Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. -Luke 17:33 (NRSV)
I was raised by a wonderful woman of faith: my mother. Over the past 24 hours I have been thinking about the UMC and the hot topic of guaranteed appointments after the Judicial Council ruled against their elimination. I keep thinking about what my mother would say which would be something to this effect: The devil is great at distracting us from Kingdom work.
Now, mom and I have some differing opinions on the existence of the devil, etc. but man do I wish I could agree with her that this is something the “devil” did. It would be easier for me to deal with if I could blame it on the devil. Unfortunately, the fact is we have no one to blame but ourselves for this distraction. We are getting pretty good at it might I say. If it isn’t guaranteed appointments and ineffective clergy then it is something else, right? We keep bouncing from symptom to symptom to try and figure out what is wrong so we can save the UMC.
Are we so arrogant as to think that God needs us? Why are we so focused on keeping the life of the UMC going? I mean it seems to me the more that we are focusing on ourselves and our existence as a denomination the more and more we end up being ineffective for the Kingdom of God.
I probably sound pretty negative so far (whoops), but the truth is I love the UMC and it is the place where I found my spiritual home. However, I remember when I became United Methodist and it wasn’t because of an “effective clergy person” and it wasn’t even because of an abundance of “small groups” or “vibrant worship” offered at my local congregation. No the reason I became United Methodist is because my local church pointed beyond itself to God. (at least in my naive 8th grade eyes of experience) My experience was of a church which pointed beyond itself to something bigger. But now I have to wonder, how often are we pointing to something bigger than the UMC (i.e. The Kingdom of God) and how often are pointing at ourselves?
The devil has gone and done it, like a great “shell game” con we have been duped into focusing on the wrong stuff. Well that is if the devil did do it, unfortunately I think the blame lies square on the person looking back at us in the mirror. (yeah even me)
Image taken from: http://allegriaimagesbylynn.blogspot.com/2011/01/shell-game.html
I know, I know. It has been almost an eternity (especially in “internet” years) since I have posted on the blog. To be honest, I had to take a sabbatical from some aspects of my life and the one of those things that was chosen was the amount of time I was spending on social networking, etc. and when I did that my “blogging” also went out the window.
However, I am excited to say that this weekend I will be blogging like no other as I reflect and post on Exploration 2011 which will be happening in St. Louis. I will have a mix of posts which will include my own thoughts/reflections but also I am hoping to interview some young adults about their exploration of their call and their expectations of ministry, etc. So check back regularly starting Friday!
But now on to topic of this post: ministry challenges. There are many challenges to ministry but one that might seem debilitating to some I find rewarding and a great challenge and that is the tired cliche: “Expect the Unexpected.” My placement in Winona has been an adventure in the unexpected. You see I was placed here under one set of expectations: to help the church connect with young adults and young families. To be honest that is what excited me about this placement, but as I have discovered in ministry what we often expect does not always align with God’s purpose.
You see within months the ministry setting began to change as two of the United Methodist churches here in Winona began to discuss what United Methodism in Winona should look like and began the process of merging. Within one year of my placement I found myself the associate pastor of a newly merged congregation moving towards rebirth.
Mergers and rebirth take energy and time and because of this the original expectations of my position had to switch and work to help the church accomplish what it needed (a process that isn’t over yet). As I have reflected on my ministry here I have seen how the “unexpected” has actually been a real blessing (a challenge but a blessing).
The “unexpected” can be accepted as a gift or blessing or it can be rejected and seen as a hindrance. I choose the former because I have seen how God has often worked in the lives of so many through the “unexpected.” Perhaps it has been my own experiences that have been most formative in my attitude towards the unexpected. In the fall of 2004 I began my first year of seminary at Duke expecting to dedicate my time and energy fully to my studies. It was going to be a time for my wife and I to grow in our marriage while she started her first teaching job and I prepared for my career in ministry. Then the “unexpected” happened and we found out we were expecting a child within the first month of school. Through the unexpected there was challenge in balancing parenting and school (especially since I did the full-time care for Micah) but there also was extreme blessing to see how God moved through the community of professors and classmates in our lives.
It was a lesson in how the “unexpected” can be a true blessing and I think that is a lesson that can apply to anyone heading into ministry: “expect the unexpected and accept it as a gift and blessing.”
On Monday I went to a meeting where Bishop Sally Dyck and Cindy Gregorson presented reflections on a road tour they had across our conference in the fall. It was a good meeting, but something someone shared has stuck in my mind more than any of the things that Bishop or Cindy shared.
In reflecting on “membership” this pastor talked about another pastor who has helped a church move to annual membership where everyone renews their membership yearly. It reminds me of a covenantal model with a renewing of the covenant yearly.
This got me asking and wondering exactly how we view membership. I think far too often we think of membership as an end and not a process or journey. Too often membership becomes a defining line with a clear demarcation of who is “inside” and “outside” that demarcation.
I am wondering if this is others experience. If membership were emphasized within a covenantal model with annual renewal would it change? Is “membership” relevant anymore? Do we need this “measurement” or do the boundaries that it creates actually inhibit us from being truly open to everyone?
So I have been thinking about jealousy a bunch lately. With two young boys (Micah-5 years and Kai-18 months) you can’t help but see how jealousy plays into human interaction. For instance, watching how our children react when the other child is getting exclusive attention from one of us can be a moment of entertainment, but it is also clearly brings to life the reality of jealousy.
The other month while my wife was getting ready in the morning, Kai was fussing and so I was holding him. I could see the jealousy in Micah’s eyes as he looked at us and was not surprised when Micah then tried to nuzzle his way into my lap and get between Kai and I. This has happened numerous times and of course Kai has exhibited some of the same behaviors when he sees Stacy and Micah spending exclusive time together. He often will go over to where they are or start to cry because he isn’t getting the attention.
We often think of jealousy as a bad thing, but I wonder. Now don’t get me wrong, jealousy often brings out ugly things in us. However, is the root of jealousy really all that bad. As I have been reading through the Old Testament, God is often described as a “jealous” God and that is what has me wondering. At the core jealousy comes because of a deep sense of consuming love where we want the object of our love all to ourselves. We want all of that person or thing, we want 100% of its focus on us and I think this reflects how much God desires our attention and how consuming God’s love is for us.
Can we learn from our jealousy? Can we remember the words of the Old Testament and when we feel jealousy remember God’s jealousy for us and have our hearts turned back towards the one who created and loves us so deeply?
I am reminded of the lyrics of How He Loves by David Crowder Band:
He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy
When all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful You are and how great Your affections are for me
So my father in-law is a mechanic which is a great thing for me. When I say I grew up in shall we say a mechanically-challenged household, I am not kidding. One of the things that I learned from the times I have spent down in his shop is how moisture can lead to rust and seizing on the lug nuts of your tires. I am not kidding when I say one time on my old car we could not get the hubcaps off hardly because of this situation. However, he had this liquid wrench stuff that he sprayed on the nut and then after a bit it came loose with ease.
I got thinking about this and how it relates to our spirituality as Christians. Have you ever noticed sometimes that sometimes you may go from a total absence in our spiritual life and try to instantly go to a strong presence and you struggle and it feels like everything is rusted and seized just like that lug nut? It can almost seem like God is absent and not there when you long deeply for God’s presence and you get frustrated because there doesn’t seem to be any movement?
Well guess what: I have the “liquid wrench” for your rusty soul!
Okay, I am kidding. I don’t think there is necessarily a simple solution that makes it all of the sudden happen and easy like liquid wrench can do for a seized lug nut. However, I do believe there are two practices that can help you foster a deeper spirituality and help you sense the presence of God in deeper ways. (note I am not saying these are the only two ways, but they are two ways that have helped me)
1. Prayer- I think a key to any movement to deeper spirituality is prayer. Prayer can be done in many different forms but all of them have a sense of putting oneself in the presence and care of God. What has helped me personally is committing to weekly prayer with other people. I pray weekly (when I am in town) with two other pastors. Since I have been doing this it has opened my eyes to see the ways God is moving in my life and in the world around me and has helped foster a deeper spirituality within my faith.
2. Reading Scripture- This too can be done in many different ways: daily devotions, random passages, working through the Bible in some type of order. When we read scripture we read how God has moved and been present in the lives of our spiritual kin and that can help us see how God is present in our lives. I have been reading through the Bible in 90 days with some other individuals and it has been amazing to see the often amazing but also often mundane ways God has been present in the lives of those who have gone before me.
I have found that committing to these two practices in my own life has helped me move from a place where I would see God sporadically at work in my life to now beginning to see all the ways God was moving and moves in my life on a daily basis. This shift in spirituality was helped by these two practices much like the seized lug nut was helped by the liquid wrench.
What are some practices that you might do that help your spirituality? Do you have any suggestions? Please share in the comments.