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The Manifold Nature of Understanding the Church

Beautiful church

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,  according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Ephesians 3:10-11

My life has been about the church. I have lived all of my life within the church. My folks starting taking me to church at six weeks of age and I have not stopped going since.

But here’s the truth. I have not always liked the church. I’ve seen beautiful people marred by the church and within the work of the church, I seen people shoot the wounded, not help them. They have hemorrhaged and bled and been wounded only to find people within the church still kick, abuse and kill them in God’s holy halls.

I have been on a journey in my recent years of understanding the church. I watched my own four adult children join me on this journey—because they, like me were raised in the church as well. I call myself a “recovering Baptist.” I’m recovering in most areas of my life where I messed up.

In working with thousands of leaders who work in the church, I’ve grown weary, tired and disillusioned to be honest. I’ve witnessed so much abuse by men who wear robes and leaders who wear authority that I’ve grown suspicious. Yes, suspicious is a good word to describe my taking a step back and evaluating the relevance, the need, the look and feel of the church in the 21st century.

To say that I stumbled upon a verse in the Bible is not the correct way of telling you what shifting my entire paradigm about the church today. This verse had been there all along—throughout the entire birth of the church until this very day. It’s just that I missed it. I overlooked it on my way to find what I felt might be even more verses to help me and to help others.

Ephesians 3:10-11 leaped out at me and has nearly knocked me unconscious. “The manifold wisdom of God.” I have sat with that word—“manifold”—trying my best to figure out precisely what Paul intended by choosing such a word.

The word “manifold” means: “having many different forms, features, or elements: manifold breeds of dog.” The manifold wisdom of God regarding the wisdom within and about the church is just this: The church too has many different forms, features and elements just as the breeds of the species we call dogs.

Because of my work—the work with leaders who feel called to live their life; do their life and give their life because of the church, I’ve seen passionate leaders feel like their church is the right church; the only church; the best church; the hippest church; the most multi-sited church, the largest; the fastest growing and then it morphs into something darker. Every church should be like my church. Since I am with the right church, then everyone else is experiencing something less; something outside of God’s intent.

Pride, authority and a seminary education can create the perfect storm for leaders of the church to suffer a malady that infects their own soul and the ministry to which they feel called.

Some leaders might feel like their church, call it a blue church, is the way to do church. You have to think blue. You have to be blue. You have to hang with blue people to really be in the blue movement.

Then in another state; perhaps another city or even across the street are the orange folk who think and feel exactly the same way that the blue folks do in the blue church. Then there is the red church. The green church and yes, even a pink church.

But now, let’s use this word “manifold” here…. And see if we can ease our tension a bit by embracing that from God’s perspective, it is not about the right color. And what if this is true because from God’s perspective there is no right color. There are just a manifold of colors—all seeking to do the same thing but in different ways.

As some of you will know, no person on the face of the earth, living or dead has impacted my life more than that of Dallas Willard. It was Dallas who told me years ago when I went to a Catholic (Is Catholic a color?) Monastery with him for a month to recover from my toxicity and my addiction of being a pastor, “Steve, Jesus only spoke the word, “church” two times in his entire life that we know of. Why have you made “church” your God?” That question undone me and I have never, ever recovered from his question. I don’t think I will ever recover either. Perhaps now, 20 years later, I am just now beginning to understand the depth’s of Dallas Willard’s question to me in that Prayer cell were monks fled to do their own version of church.

Now, there is more wisdom…. And it is this, if you are in a blue church and I am in a red one, can we surrender our efforts to compete against, degrade and throw rocks at the people who do their life in a yellow church?

Perhaps from God’s perspective, it takes all the reds and hues of red; all the blues and hues of blue; all the yellow and hues of yellow to express what God has intended. Perhaps this is so because no human system has dibs on the truth. Not the Lutherans, not the Presbyterians, not the Charismatics, not the Bible-believing-fundamentalist, not even my church or your church. We lay down our efforts to defend our color church and we surrender our dogmas to the fact that in history and through history—no creed has survived in all colors but Jesus. No book has been lifted higher than our Bible. No god has been worshipped but our God—the God who created the manifold ways in which we try every six days to “gather to gather to ask the Lord’s blessings. We hasten and chasten his truths to make known.”

Stephen W. Smith

Copyright 2014

All Rights Reserved.


The Paradox of Thanksgiving

by Stephen W. Smith

Thanksgiving and actually every holiday, stirs the soul and brings up the dark as well as the light.

I asked Gwen what single word would sum up the year 2011, without any hesitation, she said, “Pain!” In that single word few companions or acquaintances could ever realize the hidden pain she has carried. Her back pain. The surgery. The tumor. The 4 month long recuperation that will morph to 12 months before she’s done and actually “better.”

Do you have one word that might describe 2011? Think of one and don’t be too shallow, smaltzy or simple! Find a word that you might offer as a word to give insight to your very soul.

Here’s what true for me in this past year that I need to keep in mind as I look for my word:

In 2011:

I had to re-write my entire book that I spent two years writing.
I had to do this in three months.
I had to cancel plans for a summer of fun for a long, hard journey into my heart to try–again to understand what the abundant life was really about.
I have to realize that in the empty nest, we find ourselves alone more than we really want to be and deeply miss our kids.
I have to realize that the realization of a dream long fought for and hard-pressed to realize has ushered me into a new feeling that goes something like this: “Now, what?”
I am coming to realize that my closest friends are really never going to live in one place and for any extended period of time.
That the finishing of the Inn–the big red barn is really only the sobering beginning of ministry using it.

Life is expensive. We gain in life–but the truth is really this–we also lose in life. Abundance in life is not about amassing everything that is good. But abundance is coming to the understanding that we are merely clay and life is not up to us and never was.

So, while packing our car to drive up to the retreat to enjoy the thanksgiving feast with a few friends who have become for us family, we are sobered by the paradox of thanksgiving. To celebrate thanksgiving is to relinquish the feeling of simply being happy to being profoundly aware that without Jesus Christ, life would not be worth it.

In every paradox is the lens through with to see truth as it really is and that this truth is really the only thing that will set us free in the end.

Here’s to all who have lost their love in death this past year who will need to be thankful for a life now alone.
Here’s to all who have lost their job and have no future for a new one who will need to be thankful at the prospect of a meager year ahead.
Here’s to all who have received bad news from the doctor and will need to be thankful.
Here’s to politicians that continue to over promise and under deliver in this great nation of ours that seems so broken this year!
Here’s to all have been betrayed by a friend, stabbed in the back by someone you never felt could or would do it and be thankful.
Here’s to all who have lost so much only to find that they have everything in Jesus Christ.
Here’s to all who will walk with a limp but who will still walk.
Here’s to all who have sought refuge in the church only to feel even more alone.
Here’s to all who have tried to live more simply but only to discover the complexities of the soul’s longings.
Here’s to all who seek the serenity of the Quiet One only to discover the shouting within and around us.

Paradox is sometimes the very best word one can use to discuss our life which goes sometimes like this: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times….we had everything before us. We had nothing before us. It was the spring of our hope. It is the winter of our discontent. Yes, we live here in the middle of these realities and to deny that we do is a symptom of our shallow lives and empty hearts. If the Psalmist could express both love and fear; worship and defeat; victory with lament in his poems, why then, can’t we?

I”m mindful of you this Thanksgiving. I’m so very thankful for your honest questions. Your determination to not give up or give in. I’m grateful to soldiers who will eat alone so that we may feast together.

I am most thankful for David, Rebekah who are my team in life and work now. I am thankful for Paul, Chad and Tiffiny who make our life, retreat and work better than what it would be if I were alone.

I am profoundly thankful for my true companion in life who seeks what I want; who longs for what I long for; who will not settle for anything less of what the paradox of thanksgiving stirs.

My word for 2011 is paradox. Some good, some bad. Some hard. Some easy. Some wonderful. Some awful. Some brutal. Some beautiful.

Yes, paradox.

Blessings at Thanksgiving!

OK. Now in the “reply” box, type in your one word–perhaps with some elaboration and let us compare notes on the journey towards having grateful hearts!

The Power of Belonging

by Stephen W. Smith

Last night I watched the Denver Broncos play football. It was a thrilling game but as the cameras panned the sold out stadium, what I saw was the power of belonging—most fans were wearing the orange and blue colors of the Broncos! Dressed alike there was solidarity in the cheering and victory.

But the night before last, I witnessed one of the most powerful sights of belonging that I have seen in years. A modern monastic order came together—men and women—married and single to welcome three new members into their community. I was invited to witness the event but my witnessing of what happened deeply moved me to tears, sober realizations and soulful longings.

Every human being longs to belong. This is why standing in a circle or sitting a table in a few days at Thanksgiving will be so good for our souls. There at the table, we will sit or stand in a circle; perhaps we will hold hands and bow our heads but one other, very important thing is happening. We are moving in that time from the “me” to the “we.” We are brought together to share together; to experience together; to taste together the goodness of our Thanksgiving meal.

This modern monastic order had worked with three individuals to teach them their ways, expectations and values. The three very ordinary, novitiates, who longed to belong stood ready to be accepted. One after one was called to the center where they stated their intent to belong to something greater than merely belonging to the me. They wanted to belong to the “we.” They desired community. They wanted to live out their lives with a few other like-minded men and women and experience church in their midst.

The drama increased for me as each novitiate was recognized, blessed and celebrated. A novitiate is anyone who is a beginner at something that wants to get better at something. Aren’t we really all novitiates in life? I know I am. Then, a beautiful yet simple cross was placed around their neck. It was the symbol that everyone in the room wore but me. I had no cross but I sure had the desire. Everyone moved to hug and embrace the new members of the “we”. They now belonged.

My desire was not so much to be given a cross as it was the amazing realization that I, too, wanted—no– needed to belong. I wanted to stand with a few people who wanted the same things I wanted; who would die for the same cause I would lay my life down for. We see such marvels at belonging in our military, sports, clubs and family events. My wish these days is for this power of belonging to draw the church into more of a “we” than just a gathering of “me’s.”

This Thanksgiving, we will perhaps sense this urge that swelled up within me. The power of belonging will rise up within us. Gather with what friends and family you may. Form the circle at the blessing or around the table. What will be more important than the feast before us, will be the feast of our lives—the power of belonging to one another! The power of “we.” For me, only one of my sons will travel 1,000 miles and leave the “me” to become the “we.” But though not all together, we will pause with a circle smaller than what I’d like and bow our heads to the One who lets us be both “me” and “we.”

Take a moment here and use the “reply” piece here to express your Thanksgiving for the people you belong to and then forward this to your “we.”

(This theme is explore more indepth in one of the Eight Ways in my new book, The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Re-discover Authentic Christianity. But this blog is new and does not appear in the book’s content). Copyright: Stephen W. Smith, 2011. You have permission to forward, print and use.

Five Reasons the North American Church is in Trouble!

by Stephen W. Smith

Friends, because of some much reaction to my entry today in the Potter’s Inn Journal, we need to switch this discussion to the blog so more folks can read what I’m reading. So feel free to leave your comments here. If you want to write to me personally, then just email or use the “reply” to the Potter’s Inn Journal.

So here’s what I wrote and sent out to 1400 people this morning!

Never in my life time have I personally experienced so much discontent with the church. It’s been brewing for years but now it seems to be at a feverish pitch and in many ways this is very, very good. Many pastors and leaders are hemorraghing while thousands are giving up on the church. As one 35 year old market place leader told me, “I’m not convinced that Jesus wanted us to be “little churchians.” I want to be a follow of Jesus and that may or may not include the church as I experience it now.”

We are not the first, to become dissatisfied with the church. The history of the Christian church reveals epoch battles between people who hold the power and the keys to the church and those who are demanding change. The good news here is that the church can change; has changed and will change. I hope that in my own lifetime, we will witness a complete reformation of the church. I say this because it is my personal belief that the church is in deep trouble. It is holding on to old paradigms that need to die in order to be re-born. Please let me explain.

1. The church is in trouble because the church has become more shaped by culture than by the Word. Paul’s words are clear: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. (Romans 12:2, Message). Like a dry sponge many churches and denominations have soaked the culture of bigness, greatness, technology, performance and being program driven without thinking through the consequences. The result—well, it’s easy to see. Architecture that has shifted from “sanctuary” to performance halls. No windows blocking out God’s glory in nature and Power-Point overload. When churches absorb the corporate climate of North America, focusing on leadership rather than shepherding, we have swallowed a pill that is resulting in a dis-ease within the church. When a church models a CEO mentality rather than servant leadership, the church has knelt before the idol of power and human personality more than the Spirit of the Living God.
2. The church is in trouble because we have forgotten that Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom than he did the church. When church talk and obsession with programs replaces meaningful conversation about God’s kingdom—namely ‘what God is up to in the world and in my own life’ we are in water which is way over our head with no bottom to stand upon. Let me be clear. The only church Jesus talked about to his followers was the church of 2-3. I sometimes wonder if Jesus would even recognize what we’ve shaped the church today to resemble? Would Jesus know: multi-site worship? Would he condone meganess rather than the church of two or three? Would he even understand all of the jazz about being missional? Would he bless a movement which would ordain gay and lesbian leaders? Somehow, I think we’ve been swept into a current that is just plain hard to find the shore these days. We’re caught up in whitewater and calling it church.
3. The church is in trouble because the church has forgotten the basic message of Jesus. We herald programs. We espouse tips and techniques. It’s very clear from even an initial reading of the red-letters of Jesus’ words that he was about: transformation, life-change and service. Making more grease to oil the gears of the machine—never!
4. The church is in trouble because we are more captivated by technology than we are the things of the Spirit. We have become addicted to our iphones and the church of Facebook connects us more than sitting in mass in an auditorium where no one know my name and no one even cares. We call Steve Jobs an icon, Facebook our life-line and have swallowed the purple pill which says “faster is better; bigger is greater and new is where the action is always at!” We forget—even deny that the Bible says the direct opposite: stillness is where the action really is; Jesus celebrates the individual not the masses; and being in a herd and following the herd has always, historically been the wrong choice.
5. The church is in trouble because we need modern day prophets to rise up like aJeremiah, Hosea and Amos who are not afraid of speaking the truth even when it hurts us and makes us feel bad. We’ve lost the way today because quite frankly many of us have settled to be secure and comfortable rather than follow Jesus. Last time I checked, Jesus never talked much about security—except in heaven and there’s very little at all about how any follower of his is entitled to a life of comfort. The true church of the 21st century must walk the tightrope of being cutting edge along with being anchored in truth.

What is fascinating to me is to realize that in the 4th century and gain in the 15-16th century major movements rose up which turned the established church upside down. People left the church like they are leaving today. They left the institution and whole new movements began to arise which offered hope, comfort and platforms for learning how to live the Jesus way. We need this again. I, for one, want to be in that number.

Lastly, let me remind you that I am not throwing stones because I am an insider. I’ve always been on the inside. It’s just that now, there’s so much smoke, I can hardly breath. How about you?

I’m not going to leave us hanging here. But there is no space to continue this week. I’ll offer some clues, hints and suggestions for how to reform what has gone wrong!

Living the Life we WANT to live!

Gwen is wanting me to quit using this picture of us. When I asked her why she said, “It’s 8 years old and we are more beat up now then when the picture was taken.” We laughed…. but inside we knew the truth of her joke. Perhaps, like many of our pictures–they are memories of a more innocent time–a time before big things happened that altered our life forever.

You know what I mean. The death of a parent. Losing your job. Erosion in your 401K. Life was more simple back then. The smiles were perhaps—well–deeper.

Life has a way of beating us up sometimes. When we closed our CaringBridge Blog, I could not help but notice that all but one of my friends who ever did a Caring Bridge blog had all died. I guess you can say that they were beat up by their cancer, their tumors, their illnesses and their disease–created dis-ease in their lives and every thing changed. The Cancer eventually did them in. This might sound crass but let me ask you a question:

Are you living the life you want to live before you die?

It’s a simple question and don’t read on before you pause with my quesition for a moment. One of my favorite authors and literary mentors is David Whyte. He wrote words I’ll never forget and I quote them often. He said, “Sometimes we have to unmake a living before we can live the life we really want to live.”

Gwen’s back surgery now seven weeks ago has unmade us. We’ve been forced to think and rethink much of our lives. Recovery is going slower than we both anticipated. She’s still not able to lift more than a gallon of milk and is now beginning her pool therapy which will help her recover the numbness in her leg. She’s making good progress you’ll be glad to know. This is a picture of her and me along with our friend, Dr. Curt Thompson (author of The Anatomy of the Soul, which we highly and strongly recommend).

She looks great doesn’t she? But behind every picture there is an inner story. Both of us were profoundly impacted by Curt Thompson’s book and the weekend retreat he led for us at our Inn in Colorado. We were so impacted that we’re beginnging now to make even more adjustments in our thinking about—well, about nearly everything. Curt’s a follower of Jesus who is also a psychiatrist. We spent hours together talking and sharing some of our lives with Curt. It was so helpful to get great insight and feedback–resulting in us vowing to ourselves, “We really do want to live the life we WANT to live—not just HAVE to live.” There’s a difference you know and perhaps Jesus came to offer us this difference—this Jesus Life, not an ordinary life.

So, in these fall days, we’re beginning to re-think much of our lives, whether or not we WANT to remain in our home or sell it and move to the retreat. How we want to be more involved in the lives of those we love and less involved with people and things that take the life out of us. As we begin to blog together, you’ll be able to hear from both us— watch our struggles to come to grips with some deep regrets that we both have our seeking the courage to set out to live and experience the life we really do want to live.

We were reminded….The Kingdom of God is actually here and now…not just ours through death. How’s your kingdom life going?

Steve and Gwen Smith
Colorado Springs, CO
Potter’s Inn

The Integrated Life

by Stephen W. Smith

Today in Colorado–well it’s stunning and mesmerizing. It’s why I chose to live in such staggering beauty. I took a long drive today into the foothills and my road took me up and down, swaggering by hills and through green pastures. Beauty that is intoxicating. I stopped at a favorite tea house where I ordered French Press Coffee, Carrot Cake and ice water and just basked in the sunshine.

Glory! Why is it, that carrot cakes seems to help almost everything and everyone?

Then I reached for my journal and began to write a page about how deeply I am longing to live what I am going to call “the integrated life.” A life that I will begin to share with you here. I came up with ten descriptions of the integrated life I want to live. In post after post, Gwen and I will begin to share our hearts, soul’s longings and deep stirrings with you. Perhaps our thoughts will stir you to think more deeply; more contemplatively; more reflectively about the life that you are living and whether you are happy with the life you are living.

Here’s how the dictionary defines the word “integrate:”

   [in-ti-greyt] Show IPA verb, -grat·ed, -grat·ing.
verb (used with object)
1.to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole.
2.to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit, as parts do.
3.to unite or combine.
4.to give or cause to give equal opportunity and consideration to (a racial, religious, or ethnic group or a member of such a group): to integrate minority groups in the school system.
5.to combine (educational facilities, classes, and the like, previously segregated by race) into one unified system; desegregate.

I want all of this in my life. I’m tired of managing silos of work, health, family and faith. I don’t believe in silo thinking any more. I don’t believe in the balanced life any more. I believe the balanced life is a myth and lie that someone invented to sell books and fill seminars. I’ve tried to find balance. Now I am liking two words, far, far better than balanced! They are the words integrated and rhythm. I’ll explain more in the blogs to follow.

I met today with some social marketing geeks who are going to help us revamp our blog, give a face lift to our old look and capture the message we will begin to share with you.

OK blog readers. I invite you to comment. What do you think an integrated life looks like? Do you want one? What can we do to live the life we want?

Copyright 2011. Stephen W. Smith

Morphing the Blog

Gwen and I have decided, together, to morph this blog. We’re going to be doing some significant changes in upcoming days and weeks. And the most important is that we’re going to enter entries together. Both of us will be writing on this blog and the focus of our writing and musings will be our own interaction with the topic and themes in my new book, The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Re-discover Authentic Christianity.”

Why are we doing this? We’re doing this for three main reasons. Both of us want to desperately live–The Jesus Life. We’re tired of the church life, the busy life, the American life and more. In the book I explore how to return to the life Jesus described and offered–the abundant life. That’s the life we want. Second, Gwen’s gotten so much favorable feedback from her writing on her Caringbridge.org site, (her recovery from major back surgery) that we felt this would be a great outlet and spiritual practice to just write, share our thoughts and encourage our on-line village of friends and companions to journey with us into The Jesus Life. Third, we’re doing this because we want to invite you into the life we are leaning into. We want to discuss, dialogue and divulge our heart with you as we interact with the most important and some of the most neglected themes of our times. In The Jesus Life, we’re going to explore some of the content of the book; give you excerpts BEFORE the book is published and ideas on how to integrate what is shared. It will be personal. It will be real. It will be heart-felt. And it will be from both of our perspectives–male and female; husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter of God and fellow pilgrims on this long arduous journey home.

So, after some significant changes to our blog in the new week, we’ll be up and running. I hope you’ll spread the word!

We hope you’ll “subscribe” to the blog and share this with your friends. We hope you’ll consider journeying with us together as we embark on this new chapter of our life, marriage, work and family!