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    Monday
    Sep212009

    Hidden Treasure. (Or, Being Called to Turn and Love)

    Ever labored through a book?  Ever had a collection of essays stay on your stack for months, only because you don't want to give up on it and put it aside, suspecting it may contain a nugget or two of wisdom?  Ever had a work hang around because it pertains to a subject matter you are interested in, even though every time you give it a read you find it mediocre, but you fear that if you put it down for good, you will have missed what would've made enduring worthwhile?

    This happens to me all the time.  The Wesleyan Tradition: A Paradigm for Renewal, edited by Paul W. Chilcote, has been residing in my collection, and it is this type of book.  It has been near my desk since last fall.  I picked it off the stacks of Watson Library at The University of Kansas.  The title intrigued me, and, being among Methodists, I felt that it might be good to know where some find hope within their heritage.  The central threads running throughout the book were not surprising.  In his opening essay, Chilcote notes that the following are found within all renewal movements:

    • The rediscovery of the living Word and the rekindling of saving faith,
    • The promotion of holistic spirituality,
    • The development of various forms of accountable discipleship,
    • The community's reorientation around formative worship, and
    • The affirmation of a missional vocation.

    These five keys are not surprising.  What follows from Chilcote's skeleton outline of renewal are essays that put flesh on these bones.  Contributors provide their thoughts on Scripture, Salvation by Grace through Faith, the "Dominion of God," Works of Piety, Mercy, and Disciple-making, Holiness, Sacrament, Music, and Evangelism.  Most of these essays were good reminders, yet, sorry to say, lacked fresh insight, rhetorical force, biblical exegesis (most of the essays did little direct grappling with the story of Scripture, whereas I see a need to go through Wesley back to the text), or radical engagement with contemporary expressions of Wesleyan faith, that is, with one exception.  The final essay in the collection, Amy Laura Hall's "'The Law of Love': Repentance and the Restoration of Love" proved to contain all of the above: keen insight into historical Wesleyan (and, more broadly, Christian) theology, critical assessment of "church growth" strategies, and a strong challenge to deeper and more truthful discipleship.  Her essay struck me as a hidden treasure, one I would have never discovered if I had given up too soon.

    I regard Hall's essay a treasure because it challenged me to be transformed, and reminded me to regard my ministry as an occasion to evidence fruit of the life of faith, among which are the fruit of love and humility.  Hall plainly states that "A church experiencing a Wesleyan renewal should...bear the fruits of a loving community," and by loving, she does not mean, "nice."  She challenges our contemporary setting by applying an insight of Wesley himself, being that although our avoidance of real Christianity is universal, there are "occasions for sin that are particular to context."  Hall recognizes that within the American context, those sins are pride, self-centeredness, and a propensity to seek after our own pleasure.  These propensities tempt us, as church leaders, to "cater to the shallow, selfish 'loves' of a people whose desires are shaped by shopping malls and television," and, when "we do so cater, Christian love becomes little more than sentimental fellow feeling for those similarly trapped in the American way of pride and the pursuit of pleasure."

    Hall wants us to be more than "nice."  Hall wants us to be transformed in the way of Jesus.  In order to do so, she argues that "we must retrieve Wesley's emphasis on individual and social holiness, recover the means of grace," as well as possess the expectation that we will be changed by God's extravagant love.  This comes with risk, however, as Hall states that "We must be willing to offend and even repel the very middle-class, upwardly mobile seekers and choosers we otherwise hope to attract...We must be willing to require prospective (and present) members to turn away from their false loves before the church can be reestablished in God's law of love."

    Of course, such a statement will be offensive to many, particularly those who advocate many popular church growth strategies.  Some will charge Hall with denying the call of The Great Commission, or say that she wishes to withhold our efforts among persons who need the gospel just as much as the poor and oppressed.  To do so would be an error, as Hall, identifying as an evangelical and one who is supportive of church growth, does none of those things.  Hall argues for responsible evangelism and discipleship, and has taken the time to parse our culture, noting those sins that disrupt or pollute an environment wherein God's love can flourish in our lives, and rightly notes that our preaching, if uncompromised , may indeed offend those who are more upwardly mobile.  She does not say that these people do not need the love of God.  She simply notes that these people, within our culture, present unique challenges to our calling to preach and form these persons in a manner consistent with the way of Jesus.

    Hall provides an historical example to strengthen her case, noting that Methodists have faced a similar situation before.  In 1745, The Methodist Conference, "decided to try broad-reaching evangelism in every possible venue, even in places where corresponding societies to foster discipleship did not exist."  This decision was rescinded three years later, as Methodist people discerned that apart from catechesis, prayer, mutual accountability, study, and repentance that the Methodist class and band structure provided, real, transformative change could not take place.  Where the church was not equipped to disciple those who were converted, the church came to recognize that they could not succeed in training people to live in accord with the law of love.  As Hall observes, "Church is a place where we are conformed to a totally new way of loving."

    Hall does provide some clues as to how we might be called to love in our particular context, citing Wesley's sermons "The Circumcision of the Heart," "On Charity," and "On Riches" as examples that challenge our contemporary mindset.  Hall reintroduces Wesley's emphasis on a renewed heart with new desires, particularly our desire for God, which moves us away from our American self-centeredness and towards a life of self-giving love.  This love will be humble, and inclined to serve, rather than prideful, and inclined toward power.  This type of heart propels us toward community and shared discipleship, and places God at the center of our movement.  As I read Hall's comments on Wesley's sermon "On Riches" I was compelled to read it myself, and as I did so, I found words that would challenge the current American mindset to accumulate, to give occasionally but not sacrificially, and to find worth in our possessions rather than in our God.

    I know many people who are passionate about renewal, and I am glad to know them.  Hall's essay thankfully reminds us that a renewal which moves beyond some form of numerical success must include costly, intentional, responsible discipleship.  Our ministries must move beyond appealing to the fancies of our upwardly mobile, middle-class culture, and must challenge those elements of our environment that prevent the flourishing of the love of God in the lives of those that hear the gospel.  I concede that such a task is not easy, but it is necessary.  And for that, I thank Amy Laura Hall for a firm reminder.

    Wednesday
    Sep022009

    A Good and Beautiful Book. James Bryan Smith -- The Good and Beautiful God

    This summer I attended the Renovare' International Conference in San Antonio, Texas, and while I was there I signed up for an intensive track with James Bryan Smith, who presented material he and his team had developed for his forthcoming set of books called "The Apprentice Series."  These books, titled, The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life (available for pre-order), and The Good and Beautiful Community (forthcoming) are progressively being released this year by the Formatio branch of InterVarsity Press, a division of IVP dedicated to spiritual formation resources.

    Before this conference, I did not know James Bryan Smith.  But I knew his mentors.  Dr. Smith has been discipled by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen, and also names Rich Mullins and Brennan Manning among his contemporary spiritual influences.  Dr. Smith is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, and now serves as chaplain and assistant professor of religion at Friends University.  In the past few months I have had opportunity to sit down with Jim and members of his team on two occasions, and have been blessed by his life and leadership.  In developing the content for The Apprentice Series, Jim has been blessed with a team of five Christian leaders who have put this material to work in their ministries.  Thus far, I have met three of these persons--C.J. Fox, Matthew Johnson, and Jimmy Taylor.

    During my time at the Renovare' conference I was very impressed by what I heard from Jim.  After thinking about ideas presented by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster (and others) for many years, Jim had managed to capture those ideas and translate them into language more easily accessible to those laboring in the local church.  Jim's book, The Good and Beautiful God, is a good and beautiful book for this reason.  As someone who has found the work of Willard and Foster important for my own spiritual life, and as someone who has sought to incorporate those ideas in my approach to Christian ministry, I found Smith's book to be an incredibly helpful tool.  The book is accessible, theologically engaging, centered on Scripture, and practical.  It is also written with a pastoral heart that evidences a love for God's people, the church.  Smith knows that we, as the church, have a high calling to form people in the way of Jesus, and that our opportunity to do so, and to do so well, is immensely great. His book helps show the way.

    The Good and Beautiful God is structured in a way that centers on narratives and practices.  In each chapter Smith introduces a false narrative, exposes it, and then explores a "Jesus narrative" that better reflects the truth of the Christian story.  For example, "God loves me when I am good and punishes me when I am bad," is a prevalent story among many people--Christian and non-Christian alike.  Smith exposes this narrative as false, and instead grounds the reader in Jesus' kingdom announcement and the teachings of the apostle Paul, arguing that those in Christ are, "ones in whom Christ dwells and delights."  We are lavished in God's love.  We are safe and secure in God's unshakable kingdom.  God's love for us is unceasing, unstoppable, and inexhaustible.

    After an exploration of false narratives and an introduction of a new narrative, Smith recommends a practice that will help new narratives take root.  Smith calls these "soul training exercises."  Smith follows Willard in recognizing that we do not advance in the spiritual life apart from training.  In presenting how these exercises help us advance, Smith teaches an important principle that I had not grasped--that of indirection.  To illustrate how indirection works, Smith tells the story of Peyton Manning, who in Super Bowl XLI, outperformed the opposing quarterback, Rex Grossman of the Bears, in route to a Colts victory.  Manning went 25-38 in pass attempts, throwing for 247 yards with one touchdown and one interception.  Grossman went 20-28, threw for 165 yards, had one TD and two interceptions.  The weather conditions were horrible, with rain falling in Jacksonville for most of the game, and Grossman was clearly affected, much moreso than Manning.  Following the game, the story was told that Manning had worked all year with his center, Jeff Saturday, on taking wet ball snaps during practice, despite the fact the Colts home stadium was covered by a dome.  Saturday would ask Manning why they were doing this, and Manning replied that the day might come when they might need it.  He was right--and it came in handy on the game's biggest stage.  That is indirection, and soul training exercises work in the same way.

    The exercises recommended in TG&BG are:

    • Sleep
    • Silence and Creation Awareness
    • Counting Your Blessings
    • Praying Psalm 23
    • Lectio Divina
    • Margin
    • Reading the Gospel of John
    • Solitude
    • Slowing Down

    Smith recommends that these disciplines and these narratives should be explored and practiced in community, and TG&BG includes discussion questions and a small group guide.  Jim illustrates the relationship between practices, narratives, community, and the Holy Spirit this way:

    More resources for teaching this material are available at The Apprentice Series website.  I think this is a great resource, and could be used in small groups over a 12 or 13 week period.  As I have shared, I think that Dr. Smith has provided a practical, helpful, well grounded resource for those seeking to become more and more like Jesus.

    Check it out.

    Added note: For those in the Midwest, James Bryan Smith will be at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City November 6-7 leading an Apprentice Conference.  Though I don't know exactly what I'll be doing, I've been invited to come along with the team.  Check it out here.

    Thursday
    Aug202009

    Discerning a Call to Elder/Deacon/Pastor/Missionary/Priesthood?

    Long title.  Short concept.  I'm touchy about how people talk about calling, and exactly what we are called to.  There seems to be a tension between our ecclesial structures and the way the New Testament describes the "office" of leadership.  We ask peers, students, and friends about "calling to the ministry," and when we do so we are sincere.  What we mean is, "Is God directing you to serve as a Pastor, Elder, Deacon, or Missionary?"  But our more common way of phrasing the question, "Have you been called to 'ministry'?" unfortunately implies that there is an elite class of God-servants especially set apart for the work of the church, a ministry regarded more highly than the ministry of the laity.  I wish people would be more specific in how they phrased the question, and leave more general questions about calling to "the ministry" behind for good.

    With that being said, I am one called.  My ministry thus far has taken both traditional and non-traditional forms. I have served as a children's minister, a youth minister, I have preached in the presence of assemblies of the saints, I have taught and instructed small groups of believers.  I have walked alongside leaders, prayed with and for them.  I have opened the Scriptures often with friends to explore the words found there.  I have served in cities and small hamlets.  I have served the poor and the rich.  Thus far my life has been an adventure, and I'm humbled to play my part in a tale as grand as God's.

    My calling came when I was a high school student.  I saw something in the life of my youth minister, Bob Billups, that I found compelling.  And so I shared my calling, and it was met with skepticism.  "You won't make much money doing that type of work."  "You know, every church isn't like our church."  "Are you sure you're called to 'the ministry'?"  So I bottled those earliest thoughts, feelings, and emotions that would take me down the road of "the ministry", and began looking elsewhere for a vocation.

    After a failed attempt as a computer science major my freshman year in college, I was given the opportunity to serve as a day-camp counselor at Green Acres Baptist Church--the same camp where I recall first hearing the good news about Jesus.  It was at this camp that my experiences in leadership reawakened a desire to serve in pastoral leadership.  I was blessed by the students, I enjoyed serving alongside fellow Christians, and I witnessed God bringing fruit to bear through my life.  I had others name for me what they saw, including a long-time friend, a new acquaintance, and a grisly old football coach.  The next fall I went from an "undeclared" student at Baylor University to a Religion major in the Ministry Guidance program.  I had a trajectory.

    During my time in college I grew in knowledge of the Bible and of Christian theology.  I also served as an intern and interim youth pastor at a small, rural Baptist church in Crawford, Texas.  My tenure there did not last long, and I walked away thinking I would never serve youth again (I was wrong).

    After leaving Baylor I attended Dallas Theological Seminary and obtained a Master's in Christian Education.  I served two churches in the Dallas area.  I worked as an intern in children's ministry at Prestonwood Baptist Church.  After marrying my wife Molly in the summer of 2003, I joined the staff of First Baptist Church, Allen as the associate children's minister.  While serving the students and families of FBC, I was licensed and ordained for the gospel ministry.

    Molly, who is a graduate of Perkin's School of Theology, was also called to church leadership.  Molly was, and is, a Methodist.  We support and love one another in our respective callings.  And her calling took us to Kansas City and The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.  Since moving to Kansas City, I have served as a youth pastor, have been a leader at a conference youth camp for four consecutive summers, have volunteered with students, and have been a writer.  This past year I have experienced a number of nudgings from friends, neighbors, and colleagues to return to the work of the pastoral ministry.  I do not know if that is what God has for me.  Since college, my pastoral calling was always coupled with a desire to study the discipline of theology.  In an effort to live into that desire, I have worked toward a second master's degree, this time in the Religious Studies department at The University of Kansas.  After applying to six PhD programs last spring, and being denied six times, I am yet to discern the next step.  But there is no doubt God is continuing to use me "in ministry."

    If you're discerning a call to elder/deacon/pastor/missionary/etc., leave a comment.  I will pray for you.  Ask for prayer.  Don't just ask your family.  Ask your church.  Ask people you trust.  Ask strangers.  Then find a minister, and ask them questions.  Ask them about the blessings and curses of pastoral work.  The blessings outweigh the challenges, but there are challenges nonetheless.  Ask them how they sustain their families.  Ask them what it is like to prepare sermons, serve communion, extend pastoral support.  Ask them how they recharge their batteries when they are tired.  Ask them what seminary is like.  If they serve as part of a denomination, ask them about the system.  And then ask them who they look to as theological and pastoral mentors.  Make note of these people.

    If God is calling you to lead in some church office, you'll know.  God will show you the way, whether it be through friends, pastoral leaders, or strangers.  You'll sense it somewhere at the core of your being.  Or you'll trust the voices God surrounds you with to name things in you that you cannot see.  And if your calling becomes sure, then it becomes your responsibility to develop your character, though God's grace will surely be given as you undertake that task.  You must become a person of integrity.  You must become a person of love, humility, compassion, and truth.  You must become like Jesus.  And the good news is, the Bible tells us that you can be made holy by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    The church needs leaders.  And God is calling leaders.  Make space in your life to hear.  Listen carefully, closely.  Ask God to speak.  And if God speaks, you'll know.  And when you know, let me be the first to welcome you to the adventure.  

    The second, actually.  God will have been the first.

    Wednesday
    Aug192009

    Benjamin Meyers on Megachurch Worship, Mediation, and the Screen

    Aside from having a great first name, Benjamin Meyers provides insightful commentary at his blog.  This post caught my attention, thanks to the iMonk (on Twitter), and I found it so wonderfully written that I read it out loud, taking pleasure in the fine details, and how Meyers captures his experience of megachurch worship in a way that resonates with my own.  This is something you need to read, as Meyers does well to draw our attention to how technology shapes and influences the shape of our collective worship, and consequently our character.

    Check it out.

    Tuesday
    Aug182009

    Transient. Distracted. Elsewhere. :: Planted. Attentive. Present.

    Of the pairing above, which set of words resonate most fully with you?

    Our world is changing, and is undergoing further change.  And as changes take place all around us, they form and tailor us to navigate our world in ways that could be healthy but could also be to our detriment, and if not for us, then perhaps for our neighbors.  This is why it is critical for us to engage with our world in a discerning way, analyzing the emerging patterns, habits, and ways of being that define our age.  In many ways this type of quest is an attempt to hit a moving target, for in many instances the moment we grasp a hint of "what is going on," something new is going on.  The landscape changes.  But that does not mean we should stop trying to hit the target.

    Among my hobbies stands the study of sociology.  I love to know how people work, think, act, and relate.  I love to follow trends and read statistics, particularly when they intersect with patterns I've sensed in my own community.  I also believe that sociologists have much to offer us in understanding ourselves.  And it is just such an offering that Dalton Conley has provided us in his book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety.  The title captures the content well.

    In his book Conley traces the transition of the common American worker from 1959 to 2009.  He notes many changes.  Whereas his grandparents worked hard to retire at 50, today the world of work "means working more and more hours as you move up a towering ladder of economic opportunity (and inequality)."  Whereas his grandparents enjoyed socializing with friends and family, the modern "knowledge worker" has social ties that are normally just an extension of their work, for one has no idea from whence the next project or great opportunity will come (I see this in my own life.).  While his grandparents, whom he describes as having a "relatively progressive marriage," would eat meals at home with family, he observe that his own family never cooks.  They eat most meals at restaurants or on the run.  Conley observes that the modern individual constantly juggles one's calendar, particularly when one has a family, and most move hurriedly about from place to place.  When people are asked how the are doing, the most common answer is "busy."

    Conley observes that even when we are "here," we are often never "all here."  There is always some distraction.  Email, cell phone, or the constant reviewing of the millions of things "to do" that roll through our mind keep us from being fully present with our friends and loved ones.  As a result, we live in an Elsewhere society that blends work and leisure, home and office, investment and consumption, and public and private.  Conley does not decry this state of affairs.  Instead, he exhorts his readers to come to terms with it.  To live it.  To give in to the Blackberry.  This is reality, he believes, and we are best off joining the game rather than longing from some nostalgic yesteryear to which we can never return.

    Conley ends his book by asking, "Do I make sense?"  It is an appeal.  He knows that as a sociologist he can only formulate a theory, propose it to the reader, and the return will be up to his audience.  Does he tell a compelling story?  Does it fit the grid?  To paraphrase Jonathan Z. Smith, "Does the map fit the territory?"  And to all of those questions I would say yes.  We are more transient.  We are more distracted.  We are elsewhere.

    But for Christian communities, our role is to subvert these realities.  Our story is one of incarnation and grounding, attention and focus, presence and care.  Our story is also one of patience, gratitude, and slowness. We are friends of time.  While Conley's story is compelling, it does not constitute a truthful narrative in which we are called to live.  In fact, it unearths dangerous realities which threaten our life as followers of Jesus.  He names for us the principalities and the powers. And we have good news to share in the face of those realities, which are not realities at all.  They are simply illusion.

    Are you transient, distracted, or elsewhere?  If yes, how can you become planted, attentive, and present, and invite others into that same type of life?