Monday, March 26, 2012

Who is Church to me?

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

We must in all things seek God. But we do not seek Him the way we seek a lost object, a "thing". He is present to us in our heart, in our personal subjectivity, and to seek Him is to recognize this fact. Yet we cannot be aware of it as a reality unless He reveals His presence to us. He does not reveal Himself simply in our own heart. He reveals Himself to us in the Church, in the community of believers, the the koinonia of those who trust Him and love Him. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 223

Who is "the Church" for you? In what ways do you experience God's revelation to you?

My home church's slogan is "We Are About Relationships". They're emphasizing that what's important about the church is not programs or buildings or anything else. It's the relationships we have with one another and with God that shape our faith journey, and things like buildings and programs have to be structured to contribute to the nurturing of those relationships.

While I love that slogan and absolutely agree with it theologically, I'm an introvert. So defining what "it's all about relationships" means for me is a bit more complicated than people I know who are extroverts, who've never met a stranger and draw strength from time spent with groups of people.

Furthermore, as a pastor, I spend a lot of my time helping others "do" church and "be" church for one another. And while I get a great sense of satisfaction out of this, most of the time I can't truly worship when I'm leading worship. This is the case for most pastors, at least the from what I've seen.

I have had some moments that are exceptions to that, and they are wonderful moments.

In theory, the Tennessee Annual Conference is my "church", because I am a member of the conference as opposed to being on the rolls of a congregation. And while I do find some great moments of deep soul-to-soul connection when I am with some of my colleagues, the gatherings of the whole conference are mostly about business, and even the times we worship together aren't always the most worshipful for me.

The people who are most fully "the Church" for me are my family. When I'm spending time with Jessica, Kate, and Claire, I feel the peace and love of God, even when the kids are acting crazy and trying our patience.

The most soul-edifying conversations I have are after the girls are in bed and Jessica and I are having a glass of wine and talking about whatever is on our minds, most of which ends up coming back to faith. Our relationship began as divinity students, and that's shaped how we've been ever since.

I hope that over time, particularly now that I've finished the ordination gauntlet and been welcomed as a peer with the other ordained elders and deacons, that I will develop some other relationships that constitute "Church" for me. But again, I'm an introvert, so developing and deepening those relationships is going to take a lot of intentionality on my part.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Communion in Forgiveness

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

Christ will not be visible to the world in His Church except in proportion as Christians seek peace and unity with one another and with all men. But since conflict is inevitable, unity cannot be maintained except in great difficulty, with constantly renewed sacrifice, with lucid honesty, openness, humility, the readiness to ask forgiveness and to forgive. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 217

If Lent is the Church's call to forgive and to be forgiven, how are you answering it?

I'll tell you a little secret about the church, which you may already know. People don't leave their junk at the door. We bring all of ourselves into the church: the good, the bad, and the ugly. People are still people, even in the church. Maybe especially in the church.

Most of the time this is a good and healthy thing, if we're honest about it. But we run into trouble when we put on the facade of having everything figured out, because after a while the junk we're pretending isn't there begins to surface, and we end up doing all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify it under the guise of having it all figured out.

I know I sound like I'm pointing my finger at other people, even when the question is about me. I promise I'm not trying to, so please hear me out.

I say this because I have an extremely hard time forgiving people who create chaos in the church to compensate for unresolved junk in other areas of their lives. Sometimes these folks are labeled clergy killers, and while the term has a lot of truth to it, it can quickly turn into a destructive label that just perpetuates the problem.

That's what I allow to happen to me, at least. Instead of allowing the understanding of the "clergy killer" phenomenon to give me compassion for those folks' places of deep brokenness, I let it become a label that excuses me from seeing them as anything other than a problem to be contained or eliminated.

(Sidenote- I don't currently find myself in the midst of any of this kind of conflict. If I did, I probably wouldn't blog about it, even in such a general way, as it would likely just make the problem worse)

I may have very good reasons to be angry at someone who bullies a pastor or other church staff, but I can have a very hard time letting go of that anger, and I don't ask God for help letting go of it nearly as much or as sincerely as I should. There's a part of me that somehow feels justified or empowered by holding on to it, even though the only one it harms is me.

Holding on to anger and not wanting to forgive makes it that much harder for me to receive forgiveness. If someone I considered to be a "clergy killer" called me up and offered their forgiveness for the things I had done wrong (real or perceived), I would probably have a difficult time believing they were sincere. And the chances of me calling them up to ask for forgiveness and offer my own are quite slim.

Lord, you call us to forgive just as we are forgiven by you, but I confess I often don't want to forgive. Help me have the desire to persist on the journey of forgiveness. Amen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Time is the Medium of our Salvation

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

To say that the redemption is an ever present spiritual reality is to say that Christ has laid hold upon time and sanctified it, giving it a sacramental character, making it an efficacious sign of our union with God in Him. So, "time" is a medium which makes the fact of redemption present to all men. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 49

With whom do you most "share time"? With whom should you be sharing more time?

This seems like a leading question. I think the "right" answer is to say that I spend the most time with my family, friends, job, etc., and that I need to be sharing more time with God.

But that canned answer reinforces the bifurcated sacred/secular understanding that has more roots in Plato and gnosticism than in a genuinely Judeo-Christian understanding of the creation.

That last sentence is a mouthful of seminary speak. Let me explain.

If I assume that time that I spend with my family, friends, at my job, on hobbies, etc., is not "time shared with God", then I'm saying that God is only present in specific times and places- in church, when the pages of my Bible are open, or when I'm by myself having some quiet time. In essence, I'm having a very limited view of God.

But one of the running themes throughout the Bible is the un-limitedness of God. God gets upset with the worship of idols because people are giving something limited, therefore controllable, the adoration due to that which is ultimate. They're putting something far less than God in the place of God. So if I'm only "sharing time" with God in those unique moments, then the god I'm sharing time with isn't God, because that god is too small.

As Merton puts it, "Christ has laid hold upon time and sanctified it". I think he's talking primarily in the cosmic sense, but this is demonstrated in the incarnation of Jesus, as well.

Jesus lived the fullness of the human experience. He experienced joy and laughter, as well as pain, suffering, and death. The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus claims that not only is God present in every single moment of our lives, but God also has the last word in what it all means.

So if I truly believe the claims made by the incarnation and the Resurrection, then all time is time shared with God. The only question is whether I am aware of that or not.

When I forget this, I treat everything like I own it, as if it exists solely for my benefit. But when I am aware that every thing and every moment is infused with God's presence, then I treat everything as a gift, over which I have a sacred trust and for which I am accountable to God for how I handle it.

So maybe a better question is, how aware am I of who is present in all the moments of my life, and what do I need to do to make myself aware of what's really going on?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Words" for our salvation

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

If we cling to immature and limited notions of "privacy," we will never be able to free ourselves from the bonds of individualism. We will never realize that the Church delivers us from ourselves by public worship, the very public character of which tends to hide us "in the secret of God's face." ~ Seasons of Celebration, p. 27

Since Lent began, what "words have you heard for your salvation?

"It's not about you"

That's not a new "word" from God by any means, but it's one that I constantly need to hear. I've been feeling a little bit guilty that I didn't "give up" something for Lent other than the time to do this devotional practice. I guess giving up coffee or alcohol or meat has a more romantic feel to it, something I can wear as a badge of honor. But that, of course, is to miss the point of Lenten fasting entirely.

The reminder that I'm getting over and over is that as much as my limited vision and massive ego would have me believe it, I am not the center of the universe. I am God's beloved child, but my purpose is to serve others. None of this is about me.

This is probably the word I need right now, because I could quite easily get a big head about being ordained this summer. In the United Methodist Church, the path to ordination as an Elder is extremely long, complicated, and taxing. I've experienced setbacks and levels of frustration and despair that I had never known before. So I suppose I have some right to feel proud that I've completed all the requirements and been approved.

But just because I have that right doesn't mean it's the best thing for me to do, especially knowing how quickly I can get a big head and start to think that it's all about me. I've gotten lots of congratulations from people, and great affirmation from those that were present during my BOMEC interviews last week. Having to work so hard to get to this stage, it would be very easy to assume that ordination is something one earns.

The words that the bishop pronounces over the person being ordained are "take thou the authority of an Elder". The word "authority" implies responsibility and high expectations that one will use their authority in the proper way.

In all the time I've served as a pastor, I've been empowered to do certain things and granted access to very intimate moments in people's lives with the trust that I can play some role in heightening everyone's awareness of how grace is present in that moment. Just as my serving has been for the glory of God and for others to grow in love and grace, so is my ordination.

I may be the one being ordained at conference this year, but, praise God, it's not about me.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The "Inmost Secret" of Our Being

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

The great paradox of Christian personalism is this: it consists in something more than bringing to light the unique and irreplaceable element in the individual Christian. On the contrary, Christian personalism does not require that the inmost secret of our being become manifest or public to all. We do not even have to see it clearly ourselves! We are more truly "Christian persons" when our inmost secret remains a mystery shared by ourselves and God, and communicated to others. ~Seasons of Celebration, pp. 21-22

Consider the "inmost secret" at the core of yourself that is shared with God and remains a mystery.

Can something be known and still be a mystery? Aren't those conflicting terms? If we read a mystery novel, we find out who the killer is in the last couple chapters, and the mystery is over. Isn't that how it works?

In the modern world, yes. The fundamental assumption of modernity is that everything can be known, facts can be discerned, and that knowledge gives us power. But we've lost a deeper sense of mystery that the ancients understood. They knew that there was much that could not be known, and with a deep humility they participated in the mysteries that they knew they could never understand in a way that would give them control or resolution. They participated in them because these mysteries made them whole.

As much as we've overdone things in modernity, we still have mysteries that we get to participate in. Love is fundamentally a mystery. I can sit down and write a very long list of all of Jessica's wonderful qualities, but when I knew I wanted to marry her I did not make a list to see if the sum total of those qualities made us being together the logical conclusion.

The same thing goes for our daughters, Kate and Claire. We can tell you all the wonderful things about them (much of Jessica's blogging is devoted to that), but they don't have to achieve a certain score for me to be ecstatic about being their daddy. This isn't math. It's love. It's a mystery in which we participate, never fully understanding what it is in a cognitive sense, but knowing it on a deeper level than words ever could define.

That's the reason we have sacraments in the church. The waters of Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion are physical, tactile things that point beyond themselves and participate in that divine mystery to which they point. We cognitively get to understand just enough to allow us to drop our guard and participate in these mysteries.

So what is the "inmost secret" at the core of myself? Quite simply, it's that I'm God's child, created in God's image, and called to proclaim that truth that I can barely even begin to wrap my mind around. But the good new is that I don't have to be able to wrap my mind around it! I get to participate in the mystery!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Freedom and Responsibility

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

Before we get to today's devotional thoughts, I want to say thanks for all the prayers and good wishes that went out for me and the other candidates interviewing at BOMEC these past few days. My interview was very challenging, but it went well. I'll find out if I'll be ordained this year on Thursday afternoon, so I'm going to try to keep myself busy over the next 48 hours!

That being said, let us hear from Fr. Thomas...

Our abdication of responsibility is at the same time an abdication of liberty. The resolution to let "someone else", the anonymous forces of society, assume responsibility for everything means that we abdicate from public responsibility, from mature concern, and even from spiritual life. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 20

Have you turned over responsibility for your life to the influences of our culture? To whom and to what have you made yourself subservient?

Subservient? Hmmm... I'm not sure about that one. I prefer to think in terms of accountability. I have willingly entered into relationships where I am accountable to my wife, my children, my congregation, my Bishop and District Superintendent, the Annual Conference, etc. I have made covenants with each of these individuals/entities that I take seriously, and in times when I would prefer to do things that are in conflict with those covenants, I choose not to because of the promises I made, and because I would not want to deal with the consequences of breaking those promises, even if I was the only one who ever knew.

All that being said, though, Merton was profoundly concerned with Christians accepting their social responsibility. He did not anticipate, nor would he have supported, the rise of the Religious Right, but during his time, he was disturbed to see Christians, or any human beings for that matter, casually accept the inevitability of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, poverty, and racism, among other things.

I was born twelve years after Thomas Merton died, but in my own time, far too many of my Christian brothers and sisters casually accept, and even advocate war with Iran, just as they did war with Iraq.

We look the other way as our brothers and sisters suffer in generational poverty, and when someone dares question the morality of our economic system, we attack with words like "socialist" and worse.

We look the other way, and are sometimes even the aggressors against our dark skinned brothers and sisters who "look Muslim", regardless of whether they are or not.

So as a follower of the Prince of Peace, the one who proclaims God's favor to each and every single person, the one who "fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53- a passage that should scare those of us with the time and resources to sit around and blog to death), I can't sit by silently as injustices occur. I can't throw up my hands and say that there's nothing I can do. Maybe there isn't but I won't know until I try. Not if I really want to call myself his disciple.

This is the freedom for which Christ has freed us. So let our voice be heard.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Imagining the 40 Days

No blog reflections on my Merton devotional today. Between the coming storms and rereading all my papers for my BOMEC interview on Tuesday, my energies are focused elsewhere.

I will, however, share a video I saw on Matthew Paul Turner's blog, imagining what Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness were like.

May you find peace and strength in the midst of whatever wilderness you may be in today.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

God's Goodness

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

(The saint) is united to God by the depths of his own being. He sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him. Everywhere he goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep harmonies of God's glory. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 137

How has God been good to you?

God has been good to me in so many ways, but I find the most helpful way to understand God's goodness to me is by realizing how God is giving me opportunities to be good to others.

I've been very fortunate in life. More fortunate than most people.

I know I'm supposed to use the word "blessed" when I'm talking about the good things in my life, but I feel like that implies that others aren't blessed if their children aren't healthy like mine are, or they didn't have the opportunity to go to the kind of schools I did. Maybe that's just semantics, but since my call is to help people know who God is, I feel like I need to be very aware of how the things I say can affect people's perceptions of who God is.

I have to confess that I get more than a little agitated when I hear other white, relatively well off males brag about how their success in life is all their doing, that no one gave them anything along the way, that they are entirely "self-made", and therefore have no obligation to help others.

Whenever I hear that kind of talk, I want to sarcastically ask, "so you breastfed yourself when you were a baby?"

The truth about me and anyone else who considers themselves successful is that we're the beneficiaries of those who gave tremendous gifts to us. Whether its parents who raised us, teachers who gave us valuable life lessons, clergy who instilled us with values, or anyone else, no one gets to a place of success (in the world's eyes, at least) truly "on their own".

So one of the biggest ways I see God's goodness to me is in terms of how it gives me opportunities to be good to others.

I've had the opportunity to go to very good schools, so that gives me a responsibility to impart knowledge to others.

I have more than my share of financial resources, so I have the responsibility to share with others. I have the opportunity to consume far more than my share of the world's resources (and I routinely do), so I have the responsibility to cut back and conserve as much as I can so more is available for others who don't have the kind of ready access that I do.

Jessica and I are very fortunate to have a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with one another, and loving supportive families. We have two children who are healthy and, from early indications, seem to have the potential to develop high abilities and aptitudes. That gives us the responsibility to freely share all the love we receive, and to raise our girls to be people who understand their tremendous responsibilities because of the good fortune that they have had.

God has been very good to me through others who have created the opportunities and advantages I've had in life. Therefore, I have the responsibility of passing on what I've been given and of making the world a better place for others, just as it was made a better place for me.

I believe that doing that is a deeper act of praise than any words or songs ever could be.