Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It is Time to Reprint the Flyer

If you look closely at the above promotional piece for our Pathway to Discipleship, you will notice that there are a number of stickers covering what was printed there. Those represent changes we have made since launching the pathway.

I wrote about the change to the Meeting Phase immersion event in a previous post: "What Happened to Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics?" Let's continue across the page and talk about what happened to the other two.

The original plan for the immersion event in the Message Phase was a retreat called Invitation to the Bible. I was always a little bit unclear about how to make an immersion event work in the Message Phase. Remember, The Message Phase is designed to connect people to the news about Jesus as contained in Scripture. I never really figured out how one could do that in a couple of days, even if they were intensive. Obviously, either could anyone else. I designed a retreat and no one signed up. It turns out that people who have completed the Meeting Phase were not really concerned about commitment. Most were willing to sign up for the ten week New Testament Survey or the 34 week Disciple Bible Study. However, some did have scheduling issues that made it difficult to commit to something one specific night for more than a few weeks. So I thought what if I could give someone a tour through the entire canon of scripture, in a period of time shorter than Disciple and make is so they only had to show up at the church one time - meaning they could schedule their participation around work, travel and family? From that question, The Forum was born. You can read more about it in a previous post: The Forum.

Since that post, we have completed our first successful pilot offering. We launch our next offering in January. We will be making one change. In addition to the reading and online conversation, we will adding short videos offering participants a little background on the reading and the theological issues at play.

Moving one more section to the right, we get to the Mission Phase. That label covers Coach's Directed Study. I realized that this option never had it's own post, so here is a description:

This option offers participants an opportunity to explore their calling in the context of a one-on-one Bible study with one of our coaching pastors. Depending on the area of desired exploration the participant is paired with Rev. Adam Knight, our Outreach Pastor; Rev. Leslie Tomlinson, our Shepherding Pastor; or with me, our Discipleship Pastor. The coaching pastor assigns a series of scripture readings and some additional reading. The participant and the coach then meet and study together and decide on some final project that will reflect their work together.

The Coach's Directed Study was one part of the pathway that did not fail but got cut anyway. It was replaced because it was simultaneously too successful and not successful enough. It was too successful in that, as the number of participants increased, scheduling became a huge problem. Something like this would be easier to pull off in a University setting in that students there have a lot more flexibility. But when you try to schedule one-one-ones around people's work and family schedules and the tight schedules of the pastors at a church this size, it is incredibly difficult. It was not successful enough in that we still had a number of people stuck between message and mission feeling like there was not a viable alternative. Perhaps they didn't feel called to leadership and want to participate in Pastor's Academy. Maybe they had already been on a Walk to Emmaus or just didn't feel it was a fit. The designed alternative was the Coach's Study but that design had a fatal flaw. Some people did not yet feel called to a specific direction in mission to follow. Others did but did not feel ready to discuss that one-on-one with a pastor. Some people articulated this well as there being "too big of a leap" between the Message Phase and the Mission Phase.

Here is what we are trying in it's place: Hearing God's Call: Discovering Gifts for Ministry. So you don't have to read the little label, here is the description:

A six week course designed to help you discover your God-given gifts for ministry and find ways to put them to work in the life of the church and beyond.

This course will begin in 2011 and will be co-led by me and my Assistant Director Jessica Caccamese. We will be using spiritual gifts inventories, teaching about the theology of gifts and calling and introducing people to areas where they can serve. We are hoping that this will feel like a more appropriate leap from the Message Phase for some. We will let you know more as we continue to develop it.

Time to get on with the reprint. We will save some stickers. Things are bound to change again.

peace,

will

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some Thoughts at Christmas

Don't take this wrong, but Christmas is not my favorite event on the Christian or secular calendar. It is not that I don't love Jesus. It is not that I don't get overwhelmed with the love of my God who came to us in the form of a baby. The incarnation is a defining doctrine of our Christian faith and it is a key characteristic in my own understanding of God. My own internal image of God is centered around God's grace and I see that grace so clearly in the coming of God in flesh.

But... Christmas is difficult. Christmas is difficult for me practically and, (and you might not like this part) I think Christmas is supposed to be a lot harder for all of us than we like to think. Here is the practical side for me. Perhaps you have some similar experiences. Christmas has not always been cookies and candy canes for all of us. I have been a practicing Christian for about 11 years. So, there were a number of years that I didn't have the focal point of the Church's celebration of Christmas in my life. So, a number of Christmases, especially the ones between leaving home and my conversion, were pretty crummy. For non-Christians, especially living in the Northeast, Christmas means dark, cold, bad traffic, bad office parties, bad tempers, end of the year paperwork, and working countless extra shifts so everyone else can take time off. If you happen to be single and away from family the whole thing seems even worse. Coming home at midnight Christmas Eve after working a seemingly endless shift only to wake up six hours later to go back to work feels especially meaningless even for those who don't understand the meaning of Christmas.

So, I guess I naively expected things to be totally different on becoming a Christian. They were in some ways. First of all, when I found Christ, I lived in Austin instead of Allentown, PA so it wasn't as cold. And I had a new job that gave me lots of time off at Christmas. And, I happened to again live around family. The main thing, however, was the focus on worship and remembering the story. But, Christmas was still difficult. Oddly, despite the coming of the Christ child, people still get sick, lives still get upended, people still die and sometimes we spend Christmas time in hospitals, nursing homes, empty apartments, or right in our own living rooms but with no energy to even plug in the tree.

Becoming a pastor opened my eyes even more to the struggles many face at Christmas. As my extended family has grown to include the churches I serve, I have been invited into the holy space of people's lives and become more and more aware that pain doesn't take a vacation at the end of December.

It took me a long time to figure it out, but moments like those aren't counter to the Christmas message, they are not exceptions to the idea of Christmas. They are part of the very essence of Christmas. They are examples of the very doctrine of incarnation.

I got to fill in for Pastor Adam last week teaching his annual Advent class, Meeting Jesus in the Christmas Story. We were studying Luke so I had them read aloud all of Luke 1 and 2. We split is up in sections so it got read in different translations and different voices. People were pretty amazed at the experience. The common reaction was that there was a whole lot of stuff in there that they had forgotten about. That seems pretty common. At Christmas we tend to share the tidings of great joy but leave out the context in which that joy came.

Christmas is difficult. Christmas is difficult because God came into the world, the real one. God, in Jesus, was born into this same world we live in: a world of great beauty and wonder and love and joy but also a world of great struggle and brokenness and pain.

Visit the gospel accounts again through that lens. Think of the tension faced by Mary and Joseph. When angels visit Joseph (Matt 1:20) and Mary (Luke 1:30) among their first words are "do not be afraid." They say that because what they are about to go through is going to be difficult. In Matthew's gospel, the birth of Jesus is followed by an escape to Egypt and a massacre of innocent children. In Luke's gospel, the difficult and trying nature of the life of that little baby born into our world is brought into focus by some enlightening words of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and some troubling words by Simeon. It is Simeon who speaks those haunting words to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:34-35)

I think that Christmas can get so lost in sentimentality that we can miss the most important part. Sometimes I think it feels like we try to put pain and reality on hold to celebrate Christmas. But I think perhaps Christmas is to be celebrated right in the thick of pain and reality. Christmas is supposed to be difficult.

But it is also the message of Christmas that there is joy in the midst of this pain. It isn't that pain goes away (not yet anyway), it isn't that we are called to ignore it for the sake of polite Christmas celebration. The message is that, into this messy world, God sent his Son, who experienced this, spoke to it and overcame it.

I am in a new season of my life now. There is much more joy to experience. I have a wonderful family to share my Christmas with. I get to be part of leading our celebration of Christmas in the church. But there is still this one blessing of uncertainty and reality in the life of my family. I have written before of our life as a foster family. (Read Heartbreak and Discipleship) Well we have another little one in our home just in time for Christmas. And with her comes the same outrageous joy and extreme uncertainty. And when I start to dwell too long on how it all makes me feel, I think of her world. A baby born into uncertain circumstances. A child born into a world of court dates and home visits. An innocent life who has a lawyer and case worker before a first Christmas and birthday. I look at her and realize it is for such as her that God came among us. I look at her and think, "So this is Christmas!"

I wish you a very Merry Christmas. I pray that God's coming into the world will have new a fresh meaning in your life and that, in the midst of any pain or sorrow you might face, you might experience the joy of God's overwhelming love for you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Question of Commitment

Matthew 21:28-32

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."

Mark 4:1-20

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

A couple of years into the Pathway to Discipleship, I am observing more and more patterns emerge. In terms of new people entering into the membership of the church, I am seeing five distinct categories. First, let me note that these are only categories. Categories relate to models. Models are not reality. Models are a way for us to understand reality, though only partially. Whenever I speak of people in categories, someone will point out someone who doesn't fit. And they are correct. That doesn't necessarily devalue the model or the categories as tools to better understand what is going on. So, with that said, here are my five working categories:

1. People who want to be disciples of Jesus Christ and follow guidance and direction to further their journey.

2. People who want to be disciples of Jesus Christ and desire to follow guidance and direction to further their journey but because of lack of time, energy, commitment or discipline are unable to follow through.

3. People who do not have a desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ. I can't find a way to write this that doesn't sound negative, but I don't mean it that way. These are folks who have a desire to be part of the church but have not made a commitment to fully engage in following Jesus. The default assumption is that they do not follow guidance to further their journey. But, that is not always the case.

4. People who do not have a desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ BUT do follow the direction and guidance to continue their journey. This is an interesting group because they commit to follow the process even though they have not yet committed to the destination. Again, I hope this doesn't sound negative. I have met some people in this category who eventually make the commitment to be disciples but I have met others who have not.

5. People who want to be disciples of Jesus Christ but do not desire to follow the guidance or direction offered. This is a distinct group who hear and understand the direction offered, still desire to grow in discipleship but choose another way to engage in the journey. They may reject the Pathway to Discipleship but be involved on other Bible studies or spiritual formation opportunities. In my experience, this is the smallest group.

So why do these categories matter? They matter because of our commitment to shepherd people and hold them accountable to their commitments. The way we reach out to people and the amount of energy we spend on people might depend on their real level of commitment. If I had to prioritize the amount of time I spend encouraging people to stick to their commitment to grow as disciples, I believe I would spend the most time on people in category 2. These are people who have made the commitment to walk the journey but need some help sticking to it. Needing help doing what we know is good for us is not unique to Christianity. Lots of folks have personal trainers and life coaches to hold us to their goals. We know and are committed to doing what is good but we can't do it by ourselves.

So where are you in my new categories? Maybe more importantly, where are the people around you and how are you helping them in their journey?

peace,

will

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Year of This Day

The blog has been a little heavy on book reviews lately but this one is a little different. This review will represent the most time I have ever spend reviewing a book before I wrote about it. Although I purchased Laurence Hull Stookey's This Day, A Wesleyan Way of Prayer back in about 2005 when it came out, it sat on my shelf until last November when I decided to give it a look. And I have been giving it a look since then. Actually, I have been doing more than looking at it or reviewing it, I have been using it as the basis for my time of morning prayer just about every day since last November. While there is no one prayer resource (nor method or manner of prayer for that matter) for everyone, this is an excellent resource that ties our prayer life to scripture and our Wesleyan Heritage.

Before I go into the details of the book and how it works, let me share one detail that makes this book so useful in my life. The book is set up with a daily order of prayer for each day of the month. When the month is over you start over. Here is why this is important to me (and this may be a giant insight to my personality - if you are a psychologist and you want to follow up, let me know and I will send you my insurance information.) My shelves are littered with yearly books of prayer and scripture. These just don't work for me. I feel like I have to start them on January 1, which never works, and then when I don't I feel like I might as well throw in the towel until next year. Or, at some point during the year, something knocks my prayer routine off course and I stop using the resource for a while. And there is something it my oddly wired brain that makes it not feel okay to just skip that period and move on. I either feel like I need to catch up (which I don't) or give up and try something else. With This Day if you miss a day, you get to pick it up next month. If you miss a week, you will travel through that same week next month. For some, this might feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (which, just for the record, I have shown a clip of in worship as a sermon illustration) but for me, it is just right.

Here is what you get. After an introduction of theological and practical explanation, there is a daily order of prayer. Each day includes some background scriptures and some thematic thoughts for the day and then the general order that goes like this:

Opening Prayer - A written prayer, which may seem different for some. I am an extemporaneous praying person. However, at 5:00 am, I need a little help to get started. There is also a beauty in written prayers in that they call us outside of ourselves to speak to God about some things that maybe we wouldn't think of.

Centering - In the beginning of the book, the author offers to practical way to center one's self on God.

Prayer for Illumination - Another written prayer invokes to Spirit in the reading of scripture.

Psalm

Scripture - This item sends you to the back of the book to follow the reading from the lectionary. Once you figure out how to follow the three-year and two-year cycles, you will be following the Sunday lectionary readings followed by many protestant churches and a two-year cycle of daily readings that gives a pretty comprehensive tour of the Bible. Each day is assigned (in addition to the Psalm mentioned earlier) a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from the Epistles and a Gospel reading.

Contemplation - Time to reflect on and pray over the scripture for the day.

Acts Appropriate for the Day of the Week - The book offers written prayers appropriate for each day of the week. I have been praying these same prayers nearly every week for a year and they have not gotten old to me. They center my day and add a rhythm of prayer to the week.

Acts Appropriate for the Time of the Year - There are some beautiful prayers for the different seasons of the Christian year. I am especially fond of the multiple prayers for Advent.

Acts Appropriate to the Occasion - There are a few pages of prayers specific to certain situations in life involving life and death, illness and celebration, church and state that you are invited to pray.

The Prayer for the Whole Church - The order invites us to join with the Church Universal in The Lord's Prayer of One of the Creeds of the Church.

Closing

In the back of the book are some other nice resources including a way to use personal prayer to enhance one's participation in corporate worship, how to use the Psalms in time of trouble, and some advice on how to teach Children to Pray.

I know that as we come to the end of the year, many of us look back at what we wanted to improve in our life this year and didn't. If prayer is one of the areas of your life that you really want to enhance, this might be one way to get at it. This Day is available at The Word Store here at University.

Have you experienced This Day or have some other resources that you find helpful? Post a comment and let me know.

peace,

will

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

I wish I had read Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson before I began my ministry. Unfortunately it wasn’t written yet. It was written in 2007 and I am a little disappointed that I didn’t discover it until the end of 2010. I stumbled on it the way I stumble on many books. Our Directing Pastor here at University, Rev. Charles Anderson has a much healthier relationship with books than I do. He reads them, and when he is done, he gives a whole lot of them away. This one was sitting on the table of books outside his office that are up for grabs. He had mentioned reading the book in a conversation we had sometime back but it was really the subtitle that hooked me, “Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decision, and Hurtful Acts.” It seemed there was a book here that attempted to take on the questions that plague me, “Why do people spend so much energy believing things even when the evidence against them is overwhelming?” or “Why do people continue to believe that something they are doing or have done is right even when all signs point to the fact that it is indeed not?” or, more simply, “Why do people get so entrenched that they just can’t change their mind or admit that they are wrong?” The authors answer quite simply and then quite deeply, “cognitive dissonance” and our need to reduce it. “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent…” (p. 13) This dissonance makes us very uncomfortable and our brains do everything they can to reduce the tension is that is where we run into problems. It seems at some point we commit to a decision and the further we go down the road, the harder and harder we work to justify it. And our brains help us. Once we have arrived at a conclusion, our minds tend to filter out contradictory information (that would cause dissonance) and amplify information that justifies our conclusion.

I am so tempted to give some examples of well known situations of cognitive dissonance in popular culture but, if I did, I would get angry emails. But we all know someone who holds and opinion that we know to be just completely absurd. And we all know someone for whom that opinion is so firm that even trying to share conflicting data is an exercise in futility. The more dissonant the information, the harder they will work to disprove it. So how do people who are otherwise rational get to places of holding irrational views? One step at a time. The authors do a wonderful job of explaining how we take small steps with small incremental justifications until we are so far away from the rational that we just can’t get back there.

I don’t have the time nor the expertise to give this book a full treatment but it is worth reading for chapter 3 alone. Chapter 3 is about our memories, how unreliable they actually are, and how they feed our need to reduce dissonance to recalling most vividly things that fit into the frameworks we create. This might be the most useful part of the book for life in the church. Memory, both individual and corporate is one of the powerful forces at work in the life (or death) of a church. A better understanding of how we process the past might go a long way in our effort to move toward the future.

If you work in the church or just love the church, this might be very well worth your time. You will likely see not only see the behaviors of others in a clearer light, but your own transgressions as well.

Peace,


will

Thursday, November 18, 2010

u|connect

If you are reader who happens to also be connected to the church I serve, University United Methodist Church, and want to learn first-hand about The Pathway to Discipleship, join us this Sunday evening for u|connect. u|connect is a required part of becoming a member of University and it is also a great way for current members to learn more about and get involved in the pathway. The session is about three hours and dinner is provided. Pastor Adam Knight starts us out with a little history and background of the United Methodist Church and then we talk pathway. We learn how we can get connected to a meeting with Jesus, hear the message of Jesus and begin to hear our mission from Jesus.

If you have been a member of University for a while, let me share a few of reasons you might want to join us. First, u|connect introduces new people to our intentional system of developing members as disciples and leaders. As a member of the church, it is important to be familiar with the core ministries of the church. If we are talking about our church to people outside of the church or even answering questions from visitors to the church, we should be able to clearly articulate what we offer and expect.

Second, the entire pathway is a wonderful place to review the essentials of our faith and learn new ways to express them and share them. Someone recently shared with me the fact that they did not need classes like Alpha and Disciple because they were clearly beyond that in their faith walk. I invited them to come in for a quiz. The declined. I work a lot with men and women seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church. I am often asked to help them with the written questions required for commissioning and ordination. I get to see how difficult it can be for people, even with seminary degrees, to express and integrate the most basic points of Christian doctrine. Most of us don't know how little we know until we are asked to explain it.

Third, as a member of a church, isn't it wonderful to meet new members of the church? Isn't it great to be with them as they discover what their new church has to offer? Isn't it wonderful to sit beside them as they learn about the depths of the faith they have covenanted to be a part of? How much might we learn as we sit besides others learning for the first time?

I hope you will consider joining us this Sunday evening at 5:00. The session is free but, since we serve dinner, a reservation is required. You can call the church office at 210.696.1033 and ask for Jessica or Elizabeth or email me.

peace,

will

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Happened to Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics?

We are a couple of years into the launch of the Pathway to Discipleship, our systematic effort to help believers look more to Jesus and look more like Jesus. We have learned a lot since launching the pathway including what works and what doesn’t work. Lessons we have learned have caused us to make minor and major changes within the pathway offerings and also totally change some of the components. One component in the message phase has been replaced and one component in the meeting phase, Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics, has been removed and is still awaiting replacement.

You can read more about Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics in an earlier post (Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics) but let me talk here about why we are replacing it in the pathway. The main reason that we are moving away from it is that it simply didn’t attract an audience. The course was presented as an option in the Meeting Phase of our pathway. New members were offered these options during u|connect, our new member orientation and introduction to the pathway. The two other options at this phase are Alpha and Jesus 101. Overwhelmingly, people choose Alpha and Jesus 101. Each time Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics came up on the calendar we would have just a couple of people registered. In an effort to still offer it, we would promote it in as many internal places as we could but to little avail. Also of interest was the fact that we rarely had any people who would consider themselves seekers or skeptics (which actually makes sense but more on that in a moment.)

So why do little interest? First of all, the most obvious point: we were offering a course designed for and clearly titled for “seekers and skeptics” primarily to people who had already made the decision to join the church. Let me be clear, I do believe that there are a number of “seekers and skeptics” who join the church (especially some who join with their spouses or because of their children.) However, I am not sure they self-identify and, if they do, I am not sure they cared to be labeled that way. Second, I am not sure that a population that did self-identify with the title “seeker” or “skeptic” would subject itself to a church retreat designed to convince them of the reality and relevance of Jesus. Pastor Adam Knight has done some thinking in this area (and maybe I can talk him into a guest post). He believes that this can work if there is some sort of “meta-community” such as a college campus. I will say that we didn’t push too far down this road. At some point, even if we could find a population attracted to this offering, it likely wouldn’t be the audience we designed the pathway for, people who have made the decision to become part of the church.

So where does this leave us? We believe a third offering in the Meeting Phase of the pathway is important. The question will be, “to immerse or not to immerse?” We have a clearer understanding of the people we are hoping to reach. We have to try to understand whether an immersion event is an attractive model for them. Some of the people early in their walk with the church (or this church) are still struggling with the level of commitment they will offer. A two-day immersion event sounds like less commitment than a ten week course but that may be a false comparison. If you are new to an organization, the 10 week course is actually less of an upfront commitment. When you sign up you are actually committing to show up for the first session. If it isn’t what you expected, you can always drop. When you show up at a hotel or camp for a two-day immersion event, you are putting a little bit more on the line.

We are still praying and thinking it through. We will let you know what we come up with. Thoughts and insights are always welcome.

Peace,

will

Friday, November 5, 2010

What I have been reading

I read quite a bit. I read as a spiritual discipline. I read for fun. I read to stay current on what is going on in the world and I read to stay focused and fresh in my vocational ministry. I tend to read a little faster than I blog so not everything I read ends up on the weblog. So, occasionally, I put a bunch of really short thoughts on what I have been reading in one post. This is one of those posts.


It has been a tradition for me to read way outside my field during vacation. This is the first one I tackled during my time away in October. Author Mark Kurlanksky is quoted on the dust jacket, "If only I had read it before taking chemistry." Amen to that. Science has never been my love. I limped through chemistry in high school and college. Kean makes it fascinating. I think I originally bought the book because I just had to see for myself if the author could make something as seemingly dry as the periodic table compelling. He did. For my non-science brain, I struggled a little bit trying to again understand what all those protons and neutrons are doing. I was rewarded by some absolutely wonderful stories of the personal drama behind some of the breakthroughs in chemistry that have led to our current understandings and a lot of the neat stuff we take for granted.

Before I move on to the next book, a word about why I have the tradition of reading way outside my field. I believe that it makes me a better theologian and pastor. I believe that God created us to be curious and creative. I think humans were uniquely created by God in a way that makes us want to try and understand our world. Our Wesleyan understanding of our approach to scripture even invites us to bring our curiosity, intellect and reason to our study of God's word. As a person who spends most of my days learning, studying and teaching God's word, I want to also always be expanding my ability to understand. I want to always be using my God given curiosity in exploring the creation. I am thankful to authors like Sam Kean and Stephen Hawking (who I will discuss in a moment.) They are much more gifted in other areas of curiosity and exploration and they take the time to write things that allow people like me to peek into parts of the world that I might not otherwise get to see.


In Stephen Hawking's bio on the dust jacket, there is a list of his books for the "general reader." That is a nice way of saying that I wouldn't really be able to read most of the stuff he writes. I am glad that he has taken the time to write some things that ordinary people with ordinary IQs can read. Hawking gets some help on this one from physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk, Leonard Mlodinow. This book came on my radar because it caused some stir amongst Christians claiming that in it, Hawking denies the existence of God. The reason Christians claimed that is that, well, Hawking and Mlodinow pretty much do that. Right off the bat, on page 8 they write about M-theory, a sort of ultimate theory of everything. There they write, "M-theory predicts that a great many Universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law." This is not the only jab that Hawking and Mlodinow take at religion. Religion has made some pretty decent scientific gaffs over time (although, so has science) and they like to remind us of that. I don't really have the energy nor the intellect to debate Hawking and Mlodinow and I don't really see a need to. Although they appear to dabble in theology here, they are not theologians. And their words by no means upset me. They are sharing what they believe and there is nothing wrong with that. I would say from a theological standpoint that they continue to talk about "how?" questions. I believe theology to be about the "why?" questions. They don't touch those. I loved the book. I learned a lot about how the universe God gave us works and came to be and that makes me more grateful for it.

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

When we think "social networks" lately we think about Facebook and Twitter. But these new technologies are really just electronic representations of the natural reality that has been going on as long as there were enough humans to gather into groups. Christakis and Fowler look to some pretty extensive and astounding research to show how predictable and influential our human social networks are. We all know that we affect our friends and our friends affect us. But most of us don't think about how much our friend's friend's friends affect our decision making and even happiness. Delving into research on disease, voting habits, dating and marriage, and even networked video games, the authors lay out an understanding of social network dynamics that made my brain hurt.

I read this book as another attempt to read out of my field. While this is clearly out of my field, I think this should probably be required reading for pastors of large and mega-churches. The authors do speak specifically about religion but that is not the most important part for pastors. Pastors of large and mega churches might be well informed to understand the dynamics in play in the spread of influence, opinion, ideas and even anxiety. This book is worthy of its own post and, if I find the time, I will get back to it.

I had planned on covering my whole stack of recent reads but this post is long enough for now. More soon.

peace,

will

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

This We Believe and The Wesley Study Bible

Bishop Will Willimon wrote This We Believe, The Core of Wesleyan Faith and Practice as a sort of companion for Abingdon’s The Wesley Study Bible. I didn’t purchase or write about The Wesley Study Bible when it was released last year because, honestly, I have a few Bibles already. However, Willimon’s book caught my attention and, as it was designed to be read alongside the study Bible, I figured I better pick up both.

This We Believe is a pretty useful book all on its own. Willimon, heavily referencing scripture and the writings of Wesley, lays out a very clear synopsis of Methodist Doctrine. I have a lot of respect for the clarity and simplicity of the Bishop’s explanations. As an ordained Elder, I had to write an examination that covered some of the cores doctrines and these are some difficult concepts. The beauty of this work is that, without watering them down, the author has made these concepts readable and understandable.

The explanations are explicitly Wesleyan. I think it would be clearer to say that they are explicitly Methodist which I think makes this an excellent resource for the United Methodist Church. Covered in the book are key doctrines of the Trinity, the reign of Christ, the Holy Spirit, our understanding of scripture, the concept of salvation and a clear definition of the “Church.”

One could easily read This We Believe without a copy of The Wesley Study Bible. What you would miss is a great chance to tour this amazing resource. Throughout his book, Willimon gives reference to the resources within the study Bible – mostly to small sidebars in the study notes called “Wesleyan Core Terms.” There are around 200 of these throughout the study Bible covering issues of doctrine and Christian living through a distinctly Wesleyan lens. They cover some fairly core doctrinal topics like faith, salvation and grace; some Wesleyan particulars like Christian perfection and intineracy; and some distinctive Methodist concepts like character of a Methodist and General Rules. These alone make this an amazing resource for United Methodists. As Methodists, we believe that we read scripture in conversation with reason, experience and tradition. This study Bible gives us instant access to, not just the tradition of the interpretation of the texts as with most study Bibles, but also to the core doctrines of our faith tradition that speak to how we live out those interpretations. I need to spend some more time with The Wesley Study Bible, but I believe it may become one the recommended study Bibles for our core Bible studies like Disciple and New Testament Survey.

Back to This We Believe. I highly recommend it to United Methodists who want to have a better understanding of our Wesleyan faith: the core doctrines that guide our faith and practice. This would be a great small group study. There is a leader’s guide available. I am looking at my calendar for 2011 to see if I will be able to offer it.


Peace,

will

Friday, October 8, 2010

Re-Alignment

I took my truck in for an oil change a couple of weeks ago and had the dealer check the front-end alignment while it was there. I felt it was a little off. Turns out it was off, way off. In my experience, unless you have some kind of accident or hit a really nasty hole or bump, alignment tends to slowly get out of adjustment. It is one of those things that I don’t really notice until it is fixed. But I realized what I was doing more and more as the months passed was steering more and more to the right as my truck tried to go my and more to the left. This wasn’t really good for me or the truck. At some point, alignment can get so far off that it actually get fairly dangerous to drive the vehicle.

But this isn’t a post about auto mechanics. (Though if it were, my Dad would be proud. He spent his early adult life as a General Motors mechanic and then fixed aircraft during the Korean War.) This is a post about my spiritual life and perhaps yours. I am officially on vacation much of this month. For me, vacation isn’t just about some fun time away; it is about re-creation and re-alignment. This year it is especially important. I have fallen into the pattern of taking most of my vacation and comp time and renewal time all at once in the fall. Last year I did this but also snuck away for a couple of long weekends during the year to tide myself over. This year, I never really did that. I pretty much went full-steam from last October to this October. The only break I took was for a couple of surgeries and even then I got back to work as soon as the meds wore off.

What I realized, as I got closer to this vacation time, was that I had gotten way out of alignment. Just like I don’t notice the gradual changes in my truck when I drive it almost every day, I don’t notice the gradual changes in me when I work almost every day. Fortunately, I don’t think I am fatally out of alignment, but I could use some correction. There are a couple of things I notice when I really check in on myself. (Put myself in the shop to keep up the rapidly tiring metaphor.) One is a misalignment of priorities. And this is a big thing. It affects how I spend my time and energy, what I worry about, what I focus on. When I step back and take inventory, I am not always pleased at what I put first or how I handled the stuff I put last. There other thing I notice in my misalignment is that just like in my truck, I am steering way too hard. When I am out of alignment, I am out of alignment with God’s will for my life. When I am aligned and refreshed and connected, the path at times may be difficult, but it is fairly clear to follow. When I am overtired and overspent, I am constantly correcting and over-steering – working way too hard because I am not driving on the right path.

Let me try another analogy. Ever driven on the beach? (For my environment loving friends – yes you are right, we should really keep our cars off the beach but this is just an analogy.) Have you driven on the part where the sand is pretty deep? And have you ever tried to stay in the ruts that are already there but found that the stance of your car or truck is just a little wider or narrower than the ruts? It is this horrible constant steering in and out of the ruts. But when, all of a sudden, you hit a section where your wheels fit, you don’t even really have to steer. Just keep your foot on the gas and likely those ruts will lead you right to the next beach access road.

So that is what I am trying to do on my time off: get my wheels back in the ruts (the ones made by God) and get myself back in alignment. That might entail some reading, some writing, some sleeping, some praying, some hiking and who know what else. I will just try and follow the track.

peace,

will

Friday, October 1, 2010

No one said there would be a quiz!

Okay, so I have been largely absent from the blog and the rest of the online world for a while now. Basically, I scheduled my vacation a little too late in the year and I have been limping along trying to get to a break. I am a little behind the curve on writing about this piece from the news. However, it too closely ties into the purpose of this blog to completely ignore it. A recent phone survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life showed clearly that Americans don’t know much about the Bible, Christianity, other world religions, famous religious figures and the rules about religion in public life.

This has been out for a little while, so instead of my summarizing, follow a couple of these links and then come back here.

Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans - New York TimesDon't know much about religion? You're not alone, study finds - Belief Blog @cnn.com

Okay, welcome back. Big shock, right? Not really. Let's set aside for a moment the issues of other world religions; protestant Christians really don't know a lot about their own faith and their own book. Two questions arise right off the top: who is responsible for this and why does it matter?

This seems really obvious, but clearly it is not: If American Christians don't know the most basic tenants of the faith, it is the because of the failure of the Church. Really. Who else's failure could it be? This is exactly why I am so committed to systematic discipleship, speaking to people's hearts and minds about the basics of the faith and how we are to live them out. The mainline churches have been especially guilty of just assuming people know the basics. When people come to our congregations, we need to assume that they don't know the Bible, they don't know the basic doctrines and they don't know the heritage of the faith. If they already do know, fantastic! I little review never hurt anyone.

More importantly, why is this so important? Isn't it more important that people know Jesus in their hearts than know about Jesus with their minds? They are both important and here is why: We live in a complex and broken world. As Christians we are often called to speak to the brokenness in our world in terms of our faith in God. Too often, we just don't know what we are talking about. Let me use a very current example. Here in San Antonio, there were recently two tragic suicides of high school students from two local schools. In such moments of tragedy, grief and confusion, Christians have a word of hope and peace to speak. However, what we found is that Christians didn't know what word to speak and were sometimes speaking the wrong word. Christian denominations differ on their understanding of the theology of suicide. However, United Methodists have a view. The Social Principles in our United Methodist Book of Discipline (par. 161) state:

A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends.

We encourage pastors and faith communities to address this issue through preaching and teaching. We urge pastors and faith communities to provide pastoral care to those at risk, survivors, and their families, and to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, seeking always to remove the oppressive stigma around suicide. The Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.

It is important to note that these words are contained in the Social Principles which do not represent church law but represent our efforts to wrestle with complex social issues and be faithful to scripture.

Interestingly, the view about is not the view that if often expressed by United Methodist who often share the belief that suicide results in a clear condemnation to hell. Often people who do express that view have trouble explaining why they have that belief or where, biblically, it comes from. While suicide is a complex and tender topic and raises a number of theological questions, a United Methodist familiar with his or her theological heritage can be a voice of hope and peace in the midst of tragedy. But only if they know what they believe. (My friend and our Director of Youth Ministries who has recently by in the midst of this topic has written clearly and eloquently on this topic. You should read his blog post on the topic: The Lord Bless you and keep you.)

This is a just one example of many. The point is this: it doesn't matter how we do on a quiz or survey. That is not the point. However, this latest report is symptomatic of a lack of understanding of our faith. And understanding our faith is an important part of living it out in the world. At University, we are working hard to teach and equip people through our Pathway to Discipleship. Yet we know that this is just part of the solution. I hope that as week seek to clarify and improve our instruction at University, the Church universal is continuing to consider how we teach the faith and pass it along to a new generation.

peace,

will

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: O Me of Little Faith

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you might notice that I don’t offer a lot of overly critical book reviews. Let me tell you why. I only really bother to post about books that I like and that I think you might like to read. So, if there is a book that I think carries a lot of literary or theological flaws, I usually just don’t post anything about it. There are plenty of places on the internet to read thorough, critical reviews. Just not here.

That is my preface to writing another glowing review. I just finished Jason Boyett’s, O Me of Little Faith. And as you might expect to hear, given the preface, I loved it. I ordered this book when it first came out but my wife stole it from my amazon box and drove me a little crazy as she lay in bed reading it and laughing out loud. She was laughing because this is indeed a funny book but it is about a most serious topic: doubt. As a pastor, people speak to me about doubt in tones more hushed than the ones that they use for speaking about breaking commandments. Boyett does us all a service by loudly proclaiming that doubt is at the core of his struggle to be a faithful disciple. Right on the back cover of the book, he proclaims, for even the bookstore browser to see:

I have been a Christian for most of my life. But there are times – an uncomfortable frequency of times, to be honest – when I’m not entirely sure I believe in God.

There always seem to be a caveat in my reviews and recommendations. Here is one for this book. If the above quote offends you or makes you nervous, you can skip this book. (Though it might actually do you a lot of good to read it.) However, if it leaves you thinking to yourself, “Oh thank you! I am not the only one!” this book might be worth a little bit more than the $10 you will shell out for it. (Unless you pay $12.99 for it. But really, you are still paying full price for books? But then again, it really would by worth even that.)

I just can’t say enough how much I enjoyed the book. As a man who spent 27 years as a seeker and spends his time helping people to grow as disciples, it was refreshing to hear an honest account of one who has some serious questions about God, scripture, prayer and the life of a Christian – but still does his best to take that “leap of faith” and trust that he doesn’t have to have it all worked out in order to live a life with God.

You can read more about Jason Boyett at jasonboyett.com. You can follow him on twitter: @jasonboyett.


Peace,

will

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Heartbreak and Discipleship

My wife and I recently experienced what was likely the most heartbreaking moment of our lives so far. We have been fostering two very young children for about 8 months and a couple weeks ago we dropped them off with Child Protective Services to be cared for by a member of their family. While we pray that this setting will be good for them, there is still a giant hole in our home and family. Even in the midst of my own grief, I can’t help but look at things theologically and analytically. I have noticed three basic types of reactions from people when they hear about this.

One is to not see it as that big of a deal. After all, they weren’t really our kids and we knew that they might go home someday, right? And, perhaps, this is what is best for them, right? To that I respond, try pouring all our love and care into two human beings for eight months, changing their diapers, rocking them to sleep, convincing them they are loved, reading them bedtime stories, comforting them when they wake up screaming, living with them 24/7 as a part of our your family… and then say “it is not that big of a deal.” Truly it is heartbreaking. It is like losing a family member.

The second response comes from those who get that. Their response is somewhere along the line of “That is why I could never do that. I just couldn’t handle the heartbreak.” To these folks I am grateful that they understand. However, I also respond to “I just couldn’t handle the heartbreak” with “Either can we.” We are not wired in some way that enables us to process grief any faster or easier than anyone else. We are also not wired in a way to just “be okay” letting them go. But despite this, we entered into this life of possibly temporary parenthood fully aware of the possibility of heartbreak. Why?

I center my morning prayer around a little book called This Day, A Wesleyan Way of Prayer by Laurence Hull Stookey. Stookey writes on the first day of the month order:

Jesus told his followers to take up the cross daily. Contrary to common belief, the cross is not just some burden or challenge in life we cannot escape and simply must endure (such as chronic disease or being unable to find work.) Rather the cross is something we can evade, but nevertheless take it up willingly, even amid misgivings. In Gethsemane Jesus reluctantly yet willingly accepted the cross that was presented to him; thus he defined his own instructions and set the pattern for discipleship. (Stookey, This Day, Abingdon Press, p. 27)

Sometimes we decide to do something even if we can’t handle it, even if it will break our heart.

There is a third response. There are a number of people who sort of get it or realize that they don’t actually get it at all. They know it is a big deal for us but maybe they don’t understand the motivation or reasoning behind it. Those are the friends who look us in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry.”

I am getting close to the end of 39 years on the planet. I have spent only about 12 of those as a Christian. One of the most profound lessons I have learned as a follower of Jesus is that things that hurt are not necessarily bad. That is a really counterintuitive lesson. We are taught from birth to avoid pain. Pain is sometimes a signal that something is bad for us. But Jesus turned that around. He tells us in Luke Gospel (Chapter 9 vs. 23-25)

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

A number of people have asked me already, “Would you do it again?” Of course we would. We need time to heal and assess but, in 2009 there were nearly 16,000 children in foster care in the state of Texas. Another 9,000 were placed outside their homes but with relatives. (http://www.dfps.state.tx.us/documents/about/Data_Books_and_Annual_Reports/2009/5CPS.pdf) These children cry out of a safe, stable, loving place. When children cry out, God hear them and so should we. Thousands of children in the state are awaiting adoption, waiting for a family to call their own, waiting for someone to convince them that they are worth loving. Their hurt is clearly more than mine.

In the midst of my own sense of loss, I ask you to consider, what is God calling you to do even if it might hurt, even if it might be frightening, even if you are not sure how you would handle it?

Much grace and peace,


will

Monday, August 2, 2010

Quick Review – The Unlikely Disciple

I am going backwards through my list of recently read books. I finished Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University a couple of weeks ago. I almost skipped posting about it but it has been sitting on my desk staring at me. Roose’s book was the most entertaining thing I have read so far this year and that is just part of it.

Here is the premise: Kevin Roose, a sophomore at Brown University and a budding journalist decided to spend a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Roose grew up with Quaker parents but had never lived the life even close to that of an evangelical Christian. For a pretty much agnostic young man from a liberal university this was about as big of a switch as one can make while staying in their native country and still speaking the same language. The point of this experiment was to write a book, but here is what makes the whole thing interesting: he didn’t go in as a detached, undercover observer. He decided, in order to do it right, he was going to have to throw himself fully into the life of a Liberty student. He lived in the dorms, followed the rules, went to prayer group and engaged fully in his classes. The result was some amazing writing, some incredible insight into some of the most religiously conservative Christians in America and a little bit of transformation in the life of the author. You will have to read for yourself to see the extent of the transformation but I can’t overstate the power of the fact the he allowed himself to experience life at Liberty. It would have been pretty easy to watch from a distance and critically deconstruct the students, faculty and ideology of the school. Instead, we see a much more nuanced, gentle treatment. It doesn’t leave out the bad but it allows us to see the good, especially in the hearts and minds of the students who may be flawed but are trying to be faithful.

It seems I am often warning people about the books I read, in that some might find them offensive. I need to give that warning again. Conservative Christians might be offended by Roose’s experiment and his analysis of views and practices that some hold hear. Extreme liberals might be offended by the grace he offers those who believe radically different things. This is exactly why I recommend the book. The author quotes an interesting statistic early in the book when he cites that 51% of Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians. That says as much about 51% of Americans as it does about evangelical Christians. There is a great deal of divide and misunderstanding and this book may be one piece of a very large bridge. And even if it is not, it made me laugh out loud.


peace,


will

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review - When Christians Get it Wrong

I just finished an advanced copy of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get it Wrong. I really like Adam Hamilton’s books for one main reason: while Hamilton is not one to break much new ground, he has the gift of writing with exceptional clarity. I rarely read his work and think “I had never thought of that.” Instead, I read it and think, “I never thought to put it like that.” I have to think that this is what has made him such a successful pastor; he has the ability to take complex and controversial ideas and clearly and lovingly explain them.

So here again, we have another book on how negatively Christianity is perceived and how Christians need to accept some of the blame for that and more importantly do something about it. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon’s book UnChristian seems to be the leader of the genre but a little snooping on Amazon will show you that there are a number of Christians talking about what is wrong with Christianity. (See also Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church, Jason Berggren’s 10 Thing I Hate About Christianity or the movie Lord Save us From Your Followers.) I have read a number of these and they all have some fascinating insights. What I like about Hamilton’s treatment is what I already mentioned: he makes it clear, he makes it understandable and he delivers it in a way I think people will be able to hear.

The book stems out of a conversation Hamilton had with a young man who had some strong negative perceptions of the Christian faith. He covers five main areas of perception: Christian behavior, science and politics, other religions, the problem of evil, and homosexuality. In each of these he clearly lays down some challenges – that we might have more than a perception problem, we may have a behavior problem and even an understanding problem. He offers some thoughts on widening our understanding and changing our attitudes. He also shows some examples of what it looks like when we “get it right.”

I will be honest, like some of his other work, this one will rub some folks, including readers of this blog, the wrong way. When you hit politics and homosexuality and call for some repentance and correction, someone will not agree. In the clarity of his writing does not leave a lot of room for interpretation – which is a good thing – unless you don’t agree with him. While it may not leave room for interpretation, it is good teaching and so it leaves room for learning and growing.

I hope people read this book. It is written at a level clearly appropriate for lay people. My review copy came in at around 85 pages so is the perfect length for Sunday school classes, small groups and reading groups. I look forward to it coming out so that I can read your comments.


Peace,

will


*disclosure note, Abingdon Press provided an advanced copy of the book to me, at no charge, for review.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Church Facebook, Twitter and Community

Wondering why one the members of you church wasn’t in her regular pew on Sunday? No need to wonder, she was at the lake, soaking up rays and drinking beer. Did you know that a member of your church staff, such a nice gal, really likes especially violent Quentin Tarantino movies? How about that wonderful woman in your Sunday school class… every time you ask her how she is doing, she says “I am blessed!” Except today it’s Monday and you didn’t ask her but you read her expletive-filled rant on facebook about exactly how angry she is at the customer service of her phone company. Ever curious about the political views of your “friend” from church? Maybe not so much after you heard them expressed in 140 characters of partisan hatred on twitter.

Only recently have I begun to consider the profound impact social media will have on Christ’s Church. I want to tell you that, on the surface, it looks like a bad thing, but I believe it may be one of the best things that ever happened. Social media may be, in a strange way, taking us back in time to a place where community looked a little different.

I didn’t grow up in church but I did grow up in community. The town I grew up in claimed fewer residents than my current church claims members. The thing about a town of around 5000 is that if you knew somebody, you knew them. In a small town you tend to know an awful lot about people whether you try to be nosy or not. For my friends and my family’s friends, whether I thought about or not, I of course knew: where they lived, where they worked and what kind of car they drove. I likely knew: where and if they went to church, whether or not they approved of drinking alcohol, whether or not anyone in the family smoked and their political affiliation. Really that is a limited list. I likely knew if they were a rude driver (by whether or not they had ever cut me off), whether they were racist or sexist (by their comments and jokes), and what they liked to do to have fun.

Honestly, I knew stuff about my friends and neighbors that I would have rather not known, but what about the person in the pew or chair next to you? What about the person in your Sunday school class? Or the man you usher with every Sunday? Or that woman who team teaches children’s Sunday school with you. Now I am not saying that it is good or even appropriate to know the most intimate details of these people’s lives. I believe in good boundaries and they need to allow the level of intimate sharing to move with the level of intimate relationship. However there is a danger lurking here. There is a danger of putting on our Christian cloak as we enter the church and taking it off when we leave. All of us can maintain a “Christian persona” for a couple of hours a week, right? But what do we look like when we take it off?

The apostle Paul exhorts in his letter to the Romans (12:9)

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.

The word he uses for “genuine” means “without hypocrisy” or literally “without a mask.”

This is the beauty of social media. It can take the mask off. When our private and social world interacts with our church world, people get a chance to glimpse us as we are. And here is the good news: it leads to a better picture of reality and gives us a little hope of accountability.

The reality is that we are not always the people we try to act like on Sunday morning. First of all, as Christians, we believe that we are all broken people in need of the redemption available through Jesus Christ. So, we will not always live up to the picture of perfection that we may wish to use to judge ourselves or others. Second, as Christians, we don’t agree on what that picture looks like. I think some reality and integrity here is a good thing. How we spend our free time, what we believe about politics, how we deal with our emotions, these are things that Christians, even those who share a denomination, might disagree on. But, if we consider ourselves living in community, shouldn’t we want to see each other without our masks?

And what about accountability? In the new world of “leave church, drive home, open the garage - insert car – close the garage,” it is easy to feel like no one is watching. When, through social media, we start sharing more of the details of our lives, we not only have to think about what we are sharing, but what we are doing and occasionally, someone in our community might ask about what exactly we are doing.

Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us,

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The more we know about one another, the more we are able to do this.

Let’s be clear, social media is not a substitute for true community. It may be a move in the right direction towards reality, transparency and accountability. But it may also remind us that we probably all need to spend a little more time with one another, enough time to begin to be more open and honest about who we are. But in the meantime, here are a couple of suggestions about how we deal with knowing a little bit more about one another.

First, don’t freak out. If you see something online that shows a different side of someone you thought you knew, don’t overreact. If you see your prim and proper Sunday school classmate in a bikini holding a brown bottle floating down the Guadalupe, takes some time to ponder what that means. If it totally contradicts what you knew about her, consider where you developed that conflicting image. Also leave some room for misinterpretation. That bottle could be root beer. (Someone recently noticed, through a social media site called foursquare, that I spend a lot of time at local Catholic church. Was I converting? Nope, just watching my son play t-ball.)

Second, don’t be afraid to talk about it. If someone you consider a friend writes or shows something online that raises some questions for you, talk to them. If your friend, who professes faith in Christ and lives accordingly, suddenly posts a hatred filled rant online, you might be called to ask why and talk about what has happened to provoke such a post and how it reflects their beliefs.

I think this could get interesting. See you online.


peace,

will

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More with the Not Panicking

I have been thinking a lot lately about leadership and how it relates to systematic discipleship. I wrote a couple weeks back about the importance of holding fast and not panicking. In my post “Don’t Panic" in reflecting on Exodus 32 I wrote:

This scripture is powerful in the area of ministry that I work in. I try to help churches develop systematic plans to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The hard part of this is that it almost always involves change and that change takes some time. Here is why most churches will fail to make the change: at some point along the line, it will seem too hard or feel like it is not going to work and the people may panic. The leader has a choice: push on or turn back.

This idea of the leader's need to remain calm and focused in the midst of the necessary change often brought about by clear vision keeps coming back to me as I journey again through the Old Testament. God teaches us so much by pointing out the failures of leaders. We see it again in 1 Samuel 13 with Saul, who is supposed to be waiting for Samuel to come and offer to the Lord. He sees the people slipping away and decides to take it upon himself to offer the burnt offering. As soon as he is done, Samuel shows up and says, "What have you done?" Saul replies,

“When I saw that the people were slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” (1 Sam 13 11b-12)

Translation: "I panicked!" And it cost him. A lot.

If, as leaders, we are going to lead people through change, there will be points when it feels like they are slipping away and we have face two temptations: One, we saw in the story of Exodus 32, that is to just do what the people ask instead of what God asks. The other, as we see today, is to lose our own nerve and then our trust in God and try to take the whole thing into our hands. That doesn't work out so well either.

I am really blessed to be in a situation where most of my work focuses on implementation of systematic discipleship. I have many sub-roles within that role. One of my job titles is "junior assistant vice president of anxiety management." I knew coming in that moving a church from a program focus, where the goal was to keep everyone busy - to a discipleship focus, where the goal was to walk with people in a journey of discipleship, was going to be difficult, slow and occasionally frustrating. I knew that staff and lay people would (and they do) come to me panicking that it is not working and we better come up with a new plan (or just offer the burnt offering ourselves.) On my good days, I respond, "It is working, just not on your timetable. Be patient. Be faithful."

Be patient. Be faithful. Don't panic.

peace,

will


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stepping Out

I spent this past weekend speaking at a conference youth camp. Let's stop right there.

I don't do youth camps. As I have explained to countless people, I am not called to youth ministry and clearly God has not equipped me for anything of the sort. My specialty is adult ministry. I tend to be terrified of anyone under twenty. I think it has to do with the fact that I know young people can see right through me, down to my very soul, and are unknowingly aware of every fear and insecurity I possess.

There is this other thing as well: To say I am a reserved person is about as big an understatement as you can get away with without inciting laughter. If you have ever even peaked into a youth camp, reserved is not a word that you would tend to use unless you were saying something like, "the area in the back of the room is reserved for people who are too reserved to worship like everyone else." Youth worship with such reckless abandon that it makes a bookish introvert like me run for cover faster than a turtle in a mosh pit.

So, how I found myself this weekend at my second youth camp is a mystery of God I cannot quite explain but one I attribute a little to the influence of my friends Rusty Freeman and Ryan Barnett. The odd thing is that Rusty and Ryan know me pretty well so there is a mystery in why they would think I would have any chance of adding something to the life of these kids.

At my first camp this past winter, I did my best to fit in, preach well, not get hurt and not look like an old man who had, in senile confusion, wandered into the wrong camp. And all in all, things went pretty well. But this time, I made a different choice. If I was going to do this, I had to do this. I had to believe there was some reason that I had been asked, some reason that God had clearly called me to say yes, some reason I was there. So this time, I decided to enter into the time, not carefully, but with as much reckless abandon as the kids I would be worshipping with. This is a lot easier with mentors to look to. My friend Mark Swayze and his band were leading the music and if anyone knows how to lead worship with reckless abandon it's Mark. Rusty also has somehow maintained the ability to worship with the same energy as the kids year after a year.

They both know something really important - they are leaders and people are looking at them and to them. Some kids at camp need no help getting into the spirit of worship. But there are always others, especially kids who were born with that same "I'm more comfortable reading in my room" personality that I was. They will follow the lowest energy person in the room. It is a shame if it is me.

So this time I made a different choice. I decided from the first night to sing, dance, pray, kneel, forget that anyone was watching me but God. I decided when I stood up to speak, I would say what was on my heart even if it wasn't in my notes. I decided I wouldn't vet every word to make sure that it was perfectly theologically astute. I decided to share stories that my congregations haven't been allowed to hear. I poured out so much that, when I was done, my throat hurt, my head hurt, my back hurt and I felt spent.

I don't keep a ranking but this was clearly in the top five of the most amazing spiritual experiences of my Christian journey - Because I stepped out and let go.

On the last night of the camp a young girl came forward to pray with me. In tears she thanked God for bringing her to the camp and bringing me to the camp. She then repeated to me, clearly, the themes that ran through all of my messages and related them to the struggles she faced in her life. And then we prayed together. That alone was worth the whole thing.

I don't do youth camps. As I have explained to countless people, I am not called to youth ministry and clearly God has not equipped me for anything of the sort.

Okay, well maybe.

What does this look like for you in your life and ministry?
What are you afraid of?
What is outside of your comfort zone?
What might you need to let go of to serve in a way that God is calling you?
Who is watching you?
Is there anything you are doing that might be getting in their way?
What might God be calling you to?
Who might God be calling you to be?

See you at camp.

will