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.



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?



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.


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.


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.