Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rejection and Taking Offense

Journal-keeping has historically been a significant part of Methodist Spirituality. Paul Wesley Chilcote has compiled the journals, memoirs, etc. of many Methodist Women of history in "Her Own Story: Autobiographical Portraits of Early Methodist Women." 219 years and 3 days ago, Grace Bennet experienced and wrote about what many of us have experienced in one way or another. She wrote:
When I came to live at C-----, I promised myself great pleasure amongst the people of God. I proposed to several to set up private meetings amongst the women for prayer and religious conference, but they all made excuses. This was a grief to me, yea, it hurt my spirit, and caused me to go mourning many days. The spirit that was amongst them was quite different to what I had been used to. There was such stiffness and shyness in their looks, as if they would say, 'Stand by, we are holier than you.' If I had not known in whom I had believed, and something of my own heart, I might have thought their religion all a delusion and been turned out of the way. But blessed be God, he kept me from taking offense. He knew my aim was right. Therefore I persevered in going amongst them to hear the gospel. Oh for the mind that was in Christ! If we are Christians we must act according to the rule laid down in his word.

I won't say that I have ever myself experienced people making excuses, nor have I ever felt it a grief to me, nor would I say such things hurt my spirit, causing me to mourn several days... wait... That is exactly what I have at times experienced! I presume Grace and I are not alone. I suspect this is fairly common. But blessed be God for the witness of Grace Bennet who reminds us that if we know in whom we believe, and know our own hearts... we need not take offense.

I sometimes feel that we live in a world filled with people just waiting to be offended. This is why we have something called "Political Correctness" in order to protect some from being offended--but of course there are others who are offended at the need for "political correctness." If you praise someone in the wrong way, you might offend them--if you say nothing, that may offend... Many of us, myself included, can at times be easily offended.

And if ever we wondered why so many of us are easily offended--it is perhaps found in Ms. Bennet's introspection; few of us really know in whom we believe, and something of our own hearts. If we are grounded in God--and know our hearts to desire nothing other to please and serve the God in whom we believe and to whom we have entrusted our hearts, then we can face rejection, being overlooked, being forgotten, being pushed away, etc... with perseverance.

So the next time you or I feel offended, let us take a step back and remember exactly who we are; what is our one desire; in whom do we believe, and live, and even have our existence. Oh for the mind that was in Christ!

Growing By Imitation

Today I passed by a few of young girls (ages 7ish-9ish). I didn't catch the complete nature of their banter, but I did hear one of them say with a fair bit of sassyness, "That's how I get my... (pause)" then the other girls chimed in together "SATISFACTION!"

I found it humorous because the whole scene just seemed a little big for them: the way they were hanging out together in front of the store, the tone of their voices, and even the concept of being "satisfied." No doubt they were putting their own twist on something they have seen and heard from adults. Its cute because the behavior outsizes them. Its like large ears on a puppy dog, or the big head on a baby, or a young child's eyes that seem full grown long before the rest of the face has caught up. Its like when my 3 year old stands in my shoes--he is being very serious, literally walking in the shoes that he imagines figuratively filling some day, and at the same time it is quite cute to see such smallness behaving so big.

These images remind me of what I was taught in a clinical pastoral education class while still in seminary about ten years ago now. Our instructor said something to the effect of, "starting out in ministry is like standing in shoes that don't fit. Its uncomfortable, you second guess whether or not you belong there, and you wonder whether or not the shoes are actually yours given how loosely they fit. But the longer you walk in them, the more they become yours, and the more comfortable you become in them."
In other words, our teacher was telling us--you grow into ministry.

I find this very applicable in the general walk of faith. People who have renewed their commitment to God, or who have come to Christ and the church for the first time may find the shoes of faithfulness to be a bit uncomfortable and perhaps to big to walk in. Individuals who are highly effective and eloquent in their daily life - whether at work, home, or with friends, find themselves mute on matters of faith. They may shy away from taking too significant a part in the church ministries because they feel a little outside their zone.

But like a child grows into adulthood--at first clumsily imitating adults, then growing more comfortable with themselves, then finally reaching adulthood; so too a person of faith grows into maturity--at first imitating fellow believers who have journeyed further along the path of faithfulness, then maturing into one who strives after God with their whole heart--still imitating those further along, but far more focused on imitating the perfect image found in Christ.

This is what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 11 when he told believers, "Imitate me even as I imitate Christ."

I say this to encourage those in the congregation who feel like they are being pushed outside their comfort zones. We are calling many of you into greater service, calling on you to seek deeper growth, and calling on you to take on new leadership responsibilities. The clothes may not fit properly today, and at times you may feel as though you embarrass yourself. But soon you will be who you now feel you pretend to be. We are all growing; growing happens by imitation; imitation can feel inauthentic; but we do become who we imitate, just as Zach who today tries on my shoes--much too big--will one day fill them comfortably.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Being Spiritual, But Not a Spiritualist

I have encountered several positive references to "Spiritualism" recently by people I know profess Christianity and thought it important to clarify that Spiritualism is not part of Spirit-filled Christianity.

You probably have heard people say they are spiritual, but not religious. What they usually mean is that they deny religious "institutions" and rigid belief systems, but do believe in some sort of spiritual world/God system, etc.

Equally possible is being a spirit-filled "spiritual" Christian who does not adhere to all things "spiritual."

One example is Spiritualism, a belief system that the spirits of the dead live in the spirit world and are able to and inclined to communicate with the living world. People are often drawn to this type of practice in the pain of having lost a loved one. They seek to still communicate with their deceased friend, and so the spiritualist encourages such a person to be open to the spirit of the deceased person, to look for signs of their presence, and experience the presence of the spirit.

There tend to be two immediate responses to this. First, this is a hoax that takes advantage of hurting people. Or second, this is real--I believe in it.

Perhaps for the Christian, the best case scenario is that it is not real and is a hoax. Far more problematic might be, what if it is real? The scriptures are pretty clear on warning us against consulting mediums and the like (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18: 10-13, 2 Chronicles 33:6).

So what is the difference between opening yourself to the spirit of a deceased person and opening yourself to the spirit of Christ? We believe Christ is alive. Isaiah wrote:
When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?
Death is part of life, and something we all have to deal with. But rather than living in the desire to reconnect to loved one who have died, part of the good news is that we can continue to live in hope of the resurrection. We pray to a living God and seek connection with the living Spirit of God in Christ. It is the living Spirit that enables us to face death with boldness.

Have you had experiences with friends who have claimed some form of spiritualism, or who think of all things "spiritual" as related and essentially the same? How have you dealt with the death of loved ones?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Church & State: The Russian Orthodox Church as a Case Study for Americans

Activists tend to be smart with regard to picking powerfully symbolic locations for their demonstrations. Therefore a thinking person might question why the Pussy Riot activists would have chosen a Russian Orthodox Cathedral as an appropriate place to protest the nature of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly oppressive government.
A May 17, 2007 Time Article described the Russian Orthodox Church as

“increasingly a symbol and projection of Russian nationalism…. Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime's major ideological resource. Thursday's rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state's main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument.” Read more...

An August 23rd article by Gabriela Baczynska reported that the the group’s demonstration was in response to close ties between the Putin’s government and the church.

“[Russian Orthodox Church leader], Patriarch Kirill, likened Putin’s years at the helm to a “miracle of God” a few weeks before the band’s protest.” Read More...

I do not claim to be an expert on the Russian Orthodox faith, but I do see in these descriptions and ancient problem that has plagued the Christians throughout the century. Since the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, Christians who are committed to the Kingdom of God face the question of to what extent they should embrace the worldly power given to it by worldly kingdoms. On the one hand a powerful church could be well placed to significantly impact its nation and the world. On the other hand, Paul tells us, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cornthians 1:25).”

A corollary of Paul’s teaching is that in order to embrace the strength of God’s weakness, we might have to forfeit human strength. When a church like the Russian Orthodox Church finds human power in a cozy relationship with a government like Putin’s it seems likely that the gospel of God’s Reign might be compromised.

Of course, as American Protestant Christians, this may seem like a rather foreign problem. But I’m not sure the same concepts are not at play in the life of American politics. Republicans seek a cozy relationship with the Religious Right while the Democrats are increasingly seeking a cozy relationship with the Religious Left. In both cases religious people of goodwill and a desire to effect positive social change that they believe will make the nation more “godly” by using the power of voice and vote to give power to the politicians of their choice. But I’ve always thought that the church is most powerful when keeping enough distance from the political powers using a unique voice to speak words of truth to our elected leaders rather than lending our voices and power to a worldly political entity.

Would a liberal protester find our churches appropriate places to demonstrate against the Republican Platform? Would a conservative activist find others of our churches appropriate places to demonstrate against the Democratic Platform? And would the average Christian in the pew readily know the difference between their beliefs as Christians and their beliefs in one or the other party’s platform? If there were ever a modern call that we be careful about linking our faith to elements in our government and even our national identity — it is the case of the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.

Forgiveness With Punishement?

Most of us are aware of the punk rock group Pussy Riot who was arrested in Russia for disrupting a Russian Orthodox Church worship service to demonstrate against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The protesters were sentenced to two years in a labor camp. Church leaders tried to clear up what they consider to be misconceptions about whether or not they forgave the group for their riot.
‘The church has been accused of not forgiving them,’ the cleric said. ‘We did forgive them from the very start. But such actions should be cut short by society and authorities.’ His view was shared by Archpriest Maxim Kozlov: ‘We are praying and hoping these young women and all the people shouting in front of the court building realise their acts are awful. And despite this the church is asking for mercy within the limits of law.’ ...Read More
There are two issues--the first, which we will consider later this week is the relationship between church and state that made the church an appropriate place to stage a protest against state leadership. However my question today is:
Is it possible to truly forgive someone and still desire their punishment?
Archpriest Kozlov's statement, "despite this, the church is asking for mercy within the limits of law. I think the apostle Paul would reject limiting grace to the confines of the law. The confines of the law are precisely what grace circumvents. Christian forgiveness is radical. It no longer seeks restitution because it believes restitution has been paid. It no longer seeks punishment because it believes punishment has been applied. We either believed Christ's sacrifice was sufficient or we do not. We can't believe Christ's sacrifice was sufficient enough that we can forgive so long as the one we've forgiven still has to suffer for their misdeed.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Sorry for a second post today, but I read this poem that Kristin posted on facebook and wanted to share it here as well:
One by one He took them from me, All the things I valued most, Until I was empty-handed; Every glittering toy was lost. And I walked earth's highways, grieving. In my rags and poverty. Till I heard His voice inviting, "Lift your empty hands to Me!" So I held my hands toward heaven, And He filled them with a store Of His own transcendent riches, Till they could contain no more. And at last I comprehended With my stupid mind and dull, That God COULD not pour His riches Into hands already full!
- "Treasures" by Martha Snell Nicholson

Making Preparations

As humans, it is part of our nature to prepare for everything we do. This can be especially true for certain events and certain circumstances. For instance, I learned a whole new level of preparation needs when I became the parent of young children. Simple outings required going through a significant checklist: Diapers? Change of clothes? Snack? Drink? Portable toy? Books? Carrier? Stroller? etc. Now the kids are bigger, fewer things need preparation, but can take more effort--socks and shoes on? - this alone could take 10 minutes. Did everyone go potty? Another 5-10 minutes. Graciously, the daughter of a church member watched the kids for us so Kristin and I could make the church health team meeting this past Thursday. So... checklist, have they eaten, are there snacks and drinks prepared, activities? etc. During the holidays most of us clean house to prepare for visitors. So why would we think that we can arrive on Sunday morning without preparation, find a place at the last minute, or perhaps even a few minutes late, and experience the full joy of God in a worship service? Theologically we talk about the Sunday morning worship service as a "Foretaste of the feast that is to come!" Wouldn't we typically prepare for such a feast? So today as I make final preparations for worship--I know, I am the preacher, I have more to prepare..., but I wonder if my congregation is also making preparations. Getting ready for the celebration that awaits us. I hope so. And if not--I hope we learn. If we will all come to worship having prepared our hearts, minds, and spirits to encounter God what a passionate time of worship we can have. Individually we make ourselves ready, then coming together in community we pour that prepared energy into worship. How do you ready yourself to encounter God on Sunday morning?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Speaking and Listening With Grace

"Consider ships: they are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body it boasts wildly. Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us.... Brothers and sisters, don't say evil things about each other..." (James 3: 4-6 and 4:11). James knew what many of us have come to know: our tongues can get us in trouble. As I consider both the nature of public conversation as well as the way many of us are inclined to speak to on another both in the church and among our circles of friends there is a great tendency to let our tongues speak with words and in tones that create destructive fire rather than with words and in tones that foster an atmosphere of God's grace. Warren Smith, a college and seminary professor of mine, used to encourage his students to read books with sympathy for the argument being made before allowing ourselves to read with criticism for the argument. His point was, you can't fully understand the argument until you have read it with sympathy. Can you imagine our world if during a political election year our elected officials and the entire society spoke and listened as if we were mutually learning together how best to address the problems that face us? Instead we see leaders pouncing on momentary lapses of judgement or the most poorly worded arguments in order to paint the opposition's worldview and personal character as far worse than they truly are. And they do this because we respond well to it... This is not only true in politics, but also in life and in the church. How often do we stop listening when we hear something that we think we might disagree with? How often do we speak in ways to sound dramatic and biting rather than uplifting one another with love and grace. Among denominational leaders there are always discussions about what the church does well and not so well. Unfortunately these conversations tend to focus on what the church does not so well, and the language used is often sarcastic and mocking. It is one thing for the church to laugh at its failures and move on towards perfection and quite another for us to get so down on ourselves as to fail to remember the grace in which we stand, the power of God to which we testify, and the lengths which God has brought us thus far. This is also true in our personal lives, is it not. A wise person has said, "Once you can laugh at how you used to be, you know you've grown." That is true so long as the laughter is filled with the grace of forgiveness. If we are to speak to one another in grace, perhaps it begins by speaking to ourselves in grace. God has loved each one of us in our most unlovable states, surely we who are created in the image of that loving God can find it within ourselves to speak to one another in loving and up-building ways if for no other reason than to extend the grace that has been given to us. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, "The peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise." Loving words will lead to loving relationships, which will lead to loving engagement in our community.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Spiritual Gifts

Tonight the Natural Church Development (NCD) team will be meeting at 6 pm in the Chapel. One topic that has come up in each of the core areas is the need to understand Spiritual Gifts and use people in ways that highlight and encourage the use of their particular gifts. Naturally, many of us are inclined to include a "Spiritual Gift Inventory" as part of the action plan to address this need. I have used inventories in the past and have had mixed feelings about them. Ultimately I return to the thought that the best way to discern spiritual gifts is through spiritual discernment rather than inventory "tests". I consider the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. They didn't take a test to find out they had the gift of speaking in all the native languages of the people who had gathered there--they were simply moved by the Spirit to do so. Paul didn't take a test to find that he had gifts of preaching and apostleship (starting new faith communities). Rather God said "go" and he went. Thus far as I look at the people in our congregation who have taken on leadership in the NCD process they have fallen into leadership in quality characteristics that completely make sense for them. They have responded to the call to get involved in taking ownership of the church and are following their passions to the characteristics where God is equipping them to serve. It seems to me fundamentally flawed to thing of Spiritual gifts as natural gifts that we all have if only we could take a test find out what they are, and use them. Spiritual gifts are "Spiritual" because they are given by the Spirit--in other words they are not natural. They are given by God to equip us for the ministry to which God has called us. God does not call the equipped, Rather God equips those who are called no matter how ridiculous the call might appear. Moses couldn't speak well, but was called to go to Pharaoh. Paul persecuted the church, but was called to lead it. Peter was a stumbling stone to Jesus, but became the rock on which Jesus built the church. We are called, then we are gifted. Sometimes there is evidence of the gift before the call, but not necessarily. So... my inclination is to as members of the congregation not to discern their gifts so we can put them to better use, rather to ask them to discern their call so we can look for ways to develop the necessary gifts that God will surely give to those whom God has called. Whether your are a member of this congregation or not, Let me know your thoughts...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In their book on Youth Ministry, The Godbearing Life, Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster suggest that an important part of the Rhythm of Life is breaking the rhythm on occasion. They call the process of breaking our rhythm of life "Dehabituation." For instance, they write,
Sometimes we need to break out of our usual dinner routine to develop a true appreciation of those with whom we dine. We have a picnic; we set the table with good china and candles; we try a new recipe. These interruptions in our usual daily flow cause us to experience dinner anew and attune us to aspects of the meal and one another that we normally take for granted.... In our church, the senior pastor takes youth out to a "dress up restaurant" every fifth Sunday, just to remind them that--despite the snack menu usually served at youth meetings--they are as worthy of God's excellent fare.
How do you break rhythm in your spiritual life? What kinds of things outside of the ordinary ways you connect with God do you work in so that you can "dehabituate" and rethink your understanding of who you are in relation to God?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Watering the Garden of Your Soul

In her writings on prayer, Teresa of Avila used the image of our soul as a garden in need of watering. According to Dwight Judy, she imagined our souls as "barren soil, full of weeds. God pulls the weeds and plants the seeds, but our part is to cultivate the garden (Judy, D. Embracing God: Praying with Teresa of Avila, p.78)." About watering the garden, Teresa writes:
You may draw water from a well (which is for us a lot of work). Or you may get it by means of a water wheel and aqueducts in such a way that it is obtained by turning the crank of the water wheel. (I have drawn it this way sometimes--the method involves less work than the other, and you get more water). Or it may flow from a river or a stream. (The garden is watered much better by this means becayse the ground is more fully soaked, and there is no need to water so frequently--and much less work for the gardener.) Or the water may be provided by a great deal of rain. (For the Lord waters the garden without any work on our part--and this way is incomparably better than all the others mentioned.
How do you understand this metaphor? What does your spiritual life/prayer life look like when you are trying to draw water from a well, or turning the crank of a waterwheel? What does your prayer life look like when the nourishing moisture comes from a river or stream? And finally what does it look like when you are nourished by rain sent from God? In what ways are we at work, if at all, when receiving nourishing waters in this way? Please share your insights in the comments so we can all benefit from each other.