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


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 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?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Sacrament of Ministry

"No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
John 10:18

I wonder if anyone can really claim to be a servant without the element of sacrifice. Caregivers have their "bill of rights" and if you Google "compassion fatigue," you'll find training programs dedicated to its symptoms and remedies.

I'm afraid that we've used the word sacrifice when it's convenient for us- and usually on others. We pull it out to manipulate others to give more, be more, and do more. Even if we sometimes use it intending to strengthen and liberate, others may still hear it as a judgment over what they're not.

I just don't see God as the One who extracts life from people. I once knew a father who thought that God "took" their tragically drowned son all because he- the father- was resistant to go into the ministry. That is extremely sad in itself, because it obviously diminishes the boy's life and death as being more about the dad. However, many people read the Gospel this way thinking that God kills people as apart of some larger purpose. Much of this comes from a misappropriation of Jesus and his teachings.

For example, in focusing on the sacrificial death of Jesus, we often overlook the clear New Testament teaching that Jesus willingly and freely chose it as his way out. Take that away and Jesus is not fully human, but instead, he's an automaton. And so are we when our "battles" are not freely chosen. True sacrifice is not coerced but results from willing and loving letting go and surrender.

Another misread idea comes from Philippians 2:7 where Paul teaches that Jesus "emptied" himself. What Jesus emptied himself of was "being in the form of God," not his humanity. His humanity required the emptying and humbling that Paul mentions in the song of tribute. I can't tell you how many sermons I've heard where this simple teaching is overlooked in favor of the one that forwards the "see Jesus, copy Jesus" conclusion.

Some ask whether we are called to servanthood- or friendship- with Jesus. Why not have the best of both without losing either one? The encouragement is that self-surrender can and does lead to life! No one is more concerned about your well- being than the Paraclete who stands beside us, with us, and for us. And being a true friend of Jesus will prompt us to act in ways so that the well- being of another doesn't have to be extracted or sacrificed.

Maybe the "solution" is to look at our serving as sacramental, as participation with Christ. Not as copying Jesus' one-time sacrifice, neither as just a volunteer choosing to follow his good example. That means that we encounter Jesus' life and death and resurrection- the fullness of His person and work- in all our ministry. Our attempts at ministry to others are transformed when Holy Spirit makes us Christ's body, redeemed by His blood.

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...