obviously, the mere fact that I have 5 more years of teenagers left, God’s not done training me yet.

By Bill White

What Kind of People are Welcome Here?

At 7:04 am this morning a text message showed up from Maria. Maria is one of the new leaders at City Church, and she’s coming from a world where a lot of her  friends have suffered at the hands of Christians. Maria sent along the end of the conversation she’d just had with a friend after inviting her to church and to meet me and Jason:

Friend: what if I meet your pastor and I like him but I don’t trust him?

Maria: Well that’s probably gonna happen. How can you expect to trust anybody especially a pastor after what you have been through?

Friend: Hmmm… I guess you are right.

Maria: you absolutely have every right to be unsure. But I am glad you are thinking about it. That’s extremely courageous. My pastors are not assholes.

There are a few things that made me glad when I read this text:

  1. That God is still at work in this woman whose been hurt by the church, that she’s still asking spiritual questions and is still seeking something more.
  2. That there’s a Christian out there who is sensitive to the pain of others, who can affirm that they aren’t crazy for distrusting the church, and who sees the courage it takes to step into a spiritual community.
  3. That at least one person doesn’t think I’m an asshole

I’m reminded of how gentle Jesus was with those like this woman.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus, from Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message

By Bill White

Thinking About Sex

It’s been one of those weeks.  I’ve been talking to couples.  I’ve been talking to singles.  And it’s on everyone’s mind.

There are the couples who aren’t married who can’t figure out how to stop having sex.  There are the couples who are married who can’t figure out how to actually have sex.  And then there are the zillion of folks who get by with that cheap, plastic imitation of sex called pornography.

Finally, one more “I-can’t-believe-my-boyfriend-fiance-husband-does-porn” conversation broke the camel’s back.  I got mad and decided not to take it any more.

So I assigned my discipleship group to watch a TED talk on sustaining desire in long term relationships and then gave them a few key passages to study (1 Cor 7:1-7Prov 5:15-23Song of Solomon 7:1-14)… and we had some great conversations. 

Eliseo suggested that we rename our group “The Sexual Disciples.”  Paul suggested we make t-shirts.  I suppose that would make for an interesting conversation starter.

Over the past three weeks, we’ve talked a lot about what it means to follow Jesus in the bedroom – and about how that’s usually a microcosm of how we follow Jesus in the rest of our lives.  As we processed our key learnings, in particular we asked what the next steps are for each of us to grow in our intimate life with our spouse and what it would look like for us to grow in our openness to walking with others towards a healthier and holier sexuality.

So would you like one of the t-shirts?

By Bill White