Thursday, September 3, 2009
The good news is that most of my crazy, mind-bottling thoughts have been about Calvary. As Calvary's pastor, it's my job to think about our members, our future, and our faithfulness to Christ. And lately I've been trying to think better... so I've been letting others think with me.
In last Sunday's bulletin I asked the congregation to pray for six of our members. I'd rather not publish their names to the web, so if you missed the list, check the e-newsletter or email me. These six people -- which include me, four very diverse church members, and Bob, our local candidate for ministry -- make up what we're calling The Transformation Team. By the way, I'm open to suggestions on the title.
Bob is the moderator of the team, so I am free to simply be a member of it and have equal voice in it. The other members were chosen by the Session after I gave them an idea of what I intended to do and allowed them some time to pray about it. The team is reading and discussing a book called Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation by George Bullard. We've met twice and each of us have already been challenged by the ideas presented by the book and by God's Spirit. In short, this is already the most exhilarating and rewarding thing I've done in professional ministry.
Although these meetings need to be somewhat confidential to foster our honest communication, I do intend to share my thoughts on the process as often as I can when it relates to my own journey. And one of the first things I have been faced with is, why are we doing this? Since this was my idea, it may seem like a silly question. However, since my answer has changed at least a couple of times since first articulating these ideas, it's not a bad question too keep asking.
The short answer has always been, "Because I have a sense of urgency for my ministry at Calvary." I believe we all have a sense of urgency for our church and no two people's are exactly the same. Often our sense of urgency leads us down a path toward change, like if we see an absence of some demographic or a shrinking worship attendance or a desire to regain a former splendor. It's important to notice what gives us urgency in our church because it fuels our passion for ministry, it might explain why we're at odds with some of our siblings in Christ, and it may be the Spirit's way of nudging us. But it may not always be the best reason for congregational change.
A year ago, my urgency was about acknowledging the mistakes of my past in an effort to be the best pastor I can be. It was about me wanting us to be a growing, vital congregation. But in the end, it was really only about me. I wouldn't have been the first pastor to roll into a congregation with something to prove, but I'm glad God has given me a different sense of urgency. As I've begun to study with The Team, I've learned that the only sense of urgency that really works in the church is the urgency to be faithful to Christ's leading. All of those other things that get us moving in the life of the church may be true and honest reflections of who we are, but they need to take a back seat to the urgency of faithfulness.
So as I said on Sunday, please pray for the team; some transformational things are happening there already. Pray for our well being, the lessons we learn, and that we retain a faithful sense of urgency.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
There are a lot of lessons to be learned here about how VBS is a parable for the church: how we all serve through our gifts toward one common goal; that it takes flexibility, patience, and forgiveness to work closely with the other members of Christ's Body; and that our diversity actually makes us more effective in the work we are called to do. I could probably extend that list out a bit, but it's that last lesson that interests me today.
I noticed something about those who led VBS last week: none of them were around my age. This is not a judgment, it's just an observation. Our VBS was led by the same types of people who lead VBSs everywhere: the members of Christ's Body who have the time to lead it, lead it. Generally, that means, unless you're paying me to be there, people my age are going to be at work. And as long as we remember to help with VBS by contributing financially, that still leaves two very qualified groups to actually run it: teens and retirees (or semi-retireed).
Now let that soak in a bit... Vacation Bible School happens mostly because two groups of people who have almost nothing else in common work together to make it happen. And that, my friends, is the beauty of Christ's Body at work. If our church was made up of only teens, or only retirees, or only those in the middle, VBS would either not happen well or it wouldn't happen at all. But because we can incorporate such diverse age groups, this ministry not only happens, it happens exceedingly well.
I believe this is also true in any other way one could categorize us demographically. The work of the Church is more effective because of our diversity: we are young and old, male and female, politically conservative and liberal; we each have our own personal histories, families and ethnic backgrounds; and let's not forget our multitude of various gifts and talents. The world around us tends to see this kind diversity as a problem to be solved, but in Christ it's the other way around. The only same thing among us all is that we each have been called to follow Jesus. Those things that make us different in every other way, only makes us serve him that much more effectively.
We are, in many ways, a diverse group; and for that I am thankful. And I am especially thankful this week for those in our congregation who are older, working with those who are younger, to teach the youngest of our community of the love of God in Christ.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Friday, May 1, 2009
I took this time in an attempt to think through our next steps as a congregation. Our life together as Christ's body is very much a journey: geographically, we remain connected to this place, but Christ continually calls us to new places both personally and as a congregation. It was, in a manner of speaking, a road trip to help us plan a road trip.
But one of the greatest temptations a pastor faces is to plan this trip alone. The way the thinking goes, "I am the pastor. I've read all the right books. I know what constitutes a vital church. I know how to listen for God's voice. Of course I know where the church ought to go." And of course, this turns out to be one of the most destructive things a pastor can do. It's destructive for a number of reasons, but the central sin is that it assumes an authority that actually belongs to Christ. So to mix the metaphor slightly, I am simply the conductor on this road trip of Christ's church. We each participate in discerning where God is leading us and how we ought to get there; my role in this is to facilitate this process and then holler, "All aboard!"
So this trip was not about me deciding how our church can grow or better meet the needs of this community; I don't know how we are going to do things like that and frankly I think it's too soon for me to start sharing those thoughts anyway. No, this trip was about working on a process that helps us think through those issues in an ongoing way. This journey was about me remembering that our life together is also a journey; a journey that is more productive and enjoyable if we take stock of where we're supposed to be going from time to time.
You will hear more about how that process is taking shape in the coming months, but I can tell you about one central element: this process is mostly about prayer. Prayer is how we intentionally seek God's vision for the ministry we've been called to embody. Prayer is how we plan for this journey and prayer is how we travel it faithfully. So please pray. Pray for me and pray for those who will lead us in this process. Pray for us as a congregation that we might honestly work through the anxieties that new journeys sometimes bring. And let us pray for the Spirit's clear leading to show us all the wonderful things ahead of us as we seek to follow Christ our Savior.
By the way, even though I'm back in town, you won't see me in worship on Sunday. No, I'm not ditching church because I have the day off. No, I'm not just lying low so that the guest preacher doesn't feel nervous (not that she would or should). And no, I don't need a break from you.
The reason you won't see me on Sunday is that I'll be spying: on Sundays when I don't have any responsibilities, I like to attend another worship service incognito. I highly recommend it. It gives us an opportunity to take notes on what other churches are doing (well or poorly) which helps us get a perspective on what we are doing at Calvary. In addition, I like to play "Secret Shopper" during their fellowship time. That's where I sit alone with a cup of coffee and see if anyone comes over to talk to me; the results are then passed along to the pastor. So if you are going to miss a Sunday, at least bring back notes.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
But that is an important facet to holiness: this is a week set apart for sacred use, and yet in many ways it doesn't seem different from any other. Of course it's holy because of what it represents and what it draws us to remember, not because these seven days are anything more than seven days. It's holy because of what God has done, will do, and is doing in, around, and through some rather mundane things. This week is holy in the same way that we are holy: it speaks more to the work of Christ than it does to our efforts toward holiness. We are not perfect, but we are perfected in him. You and I are no more or less than any other person on the planet, but at the same time we embody the same Holy Week message that points to the extraordinary work of God. We live these mundane lives from day to day as sacred signposts to God's grace.
Of course there is no small significance in the fact that the Holy Week events happened in the context of the Passover celebration. This sacred remembrance gives birth to and frames our understanding of this week, but in a deeper way so does the ordinaryness of these days. The work of God happens in the context of everyday life: our joyous celebrations, our daily grind, our mealtimes, our discord, our temptations, and even our mortality and our heartaches are all caught up in the salvation story. We look at the whole of Holy Week and we see that almost every moment of our ordinary lives gets caught up in what God is doing in Christ.
God's extraordinary mercy is exhibited in the midst of our ordinary days and through our ordinary lives. May we continue to find the holiness that God has placed on us in this and all our weeks.
Friday, April 3, 2009
Bad news: As she preheated the oven the house began filling up with smoke.
Good news: It was merely burning dog food. The next day I took the floor out of the oven and found it down in with the heating element.
Bad news: The dog food was put into the oven by mice.
Good news: I now have a new favorite metaphor for sin.
I know our house has mice. Now that I know it, the evidence is irrefutable. Those scratching noises that my son heard months ago in the walls of his room, are now more than just his six-year-old imagination. Those little black specks of something that I saw behind the stove when I was investigating the problem, are now clearly droppings. I know we have mice. I know it and I have never seen a single one of them.
I am disgusted by the thought of mice in my house; I want them gone. I've started taking precautions to discourage the mice like not leaving the dog's food out overnight. We've called the landlord who will be sending an exterminator. But I am aware that, more than disgusted, what I'm really feeling is violated. If the mice had tried to store the dog food anywhere else, I may not have ever been alerted to their presence. Fortunately, the mice had no idea that their happy-warm new storage area would cause their stash to catch fire. But I am troubled by the thought that they could have just as easily gotten away with it.
Of course the mice are the sin in our lives. The mice represent those things that should not be there. They need not always be the harmful things that we have invited in, but they must also be removed just the same. The problem is, they don't always cause our houses to fill with smoke. Often they go unnoticed by those around us and sometimes even by us. It scurries around in the darkness because, as Jesus said, it fears the light.
I'm not sure how far I want to extend the metaphor; I suppose God could be the Great Exterminator or something. All I'm really trying to say is this: as we near the end of the Lenten season, part of the value of these seasons is in shining light on our lives. We don't need a house filled with smoke to know that we may be living with things that shouldn't be there. So we take this time to let the Spirit illuminate the nooks and crannies of our lives. We let God "clean house," as it were.
Let us, in all the seasons of our lives, seek to walk in the light of Christ, in whom there is no darkness at all.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
During many of my college years I worked at a Christian summer camp. These were some of my fondest memories and many of my closest friends today were people I worked with then. It was there that I first saw a clear image of Christ's Church. The camp was a refuge from The World for us and for the young people who were brought to us. Without our usual distractions and temptations, we could be more attentive to the moving of the Spirit. We were all followers of Christ, serving him with common purpose and celebrating his kingdom being built before our eyes. It is that kind of community of nurture and service that I strive to build in the church today. It was a illustration, for three months a year in an isolated spot in the mountains, of what the Church is meant to be. At least in theory.
In the office one summer, there was a guy named Bernie. Everyone loved Bernie because Bernie loved everyone: he was outgoing and cheerful, funny and generous. As I remember him, he was the life of the party even when there was no party. And to top it all off, Bernie had a car.
The camp was about a half-hour drive from the nearest town. Sometimes after work, we'd pile into cars and head to town to go shopping, get some pizza, or see a movie. The drive to town involved a curvy dirt road to a curvy paved road to a mercifully straight highway.
There were a lot of reasons why we drove too fast down those roads. Sometimes we were simply in a hurry. Sometimes we'd get to thinking we were so used to the roads that we'd conquered them somehow. Mostly we drove too fast because we were still dumb kids. At least that's what happened that night.
Bernie was in a joyous mood, as always. We piled as many guys into the car as Bernie had seat belts (at least we were that smart) and we headed down the curvy dirt road toward town. Bernie was driving too fast and we were all cheering him on. All of us were laughing and screaming like we were speeding down the tracks of a roller coaster. Only at one point, the roller coaster turned right and we found ourselves once again on a dirt road, sliding into a tree.
After a quick inspection we realized that we were, for the most part, not hurt. Of course Bernie's car did not fare so well. And what is etched into my memory, aside from the tree, is listening to Bernie call his dad to report the accident. Bernie took all responsibility: he alone dealt with the broken car and he alone dealt with furious parents. He wouldn't even accept our apologies for cheering him on. And even though he was behind the wheel and, as he put it, didn't have to listen to us, I don't think Bernie crashed that car by himself. I believe that, along with everyone else in that car that night, I helped to drive that car into the tree.
And therein lies the theory's fatal flaw. In theory, we are shaped more perfectly into the image of Christ as we gather as the Church. But in reality, we collectively drive Christ into trees all the time. In reality, even as the Church we are still only a collection of flawed individuals; redeemed individuals who are called by Christ to his service, but not perfect. In reality, discerning God's will and holding one another accountable in practice and mission don't just happen automatically. In reality, being that Christ-like Church involves our being perfected by Christ individually and our working with Christ in co-creating that larger Body.
May God shape us this season into more than good people. May God shape us collectively into the image of Christ in this world. Let Paul's words from Ephesians 4:1-6 be our prayer:
Help us, O God, to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope of our calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Amen.
Monday, March 16, 2009
You may be wondering why this is news, but it's important to me. Things have been getting a bit out of hand lately. You see, as it turned out, I was only mostly moved into my office: books were in place; computer arranged; coffee pot set up (actually, that was the first thing I did). However, not until today I had gone so far as to set up a filing system. As a result, I had kind of a make-shift system on my desk. Some would call it "piles," but trust me there was a system. Not a very tidy system, but a system.
And so today I can see the top of my desk. My coffee mug sits faithfully to my right and not teetering on a tower of papers. I now have a specific place for the books I am currently reading (five of them if you're keeping score) that is apart from the books that I simply need to keep on hand. I have a clear view of the lovely pictures of my lovely wife that is unobstructed with paper piles. But even more important than these things, I feel I can actually get something done. The clutter has been cleared away and my desk can once again be used for the purpose it was created: as a work-space. I believe I think more coherently with an organized office. If nothing else, I am now more comfortable having company in my office than I was before.
Spiritual growth is like this. As I was reminded during our last Sunday school class, in the renovation of our lives into the Christ-image we are created to be, often the process begins with destruction. In the case of my desk, the former filing (or should I say "piling") system had to go: papers had to be moved and sorted and old behaviors had to be abandoned. In the case of our walk with Christ, the process is often the same. Whether it be our individual spirituality or a renovation of who we are as a congregation, we at least begin with clearing out the clutter. And sometimes there is even call for full-blown demolition.
As uncomfortable, messy, and overwhelming as this process can be, it is still an expression of God's love. That's probably not the message we hear in the midst of the proverbial bulldozers crashing through our lives, but it is God's love for us. The removal of those things in us and in our congregation that keep us from being Christ's Body to the world need to be removed so that God can build in us who we were made to be. It's put much better in the book of Jeremiah:
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,The building and the planting is the end result. But building and planting without plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, would be pointless. But neither is the demolition the point. God does not point out and correct our faults and inappropriate ways simply because they're wrong for us; God does this to build something better in its place. God does this because God loves us.
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:10, NRSV)
As we continue to seek our Savior's tender care to shape us more and more into his likeness, may the Spirit remove those things that get in the way of our being shaped into that body.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:47-49, NRSV)
When I say that I used to be a runner, that doesn't mean that I can't run. It just means that I currently lack proper motivation... like being chased by a bear.
There is, of course, a lot to be said for being properly motivated and a number of ways to be motivated. But it seems to me that those things that motivate us can be split into two general categories: internal and external motivators. External motivators are like bears. They demand a reactive response from us; they merely and temporarily change our behavior. External motivators are compelling, but only immediately; they only change our lives until the crisis has passed.
But internal motivators are quite different. Often those deeper motivations have nothing to do with our circumstances: there is no crisis, there is only the drive to be better; or better yet, the working of the Spirit pulling us more and more toward Christ's likeness.
It's these motivations that come from within that interested me most. My interest is partly due to a new pastorate and being especially conscious of not continuing in bad habits; partly because of Lent; and partly because I'm out of shape. I want to be a better person, inside and out. I want to be a better pastor, I want to follow Christ more faithfully, and I want to be healthier in a number of ways. And I need to let the Spirit show me why.
As we journey through this Lenten season, what do we anticipate? Are we seeking that God-centered motivation to direct us toward growth? Or are we continuing to react to situations and routines that only change us on the outside?
May the Spirit continue to guide you and bless you as we anticipate our Risen Savior.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
We've worked into the liturgical year these seasons of preparation for the major days on our calendar: Christmas has Advent and Easter has Lent. While there isn't much solemn about the weeks leading up to our celebration of the birth of Christ, that's not so true with Lent. We remember Christ's forty days of fasting and praying in the wilderness; forty days of being forged in the desert for the sacrifice he would undergo for our salvation. We remember Lent's pinnacle, Holy Week; a week which began for him with cheering crowds and ended in his execution. As followers of Christ, Lent is a celebration of sacrifice and self-denial. We meditate on Christ's work for us by, for a season, taking on disciplines that might focus us on that work. Lent is sober and quiet. Lent is uncomfortable on purpose. Lent is a season of intentional spiritual growth... and on the eve of this season we party like it's the last chance we'll ever get!
Fat Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Whatever you call it you have to admit it sends a mixed message. My guess is that those who celebrate Mardi Gras are not necessarily the same people who clelebrate Lent. Certainly the excesses of Ash Wednesday-Eve are imbibed with a great degree of variation: from drunken debauchery to having pancakes for dinner. But it does make me question if we really understand Lent. Who do we think Lent is for? Are we only seeking in our Lenten disciplines to impress God? Do we delude ourselves into thinking that God notices only the sacrifices we make and never the excesses?
King David knew a thing or two about both a life of excess (when we pretend that God's not watching) and about spending time in the wilderness (when we truly begin to know the heart of God). When he was caught in one such moment of excess and then driven by God into a "wilderness time," he came out of that experience to write Psalm 51 (a familliar psalm to those who know the Lenten journey). Here we see the inconsistency of our faith at its very best. By anyone's measure of the word, David had sinned. And yet he clearly knows the heart of God. He writes:
O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.Here is David, the fornicating murderer. He cannot hide who he is. Real experiences of God will lay you bare like that. But they also illuminate God as well. It is in this naked honesty that he finds, not simply his sinfulness, but God's true heart. He finds that God doesn't want his stuff, God wants David. God doesn't want his pain (though the process might sting a bit), God wants David. God doesn't want the pretense of purity, God wants David. It is the heart that God is after, and although our outward practices might facilitate that end, if they do not turn out hearts toward God's, they are not really worth doing.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
(Psalm 51:15-17, NRSV)
Please note that I'm not trying to discourage you from any Lenten practice; quite the opposite. Let's just start by honestly recognizing our inconsistencies in the light of God's constant love, shown to us in Christ. By all means, make your fasts, read your Bible, devote yourselves to prayer, commit yourselves to service; but let us also remember that it's you that God is after. May this Lenten season, by whatever ways we celebrate it, help us to truly give our hearts to God.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
What an impressive presence this congregation has in this community!