A Church For A Time Such As This

As the time came for our prayer on Sunday morning, we couldn’t help but pray the news – for the victims of gun violence across the nation, for those trapped in the cycle of racism, and for those whose call to protect and serve left them exposed, threatened and afraid.

One day removed from the horrors of another terror attack in France, a week from the awful events in Dallas, the horrible images of the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in St. Paul and Baton Rouge still on our minds, the carnage of Orlando still in our hearts and souls – to be the church, we had to pray.

We prayed not to prevent action but to ask God to propel us to it. We prayed that we might have the courage to live into our ministry of reconciliation. We prayed that somehow and someway our nation might trade its current ways for a new way of justice and peace.  Mostly we prayed for all of this to stop.  We prayed for a way to settle differences and perceived scores that didn’t include unleashing death and destruction upon innocents. 

But within five minutes of getting back to my office after church, the five minutes it took to sit down and turn on the computer, I slumped in my chair.  Because before we had even finished asking God for help, there had been another one – another shooting, another attack on police officers, another declaration that life didn’t matter.

It is awful to watch and even more gut wrenching to live.  America is on fire – full of rage and stocked up on anger, plenty of it righteous. We’re long on shouting and justifying and knowing just who is to blame, but we’re short on relationships and kindness and ways that lead to life and peace.

Our parents told us stories of how frightening it was to live through the 1960’s.  We ignored them them, but we’re paying attention now.

And as a church leader I know that people are paying attention to us now, too.  They are listening to what we say and watching how we live. 

They know that the solutions to the presenting problems – circles that combine race and violence and inequality and neighborhoods and the cops – aren’t going to be found in political ideologies intent on assigning blame. They know that the way forward won’t come from blasting each other on Twitter or limiting ourselves to the echo chambers of those who see it the same way that we do. 

And so, looking for something else, they come back to us again. They listen again because they want to know whether the church they grew up going to or pass on the street every day has a message that’s big enough for this.  They want to know whether we have a way of life that can transform such a time as this.

They listen because even if a lot of them aren’t in our buildings on Sunday mornings, they know there is power in our story.  They know that our message is about light overwhelming darkness and that we put our trust in a life more powerful than death. 

They know that when we quote Scripture we quote words of equality. They know that in our story the logic of creation denies the logic of racism – no dark claim to racial superiority can withstand the light of Genesis 1:26, that everyone, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, is created in the beautiful and beloved image of God.  

They know that we claim that our identity isn’t tied to our appearance but is formed by who loves us and how far He went to prove it. To deny that everyone has the right to live without fear and to seek joy is to deny the fundamental truth of our faith – that no life is worthless and that every life can be redeemed.

They know that our mission is reconciliation, to bring those who are far apart together. They want to believe it when we remind them that this is what God is all about and this is the mission we can all be a part of. 

And yet they aren’t quite sure about us.  We have to admit there’s good reason for that.

They’ve seen us give up the essentials of discipleship for the convenience of an attractive consumer-driven faith.  They’ve seen us shy away from calling sin what it is so we can stay comfortable. They’ve seen us trade our mission of transforming the world for resting in the status quo. They’ve seen us praise God’s way with our lips and turn from it with our lives. They’ve seen us give up our convictions far too quickly when power and influence can be had.

To be a church for a time such as this we have to tell the old story but we also have to live it with truth and courage and conviction. We glorify God as much with how we enter difficult conversations and contested places as we do when we sing our songs and say our creeds. 

We spend a lot of time talking about how the church can bounce back, how we can connect with generations and groups that don’t seem to pay us much attention.  

People are paying attention now.  They are longing for a community of faith to live out what it believes.  They are desperate for a path forward and for leaders who can help them find it. They are seeking those who can remind us of what we have in common, who can help us listen to one another and who can do the work of reconciliation, not  by making an easy peace that denies the problems, but by forging a real one that can make all things new.

The good news is that we do have a way of life for such a time as this.

The question for us then isn’t what shall we say.  It’s more important than that.  

How then shall we live?

 

The Church Beyond Anxiety

We live in anxious times.  

It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it.  It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side.  If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. 

It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been. 

It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories. 

The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do.  The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty. 

I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God. 

When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience. 

The Antidote

The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty. 

That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans.  Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow.  The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.

The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us.  It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it.  It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.  

It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling.  It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us. 

We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith  and membership in God’s beloved community. 

Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy.  It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God.  But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time? 

It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon.  As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.  

But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.  

Cracked Open For Grace

People in a hurry don’t make good decisions, at least people like me.

I had spent the morning rushing and driving and hurrying from one place to the other, making sure I had everything I needed. A little bit tired but with time to spare, there was only one more task to check off the list.

The last detail was the most important – setting the table, bringing the bread and cup, making sure there was a place for grace.

I had plenty of time, but again, hurried people don’t make good decisions. So, I piled two chalices and a pitcher on the plate, and slowly began the walk from my office to the sanctuary.

Pro tip: one way to know you aren’t making a good decision is when you actually take the time to think and then say out loud – this might actually work.

It was actually working, right until the time I walked up the steps to the edge of the table – and I felt the wobble.  The chalice veered to the edge of the plate, I intervened to stop it from falling, but the damage had already been done.  A chain reaction sent chalices careening into the pitcher. The only thing to escape damage was the plate.

That plate sat there on the table, holding chalices and a pitcher, vessels of grace, cracked and broken. 

The Cracks We Know

It doesn’t take a shattered communion set to know about cracks and broken things. 

We all know what its like to be cracked.  We suffer through the cracks mostly in secret, angry and ashamed at the way they have a hold on us, longing for some way to fill them up so that one day we might get to struggle with something that can’t inflict so much damage. 

They’ve formed so deep, worming their way into our hearts and souls. They know the tender spots to settle and the fragile buttons to push. We’re held hostage because they know the traps to set and the secret to keeping us locked up in the prison cells that keep closing in, only increasing the pressure.

We know, really we do, that we’ll never be perfect. It is true that we’ve never known anyone who is as smart or pretty or confident as they would like to be.  But that’s doesn’t stop us from needing to be or pretending to be. 

The thing about cracks and brokenness, though, is that like the one that begins small in your windshield, it usually doesn’t take long for the pressure to turn them into huge fissures that radiate out so far that everyone can see them.

That’s why you snap at the people closest to you, or why we’re so committed to being right no matter the cost. That’s what tempts you to make so many panic-driven decisions that create spirals of pain for you, your family and the people close to you.

It might start small and private, but it never seems to end that way. 

The Way In

We spend most of our lives doing everything we can to keep the cracks hidden, to live without them and to show the people we really care about that we have conquered them. What we have to show for all that effort is a lot of shame, a lot of anger and a lot of inadequacy.  

That’s because the healing we long for can only come when we open ourselves to grace. Healing isn’t found in hiding, but in naming the pain so we can make room for grace.  Isn’t that what Jesus taught us on the Cross – with his arms not closed off in anger or defiance but extended, open to God and vulnerable to the world?

And so, what if instead of seeing our imperfections as things to be conquered, we realize that they were gifts that facilitated connection with God? Our hope comes from the truth that cracks in our lives actually aren’t obstacles to grace that keep us away from God. No, they are the way that grace gets in.

So yeah, I cracked that pitcher pretty good, but that didn’t stop us from using it.  We still gathered, and when we did, we told stories of faith, we prayed and we invited God to be among us.  We lifted that pitcher, broken but not finished, and we gave thanks to God and poured, receiving what we needed from a vessel of grace, that like you and me, might be full of cracks but in the end is just fine.

An Old Rule and A New Rhythm

The most important question Methodists have asked for years is a simple one – How is it with your soul?  The question caught on years ago and is still asked today because it addresses a truth that too many of us know deep in our hearts and our minds and our souls.

So many people want, almost more than anything else, for someone to ask us this kind of question, a question that makes it possible to unburden our souls, to admit that things are, in fact, not well and then to have the chance to to see if someone, anyone, has unlocked the secret to a different kind of life than the rushed and frantic one so many of us have been suckered into living.

We truly want a new way of life, but we aren’t sure how to find it in the midst of everything we have to do – sprinting to work, hurrying to appointments, scrounging for dinner and then figuring how we are going to do it all over again tomorrow.

A spiritual life might be nice, but we just can’t fit it in. 

This isn’t a new problem.

An Old Rule

Sometime in the Fifth Century, Benedict wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, the rule that has guided monks and monasteries for centuries in living and keeping their vows.

It wasn’t written to guide monks and Christians committed to a specialized way of living their faith. Instead, it’s initial purpose was to help ordinary people discover a way to work and pray so they could live more faithful and holy lives where they were. 

There is plenty to say and write about Saint Benedict and the power of the Rule, and plenty has been written and said – Joan Chissiter’s book is one of the best.  But the heart of the rule is something we already know – living out your faith apart from a holistic way of a life and a community of accountability is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

The despair that too many people know comes not from the fact that we aren’t trying, but instead from trying to live our faith apart from the full spectrum of discipleship that Jesus invites us to.

In short, to experience a true connection with God we need a coherent framework that has stood the test of time. The key to growing in faith isn’t a set of isolated spiritual practices but a unified rhythm and way of life that points our whole lives to the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. 

Learning a New Rhythm

What we believe matters.  But lived Christianity is less a series of truth statements than it is a rhythm of life that flows from what we believe. If we want to live an authentic and real spiritual life, we need a rule that points us to the right rhythm. 

The problem with the frantic and hurried rhythms that run our lives is they do so much more damage than simply leading us to the brink of exhaustion. They stunt our spiritual growth, prevent us from experiencing Resurrection faith and blind us to gifts that God is trying to give us.

This is the wisdom of Benedict’s Rule. If we want to receive the good life and experience the gifts and presence of God, we have to adjust our lives into the right rhythm. We call this repentance.

And the rhythm we need is one we find again and again in the Bible and that we see most clearly in the practices and patterns of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. Their experience provides the basic pattern for true life; the rhythm we long for revolves around five movements –  confession, forgiveness, repentance, celebration and rest.

Confession reveals our sin and calls us back to God after we realize there are serious consequences that come from going our own way. 

Forgiveness frees us from our need to be right and reminds us that true life doesn’t come from what we can produce but from the gifts we receive. 

Repentance calls us away from the habits that got us in trouble and sends us toward the God-filled life of holiness and faithfulness. 

Celebration invites us to worship God and praise the One who matters most – the source and provider of all that we have. 

Rest summons us to cease our doing if only for a moment to enjoy everything we have been given and leads us to embrace humility as we discover that God can manage the world just fine without us.

A Unified Life

We won’t experience the joy that comes from a connected and real relationship with God by trying one new thing or another.  The search for the spiritual life is the search for the unified life.  A spiritual life divided, like a house, cannot stand.

Instead, we need to commit ourselves to living according to a rule and experiencing a holy and holistic way of life.  We won’t get where we hope to go by trying to squeeze in a spiritual practice here or there. Instead, God longs for us to create the margin and the space to live by a new rule and find ourselves in a new and more faith-filled rhythm. 

It might seem old fashioned or out of style – but that old Methodist question won’t tolerate shortcuts.  Instead, it asks and invites us to receive gifts that might seem hard to accept but are the only way to experience and receive the life we truly want. 

In the end, the rules and the rhythm aren’t a burden, but instead are the ways that enable God to free us from the idols that fuel our despair and invite us to a new and better life that we desperately need.

 

A Church Nerd’s Summer Reading List

 

We just set the dates for our summer vacation with the family – which means at least two things – packing noise-cancelling headphones and bringing lots of books.

The summer means different things for different people, but in our house it means a little bit of a break to finally find the time to read those books that have been on our Amazon Wish List or have been collecting dust around the house.

My list is a little heavier on preacher nerd stuff than yours might be, but if you are looking for a few good things to dig into this summer, here’s what I’ll be reading at the Lake and on the back porch this summer.

Summer Books

God Stuff:

God Unbound: Wisdom From Galatians for an Anxious Church, Elaine Heath

It is an anxious time to live in and love the church, particularly the United Methodist Church.  Elaine Heath is a bold and faithful thinker and leader.  I don’t pre-order often on Amazon, but when I do it is for a book from Elaine Heath.

The Class Meeting, Kevin Watson

I came out of General Conference with a conviction to return to the sources of our Wesleyan heritage. I’m thinking and praying a lot about what it means to lead a community that is unapologetically Wesleyan and lives into our way of life shaped by the means of grace. Kevin Watson has written a book that I’m confident will help me continue doing just that.

Field Hospital, William Cavanaugh

William Cavanaugh wrote what was probably one of the most influential books I read during seminary – Torture and Eucharist.  We in the church are struggling with the tension, as we probably always have, between generosity and integrity, holiness and mercy.  So, this I am confident, is another important and timely book.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett 

Krista Tippet has interviewed some of the most interesting and important leaders in the church and across the religious spectrum. This book is a compilation of what she has learned.  I imagine it will be hard to read it without coming away a whole lot smarter, a whole lot wiser, and a whole lot more grateful for all that I’ve been given.

The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard 

The classic work that has shaped so many of my friends and leaders who are influencing me about spiritual formation, worship and spiritual leadership.  It’s long and imposing, but I hope to finally tackle it this summer.

How to Survive a Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin was my preacher while I was on medical leave a couple of years ago.  Uniting Pentecostal and Sacramental traditions, he spoke and preached in ways that made me think and made me long to experience more of Jesus in my life. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the physical therapy room listening to a sermon on the treadmill.  He’s been through it a little bit since then, so I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say in this new book.

Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future is Bright, Haydn Shaw

I serve a church and live in a community that is very divided along generational and demographic lines. This book comes highly recommended as a framework to help us better understand one another.  There will probably be a book review coming on this one.

Good Fiction:

The Black Widow, Daniel Silva 

I got hooked on Silva’s mysteries a couple of years ago.  They are quick reads that take you into the world of spies and international espionage.

Modern Lovers, Emma Straub

Emma Straub’s first novel, The Vacationers, was one of the best books I read last year.  She writes with grace and empathy for complicated characters.  As a preacher, there’s a lot to learn there. Plus, she writes funny and great stories with enduring characters despite their flaws.  Sin and grace, we might call it.

NW, Zadie Smith 

Zadie Smith is brilliant and British and an incredible creator of sentences.  This has been on my list for a while – and hope to get to it soon.

The Zero, Jess Walter

Jess Walter, simply, is my favorite writer writing right now. This is one of his first novels, a mystery set after 9/11.  It will be a fun read.

The Book of Jonah: A Novel, Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Feldman led a conversation at the Festival of Faith and Writing on the theology and philosophy of the Coen Brothers.  When I found out he wrote a book, it went straight to the summer’s to-read list.

Memoirs and Other Stories

Lit, Mary Karr

Memoirs are one of my favorite things to read and Mary Karr is one of the best at the genre.  A harrowing story of the brink of addiction and the power and grace that comes from going to the edge and making it back.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

This one won’t be an easy read or a light read but it is a must read.  I’m working on cultivating a more diverse reading list and this is an important start. I imagine at times it will make me mad and at other times it will make me think.  But most importantly I know reading it will make me a more faithful person when it comes to interacting across lines of difference.

The Arm, Jeff Passan

Jeff Passan is one of the most plugged-in baseball reporters around. His research and analysis on how to locate and best take care of young pitching arms will interest any baseball fan – particularly those like me who saw the Cubs squander two of the best in Kerry Wood and Mark Pryor!

So this is what I’ll have my nose in this summer.

How about you?  What are you reading?  What should be on this that isn’t?  I’d love to hear from you.

Seven Books To Read When Prayer Is Hard

Getting stuck in a spiritual rut is way too easy, much easier than it should be.  In the midst of work and family and all the things we have to do to just make it through, most of us have experienced that place where it is hard to read Scripture, where prayer doesn’t come easy and where we are in the search for the spiritual practices that once drew us close to God.

It might be that your morning devotional doesn’t quite speak to you the way it once did or it is too easy to convince yourself that you really don’t have the five minutes it would take to read that chapter or two of the Bible. Extended silence and prayerful reflection might be a realistic dream for someone else, you say, but it just isn’t going to happen for you. 

If you find yourself in a place like that, take heart, because you aren’t alone.  There are plenty of people who have been there and a lot of us know the grace of being pulled through to the other side.

Sometimes, that grace comes from discovering a new voice.

Reading someone else’s discovery of a new way to pray can draw you back into the life with God that you love.  I’ve often found that God can use someone else’s story of trying to live with grace and faith in a fast-paced and sometimes hard world to inspire me again and snap me back into the spiritual rhythm I desperately need.

These are a few of the books that are never far from my desk, the ones I go to when I begin to veer a little too close to the rut and the frustrations that live there.  Hopefully these might help you too.

A Testament of Devotion
Thomas Kelly

A spiritual director handed me this book when I was in my early 20’s and wrestling with how to be a Christian without the support of the campus ministry that had become my home.  It has since become my go to book when my spiritual life needs a reboot.  This little book of essays published in 1941 is incredibly relevant as it speaks to both the challenges technological advances present to living out our faith and the assurance that we can experience God in the mundane and ordinary details of our lives. 

Take This Bread
Sara Miles

Sometimes grace comes in a memoir.  Take This Bread was grace for me when I desperately needed it. In the rut of seminary and all the questions and analysis it can bring, I needed a reminder that the Gospel was still true, that God still worked and that peoples’ real and actual lives could still be changed when God showed up. If you find yourself going through the motions and needing a reminder that God still changes lives and still invites people to lives of beauty and purpose in surprising ways, this might be grace for you too.

Found
Micha Boyett

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the gift Found was in my life.  If you know what it is like to feel stuck or are unsure of exactly where God is or what God is up to in your life, you will find a generous friend in Micha as she narrates life in the middle between what God had given her and what God was preparing her for. This beautiful book is also filled with wisdom for new mothers trying to maintain a spiritual life, so if that is the season of life you are in, you will probably find plenty of grace here, too.

The Imitation of Christ
Thomas A Kempis

A classic.  I was introduced to it while reading Paul Elie’s book on the lives of Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton.  One of the common threads between these four incredible people was that all of them were influenced in one significant way or another by this book. The key to a holy and faithful life, it claims, is being connected and participating in the life of God, particularly through the grace of Holy Communion. Everyone should read this at least once in their life. 

Mudhouse Sabbath
Lauren Winner

Most of the spiritual practices that help us Christians experience the presence of God have their roots in Jewish life and faith.  Lauren Winner, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, writes a short and helpful book that introduces us to the roots of these practices and invites us to rediscover a connection with God.  If you are looking to discover or relearn spiritual practices like prayer and Sabbath to help you reconnect with God, you will be hard pressed to find a better guide.

Silence and Other Invitations of Advent
Enuma Okoro

This devotional is specifically written for Advent but is is great for anyone going through a season of life full of questions or struggles.  It is a daily guide through the story of Advent, particularly told through the lens of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  It’s a great way to get back into the daily reading of Scripture and a chance to remember that you and I aren’t the first ones to go through seasons of questions and difficulties in trying to understand what God is up to in our lives.

Return of the Prodigal Son
Henri Nouwen

It is pretty much impossible to have a list of books to help you connect or reconnect with God without wisdom from Henri Nouwen.  Honestly, you could probably pick anything he ever wrote and it would get you where you need to go.  But this beautiful and poignant story about an interaction with Rembrandt’s famous painting that led him to an experience of the Holy was my introduction to Nouwen.  And it is the one I keep coming back to when I am struggling with perfectionism and need for achievement.

 

 

The Prayer We Need: On Praying the Covenant Prayer

A few years ago a friend asked me a simple question: Why are you still a Methodist?

My friend, an admittedly depraved Presbyterian, wanted to know how I could remain committed to a movement that in his mind had strayed so far from the vision of its founders.

I answered by telling him that the Wesleys’ way – both what they believed and how they practiced it – was a full and holistic vision for the Christian life that inspired me to commit my life as best as I could to following Jesus. And despite the challenges of modern Methodism, that was something worth sticking with and fighting for.

“Good enough,” he said.  

That conversation came back to me a couple of weeks ago as I was processing the events of General Conference – our denomination’s every four year gathering that often boils down to an extended battle between interest groups on the religious and political right and left.

As the political alliances schemed and organized to win at all costs, I couldn’t help but marvel at the gap between this gathering and the movement I had described to my friend.

To hear these leaders tell it the key to Methodism’s faithfulness wasn’t the correction of their own sins but the repentance of those they opposed. They had traded a movement that began with the only requirement for participation being a sincere desire to be saved from your sins and to flee the wrath to come for a new faith where discipleship was first and foremost about pointing out the flaws in the other. 

Give me the old one because the new one sounds an awful lot like the form of religion without the power.

We have always understood that real change happens when we allow God’s grace and power to convict and forgive us for the sins and idols that we have allowed to wreck our lives and the lives of those we love. Watching over one another in love means only when we have taken seriously the things that separate us from God may we begin to suggest and call someone else to account over the practices that are keeping them from experiencing the holy and bright love of God. 

At its best the movement has always been driven towards sanctification, the growth in the love and knowledge of God through the means of grace – corporate worship, spiritual disciplines, relationships of encouragement and accountability, baptism and holy communion to name just a few. These are gifts to us from God that all flow from a simple conviction – that all of us, every single one of us, need God’s help to become the people we were made and designed to be.

Methodist historian David Lowes Watson recounts that Wesley saw discipleship primarily as a way to live out the charge of the Apostle Paul.  

“He saw the true meaning of discipleship as the working out of salvation.” – (Watson, Accountable Discipleship) 

photo-1432836721189-7525e6869861

A Committed Prayer 

The debates and charges and counter-charges playing out on the ground in Portland and on my Twitter feed tempted me to invite the heads of all the interest groups fighting over the future of our church to the daily practice of praying The Covenant Prayer.  

The solution to our problems was perhaps right in front of us, in our hymnal, a prayer Methodists have been praying since 1755 that contained so much Spirit that John Wesley is said to have referred to its author as “That blessed man Richard Alleine”.  

I kept wondering, how would our lives be different and how would our church be different if we began each day with the words of the Covenant Prayer – “I am no longer mine, but thine”?  

How might our conversations about who God is calling us to be and what shape our witness should take change if we did so with the heart of this prayer – “I freely and heartily yield all things to they pleasure and disposal”?

But I didn’t do it.

As tempting as that was, it wouldn’t work.  Here’s the thing about the Covenant Prayer – you can’t take it seriously if you don’t first take it for yourself. The prayer, and accompanying Service of Covenant Renewal, is first and foremost a call to a rededication of your life to the highest standards of Christian discipleship.

This isn’t a prayer you tell other people to pray, this is a prayer that you commit to praying and living yourself. It isn’t a prayer for those who think they have arrived and are in the right.  It is a prayer for those who know that God is in the right and want to rededicate thesemlves to  being faithful to God before anything else.  

I do believe that our church would be strengthened and our witness would be transformed if our leaders would commit to consistently praying this beautiful and hard prayer. (Maybe it ought to be a requirement to participate in the Bishop’s Study Commission.)

But instead of asking someone else to do it, I am committing to it myself.  I am committing, as regularly as I can, to pray this prayer in the hopes that God will use it to convict me of my own sin, to call me to repentance, and to inspire me to a level of discipleship and faith that is more pleasing to God.

If you are part of our church or not, if that sounds like something that God is calling you to, I would invite you to join me in the practice of praying this prayer.  If enough of us joined together to pray it, who knows what God might do with and through the People Called Methodists?  Who knows what God might do in our families and in our communities?

In the words of the prayer – may the covenant that we have made on earth be ratified in heaven.  

wesley-covenant-prayer-2
Image from North Georgia Wesleyan Renewal Movement via milewis.wordpress.com

Must Read: Found Grace

After I came across two references to breast-feeding in the first two pages of this book, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of book I had just downloaded. 

But when the next few pages contained so much truth – the kind of truth that you know deep in your heart and in the core of your bones – I was absolutely certain what kind of book I had gotten my hands on. 

In Found, Micha Boyett’s gritty and beautiful memoir, I had discovered a book of grace that stays with you, one of those books you jab in the hands of the people who trust you, and even a few who don’t because it is that good, the kind you want everyone to read because surely no one can receive this gift and remain unmoved. 

I saved so many quotes and sections that I pushed the edge of the Kindle app’s memory. I’m really lucky there wasn’t a pen nearby, because had there been I am certain there would have been so many marks on my screen that my iPad screen would have been easily confused for an Etch-A-Sketch. 

This was more than a good book – I’ve read plenty of those.  This was more than even the best book of any type or genre I had read in a long time, although it was and is.  This was a gift of grace, a moment when I wasn’t so much objectively reading someone else’s story as I was seeing my own laid out on the screen, narrated in words and phrases that had been given to someone else and were now being given to me.

zEk8RJdmQrqja2XwbjgJ_DSC_2368

I was saving sentences and praying over the words of a kindred spirit, because despite the not insignificant differences between a San Francisco mom and a dog-dad from East Tennessee, it was apparent that God was writing two unique stories with a whole lot in common. 

Her story reminded me that I wasn’t alone in mine.  Sometimes life is about figuring out how to slog through a spiritual life that changes on you. And in Micha’s words I received the language I needed to help me understand that grace still moves in and around you, even when it is pretty good at hiding. 

I wrote last week about the journey into the hard middle between what God had given me as a new Christian and the new spiritual life that God was preparing me for as I graduated from college into adulthood. I had been searching for the words to describe it longer than I even knew, and I would still be looking if I hadn’t stumbled across holy words in a book appropriately named Found.  

“I am living the middle ground, between the faith of my childhood – the Spirit who snagged the front of my overalls by God – hook and towed me to the altar for salvation – and the doubt of my mind, which though it has repeatedly seen the miraculous in the lives of the young people I ministered to, still struggles to believe the Spirit world is living and breathing, much less that I am breathing in it.” – Micha Boyett

The truth that is there, and drips across almost every page of the book, is the truth that I need reminding of every day. God isn’t waiting for some magical point when everything lines up as a precondition for showing up.  No, God is present in the life that I have been given and the life that I have right here, even if it isn’t the life I imagined for myself.

The same God who called me out of the chaos of my life as an only child turned college sophomore is the same God who inspired me to dream about ministry in the hardest neighborhoods of our city. The God who laughed when I said I would never serve in a local church is the same God who is here now, in the ordinary of producing a bulletin every week and in the mundane of washing my hands after being walked by the dog.

I spent my late 20’s dreaming about living a life that would impress people, a life so inspiring no one could accuse me of selling out to live it.

But faith isn’t about creating and presenting a life other people are impressed with.  That’s what Instagram is for, I think.  

Instead, faith is about recognizing all the ways that God is here right now, inviting you to give thanks, and then living the life you have been given with as much gratitude as you can muster. 

My new book friend Micha is a better writer than me, so she says it like this: 

“Maybe redemption is the only possible story my life is telling. We are all being written together by a generous author.”

This is why we read and write – to speak the truth in such a way that God might use it to move in the life of someone we haven’t yet met. 

It is grace – the gift that lifts us out of anguish and despair to give thanks – for all that has been and all that will be, but most importantly all that is, right here and right now. 

So here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: grace can be found anywhere, even on a tablet and in a story that you found and that is still finding you.

 

Rerouting

photo-1446769357257-5aa1b1bfcd65

I’m not even here yet, and this is already a disaster. 

I’m on my way to a neighborhood I know at least somewhat well – it is down the road from a gym I used to frequent on the rare days when sleep didn’t win the morning battle with my alarm clock.

I’m not sure how the two dots on the navigation app could be any farther apart. And that annoying voice – well, usually it is annoying but now it has reached four-alarm ready to chuck the phone out of the car. 

Rerouting

I can feel my blood pressure rising.  More concerning is that I am fairly certain that my heart is about to explode through my chest.  Breathe, I say, more as the necessity for survival than a practice of serenity. 

Rerouting

I am on my way to a spiritual retreat, a day to pray with pastors and church leaders. I am here because in my first year as a lead pastor I have discovered that leading a community called to be a sign of the Kingdom is exhausting. I am here because I am tired. I am here because a day apart to rest and pray seems like a great idea, an idea long overdue, actually. 

And I’ve failed before I can get there, wherever there even is.  It turns out that there is an event center that really is a guest house located behind another house, which just happens to look like every other house on this street in the middle of nowhere. 

I am here, finally – frazzled, haggard and in some seriousness need of extra strong coffee.  

As I reflect on the words of the morning Scripture we have been given – Psalm 23, it’s always Psalm 23 – I realize all of my ideas about why I am here have missed the mark.

The annoying voice on my phone was telling me exactly why I am here.

I am here to be rerouted.

I’m Still Here

I came to faith in a serious way for the first time in college.  Sure, I dabbled in church growing up, even speaking on Youth Sunday and participating semi-regularly in church – at least until I got a car. But college was where it happened for me. 

College is usually either the place you discard faith only to pick it up once you have a family or the place where you begin to enter into faith’s beauty and mystery. The first option is the stuff of coming of age movies. My story comes from the second one. 

With this development came a spiritual life unlike any I had experienced before. Sure, the preachers talked about prayer and I even read a book or two on the subject, but in college I reveled in a prayer life that was both uplifting and shockingly reorienting.

I was experiencing a beautiful connection with God – enjoying the hope that comes from speaking and listening to the Author of the universe, receiving direction when I wasn’t sure which way to go, and constantly being reminded that in all the hurdles and challenges of trying to become a full-blown adult, God loved me, even me.

photo-1438032005730-c779502df39b

In my Methodist tradition, we make a big deal about assurance – the idea that God’s Spirit speaks and calms our spirit, assuring and reminding us that what we have experienced is true. We can actually count on it – we are beloved and redeemed children of God.

Looking back, it is pretty obvious that this early faith experience was an experience of God’s assurance.  I had responded in faith to God’s love and grace, and in my prayer life God was letting me know that this wasn’t a myth. No, this is real.

Like any person who seeks out God and shares their wants and desires, some of those prayers were self-delusions. It probably wasn’t much of a coincidence that the things I heard God say just happened to be the things I wanted to hear. But over time I learned to test the spirits as I grew in maturity as Christ was continuing his work in me.

But then something changed.

I kept trying to do the things that had nurtured my relationship with God, but nothing seemed to work.  It turns out you really can’t force God to do anything.  I wanted the clarity and the certainty of the Divine-shaped details. But the more I tried, the more I waited for a silence that never broke. 

Change is inevitable.  The prophets remind us that God is doing a new thing. But what do you do when the new thing disorients you and leaves you searching for the anchor you were certain you had already found?

The Pain-Filled Middle

God was trying to teach me one of the essentials – the content of our faith might be the same today, yesterday and forever.  But our experience of it, try as we might, never stays the same.

That’s our very hope – to experience sanctification, to learn to live and love more like Jesus, demands change. And the new thing God is up to, it will happen, regardless of whether you like it or not or whether you ask for it or not. 

What was happening in those post-college years was that I was in a middle place, sandwiched between the experience of God I had known and loved and the new place God was preparing me for.

I didn’t like it one bit, because one of the things they don’t tell you about growth with God is that it is always involves plenty of pain.  

As I I read books and stared at the walls wondering just what was going on, I couldn’t dodge the suspicion that God has abandoned me. When I turned to those familiar passages of Scripture hoping they would speak life into me one more time, I wanted to know what I had done wrong. When I just couldn’t connect with God any more, I kept wondering why faithfulness felt like an illusion and how connection became the struggle that never seemed to cease. 

It was a time of questions without a whole lot of answers, a place of darkness without a whole lot of light,  and a life full of seeking without a whole lot of finding.  

John of The Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul.  At the rate I was going, one night didn’t seem so bad. As the days and the nights piled up, I kept wondering what name they had come up with for months of darkness. 

The Spirit’s Place

Sunday is Pentecost – the day we celebrate the birth of the church and the sending of the Spirit. One of the truths Pentecost teaches us that real life confirms is that the middle – the anxiety producing, doubt-infusing, heartbreaking middle – is also the place where the Spirit lives and does its work. 

The middle is the place where God speaks the truth that we will never be left behind, no matter how many times it feels like God might have memory loss when it comes to that particular promise. On Pentecost the Spirit explodes into the middle, not in the comfortable place where they had come from or in the established church to which they will go.

Instead, the Spirit chooses the uncertain and never-wrecking middle as the place of creativity. The middle is the moment where the Spirit shoves us away from the familiar of what has been and into the new and better thing of what will be.

God knows the middle. And no matter how dark and cloudy it may seem, God knows how to bring the light through.

Restoration

photo-1446419385500-203d54c0c460

That’s what I was reminded in the back yard of that long-searched for house behind the house.  Watching the ripples spread across a sun-soaked pond, I remembered and prayed those words I’ve said so many times before.  Usually I say them at the graveside, words of comfort and hope for other people.  

But today they are for me. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  

God never promised it would be easy and painless, but God always promises to restore and renew. The same God who promised never to leave me is the same One who now assures me that I will make it through.  

In the longing and the waiting, God is present. In the wrestling and the crying, God is right here. In the hoping for something more, God will see this through.  In the hunger for life and the thirst for connection, God will fill my soul with the nourishment it longs for.

Even in the middle I can say it – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  The Lord is my portion, I lack nothing.  

I walk inside to the final reflection of the day, with a serious case of sunburn. The mark of a day that began with brooding darkness yet somehow is ending covered in light.

I don’t mind it though, I need the reminder.  God’s still working on me.

The light leaves it’s mark. God’s not done with me yet.

Survival Guide: Four Strategies For Thriving in a Summer of Discontent

The counter in the fellowship hall serves as the de facto water cooler in my church. It is the place where we talk shop – where the teenagers inform me of my latest fashion missteps, where the old men taunt me with ghost stories about the Cubs’ impending collapse (not going to happen this year), and where everyone seems to want to find anything to talk about but the upcoming election.

A study of our zip code would lead you to assume that we are a pretty reliable voting bloc for the Republicans, but we’ve got some blue dots in an otherwise solidly red district. In some cases, blue and red even manage to live under the same roof.

None of us are political or cultural experts, but we have come to agree on one thing – we are dreading the summer.  With both major party’s candidates sporting higher negative ratings than any in recent memory, we are battening the hatches and preparing ourselves for a summer of negavity, a prolonged season of personal attacks, and a stretch where locating hope and inspiration will require an exhaustive search.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Christian call to resistance.  Although the easy access to information and the daily drumbeat of analysis and criticism won’t make it easy, it is possible to resist the trap our broken political culture wants to set for us.  It is possible, even in an election year, to love God, love people and shine God’s light in a hurting world all while keeping your sanity.

photo-1452615304136-ac2a87f44161

Here are four practices that can help us do just that.  I’m going to do my best to embrace them. You might find them helpful too.

  1. Seeing God’s People: Although the candidates and their teams will segment people by voting bloc, zip code, priority issues and other data points, we know that for God everyone is funneled into another category – people God created and loves unconditionally. No matter how strongly we might disagree with someone or think they are wrong about the direction of the country, God thought enough of that person to send Christ to die for them.  When we keep that in mind, it becomes a lot harder to divide people in ways that are sinful and reject the words of Genesis – that male and female, God created them in God’s image.
  2. Citizenship Matters: Although I vote in a particular state and county, in my baptism I received a citizenship in another country and a charge to serve another kingdom – the kingdom of God. That citizenship and that commissioning come with a higher purpose and higher stakes than those of any interest group or political party. In short, the most important commitment I will ever make is to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  If we can remember that, we can avoid the temptation to forget our life’s purpose and the One who is the true source of our hope and salvation.photo-1456409977730-84bb5dbf5503
  3. Thy Will Be Done: One of the implications of Incarnation, that in Jesus God became human, is that God cares about what happens in the world.  For God so loved the world, John 3:16 begins.  As Christians, regardless of our political preferences, we believe in a different kind of politics that leads us to pray in every part of life that God’s will be done. Although we do take the election seriously and we do earnestly study the candidates and make the best choice we can, our ultimate prayer is that these events would reflect and bring about God’s will for our families, our nation and the world.  After all, Paul reminds us in Romans 13 that political rulers and authorities are ultimately servants of God, and the Bible is full of examples where God uses secular rulers and authorities to achieve God’s purpose and mission. 
  4. Tuning Out: God called us to work for six days and on the seventh day rest.  Citizenship isn’t for wimps – it requires us to pay attention, to grapple with issues and leaders, and to listen and talk with wise friends about the kind of leadership we need.  Like life, sometimes citizenship can be overwhelming. That’s where sabbath comes in. The practice of sabbath – resting from the drumbeat of the process – can restore perspective, provide needed rest, and remind us of the truth Christians believe about any aspect of the world – that God is still God and we are still not. Sabbath isn’t just a day apart, but is a way of life. We can practice sabbath and receive holy rest by letting go of things that are consuming us – our phones, our fears and in this season even our politics. So, eat lunch with a friend, enjoy a good book, or go for a walk in the woods.  In short, do whatever you need to do to relax. You can take a break, it will be OK. Sabbath is God’s way of reconnecting with us and healing what ails us.