Friday, December 30, 2011

May Your Soul Prosper!

Let’s look at one verse from 3 John from four separate translations and see how they compare.
3 John, verse 2:

NIV Translation:
“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.”
NRSV Translation:
“Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul.”
Amplified Bible:
“Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in every way and (that your body) may keep well, even as (I know) your soul keeps well and prospers.”
The Message paraphrase:
“I pray for good fortune in everything you do, and for your good health-that your everyday affairs prosper, as well as your soul!”
In this letter, John is writing to Gaius, a church leader, to commend him for his hospitality and to warn him about not following the lead of Diotrephes who is only concerned with himself.  This verse is used a lot when talking about the Prosperity Gospel that is preached in some circles.  God wants you rich, God wants you to have that Cadillac, they tell you.  Well, hold on a minute!  What is supposed to prosper the most?  If you read the entire verse, what truly matters is that your SOUL prospers!  Things and good health are not guaranteed.  They are hoped for, but what matters most is how well does your soul prosper?

I thought about this as I thought about all of the individuals making resolutions for the New Year.  Many are health related, such as lose 20 pounds or quit smoking or exercise more.  Good ideas that are usually out the window and forgotten by March.  Not because they were not well intentioned but because they were not so convinced that it could be done in the first place.  Things that had happened in the past proved that they just couldn’t do it.  As far as resolutions go, I don’t think I have ever heard someone say “I am going to work on making my soul prosper.”  Maybe we should consider making that kind of resolution.

In the Wesley Study Bible the notes say that 3 John shows that both evil and good can be found within a congregation.  “Gaius…. supports the elders understanding of the Christian Mission by making his resources of home and money available to itinerant Christian ministers.  Diotrephes, on the other hand, serves himself by seeking to undermine the elder’s influence in refusing hospitality to these missionaries and preventing those who want to help from doing so.”  The Message paraphrase says this: “The two most difficult things to get straight in life are love and God.  More often than not, the mess people make of their lives can be traced to failure or stupidity or meanness in one or both of these areas…there are always people around who don’t want to be pinned down to the God Jesus reveals, to the love Jesus reveals.  They want to make up their own idea of God, make up their own style of love.”

If you stop and think about it, it makes a lot of sense that how well you are on the inside “the soul” correlates to how well you are on the outside.  What you carry inside of you will manifest outwardly.  Your idea of God or love will show up in some manner.  So, perhaps we should consider what we are carrying around inwardly first before we make those resolutions for outward change.  Maybe the first place to start is getting rid of some of the inward baggage.  Still angry at someone?  Still nursing an old wound?  Still feeling like the victim?  Still making the excuse that you do certain things because you were damaged or hurt by what (insert name here) did to you twenty years ago?  Whether we like to admit it or not, old baggage from things that happened that we can not change, can and will weigh us down.  Bad things happen, even to good people.  It’s what you do with it that matters!  If it simply is a weight around your neck than it is not doing you or anyone else any good!  It’s time to let it go.  It is time to choose to love yourself like Jesus loves you and it is time to love others in the same way.  No more my style, it’s time to choose Jesus style!

So here’s a suggestion.  Take all of those things, those issues and write them down.  Make a list.  Then take the list and burn it or shred it beyond recognition.  Make sure you can not tape it back together no matter how hard you might try.  Commit to turning it over to God and then commit to letting it go.  Don’t take it back again.  If something comes up in your mind again say to yourself “I already let that go and turned it over to God” and then move on to something else.  I know, it is easier said than done but I also know that it can be done.  

It is much easier to move forward and create new good positive feelings and memories when you let go of  the old negative ones.  It is easier to accept love when you let go of those things that you think make you unlovable.  It is easier to love others when you can learn to love like Jesus loved.  How does your soul prosper?  May it prosper well!

May your everyday affairs prosper as well as your soul prospers in 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bible Reading-Yes You Can!

The checkmarks have just about filled the page on the “Read through the Bible in a year” reading plan.  I have two more boxes to check and then, I will have successfully completed another read through the entire Bible.

So, I need to print out another copy and decide which Bible I’m going to use this coming year.  When I first started doing this oh some 20 odd years ago, the NIV Bible was the “big hit” translation to use.  I did use it for many years and anyone who has borrowed that particular Bible during Sunday School class has seen all of my highlights and underlines and notes from over the years.  Then came the Amplified Bible because it was supposed to more clearly explain certain words.  I used it until it literally split in two.  It still sits on the shelf, notes and all, proud but worn!

Some years, instead of doing a formal read through, I might do an in-depth word study (find all of the verses that use the word joy for example), or focus on particular books in the Bible (Psalms or Proverbs for example) or do a study on Fruits of the Spirit.  But at the beginning of 2011 I decided that I really needed to do a formal read through again and I wanted to make it fun!  I wasn’t so focused on gaining insight as I was in discovering the joy of reading through the Bible again.  I have no idea how long Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” Bible paraphrase had been sitting on my shelf, but it’s been quite a few years.  It was time to pull it off the shelf and use it!  What a joy, what a pleasure it has been, reading through the Bible this year!

Yes, it is not an exact translation and Mr. Peterson is quick to point that out.  But it is a readable and relatable translation and I did gain new insights this year, simply from reading.  I found myself reading these historical stories and finding similarities to what is going on in the world today.  The names and places may be different, but the pain and anguish, the joy and celebration are still the same!  Thousands of years separate us from the writers and yet, they could be writing about current events today.  If anything, it demonstrates just how truly inspired the text is to be able to bridge generations!

So, now I have to decide which translation to use for 2012 and I think instead of buying the latest and greatest, I am going to use one that has been out for awhile-The Wesley Study Bible.  I used it while I was doing Disciple Bible Study and I really like the notes that are found throughout the entire Bible.   I hope that it strengthens my understanding of “the Wesleyan tradition” and the basic tenets of the Methodist faith.  There was a part of me that thought about just doing a word study instead this year but I like the purposeful goal of reading the good book again!  It’s easy to slip out of the habit of reading daily when you are not following an exact plan!

So for those of you who are considering the goal of reading through the Bible in a year, let me encourage you to do so.  It is worth the effort!  Here are some tips for making it through successfully:

-Pick a translation that you are going to be comfortable reading.  If you get frustrated by the words, then you are going to feel like you are just not capable enough to understand it and you are more likely to quit.  If this is your first time pick a translation like the NIV or NRSV or The Message-something that speaks in the current language of today.

-Pick a reading plan that will work for you.  The plan that I have used does not start you at the beginning and work it’s way through the end.  If it did, I’d be done by March because Leviticus and Numbers drive me nuts-all the rules and regulations and bean counting!  For some people, starting at Genesis in January and reading through to Revelation in December works for them.  The reading plan I use gives me variety throughout the week.  Epistles, Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy, Gospels.  I like the variety!  Keeps things interesting!

-If you fall behind, don’t worry about it!  Simply catch up when you can!  Life happens and sometimes you will get behind in daily Bible Reading!  It’s okay!  Don’t quit-simply read a little extra when you have the time because you will catch up!

-Don’t be afraid to highlight, underline and write notes in the margins.  This is your personal textbook for life and it is worth keeping track of your thoughts and insights.  If you prefer to keep your Bible pristine then keep a journal.  Either way, keep track of your thoughts and feelings in some form.

-If reading through the Bible in a year seems too daunting, then decide to start somewhere.  Read a Psalm a day.  Read a Proverb a day.  Read the Gospels.  Make the decision to read your Bible!  The only way that you are going to get comfortable with reading the Bible is to start!  The more comfortable you become with reading the Bible the more confident you will become in your ability to do so!

-If you have a question, find someone to ask.  Someone that you can trust, and feel comfortable talking to and who is spiritually mature.  You’re going to have questions!  That’s good!

-Do you have a long commute to work?  How about getting an audio copy of the Bible to pop in while you are driving?  Why not use the time for learning?

Make becoming familiar with your Bible a goal for 2012.  There is a specific reason behind this idea.  There are a lot of very public figures out there “preaching the gospel” and sometimes it can be really tough to separate the wheat from the chaff.  They can and do put a spin on things.  They are not always accurate or correct.  It is much easier to assess the validity of their statements if you are familiar with your Bible in the first place!  It is very easy to take a verse of scripture out of the Bible, out of context and use it to justify a position.  The more familiar you are with scripture the easier it is to spot such attempts.

Is reading through the Bible in a year easy?  No.  Is it worth the effort?  Yes!  Trust me, you will be blessed by the effort!

And thank you, Mr. Peterson, for helping me find the joy in reading, once again!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Go-Carts in Heaven and Goulash too!

Last night our church held a “Blue Christmas” service.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with what a Blue Christmas service is, it is designed to be a special service for individuals who may find celebrating Christmas difficult due to a loss of a family member or perhaps they are just struggling with various issues in their personal lives.  I was the liturgist for the service.  The attendance was intimate, but it was a beautiful service and Jeff preached one of his best sermons, in my opinion.  It was something worth doing regardless of how many people showed up for the service.  Great things can come out of small beginnings!  And it isn’t about the numbers, it is about the meaning!

Like I said, Jeff had asked me to be the liturgist for the service, which I agreed to do, even though I knew it was going to be hard for me to be a participant.  This is the first Christmas without dad for me.  Add to that, the fact that the children just got word recently that their Omi had died.  Omi is my ex husband’s mother and Monica and Robert’s grandmother.  Wally, as she was called, was larger than life!  She was a very strong, opinionated German woman with a huge heart to match!  I have a soft spot in my heart for her, even after all these years and although the news was not unexpected, it was still hard to hear.  So needless to say, it’s been a tough year and Christmas will be celebrated in our house with a ting of sadness.

So short little me stood up behind the podium, with my head barely poking out over the top, and led the responsive readings and read the scripture.  My friends, Jill and Gail were in attendance and I had to make sure that I didn’t look at them because I knew if I did I would start crying with them.  Both of them had a similar loss this year.  I lost my father, they lost their mothers.  This service had special meaning to all three of us!

After the service was over, we exchanged hugs and conversation with each other and with Jeff’s wife, Patti.  As we were talking, I mentioned the fact that I had had a thought earlier in the day where I wondered what dad was up to up in heaven.  Patti said that she could see her mom and Gail’s mom chatting and exchanging recipes.  I thought of Wally and I could see her being in on such a conversation.  It reminded me of spending Christmas Eve at her house when she made her special Hungarian Goulash.  And I could see her saying in her German accent “you can’t use American Paprika because it’s no good!  German Paprika, it’s better!“  Wally’s Hungarian Goulash was the best!  I’m not sure what exactly was in it-I can tell you that it was a meat dish in a spicy gravy and she always served it with potato balls and egg noodles.  It was even better the next day because it had more time to meld the flavors.  And I guarantee you, if you had clogged sinuses-by the time you were done eating the goulash, you no  longer had that problem because it cleared out your nose and made your eyes water-in a good way!  I wish I had gotten the recipe from her but hindsight is 20/20 and I doubt I will ever have the chance to experience Hungarian Goulash again.  It is a treasured memory for me.

During the conversation and my walk down memory lane, I  suddenly had a  flash of dad riding around on a Go-cart.  Green grass, blue sky all around and there he was with a big grin on his face!  Years ago, dad had built a go-cart for the boys out of tubing and metal and he had put a lawn mower engine on the back.  Someone, I’m guessing mom, snapped a picture of my dad as he took it for a test drive spin in our yard.  There was this big adult man, on this little piece of metal, with the wind blowing through his hair and a little boy grin.  It is one of my absolute favorite pictures of dad!  For just a moment, that little boy that lived inside of him escaped from his big boy frame and he was having the time of his life riding that thing around the yard!  That image is what flashed in my mind as I wondered about what dad was doing in heaven and it delighted me to no end!  I could very easily see my dad doing just such a thing, riding a Go-cart, doing laps on the streets of gold and having the time of his life!

I felt very peaceful afterwards.  It was like dad was saying to me “I know you miss me but I’m okay.  And look, honey, there are Go-carts in heaven!  Isn’t that great?!”

Go-carts in heaven, how cool is that?  I miss you dad, but I’m glad you’re having fun!  Save a ride for me!  And ask Wally if she’d make some Hungarian Goulash when I get there, please.  And I’ll do my best to muddle on down here.  Merry Christmas Daddy!  I love you and I miss but I am so glad that you’re okay!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thank You Mordecai!

As I drove my son up to the bus stop this morning I noticed that my neighbor had walked up with the girls to meet the bus.  Fortunately, the rain had stopped so it was just wet and the bus was there pretty shortly after we had all arrived.  I stopped to offer her a ride back to her house but she declined saying that she needed the exercise.   Rain, snow, sleet, car or no car, she makes sure that the girls are taken care of and that they make it to school every day.  The thing that is so extraordinary about my neighbor is that the girls are not her children or grandchildren, they are her great grandchildren and she and her husband are raising them.  I have another neighbor with a similar story.  She and her husband are raising their grandchildren.  Where would these children be if these two couples hadn’t stepped in?  They would be in Foster care or some sort of group home as wards of the state.  These couples have made some enormous sacrifices in order to raise the children in safe, stable, loving, caring homes and it hasn’t always been easy!  But they made the choice out of love and I don’t think either one would have chosen any differently!

I was really struck by this particular point as I read Esther this morning.  Normally, when the book of Esther is talked about, we discuss her bravery in approaching the king in order to save her people.  But Esther would not have been in that position had it not been for her cousin Mordecai.  We are told that Mordecai took Esther in when her parents died and that he raised her.  If it wasn’t for Mordecai, where would Esther have ended up?  We will never know the answer to that question but I think it is fairly safe to assume that Esther became the woman that she did thanks in part to the loving care that she received from Mordecai.

I was blessed to be raised by two incredible parents with my siblings in a wonderful home.  My parents raised six children and they had done their duty!  But when I left my ex husband, restraining order in hand, my parents opened up their home to me and my two children and took us in so we would have a roof over our head.  My parents loved my children!  They helped take care of them when I got a job so they wouldn’t have to go to daycare.  My daughter started Kindergarten that year and my mother would get her on and off the bus every school day.  My father built my daughter a brand new doll house because her father had burned her old one.  My son was not yet in school so his days were spent with Gramma and Grampa.  I think he got his love of “tinkering” from hanging out with Grampa!  My parents rearranged their schedules and their lives in order to help provide a safe, stable, loving, caring environment for the children.  There was no way I could have financially swung raising the children on my own and if it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure where we would have ended up!  I would have done my very best, but quite frankly, the financial numbers didn’t add up!  They stepped in, when the children and I needed it the most!  That’s not something I can ever repay, but for which I will always be grateful!

I would be willing to hazard a guess that if you looked around in your church or your neighborhood, you would find similar stories.  It may be slightly different, perhaps the death of a parent, or a parent who is in the military and away on deployment but the outcome is still the same.  These are individuals who step up and do the right thing without question.  Their impact is huge and yet so many go unrecognized!

Without Mordecai we would not have Esther’s story.  Without families who choose to sacrifice and raise their young relatives we would not have such wonderful success stories of children who turn out well.  Perhaps it’s time we recognize and acknowledge what these individuals have done and continue to do in the lives of young people.  Perhaps it is time to thank them.  Perhaps it is time to ask them if there is anything we can do to help?  In celebrating the success of all the Esthers in the world, let us not forget to acknowledge the contribution of the Mordecais!  The world is a much better place because of them!

Thank you!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Taking Care of Business

Here’s an interesting thought from the very end of Deuteronomy 29 in The Message paraphrase:
“God, our God, will take care of the hidden things but the revealed things are our business.  It’s up to us and our children to attend to all the terms in this Revelation.”
What are the revealed things?  For the Israelites, it is the covenant given to them by God through Moses.  The “do’s and don’ts” of living, “right and wrong” of the moral code.  For Christians it is all of this and more.  It is loving the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Turning the other cheek.  Praying for your enemies.

Much easier said than done at times, isn’t it?  It becomes a little bit easier at this time of year to be kind, give to others and remember those less fortunate because Christmas is coming!  What happens when January rolls around though?  Are we able to maintain that loving, joyous spirit, or are we back to the old grind?  Joy can be fleeting sometimes.  What we need to remember is that feelings come and go and if we can still do the right thing, even in difficult circumstances, even when we don’t feel like it, God will honor that commitment!

God told Joshua to be strong and to take courage.  Why?  Because God was striding ahead of the Israelites as they crossed the river Jordan.  He wasn’t far off and away, he was there with them.  Joshua had faith and also commitment.  But you know some of the Israelites had to be thinking “are you kidding me???  Cross here, take these people on???”  We know the previous generation had doubts and didn’t always do the right thing.  Thus, they wandered the desert for 40 years!  Faced with the choice of wandering another 40 years or doing what was asked of them, they chose to go forward, even if they weren’t feeling one hundred percent confident!

The revealed things are our business!  If we know about something, if we see something, we are supposed to do the right thing.  I love the story about the individuals who went into a department store and paid off items on lay away so families could have them for Christmas.  All the individuals asked was that those who benefited find some way to “pay it forward.”

So here is a project for you to think about and start planning for after the holiday season.  Look around in your community.  See a need?  It could be an individual or some organization that could use some help.  Make it your business to take care of business!  Find a way to help them!  Make it a goal to continue helping someone in some way through out next year.

Need some ideas?  Your local food pantry might be one place to help out.  I know in our area they have not gotten as many donations in as they usually do, so Christmas is going to be a struggle for them.  Imagine what January will be like!  How about the local Domestic Violence shelter?  Is there a service you could provide?  Are there items that they are in need of?  Could you help out at the local animal shelter?  How about the local veterans group?  Could you drive someone to and from their appointments?  Could you help put together care packages to be sent to troops overseas?  How about visiting the elderly and those who are unable to get out of their homes?  Can you change a light bulb for them or make sure they have an ice free walkway or run errands for them?

There is so much out there that we can do, if we will just make it our business to take care of business!  God will take care of the rest if we will just deal with the things he has revealed.  And if we open our eyes and ears, we’ll see everything that he has already revealed!

Friday, December 16, 2011

First United Methodist Church Washington, MO Cantata 2011

I meant to post this a couple of days ago.  Our church Cantata was last Sunday and my darling friend Chester sent me the link that takes you directly the the recording download.  I wrote the narration for the Cantata.  The Choir and Praise Team already had a general idea of what they wanted to do.  All I did was give it words and form!  They picked the music.  They, and everyone involved did a fantastic job!  So, without further ado, here's the link to the very first Cantata that I have ever written.  I hope you enjoy it!

FUMC Washington, MO 2011 Cantata

Not Blessed???? It's all in the Looking

Well, the media has confirmed something that I already instinctively knew.  I am no longer in the middle of American middle class.  My standard of living is lower than what my parents experienced.  I, like many other Americans, find myself on the lower end of the scale.  Tell me something I didn’t already know, will ya?

Money isn’t my driving factor.  Sure, it would be nice to have a little more just to be able to go out shopping once in awhile.  But, I’m fortunate-I still have a roof over my head.  I know how to cook and bake which helps.  I don’t need the latest fanciest vehicle.  My husband has been able to keep our vehicles running because he is a grease monkey mechanic at heart!  He works on cars for fun!  My Jeep has 280,000 plus miles on it and it’s still running well.  It’s a much older model than most people would drive and I have it because of where we live.  There are certain times of the year when the only way to get in and out of “east middle of nowhere” is with 4 wheel drive.  So, it’s not a status thing, it’s a practical thing.  Shelter, food, water, they are the essentials and right now, we’re covered!  When you think about all of the individuals just in the United States who have no shelter and no food, let alone individuals around the world who are in a similar situation, it’s tough to complain when you are in better shape than they are!

There are many people in this country who would look at me and pity how I live.  I don’t have as much as they do.  I don’t get to eat out or go to the movies or shop.  I don’t live in as nice a house as they do.  I don’t drive as nice a car as they do.  Compared to them, they view my life as dismal.

I have a different view.  I pity them for being so enslaved to the almighty dollar.  A beautiful sunset can take my breath away.  Watching the birds in the yard can be highly entertaining.  Seeing deer or wild turkeys wander through is priceless.  Playing board games with my children and seeing them become better and better is a wonderful feeling!  My children are healthy.  I’m able to spend time with them.  I can come up with an amazing meal from practically nothing.  My husband can fix practically anything!  I appreciate what I have and I’m not caught up in wanting more things.  I don’t feel the overwhelming need to keep up with the Joneses.  I know eventually that our financial situation will improve.  This is only temporary.

In the Beatitudes many people quote it as saying blessed are the poor.  But it actually says “blessed are the poor in spirit” and my Wesleyan study bible refers to that as meaning humility.  Blessed are those who have a spirit of humility for they shall inherit the kingdom.

Humility is a much talked about virtue but it’s not always an embraced virtue.  Being happy with what you have.  Sharing your gifts with others, not looking for the limelight when you do something.  It can be a tough road to walk when you live in a society that preaches so strongly against such an idea!  Somehow, you should never be satisfied.  Somehow, you should always be wanting more.  Working, striving, questing, never having enough.  Working to better ourselves is not wrong, but when you define “bettering yourself” as only a dollars and cents equation, you’ll find that you are never satisfied.  You get that promotion or pay raise and it’s an empty victory because it is still not enough.  What was the price for that victory?  How many missed dinners?  Or missed ball games, or recitals?  How much living have you missed out on because you’re trying to “make a living?”

I may be poor, money wise, by U.S. standards but I can live with that!  I will admit that there are moments of melancholy when I wish I could go out and buy something because I really do need to replace a certain item but they pass.  I still have more things than a vast majority of the people in the world.  I have things that money can’t buy-time with my family and nature at my doorstep.  Things could be so much worse!

Let us remember what really matters in life.  It’s not how much money you make.  It is about how you live and how much you love.  That is the thing that truly matters!  Everything else is secondary, regardless of what the media tries to tell you!  Blessed are the poor in spirit because they will inherit the kingdom!  Amen!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Prayer as Conversation-Pray Like You Mean It!

Psalm 145 is David’s description of who God is.  He uses words like magnificent, mercy, grace, boundless, slow to anger, good, generous.  Towards the end of the Psalm The Message paraphrase says this:
“God’s there listening for all who pray, all who pray and mean it.”
That phrase makes me wonder.  Do we sometimes pray and not really mean it?  Do we “have not because we ask not?”  Are we dealing with a case of insincere prayer, sometimes?

How does one pray and not mean what they pray?  It’s an interesting question.  It resonates with something I learned in one of the workshops that I attended at Leadership Institute.  The workshop was led by Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry and it focused on corporate prayer during worship services.  She asked a question that really put the importance of prayer in perspective.  If the people  in this congregation only had me to teach them to pray, what would their concept of God be like?  We may not realize it, but prayer is an important part of a worship service and we need to give it the same consideration that we give other elements as well.

Are we demonstrating that prayer is a conversation?  Are we showing them that God is vast, wondrous and close?  Do we acknowledge God’s presence?  Bottom line, are we teaching our members how to pray?

You may think that is an odd question but think about it, do we teach our members how to pray just for the sake of praying or do we teach them how to have a conversation with God.  A conversation involves not only talking but also listening.  People know how to talk, the fine art of listening-sometimes that isn’t as strongly or equally emphasized.  Dr. Cherry did an informal study and discovered that in all services, prayer time has become less and less during corporate worship.  Corporate worship, our Sunday morning services, are prime opportunities to model prayer conversation.  We shy away from quiet or silence because it’s uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable in worship and it’s uncomfortable in private prayer time.  We, as a society,  have become accustomed to noise!

And perhaps that is where the insincere praying comes in to play.  We pray a lot but do we ever stop and listen?  Imagine how frustrating that must be to God.  “Here I am!  I hear you!  Could you stop talking long enough so I can speak to you?”  What would God have to say to you if he could get a word in edgewise?  Interesting thought to consider, if you ask me!  It may be frightening to some but if you look at the list of attributes that David writes about, God wants to speak lovingly, not in a harsh negative manner.  Sure, the possibility exists that there may be some correction but God is slow to anger!  So chances are, there will be a lot of good things, if we are willing to stop long enough to listen!

Can we learn to become comfortable with silence again in our worship services and in our private prayer time?  Can we pray our prayer and wait patiently and quietly for a response?  Can we begin to converse with God again and have a sincere conversation?  Will we learn the fine art of pausing and waiting for the presence of the Lord?

I know that this is a goal for me over the next year.  Talk less, listen more!  Lord give me strength because quietly waiting is not one of my stronger qualities!  But I’m willing to learn!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Give Substance to the Words by Living Them!

Reading Deuteronomy can be a bit of a struggle at times for me because it’s very similar to Leviticus and Numbers.  There are a lot of “do this” and “don’t do that” statements and a lot of counting of things!  After awhile my eyes tend to gloss over and I end up doing some serious speed reading, particularly through the census numbers!  But, all of them are worth reading through because there are some gems that can be found, if you’re willing to do the work to dig.

Take Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28, dealing with the  blessings and the curse.  There were a couple of sentences that really jumped out at me.  At the very end of chapter 27 in The Message paraphrase, it says this:
“God’s curse on whoever does not give substance to the words of this Revelation by living them.”
In chapter 28 in The Message paraphrase Moses goes on to explain why the curse comes about:
“Because you didn’t serve God, your God, out of the joy and goodness of your heart in the great abundance, you’ll have to serve your enemies whom God will send against you.  Life will be famine and drought, rags and wretchedness; then he’ll put an iron yoke on your neck until he’s destroyed you.”
It goes on further to talk about how everyone would turn against each other when they are under siege and how the most gentle of people will end up doing the most despicable things because  they have lost everything, even their humanity.

Give substance to the words by living them.  Serve God out of the joy and goodness of your heart in great abundance.  Sounds a lot like the words spoken by Jesus in the New Testament “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”  I am also reminded of Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust, who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”.  I know many consider the book not worthy of discussions in biblical circles but I found that reading the book gave me a greater appreciation for my faith!

Frankl, in his book, talks about a point when he looked in to the face of another prisoner and knew that they had given up.  They would die in a very short time.  They no longer had a name, or, an individual identity, they had a number.  And it was a tremendous struggle to remember your individual value and worth in the face of such utter, cruel, brutality.  Those who gave up, in essence, lost their humanity.  They lost sight of the fact that they were precious despite their circumstances.  Let me just say that I do not believe that the Holocaust was a result of God carrying out a curse against the Jewish community.  No, the perpetrators of the crime lost their “humanity” first in order to carry out such dire insanity!  They thought they were superior and anything inferior must be eliminated.  And I remember watching interviews with citizens who said that they were not aware of what was going on.  They would say things like “he was such a kind person, always treating others well, not the kind of person who would do such a thing!”  Yet, some did do such horrible things.  The atrocities happened and we should never forget that they happened because, quite frankly, similar atrocities have happened in recent years and if we are not careful, will happen again!

Advent and Christmas, the season of peace on earth and good will to men.  We give substance to these words during the holiday season, but do we carry that message with us beyond the holidays?  Do we serve God with joy out of our abundance once we get past the holiday season?  Do we still volunteer and help out at the food shelf or the battered women’s shelter once January first rolls around?  Do we have a kind word for a stranger in the store?  Do we live the message beyond the holiday season?  I know that there are individuals that do, God bless them!  Perhaps the rest of us, should think about making a pledge to do the same.  Not that we will always succeed or get it right, but if our heart is in the right place, how can we not help but be blessed?

Serve God with joy, out of your abundance.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Love of a True Father!

I've always thought Joseph gets short shift when we talk about the story of Jesus and his birth.  He's the guy engaged to Mary.  He's the one who takes her to Bethlehem.  He's the one who finds shelter in the stable.  He's the one who takes them to Egypt for awhile and then back to Nazareth and that's pretty much what we hear about Joseph.  He's just sorta there, like the sheep or the cattle.  But stop and think-how differently would things have turned out if Joseph had just said no? 

He finds out the woman that he is engaged to is pregnant and he knows that he is not the father.  We know he's honorable because he had a plan in place to marry her and then quietly divorce her in order to avoid Mary facing scandal.  And when the angel comes to speak to him in a dream, he listens and does what is asked of him!  More importantly, he raises Jesus as his own flesh and blood.  That my friends is not a minor footnote contribution!  God is the father of Jesus, but Joseph was his earthly father!  True fatherhood, the love of a man for a child who is not his own can be far more precious than any of us realize!

I was reminded of this in my own life yesterday.  It's also the reason I didn't blog yesterday because something big came up and it had to be dealt with immediately.  My daughter called my husband early in the morning.  She is being transferred to a different base and she was scheduled to leave today.  She had been having problems with her Jeep, which she has to drive to the new base because she has to move herself and be reimbursed later.  She's had it in the shop three times in the last week-they thought they had gotten it fixed.  But when she drove her Jeep yesterday morning it started doing exactly the same thing.  So, she called my husband, her step-father because, well, this was a big huge problem!  She had a (and I use this term loosely) "friend" who offered to haul her Jeep, her stuff and her up to the new base but there were "strings" attached to this offer.  Not cool!  Let's just say daddy had his mind made up on a course of action before they even finished the conversation.  I saw the look in Kenny's eyes.  I knew what was coming!  Come hell or high water he was going to drive cross country in order to safely deliver our daughter to the new base and fix that Jeep while he was at it!  I started packing his bag.

This is not just a hop skip and a jump away.  We are in the middle of the country.  The drive to my parents house in Vermont is 1200 plus miles one way.  My husband is driving to the southeastern coast, loading the Jeep onto a tow-dolly, hauling it up the east coast to the northern part of the United States and then turning around and driving all of the way back here!  Did I mention that he is going to try to be back here by Sunday night?!  By the time he's done, he will have driven about 3,000 plus miles in a matter of days.  The man has a father's heart!  If he didn't love my daughter like one of his own, he wouldn't be making that kind of drive!

When I married Kenny I came as a package deal.  I was a full time mother.  I had my two young children full time.  There was not alternating weekends.  There was some holiday breaks but they usually didn't happen because something always seemed to crop up that made it "impossible" for the ex to take the kids.  My husband loved them and raised them just like they were his own.  He always said "there are no steps in this family!"  They have always been "his children". 

It's an amazing and extraordinary gift, this true father's love!  As we celebrate Advent let's not forget the important part that Joseph played.  He loved Jesus as his own.  He gave him the love of a true earthly father, without reservation!  Biological connection is not always the mark of parenthood.  The true standard is how much are you willing to love?  Kenny may not have the biological connection but he has the heart connection.  He has shown my children the love of a true father! 

Kenny's example gives me a much greater appreciation and understanding of just what Joseph did!  How precious a gift indeed!

By the way, he's already there.  Got the call about 30 minutes ago.  Keep them in your prayers-they've got a long way to go!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Malachi's Priestly Smackdown

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament.  It's the last word we hear for a few hundred years before the story of Jesus begins in the New Testament.  Some of you may be familiar with part of the book because there is a section in chapter 3 about tithes and offerings which is discussed by those who preach the "prosperity" message.  But chapters 1 and 2 deal with Priestly conduct and let's just say Malachi doesn't mince words!  If there was ever an example of God giving a "Priestly smack down" this would be it!

Here are some examples from chapter 1 in The Message paraphrase:
"You Priests have gotten everyone in trouble.  With this kind of conduct, do you think I'll pay attention to you?...Why doesn't one of you just shut the Temple doors and lock them?  Then none of you can get in and play at religion with this silly, empty-headed worship....You profane me when you say 'Worship is not important, and what we bring to worship is of no account,' and when you say, 'I'm bored-this doesn't do anything for me."
Or how about this from chapter 2:
"It's the job of priests to teach the truth.  People are supposed to look to them for guidance....But you priests have abandoned the way of priests. Your teachings have messed up many lives....You fill the place of worship with your whining and sniveling because you don't get what you want from God."
Ouch!  Tough words from God but God never sends a Prophet without words of hope as well.  Bottom line, he is asking the leaders to turn and repent and treat God with respect again.  He is asking them to be true servants again.  Live right.  Serve well. 

Are there parallels with this story from old with our faith story today?  Have we gotten out of whack with our worship?  And I'm not talking about just ministers here, I'm talking about anyone in a leadership position within the church!  Do we give our very best to service?  Or do we worry more about what is in it for ourselves? 

These are tough questions to confront.  We may not like the answers.  That doesn't mean that we shouldn't ask the questions.  Otherwise we may face a Godly rebuke like we see in the book of Malachi.  Let's listen and heed the wise words of Malachi!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notes from Around the Blog World

It's snowing here in Missouri!  Not a lot of snow and it is not a steady snow but there was just enough to slick up the roads and cause lots of accidents this morning!

Closer to home, I have had a fun filled and exciting time breaking the ice off of the top of the water troughs for the animals.  So, rather than attempt to write a quick blog post that I am not going to do justice to, I'm just going to link you to some good blogs worth reading!

Allan R. Bevere had two really good blog posts in the last couple of days:
90% of Americans Believe in God, Gallup is unimpressed
Jesus is Not Paula Deen

My friend Craig Adams posted some information on Good ole St. Nick!
Old St. Nick

And a good reminder from Dan Dick!
Occupy Christmas

My children are anxiously watching out the window hoping for some more snow!  Me, I just want to wrap my hands around a warm mug of hot chocolate!  It would be nice to regain some feeling in my fingers!  They're just a tad stiff from breaking up that ice! 


Monday, December 5, 2011

Pondering John's Baptism

This weekend my daily Bible reading took me further in to the Book of Acts, which I've read many times before.  But I was really struck by this story about Paul, and some disciples, in a way that I had never been struck before.  Maybe it is because I am reading it in The Message paraphrase or maybe I just never paid close enough attention!  Anyway, here it is, from Chapter 19:
"Now it happened that while Apollos was away in Corinth, Paul made his way down through the mountains, came to Ephesus and happened on some disciples there.  The first thing he said was 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?  Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart:  Did he get inside you?' 'We've never even heard of that-a Holy Spirit:  God within us?' 'How were you baptized, then?' asked Paul.  'In John's baptism.'  'That explains it,' said Paul.  'John preached a baptism of radical life-change so that people would be ready to receive the One coming after him, who turned out to be Jesus.  If you've been baptized in John's baptism, you're ready now for the real thing, for Jesus."
I want to point out a few things here-first Paul did not question the fact that they were disciples.  Second, he didn't question the fact that they were baptised.  By asking them if they had received the Holy Spirit, he was in essence asking them what type of baptism they had received.  When the disciples replied "John's baptism", you see Paul saying "That explains it!" 

A modern day reader might look at that exchange and conclude that the disciples were not really baptised because it's assumed that it is a given that we are baptised by the Holy Spirit.  I think Paul would disagree with that assertion.  So, here's what I am pondering.  Those who are in the church are baptised, but how many in the church are stuck in John's baptism?  Weird question?  Let me explain.

Paul describes John's baptism as "radical life change so people would be ready to receive the One coming after him" or in other words  taking "God into your mind only."  They received the Holy Spirit but they had not yet "embraced" the Holy Spirit. 

I may be splitting hairs here but I do wonder how many people are sitting in our churches longing for something more and yet getting the impression that this is as good as it gets in their spiritual life.  Faith, to them, is an intellectual exercise that you try to apply in a practical way in your daily life.  I believe taking faith beyond the church doors and using it in your daily life matters!  But I also get the sense that people are longing for something deeper, something more and they're not sure how to find it!  They sense, that there is something more, that there should be something more but how do you find that something more?

Apollos taught what he knew.  He taught it faithfully and well and the disciples followed.   Paul came along and showed them the next step.   They were not aware that there was something more.  Modern day Christians don't have the same exact problem but there is a similar issue-who will teach them how to take the next step?  Who will help point the way to something more? 

This may seem like a weird thing to bring up during Advent but think about it-when a woman experiences pregnancy she knows that the baby and her body will go through change.  There is a process that happens.  There is something more than simply being pregnant.  The first flutter, the first strong kick, the first bout of 3 a.m. false labor.  All of it leads up to the big event, the actual birth!  But there is even more after that-there is raising, to the best of our God given ability, the little helpless squirming bundle that is now in our arms!  There is always a next step, there is something more.  If you apply that analogy to the church-are we as a congregation teaching that something more?  Or are we just letting our members rest in a baptism that is similar to the baptism of John? 

It's a question that I think we should consider pondering.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Coolest Mystery that You'll Never Fully Understand

Yesterday morning turned a little crazy around our house.  My daughter called me in full blown panic.  She is being transferred to her new post and she has to drive herself.  Her Jeep was acting up again and she needed to find a place to live because there is no housing available on base.  All of this would normally be a minor nuisance except for the fact that she moves next week!  I don't care how old your children get-when something comes up, fully mommy mode kicks in because once a mommy, always a mommy!  Even if they are far away, somehow you find a way to help!  I spent the morning on the Internet and cell phone.  I do believe today will be a much calmer, quieter day-although there is still a lot of work to do!  There's a plan in place now to make the transition smooth!

Yup, my daughter is beautiful, intelligent, poised and level headed but every once in awhile she still needs her mommy!  I look at my children and am amazed sometimes because I wonder how in the world I managed to raise them!  Parenthood is part art, part science and a whole lot of mystery!  That little baby grew and became an amazing individual and in the whole scheme of things you're not really sure how that happened!

In The Message paraphrase Ecclesiastes 11 says this:
"Just as you'll never understand the mystery of life forming in a pregnant woman, so you'll never understand the mystery at work in all that God does."
Parents can relate to that statement!  Scientists and doctors can explain the process and National Geographic can create shows that illustrate the mechanical points, but that forming life is still a miraculous mystery that we will never fully understand.  As we come in to Advent I think about Mary and what it must have been like for her and how gutsy and courageous she was in saying yes to God's plan.  She knew, going in, that this child was going to be unique and special.  (All parents believe that each child will be unique and special but Mary heard it from an angel).  I doubt that she could even fathom just how things would turn out.  If she knew that 33 years later, the child that she carried, raised and nurtured was going to have to brutally die on the cross and that she would have to witness this, I wonder if she would have had cause to pause. 

Conventional thinking at the time was that the Messiah would be the "new" David.  He would be a king after God's own heart ruling a kingdom here on earth.  It was envisioned that he would be king and rule justly and live to a ripe old age and then die a natural death and be buried, just like David.  Persecution, suffering, they were not part of the equation. 

No parent ever envisions the worst for their children.  No parent wants to see their child suffer or make wrong choices or worse, that the child dies before the parent.  That is never part of the future that we envision for our children!  We envision the very best!  And though sometimes we can explain their choices, sometimes what happens to our children is a complete mystery!  We don't know what the future holds!  Why do they turn out the way they do with all of the likes and dislikes and quirks and individual personality?  The same set of parents raises the same set of children yet each turns out differently.  That is truly the mystery!

If that is how it is for us as parents imagine what it is like for God!  Each and every one of us created, each and every one his child, yet each and every one unique and different.  God envisioning the very best for each of us.  God also knowing though that pain and suffering will come in to each and every human life, to each and every one of his children.  It is a part of the warp and weave of life here on earth. 

No wonder he created a plan to be able to claim his children again!  No wonder he chose the mystery of childbirth-the creation of a baby in order to fulfill his plan.  God knew that there would be suffering and pain involved yet he also knew that there would be great joy that would come as well! 

God is the ultimate parent and he envisions the very best.  Yet sometimes a child will suffer.  It must be difficult to watch sometimes.  Yet that is the mystery of children, each one individual, each one with free will.  Will they make the right choice?  That is the question and that is the mystery.  It is the coolest mystery that we as parents will never fully understand!  That is exactly how it is supposed to be because that is a part of the mystery of life!  Just like Mary, we made the courageous choice to see it through, not fully understanding what that choice might entail but believing the very best for our children and their future.  We said yes to the mystery!  I for one am glad that I said yes!  I think just about every parent would say the same thing!  Life truly is a mystery!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spending Time in the Back End of the Hymnal

Have you ever actually looked at the services at the end of the Methodist Hymnal?  I was looking through the hymnal this morning cause I am still on the quest to shake my Grinch mood!  I really love the prayer from the morning praise and prayer service!
"New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.  Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord." 
 There are some really beautiful prayers, affirmations and responsive readings that have sort of fallen by the wayside.  So here's a thought for those of you planning special services during Advent.  To add to the sense of expectation and contemplation perhaps it would be worth spending some time in the back end of the hymnal and reacquaint your members with some of those special words, prayers and services.  Teach them how to go beyond saying the words by rote and instead paint the picture with inflection and cadence-find the rhythm and flow of the words.  The spoken word can paint amazing pictures in the mind when spoken with sincere feeling!

Just a thought.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Watch out Mr. Grinch!

Have you ever had "one of those kind of days" that turned into several "those kind of days"?  Today, I could give the Grinch a run for his money!  What a sweet and charming thought as we start the season of Advent-NOT!

I'm using the desk top to write this blog post because the charger on the lap top fried/died/whatever.  On the plus side, the expensive battery seems to be fine (I hope) but I need to get a new charger (which wasn't in the budget).  Nor, was the battery on my car which decided to die on one of the coldest mornings that we have had so far.  This I discovered, as I was getting ready to drive my son up to the bus stop yesterday morning.  No problem, I would just use my daughter's old Jeep which is sitting here in the driveway since she is off in the military.  Apparently, my children believe that when they borrow a vehicle E stands for "extra mileage".  Long story short, my son made the bus because my husband happened to be home because he had succumbed to some sort of stomach bug-which my son now has today.  Oh, and we have temporarily removed the battery from the "spare" Jeep into my Jeep so I can actually drive the thing.  Oh, and did I mention that somehow, someone has been hacking into our Internet access which is why our cell phone bill has been so high?  Discovered that yesterday morning too.  So much for password encrypted security.  Fortunately we can turn the thing on and off, so hopefully that will solve our little neighbor problem. 

Yup, been a hum dinger doozey few days at my house!  Which has translated into a grumpy prayer time for me.  I'm having a bit of a hard time counting my blessings and seeing the "gift" in these experiences.  So, I'll be honest, I had a full blown gripe fest session with God this morning.  The stuff I described, just the tip of the iceberg and I'm feeling a little abandoned and hung out to dry!  When oh when, do things start to improve?  How can I be a blessing to others when I am up to my eyeballs in stuff?!  And quite frankly, why bother to ask my opinion on something (church wise) when it isn't like I have any authority on the outcome in the first place???  Seriously, everyone is gonna do what they want to do regardless of what I do or do not say, so why bother?  Home, church, family, finance, life in general-not exactly humming along smoothly!(Yup, I had my full blown whine on in rare form this morning!)

Guess what God pointed me to this morning?  First Corinthians 1, which I had read awhile ago and where I underlined some things that were a rather appropriate response for today.  Here's what I underlined in the The Message paraphrase:
"All God's gifts are right in front of you...not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track...He will never give up on you.  Never forget that."
If He is not giving up, guess I had better just take a deep breath and keep going.  Steady as she goes, God, steady as she goes.  Tomorrow should be a better day-I hope!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Persecuted Churches of Revelation and Why We Should be Thankful

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."- Amendment One of the Constitution of the United States of America

In chapters two and three of Revelation we read about two churches who are experiencing persecution:  Smyrna and Philadelphia.  Yet they have held fast even in the face of slander and suffering.  These two churches remind us to be thankful for our rights to worship and assemble peacefully without threat or interference.  And they should also remind us to pray for those around the world who do not enjoy the same freedoms.

In the United States we are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It is a day to get together with family and friends for a big meal and a day to rest and count our blessings.  It is a national holiday.  It's a holiday that we tend to take for granted.  We enjoy the day off, the food and time to catch up with family but we tend to neglect counting our blessings.  Like the fact that we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for some brave individuals who struck out across the ocean to find a place where they could worship in freedom.  Or, the fact that if some Native Americans had not assisted the rag tag band, even more of that original group of settlers would have died!

The early settlers came to this country in order to practice their faith, in freedom without fear of persecution.  They had experienced persecution.  I remember reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, who had done some research on his family in England.  In it, he tells the story of an ancestor who designed a chair that had a Bible attached and hidden on the underside.  If the authorities came to search the house, the chair was flipped over and it looked like an ordinary piece of furniture, the Bible safely hidden out of sight.  If it was discovered, individuals in the family would go to jail.  Any property was forfeit.  Anyone who practiced religion not sanctioned by the state was criminal.  Could you imagine having to hide your Bible and having to hide your faith?  There are people in this world today who do not have to imagine the scenario because they are still living in the face of persecution!  If caught, they could go to jail or experience even more horrific consequences.

We are privileged to live in a country where religious freedom is a right, not a special favor granted.  We can build our churches and worship where we choose.  We can read our Bibles openly and pray in public.  We can sing worship songs in the public square.  And we have a government and judicial system and a military that defend that right, that freedom.  We have much to be thankful for!

So let us remember this week to pray for our elected officials and for those who are serving our country far from home who protect our rights.  Let us also remember to pray for those around the world who still face persecution and risk their lives for their faith in Christ.  In the midst of all the chaos and crisis that goes on, we sometimes forget how very blessed we are to live where we live and to have the rights and freedoms that we have!  We assume that the rest of the world lives in much the same way.

Even in countries that seem to be becoming more democratic and free, they are not as democratic and free as we are here in the United States.  Food supplies are controlled.  Water supplies are non existent or are perhaps polluted on purpose.  Individuals are still persecuted, jailed, even put to death for their beliefs.  So as we pray, we must also remember to pray for those individuals who suffer and live in fear.  Pray that they do not become discouraged, pray that they can stand firm like the two persecuted churches in Revelation.

Let us remember, this Thanksgiving, our precious freedoms and let us not forget to pray for those who still face persecution.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."  Revelation 21:3-4

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Revelation Churches Suffering from Identity Crisis

You could probably make the case that five out of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation suffered from an identity crisis.  Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea had forgotten their source and they had lost their spark.  Pergamum and Thyatira had an even bigger problem-they were not really sure what they believed in!  Because of that they had a pretty open "anything goes" policy and it was robbing them of their vitality.  Pergamum's problem was laid out in Revelation 2:14-15 (NRSV)
" have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.  So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans."
Thyatira had a very similar issue, we are told about in Revelation 2:20 (NRSV)
" tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols." 
These two churches were still doing work and trying to act faithfully, but they both had a teaching issue.  They believed, but it was unclear exactly what they believed.  They were guilty of trying to "add to the word" something that was not meant to be a part of the message in the first place.  In verse 16, Pergamum is told to repent.  And verse 21 says that Jezebel was given time to repent, but she refuses.  Egads!  Their "value added" message is about to become a big problem if they don't address the issue!  These two churches illustrate WHY it is so important to make sure that those who are teaching in church, are properly teaching.  It also illustrates why it is so important to be very clear about what the church believes and why.  It is important to have a plan!

If you ask someone in the Catholic faith what the church believes, they can tell you.  Even a "nominal" Catholic can articulate church belief!  They may not agree with it, but they can clearly tell what the church's position is on a particular practice or belief.  As for United Methodists, for many years, it really depended on the particular church that you attended.  In recent history, this has been a bit of a problem that went unrecognized.  I think there was a bit of belief that people would eventually pick it up, through osmosis.  Assuming that someone will understand and naturally "get it" on their own is just a bad idea and fortunately, leaders in the church recognize that this is an issue and are becoming more intentional about teaching.

There have been individuals over the years who started the ball rolling, but I have to say that I think Bishop Schnase (who happens to be my Bishop) picked up the momentum when he published his book "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations".  One of his chapters focuses on Intentional Faith Development and he provides examples of what that might look like.  Reverend Bob Farr (who also happens to be a leader in the Missouri Conference) touched on this topic in his book "Renovate or Die" in his chapter called "Disciple with Clear Steps".  But I have to say, where I really made the connection and saw this fleshed out in a very practical, workable way was at Church of the Resurrection's Leadership Institute.   Adam Hamilton and his staff took the time to explain their process of Discipleship-in detail!

Teaching individuals about the Bible, about what the church believes and why we believe it truly matters!  The goal is to make Disciples.  The reality is, not everyone is at the same place at the same time.  There is a learning curve and it is important to plan a process to teach members and bring them deeper in to the process of Discipleship.  I'll use myself as an example.  Where I am now in my faith walk, is not the same as where I was five years ago, or ten years ago, or twenty years ago.  Things that might have thrown me for a loop twenty years ago will not have the same effect on me now.  It didn't happen overnight!  It was a process of asking questions, getting answers, reading, praying and going through some challenges over the years.  I was blessed to have some wonderful teachers and mentors through the years but had I not had that support system, I'm not sure where I would be today!

Adam Hamilton used a "Discipleship Pyramid" to explain the process of Intentional Faith Development.  At the base of the Pyramid are the 40% who say "of course I'm a Christian".  Further up the Pyramid are the 30% who say "I have a ways to go".  Above that comes the 20% who are deeply devoted  and then, the final step on the Discipleship path, the 10% who are deeply committed Disciples.  The top two groups have become capable of "feeding themselves" and the top 10% are consistently capable of living out the 3 H's (head, heart, hands).  For those of you unfamiliar with the 3-H concept let me quote COR's definition of deeply committed Christians and their definition of what Discipleship is:
"Deeply committed Christians are: followers of Christ who are theologically informed (head); spiritually transformed (heart); and living out their faith in the world (hands).  Discipleship is: the lifelong process of personal inward transformation in the context of Christian community that finds its best expression in the world serving others and sharing Christ."
Schnase says in "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations" (pg. 62):
"Churches that practice Intentional Faith Development offer high quality learning experiences that help people understand Scripture, faith and life in the supportive nurture of caring relationships."
Rev. Farr in his book "Renovate or Die" drives home the point as to why it is important to plan a path.  In chapter 8 he says:
"During my time in ministry, most congregations have gone from allowing new members (who come up after the last hymn or who send over their transfer letters from another church) to join to making folks attend membership classes of some sort before they can join.  The reason for this thinking is that it will stop the new membership dropout syndrome, only to have us later discover that well over half of the people who attended the membership classes drop out after six months anyway....We hesitate in the United Methodist Church to set up paths and steps because we want to let everyone be individuals...But no path and no direction means we will achieve nothing and go nowhere." 
He goes on further in the chapter and offers this sage piece of advice:
"Decide what the end picture needs to look like and build a step process backward to the beginning." 
If we do not put some thought into planning out a faith journey path we could, as a church, end up like the first three churches that lost their spark or, we could end up like the two churches, who allowed teaching that did not line up with church belief.   This is an identity crisis that can be avoided with a little thoughtful planning and it can save a congregation from a lot of headache further down the road!  We have a belief system and we have an identity.  Feel free to preach it and teach it!  You'll be glad you did!  And your members will thank you as well!

And you thought Revelation was just a book of prophetic visions without a practical application for today!  Surprise!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Churches Trying to Find Their Way

I am continuing on my jaunt through Revelation and the Seven Churches and how their stories are similar to stories that we hear today.  Let's talk about the three churches that I put into "group one" from Tuesday's blog post.  These are the churches that appear to be churches but, in essence, have lost their zeal and their core.  They are the congregations without depth, a mere shell of what they once were and are on the path to dying if they do not change their ways.  These are the churches where you have members who long for the good ole days.  These are the churches where you have members who will try just about anything to try to turn the tide of decline.  They didn't plan to decline, it just happened!  Or, perhaps there was a difference of opinion which caused a rift and some of the members left.  Either way, they are not what they used to be when they started out.  Ephesus is told "you have abandoned the love you had at first." (Revelation 2:4).  Sardis is told "you have a name of being alive, but you are dead." (Revelation 3:1).  Laodicea is told "you are neither cold nor hot." (Revelation 3:15).

In modern day parlance, these are churches that our conference would identify as needing to be revitalized, particularly if they were in a "strategic area" (i.e. urban center or large community).  So the conference "lovingly" and "strongly" recommends that the church members agree to participate in a revitalization program (in our area, they call it the Healthy Church Initiative).  If the church agrees to participate, there are books to be read, consultants are sent in, secret shoppers show up at unknown times, teams are created and then a report is issued with prescriptions of what the church needs to do to turn itself around.  A mission statement and vision statement are created and the congregation has a year to implement the prescriptions.  Periodic "progress report" meetings are held during this time to make sure the church is staying on track.  My church chose to participate in the process.

Let me just say this, because I know I am about to tread in touchy territory as I voice my opinion.  Healthy Church Initiative is a good idea, as far as it goes.  My church was excited to participate and we did really well through the process.  I applaud the conference for trying to come up with a workable process.  There were changes made, and some of them worked out very well and they have had a positive influence.  But, there came a point when it seemed like the prescriptions became items to check off of a checklist rather than noble and worthy goals to accomplish.  I struggled for a long time trying to put my finger on the exact moment that the subtle change happened and I struggled with why it happened.  It wasn't until I heard Bill Hybels speak at the Leadership Institute that I made the connection and put words to the nagging feeling that lay just under the surface.  Bill gave a talk that he titled "5 Greatest Leadership Lessons" and it was a profound "ah-ha" moment for me at the time!  Here are the five lessons that he shared:

1)  Vision-paint a picture of the future that produces passion in people.  Watch out for "vision leaks".
2)  Get people in your church engaged.  There is a difference between agreeing with a vision and owning a vision.
3)  Make your gatherings memorable.  People are yearning for experience-to feel the touch of God, somehow, in some way.
4)  Pace yourself for the long haul.  "Hitting the wall" or "burn out" brings about anger-no depth.
5)  Pay attention to whispers from God.  Big things start with a whisper.  Discern-make sure they are from God then obey them.

Point number 2 was the "ah-ha" moment for me.  This also, in a round about way, gets back to the comment that John Meunier posted on my blog post from yesterday.  As a leader, as a church, you need to discern God's vision for you and your congregation, but at some point each individual has to take ownership of that vision.  Or, as Bill Hybels says, "you have skin in the game!"

Ron Crandall, in his book "Turn Around Strategies for the Small Church" says this on page 69:
"...pastors who lead congregations to find a corporate vision, have a personal vision already at work in their own lives.  They believe in a personal God who intervenes in history and changes people.  Their own experiences of conversion or their call to ministry are vivid, and they are thus convinced that God is ready and able to touch the lives of others."
The realization that I came to was that many agreed with the vision that came out of our Healthy Church Initiative.  Not everyone chose to "own" the vision. It was not a conscious choice or an intentional choice or even an outright rejection of the vision.  The effort was sincere, people were honestly looking for a way to improve!  But at some point along the way, the prescriptions became a checklist, rather than goals to help reach the vision.  The vision statement was warm and fuzzy enough to make you feel like it meant something but vague enough to leave room for interpretation.

Our members worked hard to try to fulfill the prescriptions.  Some burned out, and some ended up feeling hurt and angry because change didn't happen even though we as a congregation followed the prescriptions.  There are many good things going on at our church, but I sense that some long for more!

I often wonder what difference it would have made if we had written our own prescriptions?  Or, if instead of just having the prescriptions, if the consultants had led the congregation of literally writing goals and action items for each prescription listed?  If we had tied certain "action items" from the prescription, specifically to the vision would it have made a difference?    I can't say for sure that it would have made a difference but knowing the heart of the folks at my church I think it might very well have been the tipping point because the members would have had a say as to what was being done, how it was being done, but even more importantly why it was being done!

For me personally, I am a casualty of point number 4 on Bill's list.  I'm not angry, I'm just burned out.  Being at church is painful for me right now.  I love my church and I love my friends, my church family!  I see the hope that lives in them.  I also see the frustration and hurt and exhaustion.  I pray that the sparks of renewal become a flame.

Going back to Ron Crandall's book, on page 43, he talks about Howard Snyder's book "Signs of the Spirit". Howard discusses the 5 different but interrelated principles that historically have led to church renewal and revitalization through the ages.  They are:

1)  Personal Renewal-a dramatic, decisive experience or simply a deepening that gives greater peace and joy.
2)  Corporate Renewal-a dramatic spirit of revival sweeping the church, or simply by a gentle quickening of the church's life.
3)  Conceptual Renewal-God gives a new vision of what the church can and should be.
4)  Structural Renewal-simply finding the best forms, in our day and age, for living out the new life in Christ.
5)  Missiological Renewal-A church needing renewal is focused inward.  A renewed church focuses outward to mission and service in the world.

Maybe we, like the churches in Revelation, need a little more prayer.  And perhaps the conference can best help a church in these circumstances by bringing in the consultants and have them do the study, exactly as they have been doing.  But instead of the consultants writing the prescriptions, perhaps it would be best to lead the congregation to prayerfully consider  the information gathered, and write their own prescriptions.  It would help members connect to the vision and have "skin in the game".  They are not hopeless or dead, they are just trying to find their way.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Shepherd Leadership

I think that the first thing that we need to look at when talking about the seven churches in Revelation is the role that leadership played.  Leaders and leadership teams can make or break a congregation.  On the flip side, congregations can make or break a leader or leadership team as well!  Let's go back to First Peter chapter 5 where he tells the leaders his concern (from The Message paraphrase):

"Here's my concern: that you care for God's flock with all the diligence of a shepherd.  Not because you have to, but because you want to please God.  Not calculating what you can get out of it, but acting spontaneously.  Not bossily telling others what to do, but tenderly showing them the way."
Here is Webster's dictionary definition of Shepherd as it relates to leading:
"to conduct, guide (a group of people) and prevent them from lagging or straying" 
So a Shepherd leader guides a group diligently (preventing lagging and straying) and they do so because they want to please God.  It's not because they "have to", or because they like being in charge or because they think they'll get something out of it.  It's because of a love of pleasing God and doing what he has asked of his leaders.

Ezekiel 34 gives us an idea of what God had in mind when he describes what God plans to do as THE Shepherd.  God the Shepherd will:  rescue, bring them out, gather them, bring them to the mountain, feed them with "good pasture", make them to lie down (rest).  He will also, seek the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.

Feeling overwhelmed yet?  Sound like Mission Impossible especially with some of the goats at your church who like to ram into everything head first?  On our own, I would agree that the task seems insurmountable!

I started writing this particular piece on Monday with the intent of publishing it on Monday.  I wanted to come up with some sort of list of characteristics that define a leader and really flesh out this idea of Shepherd Leadership.  So I pulled all of my books out on church growth and spent time browsing through them again.  What took me by surprise, was the realization that none of these books talk about what makes a good leader in the first place!  Each and every book, that I have read, specifically, about church growth and turn-around strategies focuses on the congregation-not the minister leading the congregation.  It is assumed that a minister already has the skill set to implement an effective vision.  The closest I can come to a list of leadership skills comes from the book "Turn Around Strategies for the Small Church" by Ron Crandall.  Here are the 11 items that he labeled "Leadership role of the Pastor":

1)  Visionary  2)  Enabler/Encourager  3)  Partner/Friend  4)  Facilitator  5)  Cheerleader
6) Transformational Leader/Change Agent  7)  Spiritual Leader  8)  Caregiver
9)  Manager/Director  10)  Coach for Success  11)  Expert/Initiator

Pardon me for saying so, but I think that list is just as clear as mud!  And maybe, just maybe, that is why we have growth issues in the modern day church.  If a minister-the shepherd-the leader doesn't have a clear understanding of what is truly required of them out in the field, then how can they lead change?  A minister needs a clear understanding of their calling and vision.  They need to know their strengths and weaknesses.  What is a minister's specific gifts and how can they best use them when ministering to a congregation?  If you do not have that in the first place then how can an individual be expected to help a congregation cast a vision?

The first session that Adam Hamilton led at Leadership Institute had to do with Leadership Essentials.  His five point list is where I got the Ezekiel 34 reference from, that I talked about earlier.  Here's what he said:

1)  It's all about people.  Effective leaders build relationships.
2)  Leaders Clarify the Mission.  Mission=Why (Ezek. 34)
3)  Leaders help churches or ministries to discern God's Vision.  Vision=Where
4)  Leaders honestly face shortcomings and pursue excellence.  How can we do this better?
5)  Meaningful, moving, well led worship.

Bill Hybels also spoke at the Leadership Institute but I will leave what he had to say for another day.  As to Adam's list, I like it, I think it is workable but I also believe that the list comes from a place where the leader has a clear personal vision in the first place.  I'm not so convinced that all of our Ministers have that sort of clear vision to begin with!

So instead of focusing on accountability, perhaps the leadership of the church should focus on helping their ministers create their own clear vision before they ask them to help a congregation create a vision for ministry in their community.  Perhaps we need to go back and look at how these individuals are being trained in the first place.  Are we truly preparing them to be able to handle what they will experience when they are assigned to a local congregation?  Have we helped them clarify why they are in ministry?  Is that vision strong enough to carry them over the rough patches?  Do they have the skill set to be able to Shepherd a church through a process of change?  I think that these are questions worth asking.  If we want to see change, we need to make certain that the individuals being asked to lead the change, clearly understand their vision, first!

Want to create Shepherd Leaders?  Then give them the tools they need to be able to see the process through!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Leadership and the Seven Churches of Revelation

I'm going to talk about various things in more detail through this week but here is some things to ponder in the meantime:

From 1 Peter chapter 5 (The Message Paraphrase), Peter is talking about his concerns regarding leaders:
"Here's my concern:  that you care for God's flock with all the diligence of a shepherd.  Not because you have to, but because you want to please God.  Not calculating what you can get out of it, but acting spontaneously.  Not bossily telling others what to do, but tenderly showing them the way."
The Seven Churches in Revelation can be broken down (in my opinion) into three groups:

Group 1:  They "appear" to be churches.  Shells, no real power, gotten comfortable.
Ephesus (Revelation 2:4 NRSV) " have abandoned the love you had at first."
Sardis (Revelation 3:1 NRSV) " have a name of being alive, but you are dead."
Laodicea (Revelation 3:15,17 NRSV) " are neither cold nor hot...For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing."

Group 2:  They believe, um....we're not sure exactly what they believe.  But they have lost sight of the message.
Peragamum (Revelation 2:14-15 NRSV) " have some who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.  So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans."
Thyatira (Revelation 2:20 NRSV) " tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols."

Group 3:  Small, afflicted, persecuted but hanging tough.
Smyrna (Revelation 2:9-10 NRSV) "...I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.  I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.  Do not fear what you are about to suffer..."
Philadelphia (Revelation 3:8 NRSV) "...I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name."

Does any of this sound familiar?  Could we say the same thing about some of our churches today?  Where does leadership (or lack of leadership) show through in these examples?

More thoughts tomorrow!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day

We pause, we reflect, we remember.  We thank those who are still living, for their service.  We pray for those who are currently serving, who stand in harms way.  So we should!  This is not about honoring war, it is about remembering individuals.

Lots of people have posted on Face book, thanking our Veterans.  I posted specific names.  My father, my uncles.  My cousins, my children.  My husband, his father, his brother, his grandfather, his uncle.  Veterans are not just a generic group.  They have names.  They have families who love them.  They have connections to the world beyond just being in the military.  They are beloved:  parent, child, spouse, close family relative, close family friend.  We have a tendency to gloss over that particular point.   Those who have served and those who choose to serve are a part of us.  A unique, special and loved individual!  Regardless of our opinion about wars, we must never forget to pray and mourn and honor those who serve or have served.

On this Veterans Day, let us not forget, what these individuals have done and what they have sacrificed and take a moment to pause and reflect and honor them!  Today is a day for remembering.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Blah Night of the Soul

So, I have been reading David G. Brenner's book "Opening to God, Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer" ever since I got back from Leadership Institute.  In my opinion, my prayer life is one of my weak spots.  This book, for me, has been a slug fest!  I am literally trying to slug my way through, which is highly unusual for me, because I am a fast reader and I should have had this book finished in a matter of days!

The book is not the problem, it's a great book!  I am the problem.  In the first chapter, Mr. Brenner talks about Thomas Green's stages of love.  Writing about the third stage he says this:
"If you don't know about desolation in prayer, you haven't been praying for very long.  I have certainly known long periods when it felt like my prayers were simply echoing in my head but not reaching God.  But, as we shall see, even desolation has its divine purpose.  For, here, in these periods of dryness in prayer, we can learn to drink deeply from the living water in ways that are not dependent on our senses.  It is in these dark nights that our soul can learn to see by faith, not by sight."  
I can relate to this point because I have had those times in my life when I felt like my prayers were going nowhere!  What I am experiencing right now is a little different.  I wouldn't  call it a dark night of the soul but rather the blah night of the soul.  I've hit a dry spell!  Not just with prayer but with my Bible readings, with church life, with everything.  I'm in the blah zone! I'm not heart broken, I'm not despairing, I'm not depressed.  I'm also not overly excited or inspired.  I'm neutral.  Life is just humming along and I'm going along with the flow.  There are things that make me happy and make me laugh.  There are things that make me angry and sad.  But nothing seems to surprise or shock me or really grab my attention.  It's just...there.

I know it'll pass but right now it is driving me nuts!  I have been doing my daily Bible reading and I'm still making notes but it's like I am picking up on the same things that I have been seeing for the last six months.  I've been tracking my prayers for the last 31 weeks (due to Disciple Bible Study) and they have pretty much been the same things over and over for that period of time.  I finally got to the point a couple of weeks ago where I just simply put an arrow pointing up in the prayer concerns slot because it was the same as last week and the week before and the week before that!  On the one hand, I guess I should appreciate the consistency.  On the other hand, I'm thinking to myself "what is wrong with me, that I'm not seeing any change or break through???"

Blah, blah, blah, blah.  Oh so pathetically blah!

I'm spending a lot more time watching the birds in the front yard and the way the shadows play across the tree tops.  Logically, I know this is similar to hitting the plateau in sports or exercise.  Eventually you break out of the plateau and start making progress again, but it can be very frustrating waiting for that break to happen!  It is most definitely, the blah night of the soul for me.  I have a hard time with waiting and being patient!

For those of you who may be feeling the same way, take heart!  It's normal.  It's not a lot of fun.  Eventually though, you will break through.  It's the waiting that is the hardest part!  May you move beyond the blah night of your soul and may you encourage others who are experiencing the same thing!  Not only do I pray that for you, but I am praying that for me as well!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Random Thoughts on a Blustery Day

The wind isn't simply blowing.  It is roaring, in great gulping bursts of movement.  We have a powerful cold front moving through, now that the rain has ended and it is doing it's very best to sweep the leaves off the trees.  I am reminded of Winnie the Pooh's greeting "happy winds-day Kanga!  Happy winds-day Roo!"

My frame of mind today is like this blustery wind, blowing this way and that, without landing on anything solid.  It's fleeting thoughts and fragments-a little of this and a little of that.  My Bible readings today didn't even evoke a sense of agreement or disagreement, which is unusual.  Nor did my fellow bloggers posts inspire me to respond in a witty manner.  I almost called this blog post "I got nothing".  But that's not entirely true.

My daily reading came out of Psalms, chapter 128 (The Message paraphrase).  This is what caught my eye:
"All you who fear God, how blessed you are!  How happily you walk on his smooth straight road!  You worked hard and deserve all you've got coming.  Enjoy the blessing!  Revel in the goodness!...Stand in awe of God's Yes.  Oh how he blesses the one who fears God!"
My first thought was that I could point out a lot of individuals around me, who are not feeling very blessed.  Does that mean that they are ungrateful because right now they don't see any blessings?  Or, is it that they have been knocked around for so long that they don't see any point in hoping for a blessing?  I think a lot of people feel like the oak leaves I saw blowing around or like the little birds attempting to fly.  The oak trees are down the hill at the bottom of my yard, yet, the leaves were twirling around, being blown uphill by the wind and it is any one's guess where they will land.  Then there are the little birds trying to fly from branch to branch, furiously flapping against the wind in order to reach the branch that they were aiming for.  When they finally land, they cling desperately while the wind whips the small branches around.  For many, this is how they feel day to day.

Then, my Disciple Bible Study reading covered Second Peter.  Beware false prophets for the end is near.  My thought was, how would my life be different if I believed that the end was near for me?  Let's face it, there is no guarantee of tomorrow.  Would I make different choices and live differently if I knew my end was fast upon me?  How different would we behave as a society if we knew that our end was fast approaching?  How different would the church be, if the church knew that its end was coming?  I don't have an answer to any of those questions and it's not something that I seem to be willing to wrestle with today.

No, today reminds me of home, and it is bittersweet.  On a day like today, my dad would go ahead and fire up his wood stove in his workshop and he would be busy with his various woodworking projects.  He would be making toys or birdhouses, just puttering around doing something that he truly loved.  He and mom would also be planning on what trees they were going to cut down to use for wreath making.  Mom always made wreaths every year for family and for a few neighbors which gave her a little extra spending money for the holidays.  Our dining room table turned in to a huge work table for mom as she created her beautiful wreaths out of real balsam and pine.  The smell would permeate through the house, absolutely one of the best smells ever in my book!  Even if I wasn't at home, when mom made the wreaths, you could always tell that she had been working on them, the minute you walked in the door.  The skies might be leaden gray and the wind could be howling, but it was always warm and cozy in the house because the freshness of outdoors came inside with those boughs.

Dad is not tinkering in his workshop and I'm not sure if mom will be making wreaths this year, now that dad is no longer with us.  That wonderful time of my life has ended.  The time of feeling safe and warm and cozy and a part of the natural environment around me is over.  Today I feel adrift, like the oak leaves blowing in the wind.  Today I feel like I am having to flap hard against the wind, like the small birds in the front yard.  Today, I mourn, just a little for what I no longer have in my life.  The memories that are evoked, are wonderful, but they remind me of how big a hole there is in my heart.  It's been almost one year since I made that emergency trip home because dad had been hospitalized.  All indications were that dad was not going to pull through and I was going home to say good-bye.  But he did pull through and even though he was diagnosed with cancer, the outcome looked positive.  Bless his heart, he was a fighter!  He made it through the holidays.  He didn't give himself permission to let go until February.  Instead of fighting against the wind, he chose to ride the current and let his soul soar.

Dad would have liked a day like today.  It gave him an excuse to be in his shop, tinkering, doing what he loved.   Today would be a day for feeling alive and connected and doing the things that he loved, for those that he loved.  Today I shed tears of sorrow and joy.  Sorrow because I miss him so very much.  Joy because I was so privileged to have him as a part of my life for so many years.