Thursday, December 31, 2009

The December 31 Moravian

Let all those rejoice who put their trust in you. Psalm 5:11 (NKJV)

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. John 20:29

Why is it that, in struggling for a word of hope, we fall into the trap of choosing the better over the best? Of worshiping the effect or result of God's transforming grace instead of fixing ourselves on The One and Only? Something works well one time and we codify it into a regular tradition. This is about our preferring the penultimate instead of the Ultimate.

The words for the new portal of time called 2010 are about us, God's people, trusting in God's goodness and grace even though we do not see what's ahead. We are free to rejoice in the not-yet-certain because God in Jesus is ahead of us.

Today is a foggy day in South Texas. Living by faith is similar to driving in the fog with real fog lights. We can see better, maybe not any farther, because the reflection of the brights against the fog is gone. The distractions are not as annoying and difficult to screen. We can see God's love best with the eyes of faith. And it's about trust not certainty.

God, deliver us from the temptation of doubting your love for us. Regardless of what we can or can't see ahead, free our spirits to hear Your words of love and power reclaiming and recreating us in this moment of new time. We surrender to Your will and way in Christ's name.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

UM Questions and Answers 2009-2010

  1. If it works in Kansas does it work in No Trees? Yes, if it's the UMC Publishing House.
  2. What's the obsession with discipleship? It's measurable and safe. And our version stops short of getting into trouble like Jesus did.
  3. Why are there so many church consultants? See #1 above.
  4. Are younger clergy just more fodder for the pension system? Not all all. How cynical.
  5. Why are clergy pensions being re-evaluated? Pensions?
  6. Why the glass ceiling for women mega- church senior pastors but not for women bishops? The UMC wants to look more progressive than it actually is.
  7. How can UMC's be for the civil rights of GLBT persons and against holy unions? See number #6.
  8. How much does the name "Methodist" cost? Ask the trustees of Southern [methodist] University.
  9. What is fruitless? Probably lecturing on fruitfulness. Or hearing a lecture on it.
  10. What's a mission-based appointment? Too early to tell; maybe it's new code for a "challenge."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Nullifying God's Grace

Week of 12/27/09 watchword:

Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. Psalm 148:13

The New Testament for 12/28/09:

I do not nullify the grace of God. Galatians 2:21

Part of the doctrinal heritage of the Reformation is "irresistible grace." Who are we, it goes, to resist God's sovereign will, to block the movement of God's grace? It's about God getting God's way; not our will be done, but God's.

When Paul speaks of "nullifying" God's grace, could he be suggesting that we create ways to void God's offer of love and grace? We do so by not believing the best about God and ourselves, that we are made in God's image and created in love. We choose to use our precious time in a way that does not lead to life. We do it as a species, to each other- and to earth, our home.

So Paul's personal statement about not nullifying the grace of God is not about God's grace, but rather our pugnacious spirit of denying, resisting, rejecting the movement of God's grace in and beyond us. If you want a community based on merit, then join the Boy Scouts or Rotary. Or the Optimists (my favorite civic club). Many churches, in their own way, resist the movement of God's grace in their shared life. Many clergy too.

In this last week of 2009, the confession proves helpful:

God, your life is within us, but our selfishness has hindered you. We have not lived by faith. We have resisted your Spirit. We have neglected your inspirations. Deliver us, loving God, from nullifying your grace this day, this moment. Amen.

Christ's peace to you and yours!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

An After-Christmas Prayer, 12/27/09

Lord, if we were to sum it all up, we are filled with so many good things but today it's enough to appreciate the gift of life itself! And the gift of a morning so clean and crisp and beautiful that we can see blue sky everywhere! We offer our worship, our gifts, ourselves. You alone are God, you alone are the Lord. You alone are holy.

Forgive us for the words spoken in anger, for our actions that have hurt or harmed another. And we pray for those who hurt us, in the name of the one who said from the cross, "Forgive them- they don't know what they're doing." Free us, we pray, to make it easier for others to believe in you because they have known us. Help us to lighten the load that others are carrying, to cut some slack for others, knowing how we appreciate it when someone is patient and understanding with us.

We praise and glory and delight in your loving presence. The glow of that Holy Night still lingers...the simplicity and surrender of people giving themselves to each other and ultimately to you... Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, all making their unplanned journeys. So teach us to walk with you in the happenstance. That if you are anywhere, you are where we are afraid and uncertain. Teach us anew that courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of love- your love and grace. Teach us what it means to be loved unconditionally, and to trust in you even though we don't know what tomorrow will bring.

Help us to hear in Jesus our invitation to live and to be fully alive! That surrendering to you is an invitation to know joy and peace and gentleness deep within and where we live. It's our gain and we're so grateful. Renew and restrain us and our world in your love. Renew our hope and adventure and willingness to risk and serve. Deliver those who are in pain or who suffer from the violence of others. Heal us and hold us all, Lord. And equip us not only to know what our ministry is, but to do it! In the name of the One who saves us and loves, Jesus. Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day Moravian

Nativity of the Lord (Christmas Day)

Today's Watchword:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the
glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14


Send the memory of your child Jesus, that we may know the joy of being loved
without condition. As you took human form and walked among us, may we let the
light of you shine through our lives.
In Jesus' name. Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Monday Moravian, 12/21/09

Watchword for the Week of December 20:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
Luke 1:52

Monday's New Testament text:
Christ says, "If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you."
John 16:23

This season's expectations may include that we will be sweeter and kinder than usual. Will this be the year of the perfect Christmas? Because of the unusually high expectations, the disappointments are just as extreme. Frustration, anger, impatience are all symptoms of being overbooked and trying too hard.
Which is why Mary's words in Luke from the Magnificat are so helpful and healing. Because God comes to us when we are low, with the weight of our own schemes and imagination. The Walter Mitty syndrome is the temptation of each and every Christian, especially now. It goes that somehow we can be totally different people just because it's December.

But we're not different just because we're busier, or it's Christmas. The archetypes tapped into by the Grinch and Christmas ghost stories, or even the biblical massacre of children at the hands of Ceasar's Herod teach us about the shadow side of this season, and ourselves. Especially on December 21, the darkest period of the year, the first day of winter.

Being lifted up at the hands of a loving God is the last thing we think we need. We don't want to meet God here on the ground. But God is especially where we are the most desolate. In the Incarnation, God is saying the totality of our human condition is redeemed and loved.

It's in the name of One who became flesh that we pray. Not formulaic, the teaching is about seeking God and God's will in love. It's not about using the Jesus word as a magician would. Here St. Julian's word's are instructive:
The purpose of God’s revelation to me was to teach our soul the wisdom of cleaving to the goodness of God. And so our customary practice of prayer was brought to mind: how through our ignorance and inexperience in the ways of love we spend so much time on petition. For in his goodness is included all one can want, without exception…to know the goodness of God is the highest prayer of all, and it is a prayer that accommodates itself to our most lowly needs.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Advent Affirmations in a Time of Grief

Receiving the Light of Christ in a Season of Exile

December, 2004

  • I am letting the Light of Christ shine on me by choosing to care for my body, my spirit, my mind. Psalm 30:2
  • Even though we are changed forever by our loss; we are choosing not to die with our loved one. John 1:5
  • Through the chaos and paralysis, Christ’s Light reminds me of what I have left, not just what I have lost. Philippians 4:8
  • Even as many of our Christian friends journey to Bethlehem to behold the birth of our Savior; we may need to meet the adult Jesus at Bethany with Mary and Martha, at the tomb of their beloved brother and his dear friend, Lazarus. (John 11)
  • When I am running on empty, feel like I have nothing left to give, that’s when the grace and power of God helps me the most. I am not useless. (II Corinthians 12:9)
  • Christ’s peace is a gift that is there for the taking, “My peace I give to you.” John 14:27
  • When it is too difficult to pray, I know that the Holy Spirit is praying for me with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

  • Though it may feel like God is far away, Christmas affirms that God in Jesus Christ lives among us, has “pitched his tent among us” and shoulders our pain and grief. John 1:14

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Giving Others a Break

December is a perfect time to cut everyone in your life some slack, because much of what fuels our struggle with the season is GUILT. How else can you explain the unreasonable amount of effort and money and time that goes into our preparation with buying, decorating, sending, and cooking? Why are we surprised when we find our Christmas has been stolen? We did it to ourselves.

Are we bums if we leave our perfect Christmas behind? If I don't feel happy or even joyful, and I am not overflowing with kindness, does that mean that I might as well expect a visit from Marley's ghost or sojourn in the cave on Mt. Crumpet with the Grinch himself?

Classes on managing holiday stress go a long way toward helping us set realistic goals for the season. Once these are written down, it's easier to stay true to them, to be intentional and not just well-intentioned. If we don't do something like this, we tend to measure everything by how we happen to be feeling at that moment. It's easy to lose focus of how we're implementing the small changes of reducing guilt and anxiety.

Talk of hating Christmas is more about hating the guilt and heroic expectations that come with not giving ourselves and others a break. If we need anything, it's first to be released so that we can let others go. Allow yourself and others NOT to be perfect. And if somehow, you don't measure up to your own ideals, then be gentle with yourself.

Allow for some breaks for rest and recovery. That is what Advent is supposed to be: a time to wait, to listen to God, to cease from doing and obsessing about doing. It's supposed to be a respite from the guilt that each December, we're not magically transformed into an ideal version of ourselves.

How can I make it easier for one other person today? That, to me, is the better way to prepare for Jesus' coming.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Monday Moravian 12/14/09

This Week's Watchword
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Luke 3:8

Monday's N.T. Text

It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:13

The inclusive meaning of repentance has to do with a turning around (Hebrew) as well as a change in thinking leading to a change in action (Greek). Throughout the Bible, it also can describe regret or sorrow that doesn't lead anywhere. When a public figure's private misdeeds (Tiger Woods, for example) are exposed, the image consultants will say that sincere contriteness must be expressed at some point if their public persona is to be repaired.

But the New Testament knows at least as much about how the word was used in its every day Roman context. Repeated repentance and renunciation of Christianity was required of accused Christians in many parts of the empire. Evidence suggests that those who persisted or who endured in their faith, could have been executed for their stubbornness, or, if they were a Roman citizen, shipped off to Rome. The story of Paul follows this second scenario. Announcing the imperative, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand," as Jesus does in Mark 1:15 or "Bear fruits worthy of repentance" as John Baptizer does in Luke 3:8 would have certainly been a subversive thing to hear and then do. It also might have brought a knowing smile.

Faithful repentance is not about feeling sorry; gospel repentance upends our world and our life as we love it. We fashion a comfortable, safe, stable, and convenient existence. Successful adults are well adjusted, balanced, and know how to find their place. But those attributes are hard to capture or control. They exist more in the imagination of "wouldn't it be nice?"

Faithful repentance turns toward the movement of a loving God within. The change in thinking may be that God is indeed at work within us, of all people. Holy Spirit love is claiming, calming, and calling us, cheering us on to the end that we will want more of God's love for ourselves and our world. And God's end is delight in us. There is no hidden agenda or neediness in God's "good pleasure." It's about God's abundance and overflow of joy in us!

It was once said that the Wesleyan view of perfection is not moral, but rather, loving intention. Can everything be done out of a loving heart, one first loved by God? It's from this holy encounter that the "good fruits" naturally and inevitably flow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

God and Brain Researcher Comes to Houston

Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania will present the 2010 Bowles Lecture series. The date is Thursday, January 21 at the Memorial Hermann Southwest Campus in the Wilson Turner Auditorium. Newberg's latest book was released in March, 2009.

Call 713-222-CARE to register.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Grinch Therapy & Functional Atheism

Similar to the Grinch's heart being three sizes too small, would it help those who live in grinchy isolation to speak with a therapist? The problem is, we and the Grinch like where we are.

"Atheist" is a crowded word. It could include all who reject any form of theism on philosophical grounds and/or those who reject religion because of the bad behavior of its adherents. When it comes to what people believe or don't, frankly only God knows if what we say and what we really think are remotely similar. Many Americans subscribe to what I would call functional atheism, that is, there has been and continues to be a gap between what we say we believe (78% belief in God) and actual religious participation and practice (54% say religion very important in life). For Americans, especially UMC's, we know the "right" (read: popular or majority) answers so the presence of the cheat scale is real.

But I wonder if the gap is explained away just by fudging the questions. In one video our kids enjoyed years ago, the Grinch is psychoanalyzed by none other than the Cat in the Hat. What prompts him to do and persist in doing such mean things? In a similar fashion, it might be helpful to assume that absolutely everyone who walks into our lives is a wounded individual, with or without church affiliation. And the wounded wound.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Monday Moravian 12/07/09

This Week's Watchword
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and
redeemed them.
Luke 1:68

Monday's Text, December 7
Clothe yourselves with the new self,
created according to the likeness of God in
true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:24

Everything looks better when seen as a gift. Starting a daily examen with how we have received God's grace always seems more promising because perceiving life as gift, is apart, if not a requisite, of actually receiving God's love for ourselves and embodying grace to others. Most do not see their lives as a gift or a blessing. And that's why the therapeutic is so popular these days in and out of churches. We need healing to be able to see our life as gift, especially in the places where we feel cursed.

The Song of Zechariah, or the Benedictus in Luke 1:68ff., is a song declaring the dawn of God's tender mercy (1:78). This dawn of light is God's gift of mother-womb-love, a compassion from the gut not the head or even the heart. Does anatomy matter here? Those who are too heady and purpose- conscious, and those who are tossed by the shades of emotion and passion are taught by the faith of John the Baptizer's father, Zechariah. He's not talking about God's too big plan- he's taking about God's "daddy-ness."

We do not, finally surrender to an idea, a divine mover. The fire of our will rises and falls because we will always be filled with unfulfilled good intentions. But to throw yourself into the arms of God's tender mercy? Mom's arms? Like being clothed after the birthing of our baptism, the imperative in Ephesians 4 is to grow the new species, God's very image in us, first begun in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The work of God's righteousness (right relationship) and holiness (set-apartness) begun by God in us, deepens with our full agreement and surrender to God's love in Jesus.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Mystic Way of Evangelism

I thoroughly enjoyed Elaine Heath's The Mystic Way of Evangelism. If you're looking for something to do in a prepackaged, programmatic sort of way, you'll need to look elsewhere. Those supersaturated with fads, trends and gimmicks, I recommend it! Heath's narrative style invites a lingering read.

From the beautifully told biographies of the saints Heath, I think accurately, describes the present state of the church (in the U.S. I presume) as one of the dark night of the mystics. The way negativa- or the steps of purgation, illumination, and union, is the way through the night. You might find it interesting that Heath applies a basically personal spiritual category to the corporate church, and so several pages in the Appendix well explain her metaphor. Pointing to the loss of fruitfulness, dearth of desire, and true longing for more of God among our denominations, her description, however, is right on target.

In purgation, we can choose to learn in the dark night or just continue on the same deadening path we've grown accustomed to. Seminaries do not, according to Heath, teach us to pray contemplatively, so our ministry is seen as a production of the false self and whatever feeds ego needs, not something that grows out of what we receive from God's love and gift in prayer. In ministry, we hit the wall, literally running out of new stuff to do, fall exhausted staying on the merry-go-round, or a little of both.

The kenotic, or self- emptying and life-giving love of God is our true coming home, our illumination. And this story in the lives of the saints is what Heath brings to life so well. Our healing is from the three- fold wound of sexism, class-ism, and racism. St. Julian's own vision tells the story of our original wounding and how God looks on us with pity, not blame. The choice of these three particular wounds is effectively argued, using not only the ugly statistics of sexual abuse (1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are survivors of childhood sexual abuse), but also in sharing the struggles of saints like Phoebe Palmer and Henri Nouwen, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly.

In keeping with a narrative form, Heath tells how an imagined community, as it grounds itself in the spirituality of the mystics, will also be attractive to those not present, because love will be genuine. There will be an egalitarian sense of shared ministry with bi-vocational pastors leading the way. Ministry will come out of what people receive from God's love in prayer, not from what they score on gift inventories. Earth care will be practiced alongside of, not in back of, financial stewardship.

Heath's book is more than just an accounting of our current spiritual malaise. She also is apart of New Day, a monastic-like community in Dallas, where she also teaches evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. So I'm pretty sure she telling us a little of her own journey too. Her book is a rare one on the practice of evangelism, so needed to be relished contemplatively, prayerfully. What else would you expect?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Does Applause Worship God?

“…if worship is a gift, then it is absolutely not what I am looking to get out of it, but what I am looking to give.”

Brewin, Signs of Emergence, p. 149.

My home church, Lakewood UMC (Ohio) has a magnificent organ and sanctuary. In my youth, appreciative postlude fans would gather just to hear the artistry of John Christian as he lit up the organ each Sunday. Dr. Joseph Albright, the Senior Pastor in those days, would cajole us during the worship service to, yes, enjoy the postludes, but please no applause because this was John's private worship.
Applause interfered with something that was between John and God alone.

I always wondered how applause could interfere with worship. Wasn't this brilliant organist playing for us, for our adulation and response? If it makes you feel good, then why not show it? But if his music was an act of worship, what would happen if he measured his offering not by his own sense of giving to God, but by the decibels of applause? What about human fickleness? What if John played something we didn't like- or he played something in a way that turned us off? Would the crowd begin to shrink or the applause stop altogether?

The pastor was reminding us of the essence of worship- it's about giving something- to God. It's about becoming God's own and being formed in the Holy One's image. And so, the questions about what the crowd will like and if they will clap loudly are moot.

I realize that clapping during worship may be the only way we have of expressing our joy and is highly relative to faith and cultural heritage. I think some Anglo congregations use it to prove that we can be spontaneous. However, in the general culture, applause still means approval for a performance or a TOUCHDOWN! And the louder and longer the better!

When it becomes all about my feeling good about myself, applause or no applause, my actions have ceased to be worship of God. To the degree that we want whatever pleases us as worship consumers, we take up the idolatrous, exhausting, and hopeless chore of being made in our own image.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kester Brewin's "Signs of Emergence"

The words attributed to Einstein, "The same consciousness that created a problem cannot solve it" provides the mission of Signs of Emergence. (2007) Bringing together Fowler's stages of faith with a prophetic critique of hierarchical church, the author's intent is one of raising consciousness for the "Conjunctive church," or Fowler's Stage 5. This stage follows the arrogance of Stage 3 and Stage 4's "dark night." Stage 5 is where doubt is not extinguished but tensions are accepted, and mystery truly appreciated. 

Brewin is not talking about stages in an adult's faith, but rather, what the corresponding emergence looks like in faith communities. He has more success is describing what it's not: "So we feed the ecclesiastic furnaces our burned-out wrecks: tired leaders, disillusioned ministers, fatigued congregations- marshaling them to dance longer, march faster, pray harder, cry louder in earnest for God to come...We must be brave enough to stop if we are to see change... Our structures must serve us, not us serve them." 

The church needs to be adaptive, an open system, rather than prepackaged and ready-made. The sole purpose is incarnating the life of Christ in the host culture. The process is not revolution, but evolution through small scale, incremental improvement: "Revolution is characterized by speed and tries to impose change from without. It is top down and heavily dependent on hierarchies and centralized power. Evolution refuses to rush ahead and thus avoids shearing and fissures. It tries to bring about change from within." Revolution demands instant results, evolution takes time. 

So, we need to learn and live out of a new vocabulary. We're the body of Christ, not the machine of Christ. To reestablish the body of Christ, we need to lose the modern, industrial matrix of words like machine, structure, drive, steering, breaking down, and mechanism in favor of the organic words like heart, nourish, sustain, grow, nurture, cultivate, and adapt. The body of Christ is a self-organized complexity (like our human bodies) despite our attempts at over-  control.

One of the more helpful chapters (6) was on the church as a "hub for gift exchange and all the relational enrichment that goes with it." Because the essence of who we are cannot be bought or sold, acts of worship come from the "economy of gift." Worship itself is a gift exchange, where we learn to offer gifts that are uniquely our own, and only marginally see ourselves as recipients, as takers. The book's concluding Chapter 7, on the emergence of Christ, has a couple of great insights. About Holy Communion, Christ becomes broken, shared, and decentralized, and virally apart of his people and their culture. About Holy Spirit, in the Spirit's Pentecost, those infected can speak of God in a language people can understand.

I appreciate the attempt to describe what the Conjunctive church looks like, because there are places where that church is breaking out. What about clergy leaders? That's a topic Brewin doesn't address and it's a shortcoming of the book. I imagine Stage 3 churches rely on good Stage 3 leaders. Denominational success is seen in results, numbers, homeostasis, and equilibrium and so the Stage 3 leader is rewarded in like terms; that's who they are. How relevant that, given the UMC's annual statistical reporting, we find that surviving in ministry is as the mission, and not where Christ is emerging in it. Perhaps if we asked that question more often, even in resistance, we could be delivered - and free others- from being just more fuel for the furnace.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hearing George Barna: Why Houston Christians Don't Go to Church

"Why Houston Christians Don't Go To Church" was the topic of the conference sponsored by Chapelwood and area churches yesterday at First Baptist Church, Houston. With many churches represented and about 250 present, the event was a project of the Houston Coalition of Church Communicators. The Barna Group surveyed self-defined Christians who had not attended church in the last six months, nor do they have plans to so in the next six months. The area studied was generally the Katy Freeway corridor of West Houston. "We know them," Barna quipped, "because they're just like us." Barna described these folks as "self-absorbed." Success, health, family, and maintaining a comfortable life rank highest among their values.

Barna presented conclusions from both the Houston study and his national research on unchurched adults over 18. He was passionate about treating this audience with respect. Marketing obviously only goes so far, but phone calls and home visits (with or without gifts) are invasive and manipulative. The best chance of reaching this group is through a friend who not only invites them, but also, offers to take them. And the research shows that multiple invitations, when done with patience and openness, eventually do work. Once there, anonymity is preferred. In fact, new attenders want to observe to see if the people there are kind and non-judgmental. 

At every point- before, after, and during a return to church, how the people of a congregation treat each other is the most important factor in reaching this audience, according to Barna. But Barna clearly communicated that there's no silver bullet here. Churches need to segment and offer many doors, many options. For example, over 50% see worship as the one thing churches offer of value; the problem is, there's such a gap between worship and anything else seen of value. Barna said "Congratulations, we got at least one thing right." But to make advances, we could also be perceived as offering value other than worship.

Many of the non-attending Christians have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important today. (78%) And their habit of not going to church is one of many years, not just a few months- a tough habit to break! Barna is confident that when and if there is something of value given and received, then the habit of church absence can be challenged. He said that he could do a whole day on why children's ministry is key. This audience does not automatically trust strangers with their children (who should, really?), so at least for the first few visits, they would much prefer to have their children stay with them.

Barna criticized our reliance on numbers alone to show "transformation." More does not prove transformation. And since that's what it's about, we need to look at other ways to measure fruitfulness- not just numbers. To say we therefore need more churches is to beg the question. It's about transformation, not more. I would have liked to ask Barna about emerging communities, but this conference was clearly focused on the conventional church and by the looks of the data, we have much work ahead of us among all age groups!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Questions for Leave Taking

  1. What is the personal and congregational cost/benefit analysis of taking- and not taking a leave?
  2. How do I plan a leave? Planning a leave two years out is not unreasonable. Writing a proposal that's specific and realistic is the first step.
  3. What do you want to call the leave? The "sabbatical" is academic in nature, where one takes a leave to study, work and write. Most D.Min. programs are academic and concurrent with full time ministry.
  4. What will be the main focus? Use "clergy renewal" when the focus on study or reading is combined with deepening prayer life, spiritual formation, rest, travel, family. It's an extended break from full time ministry.
  5. How can the time away be managed financially? Be creative; requesting to save or carry over vacation or continuing education time could provide you with a block of several weeks.
A great resource is Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Making Room for Others

I'm convinced that we cannot welcome new people into our lives until we make room. The same is true of churches. Having space is an attitude which allows others access without an appointment. We can build bigger and bigger buildings; if we don't create open spaces in our lives then size matters not.

The other extreme is making our acceptance conditional, our welcome driven by a hidden agenda. A very popular book on evangelism called The Contagious Christian explained how we can "leverage" our conversations for Christ. Terrible word. That's exactly the kind of thing that stereotypes Christians as manipulative, and takers, rather than givers.

David Burchett in When Bad Christians Happen to Good People, lists an "Unbeliever's Bill of Rights." The memorable title is mentioned in Beginnings: Around the Fire by Langford, Rawls, and Weber in the chapter, "How Do We Share What We Have Discovered?"
  • I have the right to never have faith forced on me.
  • I have the right to never be treated in a condescending manner.
  • I have the right to always hear the truth.
  • I have the right for you to patiently hear my concerns and doubts.
  • I have the right to seek answers to those questions and doubts that you can’t answer.
  • I have the right to be steered to resources for my own study and investigation.
  • I have the right to be loved no matter how I respond to the Gospel message.
While many things can reinforce our witness, it's hospitality and generosity of spirit that softens and attracts.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tyler Perry's "I Can Do Bad.."

Whenever I have the pleasure of seeing one of Tyler Perry's latest films, I feel a spiritual energy at least as authentic and as powerful as can be known at real church! I also sense that his films are for Christians who just do not or cannot see how they affect others for better or worse.

Perry's most entertaining character, Madea, is typical of many Christians who just aren't in church. Her cussing, Bible illiteracy, troubles with the police (po-po), and all her other problems like living in her house with an eternally obnoxious brother, don't keep her from being there and being strong for others who need a Madea in their life. Madea has backbone if nothing else- but she has much, much more.

In most of Perry's movies, the theme of self-preservation through forgiveness runs very deep. In the latest film, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, you hear great music by Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, you witness great preaching by Pastor Marvin Winans, and you experience the drive of the gathered church- all of it electrifying the entire story line.

As Blige performed the soul- full title song, I couldn't help to think about Job's friends and the church. How often do we, without even thinking, pile on someone- anyone- who is doing bad, who has made a mistake, made a poor choice? Why do we assume the worst and form judgments that are neither just nor helpful? Why?

To begin with, nobody asked us. We don't have to have an opinion on everyone and everything. And like Job, people aren't looking for advice or fake reassurances that you've been where they are when you both know you haven't. Doing that is not only uncalled for, but also, it just contributes to the sense of isolation.

So the genuine love of real Christians, displayed throughout the film, is finally received as it was meant to be given: as a gift, as grace. Love- knowing it as gift and not as tool of manipulation or power over- and choosing to receive it as gift- is why the main character played by Tarji P. Hensen can begin to love herself and those closest to her for the first time. In the end, this mysterious love and healing grace is our only way out of doing bad all by ourselves.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Healing in a Toxic System

With negativity in the workplace on the rise (according to the authors of Toxic Workplace!) it’s helpful to explore how faithful Christian can manage to survive, and even learn from, these experiences. How do I sometimes exhibit unhealthy and yes, toxic behaviors? How does my community of faith tolerate or enable it? How can we overcome disharmony in relationships, and help others to do the same?

¨ Daily praying for others (such as your enemies) helps you in two ways. First, it will help you see the other as a human being with struggles of their own. Second, it will deepen your compassion.
¨ Using a daily examen, can help guide you to spiritual health. Simply ask yourself what part of your day is most draining and what part was most life-giving?
¨ Another practice that has improved overall mental outlook and specifically attitudes toward work and home life is the practice of a daily gratitude journal. For this, briefly record 3 or more experiences for which you are grateful, including why you are grateful.
¨ Either the examen or the gratitude journal could be combined with a weekly meeting of one or two others who are engaging the same practice.
¨ Seek the regular counsel of a wise and trusted spiritual director who can offer individualized prayer practices.
- Try using one of your God given talents- your own unique signature strengths- in a way that feeds your spirit.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Managing Toxic Personalities

From movies to Office Space to shows like The Office, we have learned to laugh at toxic behaviors at work. However, in Toxic Workplace: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power, authors Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway report on the devastating effects of toxicity on individuals and organizations and argue for a plan to restore respect .

The authors’ research contains leader surveys and interviews from about 400 leaders from profit and non-profit companies.The kind of behavior they target is more subtle than fighting, stealing, or absenteeism. They list all toxic behaviors under three headings: shaming, team sabotage, and passive hostility. Such behaviors in the workplace are on the rise. Due to budgets constraints, there are fewer managers to redirect toxic persons.

Why do workplaces tolerate toxicity in the first place? Some hiring practices still prefer expertise over like-ability. Once hired, toxic people can be successful, so that their co-workers or bosses tend to protect them. In fact bosses are the least likely to see the systemic effects of toxic people because 1) honest feedback is not given from others about the toxic person and 2) their productivity is seen and valued.

If they know that a problem exists at all, most leaders quickly turn to an individual solution like working with the toxic person one-on-one . This may include firing the toxic person, giving the impression that the "bad apple" is gone. For example, researchers have found that teams made up of two emotionally toxic persons performed just as badly as teams made of all unstable people.The authors doggedly recommend beginning with organizational/team values and measurable practices that reinforce respectful engagement.

Many may not have the freedom to think in terms of what their workplace is doing to them or others; after all, having a job that pays the bills in these times is a great blessing. But it’s not lack of gratitude for having an imperfect job that should concern us. What should worry us is how people can be treated in the setting where they spend the majority of their adult lives: the workplace. At the same time, reflective Christians would do well to ask if and how we may contribute to sick systems. For this, Kusy and Hollway argue effectively for a detailed plan for organizational, team, and individual health and healing.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Long Is Too Long?

When the football legend of my childhood, Jim Brown, retired from the NFL and the Cleveland Browns at 29, we all were given a prime example of what it means to "go out on top." As stunning as it was, it proved to be, in the end, something that has probably kept Brown's name on top of the record in yards per carry at 5.2. If he had continued for several more years, that number certainly would have diminished.

Football seasons have almost doubled in length since Jim Brown broke in, so many of the records Brown set were bound to be broken. As for as retiring early, Brown is in a small group of Hall of Famers. Most of the greats continued playing a few more seasons and in most cases, with severely diminished skills, even as they tried new teams.

All this, of course, raises the question of the self- chosen limits on our own longevity wherever we serve and ultimately, not only when to move on, but also, when to retire. At what point are we actors and not just reactors? Knowing when to fold 'em is something worth thinking about and not just leaving it to someone else to decide for you. When that happens maybe it has been too long.

The Browns? Life did go on. Leroy Kelly, whose career was less than Brown's (after all, he was the greatest), but who is still enshrined in Canton, Ohio, became the featured back behind his equally talented line (one of which is also at Canton). Kelly was a mainstay for his team the rest of the decade and into the early 1970's.

Most of us will not be the record setters. At the same time, there's a beauty to be able to leave them wanting more, and to know that you gave them everything you had. Life is about taking the next step, in God's love- both for ourselves and the ones we serve.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Interesting Formula for Clergy Effectiveness?

A couple of years ago, the seminary president stated his case for measuring clergy effectiveness. He put it simply as something like:

Statistical growth X Personal spirituality = effectiveness
Fruitfulness x Faithfulness = effectiveness

This, he suggested, is how we measure our job success. In this scenario, effectiveness is a multiple of numbers and spirituality.

A good bit of this is the assembly line model of ministry management inherited from the previous century. It leaves me empty and uninspired. And it doesn't seem to hold up to Eugene Peterson's still prophetic attack of the clergy success syndrome in Working the Angles. That was the 1980's. Where are the prophets of clergy spiritual dearth today? The grad-grinds of effectiveness, using their graphs and charts to substantiate numbers, have clearly won the day.

Pastor as spiritual guide or healer takes an easy back seat when I need to prove myself. No surprise that stuff like personal health, well-being, balance, relationships, sanity, and sabbath also take a back seat. The current race to find and equip younger clergy? Younger clergy are cheaper for local churches, and denominations don't have to worry about paying their pensions for many years.

Older clergy, though, can bring a discernment and wisdom and spirituality- all the stuff that the years have taught us, if we let them. That includes seeing the numbers in perspective. But the church that values the ecclesiastical equivalent of assembly-line efficiency, calling it effectiveness, has very limited time and space for a wounded healer, so, no thanks, Henri Nouwen! We need more and younger bodies to feed the process. More food for the fodder.

Such is the problem with the business model. When we have to prove we're doing it, like the state exams for school children, we focus not on true vocation and gifts, but on standardization with all things being equal. But all things are not equal.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On Completing Denominational Forms

If you're a UMC clergyperson, you will probably be asked to complete an annual "self evaluation." There are lots of forms UMC's complete every year. For example, the year end reports are used for assessment of local church apportionments, which pays for the cost of our general church overhead, stuff we call "connectional" items. But the clergy self evaluation? It's anyone's guess if any denominational or conference exec. ever reads these.

Is the reward the actual exercise of reflective self-examination? Assuming that actual reflection is required, I'd have to conclude that yes, the completing of this most curious form doesn't really "help" cabinets who say they need them. Instead, it can help the clergy by inviting honest self-critique. Again, to the extent that that happens at all, it's worth it.

But being a good grad-grind isn't going to save you- not when you need help in your next move! Like guaranteed appointments, meeting all your deadlines will not come to your rescue if and when you are caught in the happenstance of life or the quirks of one or two antagonists.

Pastors spend much of their time guiding others to accept with grace what cannot be changed, what is out of our control. But when it comes to our own lives, we still think that we can control everything that happens to us. That's an illusion, one from which no amount of record keeping can protect.

So use the self evaluation "due by Advent" as an opportunity to grow this year if you need to. But expect no more.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Had Enough Transformation?

It's fine that we describe ourselves as a transforming congregation, conference, denomination, church, world, etc. It's just that overuse has made that term innocuous and I'm not sure if I know what it means.

"Transformative?" The correct adjective is transformational. But that still doesn't help me. There's a verb somewhere in transforming, the infinitive "to transform."

I know St. Paul uses it in Romans 12: 1-2, but "The Transformers" is also a kid flick. So in using a word with both biblical roots AND one that drips with popular culture, it would be logical to assume that we all benefit, right?

But when I hear the word, I don't think about new creation anymore. Instead I think about denominational statistics, organizational control, and manipulating language, all to create a reality that may or may not correlate with the facts on the ground where we live.

Like the idea of "building the kingdom of God," of a past generation, the market-eers of "transformation" make us sound like something fairly cool: people of action and verve. Really, where is our capacity for transformation? Our resistance to it is in our DNA.

In commenting on the Creeds, Rowan Williams speaks of God's almightiness as God's ability to bring something fresh and new out of any and all situations. So if there's any transformation, God- Father, Son, Holy Spirit is the actor and agent. We are the subjects, the clay, the transformed, willing as well as resistant.

As for the word transformation, in a few years, we will move on to something else, like "extreme middle" or "rethink," or whatever seems to mesh with the current fad or fetish. In the meantime, think and act concretely:
  1. What would receiving God's gift of new creation, recreation mean to you here, now?
  2. How is Holy Spirit, the Guide, with you in that experience?
  3. What are the practices that you, a clergy leader, will engage?
  4. If we are not aware of those changes in our own spirit, how can we, in good faith, offer it?
Like a mustard seed's growth or the action of leaven, God's rule begins almost by stealth and through the smallest of shifts.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Shame Agents

Unlike guilt that is used for manipulation and control, shame humiliates, isolates, and paralyzes the recipient. Shaming diminishes. Where guilt is about obsessing over my actions and consequences, shame is about my being a bad person.

Christian faith could inoculate us from swallowing the shame-bait. Although a healthy baptismal theology can be a defense against internalizing the toxin, there is still much in our Christian culture that accentuates the sinfulness of humanity not as choice or "bent to sinning," but as bad to the core. Included in this are those of any ilk who make absolute claims of truth and where disagreeing with them is the same as rejecting the Holy Trinity.

Whereas the shame- based leader can use name-calling and hang-dogging all too frequently in private, this may also be done in public depending on who else is present. People with toxic behaviors that border on illegality have learned to survive by hiding them from the right people.

Listening to the accuser makes it almost impossible to hear the Advocate, the Paraclete, at the same time! God's stated description of you is "VERY GOOD." On the wings of those words, we are healed!

Good bye, evil monkey.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Can Guilt Be Good?

Never mind John Wesley's admonition to serve with all due diligence not for wrath's but for conscience's sake. Guilt works, and if it gets the job done, then why not? After all, everyone is motivated differently, and if it's guilt with a dash of shame that keeps me doing my job well, then there has to be some good in it.

Fear of losing his job is what kept Peter Gibbons around in the cult movie Office Space. Even he admitted to the "Bobs" that people will only work hard enough not to get fired. It only goes so far, guilt.

Guilt is tricky because if that's your center, then how do you keep from becoming obsessive and hyper-critical of first yourself and then others. And the nature of guilt is that you will never ever do enough and be enough to please yourself. Assuaging your guilt, whatever ministry offered, quickly becomes about you. My feeling better about myself then becomes the motivation for ministry.

We all cling to various illusions. The question of guilt's saving virtue can be answered by the inner experience of it and whether it is more draining in the long run. Do we really need it in order to serve faithfully from a full cup of God's love and grace in Jesus? When I think of an alternative center of ministry, it would be self- respect, not the self-contempt that guilt breeds.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Detox Begins with Organizational Values

A good example of this process of defining organizational values is the work of the strategic discernment team at Chapelwood. Led by "clarity evangelist" Will Mancini, we set out to uncover the values that really define us. With God's grace as the operative theme, the new mission statement reads: "To embody God's grace as we receive it to those who need it."

This is connected to reality is via the Chapelwood examen, and very portable and useful in any and all of our groups:
  • Since we last met, how have you received God's grace?
  • Who have you encountered in need of God's grace?
  • How have you embodied God's grace?
This ensures that the value of grace is not only talked about, but thought about, acted on, and, in short, embodied in our own unique way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Do We Have a Toxic Workplace?

I bought the last one at Barnes and Noble (review forthcoming). The topic of toxicity in the church is a good topic for clergy for two reasons. One, if we can prevent toxic behaviors, such as bullying, passive hostility, and shaming, everyone now and in the future will benefit. Two, if we've ever had the fun of working with, supervising, or working under a toxic individual, we can learn the importance of respectful engagement and human dignity.

The topic also begs other questions, like:
  • How do I sometimes exhibit unhealthy and yes, toxic behaviors?
  • How does my community of faith tolerate or enable toxicity?
  • How can we survive a toxic workplace?
The point made about toxicity is that we treat it as an individual problem, when it is also a team and organizational problem. The "bad apple" metaphor is not very accurate- a more realistic comparison could be infection or cancer. Start with organizational values, such as respect for all. Incorporate these values in measurements for team effectiveness and individual fruitfulness.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Houston Cenacle SDI Class of '09!

Photos help tell the story of our graduation from the Spiritual Direction Institute yesterday, Sunday, August 23. All pictured are fellow classmates, except for Sister Ann Goggin, Director. The service in the Chapelwood UMC Chapel, was followed by a wonderful reception where family, friends, our spiritual directors and teachers could celebrate with us.

Highlights from the service included remarks from Sister Mary Denison, the conferring of our certificates by Sister Ann Goggin and Sister Mary, and the singing of the Servant Song led by Bill Duhon:

Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to
Let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are travelers on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.

I will you hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
When you laugh, I'll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we've seen this journey through.

Please note: All photos are Copyright 2009 by Bob Dees (Deespix)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I Learned the Hidden Curriculum

The reason and wisdom of those red- faced warriors inside and outside various Town Halls have taught me:
  1. Having a doctor, especially for mental health, is seriously overrated!
  2. Family members, especially the dying themselves, should stop whining for comfort care!
  3. Private is cool, and to spend your savings for private insurance is really, really cool.
  4. We are Not our brother's or sister's or child's keeper in "chrisjun" America.
  5. Deficits are suddenly very important (wars, occupations, and bailouts notwithstanding).
  6. Venting works for a few short minutes, while lower brain function lasts a good long time.
Some are too hotheaded to do anything but just vent, which has never worked for me and only enrages me more. So the town halls? Maybe we should drop them in favor of some much needed anger management sessions, and charge their insurer- I'm sure THEY'LL pick up the tab!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Got You Here?

It may not be what you think!

That's what I find refreshing and expansive about Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. As a good sociologist would, Gladwell questions the American mythology of entitlement, which is all about personal mastery. Instead he looks at the details of success that we overlook, and have absolutely no control of: birth date and place, generational cohort, ethnic make-up, family heritage.

The examples in the book are amazing. For example, few people think about the Beatles' success a result of practicing, refining, and performing their craft in the strip clubs of Hamburg for seven years in the 1950's before the "British Invasion" of the 1960's. Bill Gates had a rare opportunity to log thousands of "practice" hours writing software on one of the first multi-site computers during his high school years. Gladwell points to chance when it comes to the explanation of how his family came into being: a white settler chose a certain black Jamaican women to be his wife, and this fact coupled with unique historical opportunities (schooling, for example) available to their heirs explains much of his familial and personal success.

According to Gladwell, personal initiative does play a huge part in success, just not in the parameters of the choices, not in the historical givens of a situation. These personal factors have to do with details we sometimes overlook: the opportunity to learn a skill and the long hours practicing it in meaningful work, willingness to do the kinds of work that fall to us because it might be "below" or "beneath" others, and personality traits (especially people skills/relational intelligence).

Gladwell stops short of expressing gratitude- it's just not really in the sociologist's vocabulary. But I think the ability he has in telling the story of success also comes with an appreciation for the fact that success is, by and large a gift of many factors out of our control. Whether you call it chance or gift makes a big difference. Gladwell allows for both. Christians call it grace, that which we receive that comes out of God's love and abundance, that which we have nothing to do with, beginning with our birth, our life, and any health we enjoy. Everything looks better when seen as a gift, wrote Chesterton. How true!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Be Where You're Not Needed

"The God who made the world and everything in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things." Acts 17: 24-25, NRSV

If we are in a profession that makes a business out of helping people, and clergy are prime suspects, then the reason our health and wholeness are at risk on a massive scale is because we have learned how to keep everything looking good even though we ourselves are EMPTY. Compassion fatigue? Not me! Go, go power ranger!

Appearances are valued in this culture of ours and churches only magnify the importance of looking good. You could call it an addiction -- driven to be needed and liked and wanted. It doesn't take long for us to develop a God complex, functioning as though our supply is unlimited, ignoring or denying our real needs for rest, renewal, and sanity. All the while telling others to rely on God's resources. Really!

But the rush of being needed and liked usually runs counter to being with God. It's just that God is the One who doesn't NEED anything. God will always be completely happy being God! Could that be the reason why we find it so hard listening to and breathing in the Holy Spirit? Because we are so filled with the toxin of being needed?

Awareness of our real need is the healthier posture from which to offer whatever we have to give. How freeing- and absolutely liberating- it is to be in this Presence that doesn't sap us, but offers life and love in fullness.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tokens of Trust

Tokens of Trust by Rowan Williams is an imaginative exploration of the foundations of Christian faith. Using the most ancient creeds, The Apostles and Nicene, the book is based on the series of talks Williams made at the Canterbury Cathedral Holy Week, 2005.

Central to the book is the connection of faith with trust. Christianity is not a set of beliefs ascribed to but a living, breathing, ongoing relationship to God, and engagement within the world and the community, the church. The theme of trusting relationship is continued as Williams presents Jesus Christ as the difference-maker, the one who brings peace to a shattered world, and a peace, realized in part, through the dynamic process of the community of Christians.

Thus the resurrection is the fulfillment of the one God who alone is faithful and trustworthy. In this, he defines hell as our decision not God's, using the image where God is eternally knocking on a closed door that we ourselves keep shut. "Eternity," says Williams, "requires contemplation." And he means bringing ourselves into the light, choosing to "acclimatize" to love.

One of the features of this book is its beautiful visuals of paintings, photography, and architecture from around the world to enrich Williams' text. The writing itself is easy to read, non-technical, and full of helpful, relevant illustrations. Those looking for a line-by- line exegesis of these historic creeds, or even a how-they-came-to be- explanation will need to turn to other studies.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learn from the UMC how to be PC

I noticed that, according to a United Methodist portal headline, most UM clergy support traditional marriage. Was this supposed to smooth over our rifts? Why do I ask?

Because the article also states in confusing fashion that while only a quarter of UMC clergy surveyed supported same-sex marriages, 51% of UMC clergy supported the rights of married or covenanted same-sex couples. ?!?!? How can we support the rights of a married or covenanted couple but not their same-sex marriage? We 're saying: "I support your right to do that, but I don't support your doing it." Talk about doublespeak and contradiction.

Getting back to the headline that most clergy support traditional marriage: golly, maybe that has something to do with a denominational BAN on same-sex weddings and ordination of GLBT people? For UMC's this survey is as useless as a 1980 Discipline! Does it really matter what we think?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Just Wondering- On Memorials

Why the total disconnect of the past ten days- between visual media (especially national cable T.V.), which have been covering Michael Jackson's death ad nauseum and the local radio stations, where he and the Jackson Five have been totally absent in the same time frame.

What the Jackson family was thinking and feeling- especially Michael's children- when Stevie Wonder, whose music I love, said that God needed Michael more than we did. For me, this confirms that musicians should focus on their art and refrain from theologizing. I think this is also true of church musicians who sometimes can end up opinion- sharing and distancing the congregation instead of leading worship and bringing together.

When people are in grief, we can say some interesting and also weird things. One marked change over the last 25 years, I believe, has been the number of close friends, especially family, who are speaking at memorials and funerals in our churches. This is sometimes good in that the service can be more individualized, and a little less formalized.

On the other hand, you don't want these same folks, who are also in grief, to feel pressured or to be too anxious about breaking down in the middle of their talk. Normally, a person can determine if they will be able to speak or not. However, in grief we can't always know or say what we'll be up to doing.

Then there's the time factor. As officiating pastor, I offer to read comments written by a family member. I remember wanting to say a few words at my brother's memorial a few years back, but I just couldn't put it into words of a short duration, so I refrained. Then, a few years later at my Dad's memorial, I managed to share a few memories just fine.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On not grabbing

While the appeal to greater control is very attractive and a cultural idol of sorts, the wisdom of letting go, though it's counter-cultural, is neglected. This sets people up for greater, not less, disappointment and loss.

If we let go we would be freer--freer of the illusion of control, the lie that life's about getting first and then, second, clutching what's ours. Ethicist Waldo Beach long taught that biblical freedom has two sides: freedom and deliverance from bondage and freedom for responding to God and neighbor.

Where are you stuck, and don't even know it? From what do you need to be freed? How will you surrender and let God love and heal you, even the parts you've always gripped so tightly? What do you need in order to be free for God and the people with whom you work and live?

In what ways will you "choose life" and open a closed fist today?

Monday, July 6, 2009

July 6 John Hus Festival*

The Moravian Church, our spiritual mothers and fathers, celebrates July 6 as a watershed event in their heritage and history.

John Wesley's spiritual director and mentor, Peter Bohler, was a Moravian pastor. On a ship destined for Wesley's new mission field of Georgia, Wesley wrote of the faith of the Moravians on board as they sang Psalms through the most dangerous and threatening of seas. Wesley, terrified, was not singing, but looked on in amazement.

And then it was at a Moravian meeting that Wesley heard the words of Luther's Preface to Romans, and as he did, his heart was strangely warmed with the knowledge and newly found assurance that Jesus had died for him, forgiven him, and freed him from the law of sin and death.

In speaking of her sons Charles' and John's new experience of assurance and God's love in Jesus, Susanna stated that it wasn't about having faith, it was more about the "uniting of head and heart," and an encounter for which they had been searching for some time.

Is your faith something that others are drawn to, attracted to, or repulsed by? Or, do others at least find your faith the least bit interesting? Somehow whatever John Wesley witnessed on a ship made him both seeker of and searched by the One whose name is Love.

*On July 6, 1415, John Hus was martyred at the Council of Constance.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is all Scripture Equal?

An Old Testament professor called attention to the pejorative use of "old," the term Christians use in referring to that part of the Hebrew Bible that is Christian Canon. His own efforts were aimed at encouraging me and my fellow divinity classmates to remove the blinders, the New Testament lenses, that prevent us from seeing the whole of Scripture as Canon, "old" or "new."

The question regarding the equality of Scripture is a good one. Do I as pastor or even participant, omit parts of a reading because of the needs of the situation? For example, there's a reading from the funeral liturgy in the Episcopal church from Lamentations 3, and verses 31 and 32 were the ones I once omitted as family member not as officiating clergy: 'For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief..."

So the idea of the Lord rejecting us (even though not forever), and God causing grief is tough to proclaim or suggest to a room filled with mourners. But this question brings others: Should we bend the reading to be pastoral and if so, when? Most of us choose from already selected texts what to read at a service based on the appropriateness of the text.

But is that the easy way out? In omitting parts of the reading for the needs of the situation, do I take away others' gift to hear the whole text, to struggle over it for themselves, and to make their own conclusions? Should discomfort with the apparent dissonances be something we expect others to handle for themselves, or should we make it easier by not dealing with that issue in a time of grief and bewilderment, a time that is already difficult enough. There are no easy, black and white answers.

With Lamentations, the cries of grief are written for us to read and hear. They represent the gut-wrenching, illogical, messy, angry, confusing process that grief is. In all our mental confusion, is it sometimes comforting, in a mysterious way, to know there is someone to blame: God? That's a cry to the One who created us to grieve. That's different than claiming God causes suffering, which many would hear mistakenly (in my opinion) as representative of an authentic Christian faith and theology.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Change in a Culture of Contentment

John Kenneth Galbraith's theory of social change seems to hold up in that there's no change until enough people get ticked off enough to organize and vote to make it happen. It's called the Misery Index. That's the question regarding the public option for health insurance. If it happens it's because enough of us who are doing OK find it intolerable that 40+ million men, women, and children are unprotected.

Again, the question about the critical mass for change is relevant. It would seem that the 2008 election answered that question. In addition, it appears that the misery index- the anger and frustration over the greed and neglect in the present system is outstripping the fear of change, "Trojan horses" notwithstanding. Besides, most are clueless about what that analogy means anyway.

We come back to Galbraith's theory of social change- that people really don't care about changing anything until their own contentment is threatened. Does the same thing hold true for personal and community change? What about changes in spirituality? Do we value our contentment and prize a comfortable life at all costs? And once that is messed with, then and only then do we think about moving, changing?

Though I hate to admit it, that strain is in me, because I like the path of least resistance and choose it regularly. That's why practices and disciplines of the spirit are so helpful-- they can tame our animal adaptation to pleasure and help us to live beyond just our own contentment, where we can experience God's grace and life as gift, not possession. Disciplines like prayer, study, gratitude are not "add- ons." Rather, they are the medicines, the daily prescriptions if you will, that keep us from grabbing our way through life. And grabbing from others.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Like hobbies, we need to be able to identify our friends. Because our work as pastors is very relational, when I took my first appointment, a student pastorate in a small textile- mill town in North Carolina, I remarked to an old college friend from Texas, that being a pastor was LIKE being a friend. Friendship was the most comparable frame I had at the time- 29 years ago.

In discussing a theology of ordination, No Longer Servants draws on friendship love not servant-hood as the metaphor in describing the person and work of the pastor. I like it because it is a corrective to some of the abuses of servanthood. Regardless of where you stand normatively, the question is, who are your true friends?

Can the same people you pastor also be your friends? In a word, no. Not because you cannot support each other mutually as Christ's body, but because their receiving spiritual care from you does not include your getting friendship in return. To be among friends means that I can be myself, totally, and, while I overlook and learn to accept the "that's who they are" aspect of others, they also can learn to tolerate that in me.

So while, aspects of friendship love (mutual support, trust, communication, respect) are very important in all we do as church and clergy, it's just not fair to expect others who are in our care to be our friends.

So the question returns, who are your friends and do you spend regular time with them? If I blow that question off, then I start expecting things from people that they cannot be expected to provide.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thinking About Sabbaticals, 2

Clergy sabbatical, we hardly knew ye! It's not that we haven't ever heard of them, it's just that we've never known anyone to take one. At least I haven't heard of many UMC clergy doing so.

Popular author and church-planter Wayne Cordiero in Running on Empty chronicles what drove him, literally, to create sabbatical for himself. Faced with a nervous breakdown and never having taken a rest, he talked his doctor's advice down from one year to 3-4 months. Cordiero was battling both severe energy depletion and depression.

The recovery is holistic, even if the signs don't appear to be. Sometimes when people speak of "nervous breakdown," it's code for anxiety disorder, like panic and/or agoraphobia (the fear of having panic attacks). I consider these symptoms warnings that our physical, as well as emotional health, is being compromised and will be damaged further without appropriate action.

The UMC Discipline allows for clergy sabbaticals as tailored between the church and pastor. Here are words from the UMC Book of Discipline, P. 352:

A sabbatical leave should be allowed for a program of study or travel by the conference Board of Ordained Ministry. [Clergy members] in full connection who have been serving in a full-time appointment for six consecutive full-time years....may be granted a sabbatical leave for up to one year. Whenever possible, the compensation level of the last appointment served before the leave should be maintained in the appointment made at the termination of the leave.
This is nice talk allowing sabbaticals to happen, but as far as financial support during the rest, even if the proper channels are followed and the time off is approved, this is not a leave "with pay." Difficulty with funding your sabbatical is the real reason I believe why most full-time clergy never take a rest. Also note that a rest is not necessarily the same as a "study program" mentioned above.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Fountain of Life from St. Columbanus

O God, you are yourself that fountain ever and again to be desired, ever and again to be consumed...Inspire our hearts, I ask you, Jesus, with that breath of your Spirit; wound our souls with your love, so that the soul of each and every one of us may be able to say in truth: "Show me my soul's desire," for I am wounded by your love.

These are the wounds I wish for, Lord. Blessed is the soul so wounded by love. Such a soul seeks the fountain of eternal life and drinks from it, although it continues to thirst and its thirst grows ever greater even as it drinks.

Therefore, the more the soul loves, the more it desires to love, and the greater its suffering, the greater its healing. In this same way may our God and Lord Jesus Christ, the good and saving physician, wound the depths of our soul with a healing wound- the same Jesus Christ who reigns in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.

"For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with out spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him." Romans 8:15-17 NRSV

Monday, May 11, 2009

How is Spiritual Direction Different?

The best definition of spiritual direction I've seen, especially as compared to pastoral counseling and therapy: "Psychotherapy is interested primarily in self-understanding, pastoral counseling in self determination, and spiritual direction in self-surrender to the discerned will of God."

from James Fenhagen, Invitation to Holiness, p.47

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Taboo of Clergy Burnout Addressed in New Release

A spiritual director once asked me the most difficult question I've had to answer as a pastor: "Who listens to you?" God and/or spouse were not one of the choices. At the time, I was on an individual spiritual retreat in the mountains far away from my parish, and she was asking one the basic questions that many church leaders, clergy and otherwise, avoid. Are you leading on empty? is another way to ask the same question.

That's why I am so grateful for the bent of Wayne Cordeiro's Leading on Empty. Cordeiro is a successful church planter and pastor. He speaks around the world. The book is a multifaceted approach to the costs not taking care of ourselves, such as burnout and depression. In continually referencing his own story of recovery from suffering a nervous breakdown, Cordeiro, doesn't attempt a "one size fits all" paradigm for health, but rather, offers wisdom and insight as someone who's been there. Moreover, his continued recovery- and struggles- adds authenticity to his account.

Cordeiro's willingness to share his experience is what is so helpful. His physician told him that, in order to recover his health and heal his energy reserves, he would need to take a year off from any ministry role. Arguing that one year was out of the question, Cordeiro's physician then told him to take six months off. They finally both agreed on a three month time line. This fit into the summer season. Much of the book, then, is about what Cordeiro has learned in the recovery, and choosing life-changes necessary for long term health and functioning in ministry.

For example, instead of waiting for a crisis, which most highly functioning pastors will probably experience sometime after seven years of ministry, monitor your energy level. You can do this by finding an aspect of ministry, a mission, that you really enjoy- where the energy seems to flow almost naturally.

Although doing our passion offers a God-given immunity from depleting our reserves, the fire can also burn us up, so certain disciplines are non-negotiable, according to Cordeiro. One is daily time for a spiritual discipline. The book suggests starting with reading a chapter of Proverbs a day for a month. Try the SOAP model daily (read the Scripture text, record or journal your Observations on the text and Actions in response to it, and finally, let the text lead you in what and how to Pray).

Some other non-negotiables are time away, family time, and spiritual counsel. Time away should be a regular practice, and the book suggests something equal to a full day of sabbath once a month, combined with a two- three months each year. Sabbaths are not the same as a weekly "day off." A suggested schedule for the sabbath day includes journaling, reading, study, setting priorities, and calendaring strategically. No phone calls or emails, or text-ing though. Another non-negotiable is time and connection with family and vacationing with them once they are young adults. Seeking the guidance of a therapist and/or a spiritual mentor, companion or director will provide you with what you are offering to others: someone who listens to you in love and who can see what you cannot see in yourself.

We cannot, finally, offer what we do not have. That, to me, is the gift of Leading On Empty. Everyone wants to be able to give from a full cup. Isn't it better to maintain that reserve rather than running until we hit the wall? Cordeiro's book invites us to begin and continue that journey toward wholeness and holiness. Just don't wait for the crisis as he did.

Monday, May 4, 2009


In serving others, I surrender control of the situation. Jesus' own example of washing the smelly and dung encrusted feet of his disciples in John 13 embodies this particular kind service.

One of the most difficult things for most, not all, is to be on the receiving end of someone else's service. When I was very young, I remember getting up early and trying to prepare breakfast for the whole family. I only remember pouring juice, milk, and getting cereal out. To jazz it up a little, I rifled through the buffet and set some party favors out. When the family came down, they showed a mixture of dismay, laughter, and maybe one or two thanks. "Don't do that again" was the message. I didn't shake the juice and it came out in various shades, which I thought was fine.

But receiving service is awkward, especially for people who've been out there giving and in control all their life. The change in roles can be difficult, even devastating. When I worked among retirees and the infirm, one of the most asked questions was just "Why am I still here?" And part of the answer is that in receiving most of the time, we give others an opportunity to share their gifts. We are created for both giving and receiving love; sad we do one often at the expense of the other: either burnout or isolation.

It's appropriate that this week's practice is to spend some time with the Covenant Prayer. In it, we surrender our agendas, power, and control. Remember that Jesus' disciples often tried to manipulate the situation for their own advantage. True service, however, sets us free and usually has the same result on the recipient.

Oldies but Goodies