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.