...self care is never a selfish act- it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Thursday, December 30, 2010

When Joy is Hard, II

Allowing ourselves to mourn develops our capacity to feel life’s joys. I believe that positive and negative emotions are two sides of the same coin. Of course, many of us would prefer to experience and deal with only positive feelings. We often feel uncomfortable with our own or others’ sadness, anger, disappointments, fears. . . . As we learn to feel all our feelings, we explore what it means to be fully human, to be all that God created us to be.

—Mary Lou Redding
The Power of a Focused Heart

I came across this from doing the Beth Richardson online retreat, "Unlcuttering Your Heart during Advent and Christmas." It speaks to the psychology of joy- that true joy comes in the context of experiencing pain, not as an escape from it. Of course, the cultural expectations are all about turning on happiness with a click of the "joy app" brought to you by the Christmas machine.

But we're human and not wired machines. Our resources include that which is not accessible to the naked eye. They include our emotional and spiritual, as well as our physical reserves. This season naturally takes withdrawals from us. If you're a clergy leader, the deficits mean that your reserves, if they exist at all, will be depleted to the point that you may not be fully present to your closest friends and family as you gather with them.

The good news is this: we can learn a better way, in any and all seasons. Until recently, I let my energy be absorbed in the siphoning vortex of this season's predetermined schedule. So the first step for me was realize I have choices. That, in itself, is empowering. How can I be more intentional in my spiritual life and more responsible for my own self-care each December?

Second, instead of just claiming "I survived- thank God it's over," I chose to celebrate so that I could look back and be grateful for what was life-giving in the season. Finally, I chose one or two activities to do over the season that I truly enjoyed, that would reconnect me with what is holy in my past Christmases, and then offering that to others. Singing in the choir and facilitating on online Advent discussion group were my choices.

Our part with joy does have to do with both the things that happen to us but also, the things that we choose. We tend to minimize the later. Although we cannot chose to just chuck the demands of this season, we can at least be more focused on the choices we can make. And we can let these decisions be more life- giving than diminishing.







Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Joy is Hard

One Advent a few years ago a spiritual director said to me, "Maybe this year, instead of going to Bethlehem, you need to meet Jesus at Bethany with Mary and Martha, at the tomb of Lazarus, their brother and friend."

I'll always be grateful for that guidance. Those words invited me to be myself, to be present with the grief and loss I was experiencing. The truth is, the season's theme of joy can be an especially a heavy weight for those who are marking loss instead of celebrating new beginnings. Feelings of isolation and loneliness may be experienced by those who must work through the holiday so that others can celebrate Christmas- church professionals and clergy are among this group. Sometimes glad tidings just cannot be heard no matter the regularity or the volume with which they are made.

In many a devotional guide, this week, the third week of Advent, has a mini-break intended to help us breathe a little easier. If words of joy are difficult to hear, you may need to give yourself a break, and to cut others some slack. You are doing the best you can. So are the others in your life. God's loving delight in you comes from the overflow of the Giver of Life's generosity and goodness and joy, not from anything we can try to control, nor from the traumatic events that happen to us beyond our choosing.

God is patient with you wherever you are in this month's journey. Even if you are not where you want to be, God is with you there. And for that reason, you can be patient with all, beginning with yourself. Especially when you feel much more like Scrooge or the Grinch than Santa. But we don't have to conjure up the perfect Christmas anymore than we're supposed to self-produce joy and happiness. The real Christmas is the one wherever you are, because wherever you are, God's healing and compassionate love is with you- and in you.

Peace of the Incarnate Word be with you.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2010's Trite and Worn Words & Phrases

In grades 7-9, I used a progression of marvelous texts called Word Wealth to expand vocabulary. So I should know better if and when I use any of these overused words in the next few months.

on steroids/
counter intuitive
/man up/
friend-ed/ life back
/it's all good/
leverage
/transparency/it is what it is

* Please feel free to add your own phrases you find mildly irritating.


Monday, December 13, 2010

On Church-ese



When God closes a door, does God open a window? Here's your answer!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cleveland, You Still Rock, and You've Got Company

Le Quitness doesn't get why all those people in Memphis kept booing him. He didn't do anything to them. Every city that's not a top market has an automatic affinity for the fan-dom of Cleveland, Ohio. It's all about knowing what it's like to be treated as second class and third rate.

There's no sense in cataloging much history here, because Cleveland's experience is the norm and not the exception. (By the way, it's the Mistake ON the Lake- not the Mistake BY the Lake. Know the difference). It's just that, when sports franchises want the economic support of their community, they like to tout the importance of fan loyalty. But, when it's time for a franchise to leave, or a player to be let go or traded, it all suddenly becomes about running a business and market-size. There is no city that hasn't felt that empty feeling of losing a team or player or coach the fans once passionately followed.

The same week that the player returned from South Beach to beat his former team on the North Coast, the man who moved the Browns-Ravens to Baltimore in 1995, Arthur Modell himself, was named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 2011 class. Talk about great timing! Ya just gotta laugh.

So the Memphis folks booing Le Classless? He will continue to function as a lightening rod for every fan who has ever felt betrayed by broken promises.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's Time to Flush the Hallmark Theology

Consider it your calling to debunk, in every way possible, the seasonal onslaught that's trumpeted in every piece of media, from the Grinch to the latest Hallmark special. The sad thing is, we so buy into it! What happens when we end up pinning all our hopes on whatever we can somehow produce on our own, whether it be good intentions or good actions?

We look back at another December and wonder why we feel so empty and exhausted. Maybe it was the toxic theology that we first ingested along with the primal Christmas special and the Thanksgiving turkey.

We don't have to swallow whatever anyone has to say about God. In fact, it is faithful pastoral work, as well as self-care, to disqualify some claims- to refuse them as sub- Christian. When someone says that God has a reason for the death of your loved one, instead of getting mad at God, learn how to get good and angry with that kind of this-for-that theology! But don't let that be an excuse for you to resist the life- infusion of the Spirit or to stop seeking God, the Lover of your soul!

I've always taken the Grinch story as a good critique of our materialism. But just to rid yourself of the attachment to stuff doesn't necessarily lead to life until you ask, what is filling the void? The story implies that human kindness and gratitude is what makes Christmas what it is. As helpful as human warmth can be, it's not my own goodness that can deliver me from the addiction to excessive grabbing, and the fear-based mantra that enough is never really enough.

I wish we weren't so susceptible to this season's message of salvation through buying and the self-manufacture of happiness. It's time to spare ourselves of all of the false consolations of a Hallmark theology--and receive the promise of the One who is coming, the One who is more wondrous and life-giving than we can ever think or imagine... the One who exceeds any human expectation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Surrender Can Be Gentle

Looking for a softening of the austere Covenant Prayer from the Puritan and Wesleyan tradition? You may not be the only one that reacts to its harshness, especially the way some churches just throw it out there for everyone to read (not necessarily pray) every New Year. I struggle to pray and not mouth the words.

You find a gentler expression of a similar prayer by Charles de Foucauld, the posthumous founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Little Sisters of Jesus.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, these groups seek to conform to the social milieu where they earn much of their own living, working regular jobs, wearing ordinary clothes, and exercising their influence by sharing the life of those around them. Henri Nouwen cites Foucauld's prayer in The Road to Daybreak.
 
Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you;
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
And in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
For I love you, Lord,
And so need to give myself,
To surrender myself into your hands, without reserve
And with boundless confidence.
For you are my Father.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

St. Francis de Sales on Ingratitude


Consider particularly the sin of ingratitude toward God, a general sin that reaches out to all the rest and makes them infinitely more enormous. Note then all the benefits God has granted you and how you have misused all of them against the giver. Note especially how many of his inspirations you have despised and how many movements you have rendered useless...So often God has run after you to save you, and you have always run before him in order to destroy yourself.

from Introduction to the Devout Life (Image), p. 47, Part One, The Fourth Meditation- On Sin

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Civil Religion: Not Always Civil

When it comes to gratitude for our blessings, November reminds me that there is a very healthy civil religion in the U.S. With Thanksgiving, each generation has added to the richness of it. Being grateful for your life is good for you, and if practiced, can lead to doing good things.

But there's also a toxic sort of civil religion that really doesn't do anything for me, like when I hear the refrain that "they" have taken God out of schools, (where did "they" put God?). We have "secularized" Christmas so we need to "Put Christ back in Christmas." The literalism of moving God or putting Jesus anywhere is baffling to me.

As a life-long student of the Bible, I doubt that a pristine worship of the One and Only, the God who made heaven and earth, ever really existed in ancient Israel. But it's not about what "they" have done to "take" God away. If the whining does anything truly constructive, it challenges Christians to ascertain where in the world is God moving in our lives.

We need to thank God we're free from the terrible religious wars that our founders had the wisdom to protect us from, constitutionally, by law. Wars among self-professed Christians. Or try the book, Holy Terrors. As the majority faith, we're limited from using our "faith-based" anything on others, or as a pretext, a cover, for doing actual harm to others.

Do you really think that the One who is Lord of all the powers of the universe cares about having a space in our cultural pantheon, whether it's on the bumper of a car or statuary in front of a civic building? No, I don't see Jesus as a culture wars commander and I don't hear the call to engage in a continual battle for most favored religion status. Rather, I see Jesus' way as the one where disciples take responsibility for their own faith- and express it in concrete action. The freedom from doing harm and the freedom for doing good is a gift for which we can be truly grateful!











Thursday, November 4, 2010

Discernment: End of Life as Its Beginning

I sometimes wonder when we ask to know God's will, do we really know what we're asking? Would I be able to receive it? Or is our knowing just overrated? Maybe that's why Jesus told the disciples they could not bear or even understand everything he had to say. (John 16:12) So we do well not to judge our entire lives based on whatever we happen to be feeling or thinking at the moment.

More often than not, we only know the right and true and best by looking back at it. Bearing good fruit from our chosen spiritual practice is one of the best ways to discernment. And the results- doing not just knowing- are equally important. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Remember that the "blessed" of Matthew 25: 31 ff. didn't even know the significance of their actions- they just did God's will.

Faith calls us to discover that in every ending, though we may not have seen it or even chose it at the time, God's grace was there offering us a new beginning in hope and healing. The invitation- and choice to see now what we couldn't at the time- is ours.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Offering What We Don't Have

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," shrieked the phony wizard. Of course, we too can hide behind the false self . Why not just give up on the impossible task of showing people the way to a place we've never been! Preaching until you have faith may have been helpful spiritual counsel for John Wesley from his Moravian spiritual director; but it's far from a universal dictate. So, if one size doesn't fit all, why do we make it so?

Some might call it avoidance, that is, running away from your own issues by projecting the problem onto others. Among other things, becoming an escape artist or a master of projection blinds us to the log in our own eye. Instead, we could use this season as a way to refocus. See the "cloud of witnesses" for what it is: an encouragement to choose what is truly life-giving here and now so that we can be there for others in a way that is healing and loving. But first see life and choose life for yourself. We cannot offer what we do not have.

The quality of leadership is determined by the quality of our interior life- with God. So the question is: how is it working- that is- what is my spiritual practice producing? Discerning the right practice for us will result in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Faking it will only lead to guilt and disillusionment and desolation. We only need to make the choice to know the love and grace that is ours for the taking.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can We Let God Be Kinder than We Are?

When it comes to pain and suffering, how is it that we can be closer to Job's clueless "friends" than Jesus? See also the critique of the pop dictum "God Never Gives Us More than than We Can Handle."

Granted we can read Job as a story that has a Walt Disney ending all because of Job's faithfulness. That's not the only reading we can employ though. So why come down on the side of meanness instead of generosity and grace? Does God really take away our health - or dish up trouble- whatever the reason? Does God really extract everything from our lives so that one day, when everything and everyone is gone, we'll somehow accept Jesus? That is so unnecessary and harmful.

In ethics, we would call that employing the ends to justify the means. That very reasoning is used to justify any and all kind of harm done to others. I find it very sad and draining whenever I encounter it- and I do all too often with "believers." But applying this kind of toxic rationale to God is an ethical and theological nightmare we don't have to dive into. Nor should we!

I suggest we choose Jesus over whatever reading of Job may please us: "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on the them- do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?" Luke 13:2-4 By offering these rhetorical questions, Jesus has our number too. The issue is about what's in our control, not about the stuff that happens to us. It's about our own choosing- or repentance.

Better to change your own mind about God than misrepresent both God and God's world! Even though we can be artists at projection, let's allow the Holy One to be better and bigger than us, full of grace, truth, and wonder. We don't need to add to the world's suffering by making faith a cover for our own meanness, sin, and small-mindedness.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Survivors of Suicide- A Grief Like No Other

Pastors and care-givers have the terribly isolating experience of surviving a parishioner, friend or family member who has taken their own life. I found the following advice from former NFL quarterback Eric Hipple:

"It's hard to describe [the pain of suicide] unless you have been close to someone who did commit suicide. That's why those of us who have been through this need to help each other. And please, if you think about suicide, go see a psychologist or a doctor. Get some treatment. Don't wait."

Don't try to reason with someone who is in clinical depression and making suicidal statements or threats. They're in that place because their thinking is compromised. For spiritual care givers, it maybe helpful to report your concerns to the next of kin and/or the physician(s) who is responsible for the care plan. This can be done in the best interests of a person who has come to see you for help, even while you honor the confidentiality and trust of a parishioner by asking for their permission to act on their behalf.

Sometimes we see why suicide runs in families. That's explained, in part, because mental illness is a family and not just a personal problem. The grief of surviving a suicide is so painful that suicide is sometimes seen as the only way out. At the same time, seeing how suicide harms everyone involved may help to limit an at- risk person's suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Another option is 72 hour observation in a hospital. Although that is temporary, the truth is that being taken into police custody to a safe place may be what is called for. No one will say that such an experience is pleasant at all. But they may still be living to talk about it.

For survivors, some crisis hot lines also partner with support groups, where you can can break through the isolation and loneliness of grieving this loss. Making contact with other survivors can be one of several healing things you can do for yourself and others who share your journey.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Wisdom in Weeds

While some stuff we call weeds can actually be beneficial for soil development (like clover), what makes a weed so bad is that, given the right conditions, it can easily dominate the grass. I've had a long-time battle with something called wild aster.The weed appears to be totally immune to any and all treatments including just ignoring it. There are times it seems under control, but mostly it's an infernal struggle against this creeping, woody, well-rooted nightmare in my St. Augustine.

Heat, drought, insects, and lack of good soil can stress a lawn and make it susceptible to problems. Like the life of your lawn, the root of bitterness can grow in us, especially when we're stressed. We may stop seeing temptations for what they are: distractions from our main goal of loving God and serving others. We begin to pay so much attention to these, that, like the wild aster of my lawn, most of our energy is consumed with either fighting or feeding them.

Jesus has plenty of stories using weeds.
"As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature." Luke 8:14 Weeds are a fact of lawn health and temptations are a fact of spiritual care. How we choose to care for the soil of our spirit will determine the extent of whatever your dreaded wild aster is.

St. Francis de Sales liked to use insects in many of his illustrations. He likened temptations to little gnats, nothing more, nothing less. We see and notice them. If we want to stop them from disrupting our lives, we must choose to simply swat them away.

Happy swatting!



Thursday, September 9, 2010

Love is safe...but are Christians?

Let mutual love continue. Hebrews 13:1

"Lord, save me from your followers!" -bumper sticker

The shoe is on the proverbial other foot. Now Christians are being put in the position of having to say that that Christian leaders of "Pastor" Terry Jones ilk are fringe and out of the ballpark of normative Christian faith and practice.

In addition to how this quagmire endangers our military service personnel and civilians working overseas, one of the questions I haven't heard asked is the effect it all might have on the safety of any and all of our churches. Blinded by hate and fear, Terry Jones apparently has no clue that his behavior threatens other Christians too.

So what's a faithful Christian to do? I'm pretty certain that Jesus and the New Testament is not about killing the opposition, but rather, patient endurance, even in a time of crisis. We simply cannot control the actions of others. So, it means we speak up when we see spiritual abuse, and all the more when it's done in the name of Jesus. Overcoming evil with good requires that we pray, and we pray with all our might that the whole idea of Koran burning is called off once and for all.

And even if this all fades away quietly, there's still a wrong to be righted. Maybe we can start the healing by making room in our lives for even one new person- believing that the presence of the risen Lord is synonymous with hospitality to the stranger, the outsider.

The irony is that difficult times are made more bearable and less violent whenever we really are who we say we are- followers of Jesus. Whenever we are, in Jesus' owns words, we are light. (Matthew 5:14) In Longing for Spring, according to Unchristian, "over 80% of people 16-29 have a negative view of Christianity and church because of, in part, the hypocrisy and self-serving swagger of Christians."

Yes, salvation- peace, safety, restoration- all belong to our God in Jesus. And because of that, we discover safety and shalom, and can share it, in God's grace. Just try not to burn anyone's holy books on the way. Thus, we pray:

Teacher, bring angels to us today, and the wisdom and depth of faith to show them hospitality and friendship. As we do to the least of these, we do to you. Let us freshly hear those words. Amen.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Giving from a Full Cup

My Dad’s main instrument was clarinet then followed by sax. As a teenager, dad appeared on the Major Bowes radio broadcast, THE amateur talent show of his generation. While in college at Drake University, Steve Allen was the pianist in his band. When Dad went to law school and become an attorney, he never left his passion; rather, he guided my older brother’s many Big Band and Dixieland groups for about a decade.

Every Sunday, musicians of all generations and hair lengths jammed into our living room, filling our house with every sound from Glenn Miller to Count Basie to the Dukes of Dixieland.

In a weird way, I miss the community, as intrusive as it was, that assembled in my living room those many Sundays. That kind of doing for the simple love of it is very rare. When you share your gift and passion with others, it can make you a better person, you can “fulfill” your mission, and you can improve the world beyond just yourself.

The good news is that there is enough of God’s grace for everyone and everything God created: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” I Peter 4:10. This isn’t about “volunteering.” It is about fulfilling your baptism in Jesus Christ and not wasting the time and ability God gives you.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Is a Day off the Answer to Clergy Obesity?

Taking time away sure helps, especially if you can give yourself the freedom to do so. That seems to be the upshot of all the reporting of the portly North Carolinian United Methodist pastors. An article in the NY Times mentions several other clergy ailments such as depression and suggests that we find a way to take more sabbath.

While I think taking the time is extremely important, the reporting never really addresses the fact that, because of the nature of the pastoral life, most of our lives are structured in a way that 's inherently unhealthy. Whatever the "written" responsibilities are, the reality of the pastoral life is that we run the church while also being there for people in crisis. The nature of crisis is that it happens whenever it will, 24/7. So clergy are more stressed out than the general population. Do ya think?

I'm not sure clergy health has ever been that great. Let's not use this or any research to romanticize the clergy health of yesteryear. Don't believe the fiction that if clergy were somehow more committed, they would be happier. That somehow more Jesus should take the place of more Prozac. That kind of thinking makes the patient worse, not better. An illness is an illness. In truth the needs of our world and thus our parishes are multiplying at an unbelievable rate, and this certainly has a ripple effect on pastors.

The answer, I believe, is self-awareness and self-discernment. Knowing your limits, as well as your gifts. Receive for yourself what you are offering to others: compassion, understanding, mercy, truth. Of course, you may need to take a day off to get to that place. But, it's not heroic or "sacrificial" or unselfish to live in denial of your health.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is "Unworthy" Worthless?

The question's relevance is found in the way we hear the references to our being unworthy in the Bible and in the liturgy of the church: "Say, 'We are worthless slaves,; we have only done what we ought to have done.'" Luke 17: 10, NRSV The CEV reads, "Say, 'We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.'" The traditional UMC Communion liturgy has, in the prayer of humble access, "We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table..."

The use of "unworthy" does become a stumbling block. Other words, biblical and otherwise, exist. "Fear of God" is a hindrance to many as well. Should we just use different words now that so many hear them as curses rather than blessings, as nullifying, rather than amplifying, our access to God grace in Jesus?

For me the answer is yes, especially if by the words we automatically do more harm than good. This is much easier to do if your theology embraces our being created in God's image to love and be loved. And that the object of following Jesus is not to diminish us but to restore our true humanity.

Being told that we are worthless? It's worthless. Of course the essence of grace is that it comes unearned and with no entitlement. When it comes to grace, God always makes the first move. But God initiates covenant love because we are worth redeeming, created in God's image.



Sunday, August 15, 2010

Study Leave, 2010

Intention

Like Garrison Keillor's Pastor Inqvist, I've spoken about the importance of leave- taking in many of these posts. In 2010, it was time for me to walk the talk. Clergy persons need to be creative. There are few prepackaged opportunities for time away for personal, spiritual, and vocational renewal. And while both the D. Min. or a Spiritual Direction program can be renewing experiences, spiritual renewal is the by-product of such courses, not the purpose.

My goal of reading, prayer, study, and rest fit best into a few weeks' of study leave. Within about a month of the start of the time away, shaping up to be two weeks of reflection and discernment of "what's next," I was asked to lead our church's older adult ministry, and continue with existing responsibilities. So the new ministry actually delayed as well as re-framed my time away. The following is a narrative account of what actually happened while omitting some of the plans that changed.

A Spiritual Director from the Houston Cenacle and Dr. Elaine Heath, a faculty member of Perkins School of Theology acted as resource persons for this study leave. I am deeply appreciative of their time and availability. The emphasis for the time became more reading, study, and prayer while in Dallas and retreating at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston. Although scaled back some, I managed to visit two very different Christian communities at worship, and interview their leaders.

Reading, Study, and Prayer

I've been in the habit of reading and reviewing new releases. That's why, in part, I chose The Resurrection of Ministry by Andrew Purves and The Radical Disciple by John Stott. In addition, I read A Letter to the Soul Jesus Loves, a spiritual classic by John of Landsburg. Finally, reading Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life in its entirety called me to the deepest reflection and prayer. I will draw upon the well of his wonderful spiritual direction for years.

As part of the focus for the time away, I met with Dr. Elaine Heath of Perkins School of Theology. When I read two of Elaine Heath's books, The Mystic Way of Evangelism and Longing for Spring, my curiosity to know more about NEW DAY in Dallas led me to seek her out for the direction of the sabbath time. NEW DAY is a network of United Methodist communities in the monastic tradition.

New Day and Lakewood Experiences

NEW DAY has about seven neighborhood or house churches in various stages of birth throughout the Metroplex. Like popcorn in its organic-like emergence, each community is based on a monastic-like "rule," a clear covenant to live out the gospel life in solidarity with and in service to the immediate neighborhood. and community. A newly formed foundation is responsible for purchasing and maintenance of each property. Community members include seminarians, or older undergraduate students. They're learning how to pastor this kind of house-church network. Some actually serve their intern year of seminary leading one of the NEW DAY communities. The seminarians receive rent for their agreement to live under a rule of life.

"Anchor" churches are other United Methodist Churches in the Metroplex which agree to assist a NEW DAY community in their ministry, a symbiotic relationship where each congregation respects the integrity of the NEW DAY mission. Financial independence, a goal that many larger churches have for the congregations they birth, is not the goal of this relationship. The NEW DAY experience suggests that they will always need their anchor churches. Thus, bottom line is not creating a financial unit or apportionment -paying entity, or even adding a slot on the conference ladder, since all NEW DAY leadership is bi-vocational and all groups meet in borrowed space.

The objective of NEW DAY is to offer to the UMC seminary graduates who are equipped with the vision and who are dedicated to leading intentional Christian community. Worship consists of sharing simple meal, singing, thanksgiving, praying for each other and the world, a homily or message, and Holy Communion. The gathering I visited at the SMU Wesley Foundation was made up of Perkins former or continuing students (Anglo and African), faculty, African immigrants, and family members and friends. The language used was Swahili and the message was translated into English. They were in summer-mode, with the attendance down to about 50% instead of the normal of 45-50.

Besides the opportunity to really delve into some new releases and spiritual classics, I found the NEW DAY experience refreshing. Most of my experience in the traditional church has used all variations of the top down model. But that is not the only way of growth that the Holy Spirit uses or that we can employ. I also visited Lakewood Church in Houston, and visited with Joel Osteen.

Mary and I sat in the "upper deck" where there was plenty of room. I especially liked the mid service Gospel pieces and being served Holy Communion in my seat. Fathers were recognized and prayed for (after all it was Father's day). Pastor Nick (he looked like a surfer) introduced the new youth and young adult gathering starting that evening. Joel spoke about their upcoming VBS, an evening affair, while the camera panned on the children's pastor and his wife. Joel's message was on running your own race. Use and develop your gifts and free yourself from harmful comparisons. I noticed that "healing," "deliverance," and "restoration," and being "set free" all were used frequently throughout the service.

The hardest part of my first Lakewood visit was the getting parked and into a seat. Greeters seemed to serve as ushers at each section. They were neither overly friendly nor aloof, but seemed to go about their ministry with the goal of getting you into your seat without delay for the main show. I will say that the post service hospitality was excellent. Joel invited newcomers to a class, a series that was starting after the service. The location of the class was easy to find and very close to the worship center. There was a place to meet Joel. Folks were available to answer your questions too.

Gratitude

In the end, I'm extremely grateful to Chapelwood, especially my colleagues and supervisors on the staff, Bob Johnson and Jim Jackson, and the Staff Pastor Parish Relations Committee, for the opportunity to take this study leave. As a result, I enter this new sphere of ministry with a deepened sense of spiritual well-being and vision for ministry to others.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What Would "the Beave" Lie About Today?

What next? Did Beaver Cleever lie again about eating all of his school lunch or did he actually trade it out for a bunch of sweets and candy? How can he claim he didn't jaywalk when half the neighborhood saw him do it? Next, in order to be popular with the older, bigger, cooler kids, the Beaver takes the blame for some of their own misdeeds.

Sure would be nice if that early 1960's level of moral turpitude was around today. Each episode stood alone as a mini-morality play.

In my boyhood, I loved hanging out with the older kid across the street. He, like many of the people that I grew up with, went to the nearby parochial Catholic school. It was connected to one of the larger parishes in our city. It's hard to believe that so many these suburban communities are gone. Their schools and gorgeous churches, are for sale, doors closed.

But in the season of tagging along my older buddy, I learned why intention, not necessarily action, is what makes a sin so bad. Saying "darn" and "dang" was, in its own way, just as bad as using the real "D" word because everyone knew that's what you really meant. Other such lessons about being good on the inside abounded.

The nature of the act is really about the deceitful spirit, even if it's just about whether or not you ate the lunch June packed for you. Somehow the thought of a contemporary Beave lying about cyber-bullying or smoking up behind Eddie Haskell's house doesn't really obscure the message that truthfulness is the same today as it was then. It's about dependability in the big, as well as the small, things of life.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why We Take It Personally

The latest comings and goings of sports heroes has been an interesting lesson for students of social belonging.

With last month's hour long "show" dedicated to the wherefore of Lebron James, and the MLB trading deadline, which saw longtime favorites Oswald and Berkman leave the local Astros, those outside of these situations don't have a clue what's happening. Onlookers don't understand the feelings involved because all they see is an athlete improving his chances of winning by changing cities. All this while not hurting his bank account!

But those who are on the inside, I mean the fans, experience it all differently. They belong to their teams in what Joseph Myers has called "public space." Public belongers are committed and participate. They find their connection both important and meaningful. How the team or city views the individual is less important than how the fan views the team. So Lebron's self-absorbed departure from Cleveland and the losses from other teams always violates the sense of belonging and attachment that fans have to their team and city. And yes, I believe it surely hits ticket sales, at least at first.

There are lessons here for churches and the pastors who lead them. I wish every clergy person would take the time to read Myers' discussion of how public, social, personal, and intimate belonging all require their own space and involvement. It shows that we have much to learn when our churches continue to hype personal and intimate belonging and stand terribly deficient in offering public and social spaces.

While we in the church tend to minimize public belonging, Jesus was apparently very comfortable with those who identified with him only in a public fashion. Stories of Jesus healing people at a distance (Luke 7) prove that public belonging is valid and important, if not also overlooked. We want people to participate in other ways, in ways we think more meaningful. But, who's deciding how they should or should not belong? Can we let go of our grids and charts long enough to trust people- and let them to belong as they choose?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why Join the Church?

Some of the better material in books I find in the appendices. Such is true of Fusion by Nelson Searcy with Jennifer Dykes Henson. Subtitled "Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church," the authors address a topic that is a day-to-day challenge for anyone engaged in evangelism and disciple formation.

I found that the "Membership Tools" in Appendix C generated a helpful reflection for anyone who is asked why church membership matters. To put it another way, what difference does following Jesus make? The authors give several reasons. As they assist regular attenders down the road to full membership, they regularly teach, and I slightly amend, their four primary reasons for church membership:

  1. We need healthy relationships
  2. We need our gifts to be accepted and used.
  3. We need to feel like we're growing, making progress in the spiritual life
  4. We need to belong- to something bigger than us.
#1 requires that we relearn healthy ways of being in relationship with God and others. It's about knowing God as loving and being equipped to love others. Both are life-long and joining the church, if anything, is just the beginning of this journey. Guests or regular attenders need to not only hear about God's love but also, discover and experience it.

#2 relates to the importance of belonging and acceptance. The need to make a contribution and to make a difference is there. If regular attenders are blocked from discovering their ministry and mission field, then they will look to be equipped somewhere else, or not at all.

#3 means that it's important for guests to see that members are expected to grow. The commitment to full membership is a personal decision to begin and continue growing as a Christian disciple. Membership is not the goal or the end, growing is.

#4 guests should be able to say "I belong here, I'm wanted here" in all their experiences in church worship, various groups, and in interaction with other members. Are the conversations and behaviors observed kind and gracious?


Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Word About Numbers

Bishop Will Willimon challenged us to say, in light of the Acts of the Apostles, that numbers (of conversions, people in pews, etc.) don't really matter. I don't know who is saying numbers don't matter, but I did what he asked us to do. I reflected on why Luke, who wrote the narrative, would have included numbers in the story of the church's expansion, in Acts.

I believe they are not unimportant in the larger story but they are, by themselves, not very meaningful. These instances are recounted, like the conversions of former persecutors (Saul) and Roman officials like Cornelius, to teach that your persecutors or occupying military officer might just become your brother or sister if you are faithful in your witness. And about numbers: the more people who see following Jesus not just dangerous, but also possible and workable, the more likely others will accept the invitation to join in. In a sense, numbers do attract more numbers.

That, in my opinion has little to do with reporting of numbers, paid attendance or actual, as we do it today, whether at the ballgame or the pew. Those are business figures. Are our numbers incidental or unimportant? To be PC, absolutely not. In a way that matters to the UMC and those employed by it, numbers are important. Is that the main message of Acts, or of Jesus' parables of growth, or, for that matter, the ministry of John Wesley, as the Bishop maintains? It would seem that a variety of responses can be reasonably argued.

But saying we need more numbers when the UMC has had generational membership losses is not prophetic exhortation- it's simply more empty reporting of the previous day's weather.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is the Disciple Making Mantra Working?

We have an impressive apparatus for making disciples of Jesus. It aligns with our mission statement quite nicely! How's that workin' for ya?

If it's possible, drop that latest disciple making toy. Consider the spiritual struggle to completely follow Jesus, your Light and your Salvation. Remember the folks that Jesus loved and taught, among them a rich young man (Mark 10:21-22)? He knew what Jesus was about, but he was not free to follow him.

The hard work of following Jesus "unreservedly," as Henri Nouwen put it in The Road to Daybreak, sometimes flouts our best efforts at invitation. As he wrote, "In the past I wanted to know where to go. Now I knew where to go, but didn't really want to." If someone like Henri Nouwen could write these words, and share his own struggle to follow Jesus even more fully, why isn't there more honesty about following Jesus- the kind that comes from the depths of our being? Is it about trying to sell something we ourselves are not buying?

I'm not sure we can be honest about discipleship if we're not on the journey ourselves, attending to our spiritual life and sharing it. Nouwen chose the venue of the journal as well as books, lectures, and finally, his own ministry with the disabled. But honesty requires being on journey in the first place.

We prefer a position of strength. I envision myself with no unsavory givens, that is, no weighty baggage. Implicit in most "grids" I've seen is the assumption of being "fixed." People may decide that this discipleship stuff is not for them- unless they can find a way to look good, to hide the messiness of their existence. It doesn't even enter our minds that our true vocation is always connected to the struggle to be whole, grounded in our own brokenness and healing.

Churches large and small tend to make "following Jesus" into "copying Jesus." We neglect our true self and our true life in the Holy Spirit. We try our best to schlep up somehow, on our own, a life as Jesus lived and taught. But it's communion with God, receiving Christ into ourselves that leads to the fruit of the Spirit, not the other way around. In valuing the result over the Source, we obscure the gift that makes discipleship possible.

Belonging in Christian community trumps any kind of assembly-line process. What we find pleasing about any scheme is that we think we can fit bunches of people into it and thereby churn more "disciples" out of it. But patience, gentleness, and love is not necessarily the fruit of such efforts to impose our form of discipleship on others.

Basically we put too much trust in disciple-making. We want it manageable, measurable, even easier, without risk. What then? Without a master plan, we're left with a simplicity with all it's beauty and breadth and depth: our desire to receive Jesus, to be formed by Holy Spirit, and willingness to stay on the journey with others. May your spirit be refreshed with the gift of curiosity and wonder and joy.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bryant Gumble on Lebron

On Weds,Real Sports on HBO , had something to say about the THE KING:

“Finally tonight, a few words about championship rings. Just when did they become the all-important barometer of who does or doesn’t count in sports? When did they supersede personal excellence or exemplary character as a standard of greatness?

“I got to thinking about that the other night after the self-anointed chosen one, LeBron James, embarrassed himself as he tried to make his decision to seek rings in Miami sound like a search for the Holy Grail. It’s when he essentially admitted to placing a higher priority on winning than anything else.

“LeBron’s decision is typical of our immediate gratification era, but it flies in the face of history. Even though he never won a title, Dan Marino is still the biggest hero in Florida. And in Boston, all those Celtics championships are dimmed by the unforgettable brilliance of Ted Williams, who never won anything. In Chicago, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus have legendary status despite playing on losing teams. And even in the NBA, where guys seem obsessed with being viewed as ‘the man’, real men like Barkley, Ewing and Baylor are ringless, but revered.

“Despite such evidence to the contrary, LeBron James seems to think he needs a ring to change his life and secure his legacy. Maybe he’ll get one, maybe he won’t, but it’s probable that no amount of rings will ever remove the stench he wallowed in last week. LeBron may yet find that in the court of public opinion, just as putting on a tux can’t make a guy a gentleman, winning a ring can’t make one truly a champion.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Just Another Fake Line in the Sandbox

Did you know that the culpable behemoths are not the B.P.'s who risk lives and worlds for a little more profit (and for our cheap gas). They're not the too-big-to fail giants on Wall Street bailed out by our tax dollars. The demagogues in the U.S. Senate, in a piece of work before their July 4 recess, took on the unemployed and their families, some of which possibly live on a street near you. Happy holiday!

Yup, our Senate heroes, especially its bold minority, is doing what it does best: rigging a cat fight for their hell-benders! After months of dubious negotiating the bill's size, they managed to shut down, at least temporarily, renewing expiring federal unemployment benefits. Maybe when the senators are finished taking a stand something will get done, who knows?

Two- off- the- book- wars, huge, unfunded, budget-toxic tax cuts for the leisure class, drug company hand-outs, and other stuff still unpaid? Naw, THOSE deficits are different. Now, deficits really do matter.

The stand is a symbolic "I was against those terrible deficits under our current President and I did what I could to counteract the flow of big guvmunt!" in a campaign speech. The poor, the vulnerable, the already-stressed- out families who are without one or both incomes? Extending benefits goes immediately into the economy, and stimulating the economy with real cash infusion (read: success) is one thing that terrifies these Jim- dandies. They have nothing to offer except maybe some warmed over advice from St. Ronnie about checking the want ads.

But pitching a fit here and now would only be credible if anything was attempted about the huge budget shortfalls in the last ten years. "The one who mocks the poor has contempt for their Maker," says Proverbs 17:5. "Mocking" includes your pretend stands that mislead and don't work, even if they can get you re-elected.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

To Entangle, Enable or Empower

Why does it matter? Enabling keeps us in ruts, wastes time, drains energy and, ultimately robs life of our direction.

If you answer yes to most of these you may be more of an enabler:
  1. Do I do for others what they can and should do for themselves?
  2. Have I reminded them to do what was their responsibility?
  3. Have I commented even to myself on how another has fulfilled a task?
  4. Have I tried to change someone's feelings?
  5. Do I often find it easier to just say yes when I really need to say no?

Enabling others prevents people from knowing God's will and using their spiritual gifts. Being "entangled" with others does sap your energy, verve, and purpose. If you are functioning too much as an enabler, it may be a struggle being your own person, to stand on your own two feet. You may even "love too much" or try to get from others what you really need to give to yourself: respect, patience, and self-acceptance. Clergy are especially susceptible to wanting everyone to like them.

Equipping and empowering others is different than enabling. Empowering others frees and supports others to do what God is calling them to do and be. It encourages us to use our gifts rather than to deny them. We aspire to fulfill the highest vision, not just to please others. The courage to be your own best self is connected, on the deepest level, to be a faithful steward of what God has given you, in love, to be and do. That in itself requires strength, clear thinking, and attention.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Is "Tilting" Enough?




In Tilt: Small Shifts in Leadership that Make a Big Difference, authors Erik Rees and Jeff Jernigan describe the difference between being managed by change and leading it. By choosing the later, we can become part of the process of transformation instead of blocking it. A significant theme throughout the book: too much management and control leads to burn-out. And that deadens all forms of leadership, volunteer as well as professional.

The best chapters were on "Becoming an Empowering Leader" and "Value-Driven Behaviors." The importance of inviting new people and investing in them is the first step in empowering others, especially if Christ's ministry is ever to be replicated and multiplied. The strength of the book is the emphasis on behaviors or fruits. The authors do a good job of identifying what they mean by values- driven behaviors, a popular topic in the corporate world. As you begin to establish value-based behaviors, you actually have a good chance of limiting toxic relationships.

The best quote was found on page 133: "If visibility is something you need, you need to be in theater, not ministry." You might also find the Appendix, Value-Driven Behaviors Card-Sort a useful exercise for any group or team you lead.

The authors tend to lump everyone under the catch-all "ministry." The leadership issues are not the same. Clergy have responsibilities that parishioners do not, for example, in the areas of setting and maintaining healthy space, time, energy, and rest boundaries, both for self and for others. Too, I could have seen fewer grids, graphs, quizzes and inventories, and few more metaphors, biblical and otherwise, developed.

Because growth and change is messy- and not just the cause and effect manipulated or "driven"- a more helpful approach would be to focus on the organic, grass roots aspects of transformation. Vision can strangely diminish the more we dissect its parts, rely on general formulas, and ignore the one and only movement of God's Spirit in our midst. That's why I think Tilt falls short as a guide for encountering the Holy One in Christ's ministry. As such, it's more of a leadership manual for the 1990's. More of a last gasp of the purpose-driven technique than a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beginning Second Half Ministry @ Chapelwood

I'm a second-half pastor with ministry to second-half adults to be added to my official responsibilities July 1. I will continue equipping Chapelwood in the areas of Reaching and First Impression Ministry.

As the youngest of three brothers, I grew up looking up to my elders, literally. In a number of ways, I've sort of lived out that boyhood experience. As a college student, I participated in the "pioneer" older adult group as a leader in training. In my last year in college, I assisted the county in developing a legal assistance-peer counseling program for seniors. And in the course of ministry, I have directed retiree events at Mt. Sequoya (Arkansas), was chaplain for a Christian retirement community with continuing care, and trained as resident advocate, or an ombudsman. For the past three years, I've volunteered with the Houston Alzheimer's Association's conferences.

Throw in my own experience with caring for family members, which, in itself, changes your life and your outlook. About my family. There are three generations of attorneys., and my mother was an R.N. and birthing instructor. After growing up in the same town in Ohio, I left home and family to attend Trinity University in San Antonio. While there, I met my future wife, Mary Mann from Ft. Worth. We married while I was a student at Duke Divinity School. We have two children, Marianne, who's a second grade teacher in Spring Branch, and Alex, who is a junior at UT, Austin. My family are wonderful to me and I love being there for them.

I have been in full-time ministry for 27 years. I have served churches in North Carolina, Odessa, and Houston before coming to Chapelwood in late 2003. I love learning and sharing ideas, so I keep going back to school! In 1997 I completed a Doctor of Ministry and last year, I graduated from the Cenacle's 3 year Spiritual Direction Institute here in Houston. I've been a blogger since 2008 at clergyspirit.org. and for most of this June, I will be in Dallas taking some study leave under the direction of Dr. Elaine Heath, who teaches evangelism at Perkins (SMU).

I love Chapelwood. In many ways, coming here has been a coming home to what I was meant to be as a person and a pastor. I consider serving and equipping the "second-half" adults here to be a wonderful invitation to grow more fully into God's love, as well as in ministry. For me, and I believe for all of us, that means learning to be grateful for the life we have here and now.

What a wonderful foundation The Reverend Mopsy Andrews has built with the Bolder Adult Ministry! This group is so vibrant and forms a really impressive hub of service throughout the church and community. That is a tremendous gift to all of us and especially for me as I step into this new leadership role. Because strong leaders and programs are already in place, we can spend a little more time getting to know each other in the weeks and months ahead.

I look forward to our ministry together!



Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An Old Idea Looking Better

What if the mission record of the church has been poor, regardless of the vast array of clergy appointments made to said church? How in the world can it be concluded that everyone of those clergy were just ineffective, especially when they had proven themselves otherwise before or after their tenure at the resistant church?

While some have forwarded the corollary of the guaranteed appointment repeal (that is, refusing poorly performing churches a clergy appointment), there may be several other options short of stiffing the congregation an ordained pastor:
  • These instances are opportunities for bishops with exceptional pastoral skills to shine. Show the rest us how what it looks like to turn a church around!
  • In an area bishop's tenure, pastor a turn-around once every quadrennium. That would put an entirely different spin on the teaching function of the episcopacy.
  • Choose cabinet members on their demonstrated ability and willingness to turn a resistant church or churches around. They, too, could be "challenged" to select one maybe two, churches to pastor during their six year tenure.
  • Saving $ is often the rationale for getting a student or part-time local pastor. Even though churches across the connection could potentially save in overhead and apportioned expenses, The goal is equipping all pastors, especially younger clergy, with both the Spirit and the gifts.
This is not new. Appointing District Superintendents to churches is already common practice in different parts of World Methodism. Different rules are needed for different situations. In the U.S., this can be a time of peeling away overhead. It requires a new level transparency for pastors AND churches to be sure. Look at where we are now. Lay leaders and pastors hear tedious, theoretical, droning lectures on appointment making rationale. Or, how to complete reports. Uninspiring. Unconvincing. Ineffective.

Pastors and churches are commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ. It's time for conference leaders to let us see how it's done.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Include Integrity on Next Resume

If you don't get caught, then why not fudge a little on your resume. Throw in a fake title here, add a few years there, who's really going to check anyway? We like to catch the politicians in fibs about braving gunfire, or their pretended combat service in Vietnam, and well we should. But lying on a resume is not any better. Printed resumes, just like viral speeches, are difficult to undo.

When I took my first pastorate as a student in a North Carolinian mill town church, I doubt anyone in the parish really cared that much about my resume. No one indicated that they were impressed by it if they had even seen it. They were more concerned that I drove a car with Ohio plates, I had a beard and pony tail, or in the ACC culture, that I attended Duke Divinity School.

Like sermons on humility, the best resumes are concise. "Elaborating" to make your body of work look better only fractures your integrity. Even if no one notices the little extra you imagined, you're only diminishing, not enhancing, yourself. It says, "I'm not enough as I am so I will embellish the truth with something more." Reality sells.

Unlike potential extension ministries, there seems to be an amazing lack of interest in United Methodist congregations about pastoral resumes- maybe because so much is filtered through bishops and their cabinets. If "mission based appointments" will ever exist, then real, not imagined, records for both pastors and churches would be a great place to start for appointments well-made.







Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Weekly Watchword: The Miracle of Adoption

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. Romans 8:14

Light saber or pixie dust? Holy Spirit is neither. We don't control Holy Spirit; better to yield and surrender. Think of it not as the Spirit coming down on the church, but rather, the church offering all to Holy Spirit. As the Moravian Watchword from Romans implies, it's Spirit's work of adopting and leading us that is significant, not our claim on the Spirit.

Just as important as receiving, it's sometimes helpful to look at what we're receiving. Paul makes clear that it's the very spirit of adoption, so that when we cry out to God as our loving Abba, it is the Spirit bearing witness to us that we belong to God, now and forever. (Romans 8:16) So any other voice that refutes that affirmation is not from Holy Spirit but from the father of lies.

The wisdom in this is that we don't have to look elsewhere. Though I don't always choose the hope and freedom and healing that the Spirit offers, Paraclete is nonetheless here opening that door to life, inviting me to know and experience new possibilities. The spirit- life is finally about making small movements, and learning to live as God's beloved in Jesus.

We CAN choose gratitude for God's extravagance and grace as the center from which we live. In this, we can offer ministry bearing resemblance to Jesus- and the same worthy of his name. Blessed Pentecost!








Friday, May 21, 2010

I Sincerely Doubt It

I remember there was a phase in our boyhood when my older brother would retort, "I sincerely doubt it," to almost anything I would try to state, frustratingly, as fact!

Have you ever wondered about the presence and purpose of doubt? Why do we get to have it and centipedes or toads apparently don't? Wouldn't life be easier if we could just get over it and move on?

Doubt plays an important function because it can save us from ourselves. Doubt can keep us from making bad decisions or doing harm due to run- away hubris, and thinking we're always right. Knowing we don't have all the answers is apart of honest humility. Faith without this kind of doubt can serve to strengthen, not question, all pet peeves and prejudices. Then, I no longer think I'm right, I know I am.

When it comes to the Bible, doubt means different things. One of the well-worn texts on doubt comes from the Epistle of James:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind, for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not to expect to receive anything from the Lord. James 1:5-8
That's strong language against doubt. The gist of the doubt here is contention or differing with God. It makes sense. Why would anyone ask God for anything if they're going to turn around and say, "No thanks God, I changed my mind. I don't really want what you have to offer-wisdom- after all." So the doubter here is double-minded, or literally, "double-souled."

THUS, doubt depends on context. A truly healing confession is from Mark: [Jesus said] “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9: 23-24

Doubt is about intention. Being careful for what you pray is only part of it. The other, maybe larger part, is about whether we choose the healed -or- sharply divided self. Doubt can play a helpful role if it can lead us to be more honest with God and genuine with other people. It can waste precious energy if we end up turning away from whatever God is offering us. It can lead to greater transparency or self-defeat. Choose the former, by God's love and grace.




Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dormancy

A few months ago I was asked by the retreat leader to reflect on my spiritual season. In what season am I living spiritually? I couldn't get beyond the fact that Houston, Texas was experiencing its first winter in years. Maybe partly because of the four seasons in nature, our spirits too have seasons of energy, growth, denouement, and dormancy.

Discerning spiritual seasons can serve us well as we become aware of the center from which we give and serve and offer our ministry. Acknowledgment of our inner reality is a step in first doing no harm to self or another. Especially if we're at a place of ebbing energy, then offering gentleness and compassion to ourselves is easily blown off. We're supposed to be there for others, right?

I once knew a gardener who cared for an amazing array of roses, among other foliage. The trouble with our weather, he said, was that roses never had a rest, a break, a time when they were not on. Keeping the roses going throughout the year was a struggle because of the lack of a real winter.

Pastors, too, are always on. However, there is a season for everything. We may not want to be in the season of waiting because our first inclination maybe to do something. Waiting doesn't necessarily play well on anyone's success meter or effectiveness grid. But if we as clergy leaders are not able to name our own reality, then what, finally, do we have to offer to anyone else?

It's the miracle of life sustaining life that has gripped me this year. A winter of dormancy made this spring especially vivid, something to savor. Which is what our spiritual life can be, something to enjoy, whatever season in which you find yourself.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Monastic Methodists


In Longing for Spring, co-authors Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker do more than just report on the new monastic movement within United Methodist Churches. They also present a strong case for a Wesleyan monastic rule of life. All in a very brief 104 pp.- that's with the bibliography.

Heath, the McCreless Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, and Kisker, the James Cecil Logan Associate Professor of Evangelism and Wesley Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary, are also both leaders in the "new monasticism." Heath, a U.M. Elder, is on the leadership team of New Day, a connection of "micro-communities" of prayer and action. Kisker, also a United Methodist pastor, is apart of a band meeting at Wesley.

The reader will find the authors' experiences in intentional Wesleyan community helpful, because they too have negotiated the pitfalls of the institutional church. As a result, their wisdom is all the more valuable. Both authors share their spiritual stories early on. Later, in chapter 5, we read the possibilities of the new movement coexisting with and renewing the larger church. The argument favors stability over intineracy in pastoral appointments, because, in part, stable leadership is more in keeping with the monastic tradition of living within a rule of life. It's the part of the book that I find the most hopeful- even optimistic.

It's not hard to claim a Rule of Life as a United Methodist Christian. It's there in our DNA. The authors show how the Wesleys were basically monastic, with their rule founded on the General Rules. The General Rules also have the advantage of being under the protection of the restricted rule, so no General Conference can change them in any way. They are as follows: 1. First do no harm. 2. Do all the good you can. 3. Practice individual and corporate spiritual disciplines. Today, the five-fold United Methodist membership vow of discipleship in prayer, presence, gifts, service, and witness can easily form the rule of life for intentional community.

The book also contains the 12 marks of the new monasticism, as well as appendices containing resources, a reflection guide for groups, and a description of the important role of an anchor church.

Favorite quotes:

"The wealthier we become, the more successful we seem, the more comfortable in the society we feel, the less we depend on the Trinity for our daily bread, and the less willing we are to live according to the norms and strictures of scriptural holiness. Church becomes another organization. We begin playing church according to rules of the world's games." pp.13-14

"For the real questions are not "Will these Methodist new monastic communities last until the Lord comes back? Will they produce financial resources for our connectional system? Will new monastic leaders who want to be ordained be willing to leave intentional community so they can itinerate?" The real question is, 'What is the Spirit saying to the church?" p. 69

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brain Healthy Faith

You are what you eat. According to Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of How God Changes Your Brain, your brain is only as healthy as your best spiritual practice or worst God -image.
 
In short, the book is all about the nexus of God and science as seen in the human brain, and how that coming together can affect and transform our lives. And the research presented is a stirring case for how "God," i.e., our spiritual practices and religious faith, can affect the life and health of our brain, for good or ill.

The first part of the book is a primer of sorts. We learn the function of each part of the brain. There are certain "God" circuits where perception of God is formed. The amygdala is implicated in creating the reptilian brain and the fight or flight response. The frontal lobe's job is to logically think about God. The striatum helps to control the amygdala, allowing us to know safety and a sense of well-being in God's presence. The thalamus is the key organ that makes God feel objectively real.

This book has much to caution about unhealthy brain-faith, a persistent theme.The more our faith is fear and anger based, the more damaging it is for our brain: "...the problem arises when individuals use their religion to justify angry feelings toward others. Specifically, expressing or listening to angry thoughts can disturb the normal neural functioning of many parts of the brain. In fact, just reading emotionally evocative words stimulates...in ways that resemble traumatic coding." For me the best quote is: "As doctors, we have come to realize that people need to deal with their spiritual pathology in addition to their physical and mental concerns."

The real meat of the book seems to be the long list of exercises that not only contribute to brain health, but overall well-being and serenity. The reader is reminded that it's regular practice of any and all exercises that bears the most fruit. Yawning and "deep yawning" are listed separately in case you find brain health boring. And there is a separate chapter for "compassionate communication." Even minimal religious participation supports greater longevity and health. Meditation, even the kind that is unrelated to faith, can permanently strengthen the parts of the brain that are responsible for lowering anxiety and depression, and enhances empathy and intellectual functioning.

There are some who would find this topic unnecessary: after all, do people of faith really need medical evidence to motivate them in adopting certain spiritual practices? On the other hand, why wouldn't we want to know how our faith affects our brains, especially if it complements health? It was St. Paul who spoke of the "renewing of your minds" in Romans 12. In light of this volume, we have to ask ourselves, how is the spiritual life we have chosen contributing to- or hindering- that renewal of mind?














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Houston, Texas, United States
Having been in ordained ministry in the UMC for 34 years, I've experienced the truth that although, clergy are frequently present for others, no one can offer what they don't have.That's why if you're a clergy person, you need someone who will listen to you. Not the random next closest person available, but rather someone like a spiritual director, a therapist, a peer who can be fully present to you. I hope the links and posts you find here will give you ideas, humor, hope and encouragement. Scott Endress

Try Gratitude

If you want a formula for making the best of the less-than-perfect and making the most of what you have been given, then begin to compare your lot to what you were before you were born, and it will empower you with wonder every time. John Claypool

Making Good Decisions