Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

I don’t know of a single author who writes with such raw honesty and vulnerability than Anne Lamott. Her razor sharp wit, fantastic sense of humor, incredible humility and self awareness of her own short-comings and ability to find God’s presence in the midst of life’s worse messes is both convicting and inspiring.  Her latest collection Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is Ann at her utmost best. Each essay shines with truth about humanity and God. And the truth is not a perfect fluffy sentiment wrapped up in a pretty bow, but instead something more real and tangible that readers can grasp and see in their own lives.  A truth about our own failures and struggles and God’s grace that rises out of the midst of the ugliness to move us toward hope, love and life–even if it’s one difficult, begrudging step at a time.

The passage in the book which grabbed me by shoulders and forced me to look in a mirror pertained to Lamott’s thoughts on forgiveness. Upon realizing that she needed to forgive her father for writing disparaging remarks about her in a journal she discovered years after his death, Lamott writes:

People like to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.’ Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing. It does and it doesn’t. To think you know is proof that you don’t. But forgiveness sure doesn’t begin with reason. The rational insists that it is right, that we are right. It is about attacking and defending, which means there can be no peace. It loves the bedtime story of how we’ve been injured. The rational is claustrophobic, too. The choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but being free or admit you’re pretty lost and possibly available for a long, deep breath, which is as big as the universe, stirs the air around, maybe opens a window. …

You can forgo the arithmetic of adding up the damage again, lay your Bartleby ledger in your lap, and look up. Looking up is the way out. …Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ In that field, you’re under a wide swath of sky, so the story becomes almost illimitable, instead of two small nutty people with grievances and popguns. You have to leave your crate, though; this will not happen inside your comfort zone. But if you can make a break for the field, you might forget all the whys, the nuance, details, and colors about the story that you’re sure you’ve gotten right, that doom you.

So you sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that has always helped you keep track of things. This jiggles you free from clutch and quiver. You can unfurl your fingers, hold out your palm, openhanded…Forgiveness is release from me; somehow, finally, I am returned to my better, dopier self, so much lighter when I don’t have to drag the toxic chatter, wrangle and pinch around with me anymore.

For the last month, I’ve been dragging my toxic carcass of anger, sadness, irritability, self-righteousness and depression everywhere because I have felt wronged by a good friend. I’ve been quite a pitiful and sorry sight and not at all my more goofy, humorous, loving self.

And it’s not that I don’t have a right to feel angry and sad or share those feelings honestly and calmly. Those emotions are certainly justifiable. However, as my wife pointed out this evening, I haven’t moved (or worked) through those feelings in four weeks. I’ve let them imprison me in a terrible funk of inner rage, resentment, and doubt–consuming every breathing moment and preventing me from enjoying life, particularly my family and friends.

My hope, especially when I have a conversation with that friend this month, is that I can make a faithful attempt to set aside rationality and an insistence on being right, put the ledger away, look up and hold out my palm open handed.

May the unfurling begin.

What’s Next For Christian Education?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.50.56 PM(Note: A slightly different version of this post was published at 7 am on the new Christian Education resource blog HOPE4CE: A Place Where Innovative Ideas and Lesson Plans Can Be Shared For Christian Education)

I recently returned from the NEXT Church Conference, held  March 16-18, in Chicago, and once again it nourished my soul and heart for ministry. Worship services, presentations and workshops (regarding innovative ministry and discernment about what works and what doesn’t) as well as opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues filled me with hope for where the PC(USA) and its churches are headed in the foreseeable future.

While the conference didn’t explicitly talk about the best Christian Education models or ministries (which relate to me as an associate for youth at the church I serve in Georgia), the various leaders, teachers and presenters faithfully teach Christians about what it means to be the body of Christ and to do God’s work in the world—to (according to this year’s theme) go “beyond our walls, our fears and ourselves” to encounter God’s transforming grace. Also, Christian Education is about being creative in the ways we tell the good news of God’s love, and the act of imagining and sharing ideas is the essence of the NEXT Church movement.

Worship in particular is so moving, inspiring and thought-provoking (with liturgy, prayers, music, preaching and visual art) that it is impossible not to remove your shoes because you are standing on holy ground like Moses.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art done by NEXT Church worship team.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art created by NEXT Church the Rev. Shawna Bowman.

For the closing service on Wednesday, the representation of a bird was hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary. The piece is made mostly of strips of paper (taken from old hymnals) upon which we wrote our prayers earlier in the week and tied to a make-shift chain link fence that symbolized the things and fears that hold us back.  

The bird soaring high above exemplified how God knocks down our walls and sets us free. During the service, these words (written by the Rev. Shawna Bowman who also created the art piece) were offered to help us connect the meaning of the flying bird:

Grounded in the grace of God

Our love takes flight

Not beyond one another

But beyond ourselves

Beyond our fears

Beyond our own limitations

God’s blessing infuses us

God’s spirit blows us

God’s strength emboldens us

God’s beauty beckons us

Out into the day and the night

Out into the world beyond these walls

To be the people of God

In the world God created.

 This poetic and prophetic piece reflected a profound statement made the previous evening by writer/dreamer/theologian Diana Butler Bass who said during a presentation on Christianity’s “Great Awakening:

The best part about being human is that history is ours to make and we make that history with God.

Diana’s wisdom, closing worship and a workshop I attended earlier in the week–“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” by the Rev. Jan Edmiston–stirred up many questions about how we might discern the role of Christian Education in a faith community of the 21st century world :

 –What kind of history are we making with Christian Education and what stories are we telling that feeds people’s hunger to know about their faith and beliefs?

 –What does Christian Education look like when it’s beyond ourselves, our fears and walls?

 –What does Christian Education look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in a church building or classroom?

–What is God’s strength and beauty moving us to do differently, unexpectedly, creatively, and imaginative with Christian Education?

— What cultural shifts are we willing to make to keep Christian Education relevant and viable ministry that nurtures and emboldens others to be the body of Christ? (This question and the subsequent ones are adapted from questions that Jan Edmiston posed concerning general ministry).

 o   What does Christian Education look like if we focus less on attendance at events, the building to house classes and the cash it takes to run programs? What does CE look like if we focus on doing the ministry in the surrounding culture and neighborhood of the church?

 o   What if we move a church school class or youth adviser training from the church parlor to a coffee shop?

o   What if we move from doing CE events at the church to attract people (like VBS or a Fall Festival) and send people out into neighborhoods to do VBS or host a Fall Festival in the town square or community center?

o   What if we ask more questions about our purpose for doing a certain CE program and event and whether people are passionate about participating or comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

o   Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are being nurtured by CE? Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?

 o   How can CE better nurture faith and discipleship that carries over into every aspect of our week and lives, beyond Sunday mornings and the Wednesday evening supper and Bible study?

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

These questions must be wrestled with and answered so that the people of God can faithfully educate Christians on how to live fully in Christ, so that we can all take flight into the wildly creative imagination of what God has for us next.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Zimzum of Love by Rob and Kristen Bell

One of my favorite Christian authors and pastors is Rob Bell. Whenever he publishes a book or releases a video, I consume it immediately.  His progressive evangelical view of God, faith and scripture capture my heart and imagination and help me look at my own ministry and spirituality in a new way.  Bell’s latest book The Zimzum of Love, co-written with his wife Kristen, goes one step farther by providing profound insights on my marriage and the deeper mysteries of this sacred relationship (and btw, is a great companion piece to Bell’s Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality).

 A Hebrew word used to “talk about the creation of the world–not in a scientific way but more like something somewhere between poetry and metaphysical speculation,” zimzum is the space which God creates between two people in a marriage for them to thrive in unconditional, sacrificial love.

Through back and forth dialogue, the Bells are honest about the ups and downs of marriage and offer practical advice for couples who wish to strengthen their marriages and live fully in relationship with their partner.

Rob and Kristin present the basis for their book (which divulges, thanks be to God, from the numerous syrupy step-by-step instruction manuals as well as misogynistic and theologically damaging views of marriage) in the following video:

This is one of those books where I found myself highlighting a paragraph or two and making notes on nearly every page. Two passages that stuck out in my reading were:

rob-kristen-bell-marqueeWhen you zimzum, you are consciously deciding to give your energies first and foremost to one person. That’s the power of the exclusive space-out of seven billion people on the planet, you first give yourself to just this one person in just this one way. You direct your love and will and energy to this one.

Like a laser beam, when you direct and focus your energies, they intensify. And when the two of you direct and focus your energies on each other, you create an extraordinary energy field between you. It’s the buzz, the crackle, the electricity that hums between you…

As you intentionally take action for the well-being of this person you love, strengthening and protecting the exclusive space between you, something unexpected happens. Your love overflows. Your love and devotion take you not just beyond yourself, but beyond the two of you. The energy that is generated between you transcends the two of you. By first committing to just each other, you naturally create something bigger than you both. This is why marriage is good for the world. Love that overflows makes the world a better place. It’s a gift–a beautiful, divine, sacred gift to the world.

……………………………

God is described as a relationship of one. Early theologians called this relational oneness of God trinity. God is movement, motion, energy, generosity–a trinitarian community of infinite love, endlessly moving beyond for the good of others. In this trinitarian understanding of God, love is the engine of the universe, the life force that surges through all of creation. The nature of love is that it can’t be contained; it spills over and naturally creates new space for others to thrive.

This love takes us back to the first impulse you had to zimzum for this person you love. When you zimzum, you are aligning yourself with the most foundational creative energies of the universe. You’re experiencing the same love that sustains the world. This space between you is sacred because when you live beyond yourself, orientating yourself around the thriving of another, you are reflecting the image of God. You are unleashing in this space between you the same divine energies that continue to create the universe.

Art Credit: Rob and Kristen Bell

Art Credit: Rob and Kristen Bell

These particular statements made me wonder about how the Church might engage in the zimzum of love.

What would churches look like or how could they thrive and be healthy/healthier if it’s leaders and members committed to creating an exclusive space between them and the ministry of the church?  What would it look like if distractions (like arguments over the color of the sanctuary carpet, signage, worship attendance, the style of the bulletin; and an over-filled busy work and social schedule) were eliminated so more energy was focused on creative and transforming ministry?

What would the life of a congregation look like if members were to align their faith with the Divine energy that creates and sustains the universe? What would it look like if followers of Christ  reflected the image of God in exclusive relationships with the poor and homeless, the oppressed, the victims of injustice, the people whose cultural, religious, racial, sexual and gender identity is different from our own?

What might the church and world look like if Love overflowed, if we unleashed the energies of God in the relationships God has called us to create and cultivate in ministry and service?

Sabbatical

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

(Blog Note: Letter I wrote in October 2014)

Dear Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church,

One of the greatest gifts this church gives to its pastoral staff is a “sabbatical” after they have served at Pleasant Hill for several years. With my 10th anniversary in ordained ministry and my 7th year of ministry at Pleasant Hill coming up next summer, the Session has approved my plans to take a sabbatical in late winter/early spring of 2015.

“Sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word and the traditions around ‘sabat.’ You’re probably familiar that one of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus is about keeping the Sabbath and in Leviticus we find two more references: one concerns letting the land lie fallow every seven years and another refers to the Jubilee Year in which debts are forgiven.

As the author Wayne Muller puts it:

Sabbath time can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities and accomplishments. Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity…Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. …We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls.

The church’s sabbatical policy allows for a pastor to take two months away from their ministry in the parish. Mine will begin on Monday February 2, a couple of weeks before the start of the Lenten season, and end Wednesday April 1 of Holy Week. I will not be around on Sundays or responding to emails, phone calls, social media messages during this time. (But know that youth, missions and other ministries I do at Pleasant Hill are in the good hands of many wonderful people in this faith community).

My hope for my sabbatical is to engage in Lenten practices which will fully immerse me into a time of Sabbath and quiet contemplation about who I am as a minister, husband, father and disciple. I plan to spend quality time with my family as well as find opportunities to worship, pray and reflect in different contexts around Greater Atlanta. I will attend the NEXT Church conference in mid-February in Chicago and also being preparing for my first time as a keynote speaker at Weeks V and VI of the Montreat Youth Conferences (which occur from late July to early August). I also have a nice stack of books to delve into that relate to the ministries I oversee at Pleasant Hill. Overall, I’m looking forward to just “being”—of “lying fallow” and allowing God in the Spirit to renew my heart, mind, soul and body so that I may continue to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, creativity, imagination and love.

Thank you for this amazing gift of Sabbath. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for you and me during this sacred time.

In Christ,

The Rev. Andy Acton, Associate for Youth and Mission & Outreach

A Year Ago Interview With Rachel Held Evans

DSC_0090In honor of author Rachel Held Evans completion of her latest book on the Church (coming to bookstores and smart tablets this Fall) and the re-release of her best-seller Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010, now titled Faith Unraveled), here is my interview from June 2013 with one of the most important voices on matters of faith, belief, and justice.

The interview was first printed in the 4th and final issue of the ground-breaking independent Christian progressive magazine PLGRM, published by Landon Whitsitt and entitled “Woman of Valor: An Interview with Rachel Held Evans.”

It’s hands down one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done (I used to do quite a bit of them as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001) and best conversations I’ve had about faith. It was also fun to chat with a favorite author, a heroine in the faith and another Southerner and SEC Football fan (albeit one who cheers for the Crimson Tide. War Eagle Rachel!)

I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did talking to and learning from Rachel Held Evans:

A self-described “skeptic, creative and follower of Jesus, figuring out this journey of faith one shaky step at a time,” Rachel Held Evans is daily asking big questions, fostering dialogue and engaging people’s hearts and minds on her blog, http://rachelheldevans.com. …PLGRM got an opportunity to talk to Rachel about her two books, Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012. Top 20 on NYT Bestseller List).

static.squarespaceLet’s start things off by talking about your first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. you write early on:

“Throughout history) Believers found a way to rethink and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, one in which they no longer sat in the center of the universe.” (p. 19)

What are some of the current environmental shifts causing 21st century Christians to rethink  and reimagine their faith?

For Christians in the U.S., particularly evangelicals, there is a big shift from faith being centered in the Global West to the Global East and South. The movement is building elsewhere and that’s a big change to contend with. There are changes in what people of faith look like. The image of the White American Protestant at the forefront of faith is waning and evangelicals have to deal with that. We can go down screaming about it or say, ‘This is interesting and what can we learn from it and how can we connect with a servant heart like Christ.’

What are the ways in which believers are rethinking and reimagining faith?

I see this desire of evangelicals in America to move toward monastic communities, more rituals and connecting to the historical church. Evangelicals are asking, “What is my story and my past?” and are looking for ways to be more ecumenical and less self-centered and fractured. Families of faith are not the stereotypical nuclear family model anymore and we as evangelicals can either be freaked out by that or embrace it. We have to stop with the mentality of us v. the world and be more like agents of peace. We have to be less about power. We have to become less entangled in politics and patriarchy and become part of the change that is happening.

Evangelicals can infuse that fire in the belly, that emotion, that Spiritual fervor and passion for the Bible. They can bring an openness and progressiveness married with passion and excitement. They can be passionate about the gospel and social justice.

A couple of pages later in the book, you state:

“I’m an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand. I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new. I’m an evolutionist because my own story is one of unlikely survival. If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith.”(page 21)

What are the convictions that the Church needs to hold with an open hand and heart?

When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment or law, he said, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, body and soul.” We start our theology there with love. (The apostle) Paul reiterates this. For evangelical Christians, it’s about letting go of assumptions that our interpretation of scripture is inerrant or that our interpretation equals truth. At the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves if our theology and interpretation of scripture makes us more loving and helps us to understand a more loving God. We have to be able to have different interpretations of scripture and still respect and love one another. We have to use the Bible or our view less as a weapon. Instead of our interpretations being a conversation ender, they should be a conversation starter.

You have shared in Monkey Town and on your blog that the catalyst which caused you to evolve more than a decade ago, and thus grab a deeper hold on your faith instead of clinging tightly to convictions was the story of Zarmina (a 35-year-old Muslim mother of five who was executed in Fall 2001 by the Taliban for allegedly killing her abusive husband.)

How does Zarmina’s story still impact your faith journey today?

(Learning about Zarmina) really was a moment when the worldview I constructed as a tower of cards fell apart. Zarmina was the card that got pulled ‘cause it stirred up these questions I long had about our circumstances in life and whether there was a hell. I asked myself, ‘Is it all about a cosmic lottery or luck of the draw?’ That’s when I started wrestling with faith.

Today, I see the questions that permeated around Zarmina’s story surface with recent events like the tornadoes in Oklahoma. I have a hard time saying God made that happen (and caused tragedy and death). I can’t imagine saying to a parent that there child died because God made the tornado. It makes sense on paper but if theology doesn’t work on the ground, it doesn’t work.

Zarmina’s story, particularly the image of her tennis shoes peeking out from underneath her burqa after she is executed, leads you to a reflection on the incarnation of Jesus in which you say:

“Being a Christian is about embodying a certain way…about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes.”

What does “being Jesus in tennis shoes” look like in the world? Where have you seen Jesus in tennis shoes?

I don’t write about her often but it would be my sister Amanda. Doesn’t matter where she’s planted, she loves the people around her like crazy. She lives in North Carolina and has a neighbor, a 98-year-old woman, whom she looks after. She washes her clothes for her and brings her meals. Amanda went to India once and she is still invested in families she met and the relationships she made there. She gets invitations to weddings of family members she stays in touch with. Amanda went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and still stays in contact with the people she served. Amanda loves her neighbor no matter what. She’s my little sister but I took up to her.

My husband Dan and I were visiting Amanda and her husband in North Carolina recently and we weren’t the only ones there. There was this perpetual cycle of people in and out of their home, visiting and eating. There’s this idea out there that you have to go to a poor place to find Jesus or a suffering area to see how much Jesus is loved or to love others like Jesus. But that’s not true. You can love Jesus in the suburbs. (Being Jesus in tennis shoes) is about loving your neighbor wherever you are.

In our culture where it’s about being busy, it’s hard to stop what you are doing and love your neighbor. I struggle with that all the time.

At the end of Chapter 19 on “Adaptation” you write that “I’m convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change.” (page 207)

It would probably be fair to say that you challenge those false fundamentals in prophetic, though-provoking and heart-felt ways through your blog posts, i.e. women’s rights, sexual abuse in the church, gay rights, mixed gender and mixed faith marriages, etc.

Which of the false fundamentals do you think suffocates faith the most?

Inerrancy of scripture and holding tightly to the idea that you have to choose between faith and science. We as evangelical Christians set up a false dichotomy and it’s a shame, this idea that (the science of) evolution is contrary to faith. But I do see us moving past it and I do see some serious progress.

What is the best way for the Church to deal with false fundamentals so that it can be about “loving God and loving other people” instead of “being right or getting the facts straight.” (p. 209)

Be appreciative of diverse perspectives. I get angry sometimes when people perpetuate beliefs that are hurting others. Now, there is a place for (righteous anger) for people who are suffering. Jesus was angry about people’s suffering and we should be angry too. But what I struggle with and have to remind myself is that the purpose of my writing or speaking out is not to change the minds of the “gatekeepers”. I have to say ‘Rachel, you are writing to help people through the day, those who are doubting and have been laid with burdens,’ and that helps me do my work with grace.

It’s about seeking out the suffering and marginalized. The motivation for me is to help out folks who are hurt by things that are said and equip them with ways to respond.

A Year Biblical Womanhood-med-whiteLet’s move onto A Year of Living Biblical Womanhood…You confess right away that “I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in this world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole.”

Alice in Wonderland is a terrific metaphor for your journey of biblical womanhood because, like Alice, you learn that things are not always what they seem and often the opposite of what you believed was true.

What did you discover about yourself as a woman and about the relationship between the Bible and women? What were the most strange, whimsical, wondrous or astonishing parts?

I think when we put limits on ourselves or give ourselves boundaries or rules, it’s amazing how much creativity can come about. I was continually surprised by the practice of taking the Bible literally. Covering my head when praying added an extra layer of reverence. It was mystical even as I stopped to do something physical.

What do you hope the Church will discover from your journey and experience? In your travels talking about the book, have you seen the impact your year of biblical womanhood has had on religious communities, Christian and otherwise?

It’s been encouraging to hear from women who, because of the book or a conversation on the blog, decided that maybe going to seminary wasn’t a waste of time after all, that maybe this passion they have for teaching and leading is a gift, not a curse. It’s also been rewarding to see how respond so positively to Proverbs 31 as a blessing rather than a to-do list or prescription. My hope is that readers will see that the Bible does not prescribe just one right way to be a woman of faith, that this notion of “biblical womanhood” as a list of rules and roles is a myth.  A woman who loves the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind and strength and loves her neighbor as herself is practicing “biblical womanhood.” Really, at the end of the day, it’s more about biblical personhood than anything else.  

Early on in the book, you paint this beautiful picture of how cultivating a gentle and quite spirit through prayer and contemplation is like becoming a great tree. And the roots you planted helped you confront your uglier tendencies, i.e. reacting less, listening more, holding back, choosing words carefully, avoiding gossip. A year later, do you find that you’re still able to root yourself more firmly in gentleness and a quiet spirit when “storms of nasty comments and critiques” come through?

Nothing beats praying the hours, which I’ve been able to practice with more consistency now that I’m not travelling as much. There’s something about working through the Psalms and praying the same prayers that have been prayed by Christians for many centuries and continue to be prayed around world today that reminds me that this faith thing isn’t really about me or about being right; it’s about being in relationship, part of a very big, very old community.

In the chapter on Domesticity which clearly had a lot of challenges and offered valuable learning experiences, you focus on your mother’s philosophy “It has to get messy before it gets clean” and you say further that “sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards and start over again.”

 What does the Church have to get messy, what does it need to tear out? What innards need to be exposed to start over or become relevant or survive in the 21st century and beyond?

Sexuality. There are a lot of presuppositions and prejudices. The most radical thing we can do is become better listeners. As we deconstruct, we can start treating women and homosexuals as people and not an issue. We can have a conversation that is constructive and helpful. It’s why I do guest posts on my blog and a series called “Ask A…”

It’s easy to keep everything in place you encounter somebody whose story challenges what you believe. A lot has changed about how we think about sexuality and we need to toss out everything we thought we knew and start over from scratch to understand all the concepts. Those of us who are straight really don’t know anything about being gay. We need to step aside and let others share their story.

During your exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman, you learn about “eshet chayil!” –women of valor and immediately your eyes are opened to the “acts of raw bravery” that occur daily in the lives of women.

It’s a poetic and prophetic reality that is lived out in small and large ways, which is particularly noteworthy when considering that human trafficking and the sex trade and violence toward women around the world is highly prevalent … and the back-sliding of women’s rights in this country i.e. over women’s health choices, right to have a voice, and the crude stereotypical portrayals of women in advertising/media

Can you speak more about the importance and power of “eshet chayil” in today’s divisive religious and socio-political climate? 

I like reclaiming Proverbs 31 from the fundamental way its been treated as a job description, making women feel bad how domestic they were or weren’t in life. It’s actually a poem celebrating what women accomplish in the everyday.

Proverbs 31 is also encouraging us as women to celebrate one another more. We don’t do that often because our culture says only a few are allowed to succeed. Competition (among women) is fostered. Once at a speaking engagement for women, I asked them to celebrate other important women in their lives. Their reaction was amazing. They immediately stood up and started sharing and crying and leaning on one another. We as women don’t do that enough.  I’m glad women are connecting to Proverbs 31 and that it’s being used to celebrate women instead of condemning them.

How can the Church be a better advocate for “women of valor?” How can the Church see and revere women as the solution instead of the problem? (page 242-246)

 I think we have to start by dropping all these notions of “ideal womanhood” or “real women.” We get it from the culture; we shouldn’t get it from the Church. Then it’s a matter of cultivating and celebrating the many gifts women bring to the world. In developing countries, it means partnering with women to ensure they receive the sort of education, job opportunities, and resources that enable them to live and work with dignity, provide for their families, and serve their communities. Everywhere it means treating women as human beings, not as some sort of sub-category. I love this quote from Dorothy Sayers:

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or “The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.

“But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”

 

 

Filled Up and Ready for What’s NEXT

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This summer I will have spent:

6 years serving one PC(USA) church as associate pastor for youth and mission.
9 years being an ordained minister of the word and sacrament in the PC(USA).
16 years working with youth in PC(USA) churches.

Many hours, days and months and yet at the age of 38, I still have my looks albeit with several
extra pounds. (Har, har, har). However as Indiana Jones tells Marian in Raiders of The Lost Ark, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage.” When it comes to ministry these days…

I’m hitting the wall.

I’m burning out.

I’m drying up.

I’m stagnating.

(Perfect time to have a second child, born in November, right?)

Knowing that a significant part of my life–God’s call of me to serve–is broken, I flew out to Minneapolis, MN at the beginning of the week to get some repairs done.

But what I got from The PC(USA)s  2014 NEXT Church Annual Conference (held at Westminster Presbyterian Church) wasn’t a quick fix or an easy answer that would allow me to apply a technical change in my life, i.e. get 12 hours of sleep and you’ll be good as new or attend these workshops and worship services and your frustrations/apathy/pain will instantly disappear.

While technical solutions are applicable when the heat goes out or a pipe burst in the church building, they are useless when it comes to nurturing the holistic being of a church or inspiring a gifted church leader who is feeling spiritually empty.

 
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What I received from the NEXT Church Conference was…

an invitation to consider an adaptive approach,

an invitation to be still and listen for God (Psalm 46:10) who is actively speaking and moving in the world in God’s own way and time

an invitation to be moved by the Spirit to reflect, ask questions and imagine new ways to be whom God calls me to be and do what God calls me to do.

an invitation to discover the welfare God has for me by seeking the welfare of the city and its people (Jeremiah 29:7) who have been exiled into a concrete jungle of poverty, homelessness, addiction, abuse, and violence.

an invitation to be part of a present and future that God infuses with hope (Jeremiah 29:11)

an invitation, per the theme of NEXT, to Lead. Create. Discern.

Accepting that invitation to be and let God move me wherever I needed to go was invigorating and liberating. A beautiful gift…

Sermons by Alika Galloway, Daniel Vigilante, J. Herbert Nelson and Maryann McKibben Dana reminded me that I have to let go of my fears, worries and self-doubts (something I struggle with daily as I take medicine and go to counseling for depression and anxiety) and not allow myself to get stuck in the muck.  I have to let it go. (Or as my wife says, not let my frustrations make me the victim.)

Leader Testimonies, Ignite presentations and workshops like Not ChurchTheocademy and  90 Second Sermon and fellowship with friends (old and new) sparked my imagination and tapped into a yearning I’ve been having to smash clay pots and create something different from the shards.

Worship (which I don’t get to do much strictly as a participant) stirred up my passion for serving God and doing ministry. Listening to varieties of music styles and songs (African-American and Native-American and Taize) and hearing scripture retold in unique ways refreshed my weary soul. An afternoon of prayer, in particular, moved me greatly as our individual petitions to God regarding the heaviness of pain we carry inside were read out loud.

NEXT Bulletin

 

NEXT river

 

The centerpiece of worship as well as the conference and our lives and ministry was a communion table that NEXT artist in residence Shawna Bowman created during morning worship on the first day and which we decorated in the days following. As Shawna proclaimed: “Isn’t it amazing that when we build something new, it gets filled up.”

 

NEXT Communion table 2

 

I also have been filled beyond measure and beyond what I deserve from this conference.

The challenge, though–as I find myself re-entering the routines of everyday life, family and church–is not getting stuck in a particular way of being and doing that depletes my energy, intelligence and imagination.

I wish I knew exactly what I needed to do (a series of steps or a one-size-fits all solution) to ensure that I don’t lose this newfound sense of creativity, leadership and discernment that I want to share with others. The last thing I want is to dry up to the point where I have nothing life sustaining to give to God, my family & friends, and the church.

I wish I knew for sure that the ideas I’d like to try–in an effort to enrich ministry and life–are going to stick and flourish beyond my wildest dreams.

There are, of course, no guarantees.

All I can do is take a risk and trust in God who only knows what’s next.

NEXT Communion table

Photo Credits:  “Dry Land” courtesy of Google Images,  other photos from The NEXT Church Conference by Andy Acton, 2014.

A Pile of Good Things

 A Sermon for Sunday August 18, 2013, Galatians 6:6, 9-10 and Ephesians 2:10

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 3.34.32 PMLast month, I finished up a whirlwind of summer youth trips with the High School Mission Trip at Urban Mission Camp in Mobile, AL, and the Middle School Montreat Conference at Maryville College in Maryville, TN.

But in between these two incredible faith-shaping experiences, I managed to squeeze in just enough time to watch an hour-long episode of my new favorite TV series…Doctor Who!

Produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi program in the world and considered to be the most successful sci-fi series of all time.

Doctor Who originally ran from 1963-1989 and then went on hiatus for more than a decade. But in 2005, the series was re-launched, resulting in high ratings and a huge cult following among new generations of viewers (known as Whovians). Even the legendary director Steven Spielberg has said, “The world would be a poorer place without Doctor Who.”[1]

If you’ve never watched the show, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a mysterious humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box but is much bigger on the inside. The Doctor is a thin man with a whimsical grin who is intrigued by every aspect of life and who has a penchant for tweed jackets and bow ties because “they’re cool.”

With the aid of a human friend and his trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor faces a variety of foes while trying to save civilizations, right wrongs, and help various humans and aliens throughout the galaxy and at different periods in history—past, future and present.

In the episode of Doctor Who that I viewed amid the last two youth trips of the summer, the Doctor and his friend Amy Pond travel to the year 1890 to visit the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, weeks before the artist (known for his frequent bouts with mental illness) commits suicide.

They soon discover that an alien monster that only Van Gogh can see is killing villagers throughout the villages of southeast France.  And after defeating the creature, the Doctor and Amy decide to take Vincent to a modern day museum in Paris so that he can discover his legacy as an artist[2]:

 ……………………………….

[For those who were unable to see the scene shown today in worship, here are some pictures and synopsis, along with key dialogue]

Vincent-and-the-Doctor-doctor-who-12772213-800-675

Upon their arrival at the museum, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent make their way to the Van Gogh exhibit. Vincent’s eyes light up in astonishment as he realizes that the museum visitors are admiring his entire life’s work on the walls.

As Vincent gazes around the room, the Doctor pulls the museum curator aside (but within enough distance for Van Gogh to hear) and asks him:

“Where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

 The curator responds passionately:

“To me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no-one had ever done it before. Perhaps no-one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

A tear-filled Vincent turns toward the curator, gives him a warm embrace and thanks him for his kind words. Before the curator has time to process what has happened—that he has been embraced by the greatest painter of all time—Vincent has disappeared with the Doctor and Amy.

Upon their return to 19th century Provence, Vincent steps off the TARDIS and exclaims:

“This changes everything! I’ll step out tomorrow with my easel on my back a different man.”

The Doctor thanks the artists for a wonderful adventure, and Vincent replies enthusiastically:

“You’ve turned out to be the first doctor ever actually to make a different to my life.”

The Doctor and Amy say their goodbyes and then board the TARDIS where Amy suggests they immediately return to the museum in Paris.

3amyelevenhug

Amy is convinced that Vincent Van Gogh will not have taken his life and that his newfound hope will have inspired hundreds of new paintings for the world to treasure. But when she arrives at the museum, she realizes that Van Gogh never painted another canvas because the artist, overwrought with his mental illness, fatally shot himself not long after saying goodbye to Amy and the Doctor.

With tears running down her cheeks, Amy says to the Doctor:

“We didn’t make a difference at all.”

The kind Doctor embraces his friend and compassionately says to her:

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

…………………………………

We didn’t make a difference at all—how often do we say to ourselves those exact words uttered by Amy Pond?

We fed the hungry and gave financial resources to the homeless…but they are still starving and sleeping on the streets.

We sent our youth to a conference to hear about God’s love…but at home, they still spend time with teens that have a bad influence on them.

We embody love and mercy in our lives… but there is still violence and bloodshed in our cities and world.

We make policies and establish laws and rules to protect people from harm…but there are still folks who find a way to destroy others’ lives.

“We didn’t make a difference,” it seems.

And that crushing feeling of failure makes us throw our hands in the air and say: Why bother?

Why should I even try doing the good thing when all of these bad things keep on happening in spite of what any of us do?

Why?

It’s the question I’m asked most often in ministry.

Why?

Why do church people go on mission trips in the U.S. and other countries to help the poor and oppressed?

Why do youth want to spend a week at a conference learning about Jesus, the Bible and their faith?

Why do we serve when it doesn’t appear to be effecting the way people treat one another?

Why do we pray for peace when war rages around us?

The poor are still poor.

The hungry are still hungry.

The violent are still killing the innocent.

The oppressors are still stepping on the oppressed.

The broken are still broken.

Nothing is changing, so …

Why?

I imagine the early Christian church of Jews and Gentiles were asking that same question of Why? as they hid from the Roman Empire that wanted them dead for choosing Jesus over the emperor Caesar:

Why do we keep following Christ’s teachings and keeping God’s commandments to love when our neighbors are being dragged from their homes and into the streets to die?

Why do we keep on with the faith of our ancestors when we are being persecuted for our beliefs?

Nothing has changed. We worship, serve and love in the name of God who is sovereign in our lives…but the Roman Empire still comes after us.

We live a life devoted to God but “we didn’t make a difference.”

Why keep on keeping on? Why?

The apostle Paul, who was redeemed by God for his vile acts of persecution toward Jews and Jesus followers, answers the early Church’s Why?  in letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians.

The way Paul sees it, we are what God has made us, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

The reason why we are to do good and to keep on doing good is because that is how God has made us. It is in our design as human beings and beloved creations of the Divine. It is the way of life that God intends for us to have and embody every…single…day.

Paul is not being unrealistic or naïve in making such a statement. The apostle as much as much as anyone recognizes the difficulty of doing good in a world where badness and brokenness reside. So he encourages churches that even in the midst of pain, they must share in all good things:

 Let us not grow weary in doing what is right…So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

The Doctor echoes this truth beautifully when he says to Amy Pond:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

Yes, Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t escape his demons.

Yes, the poor continue to look for their next meal or a roof over their heads.

Yes, the oppressed struggle to survive in a system where the powers try to silence their voice.

Yes, people are hurt and killed because of the cruelty and hate of others.

But not a single bad thing or act of brokenness can tarnish the good things or render them insignificant.

As the musician Christine Kane says in her 2004 song “The Good You Do” which will be played for today’s Offertory: “No lost hope, no violent point of view…no fast pace, no jaded attitude…no dark place, no debt and no abuse can erase all the good you do.”

Last week, I emailed Christine Kane to ask her what inspired her to write such a beautiful piece. Through a spokesperson she answered the email by saying:

The song came as I spoke with so many people who were doing good things in the world, but were becoming a little bitter as things did not seem to change. The song is a reminder to keep doing good no matter what. There is the light in every person—it is our choice to share the light and no bad thing can take that light away. You just keep sharing it.

Kane’s reply to me as well as her song reminded me of another message that Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, familiar words that remind us to keep faith and keep doing good:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…What then are we to say about these things? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Each and every one of you has done and is doing good in this church, this community and world…

You’ve gone on youth conferences and youth mission trips to stretch your faith and to nurture the faith of our young people. You’ve built relationships with those who are often ignored like the poor, the underprivileged, the developmentally challenged and the geeky pimple-faced teenager.

You’ve fed the hungry and housed the homeless by volunteering at the Duluth Co-Op, providing a meal through Rainbow Village and by helping out with Family Promise Host Week.

You’ve donated blood to save lives.

You’ve signed up to teach church school or be a youth adviser.

You’ve prepared communion, been an usher or acolyte, collected and counted the offering.

You’ve brought food to put on the Fellowship Table between worship services and you’ve participated in numerous Fellowship  events.

You’ve agreed to be a prayer partner for someone attending the Adult Mission Trip to Honduras.

You’ve comforted a friend who grieves over a broken relationship.

You’ve shown kindness to a neighbor, prepared your children for school, dropped off clothes at the Goodwill.

You’ve planted gardens and cared for your pets and other animals.

You’ve shared your gifts in song to help illumine God’s presence for someone who sits alone in the dark.

You’ve delivered a meal to someone who was ill.

You’ve been patient and respectful with a church member whose opinion was different from yours.

You’ve served as an elder on Session to discern how we are to be the body of Christ within and beyond these walls.

You’ve welcomed the stranger and loved those who are kept on the margins of society.

You’ve added to the pile of good things.

You’ve made a difference.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

Continue to add to the pile of good things.

And never stop doing what you were made to do.

Amen.

2jucZ


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0 Dr. Who celebrates its 50th year in the Fall and is awaiting its 8th season since the 2005 relaunch. If you are interested in watching Dr. Who but don’t have time to view all 7 seasons (currently available on Netflix streaming and DVD) you can start with Season 5 in which Matt Smith became the 11th Doctor and found new companions to explore the universe.

[2] Trailer for the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and The Doctor” Season 5, 2010, BBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8PkCEc1Fjo

Doctor and Amy, ‘Pile of Good Things’ quote-clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjUKGfBW74o

The song that plays during the scenes at the museum is “Chances” by the British indie-rock band Athlete, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/athlete/chances.html and youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWayL5NBH80