Tuesday, February 08, 2011

This Blog Has Moved

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Many thanks to T&S Webdesign for making this transition possible!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Happy Death

Today at our church’s prayer vigil, I went through all of the prayer cards that had been turned in. My favorite was the boy who is so grateful for chicken nuggets!

But as I read through them, it was clear that many dealt with death. Our congregation has a good spread of ages, but these requests were not limited to the aged. What I realized is that we do not have a good language for death.

One member of my Bible class lost his wife recently, an experience for her that he call “going home to glory.” For her it was a release, but as she struggled with illness and suffered the last few weeks, how were we to pray?

One card at the prayer vigil was from a man closer to 100 than to 90. His card asked for us to pray that the doctors would find out what is ailing him.

No one wants to give up on life, but can we have a language that admits both realities we live in: Death stinks; Death is inevitable short of the Lord’s coming. Death is an enemy, but death can also be a merciful release.

I once heard that Catholics, when praying for a very sick person, ask for a happy death or a speedy recovery. (Are those two mutually exclusive?) I’m not sure I like the language of “happy death,” but it is headed in the right direction.

Perhaps having a language that accepts death without capitulating to it will help us live both soberly knowing what lies ahead and joyfully knowing that Christ has overcome this final foe.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hope Mongering

Noted marketing consultant Seth Godin recently wrote of hope mongering as a means for developing relationships in business. There is plenty of fear mongering, he noted, but hope brings longer-term results.

I am hesitant to let the business world co-opt a term as rich as the term hope.

Theologically the kind of hope a business guru talks about reduces down to wishful thinking and optimism. But the message of Christian hope is based on an understood reality—God’s ultimate victory over the powers of evil, a victory in which we currently participate.

Ever since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, life with God has meant hope. God’s work is about hope. The well-known song “The Steadfast Love of the Lord” sets to music the text of Lamentations 3:22-24. But this text comes in the middle of serious lament over the fall of Jerusalem and the terrible plight of the survivors. We are not in the Garden. But God is still working to bring us back.

The fact that the text for that song comes is the middle of a lament makes sense in some ways because hope and fear go together. The notion of hope only has meaning when that which long for is more desirable than our current state. And in God’s story, hope is always more powerful than fear, pain, sin, or injustice.

Hope that does not affect us now is not hope. Hope does not mean we do nothing, waiting passively for rescue. Hope means we know rescue is on the way, so we do everything we can to be part of that rescue effort. Hope empowers us to be part of what God is doing in the world.

Complacency is the enemy of God’s message because complacency neither fears nor hopes. Ministers and churches content with who and what they are will not be able to live in hope, nor share hope with others.

Unless the painful state of the world pains you, unless you long for the redemption of lost souls, unless you long for life in the renewed Garden of Revelation 22, you cannot truly hope.

Hope may be good business. But it is better theology. And it is the lifeblood of transforming leaders.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

New and Old

I visited the Old North Church in Boston last year. It is an icon in American History, complete with the statue of Paul Revere riding his horse in the foreground. The church is stately, meditative, and bustling with tourists.

The church building has great connections to the past. It's Congregationalist heritage is part of the Boston religious landscape.

But the church is dead.

There is a congregation that meets there, I think. But the church maintains its vitality as a tourist stop on the Freedom Trail more than as a representation of Christ's body on earth.

In my job at Harding Graduate School, I am able to work with a lot of people who want to create new churches, congregations that are representations of Christ's body on earth. They want to create intimate communities where God and others are served.

These folks want to become a church that is alive and cares for members and non-members in the name of Christ. It's like the group of friends on Friends, but nicer to those outside the small group.

But these churches often have no past.

Many of these churches are defined by what they are not. ("We are not our parents' church" is the most common, I think, but of course this is rarely admitted.) Even the healthiest of these groups have a healthy dose of reaction against something, rather than straining toward something.

So is the choice we have this simple: Be dead and traditional or alive and lone?

The truth is we all are connected in some ways to the past, admit it or not. If you read the Bible in translation, then your faith is built upon the work of others.

But it is also true that the church is by nature relational, since it is a group of people united by the mission of God.

It is difficult to be connected to the past and connected with others. People polarize so easily, and we are incredibly impatient with either change or lack thereof.

How do we as church leaders honor our past, experience the present, and help create a vibrant future?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Spiritual Doubt

A nine-year-old asked not too long ago how it is that we know the Bible is true. How do we know it is not just made up stories, a fiction?

It is a big question for a young child to ask, but it is an important one to ask. If he doesn’t ask it, then he will never have a faith richer or deeper than his parents’ faith. This child is a believer, as much as one can be at that age, and a seeker. He wants to believe, but needs to understand.

As strange as it may seem, one of this boy’s keys in his spiritual formation is his doubt.

I can say this because I understand there being two kinds of doubt. The first is the kind we find in James 1:6—someone asking wisdom of God but not really believing God can or will grant such a thing. I call this doubt of accusation. Our very request of God is an accusation against God: “This will prove you don’t exist!” The doubt of accusation assumes that God is not willing or able to do as he has.

But there is another kind of doubt, a spiritual doubt. Spiritual doubt assumes God does exist and will be faithful to His promises, but confesses the reality that we cannot see how it is possible for God to do so. “I believe,” the man cried to Jesus. “Help my unbelief.”

Spiritual doubt longs for God to be known, and so it not opposed to faith. On the contrary, spiritual doubt admits our human frailty and finitude. We may not “get it.” But at least there is something to get.

Perhaps this spiritual doubt is reminiscent of Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding.”

Perhaps this quotation from Thomas Merton will be helpful:

Faith is not the suppression of doubt.
It is the overcoming of doubt,
and you overcome doubt by coming through it.
The man of faith who has never experienced doubt
is not a man of faith.
(Asian Journal, 306)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Spiritual Adaptation

Wouldn't it be nice to have a magic wand to solve our ministry problems? It sounds crazy, but I keep running across people wanting magic wands.

Of course they don't use the term magic wands. Congregational leaders call them "answers." Like, "People in our church want to [insert mildly controversial topic here]. What should we do?" Then they look at me as if I have the one Scripture text or theological insight that will solve their problem.

Ministry students do the same thing, but with more sophistication. They use words like "discernment" and "vision" and "leading." (All good words, by the way.) "I'm trying to discern a clear leading for my ministry vision" means "I don't have a clue and I'm hoping someone will tell me what to do."

Jacob wrestled with God, and maybe that is a better metaphor than magic wand. The wrestling caused Jacob to limp the rest of his life. And maybe that is also a good metaphor.

I like the word adaptation. It implies changing because of the reality around me. Most of the time when people look for magic wands they want solutions to problems instead of wrestling with God to discover what he is doing and then adapting themselves to his work.

When we wrestle with God he will always win, even if he has to break our leg to get us to submit. God has a funny way of confronting us with reality, then expecting us to adapt to his work.

As ministers, we must look for God's reminders of what is real--as difficult as that may be. Then, when tempted to seek a magic wand to overcome the problem, pray for the strength to change, to grow, to adapt.

It is unlikely, however, that once we enter God's reality that we will ever walk the same again.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Saint Benedict

I'm reading The Rule of St. Benedict for a doctoral course in spiritual formation. Benedict was a sixth century monk who wrote his Rule to help monks find God within a monastic community. His brief comment on the four types of monks reminds me of various ministers today:

The first kind of ministers wander around aimlessly, living off the work of others. They bounce from ministry to ministry without focus--all in the name of the Spirit!

Others go off on their own without spiritual training, without mentoring, without discipline. (Been there, done that!)

A third kind is the one living in a community of spiritual growth, submitting to the wisdom of those who are like-minded in their quest for God. (These are the ones Benedict writes to.)

The fourth kind, the rarest, is the one who, after years in a supportive community, can endure the challenge of solitary ministry. (Benedict thinks these are the most noble.)

Many ministers think they are the fourth kind, strong and heroic against the forces of evil. After all they really, really love God. Most of these end up being the first or second, but only realize it after a ministry crash.

May we seek and find communities of support, encouragement and discipline as we strive to grow closer to God and bring others along for the ride!