Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Loosening the Screws

Now is a great time to loosen- instead of tightening the screws- on the people in your life! In an image that comes right out of Dickens' England, screws were tightened on the prisoner's crank, making it more difficult for the inmate to twist. In order to occupy their time with labor, the treadmill was used in a similar fashion.

Before you start about a nice work out at the gym, and you didn't know Victorians cared for the health of their prisoners, know that this "activity" went on all day (for about six hours at a time), every day, not as "recreation," but as punishment intended to cause pain, suffering, and despair. On the typical prison diet with this kind of hard labor, inmates mostly died in prison long before serving out their sentence.

The term "tightening the screws" means that sometimes we make it more difficult for others for no other purpose than because we can. As if anyone needs life to be harder, it seems some folks exist to do just that. There's no judgment here, just a suggestion that if Christ's coming means anything, it's time to lighten up, loosen up, and cut others in our lives some slack.

Loosen the screws with the purpose of making life a little easier for someone else. And maybe start with giving yourself this gift.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Advent: Winter of the Spirit

Though I have long lived away from the climates that offer four seasons, I think it's a disadvantage to never have lived to experience at least once each season in its fullness. Most places offer three seasons and parts of a fourth. Our calendars and lives are marked by the seasons.

But it's not as easy to name our current spiritual season. Many of the biblical references to the seasons are tied to the growing calendar, the rural festivals that reflected Israel at a certain stage of being settled as opposed to being nomadic. Whatever season we find ourselves in, each spiritual season comes with unique invitations to experience new depths of God's love and grace.

Winter deals specifically with dormancy. What is within that is just beginning, waiting for its time to come? Waiting and patience thus becomes winter's spiritual work. Thomas Keating once wrote that the virtue of humility requires or assumes humiliation. In similar fashion, the only way to more patience is through the sometimes long wait which feels like dormancy. There's little sense of accomplishment.

If the invitation is for you, obey it. Listen to it. Freely choose it. It will be difficult to hear it in all the voices, both within and around us, coaching on to self-produce our perfect little Christmas, believing the lie that we can have life and Jesus and spirituality and everything on our terms. However, being faithful to the growth of God's kingdom -rule growing secretly is what you will gain. (Mark 4:26)

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Glorious Prayer and Lord (3)

For thine is the kingdom and power and glory forever.

You won't find this phrase in either Luke or Matthew. Many Christians use this as a closing ascription to God. The words are used as a part of David's prayer in 1 Chronicles 29: 10-13. Also recall Revelation 5:12 and 7:12.

Some have suggested that these words were formed in the oral tradition through the cauldron of intense persecution, a time within two generations Jesus. Could these words have been on the lips of the first martyrs, those who were threatened to renounce Christ and proclaim Cesar as their king and god- or suffer the consequences?

Like any part of the Lord's Prayer, this conclusion can form the basis of multiple sessions. If you haven't already exhausted the kingdom theme, power and glory are great word studies with many biblical references. To end the prayer with these words is entirely in concert with counter-cultural nature of what we have already prayed in the text of this prayer. This is something we can miss when we repeat it, even knowingly, day by day.

The Lord's Prayer is one of the best known prayers anywhere, so that it can become an opportunity for evangelism among cultural or nominal Christians, the unconnected, and anyone interested in starting an intentional spiritual life with Jesus Christ and others. Many in the Body of Christ use this prayer with minor variations (such as sins or debts for trespasses), and most of these differences, can add , rather than subtract from, the richness and depth of what we share in Christ, and that like nothing else.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Glorious Prayer and Lord (2)

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Here a switch can be made effectively to Matthew's version in Matthew 6:9-13. This is appropriate due to the teaching of Matthew 6:14: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others. neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

The setting for Matthew is not the disciples' request for guidance in prayer, as in Luke. The context for the prayer in Mathew is the Sermon on the Mount, and chiefly, how not to be like the hypocrites. (6:2,5) References to pagan prayer are explicit here (6:7 ff.) not just in story form, as in Luke.

So the prayer as a whole is given to us to avoid duplicity and attain integrity of heart and life. If we are going to pray for forgiveness for ourselves, that implies we also practice it, or to deal with the weight and consequence of unforgiven debt. (Matt. 18:23-35)

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

From an early age, I had questions about what this verse was all about. Maybe it was the way Jesus takes evil head on- both the evil that is within us and in the world. The prayer is about avoiding bad choices and also deliverance from evil. We are responsible for our own choices, and the first part of this petition is about our choices. St. Francis De Sales wrote extensively on temptation in his Introduction to the Devout Life.

The three steps to virtue and sin are the same: proposal, delight or approval, and consent. St. Francis contrasts temptation with inspiration. We consent to either one, but each has a very different origin and terminus. Inspiration leads to joy; whereas, sin leads to death and misery. Temptation has its origin in us or in the Evil One, inspiration's source is the Holy One.

God tempts no one. (James 2:13-15) but deliverance is what capable rulers do. It is what Yahweh first did in delivering Israel from slavery. We pray to be delivered each day from whatever makes us or others less than human, less than the beloved of God.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Glorious Prayer and Lord (1)

One of the better discussions on the Lord's Prayer is Wright's The Lord and His Prayer. Wright develops the theme that this is a Kingdom prayer for Kingdom people. The other thing he accomplishes is that he brings in references from the whole Bible, the Old Testament and especially the story of Jesus in the Gospels, to explore what it means to pray this prayer. The book can be an excellent supplement to whatever approach you decide to use in teaching or study

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

I used Luke's version in Luke 11 as the backdrop for the first half of the study. In Luke, you have a clear invitation to all to engage the prayer as a beginner can, with the disciples asking Jesus how to pray, and the wonderful parable of verses 5-13 teaching about the nature of the Father's relationship to us, and the foundation of all prayer being God's giving to us in and through the Holy Spirit. God's self giving to us is what moves us to pray in the first place.

One of the better discussions of the parable is found in Claypool's, Stories Jesus Still Tells. Claypool goes well beyond the conventional reading. Jesus is not telling us to pray longer, harder, and louder. Rather Jesus is setting us up for understanding the chasm that exists between praying to the pagan, Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, which considered complete indifference as a virtue of divinity, and Jesus own experience of the God of all compassion, his Abba, "daddy." You couldn't have more of a contrast there- and this forms an excellent beginning for teaching and praying the Our Father.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.

The kingdom phrase of the prayer is thus our consenting to and acceptance of the implications of being adopted as God's own beloved children in Jesus. We declare our "yes" to God's kingdom and reign in Jesus Christ, that it first happen in us and through us, as we are clay, we are earth. We surrender to God's self-giving in Jesus and Holy Spirit. This phrase also the places us in the season of Advent. We give thanks for the Lord's coming to earth as servant King and coronation in heaven as Lord over all, the Ruler of creation.

The beauty of the petition for daily bread is twofold. First, we are taught to pray for ourselves, and to ask God for what we need for the day to come, until the Lord's coming again. Second, we are assured that the Abba God will give his children what we need most, the Holy Spirit (11:13).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wake Me Up When December's Gone

I'm guessing that's the unspoken plea of thousands, maybe millions.

Most of us really hope that this Christmas will be different. That this year, we'll experience a deeper sense of ministry and love. I need the hope to become an intention, or else happenstance will determine the movements for me. And that just leaves me with the experience of having missed the chance to live more fully. Just to survive, we could surrender to the "this too shall pass" approach, but dangling by a thread is not conducive to any measure of abundant life.

The dance of ministry these some sixty days requires more than looking with resignation to the surrealistic schedule of events. The grueling demands of the season are framed as always, by the unplanned crisis that can turn life on a dime. So the case is stronger to make some choices, if I haven't already done so. What do I need to receive from the loving Holy Trinity? Is there one activity or practice that I can engage in a way that will equip me to receive this continuing gift?

The joy of a deepening spiritual life in community is what brought us here! Yet, when we open that door today, we might find a dark, cold, and damp room, very much like the night of Scrooge's own ghostly time travel. However we have gotten to this point of wake me up when it's 2012, whether it's the dirge-like refrain of more and more results of the Ecclesiastical Ebenezer-s, or our own turning away from the one, the only Lord and Giver of Life, the choice is ours to do something about it.

Choose a book you want to read to just enjoy this season. Journal your Advent-Epiphany days. Write down your intentions in the journal. Go out and hear some live music, Christmas concert, or see a performance. See some great art. Enjoy an evening with your family. Visit, reconnect with a home-bound person. Take time out with a friend. Look into finding a spiritual director, someone you can visit with confidentially about your spiritual life and ministry.

You cannot share what you do not receive, and everything we have we have first received. (I Corinthians 4:7) Receive the Lord, your King! The Lord bless your spirit.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Serving God, Mammon, the "Extreme" Middle

Joerg Rieger, the Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology, has written a brief but very needed volume published earlier this year entitled Grace Under Pressure: Negotiating the Heart of the Methodist Traditions. The book provides a corrective and critique of the mainline, traditional understanding of Wesley and primitive Methodism as a kind of middle ground.

We meet God at the bottom. Rieger asserts his self-critical principle early on and it comes from Mr. Wesley himself, in 1764: "Religion must not go from the greatest to the least, or the power would appear to be of men." In 1783, Wesley states it again: "'They shall all know me,' saith the Lord, not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God) but 'from the least to the greatest,' that the praise may not be of men, but of God.'"

In the pressures of post colonialism, there is no "middle ground." God's grace is known in the context of "acute" pressures. Rieger maintains that establishing "some amorphous middle ground" will not help: "Answers can be considered genuine (and truly salvific) only if they touch on where the real pain is, where the ultimate pressures of life and death are in our time, and where the conversation is broad enough to include the margins." The search for the middle or the lowest common denominator is a dead end.

Works of mercy are an essential means of grace. Wesley taught that works of mercy are an essential means of grace, while neglecting it caused some Christians to fall from grace. We are in real trouble when we ignore the teaching of I John 4:20: if are not equipped to love and respect others, then we have no hope of loving and respecting God. If works of mercy are an essential means of grace (separate from works of piety), then we are delivered "from presenting ourselves as the norm and from having to shape others in our own image, we are finally freed to open up to the transforming power of God's grace." p.36

Grace is the relationship between God and us. God initiates and we respond, but there is no "essence" or "substance" of grace apart from that relationship. God's grace is not a commodity that we can buy or use to control or produce results for ourselves: "Grace now has a specific direction. It is tied to the lives of those who are different, those whom we usually do not notice because they inhabit a lower class or because they are born into a race or gender that we consider less prestigious..." p.52

Leaders need to clue in to the direction of God's work in the world
(p.86) As in Matthew 25, we do not "bring" the Holy One to another in ministry, rather, we meet the Presence by encountering the stranger. The meeting itself is not about feeling good. Rather, it is about a renewed relationship and a transformed world. Thus, God's grace is itself an alternative to both burn out and control, neither of which could be said to be marks of the new creation.

This volume is worth the read as many will find it a sorely needed challenge to our top down ways of ministry, serving- and living. Look at Reiger's discussion of the Nicene Creed, which he uses to support his "bottom-up" theology effectively. You will also be introduced to some " lost" verses of Charles Wesley, those you apparently won't find in any anything published since 1897. (pp.57-58)

Note that Rieger's teaching context is SMU: the future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library -and a separate Policy Institute. He references attempts to explain the decision in centrist terms. (p. 71) The money for the Presidential Library, however, came tied to the Policy Institute, or not at all. No "middle ground" existed, but the idea of the middle was used to justify the wisdom of the project.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Church of Lucy and Ethel

"So we feed the ecclesiastic furnaces our burned-out wrecks: tired leaders, disillusioned ministers, fatigued congregations- marshaling them to dance longer, march faster, pray harder, cry louder in earnest for God to come...We must be brave enough to stop if we are to see change... Our structures must serve us, not us serve them." Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence

The signs of the industrial/factory church of the last century:
  1. Strategies are tied to organizational control, market share, and the efficiency model.
  2. Better metrics or measurements provides an improved Body of Christ.
  3. Spirituality is nothing by itself, but is one variable among many.
  4. There is no such thing as "overflowing cups," as these are a dangerous waste of scarce reserves.
  5. Motivation is fear-based- since we engage ministry in order to survive.
  6. Heavy emphasis on explanatory process of statistical and trends analysis.
  7. Vision is connected with deficiencies and needs, not gifts, strengths, or abundance.
In the closed system of assembly-line production, like Lucy and Ethel, you're pretty much on your own! Do you think Jesus of Nazareth would waste time sharing God- presence with two or three believers? Or breathing out the Holy Spirit for his close friends to receive? What about the water welling up in Jesus' people with life- now and forever? It's the Spirit, the Holy Wind of God, that pushes us out into new mission, not different to the story in the Acts of the Apostles. That Source, not the results, make it worth our time to listen, to discern, and to go.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Clergy Ethics Well Explained

Psyche and Spirit is one of the best resources I know for the stuff they didn't cover in seminary, things they told you that you couldn't hear, or maybe just didn't want to hear at the time. In a recent post, the email journal listed characteristics of the most ethical pastors:
  1. Respecting confidentiality
  2. Keeping good boundaries
  3. Following sound protocols based on best practices
  4. Not violating best practices even when tempted to do so
  5. Encouraging best practices in others
  6. Respect for others' feelings
  7. Restraint from speaking ill of others
  8. Honest and clear about how congregational resources of time and money are used
The authors go on by saying this about the most ethical pastors, " They don't put personal purchases on the church tab. They don't act as if the ends justify the means. They don't misuse continuing education time. They don't lead by manipulation or intimidation. They don't hijack meetings for their own ends."

Do you know of any organizations lifting up pastors or congregations for being particularly ethical? If you know of any, please let them know at Psyche and Spirit. " And consider how you might personally lift up others for their high ethical standards."

Thanks to Psyche and Spirit for their on-going and helpful ministry to clergy and the congregations we serve!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Feel Good Religion

If the taste of good mood food can be addictive, what about good mood faith? If we fill our spirits with anything and everything that makes us feel good, won't that lead us to do good things? Whatever we fill our minds with all day long is the real measure of our spiritual well being: for as we think, so are we. (Proverbs 23:7)

To push the argument a little further, who really goes to church to feel worse? Is the goal of the Christian spiritual life to be more miserable? What about the watermark of Christ- the "fruit of the Spirit," such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? It doesn't matter whether you consider these as the result of communion with the Holy Trinity, or as the by-products of your spiritual practice.

Feel good religion has been apart of the human condition for a long, long time. And part of the creed of atheism is that such ideas are wish-dreams and positive posts from ourselves to ourselves. We're endlessly creative in feeling better about ourselves. This explains the popularity of big box Christianity. I need only to adjust my thinking, or believe in Jesus, or both. Then we GIT what God has in the store for us. Others call it the prosperity gospel, because the real mark of the better life promised is upward mobility.

We come back to the argument-- who wants to feel worse? Why would anyone choose a faith that would leave them worse off? The difficulty becomes in assessing the value of feel good religion. That is, if this becomes our drug of choice, then what are the dangers- what are the caution signs?
  1. It's a problem when it subverts the work of self- examination, self- acceptance, and self-awareness
  2. It's a problem when it causes me to just "change the channel" on others' pain and need
  3. It's a problem if I use it just to puff up the ego and image-driven (false) self
  4. It's a problem if it prevents deepening my communion with God, and sharing community with others
With anything we digest either physically or spiritually, when my feeling good becomes the most important thing, we end up bending our lives to that purpose. In the journey we become less, not more, free.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Limitless" & Big Pharm Culture

Limitless will keep your attention. Its ending is more humorous than disastrous, though the movie does have violence on the way there. This is a pharmacological science fiction, and you won't be seeing any prime time ads for its drug of choice.

If taking a pill would turn your life around, help you avoid being thrown out on the street, and you were told that it was soon to be FDA approved, would you give it a try? Maybe not if it was a drug-pushing former brother-in-law who offered it to you. But down and out writer Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, is desperate enough to give the pill a try.

The miracle drug allows Morra to use 100% of his brain power - including all his memory. Soon he can speak in a variety of languages, masters the martial arts, and completes amazing novels in a matter of days. He becomes bored with all this and decides to apply his new brain power to the field of financial mergers. He outwits the best of Wall Street to the point that people begin to wonder about the origin of his mental prowess.

The symptoms of withdrawal? Prowling the streets, sleep deprivation, no short term memory. He learns that skipping a meal disables him. And there is no possibility of ever stopping the little clear pill entirely and surviving. An off the wall allusion to the "Twilight" saga is there too.

Limitless works because we live in the age of big pharm, which gives us a solution to everything. The movie, however, exposes our culture's strange relationship to drugs. What really makes one drug legal and the other illegal? Addictions don't know the difference between the two.

Politicians, sometimes playing the law and order card, call a "war" on certain drugs while others are marketed by big money ad nauseum. The commercials are there to convince us of our need to self-medicate. Like the magic phrase "ask your doctor" in the infernal drug ads, Limitless seems to offer no real answers, except maybe that anything can be very dangerous if it ends up in us.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Myth of Balance

Strengths Based Selling is the latest in the strengths genre. Authored by Tony Rutigliano and Brian Brim, it is filled with Gallup's research on high-performing salespeople. Developing your strengths creatively- and managing your weaknesses (see the Appendix) -is the key to first engaging yourself and the others you serve. Engagement -and not just higher energy- is the goal, because, regardless of your work, it is central to personal well- being and higher productivity.

Someone saw me toting around a copy of this book, along with Thomas Keating's Invitation to Love. Being strategic, this was normal for me. For them, these two titles didn't belong together. The authors claim that there is a contemplative approach to selling, with connections to the strengths of Ideation, Learner, Input, or Strategic. These are cerebral folks, and starting out with solutions to the "why" questions. Before convincing others, the contemplative first has to answer for themselves the question- why would anyone want this?
Building advocacy is the topic taken up in Chapter 6: "You can get in the door with donuts and decorum, but you keep the door open with dialogue." p. 74. We learn to ask for others' opinions at many levels, and make sure no one feels used: "It is important to rely on more than one talent to solidify champions throughout your customer organization." p. 77. In a word, we are authentic and make it easier for people to trust us.

The last chapter in the book addresses the myth of work/life balance. Yes, balance is a myth, as elusive as the migrating monarchs. Instead of balancing plates, we need to ask, what will make us feel more integrated and less fragmented? The four rules of integration: 1) There is no end date to integration 2) You cannot do it alone 3)You have to think small and 4) Integration is a choice, but it's never perfect.

We could substitute many professions in place of "sales" in the following paragraph from page 146. And that would include "church" or "clergy leader."

This is the challenge with a life in sales: the workday never ends. Here's the good thing: the workday never ends. People with a talent for sales often feel that their job is all-encompassing. They think about their customers while they read the paper, while they eat lunch, while they're on vacation, while they're trying to get to sleep at night. Customers, and their needs and potential, are ever present.
The approach of the book is about how we can become whole people and not compartmentalize whole areas of our lives. For pastors, work/life balance is a difficult subject mainly because it is imaginary. I appreciated the honesty on this point.

For those unfamiliar with their signature strengths, the back of the book provides a folder with a code inside so that you can identify your own strengths.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bark! Musings on a Theme by Will Willimon

Bishop Will Willimon penned the phrase The Dog Days of Pentecost and I first read it in a wonderful collection of his devotions published in On a Wild and Windy Mountain. With the drought of 2011, the phrase should make a comeback.

This grueling season is endless and monotonous, and hot! For those churches which observe the church seasons, the season after Pentecost takes us from mild spring days and nights through Christ the King, the culmination of the Christian calendar, which is usually a Sunday in late November. In between are the dog days and the time called "ordinary." We take what respite we can find in summer vacations, holidays, camps, reunions, back to school preparations, and lots of air conditioning!

Whenever we're stuck and not moving in the spiritual life, the season is one of dog days, regardless of the time of year. You are listless, lifeless, and, like the diminishing water tables, we too maybe drained of reserves. We may struggle to sustain the pace we have set. And praying itself seems more like a good idea than a reality. Too, self-care sounds like a great idea, but most of us really don't give it a thought until we're confronted with the drought of spirit that comes with running on empty for too long.

What's the "cure" for the dog days of the spirit? When the traveler prayed "I lift my eyes to the hills," the words were about the dangers and difficulties of the pilgrimage ahead. (Psalm 121:1) Asking about the source of our strength for the trip may be the best move we could make, because the response to that question is "My help is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth." (Psalm 121: 2)

Surely, there are times to smell the roses, and to take advantage of the respites on the journey. If you have a friend like Spartan the Border Collie, you know how exciting the simple mention of WALK is for canine pals. He is always up for a walk, morning, day, or night. Having that spunk and sense of adventure is a priceless gift.

As long as we focus on the mechanics of the journey, we may become blind to the One who companions us. The Lord who made heaven and earth is the reason we walk in the first place. And the movement to God cannot be made without God.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On speaking your truth

From hedge fund managers to sports "analysts" many people claim they can forecast the future; most of the time, they're telling you what you already know, or can find out for yourself! So church consultants from every persuasion tout the importance being more fruitful or successful in ministry, i.e., more people in church. Is fewer people supposed to be a good thing? Pardon the Charlie Sheen here- but-- DUH!

According to Deuteronomy, as the prophet's prediction actually happens, they are a true prophet. If not, they are a false prophet -- with dire consequences of course for the false prophet. Was this a corrective for the many false prophets who used their gift and office to advance themselves?

By just about any reading of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the practice of soothsaying appears to be the norm, while the true prophet was the exception. From I Kings, read the stories of Elijah and the prophets of Baal- or what bad King Ahab said about Micaiah: "I hate him because he never prophecies anything good for me; it's always bad." (I Kings 22:8) Like Micaiah, maybe we should make sure our hearers want to hear the real message, not the pretend one we've concocted.

One of the dangers of the pastoral role, is that we become very gifted in working for the acceptance of others, and in being liked. Another pitfall is that in order to get ahead, we become experts at listening to every voice except our best one, the one that speaks to us in the whispers and sheer silence, the Holy Spirit. But what do pastors really have to offer anyone if we have never really been present to this Voice?

"Speaking the truth in love" doesn't guarantee that we will make friends or influence people, but it's the one thing we have to offer. It is not easy nor second- nature to many of us. But some people will appreciate and admire you for being honest and truthful- even as you proceed in gentleness and kindness.

" It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare." -Mark Twain

Monday, August 8, 2011

Piety Sells

It does if can be done in the name of politics. When Jesus talked about prayer in public, he mentioned those who already have their reward. (Matthew 6: 5)

Were Jesus words a caution directed at the image-driven self which seeks, in almost idolatrous fashion, to mold everything in its own image? We can even mold prayer in our image, can't we? We can attempt to use it for self-serving and limiting purposes. We can take anything given to us, something meant to bless, and misuse it.

The blessing and curse of such stunts is that people who employ them benefit more than anyone else, even if it's just being seen by a few more thousand folks.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Braeswood Assembly Welcomes All in SW Houston

Braeswood's steeple is easy to find and has been at its present location for many years. Not far from the corner of Braeswood and Fondren, surely this area of town has seen its share of change over the last 30 years. It was easy to find a parking space even though I saw no signage for the existence of visitor spaces upon entering. On my walk to the building, I discovered about 30 "VIP" parking spaces designated for visitors. All were used except one or two. There is a more distant shuttle lot as well.

Led by Senior Pastor Steve Banning, who is Anglo and son of the former Senior Pastor Earl Banning, Braeswood is multi-cultural: there are two full Sunday Hispanic services in their Fellowship Hall. The congregation was largely African American and African immigrant at the 10:45 Contemporary service in the sanctuary. This congregation numbered approximately 350, maybe more. The sanctuary with balcony looks like it will hold between 700 and 750. According to their website, the church averages 2,500 weekly.

The bulletin called the "Weekly Planner" consisted of an assortment of
announcements, the month ahead and weekly events. The front featured a graphic of the pastor's sermon series, and a recognition of "Urban Essence," the church's Dance Troupe that had recently won an award. On the back was a personal invitation from Pastor Steve Banning to come up and meet him after the service.

The worship music was almost all up-tempo, hard driving, rock or gospel- not at all the Assembly of God hymnal that I recall from my visits to an Assemblies church when I was in college. The full choir was in the background, the band, composed mostly of rhythm instruments) had a section on the stage left (with some younger string players out front on stage right). The vocalists (8-10) were front and center and were frequent soloists. During one of the worship songs everyone was invited to praise in whatever words they choose. There was no interpretation of tongues during the service.

For the greeting time, members were asked to stand, and the guests remained seated. An usher gave me a Connection Card and I was asked to complete it and return it to the visitor center for a free gift. I was greeted by those around me, and an usher guided me down to meet the Bannings, Steve and Donna, during the greeting time. That was cool.

When it came time for the offering, Steve Banning spoke for about 7-8 minutes of introduction. First he welcomed visitors and told us about the Connection class (three meetings for those interested in more information and when you attend that, you're a member). While he spoke, the ushers remained standing in place with offering plates. An interesting note for visitors was that guests are not expected to make an offering, that it is something for the members only. Well, until at least your third visit anyway. During the offering, one of the members of Troupe danced to the song.

The message from 2 Kings 3 was part of a series by Pastor Steve Banning on "Digging a Ditch: An Expectation of Prayers Answered." This particular message was about God making pools of water in the salty desert of Edom - and delivering the armies of Israel. The NIV states "Make this valley full of ditches." The message was about how we can choose the spiritual atmosphere of worship regardless of our circumstance. The message went immediately into an invitation. People were asked to stand if they were making a first-time commitment to trust and obey Jesus. Those around them were asked to lay their hands on their shoulders and pray repeating the words of Banning. These new believers then came to front to be recognized and welcomed.

One of the things I noticed about this church is that it's very children and family friendly. Youth using their gifts is really lifted up. There are upcoming blessings of college students, children, students, educators, and parents on five separate dates in August. The other thing I noticed is the way this community is reaching out, with real intention, to the unchurched in their mission field, which they define as southwest Houston. The services are webcast off of the website. You can also get a copy of the messages on CD or DVD.

Braeswood Church exists to...

A commitment to a personal and growing relationship with Jesus Christ through Worship, Prayer and the study of God's Word.
A commitment to identify and develop God's strategic plan for our lives through our gifts and talents used to build His church and strengthen fellow believers.
A commitment to strategically share the good news of Jesus' love with the unchurched in southwest Houston

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dr. Oz is not my doctor

Nor do I find community in the blink of an eye or a snap of my finger. For that matter, a click wishing a happy birthday is nice, but not very enduring. Jesus' blessings are not to "the friended" or the "liked this." (Matt. 5: 3-12)

I'm thinking about how the Amish, are, according to Weird Al, " just technologically impaired," but in a good way. The telephone makes my convenience more important than the act of face to face community. In the heyday of 1980's televangelism, an ad for the Episcopal church read, "With all due respect to TV Evangelism, have you ever seen a Sony that could give Holy Communion?"

Like pretending Dr. Oz is "my doctor" by watching his program, "community" has become the least common denominator where the road of least resistance is encouraged, and one size fits all. Telling me I have "notifications" is not going to change the fact that I lack motivation in the area of extending real friendship love to others, even those whom God has already placed in my life. God hopes more of me than to sporadically comment on, or "like" what he's doing, and being the church to each other is NOT just a viral finger tap away.

The bad connections I suffer from are not technological, but personal and social. They are a result of attitudes and behaviors we have chosen, me included. Words wound or bless on the internet -or anywhere. Inviting a friend into your life probably requires more of yourself and is more an act of evangelism than offering a quick invitation to church.

The church syndrome is that we don't even think we need to make space for new friends and new people. We assume we can stack people up like our FB friends. But to really make room, we would have to let go of the stuff that clutters our lives- both the unhealthy and at times, what we think is good.(John 15:1-2)

The body of Christ, the living and breathing witness of Jesus and Spirit, teaches me that the two or three gathered is irreplaceable and foundational to community. The 525 or 25,000 "friends" you might accumulate on your free facebook account? Like watching Dr. Oz telling you the obvious, you get what you pay for.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Let's be honest about "clergy health"

Let's take a look at a recent stab at this topic, courtesy of the Board of Pensions of the UMC. I know these recommendations are the fruit of hard work, long hours, prayer, reflection, and concern. I appreciate the committee's effort and energy. Their work should start a conversation at least and hopefully bring about some positive change. The task force’s recommendations are set forth below, with my response in the last three paragraphs of this post.
  • More help for those entering licensed or ordained ministry: Stronger screening of candidates for ministry, standardization and strengthening of the residency program during the provisional period, and providing a provision for a career‐long mentor, apart from the district superintendent.
  • Guidelines for healthy work/life balance: Champion and monitor clergy health and wellness, promoting annual (regional) conference resources, and providing support to clergy, spouses and families.
  • Changes to itinerancy and appointment making: Use longer-tenure appointments to mitigate the stress on clergy and, by extension, stress on the connection; encourage use of interim appointments.
  • A redefinition of district superintendent’s role: Prioritize the district superintendent’s supervisory role as someone who proactively coaches, provides feedback and embodies and intentionally monitors clergy wellness.
  • Help for those exiting ordained ministry: Providing career counseling, temporary health coverage and assistance with final moving expenses for clergy who no longer feel God’s call to ordained ministry to make “a grace-filled exit.
Be more honest about money- we can understand why the Board of Pensions did this study as they are driven by economic stewardship. "Helping" clergy to exit early would "help" to lower the church's bottom-line in pension payments. What about the wisdom of continuing a life-time salary for future members of the episcopacy? Can we afford it or is that the elephant in the room we just agree to ignore?

How about more transparency and less manipulation in making appointments?
Lack of honesty multiplies stress. Just be honest that appointments are a combination of many factors. We need to stop confusing the descriptive (how things really are) with the normative (the way we want them to be).

Focus on what the D.S. can do in practical, on the ground, help.
To be coaches, their gifts have to fit and the job re-structured to match. How about offering regular sabbath/brake days sponsored by Districts /the D.S. Being on call 24/7 casts the unhealthy structure of the pastoral life like nothing else. Empower the D.S. (equipped with a team of retired pastors?) to offer real help by covering one or two days every 6 weeks.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Naming your toxic pools

Toxic Brew is a great article on recovery as an adult child. It actually names recovery from trauma as central to the process. Too, it also lists the characteristics of adult children and supplies several sources that have been written since the Adult Children of Alcoholics book was published. All very helpful.

The truth is we cannot lead others by denying who we are. And we cannot equip others to live out their lives fully and faithfully if we are not also on the journey to greater self-awareness and self- acceptance. If we're above the healing Christ offers us, then how do we offer this same grace to others?

Knowing ourselves, we know better how to find nourishment for our soul. It takes wisdom and discernment to name the toxic pools in your own river. And it takes God's grace to work on them. (Phil. 2:13) This rarely comes from just ourselves without some help from mentors, soul friends, or spiritual directors. We do not have anything to give that we did not first receive. (I Corinthians 15:3)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Risen Lord Sends the Holy Spirit (14)

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and Son, who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.

from The Nicene Creed, Book of Common Prayer, 1662

In his wonderful book on ordained ministry, Edward Zaragoza, explains that fulfilling the call to Christian ministry is about friendship: our being at home with ourselves, reaching out to others in mutual love, and accepting and responding to God's offer of friendship love. Even more, it is about God being Trinity, One in Three, as the Spirit is given and shared by Father and Son.

Ministry in the Spirit is supposed to be life-giving, at least as much as it is life-taking. This is not how generations of clergy have been trained to approach our calling. I remember years ago, when I was speaking on this topic, an older clergy leader stood up and said, in essence, "Ministry for me was something I was expected to do- it never even entered my mind that I was supposed to enjoy it."

The sad thing is, we may well end up obeying the calendar and not the living God, the wind and breath of life, the Holy Spirit. We may end up satisfying the expectations of everyone except the Holy Spirit. Instead, that is the one thing we have any hope of doing. That is the one thing we really have to worry about.

Don't miss what is meant for all. Even though so much divides us, the mark of the Spirit's presence in Acts is one in which all were blessed in a similar way by the one and same Spirit: "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit...." (Acts 2:4a)

There is absolutely nothing given about our next breath. Life itself is all grace. Experiencing the first late summer Canadian front whipping its chilly way across Lake Erie is always a thrill! (photo above) Wind recreates, refreshes, renews. Here, at #14, I need to go to where I can experience wind- and remember both the sign and the strength of Holy Spirit's presence within, the Lord, Giver of Life.

Stop at this last Station of Light. For it's here that our journey culminates and begins. Here, we receive our birthright, the sealing of Holy Spirit, and our adoption as God's own sons and daughters in Jesus. And, "receive the Holy Spirit." John 20:22

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Waiting- with Mary- in the "second" upper room (13)

The 13th Station of Light is from Acts 1:14: "All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."

Sometimes our picture of Mary is frozen in time, witnessing the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Remember how, from the first, Mary chose faith: "Let it be with me according to your word." Luke 1:38 Now, after Jesus' crucifixion and burial, Mary is seen once again following the word to "stay here in the city" until the coming of the Spirit. Mary is joined with her remaining sons and the disciples, waiting in the upper room.

Waiting for the Lord is about trusting God. In part, its spiritual discipline is unlcuttering, a faithful action of letting go of our attachments, the root of which means to be "staked to." Worry and anxiety require us to buy into, to choose to believe, at least two lies: (1) I can control the outcome of things and (2) I can keep bad things from happening if I worry hard and long enough.

The Gospel invites us to let go of the need to control either by our thoughts or actions and to try trusting God instead. The promise, from Isaiah 40, is that, in waiting, we will renew our strength. But it's the grasping and clutching hand that siphons our reserves and saps our energy.

In this station, the Upper Room that precedes Jesus passion and death is remembered. In that first place, we're confronted with the evil that is within us. We discover that, far from our words which speak of faithfulness and loyalty, we choose the easy way out- that of deserting and , if necessary, betraying even our best friends. We learn that we're capable of anything.

But here, in #13, the Upper Room becomes a place where disciples choose light, faith, and hope. All you have to do is to read Revelation to know that one of the highest virtues for the first generations of Christians was faithful waiting and patient endurance. The example for disciples this Easter season is Mary, Jesus' mother, who continues to wait with us, for the Holy Spirit, in all the upper rooms of our lives.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Station # 12: The Lord Ascends

And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven." Acts 1:6-11 NASB

As the actual reference to this station is italic, I included verses 6-8. With the current fascination of the end of the world, these verses from Acts are a corrective. The two words, the rapture, occur absolutely nowhere in Christian Scripture, so "the rapture" stems from something outside the text. You may be unhappy with the church that you think is corrupt, or you may reject others who don't agree with you. But be honest: these words are not in the Bible.

In this 12th Station of Light, Jesus ascends to heaven. Ascension Day is June 2 , 2011. The New Testament's message is to teach how the Lord can still be present even though he has departed. The teaching of "I am with you always" from Matthew 28 comes in light of the fact of Jesus' absence, his departure. The challenge for disciples is waiting in obedience.

One of the hardest things for me is patience. "Patience is the major virtue needed when we are in the bleak land of darkness," wrote Joyce Rupp, in Little Pieces of Light. If you have patience, you have many of the other fruits: faithfulness, peace, and gentleness come to mind. When things don't go the way we want when we want it, our faith and trust can blossom into patience. If patience is learned at all, we learn it in the school of prayer with Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended.

He is ruler of all creation, now and forever. That should be enough for us, for now and forever.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Our life as mission field (11)

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him, they worshiped [Him]; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:16-20 NASB

It is here at the Eleventh Station of Light that disciples (followers) are commissioned to become apostles (sent out). Maybe the biggest difference between the earlier missions in Jesus' public ministry and this Great Commissioning is the setting. It is the very last will and testament Jesus is making in the first Gospel.

Although many churches take this passage on as their purpose, I wonder how many Christians really see themselves as apostles, their lives as a mission field? Perhaps some denominations have this down better than others. As we tout following Jesus as the end of our faith, could it be that we are actually enabling others to avoid God's call?

Those who study faith development will tell you that a certain stage in our growth can really benefit the institutional church, its many programs and policies and committee work. Clergy have a real interest in keeping people in this phase because it is so friendly with fitting in, belonging to, and even conforming to others' expectations. In this phase, belief is static and equivalent to ascent, or agreement with, certain core doctrines. Once you've done that, you're in!

But to be congruent with God's expectations, we need transformation. The transformation word is of course very trendy and popular. The process itself is often painful, not easy or clean and tidy. But deepening faith and love will require us to see how our call and gifts differ from the norm and even from what's popular. Belief here is willingness to take a journey, trusting and loving God in Jesus, an ongoing relationship with all of its peaks and valleys. If we miss that in the Great Commission, we have missed what is truly ours for the taking- the chance to be apostled by Jesus.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Being chosen is rarely what we think (10)

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, [son] of John, do you love Me more than these?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Tend My lambs." He said to him again a second time, "Simon, [son] of John, do you love Me?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Shepherd My sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, [son] of John, do you love Me?" Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, "Do you love Me?" And he said to Him, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You." Jesus said to him, "Tend My sheep." John 21: 15-17 NASB

Whenever we think being called or chosen is not about us, we have hope of getting it right. Biblically speaking, one of the strongest themes from Genesis to Revelation is about God offering covenant to us- continually- and our rather continuous resistance of its explicit terms, or our avoidance of the implications of that relationship. We fight it or run away from it- from God's offer of love and grace.

Maybe we want to think that God loves us because we're so cool and so lovable. Or at least, we try harder, like Avis. But with God in Jesus, it is about grace, freely initiated and generously offered. God is the essence of "pure unbounded love." So God's motivation resides within God's own character of goodness and grace.

Peter is truly grieved when Jesus keeps asking him if he loves him. Is he reminded of his three-time denial when Jesus was being held for questioning? The impulsive one has a chance to undo his denial of Jesus with his own threefold declaration of love. There is, however, a catch. Peter is no longer passive recipient of grace. Jesus' imperative to "tend my lambs," and "shepherd my sheep," and "tend my sheep" is wrapped up with the finality of "Follow me."

Peter has come a long way, of course. Shepherding and tending sheep will be a hard life, because lambs grow up to be big sheep that bite and resist guidance. They don't know how to care for themselves. No longer is it all about Peter's faith or lack of it, or his confession of Jesus, or anything Peter has said or done, or failed to do or say. Now it's about fulfilling his call, a ministry in which he will be led to strange, non-Jewish places and unclean people- and a death- he would never choose on his own. (John 21: 18-19)

Do you hear the "follow me" differently at age 45 or 55 than you did at say, 22 or 32? Don't you know that Jesus' summons in early ministry is heard very differently by the time we're at the second half? Whatever happened to congregations, church officials, committees, and boards who once smiled at our youthfulness and high enthusiasm? Some encouragement was genuine, some just flattery. For the most part though, people were eager to mentor us, to give us their attention. We would make stupid mistakes, but we tried to make up for inexperience with energy and persistence.

Much the same way Moses couldn't enter the promised land (Deuteronomy 34), later we discover that being called is not about us. It is about stewarding my gifts for others, for generations I will not even see. At any age, I am blessed when I am able to the hear voice of the One and Only calling and claiming the one and only me, with all my gifts and liabilities and possibilities.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Faith is about taking the next step (9)

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore were saying to him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, "Peace [be] with you." Then He said to Thomas, "Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing." Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed [are] they who did not see, and [yet] believed." John 20:24-29, NASB

I used to think that "having faith" meant that I would have all the faith I would ever need for a lifetime. What does it mean for disciples to be honest with their lack of faith? It's really about taking the next step, and we have a wonderful picture of what this looks like in Thomas' encounter with the risen Christ in this the Ninth Station of Light.

Much is made of Thomas not being present at Jesus' first appearance in John 20:19-23. Thomas missed it and a third party witness was not going to remedy his problem. He demanded to witness Jesus, crucified and risen, for himself. And his mind would only be settled that this was the real Jesus if he saw and touched Jesus' wounds from his torture and execution. Jesus provides the assurance that Thomas seeks. His belief is expressed as an act of worship, "My Lord and my God!"

This is not about trumping up faith so that it looks like certainty. No matter what we say about Thomas, worship of the risen Christ is something we do by faith, not by sight. Many come to faith not because of any well meaning witnesses, but because the Lord appeared to them, the Spirit called their name. And in that encounter, there was surrender, trust, wonder, and worship. We cannot do this believing thing on our own, or by trying harder. A desperate father once told Jesus, "I believe, help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24) That could be the prayer of every one of us.

This station invites us, along with Thomas, to be a little "lost in wonder, love and praise" every day of life! Peace be with you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Power to Forgive Is Given (8)

Then [Jesus] breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, they will be forgiven. John 20: 22-13a CEV

In this station the Spirit gives to disciples the power to forgive. What of this gift to forgive ourselves and others? Forgiveness is the inner freedom not hold others' offenses against them. It is freedom from wanting to see others suffer the same kind of pain they inflicted on us. (see, for example Psalm 137:7-9) It is not about forgetting the offense, pretending it never happened. Thinking an injurious act never happened may be amnesia or a symptom of dementia, it is not forgiveness.

What we misunderstand about forgiveness can continue the wrong, rather than righting it. For example, two children, one a bully and one who is being bullied, can be told to "make up" by an adult, to be friends. This simply enables the bully to be nastier. Meanwhile the bullied child suffers more, and may become an abuser as an adult. The wounded wound.

Forgiveness is an inner work and "from the heart." (Matt. 18:35) God has already forgiven you. This station from John 20 asks the question: how will disciples forgive themselves for failing Jesus and- how will they forgive their enemies, which are many? There are outer acts of reconciliation, which show that there is still relationship, even a clean slate, in spite of a breech. But for now, the power disciples have to forgive others and themselves is nothing less than gift from the risen Christ. And it's in the air we breathe.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A sign for the Jerusalem 11 (7)

Station #7: Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem.

And they [began] to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. And while they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst. But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? "See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." Luke 24:35-39 NASB

The disciples of the Emmaus road, after doubling back to Jerusalem, told about their experience to the disciples who stayed in Jerusalem. Even as the two from the road were speaking, Jesus shows up, seemingly to confirm their witness with a sign for the Jerusalem 11. Jesus accompanies their witness, or as Mark tells, "while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it." Mark 16: 20.

The sign is, of course, Jesus himself. When we speak of Christ being present, we describe the sacrament as a sign. Here, the real Christ is truly present. He is tangible. There must of have been some questions about Jesus' identity, given the fact that the disciples respond with fear and doubt.

I've long reflected on this passage, especially the reference to Jesus' own wounds (which are mentioned also in John), his flesh and his bones. What are we to make of it? Jesus clearly suffered and died. And, in his resurrected body, Jesus is more than a spirit or ghost. Is it a spirit-body, as Paul taught in I Corinthians 15:35 ff?

It is clear, however we conceive it, that Jesus comes to anxious, doubtful, and fearful disciples, and they receive whatever assurance is needed. Whether we left town, or stayed behind. That should be enough. We shouldn't have to wonder if Jesus, as one scholar put it to me "still has to do his toe nails."

In the presence of the risen Christ, the hallmark spiritual work becomes, for weary or shell-shocked disciples, first and last, trusting God with our lives. It's the spirituality of the open, not the grabbing, hand.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When pain is all around (5 & 6)

Station #5: Jesus appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Station #6: He is recognized in the breaking of the bread.

And it came about that while they were conversing and discussing, Jesus Himself approached, and [began] traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him....

[And] their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?" And they arose that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, "The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon." And they [began] to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24: 15-16, 31-37 NASB

With our hearing healed in Station 4, 5 and 6 are all about seeing with the eyes of faith. The road that these disciples travel is one which takes them away from Jerusalem, the place of terrible defeat and broken dreams. Their journey also was taking them away from faith community. When I'm crushed, I just want to be alone. We can't blame any disciples for running away from the trouble that was to find them if they continued to hang out in Jerusalem. Getting as far away as quickly as possible would be the smart thing to do.

What does it mean that, even as I travel in the wrong direction, Jesus still accompanies me? That in all futility and hopelessness, God's love holds me? Think of any and all situations. The fact that God still walks alongside me as Paraclete is true, whether I walk through the darkest valley (Psalm 23:4, NRSV), or suffer public humiliation. (Romans 8: 35)

Don't disillusioned disciples, blinded by pain all around, need a tangible sign, a sacramental act, in which to know and recognize Jesus' presence? Did Luke have Psalm 23 in the back of his mind? The Good Shepherd himself prepares table for us- and is known in the breaking of the bread.

The recovery of sight to the blind is offered at this stop. (Luke 4:18) Don't miss it!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

From Disciple (3) to Apostle (4)

Station #3: The risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene.

Station #4: Mary Magdalene proclaims the resurrection to the Apostles.

When she [Mary Magdalene] had said this, she turned around, and beheld Jesus standing [there], and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, "Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (which means, Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, 'I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord," and [that] He had said these things to her. John 20:14-18, NASB

The transformation from discipleship to apostleship is a movement we can all too easily side-bar. One of the underlying themes in the New Testament is the story of how the scattered and terrified followers (disciples) become martyrs (witnesses). Here, in stations 3 and 4, Mary Magdalene is "sent out" in order to witness to the resurrection. In effect, she becomes an "apostle to the Apostles." Jesus called her by name and gives her the ears of faith to hear it. She "knew his voice." Recall John 10:2-5.

What would it mean for me to hear Jesus' voice, sending me out as an apostle, bearing and being light to others? As Mary is apostle-ed to give her unique personal witness to the light, so we are sent out to share and to witness. Even to the ungrateful and unappreciative. We, too, are invited, and commissioned, to be more than followers.

If we choose to be disciples, we are chosen and made to be apostles, by the living Christ! (John 15:15) Why? Because we, by God's love and grace, will know and connect with people that no one else will even notice. That's a wonderful gift! Yes, discipleship is easier to measure, control, and to have on our terms. It fits our categories for doing stuff, our way. In apostleship, we surrender free choice, as well as personal preference. Don't take my word. Ask Peter, the poster child of the random impulse. (John 21:18)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Women Find the Empty Tomb (2)

The Sabbath was over, and it was almost daybreak on Sunday when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Suddenly a strong earthquake struck, and the Lord's angel came down from heaven. He rolled away the stone and sat on it. The angel looked as bright as lightening, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards shook from fear and fell down, as though they were dead. The angel said to the women, "Don't be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was nailed to a cross. He isn't here! God has raised him to life, just as Jesus said he would. Come, see the place where the body was lying. Matthew 28;1-6 CEV

Finding Jesus' burial place with no body present would not have been a good thing. Those crucified were cursed, according to Deuteronomy 21:23. The humiliation was further "perfected" by Roman armies when the executed were refused burial. To be denied any possibility of a burial would have been the final insult. Finding the tomb empty would have been worst of all possibilities.

Into this terror and trauma, the messenger of God speaks the words of faith, of trust. They are echoed to all generations of the faithful before and since: "Don't be afraid." The women are reassured that the burial was completed; Jesus' absence only means that he is alive now and forever.

Of all the temptations to lure us away from God's love and light, the queen bee may be disappointment, because it flies in the face of all our programs for managing our own happiness. It's the lie that God is responsible for making me happy, mostly with lots of goodies. In the American theology of prosperity, health, wealth and success all are the certain reflections of God's blessing.

One of the fruits of Christian spiritual practice is to be assured of God's love in Jesus, a love from which no one and no situation can unhinge us. Which means we have a choice to trust God- or not. In the words of Andrew Young, whose daughter once announced she was leaving home to serve the Peace Corps in Idi Amin's Uganda. "We had no choice but to trust God or go crazy!" (Young's memoir is A Way Out of No Way)

The only real choice for disciples is for a regular and habitual acclimatization to God's living and loving presence, so that, in all circumstances, we know that God's love in Jesus Christ is for us, now and forever.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Enrich Your Easter with the Stations of Light

The Stations of the Resurrection is a timely devotional tool for the Easter season:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Let's stop using Jesus's name to hurt others

I find the "Statement on Wesleyan/Methodist Witness in Islamic and Christian Cultures" from the World Methodist Council, 2004, very helpful. It states,

Wesleyan/Methodist Christians are called by God, first, to lovingly accept Muslim brothers and sisters as persons of faith; second, to stand firm against violence and hatred in all its forms; third, to stand with persons who are being persecuted and are suffering for their faith; and fourth, trusting in the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to share with all persons, including Muslims, the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ through our words, deeds and signs by the power of the Holy Spirit, and invite them into life-changing relationships with God through Christ.

You can find the complete copy here.

Christ, have mercy on all of us who use and abuse your name to hurt or belittle others. Forgive us for what we do not know. Forgive us for what we knowingly do.

Holy Spirit, restrain us from doing harm with our words, actions, and intentions. Help us to listen to you.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Joy Is Worth the Chase

Edward Hays' books are like candy, at least for me. Even more than his daily healing therapies in Lenten Pharmacy, Chasing Joy is an excellent devotional companion for any season of the Church year.

I have come to really savor the way Hays can recast a wide range of anecdotes, biblical references, and folk stories with whatever subject is at hand. In the case of this book, it's about pursuing happiness, that historic American virtue. For Hays, joy just doesn't happen. Rather, it's a choice, and even more, it's a practice. Like that of prayer and gratitude, we access joy not by nature or instinct, but by intention.

And myriad disciplines are offered, a sort of "yellow brick road" to enduring joy, most of which stem from what Hays calls the "holy trinity" of I Thessalonians 5:16: "Always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. this is what God wants you to do." CEV Some of the more creative practices are the three-fold chuckle, and a habit hand-picked just for us culture-of-stuff Americans.

This is the practice of attributed to Socrates, who was known to have wandered through the Greek marketplaces and exclaimed with a laugh- “Behold the many things I have no need of!” Hays suggests we take this a step further. The next time, you find yourself waiting at a Walgreens or CVS, or even Target or Walmart, feel free to roam the aisles as time allows, thanking God for all the things of which you have absolutely no need!

For Hays, joy is an addiction, or can be, insofar as it becomes a holy habit. But it's a practice that cuts against our prehistoric fear-based, survival instincts. Negative thinking does not come from our choosing it, but rather, negativity comes from our ancestors. So the complainers and grumps we know within us and outside of us haven't received the evolutionary tweak that joy's practice can bring, mentally and spiritually.

So the sense of chasing joy, or pursuing happiness becomes a regular and disciplined choice for knowing and receiving the joy that no one and no situation can take away. This is a joy that 's there for taking, God's overflowing super-abundant love and grace, welling up to life here, now, forever.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hope in a Difficult Time

There is something deeper than trouble.
It is mercy.
God's amazing grace.
Carrying, lifting, holding us in all seasons.
There is something more powerful than despair.
It is mercy.
God's amazing love.
Seeing us through dark nights, waves of sadness, mountains of grief.
There is something longer lasting than pain.
It is mercy...

Excerpted from Larry J. Peacock and Prayers for Hope, Upper Room Ministries.

May God's healing embrace in Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit enfold, envelop, and encircle all in trauma and grief.

Oldies but Goodies