Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I Love Her Because of Her Indomitable People

Photo by Amy James
As I write this, I am keenly aware that the flooding threat from Irene is not over with.  New Jersey is evacuating people by boat from their homes because the water is still rising.  The water is rising in Connecticut as well.  My prayers go out to all those who are effected.

Photo by Denis Boucher
The news from Vermont is better than yesterday, but far from over with, as far as recovery.  The state officials have managed to get to 12 out of the 13 towns that were cut off from supplies.  Clean up efforts are underway, but there is a long way to go!  And there are still people who are stuck where they are because the roads are still inaccessible.

Photo by Sandy Dibbell
My cousin, experienced this first hand.  Rose was actually able to make it home to Camels Hump after being stuck in Burlington for two days.  She described the drive like this: "picture a road made of soft chocolate with dips and curves and a space barely wide enough for a car, the road falling away as you drive."  She got in but she wasn't so sure she was getting back out today, but she was grateful to finally be home!

I was talking to my sister last night, as she was busy baking muffins and coffee cake to bring to the local fire station this morning.   She mentioned how God seems to give you what you need, when you need it.  She had read Psalm 69 that morning:
"Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.  I sink in the deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.  I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.  My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God."
I think a lot of people in Vermont felt that way initially.  The disaster was overwhelming!  In this situation people have two choices.  They can think "every man for himself".  Or, they can think "every neighbor helping neighbor."  They chose the second option!  People pitched in to help those they knew, and those they didn't know at all, in cleaning up what was left behind.  There were individuals who pulled out their ATVs, Mountain bikes, even horses to get in to areas that had been cut off, in order to check on people and to bring in supplies.  Message boards sprang up to share photos and information and offer assistance.  Everyone was in this together and everyone was doing what they could to help others.  One of the best articles I saw on this, was in the Burlington Free Press.  Message From Rochester 

Photo by Sandy Dibbell
My sister said that Psalm 69 reminded her that it was time to stop wallowing and time to start helping.  Many of my friends have said the same thing!  My friend Amy, who was one of the first people to post pictures from my hometown, is working with the local Little League to gather supply donations to distribute to those in need.  Another friend, Alan, worked tirelessly to get the water out of the basement at Wesley United Methodist church.  There are many many people doing similar things because they understand the importance of faith in action and showing love to your neighbors.  They also understand that everyone is their neighbor, even the stranger!

Photo by Denis Boucher
Photo by Amy James
My friends, Amy James, Sandy Dibbell and my brother in law, Denis Boucher, were kind enough to give me permission to share some of their photos with you.  I can describe the devastation to you, but a picture is worth a thousand words!  These photos were taken after the water had gone down-it was actually much worse!  Amy and Denis posted photos from my hometown of Waterbury.  My friend Sandy lives near Cavendish/Reading area and her photos are from that area.  All over the state, the photos are similar, the destruction aftermath is major!

I could say that Vermont is down but not out but I don't think that's a true statement.  Vermont isn't down!  Vermonters are just dusting themselves off and rolling up their sleeves to get to work!  Vermonters are tough and resilient and they have brought out the very best in each other!  I am so very proud of my home state and the way that they have banded together!  President Calvin Coolidge had a wonderful quote attributed to him and it is the inspiration for the title of this blog post:
"Vermont is a state I love...I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all, I love her because of her indomitable people."
I have shared with you about Vermont because Vermont is what I know!  But I also know that there are similar stories all over the northeast, mid-Atlantic and south and that is a reason to celebrate!   In our jaded society people have not forgotten the golden rule.  Kindness and caring do still exist!  Faith is still alive and well!

For those of you who are wanting to help out, I know the United Methodist Committee on Relief has something set up for North Carolina and the Pennsylvania area but I have not seen anything specific for New England.  When I do, I will post a link.   If you would like to help out in Vermont specifically, the Stowe Reporter posted an article online with specific links to organizations where you can donate.

Ways to Help Vermont Flood Victims

To my friends and family back home, I am with you in spirit!  I love you all-you indomitable people!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Yes it IS bad!

Good morning darling readers!  I've been quite a bit distracted for a few days as I watched Hurricane Irene head up the Atlantic coast.  I have many friends and family that live along the eastern seaboard.  I watched and waited as it slowly churned it's way north-breathing a sigh of relief when it passed one area and praying for the next area in the path.  So it was Sunday afternoon that I watched with shock and amazement as the "talking heads" started declaring that "Hurricane Irene wasn't so bad."

 I had been watching my Face book page closely and my friends in Vermont were telling me that the water was rising.  Surely the talking heads would start rephrasing their comments as Sunday evening closed in and I started hearing reports of evacuations in my home town of Waterbury, Vermont.  I listened in disbelief as they kept repeating the same old refrain.  Oh there were a spattering of reports about flooding but "it wasn't that bad."  By Monday morning my head was about to explode so I chose not to blog because I was so angry-they kept saying the same thing over and over again!  I knew how bad it was because my family and friends were telling me and posting pictures as well!

My friends were evacuating in waist high and chest high water in the dark because of flash flooding.  By late Monday morning they were being allowed back in their homes to salvage what they could knowing that the water was going to come up again.  The rivers had not crested, they had just gone down from the initial flash flooding.  It wasn't just happening in Vermont either.  Upstate New York, New Hampshire and Maine were also experiencing some flooding.

I can not even begin to describe the devastation but here are some pictures that will show you.

The Burlington Free Press Photos

The Valley Reporter

These are just a handful of the photos that I have seen over the past few days.  Yes folks, it IS bad.  My prayers go out to everyone who has been impacted by this storm.  And if you or your church can help in any way, I know it will be appreciated.  There are people up and down the eastern seaboard who can use a helping hand.

As for me, right now I can't get back to Vermont...but I'm working on it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Risk Anyone?

I'm not talking about the board game!  Today my thoughts turn towards those who are in the path of Hurricane Irene and the risks they face by "riding out the storm".  I have a lot of friends in the path of this storm and it has been interesting to see how they are choosing to react.  Some are taking the threat seriously and preparing for the worst or getting out of the way.  Some find the whole thing a fascinating abstract discussion and think that nothing bad will happen to them anyway, so why bother?

That's the way of life isn't it?  Some heed the warnings and some go about their business and, if they are lucky, come out on the other side unscathed.  Some though, are not so lucky.  The story of Noah comes to mind as an example of this point!

Sometimes in life it's worth taking a risk.  Like choosing to go back to school or asking for a raise.  The worst thing that could happen is you'll fail a class or your boss says no to your request.  Individuals in the military know that they are being asked to risk their lives for their country.  Yet, they are willing to do that because they are a part of something bigger than themselves.  But even in this situation, every and all precaution is taken to minimize the risk by wearing body armor, driving in armored vehicles and being thoroughly trained in how to react to a threatening situation.  Storm chasers may go out and catch tornadoes on film but they make sure they plan their route so they do not end up directly in the path of an approaching tornado.  They do exercise a modicum of common sense!

I pray that people heed the warnings and do what they need to do to stay safe!  But I know that there will be some who risk life and limb simply to experience the full fury of a hurricane.  And I have to ask, is it really worth the risk?  Is the thrill really so important?    If you risk your life and get in to trouble than someone else has to risk their life to help you.  Do you really want to put someone else in harms way?  I live in tornado country.  Believe me when I say that folks who have experienced a tornado first hand wouldn't do so again!  Things can be replaced.  Lives can not.

When is a risk worth taking?  My answer would be when you have a very good reason for taking a risk.  Otherwise you're on a fools errand.  Common sense is a gift.  Feel free to use it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What does it Mean? The Problem with Cushy Christianity

Once again my daily Bible reading and Disciple Bible study converge!  Let's start with a verse from Proverbs 19 (The Message paraphrase):
"We humans keep brainstorming options and plans, but God's purpose prevails."
Now let's jump over to Mark chapter 11 where Jesus cleanses the temple.  You know the story-Jesus walks in and starts tipping over tables and driving out the sellers and money changers and says in verse 17 (NRSV):
"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.  But you have made it a den of robbers." 
The notes on this verse say that Jesus wasn't opposed to the temple, he was opposed to what it had become.  People looked to the temple to keep them in right standing with God-to cleanse them.  But people were not living out that righteousness in their daily lives.  Salvation had become cheap.  It had no meaning.  The temple had become a building for buying and selling rather than a place of meaning!

Well, that's how a lot of people view churches today.  They are not opposed to religion, rather they find that church has no meaning to them.  There is no depth, there is no "why does this matter"?  If you look at the studies that have been done, a good majority believe in God and they say that they are spiritual but they have no faith affiliation.  Church, in their minds, involves marrying and burying and baptising your children so gramma will get off your case!   We know that churches are getting better at greeting people at the front door but we lose them out the side door.  We wonder why and then we start making "plans" in order to "fix" the problem!

Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds around the world in places that you wouldn't expect.  Africa, Asia, South America-these are areas where faith is flourishing despite the obstacles that these individuals face on a daily basis.  There are some places around the world where being a Christian will get you killed if your faith is discovered!  These are not easy places to practice your faith, these are hard places and yet faith flourishes!  Many of these places do not have church buildings.  They do not have Bibles.  They don't have big budgets or "special programs".  What do they have?  They have faith with depth and meaning!  They understand sacrifice and taking risks and they choose to follow.  Cushy Christianity doesn't apply!

So if I had to put my finger on one thing in America that would explain our faith problem I would have to say it is Cushy Christianity.  Grace is cheap and it comes with no strings attached and no sacrifices to be made.  Instead of asking God what his plan is, we create our own do it yourself plans to fix our problems.  We lack depth and we teach but we teach without meaning.  We don't ask our members to crack open a Bible and read the words for themselves and think about what it is saying.  We don't ask our members to pray daily.  Mission is something you do to feel good.  It's all just very comfortable.  It doesn't involve risk and it certainly doesn't express something meaningful.  In short, we are biblically and spiritually illiterate.

In the land of the free you would think that churches would be bursting at the seams.  Think about it-we have the freedom to worship anywhere we want without fear of reprisal!  Not only that, we can worship openly and publicly!  We can read our Bible in our home without fear of going to jail.  We can pray privately or publicly without fear of being charged with a crime!  We are blessed, yet we take it for granted!  We are free to do things that others only dream about!  It's time we start taking our faith walk a little more seriously.

If our church leaders want our churches to be taken more seriously then we need to start preaching and teaching more seriously.  We need to start answering the question, "what does it mean?"  Spiritual faith and discipleship will bloom when we start adding some depth to an individual's faith walk.  We are asking people to go out and make disciples yet we don't equip them with the tools to explain why making disciples is important!  What does this church believe?  Why does it believe this?  What scriptures back up this belief?  How can you use this in your everyday life?  This is the depth I am talking about.  These are the tools that show us that faith means something real.

As individuals we can choose to deepen our faith walk.  We can open our Bibles and read and study.  We can read about prayer and practice specific forms of prayer.  We can openly share with others.  We can choose to take greater risks.  We can participate in mission work.  We can go to church or join a small group of fellow believers in order to encourage and share our faith with others.  We have the freedom to do all of these things so we can choose to walk a path that is more meaningful instead of taking it for granted!  We do not have to choose Cushy Christianity!  We can become the change that we wish to see in our churches our homes and our communities.  We are blessed with the freedom to exercise our religion!  Let's stop taking that precious right for granted!

The thing that really made me aware of how much I take my religious freedom for granted was when I read about St. Ignatius and St. PolycarpPolycarp we read about how the leaders of the city came up to him as he was being brought in and begged him to recant his faith in Jesus Christ.  They liked him, they really didn't want to crucify him and basically they said "just recant publicly and then you can go do your own thing and this will be all over with."  He refused.  St. Ignatius told his fellow church members to stop trying to get him out of his date with the Lions because he knew he was going to a better place and he thanked God for thinking that he was worthy enough to meet this sort of fate in the name of Christ!  Even when faced with death they didn't deny their faith!  Could I say the same thing?  Could you say the same thing?  Their faith had meaning and depth and it saw them through to the end!

It's up to you to make a choice.  Cushy Christianity or faith with depth and meaning?  You have the freedom to choose!  Let's stop taking our freedom of religion for granted!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reclaiming the Essence of Worship

Worship is a touchy subject in many churches.  What makes it such a painful topic of conversation is "format" or "style of worship".  These disagreements have caused some serious rifts in congregations-worship wars!  I have some very strong opinions on worship and having planned worship, led worship and participated in worship I have just one thing to say.  Get over it!!!  Worship is not about "how" you do it, it is about why!

I like this take on worship in Psalm 100 in The Message paraphrase:
"On your feet now-applaud God!  Bring a gift of laughter, sing yourselves into his presence...Enter with the password: 'Thank you!' Make yourselves at home, talking praise.  Thank him.  Worship him."
Bottom line, it's not about us feeling good.  It is about us praising God and thanking God.  That is the whole point and all roads in regards to worship had better lead to God!  It's just that simple.

I, being a lover of all music, can worship God equally as well with a hymn as I can with a contemporary praise song!  Classical music?  Excellent.  Gregorian chant?  Inspiring.  Gospel music?  Fantastic!  I love it all and I can find a path to worship through any of these styles of music.  This is probably why I find worship wars so utterly ridiculous and pointless!  As far as I am concerned, the arguments miss the point!  A well planned worship service always leads the congregation on to the path of praise, thankfulness and worship in the presence of God!  Who are you focusing on?  What is your focus?  Are you really focusing on worshiping God?  Why did you pick this song or hymn?  Why do you have the service in this order?  If you are planning worship, then details matter!  Let me give you a couple of examples.

When I took over planning the contemporary service at our church there was one change that I insisted on which caught everyone by surprise.  It involved lighting the candles up front.  I wanted a child in our congregation to "bring the light in" and "carry the light out".  I didn't suggest this simply because I liked the idea!  I insisted on it because it was symbolic.  A child, bringing in the light of Christ, that light, prominently displayed up front and at the end of the service, a child carrying the light of Christ out in to the world.  Symbols matter!  They are important and I thought it was important to bring some of that symbolism back in to the service!  If the whole point of worship is about praising God and thanking God, a child is a good reminder about approaching the throne with child like faith!

Another complaint that I have heard is about saying the Lord's prayer.  Everybody does it by rote, it's just a part of the service, it means nothing, blah blah blah.  Well, maybe the reason it is rote is because someone hasn't done a thorough enough job of explaining the meaning behind it.  Or maybe it is because we as individuals haven't stopped long enough to think about what that prayer really says!

Let's stop and think about this for a minute and break it down.  "Our father"-yours, mine and everyone whether they acknowledge God or not.  "Who art in heaven"-the place that we are a part of yet is bigger than anything we can imagine.  "Hallowed be they name"-father totally rocks and we should honor him!  "Thy kingdom come"-I can't wait to see the big picture!  "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"-help me do and act the way that you would, father!  "Give us this day our daily bread"-provide for me what I need to do what you ask of me today.  "And forgive us our trespasses"-forgive my stumbles and ignorance.  "As we forgive those who trespass against us."-remind me that I need to forgive those who have hurt me.  "And lead us not in to temptation"-give me the wisdom to not do the wrong thing!  "But deliver us from evil"-let your holy spirit guide my every move.  "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever!" - your world is more real than this world and you are in control of all of it!   Thank goodness! "Amen"-so be it.

That was long but I think you get my point.  Everything that is a part of worship should have meaning.  The words, the symbols and the order matter.  And if you have to take a minute to explain it then do it-educate your congregation!  Think of worship planning like a river.  A river has rapids and quiet pools but a river always flows forward. The trees, the flowers and the rocks are there for a reason.  The point of worship is to praise God and to thank God and the river of worship should flow forward and bring us closer to that essence of worship.  And if you are a member of the congregation, remember that spirit of thanksgiving as you join with others to worship God with your presence and your praise!

So instead of wasting our time bickering over worship style why don't we instead focus on why we worship?  Let's focus instead on reclaiming the essence and true purpose of worship!  Regardless of what format or style that you use, make sure that what you do leads the congregation towards praising God and thanking God!  If all roads lead to God then you will have an inspiring worship service-regardless of style!  It's time that the people of God reclaim the essence of worship!  Amen and Amen!

I'm getting off my soapbox now...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I'm not so sure I would have picked those Disciples!

I'll be honest, I would happily have taken a pass on gleaning examples to use in my blog post this morning!  Yup, it was one of those kind of days, when everything that could go wrong, tried very hard to go wrong! 

The down hill slide started as Rob and I pulled up to the bus stop only to see the tail lights as the bus pulled away.  The bus was there 10 minutes early.  To say I was not a happy camper would be an understatement!  Seriously, the driver couldn't look in his rear view mirror and see us pulling up???  Wait a minute, that's a rather judgemental statement on my part, he has a bus load of children to keep track of!  Oops!  Then Rob suggested that I drive him to the Elementary school and he would catch the bus there!  Excellent, problem solved!  We got half way there when Rob realized that he had forgotten some papers that he had to turn in today!  Seriously, couldn't he have gotten all of his stuff together last night????  Oh, wait, that's a judgement call isn't it-he had a boatload of homework.  My bad.  So we turned around and came back home so he could get his papers.  Did I mention that I was driving the "it's o.k. to drive to the bus stop but really this is the in case of emergency" vehicle?  This particular Jeep has had some issues with overheating and it's gotten worse recently!  The drive in to Washington is measured in miles, not blocks, so needless to say I was more than a little nervous about getting stranded on the side of the road like Kenny did just last week!  I was doing a whole lot of praying and watching that temperature gauge closely!  As we were coming around the blind corner on our private road we met a car-on our side of the road!  Fortunately, it's gravel so you can't go very fast but we came within inches of being hit!  Seriously, she couldn't drive on her own side of the road???  Wait a minute, she is in a low riding car and the other side is pretty rutted, maybe she was worried about taking out the bottom side of her car.  Guess I shouldn't judge too quickly!

And thus, this morning, I got my very own life lesson about the hazards of judging others too quickly!  Here I was all set to talk about the opening of the Martin Luther King memorial and how wonderful I think it is and how this is a modern day reminder not to judge others based on one thing and one thing only!  It is a good reminder and I am so thankful that there is a wonderful memorial to this powerful minister and modern day inspiration.    I think what made him so profound was his ability to inspire faith and hope in others.  He didn't view himself as a leader, he viewed himself as a servant and that combination is rather rare these days!  In the whole scheme of things he was a very unlikely choice to be a leader of a movement!

Which brings me around to Jesus and his choice of Disciples as described in the book of Mark.  Look at who he chose-fisherman and a tax collector!  Seriously????  No credentials, no training, no indication that they could be anything more than what they were already!  Yet, he handpicked these men to become the messengers of the good news!  Jesus didn't judge on who these men were, or where they came from or what they did for a living.  He apparently saw something more-a servant's heart and untapped potential!  Honestly, how many of us would have made the choices that Jesus made based on our usual way of judging people?  If this morning is any indication, I would have to honestly confess that I probably would not have picked these men.  I would have been too busy making snap judgements rather than looking beyond and seeing the potential.  Methinks, it's time I take the plank out of my eye and stop worrying about the speck in someone else's eye! 

I have a long way to go on my walk of faith!  Thank goodness the Lord is patient!  Lord, forgive my snap judgements and stupidity and help me overcome my shortcomings!  It is painfully obvious that the problem is me!

And by the way, I made the trip in to town and back without the Jeep overheating.  Thank goodness!  There but by the grace of God go I.  And some days, I'm not all that graceful!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Seeds of Kindness

I like birds!  I like watching the birds in my yard and to bring them in closer I put out bird feeders.  Without fail, every spring, some stray bird seed ends up on the ground, missed by the birds, but happy to sprout!  These tiny seeds do this all on their own without any help from me and they pop up in the strangest places!  All I did was place the seed out!

This weekend was the kick off to a church wide project that we are calling the mustard seed project.  Jesus in his sermons talked a lot about sowing seed and the theme behind this project is "each one, reach one".  Each person who attended services received a card with mustard seeds glued on with the theme title and this scripture verse from Matthew 17:20:
"If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you."
The idea is simple-take every opportunity you can to plant small seeds of kindness at home and out in the community.  Can you hold the door open for someone who has their arms full of toddlers and groceries?  Could you buy a cup of coffee for a stranger at a convenience store?  Can you wave to your neighbors as you drive by their house?  Can you say please and thank you to your waiter or waitress?  How many acts of kindness can you do as you go about your day to day activities?  How creative can you get with planting seeds of kindness? 

Now I know what you're thinking-this is just common courtesy and common sense!  You're right!  It is common courtesy and it is common sense but what happens when our lives get busy?  We tend to forget, don't we?  And sometimes we tend to slip.  It's no big deal if you cut off that driver, because it's not like you'll see them again, right?  But do you know for sure?  Are you certain that you won't see that individual again and that they will not remember you if you do happen to meet again?    Why do you think Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves?  Because what you sow, you eventually reap!

Loving our families seems like a simple task but sometimes we take them for granted.  What simple special things can you do for those you love the most?  It could be as simple as a phone call, an encouraging word, or those special cookies that they love!  Kindness starts at home.

Think of this as purposefully planting seeds.  You don't know which ones will sprout but it's worth the effort to try!  You can be as creative as you want, but remember the point is to plant these seeds of kindness as you go about your everyday routine.  After awhile, it'll become second nature, but for right now, the idea is to purposefully choose to plant some seeds!  You may be shocked and surprised which of those seeds sprouts and takes off!  If you connect with just one person isn't that worth the effort?

So my darling readers, let me extend an invitation.  No matter where you are in the country or around the world, feel free to join in on this project!  And if you would like to share what you have done, leave a comment here or, you can find the First Untied Methodist Church, Washington MO Face Book page and leave a comment there as well. 

Happy planting!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Weekending-Busy times and Introducing a Very Special Blogger

It's Saturday evening and normally I have the weekend blog up long before now!  Life has been crazy busy this week between school starting and my son's birthday and my daughter's visit!  Did I mention that we were trying to re-build parts of my daughter's Jeep so she could drive it back to base with her?  My dining room table turned in to a work table this morning due to the severe thunderstorms that rolled through first thing!  Long story short, we managed to finish her Jeep and she left four hours later than she planned but she is on her way back to base!  Meanwhile, mama is saying a prayer and keeping the cell phone handy until I know she is safely and soundly back at base!  That little fact could make Sunday morning worship service an interesting experience indeed!

While I'm waiting for that phone call, let me introduce you to a very special blogger that I had the pleausre of discovering this week.  Her name is Ella, and she is the daughter of my high school friend Lisa.  Ella is a wonderful reminder of why we should listen to what our children have to say!  Read her comparison between Dr. Suess' story of the Lorax and the gulf oil spill and you'll understand what I mean!  Our children do listen, they do see and they do have opinions and we adults need to be reminded of that fact once in awhile!  So, it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to Ella and her wonderful blog!  Check it out!

Lorax-How You Can Help

Here are a few other good reads from this week as well:

Jedi Pastor Ken's thoughts on the latest and greatest Christian Leadership Books.  He'd rather spend time with his dog and I whole heartedly agree!

Enough with Christian Leadership Books!

Allan R. Bevere wrote a great piece on arguments based on silence and why they are not such a good idea.  Some people may disagree with him but I think what he had to say, particularly in regards to using this argument when discussing scriputre is very relevant!

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Pants, No Service

And finally, Mike Lindstrom wrote a piece this week  asking where is the accountability for churches, not just pastors in the latest greatest proposed system.  As a lay person, I share Mike's concern and it is a question that I think we all need to think seriously about!

Too Much Power to the People?

Have a fantastic rest of the weekend!  And forgive my tardiness in getting this posted!  It's just been that kind of a day and it's not over with yet!  Once a mama, always a mama and I'll be up until I get that phone call!  Take care!

Friday, August 19, 2011

And You? Go About Your Business Without Fretting or Worrying

The blog post title is part of the concluding line of Daniel chapter 12 in The Message paraphrase.  With everything going on today that word of wisdom from an angel is a good reminder to all of us!

Seriously, there are certain things in life that are beyond our control that we can not do anything about.  I can not stop a stock market crash.  I can not stop a meteor if it chooses to come to close to earth.  I can not cure cancer.  This is not my area of knowledge or expertise.  For some people, this is their area of expertise and God bless them for using their skills to address certain problems!  But in the whole scheme of things there are certain things that are beyond my control and worrying myself sick over them will not help me or anyone else!  Daniel needed this reminder as well!

Prior to these closing lines Daniel had seen some pretty scary visions in vivid detail-sort of like a 3-D bad dream with surround sound!  We know he became physically ill trying to process the information and we know he got distracted from his duties because of the dreams.  Daniel even tells us that he fainted in terror.  It wasn't until an angel came and touched him that he regained some strength and then he was able to listen to the interpretation.  Bottom line, Daniel was seeing future events and they were going to happen and there was nothing that he could do about them.  He was told simply to write them down and then put the vision under lock and key because now was not the time to reveal them to others. 

I know that doesn't sound very hopeful but even in the midst of chaos God always provides hope if we are willing to listen through the ears of faith!  If you go back to chapter 10 when Daniel first encounters the angel he starts off by saying this:

"Daniel' he said, 'man of quality, listen carefully to my message...From the moment you decided to humble yourself to receive understanding, your prayer was heard, and I set out to come to you."
Now understand, at this point in time Daniel had been praying for three weeks.  The angel then goes on to explain that he was delayed because he had to fight against the prince of Persia (keep in mind that battles happen beyond our realm of seeing and understanding) and it wasn't until Michael came to help, that this angel was able to get away in order to speak to Daniel.   Makes you wonder what would have happened if Daniel had stopped praying and waiting for an answer, doesn't it?  

In chapter 12 the angel goes on to tell Daniel that there will be big battles ahead, many will die but those who have chosen to live wisely, those who lead others by their example will be saved.  The angel says this:

"And those who put others on the right path to life will glow like starts forever...In the interim there is going to be a lot of frantic running around, trying to figure out what's going on."
 At the very end the angel tells Daniel to relax and go about his business without worrying.  In other words, keep living the life you have been given to the very best of your ability.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't concern ourselves with things that we should be taking care of ourselves.  What it means is that we can't drive ourselves to distraction and despair over things that are beyond our control.  We can talk a good talk but if we don't lead by example then we can't lead others towards the path they should follow. 

Too often we fall in to one of two camps.  The first camp is the pessimist group-they worry over anything and everything and because they are so obsessed with worrying they get absolutely nothing accomplished.  The world is going to hell in a hand basket and the sky is gonna fall, so what's the point?  Everything is scary, everything is risky and rather than dealing with things right in front of them they just shut down.  The other group is the "the Lord will provide" camp.  I don't have to do anything about this because the Lord will provide.  Again, nothing gets accomplished because they just sit back and wait for the big hand in the sky to drop off what they think they need.  Thing is, what they need may be right smack in front of them but they do nothing with it because it doesn't look like anything they expected! 

There has to be balance.  Don't worry about things you can't change.  Do take care of things that you have control over.  Pray and keep praying for things you need.  Thank God when he shows you how to take care of things in ways that you did not expect.  If you keep on keeping on, regardless of circumstances people will notice.  If you want others to follow lead by example.  Give them something worth following.  And go about your business without fretting or worrying. 

Pretty good advice if you ask me!  It came from an angel.  But if you want even more evidence of what good advice this is, go read what Jesus said because he said the same exact thing!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Celebrate! Time for Family and Friends

Today is another celebration day at our house!  My youngest son, Randy, turns 11 today.  My how time flies!  Not only does he pick his cake but he gets his choice of dinner as well!  It is a family tradition!  And of course, there are presents but the big event is the celebration, not the gifts!

When I stop and reflect, I am always amazed at the changes I see in my children.  Subtle changes perhaps, but there always seems to be glimpses of who they will become and who they might turn out to be.  With Randy in particular because of Asperger's even the subtle changes are huge victories!  A "normal" kid with "quirks" learning how to successfully cope with a world that doesn't think like he does and doesn't deal well with someone who isn't like everyone else-let me tell ya, those are hard won victories!  Any challenge that my children overcome is worthy of celebration because it is the small victories that keep us going and keep us sane!

I've been reminded of this as I have spent time reminiscing with former and current residents of my hometown of Waterbury.  It's not about things that we bought.  It's about places we went and times spent together.  And it is about celebrating the people who made these events possible.  Everyone is sharing their stories, their memories and even some photos for a wonderful trip down memory lane!  It's about swimming at the old swimming hole or roller skating in the school gym.  It's about the police chief who would take a young teen home instead of hauling them off to jail.  It's about the fact that if you did something, good or bad,  your parents knew about it before you got home because everyone knew their neighbors and they kept an eye out for each other.  This was and still is a community that cared about each other and cared for each other.  The stories that are told about places we used to go and events we used to attend reflect this subtle understanding of just how special this community has been in our lives.  They are connections worth celebrating!

Proverbs has a couple of wonderful gems on the importance of family and friends.  Chapter 17 in The message paraphrase says this:

"Friends love through all kinds of weather, and families stick together in all kinds of trouble"
Here's another one from Chapter 18:

"Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family."
 Our society tells us that we should obsess over what we do not have.  We should, by default, always strive for more instead of celebrating what we already have in front of us.  I would like to suggest that instead of striving for "things" how about striving for something that in the long run really matters?  How about striving to connect more with family and friends?  We all long for that sense of community and that sense of belonging!  Why not celebrate those connections with those we love the most-our family and friends!  And who says that it has to be a carefully planned elaborate affair?  Some of the best get-togethers happen when someone just stops by to say hello!  These are your friends and your family-they know what you look like without makeup and they know what your house looks like with a sink full of dishes!  These are people who have shared your joys and your sorrows.  They have been a part of your fun times and they have been in on the scrapes and bumps along the way.  Through thick or thin they have been there!  What you have doesn't matter to them.  What matters to them is you!  Give yourself permission to just enjoy being with them!

Share a cup of coffee or cup of tea!  Share a donut and a good joke.  Get a group together to go to a picnic in the park or Chicken Pie Supper at the local church.  Fire up the grill or roast marshmallows around the fire pit.  Take time to celebrate the simple ordinary things with those that matter most-your family and friends!  These are the moments that memories are made from.  The moments that count are the moments that you share with those who truly care! 

Make time to celebrate!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

School Days-Let's All Pray

Robert starts his first day of Senior year today.  It's hard to tell, but I do think he is excited about going back to school!  Not only will he get to see his friends but he also chose to take a pretty challenging course load this year which includes some Advanced Placement classes where he can earn some college credits.  He's a Senior, top of the heap, at the head of the pecking order in high school hierarchy.  I am so incredibly proud of him and his friends!

Senior year is really the only year of high school that I remember with some fondness.  That was the year when the social cliques formed in Freshmen and Sophomore years started to crumble and you started talking with other students in your class who were not part of your "inner circle".  That's when you started talking about what happens next and you started to field the question "what are you going to do after high school?"  Yup, Senior year was a lot of fun because suddenly everything that defined your world up to that point didn't matter quite so much.  It was the year of expanding horizons and lots of hope for the future mixed with a whole lot of questions!

There is one moment though, that I think really summed up Senior year for me, the moment when I decided that I didn't care what anyone else thought and chose to do the right thing.  I had actually forgotten about this until years later when my mother had a chance encounter with one of the young ladies directly impacted by a split second decision in a very crowded lunchroom during the beginning of the school year.

At my high school there was no such thing as grade level lunchtimes.  There were two separate lunch periods but it was a mixed bag of students from Freshmen to Seniors.  Every "group" had their "official" table spaces and there was an unwritten rule that you did not tread upon someone else's table turf.  Jocks at one table, computer geeks at another, musically inclined in their spot-the typical clique breakdown.  I happened to be involved with the drama club so that meant sitting with the music/art/drama group, which I had been a part of for my entire time in high school.  We had some new additions to drama club that year-some incoming freshmen so I knew some of the younger kids from the drama group but didn't know them well.  Two young freshmen ladies also had the same lunch period as we well established seniors and they hadn't quite found their group yet.  It was still early in the year but the tables had already filled up and they needed to find a place to sit for lunch!  They tried sitting at a couple of tables but were stopped by those already sitting there.  It got worse.  Some Freshman boys decided that they were mock worthy and started harassing them as they stood there with their trays in the middle of the lunchroom looking for a place to sit.  The boys blood sport started attracting attention.  I will never forget the look on Karen's face in particular, not just a dazed look but rather a look of fear and embarrassment-being on the verge of tears.  I knew what she was feeling, because I had felt that way too many times over my high school years! 

At the time I wasn't thinking about compassion and mercy or doing the right thing.  I was mad!  Mad at those punk little Freshman boys for treating these girls this way!  Just exactly who did they think they were?  They were not big boys on campus, they hadn't earned that right yet!  No, they were thoughtless juvenile little boys who needed to be knocked down a notch!  These were my girls and no punk Freshman was going to get away with treating them like that!  I wasn't the only one at my table who had this thought, my friends noticed as well!  The decision was unanimous, the girls would come sit with us at the Senior table.  I'm not sure which one of us called to them and invited them over but from that point on, they had a table to sit at for lunch every day!  And certain Freshman boys stopped using them for their sporting targets!  We made our point-they were under our protection and we would not tolerate anyone messing with them. 

Like I said, after high school I had forgotten all about that terrible moment.  It wasn't until years later that I realized just how important that decision was on that day.  My mother went to have her hair done by a new hair stylist who she hadn't been to before.  When she came home with her beautiful new look she started to tell me about the conversation she had with the young lady who had done her hair.  Turned out that the young lady was Karen and she told my mother the story of that day in the lunchroom.  She remembered me specifically!   And she remembered the horrible feeling of standing in the middle of the lunch room not knowing what to do and suddenly the relief of being invited to sit at the Senior table.  I may have forgotten but she never did!  Sometimes you'll never know the impact that you'll have on another person's life but understand this, little things do count and little things do matter even more than you can possibly imagine!

So today I pray for all students starting school and I pray for the teachers as well.  High school in particular can be such an awkward time and there is enough misery in the process of "becoming" without someone adding to it!  I hope that if my son sees a situation where someone is being made fun of or bullied that he will have the courage to intervene.  I hope that every child will choose to do the right thing! 

And Seniors, have a little fun along the way! 

Blessings upon blessings to you all today!

All my love,

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Winning the Battle Starts with Showing Up!

The books of the Bible that deal with rules and bean counting are always hard reads for me, no matter what the translation is that I happen to be using!  It reminds me of history class when you had to keep track of the specific dates for various Civil War battles in order to pass the final exam.  If I could match a specific battle to a specific war I figured I had hit the bonus round!  Asking for the exact date?  That's an entirely different story!  I'm grateful that I absorbed enough information to figure out what happened and when it happened!  That's the same sort of view that I take with certain books of the Bible.  I'm never going to keep the genealogies and census numbers straight but if I can get the general idea then it's all good! 

There are little nugget gems to be found within the various law and number books if you keep reading.  Every once in awhile, something will jump out at me and I'll be like "huh, wonder why I didn't notice that before?"  Today's daily Bible reading had one of those little gem moments.  Take First Chronicles for example!  Chapter 9 discusses the list of exiles who came back to Jerusalem, and of course it names names.  It is a pretty standard list by clan and it involves the Priests, Levites and temple support staff.  But when you get to the Korahite family who were the guards at the temple gates there is this little bit of added information.  The Message paraphrase says this:
"David and Samuel the seer handpicked them for their dependability."
Now if you have any inkling of history, you know that the exile happened well after King David's time.  So the choice of this particular clan to be in charge of temple security happened long before the Babylonian exile and eventual return of the tribe of Israel to Jerusalem.  And the key reason as to why this particular clan was chosen for this specific duty was because they were dependable!  David and Samuel knew they could rely on them to fulfill this duty and that they would actually show up!  Even though a lot of time had passed, this was still true of the clan when they returned from exile.  The job would get done because this family would be there.  They would actually show up!

That is the moral of the story for today.  Part of winning your battles involves being dependable.  It involves not just talking about what you are going to do.  It is about showing up, doing the work and following through.  Want a modern example?  Firefighters have training and they have the equipment but if they don't show up to put out a fire it doesn't do you much good, now does it?  Teachers have training and they create lesson plans but if they don't show up to teach the class all that planning amounts to nothing.  Or, if you would like to jump in to the world of science fiction-a starship has warp drive but until Captain Picard says "engage" it doesn't really help you!  You can have the best plans, you can have the greatest tools but until you actually show up to do the work it amounts to absolutely zero in progress!  There is great value in being dependable!

Dependability is under-rated today.  It's just not a "glamorous" virtue like being utterly brilliant!  Having been an office manager I can tell you that I would take a dependable person over a brilliant person any day!  A dependable person is trainable.  Someone who has brilliant ideas but is not reliable is useless to me in an office setting because they are never around to follow through on their good ideas!  They are flighty.  My preference would be to have someone with both qualities-brilliance and dependability but if I had to make a choice, I would choose the dependable person.  It's not because I oppose new ideas but rather because I need to know that someone is going to be there to actually do the work!

So how does this apply to your life and your faith walk?  Well, let me ask you this.  Are you facing struggles and you have some good ideas on how to deal with them but you just haven't implemented them?  Why?  What is holding you back?  Is it because the task seems too daunting or is it because you believe someone else will take care of the problem?  If you happen to fall in to the second category-believing that someone else should take care of the problem-you may have a problem!  The only person you can change, the only person you have control over is you!  Doing the work, making small changes, that's how big changes occur.  But you have to "show up" to win the battle.  You, my darling friends must do the work.  You have to be dependable and reliable-for you!

The same thing applies not only in your personal life and your work life, but also in the life of a church.  If you want change, then you have to be willing to do the work!  You have to show up.  You have to be the reliable, dependable person!  I have a beautiful voice, I can sing.  But in order to be involved with the Praise Team I had to show up for practice and I had to show up to help lead worship on Sunday morning.  I could have all the good ideas I wanted but if I didn't bother to show up then those ideas would not come to fruition because there would be no one to follow through.  Being part of the team meant working for the best interest of the team.  And a big part of that involved simply showing up!  The team was successful because we knew that we could rely and depend on each other!  Things would get done because there was a reliable core who was willing to do the work!

I remember a conversation I had with a good friend of mine who also happens to be a very successful businessman.  As an office manager I was suddenly having to deal with moving large sums of money around which was something completly new to me and quite frankly, I was rather intimidated by the whole thing.  I mentioned this to my friend.  He also had experienced the same thing at first but he said "I got to the point where it didn't bother me any more.  A thousand dollars, a million dollars, same difference."  The uncomfortable became comfortable because it became normal.  It became normal because he showed up every day and did the same thing over and over again until it became second nature.  It wasn't randomly done, there was a specific plan and procedure to follow.  It worked because my friend was dependable and reliable and he showed up to do the work.  He looked at the problem and created plan A, B and C.  He addressed the issue head on and he did the work to win the "battle".  But his success would never have happened if he didn't bother to show up to "do battle" in the first place.  That's why being dependable is so critical to any success in life.  Change doesn't happen by itself.  Change depends on people willing to work the plan in order to make change happen!

Are you facing big problems?  Do you have some ideas on how to address them?  Do you want to see change?  Create a plan and then start doing the work.  If this is your battle than show up!  Face your challenges head on.  Engage in the action.  Be steady and consistent or in other words be dependable.   Battles are unavoidable but the art of winning the battle is showing up for the battle in the first place!  

As Captain Picard would say...Engage!

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Would Make Jesus Weep?

There's an interesting question in this week's Disciple Bible Study that is worth pondering this morning.  If Jesus went to a hilltop and looked down on your town or village, what would he see that would make him weep?  This particular question caught my eye today since I happen to have an Evangelism Team meeting this evening and this most definitely relates to the topic at hand!

In a nutshell, I can say without hesitation, that there is plenty to keep us busy!  That particular point became painfully clear at our last meeting as we discussed ideas on how to be more involved in the community.  The "sticky wicket" is choosing what to focus on.  What is most needed and how can the church community best fill that role?  The second question to ask is how do we match church members up with volunteer opportunities that match their gifts and passions?

Serving others is definitely part of the Wesleyan tradition.  So many ministries were started by early Methodists-schools, hospitals-even Wesley mentioned in his journal going to prisons to see to the needs of those  who were incarcerated.  Wesley viewed service to others as a natural part of Discipleship.  As you change inwardly, that change is reflected outwardly by serving others.  If you look at what Jesus did and who he went to and who he talked with there is example after example of service to others.  He taught, he fed, he healed and he confronted those in positions of authority.  Serving others is clearly considered a natural part of an individual's faith walk.    That need is alive and well today, but finding individuals who will do the work can be tough!  It's just so much easier to write a check!  Someone else will take care of the problem.  Our schedules are already so full how could we possibly make time to do something more?

Something more-isn't that the essence of our faith walk?  Are we not called to be the eyes that see, the ears that hear, the mouth that speaks, the hands that work, the feet that walk?  What compels us to help others and why is that so important?  Have we as a church explained this clearly enough?

In Second Corinthians 8, The Message paraphrase says this:
"The heart regulates the hands."
Inward compassion shows up through outward action.  What are you being asked to do?  How can you help?  Where can you use your gifts to serve?

Let's expand the initial question a bit.  If you were standing beside Jesus on a hillside looking down on your town, what would make you weep?  Answer that question and you will have taken your first step towards figuring out where you are called to serve.  The need is great yet the workers are few.  Take that next step on your faith journey and find a place to serve. 

May we all work to turn the tears of sorrow into tears of joy!  This, oh Lord, I pray.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Weekending-Happenings and Some Good Reading

I'm excited that my beautiful daughter is flying home today!  She is in the Navy and just graduated from her second phase of  classes, so she's taking a little leave time to spend with the family!  High on her to do list is papa making steak on the grill!  I have a feeling that I'm going to be doing a lot more cooking and baking this week!  That's o.k. by me!

I meanwhile have been traveling down memory lane thanks to a new Facebook group about my hometown!  Talk about blasts from the past!  And there are people who are part of the group that I haven't seen in years so it's been a lot of fun to reconnect with them!

My top two blog posts this week are: 

Moments of Jubilee Amidst Anarchy

Leadership-Jesus Style!

From around the web:

Alan R. Bevere's blog post  What Happened to the Sense of Urgency?
Mike Lindstrom's post  False Advertisting in the UMC
Pastor Jon's Too High? Too Low? Just Right?

Last but not least let me introduce you to fellow lay-speaker, blogger and facebook friend Tim Good.  Tim actually has more than one blog and most in the Methodist World are probably familiar with his blog The Naked Alien.  But Tim is also a nature photographer and he posts the most amazing pictures at his other blog Photography by Tiwago.  The photos can be summed up in one word:  Gorgeous!  So if you would like to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary go check out Tim's photo blog!  It is truly a journey of beauty in the world around us!

Have a fantastic weekend everyone! 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Those Pesky Stumbling Blocks

Matthew 18:6-7 (NRSV) says this:
"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!  Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!"
Prior to this Jesus had used children as the example of how one approaches the Kingdom of Heaven.  By parable and example before and after this section Jesus talks about religious leaders being more concerned with outward appearances than inward well being.  Or, about the slave who was forgiven his debt who in turn did not forgive the debt that was owed to him by another slave.  Stumbling blocks, child like faith, leadership, what is the common thread here?

Children today are treated very differently than they were even 200 years ago, let alone 2,000 years ago!  As soon as they could help out with chores that was exactly what they were expected to do!  Or as the notes in the Wesley Study Bible point out, they were treated like servants.  They were not in positions of authority, they were workers.  But I do think that there were some similarities to the children of today.  For small children everything is cool!  Bugs are cool.  Mud puddles are cool.  The weirder it is, the cooler it must be!  They approach everything with a sense of wonder and excitement.  They also have not figured out a sense of right and wrong, which means that they are teachable.  They don't approach others with any preconceived notions of who they are or where they are in the pecking order.  A child doesn't ask why someone is in a wheelchair because they are being cruel.  They ask because they really want to know why is that person in a wheelchair?  Judgements develop with age and life experience cruelty doesn't come in to play until they get a little bit older and base their reactions on the examples that they have seen from others around them. 

There are certain boundaries that we have to set for our children in order to keep them safe, like sticking your hand on a hot stove is bad because you might get burned or look both ways before you cross the street because getting hit by a car would be bad!  These are not stumbling blocks but rather appropriate boundaries that parents traditionally teach.  Jesus went head to head with the Pharisees not because he thought that boundaries or traditions were inappropriate.  He went head to head with the Pharisees because they were putting so many unnecessary rules on people that had nothing to do with God's Word.  They were going out of their way to set up stumbling blocks! 

Pharisees and Scribes were the leaders of the Jewish community.  Their job, their task was to teach and to lead by example.  Their job was to serve the people of the Jewish community.  As time went on they became less concerned with the servant role and more concerned with the status role and that is what they taught to others.  You're wealthy?  Here's where you fall in the pecking order.  You're blind?  You're low down on the list!  It's tradition, that's just the way it is and that's how it has always been done!  It's no wonder that Jesus could not perform many miracles in his hometown because they could not accept who he had become since they knew where he came from!  They were offended because he was stepping out beyond the established hierarchy pecking order.  He was not being what they thought he should be, he was not acting the way they thought he should act.  Nazareth?  Nothing good comes out of that place!  It's the wrong side of the tracks!  Tradition in this sense, became a stumbling block.

It makes me wonder what we have set up as stumbling blocks today in our modern society.  How do we hold others back because of the views we have been taught to hold?  Do we judge older adults as being less worthy to hire because we think they do not have the ability to contribute with the skills they have or have the ability to learn new skills?  Do we judge younger people as being less than trustworthy because they have tattoos and piercings so they must be "from the wrong side of the tracks?"  Do we choose not to hire someone with a past criminal record because we are convinced that they there is no way they could possibly change?  Do we close churches because their numbers don't fit our dashboard?  Do we end up accomplishing nothing because we are so entrenched in my way or the highway?  How many potential leaders and innovators have fallen through the cracks because they don't behave the way we believe they should?  How many have fallen by the wayside because of the stumbling blocks we have placed in front of them?

I don't think tradition is the problem.  I think it is how we use those traditions that lead to problems.  I'll give you a modern day example.  We tell our children that they can do anything they want to do.  That in itself is not a bad statement!  What we changed became the problem.  We started grading on "curves", we told them "everybody wins" and we made sure that competitions reflected that philosophy.  We taught them that success could be easy and failure was impossible.  Everyone and everything would work in their favor.  So when our children went out in to the real world and fell flat on their face they were completely unprepared for dealing with failure!  They couldn't understand that work was hard and sometimes tedious and that persistence was important!  We didn't do our children any favors by sugar coating the truth.  If anything, we prolonged the learning curve of life in the real world because they had to totally change their thinking!  In our quest to better "nurture" we created a whole new set of stumbling blocks!

We've done a similar thing in our churches.  Come as you are is good, but we've chosen to leave off the part about Discipleship and confronting things that we need to change in our lives in order to follow this path.  There are key components of a faith journey that we have chosen to either gloss over or just not mention because it might make someone uncomfortable.  Do we offer a method for daily Bible study?  Do we teach about prayer?  Do we teach about church tradition and why the church believes certain things?  Do we teach about humility and serving others being critical elements to an individual's faith walk?  And accountability?  It's not personal, it's numerical.  And we wonder why we flounder about without any clear purpose or sense  of direction!  We've created our own stumbling blocks.

No wonder Jesus warned us strongly about stumbling blocks!  He understood that we could take something meant for our good and twist it so badly that it becomes a stumbling block!  Jesus never said that following in his footsteps would be easy!  He didn't say that there would not be challenges or that the work would be easy.  He did provide us with a starting point-a child.  Approach the Kingdom with a child like heart of wonder and excitement.  Approach the Kingdom as a servant willing to do the work.  Approach the Kingdom without the customary baggage of judgement, pessimism or superiority.  Approach the kingdom as a child like servant and become the leader that God intended you to be! 

That's a fantastic message of hope!  That message is still alive and well today!  We simply have to choose to grab hold of it! Those pesky stumbling blocks will still be there but that doesn't mean that you have to let them stop you!  Hope remains!  Thank you Jesus for reminding us once again that hope remains! 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Leadership-Jesus Style!

Ooh I love it when my daily Bible reading and Disciple study reading converge!  I got so fired up reading today's scriptures that I couldn't wait to share!  This is good!

Let's start with Proverbs 16 because there are just some real gems in this one little chapter!  Here are just a few that focus on leadership.  From The Message Paraphrase:
"A good leader motivates, doesn't mislead, doesn't exploit...Good leaders abhor wrongdoing of all kind; sound leadership has a moral foundation...Good tempered leaders invigorate lives; they're like spring rain and sunshine"
Now let's head over to Matthew 12.  Up to this point Jesus has been teaching not only the Disciples but also using parables to teach to the crowds.  He's been working miracles, he's been confronting the Pharisees.  In Chapter 12 he heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.  This did not sit well with the Pharisees and in verse 14 we read that this is the point where the Pharisees started actively conspiring against him in order to get rid of him.  Verse 15 tells us that Jesus departs but large crowds follow him and "he cured them all."  In verse 16 it goes on to say that he told these individuals the following:
"...and he ordered them not to make him known."
In other words, he was quite content with flying low under the radar.  That little tidbit right there is a key element that we tend to overlook when we talk about leadership!  The best leaders are servants first.  They are content to do what they have been asked to do quietly and consistently without a whole lot of hoopla and fanfare. 

Everything that I listed from Proverbs 16, Jesus did in abundance.  His leadership had a moral foundation.  He didn't exploit, he went to those who were being exploited.  He abhorred wrong doing.  He was a motivator and he brought a message of hope, just like a spring rain and sunshine!  He didn't mislead.  He invigorated people's faith in God.  Jesus did everything mentioned in Proverbs 16 as marks of a good leader!  And he did it without being in a front and center position of power or authority! 

My my, how different than what we see from our leaders today who rush out and do the rounds on all the news  programs!  Look at me I'm great and powerful!  I accomplish nothing but I sure sound good! 

No a truly good leader does their job and doesn't search out the limelights.  And that is because they know that it's not about their best interest, it is about doing the best for those around them.  Let me give you an example.  It's something that I did and I'm not sharing this to toot my own horn but hopefully to explain why I'm not going in to formal ministry full time like so many people have suggested that I do.  I'm very very comfortable with just doing what needs to be done and flying low under the radar.  I much prefer being low man on the totem pole!

Before I came to First United Methodist in Washington, a previous minister had decided to start a Contemporary service.  To put things nicely let's just say that there was a bit of controversy that surrounded this move.  I was not fully aware of this before I agreed to join the Praise Team and I inadvertently stepped smack dab into the middle of an undercurrent of disagreement that simmered just under the surface.  Long story short, some individuals left and it looked like the Contemporary service would have to be discontinued due to the lack of a leader for the Praise Team.  After discussion with those of us who chose to stay it was decided that I would be the one who would plan the music for the service.  I took this very seriously!  I would look at the upcoming sermon topics, the scripture and the points of the sermon and I tried to pick music that either picked up on a section of scripture or a point in the sermon.  But I didn't stop there.  I made sure that I sent out a list of songs to the minister, musicians, singers and support team for the upcoming weeks and asked for feedback.   I made sure that we either had the sheet music or had access to the sheet music and created a master file so we were not scrambling at the last minute at practice trying to get it all together.  Every week I sent out a reminder e-mail with the songs and also would add links to You Tube videos of the songs so the musicians and singers could listen to them prior to practice.  And at practice, if a particular song didn't work out-no problem!  We would just switch it out with a song that everyone was comfortable with playing and singing!  Basically, I paid attention to the details.  What did the team need to do their very best was the question that I asked over and over again.  My job as a "leader" was to serve the team in the best way possible.  My job was to make sure that they had what they needed, when they needed it, so they could do their very best!  And when the few people who knew that I was the one picking the music would praise me, I would thank them but I always ALWAYS pointed out the fact that I had a wonderful team to work with and that it was a team effort!  And believe me, being up front leading worship is a team effort, whether it is a traditional choir or a praise team!  Does worship uplift and inspire and challenge and point you to the source?  That's what a good leader can accomplish if they can put their ego aside and use their gifts to bring out the very best in others.  A good leader is first and foremost an excellent servant.  That's what I tried to be and from all reports, I did a pretty good job!  But as far as I am concerned that is exactly what I was supposed to do in the first place!

Look, there are things that I know that I am very very good at-I can preach a good sermon, I can plan an excellent worship service, I can teach an inspiring class and I'm not half bad at writing!  These are my gifts and I have agreed to use them at various times and that is enough for me!  If these gifts, used properly bring just one person one step further in their walk of faith then I have accomplished what I have been asked to do!  Jesus had it right!  Do what you are asked to do, be a blessing to others, do it well and fly low under the radar.  By serving others you lead by example. 

I've told you my story simply as an example.  You may have very different gifts than I have.  That's a good thing!  Maybe your gift is managing money.  Maybe your gift is being able to create really cool graphics on the computer.  Maybe you are really good at making others feel comfortable in a social situation.  How can you use your particular gifts to serve others?  That my darling friends, is truly the mark of a leader-when you can take those God given gifts that you have and use them to help others.  I know there is a leadership gift in each and every one of you!  Use that gift to serve others and you will be a leader-Jesus style! 

Leadership Jesus style is not person driven, it's not ego driven, it is servant driven!  And there but by the grace of God go I.  And by God's grace you will go there too!  Amen and amen!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sometimes You Just Have to Shovel the Manure

My daily Bible reading this morning came out of Psalms.  Psalm 93 in The Message Paraphrase starts off with this:
"God is King, robed and ruling.  God is robed and surging with strength.  And yes, the world is firm, immovable, Your throne ever firm-you're Eternal!"
My first thought was "this is exactly what I've been talking about the last few days!"  Then that little voice piped in and said "yes, and sometimes you have to dig through all the crap to get to that firm foundation."  My response was "Lord, you don't want me to write about manure do you???  Seriously????"  Well, folks, guess what the answer was to that question!  Yeah, today we're going to talk about the unglamorous world of shoveling manure!  This should be a doozey!

For those of you who did not grow up on a farm, you need to understand two things.  First, farm animals produce waste which comes out of the back side nether regions of their anatomy.  Second, farm animals do not clean up after themselves.  So, if you want your farm animals to stay healthy you have to clean up after them!  The responsible owner grabs their trusty pitchfork and shovel and starts scooping up the mixture of manure, straw, sawdust and hay and usually puts it in a wheelbarrow to cart it out to a pile outside of the barn.  And this mixture is not solid, it's kind of spongy and squishy so you have to make sure that you get down to the solid floor before you put down new bedding, otherwise you're just leaving the old stuff there to fester which isn't good for the animals.  It's a smelly job.  It's a lot of hard work.  But you know that if you are going to raise animals this comes with the territory!

So what about the pile itself.  Isn't it useful for something?  Eventually, yes, but it takes some time.  A gardener knows that you can't put fresh manure on a garden with fledgling plants because the nitrogen content is too high and it will literally burn the plants and kill them.  Manure is only good to a garden after it has rotted down or composted for awhile.  Well rotted manure provides helpful nutrients to plants when it is worked in to the garden soil.  Composting doesn't happen over night, it takes time to get it to just the right consistency to make it useful!

So what does manure have to do with theology and life?  Information overload.  Processes and procedures.  Sometimes so much is thrown at us at one time that we're not sure where the foundation lies!  We're simply walking on the spongy manure that covers the firm foundation!  If you let it lay there long enough it festers and then it becomes unhealthy for you!  In order to find that nugget of truth, that firm foundation, sometimes you just have to pick up a shovel and start digging!  You have to dig through all the crap in order to discern the truth, the firm foundation laid bare underneath all of the hype and spin!  You have to remove the manure!

Media outlets like to sensationalize lots of things-making mountains out of molehills at times.  One pundit says one thing, another pundit says the opposite-who is telling the truth?  Or, perhaps there are elements of truth in both positions?  In order to get to that truth you have to think critically and dig for the facts.  You must act to seek the source, the foundation upon which these opposing views are built.  If you want the truth, you have to do the digging!  Churches are not immune to this phenomenon either.  Lots of "new" ideas are being proposed and some of them can be helpful and some of them probably should be discarded.  But you'll never know which is which unless you are willing to do some shoveling to get down to the basics!

The same thing applies to your faith walk as well.  If you want to know the heart of God you have to do some digging and seek the foundation.  Scripture reading, prayer, worship and discernment are all critical tools to use!  They are your pitchfork and shovel and if you use them carefully you can dig down to the truth.  There may be things in your personal life that you just need to get rid of!  There may be things that eventually will bear fruit but they need to compost for awhile.  Spiritual discernment is the act of digging for the truth.  It's a journey that others can help you with but the work is something that you have do do for yourself.  It forces you to ask the question-do these things point to the source?  If not, then you have to do some digging and discard some of these things on to the pile outside the barn door!  And some of them may be like fresh manure-they are just too hot to use right now and they need to be allowed the time to compost down so they can be really useful.  Others just need to be removed in order to get to the truth!

Some of you will probably notice that I didn't mention mission and outreach in this list.  There's a reason for that-mission and outreach are outward signs of change that occurs within you.  You can't transform the world around you until you transform the world within you.  When inner transformation happens your vision and your mission have true meaning to you and clear purpose.  You're not going through the motions simply to go through the motions.  You're doing the work because you know that the work matters!  And John Wesley's sermons will back me up on this point!  Change comes from within!  Change is spirit driven!

Understand this though-underneath all the hype and hoopla God is still there!  He has always been there as the firm and solid foundation just like the Psalm says.  He can be found if you choose to go looking.  The job may be messy but you have the tools.  Sometimes in order to get to the truth you just have to decide to start shoveling the manure in your life.  Finding the foundation is worth the work and it is part of the journey.  Anyone up for a little dig?  I sincerely hope so! 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Seriously, Who Exactly is Driving the Bus?

And the bad news just keeps rolling in!  But as my mother is fond of saying, this too shall pass!  I know the turmoil is real but this is one of those times when keeping your wits about you and focusing on the important things really can make a difference in the outcome!  Who is driving your bus?  The spirit of anarchy or the Holy Spirit that passes all understanding?  Are you living in fear or are you living by faith?  Which bus are you riding?

I have mentioned here previously that I've been working through Disciple Bible Study on my own.  This is the Bible Study program that the United Methodist Church has widely promoted as being effective in teaching about discipleship.  Wonder of wonders, after 17 weeks of study we are now FINALLY getting in to the New Testament.  And this week's section is titled "Radical Discipleship" with today's reading focusing on Matthew 3-7 (talk about perfect timing).  I've been using my Wesley Study Bible as I have gone through the Disciple study because it has extensive notes.

Contained within this section (chapter 5) is The Beatitudes-the "blessed are" verses.  John Wesley preached extensively on the Sermon on the Mount and it is worth reading what he had to say!  If you go to the Wesleyan Center for Applied Theology you can read the sermons (21-33) and I encourage you do so!  Take your time because it will deepen your understanding on these very key scripture verses. 

Now that I have gone round the mulberry bush and laid the groundwork for what I want to talk about, let me get back to my key point.  Having read this material previously and, having read Wesley's sermons I have found a couple of things already that I disagree with in the Disciple Study and in the notes in the Wesley Study Bible (it's only Tuesday, for heaven's sake!)  And in the grand scheme of things this relates to what is going on in our world today.  Why is there such a hunger for this teaching and yet such a huge misunderstanding of what it means to be a disciple?  Why does it seem like our moral compasses are so skewed and fear seems to be the predominate driving force?  Where are our leaders?  Who is driving the bus?

First, Disciple Bible Study defines a disciple as "a learner".  Having already looked up the word, I know that this is not a fully accurate definition.   It's accurate as far as it goes but it just doesn't go far enough!  A much better definition is "apprentice".  Why?  Because it clearly implies that YOU must be active in your learning.  A teacher may teach,  but YOU must practice and then ultimately you must go out and use what you have been taught!  Another key thing about apprenticeship is that you have to choose carefully who you follow.  Who will be the best teacher?  Or, in the modern vernacular "who are you going to let drive the bus?"  Who are the leaders and teachers today?  More importantly, are they the best choice? 

My second "nitpick" (and yes, I may be splitting hairs here) is the Wesley Study Bible note (section on 5:17-48) that says "Righteousness, a term that is better translated as 'justice'..."  Again, accurate as far as the definition goes but there is so much more to it!  Let me ask you this, does the word grace come to mind when you think of the word justice?  No?  The definition of righteous in my dictionary says "in conformity with the moral law".  What's the ultimate moral law in the Bible according to Jesus?  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.  In my opinion, you have to add grace in to the mix along with justice in order to have a full understanding of what righteousness implies. The grace of God through Jesus saves those who choose to follow.  In turn, those who follow are expected to conform to the ultimate moral law, justice THROUGH grace, or put another way, justice BECAUSE of grace, which is righteousness.  To me, this is a much bigger or more accurate picture of what the word means.  There is an active component to this that has to come from me.  Am I acting justly towards others because of the grace that I have received?  Are my teachers and leaders leading by this example?  Or is it a whole lot of self-serving lip service?  Am I looking out for others or am I just looking out for me?  Do I justify my actions or do I really act justly towards others?

All of this brings me around to the topic of morals and ethics and the importance of proper teaching and proper leading.  Seriously, if you follow the news pundits you'd think the world was coming to an end!  I hate to burst your doom and gloom bubble but I have to tell ya, in my little corner of the world the sun is still shining and the birds are still singing!  Yes, the stock market has tanked, yes there has been a loss of paper money but in the whole scheme of things, is making money the ultimate end all and goal of life?  Is the "dash for cash" the key critical factor in life?  Is getting ahead really what I should be working towards?  I know money matters because it pays the bills, keeps a roof over your head and buys the food but it's meant to be a tool, not the controlling mechanism of your existence.  Yet, for a lot of people it is the only thing to live for!

There in lies the problem.  We have people leading and teaching who have made the accumulation of wealth the key component to our existence.  Their moral compass is skewed and when the spirit of anarchy decided to jump in, the end result was fear and chaos!  Panic peaked, fears drove widespread sell offs and the economic engine went splat!  Who is driving the bus?  Chicken little?  Is the sky really falling?  Isn't that what some people think?  This thinking extends far beyond the financial markets.  This extends in to government and business as well.  When the moral compass is out of whack bad policy follows!  Maybe, if those in power stopped and asked the question "is this how I would want my friends or family or neighbors to treat me" we might see some different results!  Which bus are they driving, the fear mobile or the faith express? 

All of this demonstrates why Discipleship is critical to teach and critical for those in leadership.  Apprenticeship, proper training, providing a firm understanding of the foundation and teaching others how to go out and use what they have learned-all of these are key elements to learning how to be led by the Holy Spirit in all walks of life.  It's the source-it's what feeds the deep river and it is what keeps you on track!  Without that firm moral compass you end up with anarchy.  Take a good hard look around you and ask yourself, is this really how I want to live?  Isn't there something more?  Yes, there is and now is the time to grab hold of that something more!

People of God, it's time to start raising up leaders of courage with the right moral compass to drive the bus!  It's time to stop talking about Discipleship and instead start creating true apprenticeships in order to teach courageous individuals how to step forward and lead.  We already have the blueprint, let's start using it!  Fear and chaos need to become the exception, not the rule!  It's time to grab the wheel!