Archive for February, 2008

Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

Eugene Peterson has been my spiritual director for years, so I wanted to share some of his thoughts on Spiritual Direction from an interview he did with Christian Century back in 2002.  Here it is:

…basically [spiritual direction] is not a specialized thing. It’s very much a part of the Christian life and should be very much a part of the pastor’s life. In my view, spiritual direction is a conversation in which the pastor is taking the person seriously as a soul, as a creation of God for whom prayer is the most natural language.

This kind of conversation is not problem-centered. If you have a problem — an intense, tangled, emotional problem — there are counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists to help you. That’s good and important work. But most of the time people don’t have problems — though somehow in our society we don’t give careful attention to one another unless there is a problem. If I don’t have a problem and yet I have this sense that something is going on in my life and I have questions about what God is doing — what am I to do? I should be able to call up my pastor and say, “I need to talk to you.” But usually people feel like they have to come up with “a problem.”

If they’re lucky, they have a pastor who is alert to what’s really going on — which is usually not much more than ordinary life and the yearning to live it fully, maturely, with some intensity. “Ordinary” doesn’t mean mediocre or complacent. Ordinary is capable of intensity and is worthy of attentiveness and commitment. I get worried that the popularity of spiritual direction will take it out of ordinary life and put it more in the category of problem-solving.

I have two basic definitions of spiritual direction. One is you show up and then you shut up. It’s important that people have a place they can come to and know that you’re going to be there with and for them. The other is that spiritual direction largely involves what you do when you don’t think you’re doing anything. In other words, you’re not trying to solve a problem. You’re not answering a question and it doesn’t seem like you’re doing anything. It takes a lot of restraint and discipline for a pastor not to say anything, not to do anything. But the pastoral life is an ideal school for learning how to do it.

 

 

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February 29, 2008 at 7:52 am Leave a comment

From Crisis to Confession

Since John over at Come to the Waters is wrestling with Moses and the snake out in the wilderness, I thought I’d post an old sermon that I wrote on this. This one ended up in the online edition of Preaching Magazine, so it’s one that I look back on fondly. Here you go:

From Crisis to Confession: A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9

The people of Israel were “hacked off.” It’s right there in the Bible, they were hacked off. Oh sure, the translation in your pew bible says “impatient,” but in Hebrew it doesn’t say impatient it says qatsar. Qatsar mean making something shorter, and was also used to describe the harvest. When the grain in the field is harvested – it gets qatsar – cut off – shortened. That’s exactly how the people who the wandered around following Moses through the middle of nowhere were described. They felt as if they had been cut down, their fuses were short, and they were at the end of their rope. But most of all they were simply hacked off. Being impatient is sort of a nuisance – we get impatient as we wait to pay for our gas at the convenience store while someone ahead of us leisurely scratches off their lottery tickets hoping to win a dollar or two. Being hacked off is more intense – we get hacked off when someone nearly runs us off the road as we’re driving.

The people of Israel were at the end of their rope. Moses had led them out of Egypt, but now they were in the middle of nowhere and things were more difficult than they ever expected. Along the way they had made enemies, and now they had to go hundreds of miles out of their way to travel around Edom, a country they were forbidden from crossing. A hundred mile detour makes a huge difference when you’re walking over rocks and through steep valleys – especially when you’re wearing sandals. Blisters and calluses were beginning to take their toll. God had provided manna and quail, but visions of Egyptian buffets danced in their heads. No doubt about it, they had had enough.

The old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” However, I’ve often found that when the going gets tough, the tough start complaining. That’s just what Israel did. During my time as a professor, I found the same thing to be true. When the tests scores were bad, it was rare that I heard someone say, “You know, I really should have buckled down and studied. I wasn’t ready for that test.” Generally I heard people saying, “That was too hard, can we get a big curve!?” Just like a group of unruly students, when the tests in the wilderness got hard, the Israelites started complaining about everything: What kind of leader would bring us out here in the desert to suffer? What kind of God leads his people around in the desert like this? All of a sudden, even enslavement back in Egypt started looking good. Complaints filled the air – the attitude of God’s people was as poor as it could be. In no time, people doubted God and questioned His reason for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place.

The story then takes a terrible turn, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” You know, I thought about entitling this sermon, “Complain about your leader and get killed by poisonous Snakes,” but I didn’t think that would go over too well – and all kidding aside, I don’t think that’s what this passage is talking about. Whatever the reason God sent snakes among the people, and it is likely impossible to know fully, there can be no mistaking the fact that this was a terrible crisis in the camp. Things just as mysterious and frightening happen in our lives – people who are apparently healthy just days find cancer slithering into their lives and find they only have months or weeks to live. Marriages begin to unravel. People in our families make poor choices with devastating consequences. We may not face literal snakes, but the symbolic snakes in our lives can be just as frightening and destructive. Like the Israelites, as we travel this world we’re all too familiar with crises in the camp and many times that leads us to question our faith and even to question God.

Yet somehow through the grace of God, against our own inclinations, crises can lead to confession. The Israelites took stock of what they were doing and examined their lives. When we encounter snakes in our lives – poisonous relationships, poisonous health issues, tragic losses, or seemingly insurmountable odds – it is time to take stock and see reflect on what matters most. The people of Israel very simply say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” The crisis of the snakes led Israel to confess their failings as God’s people. Not only did they turn against the leader God sent them, but they rebelled against God as well. Is it wrong to question and be confused? No way – the only way this becomes sin is if we decide to rebel against God and call it quits – the ultimate danger is letting the crises of our lives cause us to turn our backs on our faith.

The crisis of the snakes helped God’s people realize that their very lives were in the hands of God. Even though the situation in the wilderness was one of difficulty and challenge, the very fact that they had survived this far was evidence of the ongoing presence of God in their lives. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us to this kind of truth. Before I answered God’s call to ministry, I worked in a research lab even though I was sick and tired of it. I had resolved to plow through and just go down the path I had planned. But in the middle of this I encountered a crisis. My father was checked into Saint Francis hospital in Tulsa. My wife Nanci and I made several frantic trips back and forth from Oklahoma City, where we lived, to Tulsa thinking he was going to die at any moment. Even though my father pulled through that difficult time, something changed within me. The crisis led to confession. I understood like never before that our lives are gifts and we never know how long or short they might be. For me, life was too short to do something other than pursue God’s call on my life. The crisis in my life led me to confess I wasn’t doing what God had planned for my life. Every single one of us will have points of crisis in our lives, just like the Israelites surrounded by snakes. Yet, God’s grace offers opportunity for growth in the midst of danger. By God’s grace we’re offered hope in the middle of hopelessness.

Moses prayed and God responded. As Israel confessed their disobedience and admitted their utter need, God responded. God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to lift it on a stick. Those who were bitten needed only to faithfully respond to God by looking at the snake and they would be healed. The snake wasn’t magic – it was the sheer power of God that brought salvation into a frightening and horrific situation. There is no situation that cannot be transformed by confession and trust in God’s means of salvation. Sometimes, like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake up on a pole in the wilderness in order to be rescued from their snakebites, God’s means of salvation looks a whole lot like the catastrophe we face. Sometimes, through the transforming grace of God, the darkest situations we face in our lives can actually lead to our healing and salvation.

We don’t need to look any farther than our faith in Jesus to see the truth of this belief. The cross was more deadly and humiliating than any snakebite, but it is at the cross where God’s greatest triumph takes place. The people confessed to Moses, he interceded and trusted God. The people lift up their eyes and receive healing, not from the deadly serpent, but from the very hand of God. It is through the suffering and shame of the cross that God offers transforms the entire world.

Nearly every one of us who was raised in church knows John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But how many of us remember the two verses that come before 3:16, “…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In what was apparently the greatest defeat of all time, God’s own Son was lifted on the cross. Yet in the providence and grace of God it is through Christ was raised from the dead and we are offered eternal, full and abundant life. Following God and trusting Jesus Christ means looking at the frightening and tragic situations of our life in a new way. Through Jesus Christ, nothing in this world is beyond being used for God’s redemptive purposes in our lives. Whether it is the sickness of our loved ones, the loss of a job, the struggles of a family member, the unraveling of a marriage, or the death of a friend – through God’s grace any of these situations offer one more opportunity for resurrection and can be transformed from the most frightening snake to the most miraculous salvation.

February 25, 2008 at 8:30 am 3 comments

Blazing Pulpits

Burning BushOne of my good friends, and sometimes commenter on this blog, has loaned me an excellent CD set on the Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine. It is really terrific, even if I crave driving to listen to more of it! Dr. Levine’s lectures have given me new insights on several passages I’ve heard my entire life.

In the episode of the burning bush, I’ve always identified with Moses. After all, he was hearing God’s call to mission. However, after hearing the lecture on this particular episode, I’ve decided those of us who are pastors might better relate to the bush itself.

Let’s be honest, desert shrubs aren’t anything spectacular. They’re kinda dry, they sit there, and they do whatever they can to soak up nutrients from the sun-parched soil. Set ablaze by God’s divine fire, however, they become something important – something worthy of our attention. Aflame, yet not consumed. Burning alive. How’s that for a image of ministry? I think Wesley would like it. Remember this, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

Far too often we’re dry shrubs, failing to realize our call to be burning bushes while living hand-to-mouth searching for the stuff of life. What would it take for us to be transformed, catching the attention of would-be Moseses (Mosi?) in our community?

What does God’s fire do to the bush, ever-aflame, but not consumed? I can’t imagine this is comfortable or comforting to the bush itself, even though it isn’t consumed. Is it like Jeremiah who writes, “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (20:9).”?

What sets you on fire? What is in you like a burning fire in your bones? What would it take for you to share that with God’s people?

February 18, 2008 at 9:14 am 6 comments

Control or Commitment in the UMC

In my last post, I reflected on some of Jim Collins’ insights from his chapter in Leading Beyond the Walls: How High Performing Organizations Collaborate for Shared Success. Jim’s chapter is the best in the book, so it merits another post (don’t buy the book on this basis, by the way – just read his chapter in the store).

He begins his second point with these words,

…executives must build mechanisms of connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice, rather than relying on systems of coercion and control.

Think about United Methodism (and most organizations for that matter). Do we rely on connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice or do we rely on systems of coercion and control? From administration to evangelism, I’m afraid that we often rely on the latter. Jim describes his high-powered research team and talks about the way he recruits people for that team,

…as a precursor to all our mechanisms of commitment and connection, each person invited to join the team receives a written and verbal orientation on team values, purpose, and performance standards and is asked to join only if he or she can commit to those principles. Before joining, each person is told, “If you have any doubt about whether this is the right place for you, then it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of rigorous introduction to the values and purpose of the organization reminds me of the old Christian catechism. Is it sad that becoming a member of Jim’s research team is more stringent and commitment laden than becoming a member of some of our churches?

It goes back to the basics here. If you don’t have team values, purpose, and performance standards, you can’t present them to people, and you sure can’t ask for commitment. Can you imagine having a clear, confident, and concise statement like that defining the mission of your local church? You could hand this to new visitors and say, “Here’s what we’re about, and everyone here is committed to it. If you have any doubt, it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.” Talk about true connectionalism!! This could be the same for clergy. Our connection could be in our adherence and commitment to core principles rather than in bureaucratic structures.

People often ask, “How do we get individuals to share our core values?” The answer is, “You can’t.” You can’t open somebody up and install new core values in his or her belly. The key is to find, attract, and select people who have a predisposition to sharing the core values, and to create an environment that consistently reinforces those core values, buttressing it with mechanisms of connection and commitment.

Interestingly, the predisposition can really be linked to the Christian concept of calling. I don’t twist arms to get people to join our congregation. My thoughts are that if they see what we’re doing and want to be a part of it, then they are welcome to invest their lives in our congregation and live our their faith in our community. If you have to be coerced, you won’t be committed.

Of course, God is the one who does all the calling and attracting. Once we have a little more faith in that, we can define and develop our core values more clearly.  Then we won’t have to rely so much on mechanisms of power and coercion. Only then can we describe and develop mechanisms of true commitment and true connection.

Jim write, “The minute you feel the need to control and mold someone, you’ve made a selection mistake.” We’ve been so vague about what people are committing to that we have to develop more stringent control methods and we end up arguing and spending valuable time working on power structures. On the other hand, a core of people committed to Christ, called by God, and enlivened by the Spirit will be thoroughly committed to the ongoing mission of the Church. Control and manipulation would just stunt the vibrant stuff that would come out of these folks, be they clergy or laity.

There’s a lot more I could say on this, but I don’t want to short-circuit the ideas that you’re coming up with. What are our core values? Once we articulate those, what mechanisms of connection and commitment could we implement to replace our mechanisms of power and control? Can the United Methodist Church survive thrive using a model that went out the window with cassette tapes and VHS? What do you think?

February 14, 2008 at 8:43 am 4 comments

Shifting Values, Structural Monuments?

Jim Collins of Built to Last and Good to Great fame has an interesting chapter in Leading Beyond the Walls: How High-Performing Organizations Collaborate for Shared Success. In “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” he talks about organizations of the future,

[in the future] the defining boundary will be a permeable membrane defined by values, purpose, and goals; organizations will be held together by mechanisms of connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice, rather than by systems of coercion and control. Executives will need to accept the fact – always true but now impossible to ignore – that the exercise of leadership is inversely proportional to the exercise of power.

These echoes of the one who once said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” led me to compare some of Jim’s other insights to the way we operate in the Church. So when he defines great organizations as places where core values and fundamental purposes stimulate ongoing responsive change in things such as operating practices, strategies, tactics, processes, structures, and methods, I can’t help but sigh. Using this definition, I’m afraid the Church sometimes does the opposite. There are times when we immortalize structures, methods, practices, and operating procedures while watching fundamental shifts in core values and fundamental purposes.

Jim even specifically references great churches who he claims, “understand the fundamental values and purpose of the religion must remain fixed while the specific practices and venues of worship change in response to the realities of a younger generation.”

Could we develop more fluids structures and organization within the UMC? Might we someday realize that the 800 page (and expanding) Book of Discipline is a bit too modernistic and unwieldy for the challenges facing our world? Could we simply and succinctly emphasize core practices and values that are marks of a United Methodist – things that mark ones commitment and connection – while encouraging creativity and flexibility in structural and organizational elements? What do you think?

February 11, 2008 at 9:02 pm 6 comments

Live Like You’re Dying

This is the first Ash Wednesday sermon I ever preached. May God bless you as you contemplate your mortality and cling to the hope we have by trusting in Christ.

In our world, we prefer to deny death. Death is simply not something we like to talk about. We even disguise the word. We say things like, she “passed away,” he’s “no longer with us,” or they “didn’t make it.” With modern medical breakthroughs and modern science, life spans have increased by 60% since the 1900s. Our culture has even retreated into a battle against aging – there are creams to smooth out the wrinkles that come as we age and if that doesn’t work, then by all means, botox is a viable option! Yet no matter how we may disguise aging and no matter how many decades we add onto our lifespan through healthy eating, exercise, or visits to the doctor, it remains that each and every one of us will die.[1] On one hand it is not unreasonable or even unchristian that we spend so much time in our battle against death. After all, Paul himself refers to death as the final enemy in 1 Corinthians (15:26). Yet on the other hand, there are many ways in which our culture’s choice to deny the inevitability of death impedes our lives. Denying death leads to a loss of life.

A basic Christian spiritual exercise is to acknowledge death. Ash Wednesday is a time where our worship reminds us of this truth. As I put the ashes on your head or hand here in a few moments, I will say to each of you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This isn’t to be morbid or gruesome. It is simply to acknowledge the reality that each one of us will die. Yet, our awareness of death should remind us to really live.

Sometimes we can remember particular times in our life because of the music that stands out in our minds. The summer I worked as a chaplain at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, KY, there was a song that stood out. Each day, I was confronted with death. Death of the worst kind – family shootings – death from abuse – cancer – heart attacks – accidents – death, both unexpected and drawn out. There are songs which we’d never sing in Church that describe things we deeply stand for and believe in. One day on my way into the hospital, Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio. The first verse was eerily familiar with the experience and response of the patients I saw nearly every day:

“He said I was in my early forties
With a lot of life before me
When a moment came that stopped me on a dime
And I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talking ‘bout the options
And talking ‘bout sweet time
I asked him when it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you when you get that kinda news?

A man is diagnosed with a terminal illness – a man is faced with the news that is ultimately true of all of us. Even though our “real end” might not be as soon as this man, it is nonetheless equally true. When we live in denial that we will all die, we deny the call each one of us has to truly live. McGraw’s song goes on as the man describes what he did in face of the tragic news. As Christians, we are likely not called to, “go sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, or to ride bulls for 2.7 seconds!” However, there are many significant lessons we can learn as the song continues:

I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…I was finally the husband that most the time I wasn’t, and I became the friend a friend would like to have. I finally read the good book, and I took a good hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again…

    The dying man then makes the most important point of the song, “Someday, I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

    Ash Wednesday serves as the reminder that we should live like we are dying because in fact, we are all dying. Today is the first day of Lent and begins the time of repentance in preparation for Easter. Many Christians give up something during Lent, perhaps a favorite food or drink or maybe even television. But more and more people are choosing to add something to their lives instead of giving something up. That’s my challenge to you – live like you are dying – love deeper – speak sweeter – give the forgiveness you’ve been denying – become the wife or husband, or father or mother you haven’t been – become the friend a friend would like to have – spend time each day reading God’s word and praying.

    Do these things because the Gospel promises that existence doesn’t end with death – it ends with life. Living like you are dying brings new life – because we live in response to God’s Spirit and the power that raised Jesus at Easter. Easter, which lies at the end of Lent, is God’s answer to death – God raised Jesus Christ from the dead as the answer that death is not the end for Christians. By the power of Christ, we’re enabled to take good hard looks at our lives. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that God allows u-turns. We can turn from our destructive ways through the power of Christ and live our lives fully in view of the life giving resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Live like you are dying” and you will live a life worth living.

    In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


    [1] Many insights for this section of the sermon were gleaned from Tortured Wonders by Rodney Clapp, Brazos Press 2004

    February 6, 2008 at 10:06 am 3 comments

    New Monasticism & Real Life

    There’s a great story in the LA Times about a group of folks trying the “new monasticism” on for size (h/t TSK). Turns out it’s really hard.

    As I was reading this article, I couldn’t help compare my life with these folks who are living in community while yearning to follow Jesus simply and whole-heartedly. Of course, I assumed, we would have nothing in common. After all, my wife, kids, and I live alone in a relatively small parsonage in a very small town in Oklahoma. We aren’t living on the mean streets of Philadelphia like Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way, or even the mean streets of Billings, Montana down from the pawn shop and beet factory. We probably have the same four varieties of salad dressing in our fridge, which is a sure sign, the article suggests, that simplicity has not yet been achieved.

    Yet in the middle of these differences, I noticed something. Our small town offers community in a way that the Billings group struggled to achieve. While they were hoping to help their neighbors and wishing for kids to come by and shoot hoops, we have been blessed by a dynamic, interactive, living, breathing community that is drawn to Christ and the Church.

    There are days when kids shoot hoops on the basketball goal on our garage. Saturday afternoon, while I was taking my Christmas Lights down (yes, yes), a young boy whose family we helped during Christmas walked by. He looked up at the roof and said, “Hey, Matt.” The next day, a little boy from the other side of the street rode his bicycle in front of the house. His wave was made even more special because his bike was donated at Christmas by a generous and anonymous stranger through the Church. I had the privilege to deliver it so his grandmother could give him a gift. Often, I’m able to stop my truck, roll down the window, and ask kids, “Has your mom found a new job yet? Ya’ll doing alright?” A trip to the post office is never just a trip to the post office. It’s an opportunity to comfort those who’ve recently lost loved ones. It’s an opportunity to ask about Jim, the brother-in-law in the hospital. It’s an experience of true community.

    We may not be new monastics, but in the middle of life as a itinerant United Methodist pastoral family, we’ve experienced real community in the middle of real life – inside and outside the walls of the church building. We’ve had to think hard about what it means to live in a particular place at a particular time, while being about a particular mission for a particular God. We’re asking many of the same questions as our new monastic brothers and sisters about what it means to follow Jesus simply and whole-heartedly. Often, like them, we get it all wrong. Yet there are times, like our more monastic-minded friends, that the Kingdom peeks through the clouds of everyday life and illuminates everything around us. In whatever form you experience it, that’s a life worth living.

    February 5, 2008 at 8:36 am 2 comments

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