Thursday, March 26, 2009

Willingness--Letting Go

The first of our 8 Wednesday group sessions of Beginnings- The Spiritual Life began last night at A Moveable Feast, 6:30- 8:15 p.m., 9341 Katy Freeway in Houston. Our next session is Monday, March 30 (instead of next Wed.), FYI. Guests are welcome to come and preview. The food is great (and free) and then there's a talk followed by small groups.

The goal of our group time is simply put, to begin a journey led by the Spirit, the Guide. Just as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1), so we are invited to start a spiritual journey under the leadership of Holy Spirit.

Each part of the pilgrimage is toward God and with God. Habits, practices, movements are offered and available for the taking. The first "habit of the heart" is willingness to let go. What are the expectations of God, Holy Spirit, spiritual life, that I need to release in order to start the new that's just ahead? What of my own stuff do I need to unburden to receive this newness, the life of the Holy Spirit?

For the daily exercise, be aware each day of the wind. Do something that will help you actually be attentive to the power and life of the wind (spirit).

Come Holy Wind and Breath, Come Holy Spirit. Hover over and around and within. Make new ways out of the old. Bring to life, refresh, awaken, move us in love, heal us in your goodness, bless us with the willingness to venture, begin, learn- every day.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Really, Are We All that Different?

It's amazing how suffering can bring us together like nothing else. "Time and chance happen to us all," the Preacher writes in Ecclesiastes. But the subject of our own choosing is what's more captivating.

I mean, why do we do some of the stupid things we do? We deny what others see in us, pretending that either they've got it wrong or they don't see how unique and different and special God knows we really are. But wisdom says we're not that different!

While time and chance happen to us all, it's our denial, refusal, and inability to see the obvious. The toxic supervisor shows their underhandedness even before the potential hire is made. Future staff colleagues are put-down. Red flag! Not to worry. I'm different. A clergy leader has a clear history of sabotaging the work of others, but then, we think we're different, so we'll choose to work with them in spite of the evidence that we'd be better off without their "career help."

Or we deny signs of burnout in ourselves: apathy, meaningless, boredom, lethargy, etc., etc. Somehow, we are above it, we tell ourselves. We're not like those other clergy leaders who had problems with this sort of thing. We're taking precautions. We're good, so good that we don't even need help. We're above it all.

I hurt for my clergy colleagues who too often like me, think that denial of my true self and attention to the false self is necessary to get ahead in the church business. Because such denial is based on self-hate and anger, not love. And anger leads to bitterness, resentment, and finally the death of sloth- total indifference.

So the next time you're tempted by the illusion of your own superiority, remember what got you here in the first place: not your moral goodness, ability, or political acumen. In spite of what anyone has told you, it's God's grace, a grace that loves and heals and liberates even and especially what we deny in ourselves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Irrelevance of Yankee-dom

As a long-time Cleveland fan living in Texas, I will long remember a visit with my son to Jacobs field a few years back. The Yankees were playing the Indians, and as chance would have it, the Indians came back to soundly beat NY later in the game.

The obnoxious and out-of-place (but clueless) Yankee fans sashayed back to their daze inns, muzzled and stunned with bewilderment. It was pure delight as dozens of NY tees filed into travel lodges; they had stayed over just to see the spectacle of losing a bad one.

The Couch Slouch column of a couple of days ago, reminded me of how fun it is to see the Yankees fail AT THEIR OWN GAME whenever they do. With that in mind, I smile when I think about:

  1. People whining about not winning another (91st?) World Series
  2. Hundreds of millions and no playoffs? Priceless
  3. "Here come the Yankees" shrieked with every base hit
  4. The plague of the merciless marauding midges
  5. CC has had his best year
  7. Go Rays- the team to beat
  8. ESPN's 24/7 A-Rod crawler
  9. Most of your guys who had a prime are past it
  10. Joe Torre in the playoffs with the barely mediocre Dodgers!!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Arabian Sojourn (Galatians 1:11-24)

I'm in the middle of finding a new spiritual director. While I have heard that spiritual direction can take place long distance via phone conversations, I don't think that would work for me. So with my former director moving far away, I am going to take some time in finding a new one.

The thought of Paul in Arabia has come to mind. I'm living some questions that perhaps I've avoided. It's too easy to construe Paul's hermit sojourn as a rugged, individualistic American would. But I have to think that the call he received to go among the Gentiles with the Jesus Gospel required a rethinking of his life and a remaking of his person and this could only begin with a profound self emptying in the desert.

Paul's being a super-achiever is among the several continuities between his life in Judaism and being an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul is also zealous, whether as a Pharisee- teacher- persecutor, or as a Christ-believer and persecuted apostle. My interpretation- Paul apparently still kept and honored the Torah for Jews like himself as well for Christ believers who were born into Judaism, such as Timothy. The conflicts came when he didn't require Gentile believers to observe Torah.

So what's the big difference in Paul the person? It's answered, in part, by his going to Arabia. For three years. There was safety from the threats of the extreme wing of Judaism that he once represented, as well as protection from Roman authorities. The implication of the text is that Paul went away immediately to seek God. And I like the fact that the question is left to our imagination.

To seek God only is our calling, because we cannot offer what we do not have. So it is with finding a new spiritual director. If I don't learn something in my own search, how can I hope to understand what that's like? If I'm so unfamiliar with the energy, pain and struggle to find genuine Christian community, how in the world can I companion another on a similar journey?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Empires Strike Back

That empires avenge their once-conquered lands with ferocity multiplied is just one insight gained from lingering with In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, edited by Richard A. Horsley. The book chronicles the often forgotten theme of empire from Egypt of Exodus to the Patmos of Revelation. The reference to re-conquest is not about the story line in the Star Wars epic, but rather to the treatment of Roman-subjected peoples who rebel, such as what Jerusalem suffered in the time of the Jewish Revolts of 66-70 A.D.

The volume features writing by Gottwald, Brueggemann, Crossan, and Horsley, to name a few. While I found the chapters covering the Old Testament narrative helpful, those chapters covering the New Testament were for me filled with new discoveries. From everything to demon deliverance to feeding the multitudes, there are nuances with empire that the chapter on "Jesus and Empire" uncovers.

More discoveries await the reader in Brigitte Kahl's chapter, "Acts of the Apostles: Pro(to)- Imperial Script and Hidden Transcript." In the past, I have discounted the Luke-Acts narrative as empire friendly, and never considered it as a kind of "safe" and orderly account of Jesus and Paul needed for Christian survival in and among hostile and oppressive Roman authorities and territories. It also explains some of the many differences between the Letters of Paul and his work in Acts.

But the topic, the often forgotten theme of empire throughout biblical history, is what I found most riveting. The presence of empire enmeshed in the biblical narrative is the pink elephant in the room when it comes to our Bible study and preaching in the church. Especially when it comes to Jesus' Roman century, we have romanticized empire. For example, how many have heard about the glories of the pax Romana as nothing more or less than the best time for a messiah, a deliverer, to enter human history?

Christ followers who were burned alive under Nero or the churches of St. John's Revelation a generation later would have not seen the pax Romana as a great gift, but as propaganda for an empire whose terror and oppression resembled a beast. All the amazing Roman technologies developed were mostly used for domination, not liberation; any benefits were seen by the few. Conquered people were enslaved, made refugees, and paraded back in Rome in order to prove the success and to warn others of the might of the Empire. The conquered Judeans from the Jewish War serve as such an example.

While the subject of the book is weighty, you will find the essays meaty, worth quality study time, and an excellent resource to deepen Bible appreciation and understanding. This book may encourage us to delve into primary sources like Josephus, Philo and others. Reading In the Shadow of Empire may also prompt us to rethink, if not re-read much of the Bible, especially the New Testament.

Quitting Church- Review

Quitting Church is an alarming subject to congregational leaders, evangelical or not. This is the work of Julia Duin, Religion Editor of the Washington Times. And it’s the story, partly auto-biographical, of the people exodus and "spiritual brain drain" that the evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal communities have experienced for more then a decade. While the mainline churches are not the focus of this survey, the topic of church drop-outs warrants concern, regardless of Christian affiliation.
The first part of the book is a "big picture" look at the problem. Duin substantiates her case using ample research from the likes of George Barna, Lifeway, the Willow Creek Church, and Charisma magazine, as well as numerous interviews from pastors. Her personal insights and observations are telling too. Some of them seem to be a wistful retelling of what was meaningful in her own faith journey now that she is somewhat disaffected from church. She is not that concerned with the under 35 generation, but rather, with her own generation of 35+. She longs for the kind of excitement that was generated in the Jesus Movement of the 1970's, a time when Duin first became a Christian through Young Life. At the same time, she laments how churches have lost their relevance to singles over 35, and women, especially the career- focused.
Whereas most of the energy of contemporary evangelicalism is geared to the under 35 group, according the Duin, the book is an indictment of our wasting both spiritual and people resources in "an era of dumbed-down, purpose-driven, seeker- friendly Christianity." The author is partial to the house-church experience, or covenant Christian community movement. As a college student in Portland, Oregon, her "ideal" church is such a gathering and very reminiscent of the Acts 2 description of primitive Christianity. The problem with that is that the house-movement is not strong where Duin lives in the East Coast.
The biggest learning from Quitting Church was the fact that so many are disenchanted and dissatisfied with the most popular brand of Christianity still practiced by many evangelicals; we could probably add mainline Christians as well. The disenchanted are those who have been hurt by the hypocrisy of church people and their leaders, while the dissatisfied, according to Duin, are those who are just spinning their wheels spiritually. Their church is holding them back from engaging in meaningful ministry. The later chapters get down to concrete recommendations of addressing this spiritual malaise, such as 1) Leadership that is freeing and less controlling,
2) Emphasize receiving the spiritual gifts that God, the Holy Spirit, chooses, rather than on spiritual gift inventories 3) Actually practicing all the spiritual gifts (such as tongues and interpretation) instead of denying them for the benefit of seekers. She noted that fewer and fewer charismatic churches are using tongues in corporate worship. 4) Teaching and learning new insights so that people don't have to go somewhere else to grow. 
As far as inviting the formerly churched back, it's most effectively done through a friend or family member. Once those folks return, it's all about the friendliness, acceptance, and hospitality of the congregation. The formerly churched need some hope, or a sign, according to Duin, that the status quo has changed.
I wonder if the U.M. Methodist heritage's strong emphasis on continued growth in grace and the vows to grow in prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness, seem to offer a sort of inoculation against quitting? Moreover, can churches like the UMC learn how to do evangelism from the Willow Creeks of the world, and can others learn how to do discipleship like the UMC’s? Can we learn from each other? It seems that by their existence, the more evangelical churches flout structure and aspire to continuous revival and renewal; whereas, mainlines emphasis more organization, and are less prepared for renewal that is not measured by the hard data bureaucracies love. But in the “burned-over” district of movie-house, market-based evangelism that Duin describes, her personal search for authentic community with other Christians reflects the spiritual journey of millions, Christian or not. And that’s the book’s significance.

Advent 2020 Provides Necessary Reset

A December a few years ago, my retreat  director said to me, "Maybe this year, instead of going to Bethlehem, you need to meet Jesus at...