Saturday, September 24, 2016

Adventures in Continuing Education: Mediation Skills

L to R: Sandra Spaulding (Bottskill and Lakeville Baptist), George Stefani
(Latham Community Baptist), Doris Segrave (FBC Saratoga Springs),
Jim Kelsey (ABCNYS), Kathy Donley (Emmanuel Baptist, Albany),
Jim Ketchum (FOCUS Churches), and Jerrod Hugenot (ABCNYS)
For the past few days, I have been involved with a continuing education event. The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center in the suburbs of Chicago sent its Executive Director the Rev. Richard Blackburn to Albany, New York, where about forty pastors, lay leaders and denominational staff members participated in an ecumenical learning opportunity.  The Capital Region Theological Center (CRTC) staff helped make this event possible through its partnership with LMPC and its own investment in providing quality theological education and training.
One could say it was a deeply practical event, exploring mediation skills in interpersonal and organizational conflict.  Many problems I am asked to be involved with will inevitably deal with some level of conflict in congregations.  Ambiguity about pastoral transitions, budget woes and matters large and small, overt and subtle drive more calls and emails than I would like to admit.

Yet everyday life is rife with the elements of conflict:  misunderstanding, differences, haste to make decisions, and various levels of chronic and acute anxiety.  When people resort to hasty decisions, avoiding or cutting off the voices around them that may complicate or engage in some sort of turf war (maybe over sharing the playground or deciding who gets control of a territory in dispute), the human race does not exactly distinguish itself with our centuries of development, technology and "civilization".

Rev. Blackburn provides trainings for churches and other groups wishing to learn how to craft a better way forward.  He shared stories of congregational mediations where a process he teaches will lead to greater understanding between otherwise divided people.  His methods do not rush reconciliation or cheapen the process by suggesting that some hard work can be avoided or skated over.  

Engaging this past week in some role play scenarios with fellow learners reinforced that realization.  Talking about a congregant angry about a memorial fund contribution's handling of her loved one's memorial monies or a church at odds with a newly called minister (yet dealing with years and decades of prior unresolved tensions) were an opportunity to "play a part" yet be in the midst of the lived realities of churches of any size, and indeed, just like every church to which I have belonged or served in a lay or ordained capacity.

To learn more about the ministry of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, visit www.lmpeacecenter.org.  The CRTC in the Albany area can be followed via: www.crtc.org or via their Facebook page.

I am grateful for the financial support to attend this event provided by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and the continuing education funds set aside for Region staff by the annual budget of the American Baptist Churches of New York State, which is made possible by the contributions of our 294 local churches to the 2016 ABCNYS Region Offering and portions of the America for Christ Offering (ABHMS) and the ABCUSA United Mission Basics.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Dishonest Exemplar (Luke 16:1-8)

The parable revolves around a guy who has messed up just about everything possible with his job.  He’s an accountant who has been called to the corporate boardroom and told, “You’re fired.”

His problem?  He mismanaged money.

Inadvertently, this parable might sound more “plausible” today, as attuned as we are to the media stories about things we really never heard much about before:  Ponzi schemes and subprime mortgages.  The idea that middle and upper management could “blow” through vast amounts of money sounds familiar, if not painfully familiar.

It probably doesn’t help us to hear that this dubious character is known as the economion, which can translate as “steward” or “accountant”, a term derived from that same Greek word with that word that is at the forefront of our minds:  economy.

Just as we struggle today with issues of the economy, we ought to take heart that 21st-century angst over money mismanagement is found in the first century and even before that time.  Economic theory changes, financial markets wax and wane, and stories of mismanagement will be with us always.
The trouble, however, is that this fellow who gets into all sorts of trouble is the same guy that Jesus says, “Be like him”.

The manager has lost big money, and like most situations on the front pages of today’s newspapers, it is not his money to lose.  He works for an estate, a large tract of land that is quite a lucrative operation for his boss.  The money lost must be substantial to merit the boss himself giving the pink slip to this accountant.

At this point, the parable takes another spin.  The manager realizes that he has lost more than a job.  He is now out in the cold with no other skills to fall back upon.  Digging (literally a dirty job with back-breaking hours) or begging for alms is just about everything he’s able to do.  He has brought this disaster upon himself, and there is no way forward.

The manager does that time honored thing that people do when in trouble.  He improvises.  And what a strange gambit he plays.  He goes to two of the estate master’s debtors and instructs them to reduce their debt to the estate substantially.

Is this revenge on the manager’s part, causing his boss to lose even more money? Actually, the manager is not tearing down the boss’ empire.  Rather, he’s trying his best to feather what little of a nest he has left.  Taking advantage of the debtors not having something like Twitter, he gets ahead of the grapevine about his firing and finds two debtors who still think he works for the boss.   What appears to be a miraculous forgiveness of debt is really the manager hedging his bets that this will make him some fast (and extremely grateful) friends.

Again, Jesus says, “Be like him.”

In case you’re wondering if you got the wrong message in Sunday school all those years ago (i.e. “be nice to others” and “do the right thing”), don’t worry, you were getting the right message.  This parable makes one wonder if we ought to sweep it under the rug, giving seeming credence to bad behavior and really bad “economic” planning (even if it does sound like how economies tend to be run:  avoid blame and cover your tracks fast!).

The parable of the dishonest steward is told right after the Prodigal Son parable and just before a parable about wealth “gone bad” (the Rich Man and a beggar named Lazarus).  Jesus is where we left him in last week’s Gospel reading:  at table with the sinners and tax collectors and at odds with the Pharisees grumbling over in the corner while the disciples of Jesus watch this unfold.  After telling the stories of the “lost sheep, coin, and son” to hush the Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples this story of a money manager that you really shouldn’t trust with the checkbook.  “Be like him.”

Books on parables flag this parable of “the dishonest steward” or “the mis-manager” as the most difficult of the parables of Jesus.  It befuddles the experts, it has baffled centuries of preachers.  Indeed, I count myself among the befuddled and the baffled.  How do we find anything redemptive in this story of a middle-management flunkie who breaks a few rules and then after getting caught, goes out and breaks a few more? 

Appropriately, the dishonest steward appears right after the disciples hear of a dubious son, the “Prodigal”.  Both the Prodigal and the steward are terrible with money.  Both squander tons of it.  The Prodigal winds up feeding pigs and wishing he could eat as well as the pigs.  The steward fritters about the digging, and begging surely in his future.  Oddly enough, both the prodigal’s decision to return home and the “morally challenged” sleight of hand pulled off by the steward get Jesus’ approval.

David Buttrick claims that Luke’s gospel is not so concerned with introducing you to “perfect” examples of good behavior.  In fact, examining the parables that appear in Luke, Buttrick claims Luke “seems to have a broader tolerance for human error and moral failure” (Speaking Parables, W/JKP, 2000, p. 179).   Just as Jesus willingly sits at table with those who are of dubious righteousness, so Luke’s gospel recognizes that not all of the characters around Jesus (or even those he imagines in the parables he spins) are neat and tidy examples of humanity.

Other stories appear in ancient sources about underlings/slaves who get into mischief or try to pull a fast one to make ends meet or get ahead.  (Similarly in modern day, there is the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum which features such a character in supposed “old Roman empire” days as well as the British comedy Black Adder, where a whole family lineage of schemers tried their best to hustle the best deals possible while working for the royal court or the aristocracy.)  So why is Jesus telling his disciples such a story as this?  Jesus appreciates the clever skills of this dishonest manager, who thinks on his feet when faced with adverse conditions.

The disciples of Jesus see the riffraff at table and the overly pious over in the corner as Jesus spins these parables.  In some ways, the disciples are much closer to the sinners at the table than they are the self-elected saints grumbling in the corner.  Some scholars wonder if Jesus is tipping his hand a bit with this parable, suggesting that shrewdness will be something the disciples of Jesus had better pick up fast.  Thinking on your feet would become mandatory for the early followers of Jesus, as the early Church experienced hardship and persecution, endeavoring at their best to reach the ends of the earth with the gospel.  To be “children of the light”, they still need some skills to survive the world at hand.

Another angle for this parable is the criticism levied against such people as the manager and his master.  The people around the table with Jesus and the disciples were part of the populace that had very little in terms of money, property, or economic stability.  The manager and his master represented that part of society that controlled pretty much everything else.  Losing some money was an annoyance but not ruinous to the manager’s boss.  In fact, the type of bills he was due (the large amounts of oil and wheat) indicated the wealth of this boss.  The manager was the middle man between the upper class (less than 2% of the populace was “wealthy”) and the lower class. The parable serves as a warning to those who would put all of their eggs in the basket of Empire, the elite class’ view of things, or “mammon”.  Mammon is wealth acquired by less than respectable ways, i.e. “greed”.  The manager is caught up in a system that is fundamentally flawed, one contrary to God, the “master” of the life for which we are created.  Such a parable as this reveals that Mammon is not only a “master”, it enslaves.

Parables have this quality of being inscrutable, and this one wins prizes for certain.  Elsewhere, Jesus claims disciples ought to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10).  Such sayings sound odd to our ears, as we consider the gospels having a fairly monochrome view of the world, devoid of that grey cast we know so well from everyday life.   This parable seems lodged in the world as we know it, somewhat too close at first glance.

Such texts as the dishonest steward reveal that the gospel can be found even in the midst of dubious characters playing out the plot of life as we know it.  The parable serves as a warning to those who confuse their priorities between God and Mammon too easily.  The parable serves as a wise word to those who would follow the contrary way of Jesus, preparing those who listen for tough times and the need to “think fast”.

This parable might bedevil its listener with ambiguities, yet it offers a pragmatic view that we need.  Our faith journey will take twists and turns along the way.  Not every moment of our lives is given over to the easiest path.  Shrewdness is part of the life of discipleship, just as surely as grace, hope, and love.

To be shrewd might mean “making a fast buck at the expense of others” or “feathering your nest”.  With the gospel, shrewdness becomes saying no to the easy way or easy money.  In itself, that’s a tall order for most of us, as “Mammon” comes in many appealing or “quick fix” guises.

Shrewd disciples know that the way ahead might be challenging, that faith does not mean one has easy answers or exemption from life’s travails.  It might mean a Sunday afternoon painting bowls for a fundraiser.  It might mean seeing a building as more than “worship space” and letting the doors be open wide to a variety of people in need.  It might mean saying “yes” when it’s time to volunteer somewhere far afield.  Shrewdness might be the thing that saves us from ourselves and allows us to be there for others.

Shrewdness allows us to be like the One who sees more to the world than Mammon ever could offer.

Friday, September 9, 2016

To improve the Church's Preaching: An interview with Dr. Mike Graves

Dr. Mike Graves, Wm McElvaney Professor of Preaching and Worship,
Saint Paul School of Theology, Overland Park, KS
Each Sunday, preachers have this task:  to speak a good word about God’s Word.  A powerful and holy calling, often preachers feel ambivalent about the results or their stamina with the week to week challenge.  At best, preparing for the Sunday sermon can be taxing.  During a week filled with unexpected (and sometimes even expected) pastoral challenges, the sermon sometimes gets relegated to the crack of dawn or the wee hours of the night.

Many preachers will point gladly to mentors who helped them learn the ropes.  Among my own mentors is the Rev. Dr. Mike Graves, Wm. McElvaney, Professor of Preaching and Worship at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Overland Park, KS. 
 
Prior to SPST, Dr. Graves served in similar capacities at the Midwestern Theological Seminary and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (my alma mater).  Dr. Graves is the author of many books and articles on preaching and frequently in church pulpits and offering workshops for preachers seeking new or renewed skills.  Dr. Graves is an ordained minister in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. 

The interview below was conducted via e-mail over the Labor Day weekend:

1)                  Share in brief your background as a preacher and homiletics professor. 

Some preachers grow up in the church, attending Sunday school in rooms with cribs and eventually graduating to chairs and even pews. Not me. I attended the Catholic church where I was baptized only sporadically, and have the vaguest memories of one Vacation Bible School at a Nazarene church near us. So when I came to faith as a freshman in college, I dove head first into Bible study and discipleship, going to seminary shortly thereafter.

If asked the first day of seminary about my vocational goals, I would have said “Preacher.” Not “Pastor” but “Preacher.” So naturally I took preaching courses as soon as they let me, and in that first exposure to the discipline of homiletics I found myself taking the course as everyone does but also thinking about what the professor was doing. Here was someone helping us think about what we think when putting sermons together. Na├»ve as it may sound, the first Christmas break of seminary I penned a draft syllabus for how I would teach preaching some day. My professor encouraged me to think about a PhD in preaching, which is precisely what I did.

I served some churches as pastor along the way, but for the most part the whole of my vocation has been teaching in seminaries. When a stranger on an airplane asks what I do for a living, I start by asking them if they’ve ever been to church and what they think about preaching. Many of them roll their eyes, indicating some measure of disappointment. That’s when I volunteer that my vocation is helping to improve the Church’s preaching.

 2)            In the time you’ve taught seminarians and pastors seeking continuing education, what has stayed the same in terms of the field and what has changed, particularly in the past few years, about homiletics and out in the field (i.e. local church pulpits)?  Anything that you can point to that your younger self wouldn’t have necessarily anticipated as a priority for preachers these days?

 Over the last 25-plus years of doing workshops and retreats with pastors, the one constant it seems to me is that ministers want help with their preaching, recognize that they could be better. Not only that, but they want to be better. The thing that has changed the most is the culture around us, not just the headlines but the technology. People’s lives are busier, so they tend to be more distracted. Except that’s not just true of those who sit in pews but those who stand in pulpits. Preachers know the people are wired, connected, online. I’m not sure how much they realize it keeps them from being still, studying hard to find a word from God. And of course with so many more online resources, there’s always the temptation to take shortcuts. I didn’t see this coming down the road, and I don’t know that any of us did, except for a few cultural prophets here and there, people like Neil Postman maybe.

3)            What books of late are you recommending to preachers who are already in the field yet need some refreshment or retooling?

Every discipline has books galore, although preaching may be one of those disciplines easily neglected after seminary. We preachers are busy looking for help with the ingredients for our sermons; we don’t have time to think about the way we cook. So we read Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Brueggemann, and rightly so. But in terms of cooking up sermons, in terms of thinking homiletically about our calling, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, even if older, would be good. It’s not about preaching per se, and yet I’ve sometimes called it “the most important book that preachers have never read.”

More recent titles, in no particular order, would include: Luke Powery, ‘Dem Dry Bones, Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Reading for Preaching, Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, David Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads, Ronald Allen, Hearing the Sermon, and Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear?

4)            As you look ahead, what projects are you working on for the parish and the academy alike? 

Last year my latest title, The Story of Narrative Preaching, came out. Since then I’ve finished a manuscript more focused on the Church’s worship, specifically Communion. The working title is Eating and Talking in Church: Rethinking Communion and Community. But even it deals with some of the dialogical styles of preaching that are still emerging. I’m also putting together a collection of essays as something of a sequel to my earlier work, What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? That volume honored the legacy of Harry Emerson Fosdick. This one honors Fred Craddock, and is called What’s Right with Preaching Today? In addition to the baker’s dozen of essays included, the volume also features personal remembrances of Fred by a whole host of folks.

5)         Any concluding thoughts?

If I have any concluding remarks, it would be that the longer I teach preaching the more convinced I become that doing it every week, reading about it, even attending conferences and the like may not be enough, important as all those things are. What may be most needed is more personal attention, more intentional reflection with a preaching coach. I’ve started doing that with local pastors in the Kansas City area where I live, and it seems to me to hold the most promise. If someone reading this really wants to improve, I suggest they see if there isn’t someone near them who might serve as a preaching coach. Like those folks on the airplanes asking about my vocation, God too knows the Church not only could have better preaching, but the Church deserves better preaching.

++++++++++++++++++++++

To learn more, consider reading one of Dr. Graves’ books:
The Story of Narrative Preaching: Experience and Exposition: A Narrative.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.

Preaching Matthew: Interpretation and Proclamation,  co-authored with David M. May.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2007.

The Fully Alive Preacher:  Recovering from Homiletical Burnout.  Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

The Sermon as Symphony:  Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament.  Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1997.

Edited works:

What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching?  Co-editor with David J. Schlafer.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2008.

What’s the Matter with Preaching Today?  Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.

 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

As often as your pray: Reflections on the Lord's Prayer in Worship

A delightful and informative book!

“You cannot have Christian worship without the Lord’s prayer.”  After saying that to me, the old Baptist layman gave me a look that said, “What I just said is not negotiable.” 

Back home in Kansas, you only gave that sort of look to people at church when matters of great doctrine were being defended, or worse, when somebody tried to cut in line at the church potluck.  Scowl, say what you need that other person to hear (as they are obviously incorrect), and look intense.  Such a look scares off heretics and people aiming for seconds alike.

The conversation  about the Lord's Prayer revolved around a church looking for ways to revise its worship order.  The Baptist layman was perfectly fine with changing the type of music (a battle in itself in other churches), yet when it came to the place of the Lord’s Prayer in worship (the proposal was to lessen the regularity of its use in worship), the proposal was not received very well by the Baptist layman, hence the scowl reserved for times such as these.

I didn’t quite know what to say.  (The scowl serves as a conversation killer after all….).  I grew up in my “home congregation” with the practice of the Lord’s prayer in worship being very sparing, hardly used except on occasions when the minister decided it was appropriate to a given worship service.  (Also, he believed communion should be held only quarterly.) 

What I thought was “normative” about praying the Lord’s Prayer (pray the Lord’s Prayer sparingly) was “fighting words” to another Baptist who valued highly a frequent use of the Lord’s Prayer (it isn’t proper worship without this prayer).  Admittedly, much of Baptist history could be explained as variations on the tenor of the conversation:  Baptists have differing practices due to our strong emphasis on the “local church” shaping belief and ritual in ways that puzzle outsiders yet are quite “normal” to the average Baptist.  For our tradition, the variation is more important than the “theme”. 

Interestingly, both of the Baptist churches I highlight (the one I grew up in and the one that I attended in college) represent the differing attitudes about the Lord’s Prayer over the two millennia of Church history.  In one corner, you have the Christians who have used the Lord’s Prayer as a significant and essential part of devotion and worship. In the other, a group of Christians who have appreciated Christ’s instruction to pray in this manner, yet they vary in their frequency and use of the Lord’s Prayer.

For example, in the early days of Christian monasticism (ca. the 4th century in Egypt), the Lord’s Prayer was used as part of a disciplined life of prayer.  The monk was called to pray in this manner:

Prostration for prayer, silent confession, rising, signing with the cross (to recall baptism), followed by ‘the Prayer of the Gospel’ (meaning the Lord’s Prayer), followed by another signing, another prostration, silent penitential prayer, standing up, another signing, silent prayer, sitting (for readings).  (Cited by Kenneth W. Stevenson, The Lord's Prayer: A Text in Tradition, SCM and Fortress Press, 2003, p. 64).

Several centuries later, the regularity of the Lord’s Prayer in devotional and worship life was not without its critics.  In 1605, a pastor wrote, “I had rather speak five words to God in prayer from understanding, faith, and feeling, than say the Lord’s Prayer over a thousand times ignorantly, negligently or superstitiously” (Cited by Stevenson, p. 179).  This was the assertion of John Smyth, an English pastor who led his congregation in 1609 to become the first “Baptist” church.  Smyth was reacting to the Lord’s Prayer in worship use among Christians whom Smyth felt were too given over to repeating the prayer yet not connecting with the meaning of the words. 

Thus, the tension among Christian followers is illumined.  What is the better path: frequent or infrequent use of the Prayer given to Jesus by his disciples?  Is the Lord’s Prayer to be used daily or occasionally?  How do we most faithfully follow Jesus’ instruction that “when you pray, pray in this way…”?

The Lord’s Prayer is quite familiar to our congregation with the emphasis on weekly use, however, were you puzzled by the version as told by Luke’s gospel?  Luke 11 sets the Lord’s Prayer as part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples after he has finished his own time for prayer.  The disciples ask how to pray, and Jesus gives this prayer along with a few other words on prayer.  Elsewhere Matthew sequences the Lord’s Prayer as part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, various teachings for those who would follow the way of Jesus. 

Historically, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer has not fared well against Matthew’s version.  A historical survey of the Lord’s Prayer evidences a bias toward Matthew’s version in the various Lord’s Prayers used by Christians down the centuries.  Even as early as a generation after the time of the New Testament’s writings, second century Christians were teaching the Lord’s Prayer with a version closely patterned after Matthew’s gospel, leaving Luke’s “shorter” version aside.  Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we know we participate in a prayer handed down from generation to generation, though admittedly, we pray with the modifications (theological, liturgical, and sometimes politicized) that have happened since the day Jesus and his disciples spoke of prayer. 

Stepping aside from the two millennia of Christian history, the British scholar N.T. Wright takes us back to the “source material”, that of the gospel writers.  Wright observes, “In Luke’ gospel, Jesus waited until his followers asked him for a prayer; and they reason they asked was because they saw what he was doing.  Something tells me there is a lesson there.” (Christian Century, 1997) Indeed, Luke’s gospel notes Jesus kept a strong prayer life.  He tells the disciples always “to pray and not to give up”.  For Luke’s gospel, the disciple is one who persists in the practice of prayer, despite whatever life throws at you. 

Luke’s motive for prayer is about prayer that knows how to live faithfully for the long haul.  The Lord’s Prayer is bread for the journey, words given so that we might pray rightly (though not meant to be rote).  The disciples in Luke’s gospel are a group of people learning how to follow Jesus and ground yourself in God’s ways, not by the disjointed rhythm of life lived under the shadow of Rome or the struggle to get by (barely so) in a society living with few resources (food, land, status) to go around.  Pray this prayer so that you might live.  As Tom Wright notes, the disciples saw Jesus more than “just praying”.  He seemed to be embodying something far greater. If you will, what one prays to God shapes how one lives their lives before God.

The modern day Baptist scholar Glenn Hinson traced the theme of “persistence in prayer” through Luke’s writings, better known as “the Gospel of Luke” and its sequel “the Book of Acts”.  Hinson demonstrates how the first churches were known as “individuals and early [church] communities being persistent in prayer”, which was “a key to the faith spreading from Jerusalem throughout Judea to the ends of the earth” (Hinson, “Persistence in Prayer in Luke-Acts”, Review & Expositor, 104 (Fall 2007): p. 721).

What Jesus is teaching in Luke 11 about prayer and the way of discipleship becomes crucial to the followers of Jesus being able to grow in faith, grow in numbers, and spread the gospel across the first century Roman Empire.  To be persistent is to believe in something enough that you do not give up.  Prayer grounds you back in the beliefs you profess.  The prayer life of Jesus is one prepared to move against the grain of Empire and Temple, to proclaim a different order to the world than the competing voices of the world want you to believe.  In this one prayer (despite the tangle of biblical and historical developments), Jesus gives us the heart of the gospel as well as what is on his own heart.  This Prayer comes from the depths within Christ himself, words that he lives by and offers to his disciples to guide them in this same way.

To pray the Lord’s prayer is not necessarily about “how often” one prays it.  As early Baptist John Smyth grumped back in 1605, the repetition alone is not the point.  The Prayer should be like most of our prayers: said in the midst of life, when in rough seas or calm waters alike.  The Prayer is given to us to follow, words that comfort, words that challenge, words that summon us to the humble obedience of the Christ we claim and follow. 

The Prayer is a prayer given to bring us through the difficult times of our lives and the task of remembering ourselves before God, the maker of heaven and earth.  Generations before us have prayed this prayer (and as we have learned) in a variety of ways and with sometimes bewilderingly diverse convictions about praying the Prayer.  However we say it, we go in trust that this is a prayer that Jesus offered long ago so we might be his faithful witnesses, ready to serve and live out our lives in faithful and persistent ways.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Summer break from blogging

Merton in a ballcap:
Even the contemplatives
like to chill-lax.
For the past three years, I have offered an essay or other short form piece here without interruption.  While I am one of those kids who really wanted a gold star by his name for perfect attendance, I am learning as I get older that it's okay to step back or take a day away.  So, as summer gets underway, I am opting to take a little summertime rest from my blogging.  I will resume postings in mid-July or thereafter.   A month away from the blog will not end the world and may make me a wiser writer in the long run. ;-)

In the meantime, a short prayer from Thomas Merton, whose writings continue to inspire and beckons us to a life lived more reflective than reactive (always a wise choice, yet not necessarily the first one we seek).  Merton spent much of his life writing about the outside world while living in the cloisters and later a hermitage out in the woods. 

Merton offers these words:

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

From Thoughts in Solitude (1958).

Friday, June 10, 2016

Risking rightly

The word "risk" carries differing meanings for congregations. Appropriately, churches need to talk honestly and always about the need for "risk management", particularly as congregations must have processes that protect minors from abuse and harm. We benefit greatly from being "risk adverse" when it comes to church upkeep (i.e. reducing tripping hazards and other perils possible around our buildings and grounds) as well as creating and enforcing policies that keep our ministry's integrity high and the potential low and beyond reproach regarding fiscal mismanagement or other problems that create chaos and the depletion of trust among our flock.

The work "risk" can also be a helpful and holy word when a congregation goes out on faith and tries something new for the sake of the Gospel. In this sense of the word, risk can become a taboo word, as it means an unsettling of the status quo or homeostasis is underway. Often, churches will become "risk adverse" in the most negative sense of the term. We do not wish to rock the boat or even leave the shoreline for fear that the unknown might be the end of us.
A positive sense of "risking" is at the heart of the gospel. The cranky old Baptist preacher and prophet Will D. Campbell once grumbled that our culture and churches often practice more of an ethic of "take up thy cross and relax" than ever letting such talk carry the fuller weight of Jesus' saying about following Him likewise.

I feel a greater sense of hope when encountering congregations who have stepped out in faith and embraced their neighborhood, especially in a way that reflects more the needs of the neighborhood than the worries of a congregation being overly protective from anything that might shake things up. Risking can become a holy practice where we put faith in the Spirit of Pentecost who is still carrying on like it's that first Day centuries ago when the faithful remnant left by Jesus actually realize the Great Commission says, "Go!" and not just to the next street over. We claim a faith that is more "to the ends of the earth" than "Hmm....maybe", yet we often operate with the latter than the former.

When churches feel more like circling the wagons than trying anything approaching adaptive change, it shows throughout their ministry and the way they share the Gospel. When churches find the courage to listen to the Gospel, the building that is otherwise a millstone can become a place of welcome and also not the sole focus of the congregation's funds and energy. When lay leaders and pastors can be inspired by the scrappy "can do" missional spirit of a teen or elder in their midst, the Spirit might have more of a chance to move in the whole body of believers. 

Risk will bring failure, if not a sense of things being more "trial and error". When churches have ossified around just a few areas of ministry (many of them more named "flower committee" than "discipling the neighborhood"), it can be hard to embrace failure as a growing experience and a way to increase innovation and other forms of ministry previously unthinkable.

Such risk reminds of that parable told by Jesus where the seed is sown all over the place. He acknowledges not all seeds will take root or flourish. It is strongly implied that the Sower just keeps on sowing, without any hang-ups on what might happen. 

Eventually, there will be new life and might be in the most unexpected of places: the local church!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Enduring Well

Throughout the Book of Acts and other lore left to us in the writings of early Christian theologians, preachers and church leaders, the early Church indeed inspires us, yet we must remember they too were just as human as you and me. The temptation to give up and run the other way crossed their minds as well and all too often. Sticking it out for the sake of the Cross asks much of us, which is why Christians have down throughout the centuries found it helpful and grounding to be together in worship and in ministry together.

In the midst of such times, the epistle of James speaks boldly of keeping the faith and trusting God. In the introductory section, the epistle says at the outset:

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

The epistle refers to God as the One who “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly”. Such language reminds me of a hymn I used in worship planning for stewardship: “God Whose Giving Knows No Ending”. The epistle connects this giving with the Christian who will ask without letting doubt overcome them.

Keeping up one’s trust in God is hard work, yet it yields a long term dividend, with the full benefits of a wise life lived before the Lord and not just when emergency or our personal convenience needs it! In the main section of James before us this morning, you find a familiar refrain also echoed in the Sermon on the Mount. In short, we are told “let your ‘yes’ be your ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be your ‘no’.”

Whatever decision is before us, with the right level of focus on God and keeping trust in God alone, we are able to say wisely what the wiser choice is indeed and without any temptation to change our mind and go a different direction. I find in working with churches facing changes that this sort of thinking is needed. Change in churches can come in many forms. Sometimes, it can be a positive change, yet mostly change heightens our sense of anxiety and uncertainty. We operate more out of emotion than rationale, and sometimes, we spend twice the time reacting against change than learning how to adapt and move forward. We will find ourselves saying “Yes” or “No” willy-nilly, looking for whatever makes the change go away and leave us alone, but it is not quite the same as grounding yourself in God and the trust that comes with it.

Pastors have to learn this early on, as dealing with the complexities of pastoring a congregation and having appropriate time to do other things (i.e. at least catch a breath or two in between running different directions every day). A recent book on pastoral ministry (and staying sane at the same time) takes the wisdom of saying “Yes” and “No” well quite seriously. To fellow pastors, the authors say that it is important to temper our sense of call with reality:
 
knowing ourselves well enough to know where our selves falter, where we need shoring up, where we are vulnerable. Without such tempering, our calls can collude with our grandiosity. We may see ourselves as special, as being above rules, not requiring the self-care and boundaries to protect us. (p. 34)

What is said of pastors here can also be said of congregations when dealing with change. The Region works with churches with varying issues, but often they are around change at hand and few willing to understand and process what that change means for the church. Often, churches tell stories about their ministry where they seem to run between crises, without much chance for a sense of “normal” to be felt and experienced.

 That’s one reason that I suggest when a church calls me in to talk about a big picture issue (mission, money, clergy transition, conflict, etc.), I ask for the gathering to take place around a meal. It’s helpful to sit down and do something very basic, common and indeed important to what it means to be human: eat a good meal and not be “all business”, which means that people can relax and then be invited to talk about issues that have gotten them concerned in a way that says, “Peace be still”.

I also find that the more church members encourage one another to take a steady view of the future being full of the unknown, the more the congregants can help put the puzzle pieces together and see the “big picture” of what is needed. Again, it is a form of saying that our “Yes” when said will count for something, because we have taken up the question before us and made a more solid answer than “I dunno” or acting like we got to find the “magic bullet” that will save the church in its time of crisis or concern.