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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What Language is That????

So, my family finally talked me in to going to the doctor.  I had been miserable and in pain for so long, that even I started to wonder if this extended beyond being a simple fibro flare.  I came through with a clean bill of health:  no sickness, no high blood pressure, nothing out of whack.  All of my symptoms could be directly linked to a severe fibromyalgia flare.  The doctor on duty, spoke clearly and plainly about what I was experiencing and the fact that lack of good sleep was probably contributing to the extended flare up, which is why she wrote a prescription for muscle relaxants.  She felt that if I could get the muscles to relax, I could get deeper, uninterrupted sleep, which would then break the cycle and allow the flare to subside.  She understood my family's concern but she also understood my need to keep going, in order to care for my family.  I admit, when it comes to seeing a doctor I am a reluctant patient because sometimes their conversations with me end up being more like listening to a person speak a foreign language!  Her clear explanation and candor was utterly refreshing!

Contrast this to the letter that came in the mail over the weekend from our school district.  I have read the letter four or five times and I still do not fully get what they are trying to tell me, as a parent.  From what I can glean, it seems that the district failed to meet certain testing standards in regards to "No Child Left Behind".  This is the fourth year it has happened and that puts the district at level 3.  There is no explanation of what this means or how it impacts my child.  And as far as how they intend to address the problem it mentions evaluating and updating the district plan, and that they "collaboratively establish action plans and implement strategies that improve teaching and learning."  Huh?  I even went to the state website to see if I could find an explanation of what exactly this means.  It was no better than the gibberish letter that the district sent out!  It's like they are speaking their own language, which they fully understand, but leaves the rest of us scratching our heads!

This got me thinking about the church and how we communicate with others.  Do we speak clearly and simply enough so that someone who doesn't attend church understands what we are saying?  Or do we use our church-speak and assume that everybody must know what these terms mean?  How different is Call to Action from No Child Left Behind?  Lots of warm and fuzzy gibberish that makes it sound important bu,t in the scheme of things, means absolutely nothing to someone who is not familiar with the terminology!  Even some individuals who do understand the wording, feel that it is an exercise in futility.

Are we afraid to speak plainly?  Do we prefer not to speak plainly because it gives us an edge of superiority, or, are we unaware that we are speaking in a way that has no meaning to someone else?  My guess is that it is a little bit of all of the above.  That mix is something that we should examine carefully if we want to get our message across clearly.

I was reading this morning about King Josiah in Second Chronicles 34.  In the chapter it tells how Hilkiah the high priest found a copy of the Revelation  of Moses.  He gave the book to the King's assistant, Shaphan, who then read it to King Josiah.  King Josiah was so shocked by what he heard, that he ripped his robes in dismay.  He understood what was contained in the book and he understood that God clearly must be angry with Israel because they had not followed what had been laid out in the book.  The book had been "lost" for generations yet it was laid out clearly enough that even someone who was unfamiliar with it, could understand what it contained and what it meant!

Can we say that our message is so clear that it can be understood by someone who is not familiar with it?  Can we say that we are clearly and effectively communicating with the world at large?  Could our lack of clear communication be our problem?  Do people who hear our message think to themselves "what language is that???"  Are we, in essence, setting up stumbling blocks for people who are "outside" of our circle?

What is that language that we speak?  Can we find ways to communicate our message more clearly?

May God in his wisdom help us all to speak more plainly!

Friday, November 4, 2011

No Gadgets and Gizmos and Yet They Grow

So, the Methodist Church is seeing growth.  It just doesn't happen to be here in the United States.  It's happening on the continent of Africa.  It's happening in Korea.  It's happening in South America, just to give you a few examples.  In many of these areas "doing church" is not an easy task!  There are restrictions, freedom of worship is not a world-wide concept.  They do not have fancy sound systems, or state of the art video screens.  Many do not have access to the Internet and social groups and online Bible resources (let alone an actual Bible).  Many of them do not have running water let alone a bed to sleep in!  And yet, they grow!  They are vibrant and alive!


Why is it, that in places, where worship can get you killed, where poverty is the norm, where there is every reason to be mad at God for ones lot in life, the church grows?

Maybe it has to do with simple faith?  Or spirit?  Or message?  Maybe it has to do with keeping it simple?

I can picture the PhD Theologians cringing as they read these thoughts!  But has anyone ever considered the possibility that we have over-analyzed ourselves in the United States to our own peril?

Analysis can be good to a certain point.  But anyone who has been in therapy can tell you that too much of a good thing can become a bad thing!  You can analyze yourself to the point of inertia, all because of your quest to fix what you think is wrong.  Analysis overused, can become nothing more than a gadget or gizmo.  Think about this in terms of someone who walks in the door for the first time and decides to join our church.  Do they join because of our in depth analysis of best practices or do they join because of the spirit they sense in the community?   Are they impressed because of a word study about why a certain word was used in the English translation based on the historical Latin or Hebrew usage or do they connect with the message that they are hearing?

What message is being shared so powerfully around the world that they connect with people in such deep and profound ways? The leaders elsewhere seem to have their fingers on the pulse.  And what works elsewhere may not work here in the United States, but can we say, with all honesty, that we have our fingers on the pulse?

Grow, grow, grow, we are told over and over again.  Outreach and mission in the community-that's the prescription.  Make your worship services more vibrant.  Small groups are the solution.  How many of the churches elsewhere around the world consciously do these things?  How many are driven by these choices?  If I had to guess-not many!  I think that they do these things, but they do them naturally, organically-it's not a conscious thought or priority for them.  I think they do naturally celebrate in worship.  I think they do naturally try to help their neighbors and I think they do naturally have small groups that pray for each other and with each other.  I think these things happen, not by plan, but because it is a natural outgrowth of the message!

What is that message?  I'd love to know!  I would love to hear what the leaders from other countries have to say in response to that question!  Again, I'm speculating here, but my guess is, it's pretty simple.  We have all sinned and made mistakes in our lives.  But there is this man, who lived long ago, who was actually the Son of God.  His name is Jesus and God sent him to save us all.  He loves you so much that he gave his life for you.  Accept his gift of forgiveness and new life and then share the story with your family and friends.  Follow his footsteps.  Love others, even those individuals that are hard to love.  Do good every chance you get.  Most importantly, share the story.

I could be completely wrong on this line of thought (as if that would be the first time) but, ya know, it really does make me wonder and think.  No gadgets, no gizmo's, no healthy church prescriptions and yet they grow!  Can we be humble enough to admit that we don't have all of the answers and look at what these churches do and how they do it and perhaps learn something?  Can we stop analyzing long enough to grasp the message that they so eloquently convey?  Perhaps the answer has been staring us in the face all along!  Perhaps the answer is just that simple!

Why do they grow?  This inquiring mind would like to know!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Fabulous Parable by a Fellow Blogger

John Meunier strikes again!  Here's a gem of a blog post for your reading enjoyment today!  A modern day parable.

The Little Miracle Church

I must thank John for mentioning one of my blog posts at his blog!  I'm thankful that it provided "food for thought!"  Once in awhile I do manage to get out of God's way....

Yes, God is patient and yes, God does have a sense of humor!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

God Encircles His People

This phrase in Psalm 125 (The Message paraphrase) caught my eye:
"Mountains encircle Jerusalem, and God encircles his people-always has and always will"
The word picture caught my attention because I can visualize it in my mind.  Having grown up in Vermont, I can picture a place that is fully surrounded by mountains because, where I lived, no matter what direction you looked in, there were mountains!  Hunger Mountain, Camels Hump, Mount Mansfield!  They were always there, solid, unmovable, but always changing!  In the winter, they were brilliant white, with shadows of light and dark gray, or pinkish orange at sunset.  In early spring, the white would start to fade and the gray bark of the trees and the dark color of the soil would begin to show through until the leaves would start showing up in their lime green outfits.  Summer brought deep dark greens and blues depending on the shadows as the clouds drifted lazily across the range.  Fall was when the riotous colors of bright red, orange and soft yellow would dance across the landscape in a blaze of glory!  Same exact mountains, different faces depending on the season.

God does the same thing, although we may not realize it consciously.  He is always there, always surrounding us, even if we do not realize that he is present.  Unmovable but changing as the season requires.  Sometimes we perceive the bright fresh newness of his spirit.  Sometimes we experience the riot of colors during worship.    Other times, we may laze about like on a summer day and just enjoy his presence.  During our winters of discontent we may wake up and see the bright hope, like freshly fallen snow when the sun shines on its surface.  Same God, different faces.  Always present, always there.

There are a lot of things I miss about Vermont and the mountains would be one item that makes my list.  Good days or bad days, you could always look out of the window, or simply look up, and there they were!  On rainy days they might be obscured behind a bank of clouds, but you knew they were still there!  There is something very powerful and comforting about mountains.  Perhaps it's because they have withstood the ravages of time, the storms and the sunshine, and still they stand in all of their majesty and glory.  A testament that things can and do endure.  Something you can see, touch and perceive.

Does God still endure?  A strange question, but one that we "modern civilized" individuals should ask.  Do we believe that God can and does endure, even today, with everything going on around us?  Do we believe that God still surrounds us with his loving care and protection?  Can we sense his presence and see his varied faces during times of joy and sorrow?  How often do we notice what is right around us, when we are so busy trying to keep up?

Let me stop beating around the bush and be more direct.  For many who believe in God, they believe on an intellectual level.  It's a head knowledge belief, rather than a heart knowledge belief.  Oh, many modern day Christians believe but that's as far as it goes.  Even individuals who claim to have no religious affiliation would say that they believe that there is a God!  It's easy to say yes, I believe, but it's a lot harder to take the time to know who you believe in!  We're so busy, it's non stop go, go, go!  Seriously, when is the last time you looked up and saw the stars-really took the time to look at them?  When is the last time that you watched a sunset, or a moon rise and let it take your breath away? When did you just go outside and stand in the wind and let it wash all over you?  We have to do the same thing with knowing God. We have to get out of our head and connect with our heart.  We have to stop and look.  Feel and listen.  Experience in order to perceive.

We need to take the time to go beyond believing to knowing and we do that by experience.  Knowing helps you weather the storms.  Knowing makes you appreciate the joy of the sunny days in life.  Knowing helps you appreciate the presence of God through all of the seasons.  Just like the mountains that I grew up among, knowing means that you accept and understand that they are there even when you can not see them.  I didn't know that the mountains were there simply because I read it in a book or I saw a picture.  I had experience!  Can each of us honestly say that we know God is still there even when we can not "see" or "feel" his presence?  Have we taken the time to know God?  Can you say, yes I know because I have experience?

That is a question that we each have to answer at some point in time.  It can be a slow and tedious process to go from believing to knowing but don't worry.  God is there.  God is always there, surrounding you, like the mountains, patiently guarding and guiding you with his love.  You may not "see" him or "feel" him but he is still there, waiting for you to start to know him!  The Bible doesn't say "be still and believe that I am God", no, it says be still and KNOW!  Take time to know the God who encircles you-he always has, and he always will!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Here are a couple of posts by two Methodist bloggers that I read regularly.  Even though they are talking about different topics, if you look more closely, they are both talking about the same thing.

The Mediocre Commission from Dan Dick's Unitedmethodeviations blog

English Major Reads the Mission from John Meunier's An Arrow Through the Air blog

I'm looking at these posts after having read about Hezekiah in Second Chronicles chapters 29-32.  What struck me most as I read this section was what a dynamic leader King Hezekiah was in his time!  He focused on one thing only-as the leader he wanted Israel to get right with God again.  He cleaned up the temple, he cleaned up the town, he got rid of the things that had taken them away from God so they could focus on worshiping THE GOD once again.  Not only was there action regarding what he said, there was commitment.  The people clearly understood what was being asked of them and how to go about "fixing" the problem.  They cleaned up their act!  And they did so, without hesitation.  

Hang on to this thought as I jump over to Hebrews 3:7-8 (NRSV)
"Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness..."
Here's what the footnote says on verse 7 in the Wesley Study Bible:
"The emphasis on 'today' throughout this passage strikes a note of urgency.  Responding to the word we hear from God is the first priority for each day, not to be put off until another day."
Again, there is an emphasis on action and commitment.  

So, where is the disconnect today?  Where are the dynamic leaders clearly putting out a message of what needs to be done?  That, in a round about way, is the message I get from both Dan and John's blog posts (although they might disagree with my interpretation and conclusions).  This is not something that is happening just in the United Methodist church, this is happening in denominations across the country and around the world.  Not all!  But enough to raise the eyebrows.

It's not just leadership that is the issue though.  Let's go back to Hezekiah.  He cleaned out the temple and the towns-he got rid of the "sacred cows", to use a turn of phrase.  What would have happened if the people resented the fact that he removed the "pagan rubbish"?  What if they couldn't let go of that Asherah pole  because it had been standing for 100 years?  It was part of their "cultural heritage".    There are two sides to this coin-ineffective leadership on the one side, members who just won't let go of certain things on the other.

How do we overcome the disconnect?  One suggestion I have, is look at what Church of the Resurrection does, not because everyone should be like them, but because they have a very clearly planned path of Discipleship training (and it's not a 36 week course).  When someone asks them the question "what do I do next" they are able to answer that question because they have a course path already planned out.  It's clear, it's concise and it's ongoing.  The goal is to deepen their knowledge, their faith and their commitment (or as they describe it:  Head-Heart-Hands).  If members have a deeper spiritual walk, perhaps they will not feel the need to hang on to something that just doesn't work any longer.  It probably is not the only solution out there but I do think it is worth considering.  So that addresses one side of the coin, but how about the other side, the leadership side?

 Where, oh where, are the dynamic leaders who can guide a congregation to make needed change without inciting a riot?  Is that expectation of a leader to high a standard to set?  Now I suppose we could just avoid that sort of confrontation by letting the established churches continue on doing their thing and, instead, start brand new congregations.  But here's the flaw with that plan-at some point the "new" church becomes an old established church and you have the same exact problems all over again!  So how do we train our leaders to walk that fine line?  I get the distinct impression that most ministers would welcome some training in this area.  A class that is part "cast a dynamic vision" and "how to handle the grief of letting things go" counseling for church members.

All I'm saying is, we might as well try to address the issues now because it sure beats going round the mulberry bush over and over again!  If we can help our ministers to become better at managing transitions then we spend less time in-fighting and more time focusing on the community around us.  And let me just say this, because I have experienced it first hand, change poorly executed causes A LOT of hurt feelings and heartache and the damage of the "ghosts of Christmas past" carry on long after you think it's all said and done!  There are members who may be able to forgive but I can tell you they don't forget!  Although, you may not have been the minister who instituted the change, you better believe that at some point, it will be brought out of the closet and you will be forced to deal with the aftermath.  It's not pretty and it surely is not a lot of fun!

gett'n to it!  It's time to reconnect!