Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Those Pesky Little Questions and Details!

So, this is the time of year in my daily Bible reading, where I have reached Leviticus.  I have to be honest, I tend to skim read this section because it is full of rules and regulations.  If you sin in this certain way, you take this specific animal to the Priest.  The Priest then does this, waves that, sprinkles this, etc. etc and on and on it goes.  My eyes tend to glaze over!  Detail overload!  How can this be important for anyone today?

But I had an “ah-ha” moment as I thought about all of those pesky little details.  I realized that people understood clearly what they had done and what they needed to do in order to correct the sin.  Or, if they wanted to offer a Thanksgiving offering, they clearly understood what was required and how to go about doing it.  Everyone, at all levels of the community, understood what was expected and why it was necessary.  It was clear cut, precise and purposeful.

There is a valuable lesson that we can glean from this detailed account.  If you ask the average person in the pew, why we do what we do, in church or in the community, most individuals could not answer the question.  Maybe they would say it is because it has been done a certain way for as long as they remember.  Or, maybe they would say it is because they heard about some other church doing this and it worked for them.  Is this really the answer that we want to give?

Back in elementary school, we learned about the proper way to evaluate a story.  We had to be able to identify who, what, where, when, how and why.  Who were the main characters?  What was the story about?  Where was the story taking place?  When were these events happening?  How were they going about resolving the story?  Why were they doing what they were doing?  As I thought about this, I realized that these are the types of questions we in the church should be asking.  Then I realized, we’re not asking these questions!  We’re so busy “doing” ministry trying to make something work that we forget to take the time to lay out a plan ahead of time, clearly stating what we are trying to do, why we are doing it and what we hope the outcome will be.  We end up with a hodge-podge of things that sort of work, or don’t work at all and then wonder why we didn’t see any results.

Let’s take food ministry for example.  Who exactly are you trying to reach out to?  Who will be doing the work?  Who is in charge?  What are you planning on doing?  What is the hoped for outcome?  Where will you be doing this?  At church?  Somewhere out in the community?  When will you be doing this?  One time?  On a continual basis?  When you have enough volunteers?  When it is most convenient for the individuals you are trying to reach?  How do you intend to do this?  How will this fulfill a ministry goal?  How do you intend to let people know about this program?  Why are you doing this?  Is it because it is on a checklist?  Is it because you want to fill a need in the community?  There are so many more questions that could be asked, but my point is this-if you can answer these questions then the chances for success increase because you can demonstrate purpose, interest and passion .  There is a clear plan and people fully grasp the details.  If someone asks a question, you can give a reasonably intelligent answer!

We want our members to use their gifts and graces for work in ministry and, particularly, outreach.  Or, to use the word we least like to talk about, we want our members to be active in evangelism.  But we fail to give them the tools to understand why we are doing certain things and why this is important.  Then leadership wonders why things are not happening in our congregations?!

We bemoan the fact that too many of our congregations are “inwardly focused”.  I understand the argument and there is some validity to the statement.  There are individuals who are very comfortable with the idea that going to church is all you need, to be a good Christian.  But, I also know that there are individuals out there who would like to do more, but feel that they are ill equipped to reach out, because they don’t understand some of these things themselves!  They can not answer what Methodists believe or why they believe these things.  They can’t answer why a particular outreach ministry is an important reflection of the values of the church.  And in some cases, we ask individuals to take on tasks that they are not comfortable handling.  Asking an introvert to be a greeter at the front door would be a good example.  There are individuals who are not going to be terribly outgoing but are wonderful at handling behind the scenes details.  Their “evangelism” is going to look very different from an extrovert’s style of evangelism.  If we could focus a little more on the inward development of an individual-helping them to identify their gifts and graces, helping them understand where they could use those gifts and why using those gifts matter, I think we would see their confidence level go up.  We would see them feeling far more comfortable with talking to others and reaching out to others because they understand the details.  They can explain the purpose.  They understand why this is being done, they understand why it has value and is important and, if someone asks a question, they can answer with confidence.

Jesus didn’t just pick twelve guys out of a hat and then send them out into the world.  He worked with them.  He trained them.  He led them by example.  He answered their questions.  He equipped them with the skills that they needed to do effective ministry, then he sent them out!  We see the same pattern in Acts as well.  The Apostles didn’t send just anyone out to do ministry.  They sent out those individuals who they felt were equipped to handle the mission.

Do we want effective ministry?  If we do, then we have to invest in training our members and equipping them with the skills that they need.  And we have to look at our various forms of ministry and ask the questions that provide the details that under gird the “why”.  Until we do both, we will not see long term tangible results.  The mission or outreach will last only as long as someone stays excited about it and then it will collapse and fall by the wayside.  We will comfort ourselves with the thought that we at least tried, but it just didn’t work in this area.

We have to stop doing things just because it was suggested in a book, or someone else did it or it sounds like something interesting to try.  We need to stop with the rah rah speeches or the finger pointing “guilt you into doing it” approach.  We need to start doing ministry because we have a compelling reason to do so and we can explain the reason in great detail.  We need to know that we have the individuals in place who can handle the mission.

It’s time that we started asking those pesky questions.  It’s time to start focusing, first, on those little details.  Those pesky little questions, those little details, can make all the difference!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Security-Comfort-Food and the Golden Rule

Photo by Holly Boucher

One of the “blessings” of fibromyalgia is that once in awhile, you have to literally stop what you’re doing.   Fighting the pain is physically exhausting!  Sometimes, you have to just sit and rest, whether you want to or not!  I am used to having to rest for a day, at times, but this time around, I had to rest for days.  I haven’t had to do that for awhile, but this was one of those bouts where I had to do an extended rest, because my symptoms were not getting better, they were getting worse!  I needed to give my body time to recover.

There is only so much television you can watch and there are only so many rounds of Sodoku you can play before you start going stir crazy!  So, I took advantage of the time and read a few books.  I tried to read a few spiritual books but, there is a mental exhaustion component that goes with this, as well, and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around what I was reading.  So, instead, I read a book that I have wanted to read for awhile, “The Town That Food Saved” by Ben Hewitt.  The appeal, for me, was that it was about a town that I do know about, Hardwick, Vermont.  Hardwick was the “ole stomping grounds” of my parents when they first got married, and they both have very fond memories.  So, I was curious to see just how Mr. Hewitt portrayed the Hardwick of today, against the Hardwick of yesterday.

The basic premise of the book, initially , is how new, food based, entrepreneurial businesses came in to town and saved the community from economic collapse.  Sort of a rags to riches story.  The author had the good sense, though, to delve a little deeper.  On the one hand, yes, these businesses brought a new vitality to the community.  On the other hand, there have been farms and farmers in the area for a very long time quietly doing their own thing without a lot of publicity and fanfare.  So, I appreciate that Mr. Hewitt took the time to point that little factoid out!

For me, it raised a couple of points that I have pondered and wrestled with over the years-food security and proper stewardship.  It also raises the importance of being a part of a community that lives in balance.  Right now, if there was a major catastrophic event, and goods could not be shipped, particularly food, there are a lot of people who would go hungry.  Do you live in a community that could sustain itself, for an extended period of time, without outside assistance?  Most of us, would have to answer no.  I think the area that I live in, would fare better than some other areas of the country but I am not entirely convinced we could sustain ourselves for a long period of time.  I do believe that this is something that we should all take seriously and discuss because stuff does happen.  There are things that are beyond our control and we may face a point in time when we have to depend on our neighbors and our community to work together.

Missouri just wilted it’s way through the second worst heat wave on record.  We broke record high temperatures that had been set back in the 1930’s, during the depression and the era of the dustbowl.  There was no rain hardly to speak of.  There were cracks in people’s yards that looked like an earthquake had hit, but it was no earthquake, the ground was literally baking in the sun.  This is the type of weather we expect to get towards the end of July, into August.  This was not something that you would normally see in the month of June.  Because of this, there is some concern about the corn crops and the amount of damage that this heat wave/drought did to the crop.  Lower yields means higher commodity prices.  Higher commodity prices, mean higher prices at the supermarket.  It’s a viscous cycle that we created, when we chose to get away from growing or raising our own food and depending on someone else to do it for us.    Here’s a shocking statistic from the book-the amount of the United States population that live on farms is 0.7%.  In the United States, 140 people eat what 1 person grows.  If that system fails, what happens?

The statistic sounds daunting, but there is something that can be done on a local level-encourage people to grow at least some of their own food.  Food is far more valuable then the perfectly manicured lawn.  It is also far more healthy than what you find in the supermarket because it is fresh, it hasn’t lost some of the nutrient content due to shipping.    Yes, it is work!  That’s why a lot of people prefer to let someone else take up the task!  But more locally grown food would go a long way towards providing some stability and food security on a local level.  If you are in an area where you can not grow your own, there are some options.  The local farmers market is a good place to start.  Or, look for a community garden when you can have your own little plot of land to grow vegetables.  And for those a little more adventurous, a drive to the country to a “pick your own” operation is a good way to participate.  It is a way to participate in the well being of your community because you are supporting someone local.

Churches can have a positive impact on this as well.  Stewardship is not just about money.  It is also about careful use of finite resources.  And many churches have a bare spot of land that could be used for a community garden.  I know the objections, people don’t take care of their plots, it turns into a weedy ugly mess, etc. etc.  I know, it is a risk that you take when you open up part of the property to the community.  But what is more important, the impeccable landscaping or finding a vital way to be a part of the local community?  Here’s another option, if your community does not have a Farmer’s Market, would you be willing to host one at the church?  Or would you be willing to host workshops about gardening, seed saving, preserving food, etc.?  Would you be willing to let some of your members grow a garden so the produce could be donated to the local food pantry?  Hunger in the United States is real and it happens in every community whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  The church is a wonderful place to help constructively turn the tide, if we are willing to step up and confront the issue.

Can we be better stewards?  Can we help create greater food security in our community?  Can we help create a more sustainable community system?  I think we can.

One point from the book that particularly resonated with me was about the farmers who had been in the community for a long time.  They sold produce off their farm on a “sliding scale” fee.  If someone could afford to pay a certain price, that is what they were charged.  But if there was someone who was in need, they would charge a lower price or not even charge them at all.  They did this without a lot of fanfare or publicity or trying to make a boatload of money.  They did it quietly, consciously, consistently.  They were not out there trying to make a name for themselves, they were doing this to help their neighbor.  To me, it was like watching the gospel lived out in a very real, practical way.  It reminded me a lot of my parents and dad, in particular.  Dad was well known for pulling out a couple of saw horses and a sheet of plywood and setting them up by the road.  Then he would make a sign that said “free” and he would put surplus produce on top of the makeshift plywood table.  Over the years, there were people who come up to me or my siblings and shared their stories about how much they appreciated dad doing that one simple thing.  My parents never made a big deal out of doing it and we grew up believing that it was just something you did.  But there were people out there who were able to “make it through a rough patch” because it gave them something to eat.  I treasure those stories even more, now that dad is gone.  And I hope in some way, I can carry on that simple legacy.

I appreciated reading the stories that Ben Hewitt told in his book and I am grateful that these “agri-preuneurs” are raising awareness about food security and sustainability at the local community level. But I am far more appreciative of the stories about the local farmers who have been doing their part to take care of their community for a very long time!  My guess is, some of those folks are already members of a local church and this is one way that they have chosen to live out the Golden Rule.

As a citizen and a member of your local church, I hope you consider looking at ways to be more involved.  This is your community.  These are your neighbors.  Are you willing to take some risks in order to encourage and support and strengthen your neighborhood, your community?  It is a question that is well worth wrestling with!