Sunday, February 4, 2018

Practices to Grow in the Holy

Jesus told them, "When you're celebrating a wedding, you don't skimp on the cake and wine. You feast. Later you may need to pull in your belt, but not now." Matthew 9:14-17 The Message

It’s happened again. This time, a Christian blogger – to be unnamed – denounced yoga as something designed to cause a demonic trance. No more said on that bit, but this seems like a good moment to write about three of my spiritual practices. 

First off, I’m a Christian. I have a seminary education (MDiv) and have pastored a variety of United Methodist congregations these last ten years. Yes, I’m progressive in my theology, but I have one; I know what it is and it’s generally sound. 

During my final year in seminary, we had an assignment to read a chapter a week from a book on spiritual disciplines (“practices” and “disciplines” being used interchangeably here), practice said discipline however briefly and write a page on the experience. As we approached the last week of class, I emailed both instructors. “Could I write on a difference practice?” I’d still read the chapter, but I wanted to write on something I’d been practicing a l-o-n-g time. After some emails back and forth, I received the go-ahead to write about music. 

I started piano lessons 49 years ago but I've been playing (and singing) forever. I can play a variety of instruments (badly, anymore). I listen to “Alexander's Entry Into Pskov” from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky (I witnessed a live performance in Philadelphia years ago) and I still get goosebumps. How can anyone listen to music – or witness any great art – and question God’s presentness among us?! 

Still, why would I consider this a spiritual practice? 

My mind has always been one that goes in three directions at once, usually at top speeds. Most of my life I had trouble shutting it down so I could sleep. Music helps me to be present. 

We only get one “now” and it makes sense to live into it fully. Yet for much of my life, most of my attention was spent considering the future and reviewing the past. How many “todays” did I miss? 

No more! (Well, not so much...) I will live in the present, today, now! 

Although it’s a very imperfect fix, music helps me to be present. When I’m playing with the New Horizons Orchestra (miss you guys) I’m focused on the page in front of me, my fingers and bow, the sounds around me... oh, yeah, and the director <grin>. I’m present. When I sit at the piano, I attune to my fingers and listen. Again, I’m present. It’s imperfect, yes, because though I have a lot of practice in  I also have a lot of practice at thinking over top of whatever I’m doing. Still this helps. 

Two other spiritual disciplines I practice are meditation (Buddhist-style) and yoga. Horrors! But just as I don’t believe that Christians don’t have a corner on G-d’s word for us – G-d can connect with whomever G-d chooses – I believe people of other faiths (and some non-faiths) have things to teach us. 

Yoga and meditation both help me get out of the way so I have a better chance to notice the holy. I can get so caught up in my own woes that I forget to celebrate what I have. Anything that pauses the navel-gazing so that G-d can reach me is all to the good. 

Now I also pray, read the bible, participate in worship, tithe, give to those in difficult situations, and use my voice to speak out against injustice, but these other disciplines are equally valid and some days more so. When I haven’t taken time to sit with G-d in silence in meditation or made time to pray with my body through yoga, my service to G-d and others suffers.

I know some people have strict notions about what we should do to grow in G-d. But I question those who are so sure; how can they know? And I’m no longer convinced by other people’s “shoulds” (though I’m still working on my own).

Love G-d and love all the others around you. And practice drawing closer to the Source of All-that-is in the ways that best serve you for that purpose.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Epiphanies and Other Learnings

e·piph·a·ny/ əˈpifənē/
3 a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
I'd intended to write this entry before year's end. Some event had caught my attention, making me think about epiphanies. I thought I wrote it down to work on later and I asked Facebook friends to share epiphanies they'd experienced, or any learning they'd noticed in the last year. When I went back to what I’d written I couldn’t find it. I looked on both laptops at the house. I never did find it so this idea went onto the back burner to be revisited another day. Today's that day.

I never did remember what prompted me to think this would be a good idea. Never found my notes. But I regularly experience epiphanies. Do you? Times when that "Ahhh!" or "Ah-ha" pops out of your mouth (or at least into your head)?

This past summer one epiphany came as I was settling into my new church appointment and was reminded that different churches have different styles. I'd learned this right away in pastoral ministry as I worked with three churches at once and found that each one had their own story, their own ways, their own hopes and fears and joys. Here at Wausau, we all worship the same God, but we do it in ways that reflect our own context.

Another epiphany came just a few weeks ago. As background, I've been regularly praying for a friend for a couple years. They're a great person; I love them. But I suspect that fear is keeping them from moving forward and living as fully as they can. So anyway, one night in January as I was finally trying to get back into my meditation practice, I was reflecting on this friend and the fear I notice. Maybe it was what I'd been reading (Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love) but as I lifted up my friend, I realized that fear has – still – been getting in the way of living my own life.

Wow! I hadn't realized! I've been thinking about this off and on since then, asking myself about this fear and what I need to do both to honor it and to step away from it some more so that I can live more fully. Okay, with me so far? Then on Thursday I was rereading some old journal entries from two years ago (another practice I really need to get back to – journalling, that is) and there in black ink from my G-2 pen I had written about this same fear! I don't know about you, but I clearly need reminders about what's important, what I need to remember and revisit.

This message isn't at all what I thought it would be about when I sent out the call asking friends to share learnings or epiphanies they'd had. Still here are some things they shared. I'd love it if you'd share your own, maybe below as a comment, or on Facebook.

Happy reading.
  • Bad grades aren't the end of the world.
  • I was commissioned to paint four posters for my brother's business. Though I completed them all to specification, I was never fully satisfied with one of them, but that is his favorite. This happened a few times.
    Sometimes other people see value in things that I don't, especially in my own work.
  • During the past year I have been intentionally working to connect more with people on a casual, day-to-day basis. I have a simple goal of making eye contact and smiling to at least three people every time I enter a store, a meeting, or place of business. (Yeah, I know this bar is pretty low, but I am trying to form a habit that doesn’t come naturally to me!) I do notice how much happier I feel after doing this and hope the people I connected with feel the same way. Just this last week, I was reading an essay by Richard Rohr in which he was discussing the importance of connection. He made the statement—“God resides in the connection with others.” This stopped me cold in my reading tracks! I have given much thought to this over the past few days and have noticed that the actions we label as positive, or Christian, rely on connection. Love, compassion, support, helpfulness, unity, acceptance----the list goes on and on. If we look at the actions we label as negative, or unchristian, we could name exclusion, greed, anger, selfishness, hatred, mockery; actions that separate our connections with others. A simple concept, but life-changing for me: God resides in the connections with others.
  • I really don't know ... I mean, I've had a bunch of realizations ... cars aren't supposed to be exciting, they are a tool; I don't think I can get paid to do really meaningful work ... I think you have to earn your money elsewhere and volunteer to do that when the time comes.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Practicing and Failing

Since September I’ve been doing pretty well practicing my morning devotions. I took off during my staycation between Christmas and the New Year, but got right back into it in January. Then Thursday as I got ready for my day, I looked at my chair with the bible, study and prayer books and glasses on the table next to it and thought, “I’m not going to do that today.” I didn’t have any good reason except that I wanted to get to church while the men’s group was still meeting. I told myself since I hadn’t left the church until 8:30 last night, I’d be breaking my twelve-hour rule (staying away from there for 12 hours) but I persevered in my choice. 

Skipping devotions and breakfast, I made it to church around 7:25. I putzed around my office, putting things back in order after moving the desks yesterday. Looking around I liked what I’d done. It was almost 8 when I headed to the parlor. Six men sat in a circle, a round coffee table at their center. I recognized some of them also noting a couple of absences. A seventh chair sat vacant; they invited me to sit.

“We lost Matt.”

For the next twenty minutes, I sat with them as they took turns sharing thoughts and feelings about how Matt had influenced their lives, how he’d shaped their group, how they still had much to learn from his calm, centered example. We spent three minutes in meditation, something Matt had led in the past but which Steve led today. Two cell phones announced their presence during that time, and afterward we joked about that being a real test to being present to our meditation. Soon after, I excused myself.

When I decided to skip my morning practice, I thought I was just being lazy or something. I need regular prayer and meditation to help me stay centered. And if I skip even one day, it’s easy to skip the next. (That’s how my yoga practice fell apart, something I’m still working to reinstate.)

I need practices and didn’t think well of myself for choosing to skip out on this one. How could I have known that veering from my pattern was exactly the right thing for that morning? Only by showing up did I realize this was what I was supposed to do.

When night comes and you examine your day, hold it gently. Assume that you did what you could. Reflect on the lives you touched. And if you find yourself mentally scolding, dig a bit deeper. Notice what good thing might have come out of that choice. Whose day might have been better? Whose load a little lighter? Might creation have cheered for some little thing you did? If you need to, remind yourself of something you can work to do better. Then thank God and let it go. Rest in the confidence that your day was as it needed to be.

Friday, December 29, 2017

On Considering a Different Leadership Model

I was at the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas in September. Thursday evening, there was a special program so I hung around campus after the final afternoon session. Sitting at one of the patio tables outside the huge building, I tried to work on Sunday's sermon while simultaneously enjoying the lovely autumn afternoon. It all became a bit more challenging when the lawn service people showed up.

I paused to watch them as they worked. Two were maneuvering what looked like industrial-sized weed whackers. Another swung a large leaf blower around like he’d had lots of practice. The two John Deere vehicles seemed like crosses between Segways and riding mowers. Their riders standing on back looked like they were having a blast zipping over curbs and around parking trees, winding this way and that. But the job got done, and – it seemed – with very few extra runs. They were most efficient.

This seems like a perfect example of what we in the church would love to do, but seldom actually achieve. Often we want to do a new thing but in old ways – ways that are inefficient and part of what made the old things ineffective. Or, we mean to do some good thing, but we get lost in the "how-to" details. I don't know about other denominations but United Methodist Churches has been around long enough to have a fair amount of "red tape." Do we really need to run our idea past this committee and that one? Maybe not; if we know what we're doing and what it requires of the church – members, time, money – maybe we only need to ask one and inform the rest. Too often good ministry doesn't happen because too many people are involved, too many can slow down the process, too many can say "no." 

The Accountable Leadership Model seems like an excellent way to revamp our old, comfortable church structures. I attended a workshop last summer and have been reading and considering possibilities since then. In an Accountable Leadership structure. ...

  • All church leaders are selected for their discipleship first. 
  • One group takes the place of all church committees, with the more experienced or knowledgeable ones taking the lead when conversation moves to, say, human relations or stained glass. 
This may seem crazy at first glance but think of the people you know in church who ...
  • Are so busy with committees or ministry teams that they don't have time actually to be involved in a local mission or ministry; or who
  • Believe they're doing enough ministry simply by attending those meetings.
The church needs to help people remember what church is all about. Some get it, but many think it's about Sunday morning and some charity. The church exists so that we can be disciples – by practicing justice, compassion, worship (yes), and personal devotion/prayer  and so that by doing we can invite and welcome others to join us in this activity. Anything other than that is a social organization. They can do good work too but they're not about discipleship which is what Christ calls us to be as the church.

So, anyway, I'm promoting that churches consider whether an accountable leadership model might work for them. It might not work for the largest churches, they may need more structures, but most churches aren't that big. And anything that has the potential to get more of us out outside the church walls and outside our own assumptions ought to be considered. Talk to your (other) church leaders about it.

And blessings in the Christmas season.