Thursday, September 26, 2013

Listening for God's Answers Rather than Worrying About Our Own


It's not the easiest sell in a fast-moving, "decision now" type world, yet I would hazard God speaks most clearly to us when we allow ourselves to ponder and more importantly listen attentively.

Over the past few weeks, I have been invited into a variety of church situations where decision making might seem best made "right here and right now".  The need for a quick fix or something to make the anxiety of the moment go away hurriedly is often the mode we operate in as human beings as well as institutions.  We do not want the pain or the uncertainty.  With these churches and leaders, I shared the good word of pausing, waiting and listening.  What might seem best in the moment does not necessarily lead us to the right paths, let alone "answers".  Wisdom comes in the slower and deliberative, not so much when we are rattled or feel like somebody mixed anxiety with Mountain Dew!

Peter Steinke, a popular author on family systems and congregational leadership, published two influential books:  How Your Church Family Works and the later volume Healthy Congregations.  While I learned a great deal from these earlier works, his later volume "Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What" helped me realize there's a lot of "noise" often going on within myself, often of my own devising.  Steinke's insights into understanding the anxious element helped me understand myself and in turn, the situations I was involved in as well as the personalities and behaviors of those around me.   (Note: Peter Steinke's books listed above are available via the Alban Institute.)

When we handle our anxiety, we begin to think with a clearer mind and gain some perspective.  We realize the energy we expend on frittering away nervously could be refocused into more constructive ways of thinking and acting.  (I often joke we tend to have so much energy tied up in worrying, a church could otherwise power Las Vegas for a few months.)

Clearing our heads leads to the ability to discern carefully what God is calling us to do next.  For congregations considering how to realign mission and vision or facing tough situations (i.e. pastoral transition, governance challenges, financial or property woes), handling the interior noise created by more anxiety-prone ways will open us to the possibilities before us and puzzling out the way(s) ahead.  We can listen for God more perceptively now that we've allowed ourselves to quiet down the nerves and interior chatter within.

What is God saying to us now that we are listening?



To have a good conversation about tough questions, your regional ministry staff is available to come to your church and help out!  Dr. Kelsey offers a workshop around Gil Rendle's Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Abingdon, 2009).  I am glad to come and speak with your leaders about strategic planning tools to rethink ministry and realign a church for missional purposes.  We are also available to assist with conflict resolution (Jim Kelsey) and understanding transition in churches and pastoral seasons of ministry (Jerrod).  All of these services are brought to you by your congregation's support of the Regional Offering and United Mission!

For books on discernment (personally or corporately), authors Judith Todd and Valerie Isenhower offer two great books from Upper Room Books:

Listening for God's Leading:  A Workbook for Corporate Spiritual Discernment
Living into the Answers:  A Workbook for Personal Spiritual Discernment

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Upcoming oddities

Advent 2009
Weston Priory
Weston, Vermont
For many congregations, Rally Day and other signs of "beginning of Fall" around churches are taking place.  While our Sunday school teachers prepare classrooms for new learners, young and old alike, and the choir gears up to learn new anthems for upcoming services, the minister finds herself caught in the odd time known well to many long-time pastors, organists, choir directors, etc.   The trees will start saying "autumn" outside, yet in the church office and pastor's study, we start thinking about the upcoming season of Advent and Christmas.

When I worked for the Central Seminary Cokesbury bookstore, I soon learned the wisdom of having the Advent section well stocked by Labor Day.  For many students beginning the Fall term, they thought it an odd sight with the seasonal books and resources (and Advent candles!) right beside the rows of textbooks soon to be purchased (and the professors prayed, read this term!).

Yet for the graduates now in their pulpit callings, the alumni gratefully returned to the seminary bookstore to stock up for Advent planning.  For some, it was the first Advent they had to plan "solo" as ministers in small churches.  For others, they arrived with the mandate from worship planning committees to try something different and novel for the Advent/Christmas season.  And for a few, they just liked seeing what was new to the market this season in case a bright new set of liturgies, responsive readings, mini-dramas, sermon resources, etc., had arrived, ready to take their worship planning to new heights of creativity and inspiration.

And yes, Virginia, there would be some folks who called in a complete panic at the close of Friday business with the first Sunday of Advent that weekend, desperate for candles.

Advent planning is even more curious as the church sets up for Christmas by waiting.  Last month, back to school shoppers found Christmas trees awaiting to entice early sales.  Now the Halloween candy seems crammed in, with the Christmas garland at the ready to be the Kudzu of fall retail strategies.  When radio stations are selling ads in anticipation of the lucrative programming change to "Christmas Music Around the Clock" just after Thanksgiving dinner table scraps are tucked away in the fridge, what possible enticement can there be for a group of people who say no thanks to singing a raft of Christmas carols for four straight weeks?

Instead, visitors will encounter a strange lot who read stories from Matthew's gospel this lectionary year, and it doesn't sound instantly like the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Cranky prophets will wilt the insta-Cheer most Americans associate with the time of year.  They will hear more from the grown-up Jesus in the Advent lections before they will hear a cry coming from the manger.

It's a bizarre and contrary spectacle, this Advent season of waiting, watching and not rushing ahead.

Happy Advent planning!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Parables of the Lost and Found

            In Luke's gospel, the narrative often lingers at the dinner table.  Indeed, a good meal in the gospel is often accompanied with a parable spun by Jesus.  Luke's fifteenth chapter is a good example of this sort of experience, where Jesus tells of the Kingdom/Reign of God and its subverting of the current order.  He often tells this good news to an assemblage of folks marginalized or rendered "less than" by the political, social and religious leaders.  Good news from Jesus is indeed good news for all!
            Unfortunately, the Pharisees never got the memo on this.  They see Jesus spending time with, heavens, even eating with people who the Pharisees know to be “sinners”.  They stand there aghast at how (yet again!) Jesus befriends those who ought to be kept at arm’s length.  So Jesus directly addresses the issues through three interlinked parables.  One is historically the more famous, yet read together, all three stories invite us into the parables of the lost and found.
            A lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son: each of them might seem fruitless to search for, yet the woman, the shepherd, and the father never give up.  The Pharisees are told these stories as they see Jesus sitting among people they have considered “lost”.  To Jesus, these folks may be conflicted, may be rough around the edges, but as far as Jesus is concerned, they are “found”.  These people are not “those people”, that infamous phrase oft-heard when one group thinks another group inferior, suspect, or of little worth.   The parables point to this dinner crowd not as “undesirable riffraff” but beloved children of God.

         At the start of Luke 15, before the parables start rolling, one after the other, the Pharisees are off in the corner, grumbling.  The Greek text uses a word that harkens back to the days when Israel wandered in the wilderness and did not like much of their life, not least Moses’ leadership or the manna provided by God.  The Pharisees are not only grumbling to themselves, they are grumbling hopefully in the earshot of any passersby.
        Ironically, their chief grumble (“This person welcomes sinners and eats with them”) is exactly what Jesus wishes to be caught doing:  welcoming.  You see, the Greek word for “welcoming” or “to welcome” (prosdechomai) appears elsewhere in Luke’s writings when people are looking forward to God’s own visitation, when they are yearning to see God bring about comfort, hope, and an end to the woes of life.  The Pharisees see Jesus welcoming the seedy and unclean.  Jesus sees a group of people who really need to hear God’s welcome.
        Now, here in this story of “a dinner party for the unwelcome and the written off” appears this word where “welcome” means hospitality as well as hope.  When Jesus welcomes the sinners in, it is the gospel he preaches being acted out.  Indeed, he does welcome people, to table as well as to hear of the Kingdom of God.  As one Baptist New Testament scholar observes,  “Place Jesus at a dining table filled with all kinds of folk whom the religious tradition had rejected, and you will see Luke’s [gospel] clear and undiluted” (Linda McKinnish Bridges, The Church’s Portraits of Jesus, Smyth & Helwys, 1997, p. 68).

         Each of these three parables offers very little instruction about how one repents.  Each parable avoids moralizing, instead ending on a celebratory note.  The shepherd invites his friends to celebrate, the woman claims the angels dance in heaven above with joy, and the father throws one of the wildest parties the neighborhood has seen.  The lost are found by the God who is like a shepherd searching, who is like a woman diligently seeking, or who is like a father long pained by a child’s absence and now overjoyed at receiving the prodigal.
         In his recent and masterful commentary on the Gospel of Luke, scholar John T. Carroll observes, "The parables of Luke 15 are a vigorous attempt at persuasion (deliberative rhetoric); the third parable leaves the outcome in the hands of the Pharisees: will they be able to move beyond offense at Jesus' gracious hospitality toward the lost and join the party, symbol of the realm of God?"  (Luke: A Commentary, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012, p. 319).

         The evangelist and American Baptist Tony Campolo shares a story of traveling by train around the United Kingdom.  He notices in his train car is a young man, looking ragged from what Campolo presumed was an annual rock music festival going on near that part of the country.  Oddly, the man has just one shoe on.
          Campolo asks the young man, "Sir?  Have you lost a shoe?"
          The young man replied, "No, man.  I found one!"

Friday, September 6, 2013

Lost in a good book

Recently, a religion journal excerpted poll data from a Barna study, noting pastors are "a group of professionals who, on average, buys 3.8 books per month per person—92% of whom buy at least one book per month—adding up to between 8 million and 13 million books per year. Compare that to the total population, where less than one-third (29%) of American adults buy more than 10 books in the course of a year."1

When I pointed out the much higher reading stats of clergy to my wife, she looked at me and said, "And what?  We seem to buy a book every week!"


Okay, okay....I admit my spouse and I are avid readers.  In our new home, we have decided not to have a living room.  Instead, we call it our library.  As for those who helped us relocate this summer can testify, the Hugenot/Shermer (Shergenot?) household counts among its most prized possessions a good size religious studies section, a literature section, and by my wife's estimation, more than enough graphic novels and single issue comics than a grown man under 40 should own....

I read online book reviews as well as the weekly Book Reviews in the 6 lb. Sunday edition of the NY Times.  (I like the Sunday Times in the print, hence my joke about the weight of taking one home....)  I look through religious journals and clergy publications.  And thanks to eight years with Cokesbury (back in their brick n' mortar days sadly passed), I know how to trawl the "front lists" of various publishers to see what's new or coming soon to the market.

Our cats are named after books.  Hopeless, aren't we?

I find reading enlivens ministry.  It may seem counter-intuitive given the work load we often find ourselves navigating on a weekly basis, yet those times spent with a good book (comic or otherwise) improves our day to day living.  Also, an avid reader preacher finds ways to connect with stories and insights into our weekly preaching.

Ministry can be wearying, yet a good book can be the cure of the preacher's soul.  In times of writer's block, I find a book on something else frees my brain from thinking relentlessly about the Sunday sermon text.  You need to back up and let tension go sometimes.  Some weeks, though, I find a chance reading of something off topic sometimes nudges me homiletically in a different direction.  Reading a good book has yet to be counter-productive or less than edifying!

I invite my clergy readers (and lay folk book worms, too!) to consider their recent purchases or findings at used bookstores or while wandering their local branch of a public library system.  What book has really made you think?  What tome has sparked new insights?

I invite you to comment in the section below and share books you find enlivening (past and present!).


1  Barna poll data analysis: