Monday, October 29, 2012

Living on Purpose

I am a couple of months into what I hope will be a life-long experiment in living on purpose. Throughout my day, I have tried to be deliberate about the things I do and the ways in which I spend my time. I have even begun to wake up early so that I can spend each morning reading scripture, spending time in prayer, writing, and exercising. I am no morning person, so waking up early is a challenge!

In all that I do, I am trying to pay attention to the purpose of my life: a purpose which is not so much about God dictating my every move as much as it is about the tuning of my heart’s song so that it may be in harmony with God’s.

The writer Anne Lamott says that you can be sure that you have created God in your image when God starts to hate all the same people you do. Living on purpose reminds me that I am made in God’s image and not (thank goodness) the other way around.

The church is called to live on purpose, too. The mission statement of the United Methodist Church says that we are to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I must admit that most days I prefer the language of “purpose” to “mission statement,” because most mission statements sound like they should just be written on letterhead rather than etched upon the human heart.

“Mission” is about what we do, and it is vital, but “purpose” acknowledges that we cannot separate what we do from who we are. We are called to be people who, through willing spirits, are drawn into God’s story.

What if everything we did, together as a church and individually as members of the body of Christ, were done with a sense of purpose? What if we really viewed ministry through the lens of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? How many bad habits and outdated programs would we push to the side, and how much of our own cultural baggage would we ditch so that we could spend our time following God and serving one another?

The church is too important to go along for the sake of going along. There is too much at stake to live on accident, for there are many who need to hear the healing message of Christ’s love! There are disciples to be made! There is a world in need of transformation! With that kind of knowledge, how can we do anything but be driven to serve, to make disciples, to be about the business of working with God to transform the world? How can we do anything but live on purpose?

(This post was first posted at Devotions by Young Adults for Young Adults, a project of the General Board of Discipleship of the UMC. It was also sent as a devotion through Monday Morning in North Georgia, the weekly devotional of the North Georgia Annual Conference. It was a blessing to participate in each of these forums!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Noticing God

I was recently on a mission trip in Uganda, working with a school that badly needed a girls dormitory, since the 150 or so girls at the school were sleeping in bunk beds in a packed classroom. None of us on the team were skilled masons (we weren’t really skilled anything, to be honest), so we spent most of our time moving bricks.

Moving bricks is about as much fun as you might imagine, which is to say that it ranks somewhere between waiting in line at the DMV and having a tooth pulled. The local way of moving bricks is that you form a line, I guess you call it a fireman’s brigade, and toss bricks, one a time, down the line. Once the brick reaches the end of the line, you stack it there. By the end of the week, I noticed that we were really moving bricks to one spot and then moving them back, probably just to keep us busy. But it was pleasant work, working together and visiting with one another and with the local children.

One day of our trip was a national holiday, so there was no class. The teachers came to help us move bricks, and the children followed. Because they stood to benefit from the building of the dorm, they wanted to help in whatever small way they could. So the children and teachers intermingled with the mission team, and for an hour or so the Kingdom of God was present on earth, passing those bricks, one after another, learning each other’s work songs, laughing and working together, tossing bricks down the line.

I got so caught up in the work and the laughing that I almost didn’t notice that behind us, in a smaller line, there stood a group of small children, too young to pass the heavy bricks, but wanting to help. These small children found a small pile of stones, pebbles, really, and they stood behind us, lined up, about 10 of them, the first one taking a pebble from the pile, passing it along, passing it down, until they reached the end of the line. Once the children reached the end of the line, the last child placed the pebbles in a small pile.

It was right behind me, and I almost missed it, this sweet scene, this vision of the kingdom of God. Because the children were too small to help us pass larger bricks, they found another way to help.

I almost missed it. And yet, thank goodness and thank God, I noticed.

Question: What small ways have you noticed God working in your life lately?

(This post was first posted at Devotions by Young Adults for Young Adults, a project of the General Board of Discipleship of the UMC. I am the featured writer this month, and you will find a new post each Wednesday.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Putting in the Work

I’ve had plenty of struggles in my own life, just like everybody else. But perhaps my biggest struggle is getting over myself. While I’m usually a pretty big fan of myself, if I am honest, I seem to alternate between periods of self-loathing (thinking I am not good enough) and periods of self-importance (thinking nobody else is). There is no medium. I’m either awful or I’m perfect, depending on the time of day.

Does this happen to you? Do you somehow feel completely inadequate and also completely perfect? I think you call this particular condition “being human,” and it is the strangest feeling. When I feel these two urges at the same time, I know that I am focusing too much on myself, for I am obsessing over my own faults and my own strengths. The cure for this kind of lunacy is to get outside of myself, to go help somebody, to spend time in prayer listening to God rather than my usual mode, which involves telling God what it is that I need God to do for me.

It is difficult isn’t it? This business of getting outside yourself is one of the hardest things in life. I was reading recently in Mike Slaughter’s book, Momentum for Life, in which he says that in our “instant satisfaction culture, we want the CliffsNotes version of God: happiness, success, and fulfilling relationships. We want ‘easy’ and ‘now,’ and we try to make God work that way, too.”
The problem with this kind of CliffsNotes version of God is that a) it does not do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy, and b) it is less about God than it is about me. Like Veruca Salt in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I “don’t care how: I want it now.” I want to be happy, I want to successful, I want my life and my ministry to make me a fulfilled person.

There is only one thing missing from these desires: me! I want all these things, and I want God to provide them for me, but I don’t want to put in the work to make them happen. I get upset if I pray for something, and it doesn’t happen! But God is not a genie. There is no rule that if you rub the lamp (pray) you will receive your wishes. You must work in order to be fulfilled.

This is one of the central truths of following Jesus: you must put in the work, but you must not assume you are working for yourself. God will work in partnership with you. This is a pretty hefty responsibility, since it means that not only do you have something to say about your own fulfillment, but you also have something to do about the problems of the world. Mike Slaughter also says in his book that you are the only bank account that God has, after all.

There is much to be done! Let’s get busy!

Question: How are you being called to work in partnership with God?

(This post was first posted at Devotions by Young Adults for Young Adults, a project of the General Board of Discipleship of the UMC. I am the featured writer this month, and you will find a new post each Wednesday.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An old church structure for a new century

I pay attention to which posts on this blog get the most traffic. Whenever I write about Chick fil a, for instance, I usually see a spike in traffic. The thing that drives the most people to the blog? Church polity: church systems and structure. You people are as nerdy as I am. I love it.

This fact does my heart good, since I have been again thinking about the gift of United Methodist polity lately as I work on my ordination paperwork and as we prepare for charge conference.

I wrote last month about the upside-down triangle model of local church leadership, both as it relates to sermons and as it relates to church administration. The key words and phrases of this model of leadership, I think, are "empowering" and "filtering," rather than "demanding" and "commanding."

The times and the culture require a new form of local church leadership, such that the decentralization of information is accounted for in our structure. We need guides and authorities, but we as pastors and church leaders must operate in a new environment of openness and empowerment by being authentic filters of the Gospel and of God's work in the world.

We must acknowledge the presence of a network society (mirroring the ways in which our information flow works in the internet age), and we must behave in ways that do justice to the new ways humans interact.

Only, this model of networked interacting is not new, and it is not novel. In fact, this model of networked interaction is probably best called "connectionalism," and it is the fundamental principle of United Methodist church structure. Just like computers are networked together, so are churches yoked together in districts and conferences. Just like there is regulation of the internet by agencies, governments, and interested groups, so are churches regulated by General Conference and administered by Bishops and district superintendents. Just as there are outside groups that support the work of the network (Wikipedia Foundation, for instance, or Mozilla), so are there boards and agencies whose job it is to resource and support local churches. The internet, for all is supposed chaos, is not a free-for-all. Nobody has ever died from a Google search gone bad.

I do not care to forever go down the road of metaphor, but you understand the point. The United Methodist Church, decentralized as it is and relational as it is, is the perfect model for church in the 21st century, for it models emerging patterns of the ways in which humans interact.

Now, the church is not perfect, and neither is its structure. There are pockets among the boards and agencies of the church which seem to confuse their mission of resourcing and equipping with doing the outsourced job of the local church. Here, let me just brag on the North Georgia Conference, the annual conference of which I am a provisional member. The conference (and its staff) does what it needs to do in order to keep the trains running, but rather than being the body that does ministry for the local church, North Georgia works to equip its churches to do the ministry to which God is calling them. In particular, the Connectional Ministries staff (under the leadership of Rev. Mike Selleck) works to resource churches, providing them guidance, visioning, support, and encouragement. Here's a perfect model of leadership from a source outside the local church. The action does not happen in the conference office, but rather the conference helps the action to happen in the church.

Outside groups and agencies are important, but the place where this connectionalism is especially profound--and where the church has the most opportunity for growth--is in the connection between churches themselves. There are things you do in your church that can benefit me in the church I serve. There are resources I have that would be helpful to you in your setting. Neither church, regardless of size, is more or less important, for it is the connection that matters. The conference, after all, is little more than a connection. When we relate to one another, we are in connection. To paraphrase John Donne, no church is an island.

There have been efforts in recent months and years to change the fundamental nature of United Methodist structure to fit into a schema that is seen as more manageable and "effective." Many who stand on the street corner and preach the imminent death of the church argue that we must move towards a traditional top-down, corporate approach if we are to face the challenges of the new century.

This approach makes no sense to me, theologically or practically, for the challenges of the new century and the practical implications of being the church in the networked age are issues which match perfectly with how the church has been structured all along.

The task, then, is to decide how to tweak structures to better fit this decentralized, networked connectionalism in order that the church look more like its first principles (which, of course, involves being the Body of Christ).

Friday, October 5, 2012

Following Jesus, Loving Others

I have been around the church long enough to have an idea of what the theologian Alfred
Loisy meant when he said, "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was
the Church." Jean-Paul Sarte said it this way: "hell is other people."

So I sympathize with people who give up on the church and decide to just follow Jesus,
those who say they are not so much "Christians" as "Jesus followers." I get it. As a
pastor, I have seen people do some amazing things, and I have seen people do some awful
things. It is enough to make you just give up on the church and start over with just you,
your Bible, and your Jesus.

While I sympathize with this instinct, I also know that it is not good enough, for you
cannot separate relationship with other people from relationship with Jesus. Oh, people
have certainly tried. I know of folks who say that their mission is life is to do something
vague like "just be passionate about Jesus," or some such thing, and I have to admit
that I have absolutely no idea what that means. Is being passionate about Jesus about
sounding excited every time you say his name? Is being passionate about Jesus about
letting everyone know you are a Jesus-follower because of your clever t-shirt? Or is being
passionate about Jesus about something else entirely?

I have to believe that Jesus meant it when he said that when you feed a person who is
hungry, when you give water to someone who is thirsty, when you welcome someone
who is a stranger, you are feeding, giving drink to, welcoming Jesus (Matthew 25). We
were created to serve each other, and the way in which we are passionate about Jesus is
by being servants.

Or, think of it this way. We were all created in the image of God (Genesis 1), and we
each have within us that very image, no matter who we are or what we have done. I
cannot do justice to God's love and grace unless I do justice to God's love and grace
within myself, and within you, because you share that same image. You cannot leave
everyone behind and follow Jesus, for one of the primary ways in which we follow
Jesus is by loving each other. This is no problem when we are loving a cute child, or a
dedicated volunteer, or a salt-of-the-earth saint of the church. But the world is not made
up of perfect people.

Babies grow up. Volunteers get burned out. Even saints make mistakes.

The raw truth is that people are difficult. Loving is hard work, especially when we have
to find the image of God within an especially difficult person. But we have been given
the gift of the God who created us, who redeemed us through Christ, who stays with us
through the work of the Holy Spirit. This God and this gift deserve no less.

We were made for each other. Though some days, I feel like moving to the woods with
just me and Jesus, I know that there are great gifts involved with being the church. Rather
than dismissing all of it, let us work so that it may be more faithful. Let us welcome
everyone into this gift of community.

Question: How are you going to be the church today?

(This post was first posted at Devotions by Young Adults for Young Adults, a project of the General Board of Discipleship of the UMC. I am the featured writer this month, and you will find a new post each Wednesday.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Young Adult Devotions

This month, I'm the featured writer of the "Devotions by Young Adults for Young Adults" section of the Young People's Ministries website through the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church.

A new devotion will run each Wednesday for the month of October. Today's devotion is the first. Check it out.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Life verse

I have recently learned of the life verse phenomenon. You probably knew about it already. In fact, if you are enough of a Christian to read a blog post from a long-winded, somewhat sarcastic minister, you have probably had a life verse picked out for some time. A life verse is quite simply a Bible verse that gives your life some direction, that sums up who you are and who you hope to be, that does justice to your understanding of God.

There is some danger in this business, for we tend to ascribe magical status to some of our Bible verses. We sometimes take the sweet sentiment of one verse over and against the context, the rest of the Bible.

Take Jeremiah 29:11, for instance: for surely I know the plans I have for you, thus says the Lord: plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Isn't it nice. There is certainly a wonderful sentiment in this verse, the idea that God desires to give us a future with hope. That's a promise onto which I am happy to hold. God has a plan for me, and it is to give me a future with hope. This is unabashed good news.

This is great news on its own, but place the verse in theological and scriptural context, and Jeremiah 29:11 changes a bit. After all, just because God has a plan for me doesn't necessarily mean that things are going to work out the way I want them to (and if I can get controversial here for a moment, nor does it mean that things are going to work out the way that God wants them to).

Besides, God wasn't talking to me in this verse, anyway. God was talking to a group of people, the exiles in Babylon, and there is a huge difference between a future with hope for a group of people and a future with hope for little old me. Even then, the promise involved being exiled; if this is a future with hope, some of them must have thought, count me out!

So you see the problem. It is hard to sum the whole Bible, the entire life of faith, the abundance of God in one verse.

But I have realized over the last few weeks that I may, in fact, have a life verse. I have been thinking of this verse often. I have been reminded of it during difficult circumstances and triumphant experiences. The verse comes just before Jeremiah 29:11, just before the promise of hope.

In Jeremiah 29:7, the prophet shares the voice of God: "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare."

The more I meditate on this one verse, the more I am learning about who God is and what it means to be human. I am reminded that God partners with humanity, and that I have a role to play. I am reminded that even in difficult circumstances, I am called to love.

Most of all, I am reminded of something I have learned time and again, and I think it may perhaps be the most important thing I know. God loves everyone--everyone!--and the business of sharing that love with others is our primary vocation as humans and children of God.

What is more, you cannot run out of love. I have never met someone who loved so much that they simply ran out. Oh, I have known plenty of folks who have misunderstood the nature of love, constantly seeking it rather than offering it--and consequently ended up completely empty. But I have never met someone who has truly run out of love. Never.

In fact, the people I know who are the most loving also have the most love. One of the fundamental mysteries of being a human and being a follower of Christ is this: if you love, you will have love. It is the simplest thing I know, and the greatest. If you need proof, just look to Jesus.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare. You could spend a life chewing on that promise. I think I just might.