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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fruits of the Spirit

I am not a fan of tights. They itch and are extremely constrictive. I don't know how women do it. A few weeks ago, however, I wore a purple grape costume with accompanying green tights during my sermon about "the fruits of the Spirit," as described in Galatians 5:16-26. Walking around in tights with a big vine of foam grapes wrapped around you isn't in that text, but the idea that Christians are to be engaged in the Spirit's transformation is. Being in vocational ministry has helped me in this area. Even while still affirming that I am an introvert, increasingly I enjoy finding new and creative ways to better connect to people of all ages. I don't ever want to untrue to myself or otherwise succumb to the pressure to perform, but getting out of my comfort zone occasionally is helpful. I take Jesus seriously and the ministry that is done in his name, but not myself so much. I regularly feel inadequate about this or that no matter how much education, training, or practice I have undergone. I don't like ice cream, which is blasphemy in my house. And as a walking conundrum, I have come to accept that I am awkward in more ways than one. I am good at being direct and exacting when needed, but I am ardent about maintaining the sense of play, exploration, and innocence that God has given me.

Traits like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" take a lifetime to develop, and even then we will never master them. Christians are to be under construction by the Spirit, always seeking tangible ways to surrender the desires of the flesh in order to find rest in the authentic person of faith that God created them to be. Regrettably, some people believe that the fruits of the Spirit are the sole responsibility of the Spirit, requiring no determinative actions by humanity in response to the Spirit's residency within. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Eugene Peterson makes that plain in The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way: "Religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds. Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion. Those of us who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can't be too vigilant. The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass."

Sometimes you need a grape costume to remind you how much you have grown and yet how much more ripening is needed. If that necessitates me sporting green tights every so often, then so be it. The next time, however, I won't put them on backwards like I did most recently. Tights are annoying, but tights on backwards are the worst; definitely not what the Spirit has in mind.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Confusion

Monica Hesse did a wonderful job with this article, "When No Gender Fits: A Quest to be Seen Just as a Person," in The Washington Post. It was extremely insightful. Nevertheless, while I sincerely appreciate everyone's journey and strive to be sensitive to it (particularly regarding those I serve in ministry), I am saddened by and perplexed with how much today's Church seems to acquiesce to confusing, passing fancies that contradict Scripture. It is odd, to say the least, to now live in a society where terms like "non-binary" and "agender" (among other terms) -- with individuals advocating to be referred to as "they" rather than "he" or "she," is becoming more normative. I may increasingly represent a minority opinion on this, but the Church desperately needs to do some serious work around issues of gender and sexuality. Other than the biological and ideological challenges that face hermaphrodites by no fault of their own, I fail to comprehend how -- again, particularly within a biblical framework -- we justify someone choosing their gender.

We choose our friends. We choose what we will eat for dinner. We choose which shows to record in the DVR. We are endowed to make many somewhat mundane and very important choices in life, but some things are off-limits, determined exclusively by God without human input. For the Christian, perhaps we have have lost our way in failing to comprehend or otherwise choosing to blatantly disobey the theological imperative that we do not belong to ourselves, that we indeed exist only to do God's bidding God's ways. I don't claim to be an expert on any of this. I am open to constructive, honest dialogue that can lead to mutual understanding; knowing, however, that this doesn't necessitate acceptance. More often than not, however, I have experienced on this subject and others, that people don't truly desire an exchange of ideas. Given this particular viewpoint, they are simply hell-bent on making you out to be a bigoted, theological relic of the Stone Age whose only chance of postmodern redemption is the adoption of their, what many would call, more enlightened perspective. I am sure that others may feel this, too, from various sides of various topics. I have no problems whatsoever "agreeing to disagree" with anyone about virtually anything, but I do take issue with the idea that nonacceptance of the status quo must automatically render someone ill-informed, close-minded, or both.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Self-Esteem of Belief

Although a preacher, myself, I had not seen The Preacher's Wife, with Denzel Washington, songstress Whitney Houston, and the all-too-talented Gregory Hines. Last week, however, I set-aside time to watch it and much to my surprise, I instantly became a fan. A spin-off from 1947's The Bishop's Wife, it highlights the all-too-common story of an overworked, insecure pastor heavily investing in his congregation and community at the expense of his wife and child's needs, and his own health and happiness. Therein exists timeless material for laypersons and clergy to dissect.

Towards the end, in a special moment of spiritual renewal and clarity, the pastor suggests to a young man in trouble that prayer is like shooting a basketball. Whenever taking a shot in basketball, by virtue of preparation, mechanics, and skill, at the very least, you expect it to go in. You shoot with a hopeful expectation. If the shot is unsuccessful you don't typically melt in disappointment, but you try and try again with hopeful expectation that good will come. Similarly, he casually contends, pray isn't someone we should do with a despondent, lackluster outlook. Rather, we hope that our requests are answered favorably (in our eyes) or that whatever the outcome that God will lead and guide us. He tells the young man, "That's all prayer is: hope."

I understand that this way of thinking about prayer, as a theological construct, understandably, may make some people uncomfortable. It is good to confidently approach the "throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16) expecting that God will hear our cries and accomplish God's will on such matters. Still, though, while true, this must be understood within the framework that God's will often doesn't match our human reasoning. What God define as sufficient we are quick to deem insufficient. Furthermore, prayer is best as a dialogue, not a monologue, with us requesting this and that from God. It isn't helpful to view prayer as a means to persuade or bribe God to do what we want to how and when we want it.

It would be appropriate to deconstruct how prayer is portrayed in The Preacher's Wife, and in the aforementioned scene specifically, but that isn't my present aim. What I found to be a provocative reminder is how critical self-esteem is regarding one's ability to hope. I regularly encounter people who struggle greatly to locate vestiges of hope. They feel destined or otherwise cursed for mediocrity, or even sub-par living. Education, economic standing, race/ethnicity, geographic location, and other sociological markers appear more compelling to them than a belief that 'God's plans are for their welfare and not for their harm, to give them a future with hope.' (Jeremiah 29:11) This may be true and applicable to generations past, neighbors, friends, and personal heroes and heroins, but somehow not for them individually.

This has profoundly influenced how I think about regret. There are countless life choices that I wish I could undo; and although sometimes I operated out of willful disobedience (in that I "knew better"), if I knew then what I know now, I hope that would have similarly motivated me to make different decisions. I am not capable of time travel, but I am able to live in ways that better reflect whom I now know God to be. Life is long enough for regret to take root and blossom, but short enough for us to use it to hope and work in more profound, fruitful ways. At the end of what I hope will be a long life, my biggest regret would be to have lived opposite of what I have professed. I would hate to have not "reached for the stars," so to speak, whatever that looks like (personally, professionally, etc.), because of fear. I am a beggar in need of the Bread of Life, no doubt, but then, too, I have been gifted unique abilities and experiences that I am expected to boldly put to good use in Jesus' name.

I am clueless to what the Lord will do with my life, what it will ultimately become. On most days I am just trying to navigate the somewhat routine responsibilities that we all have, also while seeking shelter from the shrapnel that bombards an identity rooted in Christ. Yet I am compelled to keep fighting the good fight, seeking opportunities that perhaps without faith would leave me on life's sideline watching potential pass me by. I don't want to live expecting mediocrity. Who God is ought to inform who I am and serve as kindling to ignite a fire of spirited, yet appropriate adventure. God is too grand and life is too short to accept that I am ever "stuck" in anything with permanence or that certain experiences are somehow off-limits to someone of my ilk or makeup.

Reminding myself of where God has brought me from, despite myself, increases my belief, but also increases my desire to put that belief into appropriate action. Even though we believe Jesus to be a strong and mighty tower, I wonder why so many of us functionally live as hopeless defeatists. We would do well to hope and work very differently than we do, and since my locus of control begins within, I am determined to let my belief in God shape and mold my self-esteem.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thinking about "Amen"

I attended an evening vigil recently for a young man fatally shot on this corner and the experience forced me to realize how much I take hope for granted. Standing in the same spot where someone's life was brazenly snatched away in broad daylight will do that. The simple notion of believing in the possibility, the promise even of a new, better day isn't something that everyone comprehends or embraces. It is indeed a gift from the Lord. We, as a nation (with all of our suburban, urban, and rural corridors), have created generations of people, some young and some old, whose only ambition, focus, or belief is in "right now." With this thinking, if in a certain moment they choose to spill blood to prove a point then so be it. It is, at the very least, a twisted take on what the term "Amen" is intended for. It would be good for us all to reflect on what we do in our daily lives to help make what what not be what it should.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

On the Move

For the past few weeks my wife and I have been preparing to move, a process that we are grateful to finally be done with. There is no place like home. Anyone who has moved as much as we have or even more, intimately knows that while it can be full of sweet excitement, moving can also just as easily represent the bitterness of a necessary evil. This recent move represents a time of celebration and thanksgiving for us, thank God. Not that we haven't been hopeful about our other moves, but different circumstances incite different feelings. Willie Nelson's tune "On the Road Again" comes to mind because for the longest time that has felt like our plot. For the bulk of my job search it seemed pretty clear that we would not land in the area of the country where we met and where we are most comfortable. Doors were opening everywhere else and prudence said to chase those leads with an open mind and obedient heart. We did that, but in God's providence a door, the right door, actually a previously closed door opened up in the city that we had initially begged the Lord to plant us in. Funny how that works sometimes. Our prayers matter. I believe that with all of my heart. They just don't matter as much as God's will for us, which is always better than anything we could construct even if the stars aligned and sun-rays of the greatest insight shone upon us. We are not providential. It simply isn't in our job description, nor is it a competency or "power" that we can attain. And though it frustrates us to no end, that is a very good thing.

Through the years I have known colleagues who came across as hell-bent on becoming a senior pastor. It was as if other ministry positions were less than to them. It was senior pastor or bust. That has never been me and I pray never will. I am overjoyed to be a senior pastor for the first time after years of ministry in other capacities, but I don't see the opportunity, like anything else, as something that I have earned, that is due me for prior services rendered, or something like that. For whatever reasons, God decided that this church at this time was a good match for me at this time; that we could glorify him well in co-laboring together. That's it.

It is a partnership wherein we mutually submit to one another and to God. I am not the sheriff or a dictator whose responsibility it is to ensure that everyone tows the spiritual line. Not at all. I am a shepherd called to care for God's sheep (John 21:16) and that is what I plan to do faithfully. Retired now after thirty years of planting and pastoring one church in the Baltimore suburbs, I have been drawn to Eugene Peterson's work for some time. I think he should be required reading for anyone considering or pursuing ministry. These words from Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness are telling:
The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol -- a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.
I want to guard myself and others from fraudulently viewing me as the source for all things holy, for I am purely a sinner in need of Jesus' atoning blood like the next person. Other than caring for people in the multidisciplinary terms required for such work, one of my core tasks is bearing witness to the ongoing power and presence of God during all of our chaotic, mundane, stressful, and happy occasions. I can't make people accept or reject a life of faith in Jesus. I can, however, and will embrace being a humble servant-leader, unashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16), and committed to being an example who boldly points to the example, the Lord.

When you get down to it, we are always on the move in one way or another, or at least that is what I understand as God's design and intention for us. Spiritually, physically, emotionally, however you slice it; whether forward or backward, we are always moving in some direction. Even though at times we feel that life is "on pause," so to speak, it never truly is. The Spirit moves (John 3:8) to and fro and the life's waves rock us similarly, sometimes on rough waters and at other times on calm seas, but always with intervention, care, and guidance from God.

I thank God for this new chapter of my life and vocation. It is a blessing, but it would be shameful for me to not also stop and thank God for the healing and encouragement -- the restoration -- that I experienced before all of this recent business transpired. The wilderness, if this former season can even be called that, may not have been desirable or fun, but perhaps in ways only God is privy to it was requisite for me (me alone, as our journeys aren't intended to be the prototype for everyone in ever situation) to be better prepared for today, capable of moving forward in ways that please the Lord.

God is faithful; I am not. God is patient; I am learning to be. God has brought me to this place, not me myself, and God will see me through. Because of all of this, leaning on William Sparrow's words, I am further inspired to, "Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will." Life is too short, unpredictable, and precious not to.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Quarreling with the Lord

This is my new 3-year-old friend, Mateo. Okay, so I don't know him personally, but upon seeing this video of him recently I realized we have a lot in common. I am captivated by the sincerity and commitment of his argument. He is relentless in trying to persuade his mom, Linda, to let him have a cupcake. Linda remains steadfast, thankfully, but it is clear from Mateo's antics that he is quite serious. It's cupcakes or bust! I preached last weekend on Exodus 17:1-7, where Moses again deals with grumbling and quarreling from the Israelites. At first their hostility is directed toward Moses, but eventually the Lord makes it in the crosshair of their discontent. With them, if it isn't one thing then it's another. At each point of their journey, God is with them in powerful ways leading and guiding them as only God can. But for some reason they never seem to quite grasp this.

I can't help but reflect on how we are the same. Like little Mateo, we are good at arguing, or at least we think so. We are dedicated for sure, often displaying an unapologetic, erudite zeal when we argue with God. We want this. We want that. We deserve this. We don't deserve that. Some of that is understandable, as it comes with the human condition. None of us arise in the morning looking for debt, destruction, or dread. We don't pray for disabling diagnoses. We don't ask for yet another round of pain. No, we hope for better, brighter days. And that's okay, but what happens when we can't have a cupcake? Do we sulk and rebel? Attempt to argue God into compliance with our demands?

It is extremely uncomfortable and goes against the grain of our natural wiring, but when things don't go our way it is best to reply with patience and gratitude, most especially with God. With people at times we need to advocate for ourselves, argue a point, or even ascend the hierarchical ladder to ensure that we aren't being treated unfairly. However, none of this ever applies to God, yet God is who we quarrel with most often and most vehemently. We are wise to accept that some of the cupcakes we desire aren't good for us or for reasons only God is privy to ultimately just aren't what we need at a particular time. Asking questions of God is one thing. Quarreling with God is quite another.

Thanks for the object lesson, Mateo.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ecclesia and Ethics II

I have been invited, on March 8, to present a research paper at Ecclesia and Ethics II, an academic conference being held online (through GoToMeeting). My contribution is titled, "A Theology of Voyeurism, Catfishing, and Technological Excess: When the Virtual World Suffocates the Real World." I am elated to present on this topic because the ways that technology, or rather our irresponsible use of it stunt face-to-face interaction is quite alarming to me. I have been frustrated that this doesn't seem to be an important issue to some pastoral colleagues.

In a 2003 article in The Christian Century, Eugene H. Peterson said, "American spirituality has an indiscriminating love of technology. We like getting things done, no matter how. Use the fastest and most efficient means at hand, but get it done. Fastest and most efficient almost always means impersonal." Within pastoral theology in mind, my paper will explore how a faulty theology of social media and Internet-based technology in general seduces us, leading to misuse that has devastating practical implications. Social media has become one of the main ways that we communicate, yet how that communication takes place and under what theological guise makes a world of difference. For the Christian who is called to otherworldliness -- being in the world, but not of it (John 15:19, Romans 12:2) -- the role that the Internet plays in their life, as a tool used responsibly or irresponsibly, directly correlates to faith development and maturation in other social arenas. As technology saturates every nook and cranny of everyday existence, it is increasingly important to raise awareness about how, left to its own bidding, it can become more liability than asset, a crutch that stunts growth; something that hinders Christians from their work as Jesus' disciples (read: "disciplined followers").

Being held for two days (March 1, March 8), you can register for the conference here.