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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wholeness

     Wholeness, emotional and spiritual, seems to be a scarce commodity in these times. Life is lived in the midst of forces that pull one off center; forces that seem to delight in knocking us off balance simply to watch us tumble. How to remain whole in the midst of these forces is a question that churns more and more frequently – ironic since such questions tend to multiply the difficulty. What are we to do, particularly for the heart that is on a quest for a life lived more deeply, a life that is more satisfying?

     There is no easy answer, not a complete one anyway. Perhaps a good place to begin, a first step is to pay attention to the Jesus of the Gospels – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In each Gospel the careful reader notices the frequency of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds, from the disciples for the nourishing properties of solitude. This is not a time for rest though rest is enjoyed in the practice of solitude. Neither is solitude a time to unwind or decompress though both of these are certainly received in abundant measure and deeply appreciated. No, solitude, properly understood, is the withdrawal from others for replenishment; replenishment of physical, emotional and spiritual energy. Solitude is receiving rather than giving. It is not loneliness. Loneliness is inner emptiness, writes Richard Foster. Solitude is inner fulfillment.

     Solitude is a difficult practice to learn in a culture that places such a high premium upon productivity. People tend to be valued for what they can give, not for what they receive. Solitude is receiving. Yet, solitude may be pursued so that a life that is replenished, a life that is filled once again may give. There is an alternating rhythm, is there not, between two apparent extremes, between engagement with the world and withdrawal from the same world. Jesus found a balance of the two. A careful eye and a spirit that is attentive to Jesus’ life – both in the study of scripture and prayer – finds that the Spirit of God infuses the heart and mind with the same balance.

     Certainly a goal of solitude may be to receive something or learn something to carry back into the world, a world that constantly demands something from us. There is nothing wrong with this goal. It is, however, insufficient for a follower of Jesus. There is more to solitude than being supplied for continued contribution. Jesus was always clear and never wavered on this one point - He came into the world that those who trust in Him may have life, even life abundantly. What Jesus means by this is that He desires that we are whole, body, mind and spirit. Not whole so that we can then be useful and give. That is to reduce God’s economy to a cost and benefit analysis. No, God’s desire for us is greater than that. God desires wholeness for us simply for wholeness sake. Solitude supplies wholeness. It is there we find joy – and our joy is God’s joy.

Joy,       

Friday, November 22, 2013

Holy Living in a Distracted Life

     Nearly twenty-seven years of professional ministry, marriage and being a father has given me a fresh awareness, at once painful and humorous, of why the saints of the church rarely married. I am wrong to have ever thought the issue was chastity. It isn’t, at least as far as I can now imagine, denied as I am by time (and their death) of speaking with them. No, the issue isn’t chastity, its distraction. Professional ministry is all about a thousand details. To be fair, so is life. Marriage, raising children and earning a living, whether as a pastor or advertising executive or any other thousands of ways we struggle to pay the bills is an exhausting enterprise. Intentional activity for growing in the holy life is easily pushed to the outside of the plate of daily activities. Should it fall over the edge of the plate, who among us even notices? It now seems that the saints realized that distractions – the thousand things that plea for our attention - are at least minimized without a marriage and a family.

     Michael L. Lindvall, the hard-working pastor of The Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York once wrote that some days his practice of holy living is reduced to the few seconds between his head touching the pillow at the end of a long day and sleep; he prays simply, “Bless my sleep before I start again tomorrow.” Greg Ogden writes that nothing consumes pastors more, both time and emotional energy, than pastoral care. Ogden further asserts that pastoral care is far too important to make it the sole or even primary function of the senior pastor. Either the care receiver will be short-changed by an exhausted pastor or the primary call of pastors to preach, teach or lead will be diminished. Ask that pastor to also lead the way toward faithful spiritual disciplines and every pastor will leave the vocation of ministry. It is simply too exhausting.

     What are the saint, pastor and everyday follower of Jesus to do? Total retirement sounds very attractive. But that isn’t an option for most. I cannot shed my responsibilities to my spouse and children. Working for a paycheck is an important part of meeting those responsibilities. Though inhabiting a deserted, tropical island sounds wonderfully attractive another way must be pursued. It seems to me that a closer look at the lives of the saints offer a clue. I speak not of chastity – outstanding student loans with my children’s names attached announce that it’s too late for that. Rather, I speak of the saints’ contentment with what they had, their fundamental life practice of simplicity of possessions. Distractions multiply with possessions. Perhaps I can find ways to live with less.

     It now seems that God's urgent claim upon our financial lives is one of grace. Giving away a portion of our wealth prevents the spending of that gift.  If the gift isn't spent then all the distractions that follow simply don't show up in our life.  More, after a period of responsible giving what inevitably becomes clear is that the financial contribution never was something we gave away.  What presses against our hearts is the certain truth that we have actually made a purchase - what the scripture calls a purchase that is imperishable.  What we have purchased is a life that, as the current pope puts it, has the fragrance of the Gospel.  We have purchased a holy life - a life that pays attention to God.

Joy,

Friday, November 15, 2013

My Central Goal

     My central goal as your pastor is simply to help you, the people I serve, deepen your Christian faith and provide direction for your faith journey. What I long for is that each member of this congregation will be continually formed in Christ; be shaped into someone who speaks, acts and behaves as Jesus. An important part of this is the daily reading of the Bible.

     Occasionally the honest and sincere question is asked, “Of what value can I expect from the daily reading of the Bible?” Nearly always the question is asked by left-brain, practical people. The question is not asked to be argumentative or simply to be incorrigible. It is asked by persons who always watch the bottom line in life, people who take a hard and careful look at the returned value of every decision to act. After all, time and energy these days is a scarce commodity. Both must be used wisely. Reading the Bible carefully and thoughtfully takes both time and energy.

     I propose that there are at least three benefits to the daily reading of the Bible. First, the regular reading of God’s word delivers us from anxiety. Our own little world may be coming unglued by family strife, illness or financial strain. The regular, disciplined reading of the Bible reminds us that we are not alone; reminds us that we live each day in the observant care of a great God. What we are reminded of every time we return to the Bible is that ultimately we belong to God. This knowledge has a tremendous capacity for settling anxiety.

     Second, we are delivered from self-consciousness. Ours is a culture that in subtle and less than subtle ways calls us to stare at ourselves. Magazine covers and cosmetic ads seem to impress upon us that value comes from beauty – and the dollars spent striving for that beauty is staggering. For most of us we will never look like Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt. What is unfortunate is that in our striving we eventually feel defeated. Reading God’s word each day counter-balances the message of the culture that we must look beautiful. The Bible reminds us that we are at this very moment precious to God regardless of what reflection we see in the store window when we walk past.

     Third, the regular reading of the Bible delivers us from conceit. Certainly there are people who don’t struggle with a positive self-image. Theirs is another struggle. They look marvelous in that suit or evening gown, point to educational credentials on the office wall and seem to have the resources to purchase anything at all. With every step they take the air surrounding them is filled with self-importance. Ultimately it all adds-up to emptiness. That is because we were wired – created – for relationship; relationship with one another and with God. The Bible read well and closely reminds us of that. It is living into community with others, loving and being loved that life finally makes sense.

 Joy,

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Training in the Christian Life

     If you think of it, in our own homes there are three ways in which our lives are trained. The earliest is discipline. By this, I do not mean punishment. Rather, I speak of structured activities where the youngest member of the family is provided a schedule that gives order to the day. Rising in the morning, bathing, eating meals, napping and playtime are all structured for the baby or young child. A rhythm for each day develops – the child learns fundamental activities for living a full, rich and stimulating life.

      The second is imitation. The child continually observes those who are older – siblings as well as parents. From observation, behavior and speech patterns emerge that imitate those who are older. Though physical characteristics are determined genetically, unique behavioral traits, responses and voice inflections are largely shaped by imitation, both conscious and unconscious.

     Third is inspiration. As loyalty and respect, even admiration, grows within the child for those who are older, so does the desire to honor them with similar life values. The child becomes an adult who desires to emulate the honorable life lived in their presence.

     Training for the Christian life follows a similar pattern. Christian parents make a promise at their child’s baptism to raise the child in a church, a community of faith. Early in the child’s life there is the discipline of going to Sunday school and worship. Much about the worship experience may seem strange. Yet, the regular order of the service, week after week, results in questions that generate learning. Faith is lived before there is understanding.

     Each week, as the child matures, they observe the behavior of others in worship. Imitation ensues. The child learns that worship is a time of deep reverence – they discover that there is present in the movement of worship something sacred and attention is demanded. Slowly, but certainly the child experiences and learns how to worship as a child of God.

     Finally, our children are grown. Confident that we as parents have done what we could – and that the Holy Spirit has been a participant in the process all along – we anticipate that our children will choose weekly worship from a deep place of inspiration. They have observed and experienced something deeply moving and meaningful in the simple act of gathering with others to honor and praise their creator and savior, Jesus Christ. They have been trained well for the Christian life that will sustain them in joys and sorrows, good times and bad. More, they have been provided with guidance for what to do when they welcome their first child.

Joy,