Thursday, May 26, 2011

Called to Action—Responding to the Real Crisis

This weekend, clergy and laity from all around the Baltimore–Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church are converging on the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore for our Annual Conference meeting. I will be one of those delegates. We will gather to worship, fellowship, and discern God’s direction for our Conference for the coming year. We’ll also vote for the delegates that will represent us at next year’s General Conference in Tampa, FL. This year one of the big themes on the agenda will be the Call to Action, a new denomination-wide effort to help revitalize our denomination.

Most of us will surely agree with the findings of the study that led to this Call to Action. We know that our churches face “a creeping crisis”… It’s hard to argue with what we see lived out every day in our local churches. We can try and pretty up the statistics but the fact is that our denomination (like other mainline denominations in the West) is declining. Many—though certainly not all—of our local congregations are shrinking and greying. We aren’t attracting enough youth and young adults into our midst to sustain ourselves.

But we also acknowledge that as we get older and smaller we are sorely tempted to conserve what we have rather than follow Christ’s example and reach out to the community and world around us. (In some ways, that’s just human nature and it’s hard to fight against.) We lack energy and vitality and we don’t want to take as many risks as we did when we were younger or there were more of us. Thus, we don’t always readily embrace new initiatives—like the Call to Action.

We tend to be skeptical of programs we perceive as being imposed upon us from “above”. We don’t implicitly trust that “The Conference” has our best interests at heart. These programs have an impact on real people in our churches, but sometimes it seems like “The Conference” can remain at a comfortable distance from that reality. When it comes to implementing these kinds of programs what works well in one church may not work well in another. But it is easier for the Conference to track “success” or “failure” of the Program when everyone is “scored” the same way.

The problem with that approach is that Christian spiritual formation (a.k.a., discipleship) was never intended to be a one-size-fits-all-Program but rather an organic movement of the Holy Spirit unique to every time and place.

So given all that, the skeptical reaction that some may have to the Call to Action is understandable. This is certainly not the first effort we’ve seen toward the noble-sounding goal of “revitalizing” the denomination and making us more “relevant”. In fact, to seasoned veterans of Annual Conference, this may just seem like the latest, greatest plan to recreate Acts 2 in our modern context and see the Spirit move powerfully in our churches like it did back then. Those who have been around have seen these initiatives come and go. The fanfare, energy, and enthusiasm at the beginning are usually hard to sustain in the face of the realities of our local churches.

The inertia of how we’ve always done things is one of the most difficult forces in the universe to overcome, and at times, it makes implementing anything more than incremental change and “band aid fixes” in our churches a near impossibility.

Another reason that these initiatives have struggled is that we’ve been seeking the wrong objective. I don’t think our quest should be for “relevancy” so much as it should be “making disciples for the transformation of the world”. (And I hope and pray “making disciples” is what ultimately motivates the Call to Action.)

In my mind, the biggest crisis facing not only United Methodists, but the Church Universal is not relevancy but rather discipleship.

Consider the Gospel of Matthew’s take on Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his Ascension—known as the Great Commission.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always even to the end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20

We are called to reach out to all nations[1], and once we invite them into our midst, we encourage them to be baptized. Here, they make public what has already happened to them on the inside, commit to following the radical and counter-cultural Jesus Way, and seek the support of a community of believers.

You’ll notice the Great Commission doesn’t end with baptism. Sadly, though, it seems that in many cases our churches have forgotten the rest of Jesus’ command with perilous consequences for both church and society. If we do manage to add a few new members, they aren’t provided with enough opportunities to grow spiritually. They either stagnate or leave our church looking for a place that better “meets their needs”. The result is that we don’t grow our numbers, but more importantly, we don’t produce enough mature believers who in turn can train others to take their place and carry on the work of the Church in future generations.

Dallas Willard calls this phenomenon the Great Omission from the Great Commission and argues that the crisis of relevancy is really just a symptom of the deeper crisis of discipleship[2].

Baptism is meant to be the beginning of our life following Jesus—or at least it is our “coming out” party when we go public with our intentions. From there we have be taught to obey, which implies that it doesn’t just “come naturally”. We have to learn to live the Jesus Way in a world that is decidedly not living that way, and that’s nearly impossible to do alone. Left to our own devices we will surely drift toward the ways of the world around us. We human beings have a remarkable capacity to rationalize our self-centered existence, especially when we isolate ourselves from contact with others. When we enter into a community, we’re challenged to live with more awareness of the “others” in our lives.

This is why, in my humble opinion, the being part of a local church is so vital to our lives. We need our faith community to help sustain us. We’re dead meat if we try and live the Jesus Way on our own! Our churches should serve as places where we gather together for mutual support and encouragement in living the Jesus Way, and where we can practice living this way together—we might think of them as spiritual training academies. As we progress, we reach a point where doing what Jesus did—e.g., loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us—starts to come more naturally to us. With practice responding as Jesus did to circumstances in our lives becomes easier—the “impossible” starts to become possible.

I hope that The Call to Action will help to make this vision of discipleship and Church more tangible and real in our world. As we begin to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey, the relevancy we seek will surely come.

[1] To me, the modern interpretation of nations would mean crossing all “boundaries” to invite people of all ages, races, sexes, sexual preferences, political leanings, etc.

[2] The Discipleship Adventure that our Annual Conference has embarked on for the past seven years has been an attempt to respond to this deeper crisis.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Where I Have Seen Jesus Lately?

Some day you’ll come, darkness will cease.

True light will dawn, everyone will then see.

Everything new, we’ll finally see you.

Awaiting that day, searching for more.

While all along you are

found with the poor.

Help me to see that you’re all around me…

Our praises arise.

As we come to recognize.

Jesus is near.

Glory is here.

Glory is Here”, Michael Gungor Band

I ask myself in light of what I wrote in my previous post on the Ascension and "seeing" in new ways: Where have I seen Jesus lately? Recently I took some time to search for thin places where the veil between heaven and earth thins and God seems close to me. I came up with a few.

Holy Moments With My Wife. It was an extremely busy week for my family. A longtime member of one of our churches passed away, which meant that on top of all the normal activities, Laurie had a funeral to plan and participate in this week. But despite our business Laurie and I managed to get some good time together this week. Sometimes I think I see Jesus most clearly when I see him through my wife’s beautiful eyes.

Entering Into My Children’s Worlds. I’ve enjoyed playing baseball with my son Brady—who is playing T-ball this year. My getting down and entering into his world means a lot to him and—here’s the surprise—it means a lot to me too. I can tend to get caught up in all the tasks that have to get done around the house and disconnect from the people that actually live in the house. Growing up, this was what my parents tended to do; I won’t say they never entered my world, but it was less frequent then I would have liked. So I didn’t have a particularly good model of how to enter in to my children’s lives and my natural tendency is to do what comes natural: i.e., stay aloof. But I hope and pray that God my Heavenly Parent will supply what I lack and help me to enter in. Perhaps, in some strange way, there is healing for me in being able to supply for my son and daughter what I was not given.

And the effort must be working on some level and having a positive impact on my son. At practice the other night some of the adults were hitting balls to the kids. Brady was out in the field but when it came time for me to hit he said to his friends, “You better watch it. My dad can hit it very far!” While his sense of my athletic prowess is quite distorted, it’s nevertheless good affirmation for me, and it shows that the effort to enter his world is bearing fruit.

Simple Joys of Parenting. After T-ball practice last Wednesday I had what you might call a God-moment. Brady and Becca were playing at a playground with two other girls. At one point they were running through across one of the baseball fields and making piles of the freshly mown grass. They ran ahead of me enjoying the lovely May evening. As I watched them play without a trace of fear or concern, it felt really good—a little sliver of heaven making itself visible in this moment for my enjoyment. As the Sun set over that field, I found myself aware of the presence of God and thankful for the opportunity to be a parent. I think moments of clarity like the one I experienced that night help sustain me throughout the long stretches of mundane day-to-day parenting—and in life in general—that don’t seem particularly “holy” at all. Parenting is a very large responsibility; I won’t deny it tires me out and stretches me out of my comfort zone an sometimes I don’t respond all that well to being stretched. But then there are the moments when I am reminded of the incredible privilege God has given me to help him co-create two young lives.

In the Garden. One of our churches has a nice flower garden outside. Some people at the church offer their service to keep it maintained throughout the year. It is a true labor of love and a great gift for our church; the beauty of the place is a true blessing to me each time I walk past it. Beginning with the hardiest perennials popping through as soon as the snow melts (if not before), progressing through the summer, and lasting to the first killing frost, the garden offers up a place of ever-changing natural beauty. For the past couple of months I have made a practice of spending some time outside in the garden between Sunday School and worship. I sit on one of the marble benches and enjoy the natural beauty of the place and reflect, pray, journal, etc. I think it has been good discipline just to have some quiet time to reflect and prepare for worship. I think it makes my experience during “formal” worship more impactful when I have spent time ahead of it. Perhaps it “creates space” for God to enter my conscience when I go into the sanctuary inside. God is always there, but like a radio improperly tuned to receive the broadcast, I can miss the Presence if I am not tuned in.

At an Outdoor Chapel. We live in a parsonage—but not one owned by our two churches; we rent from a Lutheran church in our community. There is what I would describe as a small “open air chapel” at the rear of the church property. There is a little brick patio with two benches positioned facing a simple wooden altar and three stone statues showing different depictions of Jesus. If I stand at the altar I literally look into the eyes of Jesus on the cross adorned in flowing robes. Though the road is only a few hundred feet away, the chapel faces the woods and it feels somehow secluded—and sacred. You can see and hear the natural beauty of creation as you pray—the trees, the birds, etc. In the stillness this place I find that I connect with God. Here in this simple sanctuary, I can come and quiet the “noise” of my life long enough to at least give myself a chance to hear God’s “still small voice” when God tries to get my attention during the remainder of my day.

How about you? Where have you seen Jesus lately? Where are the thin places in your life?

I'm sure that some of us can answer this question more easily than others. If you find it easy to "see" Jesus now, be thankful for the gift of intimacy with God. If you are struggling to "see" right now, take heart. Scripture gives us the calm assurance that God is always near and promises us that if we seek him we will find him; God is eager to have fellowship with us. If we still ourselves, and train ourselves to listen, and look, we might realize that Jesus was in the places, faces, and spaces of our lives all along; we just didn't have eyes to see; we didn't expect to see him in those places. I hope that as we become increasingly aware of the presence of God permeating all of our lives and our world it will impact the way we live our lives. May "our praises rise, as we come to recognize: Jesus is near... and glory is here!"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ascending With Jesus: Seeing With Different Eyes

As we continue our journey through the Church’s liturgical year, Easter and the resurrection fades in the rear-view mirror, and we pass onto the road less travelled. If you are Orthodox or Catholic, chances are you have some familiarity with this part of the year, but on the whole, Protestants do not. If we follow the trail-map laid out in the lectionary, we find that the next mile-marker to be aware of is an event that takes place 40 days after the resurrection (June 2 this year, and observed in church on June 5) called the Ascension. It marks the day when Jesus was taken up from the disciples[1]. So far as we know, it’s the last time the disciples or anyone—with the possible exception of Paul—ever saw Jesus “in the flesh”. (Ten days after that, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on a group of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and ushers in a whole new chapter of God’s Story as the Church is born and becomes the means through which the Message of Jesus will spread around the world.)

Despite what the Gospels say, I can’t help but think that for the earthbound disciples, the Ascension was probably a bittersweet day. I mean think about it, they are just beginning to wrap their brains around the astonishing fact that there friend and master has risen from the dead—a feat no other person had accomplished before nor has been repeated sense—and now they have to say good bye all over again. It had to feel like emotional whiplash.

Jesus tried over and over again when he was alive to explain to them what was going to happen. He told his followers, and showed them by his example, that it is better for them, and more importantly, for the world, that he departs from them. He has also assured them that he will not leave them alone to face the world. On some level, the disciples may have been beginning to understand this, but keep in mind we’re only talking about a little over a month since the resurrection. If it were me, I think I would still be a little dazed and confused after all that had happened recently. I would think they still would feel a sense of loss as they stood on that mountain and watched Jesus disappear. Did they really believe the promises that Jesus had made? Could they possibly have fully understood them at that point? Maybe… but I think it’s more true to life to assume that they were probably were still struggling with quite a bit of unbelief and uncertainty about what was going on.

These men and women have become intimate friends of Jesus; hey literally did life together for the past three years. Up until now, whenever any of them wanted to talk to Jesus, they went to him and spoke with him face-to-face, the way you and I converse with our friends—remember, no e-mails, texting, or Facebook back then! Now, all of a sudden, Christ is no longer with them in bodily form. The physical separation had to be difficult at first. It might not be unlike what you and I feel when we lose a loved one to death.

Of course Jesus wasn’t dead; he was very much alive. In fact, he’s now more alive than ever! For a time the Second Person of the Trinity voluntarily chose to limit himself to a human body so that he could set us free to be all we were created to be as human beings. Now, however, that time has past! The Ascension marks the moment in time when Jesus returns to his rightful place in heaven and resumes the form he has had since the Beginning. Jesus now exists as he always existed; he reigns over Creation as Spirit, and spirit is every bit as real as the physical body.

The problem is that, like most human beings, the disciples aren’t used to interacting with a Spirit. We typically interact with other human beings who also have bodies just like us. But now they have to learn to cultivate a relationship with a real Person that they cannot see with their eyes. I can imagine that it might have been difficult at first. They had to adjust their vision to a new reality. It took time… and practice but eventually they began to see—in fact they came to “see” Jesus with clarity they never had before.

This, more than any other fact, probably accounts for the transformation we see in the disciples between the Gospels and Acts. We see disciples who denied, betrayed, and abandoned Jesus changed into bold and courageous preachers and evangelists who spread the Gospel all around the Ancient World.

As we begin to see and experience the fullness of who Jesus really is, we can begin to “see” and experience the fullness of all we have been created to be.

In your Ascension,

May I also ascend,

To give my full attention,

As your servant and your friend.

— “In Your Crucifixion”, Brian McLaren

I certainly seek to experience that “fullness” in my life but if I am honest, at times it seems elusive. I think I relate a little bit to what these men and women must have felt after the Ascension. It’s fair to say that I too have been struggling to “see “ Jesus lately. All that we have lived through over the past few years has taken its toll on me. Life experience and theological reflection have converged and resulted in soul-searching in recent days. I’ve been challenged to think about what I really believe. I have changed and while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it has certainly impacted my faith and my experience of the divine. I don’t feel blind to God’s presence, so much as I feel like my vision has been blurred. I find myself in a new place (both theologically and experientially) and I am still adjusting my vision to the new reality.

Some of the old ways I used to connect with God don’t seem as effective as they once were and I seek to discover new ones that work in the place I now find myself.

I do see glimpses of new things God may be doing in my life but I struggle to gain clarity about my specific role in the process. I try to move forward hoping to gain clarity as I journey and it’s happening but it’s not a fast process. It takes time… it takes patience… it takes practice. And like the disciples in the presence of the risen Lord, I don’t think I always trust what I’m seeing.

As I have wrestled with my beliefs and struggled at times to “see” God, a song has spoken to my spirit. Perhaps the words that resonate the most are from its second verse and chorus.

In oceans and hills, and in ancient skies;

Hidden in faces and pain and delight; glory is here,

And I get a glimpse of You.

In silence and prayer; in bread and wine;

Somehow the common become the divine.

You’re making me new.

I’m starting to see You.

Our praises arise.

As we come to recognize.

Jesus is near.

Glory is here.

Glory is Here”, Michael Gungor Band

I like the song because it challenges me to see God in places where I might not be accustomed to looking for God’s presence… but it also lifts up some places and spaces where I have often sensed the divine presence—e.g., nature, other people, contemplation. It affirms that God is in all things, not an impersonal force of nature, but a brooding Spirit that enlivens all living things and equips them for their specific role in the ongoing drama of Creation. My challenge is to learn to “see” God in all the places, faces, and spaces along my journey where his Spirit dwells.

[1] The Synoptic (meaning they are similar) Gospels all briefly mention this event [Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:19-20 (the longer ending of Mark); Luke 24:50-53] as does Acts 1:6-11. Interestingly John’s Gospel doesn’t really mention the Ascension per se.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Can it Be?! Becca is Three!

I passed by … and I said to you, “Live!” Ezekiel 16:6

Can she really be three already!? Impossible! It seems like just a moment ago I held her in my arms for the first time and now she’s a beautiful little girl twirling around in her pretty Easter dress.

This milestone is always a bittersweet one for her mother and me. By now most of you know the story of our girls. You know that two girls celebrate a birthday this day, but we only get to have a party for one of them. (Though I suspect Hope Marie is having one heck of a party where she is today—where she is maybe the celebration never ends, and perhaps every day is your birthday J.) We wouldn’t be honest if we didn't say: “Happy birthday Hope. Mommy and daddy miss you today...”

But on this day we choose to focus on celebrating of the gift of Rebecca May…

It’s so amazing to watch her grow up! Sometimes raising two small children whilst juggling jobs and ministry is not easy—but it is always good. The bond between my son and I is neat, but the daddy–daughter bond is really special—you dads of daughters will no doubt know what I mean. Every time I bend down to Becca and she gives me a hug and a little peck on the cheek when I drop her off at daycare, or when she runs to me in the afternoon and says “Daddy!”, my heart sings. It can have been a long and tiring day, but her smile lifts me up and energizes me. Every time we flutter about our house together doing our silly little “Rebecca dance” together and she smiles, I like it as much or more than she does. Even when I struggle to get her to go to bed some nights, I rejoice on some level that she has such spirit within her that it’s sometimes hard to settle her down. When the day comes she doesn’t want to do those things with her daddy anymore, it will surely be gut-wrenching for me. You want your child to find their wings—but please God not too soon J.

The name Rebecca means “to bind” and I find that meaning fitting, for surely her presence in our lives has been a healing balm, a touch of grace, a focus on life and on resurrection, that helped bind together our wounded hearts and souls these past few years. Hope means “expectation and belief” and after our experience I would say that we seek to live each day with honest hope. We don’t deny that life is hard and at times difficult to understand, but because of our faith in Jesus we also believe that life as it was “meant to be” is good and beautiful, and we are meant to be the ones who work with God to make that goodness and beauty visible in our world. With God’s help, we truly expect that the “best” really is yet to come—for all of creation.

We will never forget Hope; she is forever part of our story, but because Becca lives—and most of all because Jesus lives—we live fully in the present and stand ready to face whatever tomorrow brings. Because He lives—our Hope endures

Pondering the Patterns of God's Garden

Creation is messy… Creation sometimes appears random. Until you look more closely… I have the largest flower bed on our cul de sac—ma...