Tuesday, May 07, 2013, 6:25 PM
I spent the week of April 15-19 in the Boston area. I'd scheduled this week of continuing education several months before and had been looking forward to it all winter. Like many of you, I find that attending seminars is one of the ways I renew my spirit. After a winter that was hard in every possible way, I was ready for my spirit to be renewed.
On Monday, I attended a meeting at the Massachusetts Conference Office in Framingham. I learned about the explosions when I arrived at my motel room late in the afternoon. On Tuesday morning, when I exited the Mass Pike and drove through Cambridge toward the Episcopal Divinity School, I immediately noticed the enhanced police presence. I remember thinking, "this is not the last of these. There will be another act of senseless violence that seems to come out of nowhere for no apparent reason. This is world in which we live now."
Later, I realized that the world has always been this way. I am just more aware of the impact of violence now.
Half of the workshop participants were from the Boston area and the rest were from other places. The workshop leaders graciously realized that participants needed to talk about what was happening in the city as well as the materials we were supposed to be discussing. As I listened to folks, particularly those who were local, talk about what they were feeling, I was reminded of the kinds of responses I heard in the days following the Sandy Hook tragedy, from anxiety to questioning to shaken belief systems to outrage at the media. I tried to be a pastoral presence to folks who were feeling the effects of violence in their own community or the community in which they were guests.
I was eating a cheeseburger in a restaurant on Thursday night when the pictures of the suspects were first published. Like everyone else, I strained to look at them, and wondered if it would be hours or months before they were caught. I suppose that I, and everyone else, peeked at our neighbors, too.
That evening, in my hotel room, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' sermon, "Learning in War-Time", which he preached at St. Mary's Church in Oxford in the fall of 1939. At the beginning of the Second World War, Lewis was speaking to young adults who were asking why they should study literature and science when the world around them was falling apart and they felt called to extraordinary action. These men and women knew that, soon, they would have to leave their place of study to participate in the war effort, in some form or another. They also understood that some of them would survive the war and others would not. All of them knew they would be significantly changed by whatever would happen next.
Lewis invited the students to recognize that the times in which they lived were no more or less extraordinary than any other time. Some pressing topic, like a war or some other crisis, can always distract us from what we should be doing. He reminded the students that fear of pain or death should not hinder their learning. All of us will experience death and most of us will suffer significant pain at some point in our lives. In conclusion, Lewis wrote, "…if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can still think so."
Lewis and the university students most likely understood learning in the academic sense. But it is important to remember that the word most frequently used in the New Testament to describe the followers of Jesus is disciple, a word that essentially means learner. The kind of education God calls us to undertake is not merely the education of our intellect but, of our whole selves: "heart, soul, and might." [Deut 6:5]. The goal is not merely to understand the world but to transform it, even as we learn how God can transform us and how we can transform ourselves and one another. God calls us to undertake this kind of learning in circumstances that are confusing, uncertain, and threatening. God calls us to be disciples and to continue in discipleship even when events seem to distract us.
I heard sirens throughout the early hours of Friday morning and struggled to remain asleep. At about 7 AM I learned that we were to "shelter in place" while the police sought to capture the remaining suspect. The final day of the workshop did not happen. We headed home without completing our commitments to ourselves and one another and without saying farewell.
Events interfered with our learning. But that is no reason to give up on learning.
Life has always been like this. But so has God and God's call.
Monday, February 18, 2013, 9:20 PM
On March 10, most of our congregations will receive the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering. You have probably opened your promotional materials from the National Setting and are getting ready to place inserts in Sunday bulletins, mail information to the members of your church, and place offering envelopes in the pews.
Each year, the promotional materials allow us glimpses of the lives of people all over the world who receive real blessings from this offering: emergency assistance in times of disaster, access to clean water and sanitation, basic health care, and support for sustainable agriculture. Many of the folks blessed by our offerings live in countries we have barely heard of. Others may live next door. All are our neighbors and sisters and brothers in Christ.
One Great Hour of Sharing has blessed our local communities recently. In October, when Hurricane Sandy hit, five churches in Southwestern Connecticut received emergency assistance grants to meet immediate needs in communities that lacked power and to help with repairs to church facilities.
Following the December 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, United Church of Christ Wider Church ministries provided a response team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to support churches and other faith communities in the Region as they ministered at a time of overwhelming loss. This ministry is supported by gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing. Many of us have experienced this ministry first hand through on site visits and in the retreat they recently offered. Their ministry with us will continue as long as it is needed.
I encourage you to remind the members of your local church that gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing make it possible for the United Church of Christ and our ecumenical partners to respond immediately, wherever the need is, and to continue long term recovery efforts long after other organizations have moved on.
May God continue to bless each of our churches and the whole United Church of Christ as, together, we strive to bring God's love to a hurting world.
Monday, October 08, 2012, 9:52 PM
When I began serving on the Conference Staff in 2005, I was given a spiral bound book of street maps of the Region I worked with. Someone had thoughtfully tabbed the pages with the names of the towns and marked each church on the appropriate map. The maps were quite useful in finding my way to unfamiliar places. Eventually, of course, I pretty much knew the location of all the churches, but I continued to keep the book of maps with me. It helped me find my way on back roads more times than I can remember.
Reading a map while driving can be both challenging and dangerous. In a book of detailed maps, one often has to flip pages to stay oriented. The risk is amplified if I have to take my glasses off to read the map properly
I also relied on directions printed from an online website. But I had to know where I was intending to go before I left the house, since I did not have mobile access to the Internet until a few years ago.
Reading printed directions while driving is also challenging-if not dangerous. It can be difficult to see the print. Street signs are not always clear or accurate. Sometimes I forget to keep track of the miles and lose track of where I am in relation to the directions. Once, I actually encountered 2 roads with the exact same name within 3 miles of each other. [No, they weren't the same road. They were in different towns.]
I first began to try using a GPS in 2006 or so. These early devices were inconsistent in the quality of information they provided. For a long time, I resisted getting and using one. But a colleague gave me one about a year ago. I purchased updates for the system and, through trial and error, began to see how it could be a more valuable tool than either of the alternatives.
This Spring, when I began working with a large group of churches that were new to me, I decided to intentionally use the GPS for all of my travels. Overall, it has been a helpful tool and my experiences have been quite positive. One great thing about a GPS is that I don't really have to know where I am-I just have to know where I want to go. I can think of only once in the last 4 months when it has not gotten me to the right place.
Yet, driving while guided by a GPS has its own challenges. The driver must listen to the voice and watch the road and maps on the screen. One must read street signs, estimate numbers of linear feet, while processing commands and thinking about what comes next. Sometimes we think we're following the directions only to realize that we've missed a turn or turned too quickly.
When I'm following the GPS, particularly on unfamiliar side roads, I have an uneasy feeling that I don't know where I am. I trust that I am going the right way and know to make the next turn, but don't have that overall sense of where I am that a paper map can give me.
My GPS is fairly unsophisticated. It doesn't have a "seek alternate route" feature. If a highway is jammed and I exit to try secondary roads, the GPS will try to bring me back to the highway until I get far enough away for it to seek a different route. A few times I've had to intentionally get lost by ignoring the directions until the device could find a better route for me.
In the 20 years I've been ordained, I've been to any number of "how to make your church better" workshops. Many of these offered an approach that was a bit like following a paper map or reading printed directions. Follow this program. Adapt as necessary. Do this and things will improve:
Income will increase. The church will attract more members. A strategic plan will help the church accomplish more. The right program of Bible study or spiritual formation will produce church members who are more knowledgeable about their faith and committed to living it. Basically, follow the directions and things will get better.
We live in a time of profound cultural and religious change. Tried and true approaches aren't working as they once did. We need to imagine anew how best to offer leadership to new ways of being the church that are sensitive to the great and small changes happening all around us.
Church leadership in these times is more like following a GPS than following a map or written directions. We need to be attentive to information coming at us from a variety of sources, to read the situation effectively and respond appropriately, making adjustments along the way as needed.
We rely on God's Word and our collective and individual discernment to determine where we are going. But, once we know where we're going, it's OK if we don't always know where we are on the journey. If we get lost, intentionally or unintentionally, we'll find our way back to the path that will get us to our destination, as long as we continue to pay attention to all the signs and all our senses.
It's a great journey to be on. I'm delighted to be taking it with all of you.
Monday, April 02, 2012, 10:33 AM
Like most of you, I am sometimes asked, in the course of a workshop or other event, to name a favorite biblical character, or a biblical story that best describes my understanding of myself in ministry. My answer is always the same: Jonah.
Jonah is my favorite biblical character. I love Jonah because he tried to run away from God's call-but God found him anyway. I love Jonah because he was disappointed when things turned out the way that God wanted but didn't turn out the way Jonah wanted. I love Jonah because he got really upset over the death of his plant-something that affected his comfort-but failed to get upset about what really mattered.
I also love Jonah because he did, reluctantly, answer God's call and faithfully did what God asked. I love Jonah because he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his shipmates. But, most importantly, I love Jonah because God called him, used him, and reasoned with him in spite of his imperfections.
When some of Jesus' contemporaries ask him for a sign, he replies that "…no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth." [Matt. 12: 39-40]
I know that I'm more like Jonah than I am like Jesus. But even Jonah has a resurrection story-one that Jesus recognizes and honors. From the belly of the fish, Jonah acknowledges that when life threatened to overwhelm him, he called to God and God answered him. Jonah didn't drown in the sea. He went on to serve God grudgingly but faithfully.
If you feel like you're drowning this week, remember Jonah.
Sunday, February 26, 2012, 7:27 PM
About ten years ago I attended a weeklong retreat sponsored by the Shalem Insititute in Washington, DC. This retreat was one component of a program in group spiritual direction that I was participating in.
The centerpiece of the retreat was a 24 hour period of silence. Participants would remain in the retreat center or on the grounds during the whole time, but would not speak with one another during the designated period of silence.
As the period of silence began, I wandered into the chapel of the retreat center. I picked up a copy of the bulletin that another group had used for worship and read this paraphrase of the first few verses of Psalm 19.
"As the sunrise and the sunset praise you in colors royal, day after day, and the night gives praise in glittering splendor, star by star. And the seas praise you, tumbling and spraying their white spume, fluent in calm and storm. And the land praises you, bursting into bloom with a rainbow of flowers and all manner of fruit. Yet they speak no words; THEIR BEING IS THEIR PRAISE." [Capitals are mine. I have tried but cannot locate the author or source of this text. It was printed in the bulletin without attribution.]
At that moment, I remember feeling that these words were speaking directly to me, inviting me to consider what it meant for anyone or anything to praise God simply by being who we are and what we are. No words or speech were necessary. This was a perfect introduction to the time of silence.
Later that afternoon, I tried to take a nap. As I tried to fall asleep, I became increasingly aware of the noise outside the building. Some new houses were being built on land adjoining the retreat center. The construction equipment was loud, as were the workers who had to yell over the noise of the machinery.
At first I was irritated by the noise that seemed to interrupt the silence. Then I was amused at the irony. Finally, I realized that "silence" meant something different than "quiet."
I realized that the gift of silence was not about quiet from the noise of the world. Rather, the time of silence gave me a break from the responsibility of speaking with others and listening to them.
Not forever. I would resume speaking and listening to others when the time came. But the time of silence would provide an opening for me to focus on things that I had been neglecting because of the sometimes overwhelming responsibility to communicate with others.
My great discovery during that time of silence was that, at that time in my life, I had stopped talking with God. The previous six months had been stressful and painful for me both because of work and life. During that time of busyness, I had simply stopped talking with God. So I spent the remainder of that afternoon and evening, and the following morning, talking to God. It was a rather one sided conversation, since, after six months, I had a lot to say.
I learned from that experience that it was important to keep open the lines of communication between God and me. And, yes, I believe I do as much listening as speaking these days when I talk with God. But that period of intentional silence gave me the opportunity to discover what was missing from my life in that time. And subsequent periods of intentional silence have helped me to keep perspective.
Lent is a season when we encourage one another to focus intentionally on strengthening our individual and communal relationships with God by setting aside time for prayer, reflection, and meditation. We are called to stop doing some things that interfere with our relationship with God and to start doing other things that can strengthen it.
For who serve and lead in the church, Lent can also be a season of incredibly frantic busyness-the opposite of what we hope for others and ourselves. Some of this busyness cannot be avoided. What is most important is that we not let ourselves be consumed by it.
I encourage you to do what you need to do in this season of Lent to deepen your own relationship with God. And I encourage you to try intentional silence as one way to do this. You may need the support of a spiritual director who will walk with you on this journey. You may need to find a place apart from ordinary life in order for this to be meaningful. And it may not work for you.
But it may be just the thing.
May God bless you and all those who are touched by your ministry during this season of Lent.