Saturday, November 23, 2013

Clergy & Vacations

Recently I saw a blog entry about “Pastors andVacations”, and it made me think about my own experiences with taking time away from church.

Once, in a previous church, while I was away, a group met and decided to gut the budget. Upon return, one member of the group called me to give me advanced warning. In hindsight, their meeting was fortuitous. My wife and I felt God leading me to move. Actually, she felt it more clearly than I did, and their decision to gut the budget was helpful in our decision making process.

In a particularly turbulent time in another ministry setting, my family and I returned from vacation to find the church still standing. I was shocked that nothing had happened. The world still turned, and the sun came up each morning. It was a profound learning experience. I recall seeing the church building and thinking, “Wait a second. God’s got everything under control.” One would think a clergyperson would know that.

In recent years, my wife and I look forward to time away. Once, during a particularly busy season of time away (e.g. conference, family events, and actual vacation), a congregant said to our personnel committee chairperson, “Is anyone tracking how much time he’s gone?” The chairperson was indignant and she told me she thought, How could he question our pastor, after all he does for us? It warmed my heart.

The conversation she related to me brings me to my view of clergy and time away: this topic is all about mutual love and understanding. It’s about the relationship. If the congregation loves the pastor, they will insist on time away; they will encourage it. Some, who have much, might even financially encourage it by offering to help pay for respite for tired clergy. I have been the recipient of this kind of generosity, and it was not because the couple who made the offer had just read a brochure about clergy burnout; they offered my family and I a week away because they love and care for us.

A fellow clergyperson told me about a season in his church in which he conducted an inordinate number of funerals, including three in one week. He was rapidly becoming numb to death and the grieving process. I was not with him on a daily basis but I imagine that he internalized much of his struggle with the constant comfort he offered grieving families. Someone in his congregation initiated the idea of giving him a sabbatical. Only God knows who planted that seed, but after his time away, this pastor came back refreshed and rejuvenated to love his congregation and continue serving them.

Jesus is recorded as saying, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” We are all (clergy and laity) called to love people where they are, not where we want them to be or where we think God wants them to be. We meet them where they are, love them, and feed them with the bread of life.

This means being gracious even when someone asks, “Is anyone keeping track of his/her hours?” It would be easy to snap back with the number of times we have missed our kids’ soccer games or bedtime routine because of a  committee meeting or late night hospital visit. It is tempting to say, Do you have any idea what I do? But, we do not say that. Instead, we are called to try and feed each person where they are. We say, “Thank you for asking. I appreciate your concern and am sorry you feel neglected. Can we meet for a coffee?”

If we love the people we encounter, many will love us back. If we love the people we serve, they will still love us when we take time away. If we truly love them, we will love our families and take care of ourselves, and to do so means taking healthy vacations and not worrying about our ministry settings while away. Beyond everything, God is in control.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Future of the Church

People have gathered together to proclaim Christ since shortly after his death and resurrection. At some point they stopped being called Christ-followers and became known as Christians. Also, at some point, they stopped being little groups and these gatherings became known as churches. Over the centuries, the church has changed and evolved. Beliefs became doctrines and structures evolved.

Now we have finished the first decade of the twenty-first century. What does the future of the church look like?

The truth is: no one knows.

Times will change. On his blog, David Murrow speculated that midsized churches will disappear. I am not sure that I agree with that prognostication. It seems a bit deterministic. Murrow also sees and explosion in satellite campuses and micro-churches. Maybe. He also sees a shift away from denominations, which seems likely as distances collapse in the virtual world. I can connect with a pastors in Canada and the U.K. almost as easily as fellow clergy only a few miles away, and on occasion, I have more in common with someone four thousand miles away than I do with someone who is four miles away.

Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of hope focuses on the resurrection as a spring of optimism. Only with faith and hope can we find “not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering” (1967, p. 21). As I look to the future, I recognize that the church will change, but share Moltmann’s theology of hope. Churches and Christianity will not disappear, so what will it look like?

Will churches be greener?
Will they be more like social clubs? Or, will they be more socially conscious?
Will churches be better educators of those who show up?
Will we be better organized, have better programs, and just be ‘better’?
Will church be worse?
Will various churches have more in common or more differences?
There are many more questions.
The answer to these is ‘yes’.

We do not know the future, but this is an interesting topic to think about.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A new beginning…and a rich history

I arrived in Kilmarnock in 2009, ready to begin a new chapter in my life.  However, I did not realize that jumping into something new for me would also entail entering into a rich history.
Whenever a person begins a new venture, everything is fresh.  The stories that long-timers have heard over and over again take on new meaning as the newest member hears the old stories for the first time.  
For a little while, I was one of the newest members, and all the old stories were new again.  In addition to the stories being new, the people were all new.  The tired traits that others have to ignore are suddenly original and interesting, and the overlooked talents become obvious to a new observer.  In this respect, being new has its advantages.
For me, I came here because I felt called to come.  It was the right time to begin a new season for me and for my family.  When we accepted the church’s call, I did not know about the wonderful history of Kilmarnock Baptist Church.  My family and I are pleased and proud to be here. 
Over the weekend of October 23-25, 2009 I began to learn and appreciate the church’s history.  Jewish people often exemplify living or owning their history.  A Jewish teaching would not say, “When the Jews left Egypt…”  The statement would more likely be, “When we” or “When my people left Egypt…”  
As Christians, we can own our heritage too.  The Apostle Paul is my Christian brother and forbearer.  Lydia, the fabric merchant in Acts 16, is my Christian sister.  And, just as the lineage continues through the centuries, those wonderfully dedicated people who gathered together one hundred years ago to lay the foundation for Kilmarnock Baptist Church are part of my Christian tradition.  
I take ownership of the Kilmarnock story as part of my story.

The story continues…

Sunday, November 3, 2013

5 Things About God And Beer

A recent story on NPR is about how churches are using beer & hymns or beer & worship to reach out to new people. This is nothing new. Dustin Desoto wrote a blog entry for The title is “5 Things You Might Not Have Known About God And Beer”. Here they are:

  • As far back as the 18th century, Paulaner monks in Germany would brew and drink a heavy, malty type of beer called Doppelbock for Lent. The Paulaner monks weren't allowed to eat solid food for the duration of Lent, so the next best thing? Beer. The beer was so nutritious that it kept them nourished for the entire 40-day fast. The Paulaner Brewery in Munich still brews the Doppelbock beer today.
  • Arthur Guinness, creator of Guinness beer, was a devout Christian who grew up in a time when drunkenness, mainly from liquor, was rampant. Brewing beer was safer than brewing liquor, and it was a well-respected profession. Monks had been brewing beer for ages, and Guinness decided to do it to give people in his community a less potent alternative to liquor. He used the teachings of God and applied it to his business. As Stephen Mansfield wrote in RELEVANT magazine: "The Guinness tale is not primarily about beer. It is not even primarily about the Guinnesses. It is about what God can do with a person who is willing and with a corporation committed to something noble and good in the world."
  • Imagine a huge music festival with a heavy dose of religion. That's the vibe at Greenbelt Festival in London, where people come to the Cheltenham Racecourse to be inspired by God with the help of art and music. The roots of the festival are in the Christian tradition, but non-Christians are welcomed as well. What sets this religious festival apart is the beer. Take, for example, an event called Beer and Hymns (which was the inspiration for the service of the same name held at First Christian Church Portland featured in John Burnett's story). People gather under the beer tent during the festival, grab their cup of beer and sing along with words on the screen. With hands raised high up in the air, people are free to drink and praise God.
  • Beer brewing is as ancient as the Sumerians, who had a goddess called Ninkasi with a recipe for beer. The recipe was pressed into a clay tablet that dates back to around 1800 BCE. It was called The Hymn to Ninkasi, and it gives hints on how to brew beer. Ninkasi made sure that the people of Sumer had fresh beer made daily. The goddess predates the Christian St. Arnold of Soissons, who was one of many Saints believed to bless and protect their beers.
  • A long-standing belief is that Benjamin Franklin was quite the beer lover. This may stem from a quote attributed to the founding father, stating, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Not to burst the beer lover's bubble, but Chicago-based brewing historian Bob Skilnik went back to take a look at the real quote. He found that the quote actually reads: "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy." Companies like Elevator Brewing Co. had to recall T-shirts with the quote printed on them. In a press release, owner Dick Stevens said, "I have no doubt that ole Ben enjoyed a tankard or two of beer with friends and associates, but this beer quote, while well-meaning, is inaccurate."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Accepting God with Joy

Children can be demanding. In any public space, we can often witness a child’s demands: I want that! I want it now!
On the other hand, we can also see polite children. That is, if we watch, we can see a child say Please, and then when she receives something, say, Thank you.
This latter example shows accepting something with appreciation and joy. In the Bible, we see God at work in the world and with humanity. Often, people work in concert with God or with God’s prompting and guidance. For example, in the Minor Prophet Jonah, the main character Jonah is called by God to deliver a prophecy.
Jonah’s story is familiar to many people and one of my favorites. Instead of doing as he is called to do, he goes the opposite direction. He runs away from God, is thrown from a ship in storm, swallowed by a fish, spit up on the beach, and after repenting, he goes where God called him to go.
For children, it is a great Bible story. Many children especially enjoy the part about Jonah being swallowed by the fish. However, it is not simply a child’s story; it is a story about being obedient, accepting God, and following where God leads. Jonah has a deterministic view of God. This means he sees God or his interpretation of God as unchanging. In other words, God promised to destroy the people of Nineveh, so there had better be some fire and brimstone raining down from the sky!
Jonah wants God to act like a character in a children’s story. However, something totally different happens. The people of Nineveh repent. They turn away from their evil ways and God forgives them. Jonah does not like this at all. He is upset with God for forgiving the Ninevites! He says, “I knew this would happen! You are a gracious God and merciful and abounding in love!”
The story of Jonah and Nineveh leads to a happy ending. Everything is going to be okay, but Jonah’s response is like a demanding child: I thought I was going to see fireworks! I thought they were going to get their comeuppance! I was ready for a real donnybrook!
Nothing happens. There are no fireworks. Instead, God forgives.
How difficult is God’s grace to accept sometimes? Are there people or situations that are just too difficult to let go? What if God forgives the other person? Are we not also supposed to forgive them? Are we willing to accept God? Are we willing to let God forgive us? Sometimes accepting God’s forgiveness is the difficult first step toward forgiving others. For Jonah, accepting God with joy was too much. He could not stand God’s love because it went out beyond him and included people like the Ninevites!

Jonah teaches us something profound about the nature of God. God offers redemption, the chance to turn or repent, to everyone, including the people we would rather not see in the Kingdom. This can be a hard lesson, but it can challenge us to be more loving. Instead of being upset with God’s love and forgiveness, we can say, I knew this would happen! You are a gracious God and merciful and abounding in love! Make me more like you. Let me be gracious, merciful, and abounding in love.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Centering Prayer

As Christians, we pray. We pray multiple times each Sunday in both worship services, but we who are leading the worship services pray before each one. A small, but dedicated group, meets before worship to pray. In Sunday School, we pray. In choir practice, we pray. At WOW, we pray. In our daily devotional lives, we pray. Some people begin each day with a prayer and end each day with a prayer. When we are in the hospital or worried about something or have something else on our minds, we pray. Sometimes, we pray for forgiveness when we realize we really need it. Prayer is a central part of who we are as followers of Christ.
The question for some people is how do we pray? The answer is there is no one, right way to pray. Prayer is about communing with God. It is best when it is honest, open, and sincere. God already knows what we are thinking, so why would we try to deceive the one who made everything that is? The key to prayer is communicating with God and listening.
Since there is no single, correct way to pray, there are different ways to approach our maker. Our bulletin includes a breath prayer each week. This is a simple phrase that can be repeated in prayer and take on new meaning as it is repeated over and over again throughout the week. There is also lectio divina which means holy reading. In order to practice lectio divina, we can take a scripture passage and read it as a prayer. Keep the passage short, and repeat it. Read it slowly. Let the words sink in and then offer them as a prayer. Scripture can take powerful, new meaning when we read it this way.
With so many kinds of prayers, why look at one that might be new or unfamiliar? The intent is to grow closer to God. Centering prayer is an approach to a time of prayer. Instead of saying anything, we focus on God and listen. We try to empty our minds and hear our Lord speak. Basil Pennington writes about it in his book Centering Prayer (New York: Image Books, 1982). He writes, “Centering prayer enables us not only to pray as Christians but to pray as Christ” (p. 223), and he cites Galatians 2:2, “I live, not now I, but Christ in me.” Prayer can help us let go of ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, and join the very depth of our being with Christ.
Thomas Keating offers these suggested steps for trying centering prayer:
1.     Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2.     Sitting comfortably, introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
3.     When you become aware of anything, return to focus on God using your sacred word.
4.     At the end of the prayer, remain in silence with your eyes close for a couple of minutes.

Our prayers are a response to reality, a life that really exists, and they are offered to a God who really exists. Centering prayer is a tool that can allow us to focus our attention on God in order to more closely relate and hear the leading of our Lord.