A prayer for the road

I often process slowly, so I was in my first semester of seminary (as I write this I realized it’s been 6 and a half years already!) and I had no idea why I was there.  I’d graduated college and felt like I kinda sorta should maybe go to seminary because I wanted to do something ministry related… maybe.  Maybe that could even be a pastor — though that desire and call was more audacious than I dared to believe. Truth be told, I was feeling pretty lost and unsure.   I found myself in a class everyone was required to take called ‘Vocation of Ministry’ that a Dr. Steve Harper was teaching.  I remember sitting there hearing this humble, grace and Spirit-filled man who was oozing of wisdom, speaking words that spoke to me on a level that I never had experienced anyone speaking on.  I remember him sharing the above prayer from Thomas Merton that affected me.  I distinctly remember sitting in that class and thinking  “This is where I’m supposed to be.”  As I reflect, I’m very thankful for that time of my life and the people in it — it was indeed the place I was supposed to be.

This prayer has spoken to me throughout the years.  It’s spoken to me in different ways and for different reasons and around different circumstances and roads.  This prayer has spoken again to me this new year.  The new year always makes me pensive.  It typically brings with it the sense of new roads, adventures, situations, emotions, and possibilities. Excitement and uncertainty. Dreams and fears.  So I share this prayer with you as one that I think is incredibly powerful and liberating — whether you know exactly where you’re going (or what you’re doing or feeling), you think you know, or you have no idea.  Rest in that God is ever with you this new year and always.

Esther

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Not a scepter but a hoe

Methodist blogs have become the new tabloids.  I’m sorry for adding my one other one to the Enquirer frenzy.  I promise I will not post pictures of celebrity bishop-babies (whatever those are).  I do however want to address some things that came out of my ‘Why Church?’ post last week.  (Have I mentioned I’m not particularly fond of writing blogs?)  I told you I’ve mourned and cried for and over the church —  Archbishop Oscar Romero said that “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”  I doubt I’m entirely done crying; as long as you and I are part of the Church she will be imperfect, and as long as pride exists there will be division (I don’t think it a coincidence that Jesus prayed for our unity in the final hours of his life).  Yet there are rumors of hope to which I hold onto stubbornly.

Last week’s post received some interesting comments.  Most folks who commented to me resonated with the heaviness in their own hearts, and some shared their fears with me.  Others had not even thought of some of these things.  One comment I read expressed a broken heart over the deception of young, new leaders like me — that one was my favorite.  For the record, I promise you that God (through friends and other) calls me out on things almost on a daily basis, but no, I am not perfect.

A note from a young man who is soon to begin his studies at Duke Divinity School, in response to my blog:

“…I am having a hard time trying to capture how I feel as an up and coming pastor in the UMC.  I get the sense that very soon I’ll have to make a very explicit proclamation (one way or the other) regarding homosexuality, and it be forced to be this “you’re either with us or against us” sort of proposition. That is my fear, I don’t truly know how likely it is.”

I write because I’m inspired by the third way that Jesus exemplifies and that Steve Harper talks about seeking, in his book For the Sake of the Bride.  I struggled (sometimes bitterly) with my approach and understanding of Scripture for a decade, and I still feel like an elementary school student at times.  I sympathize with the seemingly silent, middle majority.  I ache for the private messages that express fear.  I simultaneously respond strongly to issues of injustice, so I seek a different route, but not an easy one.  Thus far in my life, struggling with things has been one of the biggest forms of growth.  Struggling is good! (And not fun!)

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together‘ — a short book I think all Church-people (not the building kind of church, by the way) should read… more than once.  Here’s a quote from the book that I’ve been pondering for a while now:

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves…. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.”

This reminds me that living in community is not supposed to be easy; it’s always been hard.  Jesus’ words of loving our enemies have always been scandalous and challenging.  Relationships are hard stuff.  This is why a third way is difficult and scary — one where we don’t choose sides, one without ‘us’ and ‘them’ language — one that leads to self-sacrifice and a cross.   Admittedly this whole issue of schism seems somewhat overwhelming to us ‘little people,’ but I’m encouraged and encourage all to continue to impact our small circles of influence.

Finally, I love the Bernard de Clairvaux quote:  “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”  It has struck me differently this past week, however.  As I hear proclamations from on high that entirely dismiss reason and experience I cringe.  Don’t call yourself a prophet unless you have dirt under your nails, if you haven’t grabbed a hoe lately  and sweat through your shirt.  Don’t proclaim to me if you’re not heartbroken over contention, as you probably don’t deserve to be called a prophet.  If I see that you too struggle, that will be compelling.  That sounds an awful lot to me like Pharisaic tendencies that pray, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  May love and humility reign.

O God, we are one with you.
You have made us one with you.
You have taught us that if we are open to one another, you dwell in us.

Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts.
Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept you, and we thank you, and we adore you, and we love you with our whole being, because our being is your being, our spirit is rooted in your spirit.

Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love.

Love has overcome. Love is victorious.

         –Thomas Merton

Not a scepter but a hoe

Why church?

I’ve mourned the Church for a while – for years.  I’ve literally wept over the many ways it has caused pain and has deeply hurt people.  Not too long ago I sat in my living room shedding tears over the World Vision back and forth stance regarding individuals who are homosexual.  I’ve mourned because of congregations rejecting black pastors because of their skin color; I’ve cried over discussions about the construction of unnecessary and extravagant buildings while children starve around the corner; I’ve cried over church-people demonstrating a ‘me’ mentality and comfort-driven focus when it comes to worship. I’ve mourned people hiding their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS lest they be marginalized or rejected in their faith community. Recently I’ve cried over myself and the realization that though we have come a long way in my denomination in the equality of women (in ministry and beyond), we still have a long way to go.  I weep when I contemplate that anyone would hate their own person because the Church has made them believe they’re unworthy of love.

I cry over the seminary I graduated from — due to the actions of its leaders over the past several years, and its seeming lack of allowing space for grace in its stance on different points of view and understandings of Scripture; which to me speak of a lack of love and humility.

I cry because despite all of these things, I love the Church.  I love the Church because I believe she is created and called to be more than she is, and because I believe Christ loves  her more than I can even fathom.  I cry because I believe that these words from Bill Hybels are true, that:

“There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right! It transforms lives, heart by heart… soul by soul… life by life. That’s why the most important thing I can do is to lay down my heart for the cause of Christ.”  

I believe this because I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it!  The power of a loving, grace-filled community — there is nothing like it.

Upon pondering these things over the years, I’ve had the thought and impression that Jesus too weeps for his Church — the whole of the Trinity weeps (as Steve Harper says).  I don’t doubt that when we hurt, Christ hurts, and when we cry, Christ cries.  I then believe that God is heartbroken over many of the actions (and inactions), words, and sentiments in God’s Church.  Over what seems to be in many groups a disposition of judgment, an inability to love in the midst of differing opinions, and a lust for power.

With so much disappointment I’ve wondered at times what then is the point of continuing with this institution.  Why church?  I’ve been asked this question by frustrated individuals in the past and very recently.

I’m a pastor who belongs to the infamous millennial generation; the generation that is said to be absent from the church.  People ask me, how can we attract your generation to the Church?

Well, I distinctly remember the night – halfway through seminary –  I was contemplating on faith as a journey, and I came to the clear conclusion that, very simply, to follow God is to LOVE God and LOVE neighbor as myself (which does require that I love myself as well).  That’s it — it’s that simple, not to say easy.  This was a big deal for me because that is not how I’d always seen things — faith, church, God.  It’s incredible how our perception and understanding of God affects how we then view ourselves and others, and our weaknesses and those of others.

Here’s another woeful realization:  I’m part of the Church, which means I’m complicit in its failings.  Unfortunately for me, I have to fess up too.

If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let me weep my life away,
For having grieved thy love:
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
(I Want A Principle Within — Charles Wesley)

“It’s our job to love; God’s job to judge; the Spirit’s job to convict.”

What is compelling and beautiful about the Church is not its ability to be perfect (that’s impossible when we people are involved), but its demonstration of radical love and forgiveness; its humility- it’s Christ-likeness.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been discouraged recently -for many of the reasons I mentioned above and also for the tension in our denomination.  Not that this discussion does not need to happen – but because of the rhetoric.  Again, I don’t expect perfection, after all, I call the Church (which is the group of people, not the building) a motley group of forgiven messes, because we are broken, messy individuals, hopefully growing, through God, in love and character.

Appropriately timed then is Dr. Steve Harper’s most recent book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride‘ which has continued this conversation rumbling around in my head.  In our denomination there are rumors of a split, specifically due to the issue of homosexuality.  I’m not going to lie, when I picked up the book to read it I was somewhat cynical.  I was expecting to be disappointed — it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed.   Dr. Harper is actually one of the people I most respect in ministry, but whenever this topic comes up, it’s rare that any conversation is satisfactory.  These conversations are often exhausting and discouraging.

Well, I can say that what Dr. Harper has written is beautiful.  I teared up during the introduction (I guess we’ve established that I’m sensitive — something I have to say I’ve observed Dr. Harper being as well!).  It’s not because any of the material is particularly scandalous to me but it’s honest, vulnerable, and from the heart.  It brings us back to what it’s all about — love God, love others — and for someone who’s been feeling discouraged and restless, I’m thankful.  I’m thankful for Dr. Harper putting words to feelings I’ve had for a long time, knowing he’ll receive flak from certain circles.  I’m thankful because in the midst of our errors and prejudices, God works, redeems and pours out grace.

And thus, I’m hopeful — I will embrace my stubborn streak in this instance and employ stubborn hope — because God’s love and grace is overwhelming and overcomes all.  I’m hopeful because of people like Dr. Harper, and other followers of Jesus who I come across on a daily basis who long to serve God and to love others.  People who are not afraid to be uncomfortable.  People willing to sit at the table and dialogue.  People who recognize the sacrifices that come with following Jesus.

I say all of these things not because they haven’t been said before, and haven’t been said more eloquently, but because I realize that I’m not alone.  I’m not alone, and neither are you.  (That’s another beautiful aspect of the Church.)  And in the midst of my frustration, I am hopeful — I’m hopeful more than anything because of God; because of how God works in us, when we allow God to work in us, and how God works even despite us (despite me, for sure!).

Also, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, but it seems there are times when the Spirit blows like a small gust that lifts up a couple of leaves, and  other times in history when the Spirit blows like a category 5 hurricane.  I don’t know to what mileage the Spirit is blowing currently (forgive the analogy) but I do sense an increase.  I encourage you to read books like Dr. Harper’s and Adam Hamilton’s ‘Making Sense of the Bible,’ and see if you don’t feel it too.

 

…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Amen.

 

Why church

God, help me

I still believe that some of the most powerful and profound prayers are the shortest and simplest ones: “God, help me.”  I say this because I often find myself with no other words but ‘God, help me… Help me with ___.’  I also believe that pride is dangerous and easily acquired in our lives. That’s one of the things I often pray for help with.  Pride steals our joy; it steals our feeling of true purpose and worth.  It makes us overly sensitive and defensive, and it facilitates unforgiveness, resentment and unfair and grace-less judgment.  Pride is a thief of all good things.  I’m not claiming this as a new discovery or a brand new insight – simply a personal one.

The conviction of pride (and I almost think that true conviction requires ugly crying) is extremely painful and simultaneously liberating.  The same goes for the confession of pride.  Our ego is our sense of self-esteem and self-importance, and when that gets hurt it’s excruciating and disorienting.  For those who truly seek God and desire to become more and more like Christ, and yet themselves are on a journey  and may have an unhealthy level of ego, uncomfortable ego-checks are necessary.  I say this because I’ve had them (and continue to).  Do not pray for humility unless you’re ready for it.  Who said sanctification/the path of discipleship was easy, anyway?  At the same time, whenever I’m able to identify what my issue is – be it pride or something else – it’s indescribably freeing to let go of that burden .  That usually involves lament, perhaps some embarrassment, and confession – all eventually followed by priceless peace.

I’m continually drawn to Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:1-8)
Pray with me:
…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation