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Saturday, August 7, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 15

There were a lot of things that I learned in seminary that were of tremendous value to me. There was one thing they failed to teach me, however, that would have been particularly helpful as I struggled to come to a better understanding of my call. Let me take a moment and explain that thing they forgot to teach me.

During my seminary years, most folks talked as if there were just two kinds of calls to ministry. One call was to parish ministry (i.e. serving a local church); the other call was to serve outside of a local church (i.e. serving as a chaplain, teacher, non-profit director, etc.). I was clear that I felt called to serve in a parish – so I thought that was it: all calls to serve a local church were the same.


Over the years I have learned there are lots of different types of call to serve local churches. Some, for instance, feel called to serve local churches as interim ministers. Others feel called to serve local churches and build a particular type of ministry (i.e. a social justice ministry or a ministry of spiritual formation).

I too have a more specific understanding of my call that it has taken me years to figure out. I feel called to serve local churches on the brink and help them find their way back to a position of health and vitality.
Since no one talked to me about different kinds of calls to parish ministry, early on I thought that my call was to interim ministry. Now, I’ve figured out ways in which these calls are different.

In each of the situations I’ve worked, I’ve discovered there is one message that a struggling local church MUST come to understand if they have any hopes of making it. They must understand that at any given moment in their ministry, they have all the resources they need in order to become a healthy and vital community.

This is a difficult message for people in struggling communities to hear (much less believe). They have gotten so use to thinking, “If only we had more members, then we’d have enough volunteers to create wonderful programs.” Or, “If only we had more money in the bank, then we could do some exciting things.”

Those sorts of messages are exactly the kind of things that threaten the future of a local church. It’s only when the individuals in a local church learn to celebrate and use what they already have – and not focus on what they think they lack - that they can truly begin to turn things around.

I was reminded of that principle as I read today’s passage from Matthew. In that passage we heard the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 4,000+. Early in the story, we hear that Jesus – moved by his sense of compassion – told the disciples to feed the people.

And how did the disciples respond?

They said what folks in struggling churches say all the time. “Gee, we’d love to do it but we don’t have enough resources to be able to do that.”
Jesus had the world’s best comeback ever! Instead of buying in to their scarcity-based thinking, Jesus simply asked a question: “How much bread do you have?”
In other words, he shifted their focus away from what they lacked and moved it toward what they had. And wouldn’t you know it: God was able to use what they had to accomplish things they previously would have thought impossible!

Of course the principle I’m talking about doesn’t just apply to local churches. It applies to the lives of individuals as well. The more we focus on what we lack, the more we lose sight of what God is able to accomplish through what we DO have.

If you find yourself in a place of habitual scarcity-based thinking, today I challenge you to leave that thinking behind. Spend time in prayer/meditation today giving thanks for all that you do have, and trust that God can find ways to work in and through you to multiply those resources exponentially.

Til next time …

Friday, August 6, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 14

I often chuckle inside when I hear someone characterize the Bible as a collection of ancient documents that is completely irrelevant for today. I chuckle because the issues the Scriptures speak to are so similar to the issues we face today. Let’s take the story about what happened to John the Baptist that is contained in today’s passage.

The story of John the Baptist’s demise turned on one critical moment. Herod was having a party and – in the midst of the revelry – made a promise to give Herodias’ daughter anything she wanted in return for her lively performance. She asked for the head of John the Baptist.
Now if Herod was thinking clearly (i.e. not drunk), he would have felt comfortable saying something along the lines of “Actually, I meant ‘anything you want – within reason.’ Your request went beyond the bounds of what is reasonable so just ask for something else.”

Herod didn’t do that, however. He gave the young woman her request.

And why did he do that?

The passage explains his motivation by saying, “Unwilling to lose face with his guests, he did it – ordered John’s head cut off and presented to the girl on a platter [emphasis added].” In other words, Herod went along with the request because he wanted to fit in and give the majority of the people what they wanted.

That same storyline was played out just a couple of days ago here in California when Federal Judge Vaughn Walker was in a position much like Herod’s. He had presided over a trial exploring the constitutionality of Proposition 8. It would have been extremely easy for Judy Walker to listen to lots of voices clamoring around him – reminding him that the majority of voters had passed the proposition so therefore he should simply go along and give the majority of those who voted on November 3, 2008 what they wanted. Lots of other judges might have done that: they might have been unwilling to lose face and gone along with popular opinion to simply get along.

Thankfully, Judge Walker veered away from Herod’s example and had the wisdom to do what he felt was right instead of what was popular.
Few of us may find ourselves in the position of being either a regional ruler or a federal judge. While we may lack those impressive titles, each of us still has the ability to profoundly affect the lives of others through our own day-to-day actions.

In the midst of our daily interactions with others, we too face moments when we have to decide the sort of thing Herod and Judge Walker decided: will I do what’s popular, or will I do what’s right? That’s a choice each of us must decide for ourselves in that moment. My prayer for today is that each of us draw upon the strength of the Spirit so that we are willing to lose face and do what’s right rather than what’s popular.

Til next time …

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 13

One of my frustrating personality quirks is that I tend to move through life at a rapid pace and expect to see immediate results in those areas in which I invest energy. If you think I’m bad now, you should have seen me early in my ministry. Yikes!!

When I would counsel a person, for instance, there was a part of me that wanted to see the other person immediately integrate the things we had talked about. If they didn’t, I’d consider the session unproductive. And when I worked with a committee or group of leaders, I imagined the group would start using the concepts we had explored right away. I interpreted any delay in the process to mean that I had failed miserably in my capacity as spiritual leader.

Then something interested happened in my ministry that changed the way I perceived things.

I had been working with a person in the community I served for a few years and had invested a good deal of time and energy trying to help the person get to a better place in life. All of a sudden a misunderstanding occurred between the individual and some of the leadership in the church. The person disappeared from our community overnight.

I took the person’s disappearance very personally. I figured that I had somehow failed the individual. “I had failed to be as sensitive to the person’s needs as I could have been,” I told myself. Other times, I would tell myself I had failed to help the person develop a broad-based support network in the community that could have helped the person stay connected to the community during the person’s time of frustration. No matter how I spun the tale, I remained convinced that the person’s decision to leave our community was all about me. (That would be my gi-normous ego speaking there.)

Over a year passed, and guess what happened? The person re-appeared and re-established a connection with our community.

In the days that followed the person's re-appearance, I talked with the person about what had happened that caused the person’s sudden departure. It turned out the reason for the departure had little to do with our community. It was primarily about issues that lie within the individual. During the year that passed, the person had done some difficult work and felt comfortable returning to the community.

There were two learnings that I drew from that experience. First, I realized I HAD to get over my “It’s All About Me”-complex and remember that at any given moment in a person’s life – there are lots of factors that affect their decisions. That was a good start.

Second, I had to remember that sometimes people need a little time and space in order to work things through. Sometimes that time and space happens when folks stay together; sometimes that time and space happens when folks separate. All that matters is that folks find a way to work things through.

Jesus was a master at understanding the second lesson in particular. He was able to give people space in order to work things through at their own pace. Take today’s series of parables/teachings. When his disciples asked Jesus why he used such methods to teach, Jesus replied by saying: “Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories,” Jesus concluded. “ - to nudge the people toward receptive insight.”

Sometimes it feels as if I’m the only one who’s impatient in the world. Chances are, however, I’m not. Maybe you have been dealing with a situation where patience (or the lack thereof) has been an issue for you as well.

If that’s the case, I would encourage you to remember Jesus’ words in today’s passage and find a way to give the other person/other situation you are frustrated with a little time and. The time and space you give the other may be exactly what they need in order to receive that “receptive insight”.

Til next time …

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 12:22-50

Over the first 43 years of my life, I have heard lots and lots and lots of children’s sermons during worship. Some of these are more memorable than others.

One of my favorite children’s sermon that I’ve seen done several times involves someone taking a tube of toothpaste and squeezing it out into a separate container before the children. Once the tube is completely empty, the presenter will ask the children how they should go about putting the toothpaste back inside the tube.

Inevitably the kids giggle and say something like, “That’s silly. You can’t put the toothpaste that you’ve squeezed out of the tube back inside!” The presenter will then say, “You’re right. That’s not only true about toothpaste – that’s true about words as well. Once you speak the words inside your head, you can take those words back. So be careful about what you say!”

Jesus makes the same point in today’s reading from Matthew. “Let me tell you something,” Jesus began. “Every one of those careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.”

Those are powerful – and challenging – words for me to hear. That’s because as an extrovert I am prone to think aloud. I often am not as careful with my words as I could be. As a result, there have been times I have paid the price for not being as careful as I should.

Perhaps I’m not the only one with that problem. Maybe you have struggled with control over your own words. If that’s the case, today I would invite you to be more aware of your use of words. Ask yourself, “Are my words bringing a sense of salvation/wholeness to myself and others; or are they moving me (and others!) in the opposite direction?”

Til next time …

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 12:1-21

I was talking with a friend recently about the way things have unfolded in the state of Arizona following the passage of SB 1070. SB 1070 is the bill that has been labeled by some as the anti-immigration bill. My friend and I were specifically talking about the call that some have felt to travel to Arizona, publically protest the bill, and get arrested.

“I admire the conviction these folks have that motivates them to spend hundreds of dollars to travel to Arizona and put themselves in the position of getting arrested,” my friend began. “There is one thing that troubles me about this.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I’m not sure how their actions are helping resolve the issues involved in this important debate.”

We then spent some time talking about what my friend meant by that observation. My friend expressed her concern that the high profile public demonstrations might further polarize the issue and make it less likely that individuals from across the political spectrum would be willing to sit down and talk. She also asked an uncomfortable question: “How many of the folks who have traveled to participate in the protests go home and actually live in solidarity with undocumented folks in their own communities?”

My friend’s first point about the role one’s actions play in the bigger picture stayed with me as I read today’s passage from Matthew – for in that passage we hear Jesus quote the prophet Isaiah in talking about the ways in which Jesus was called to be.

“Look well at my handpicked servant; I love him so much, take such delight in him. I’ve placed my Spirit on him; he’ll decree justice to the nations,” the passage begins. “But he won’t yell,” Isaiah noted, “won’t raise his voice; there’ll be no commotion in the streets. He won’t walk over anyone’s feelings, won’t push you into a corner. Before you know it, his justice will triumph, the mere sound of his name will signal hope, even among far-off unbelievers.”

As persons who live in a world full of injustice at seemingly every turn, I would encourage you to carry with you Jesus’ powerful words. While some might misinterpret those words as a call to passively accept the status quo, they are so much more (as the lives of individuals like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. – individuals who embraced the spirit of that vision - reminded us). Those words are the recipe for transforming the world in a manner that recognizes both the sacred value of every person (even those with whom we disagree) and the integrity of relationship between all of God’s children.

Til next time …

Monday, August 2, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 11

It’s kind of an odd thing for a pastor to say on his blog, but I’m not a fan of walking into many of the Christian bookstores I see around these days.

And why is that?

It’s because of the image of Christianity that many of these bookstores project. Walk into many and you will see things that make our faith incredibly commercially appealing. You’ll see porcelain plates, a variety of keepsakes, and royal pictures of Jesus in every direction. If you listen closely, you’ll also hear muzak piped in that is pleasant (but mind-numbing). In other words, when you walk into many Christian bookstores, you’ll be bombarded with sensory experiences that suggest our faith is a sanity faith – one that perfectly embodies the middle/upper middle class values.

That’s not the sort of faith Jesus has called me to embrace. I tend to see Jesus as a rebel who pushed the envelope: one who would challenge shoppers to divert the money they might spend on porcelain keepsakes and use it instead to feed the poor! The disconnect between who I understand Jesus to be and the commercial presentation of Jesus in these bookstores make it difficult for me to spend much time in them.

Jesus’ words to John’s disciples today reminded me of my difficulty. When John’s disciples asked Jesus if he was the one they were expecting, Jesus replied by making it clear what he represented. “Go back and tell John what’s going on: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting?”

When was the last time you saw a porcelain plate in a Christian bookstore with images of “the wretched of the earth learn[ing] that God is on their side”? But I digress…

Today, I would ask what sort of things you expect from following this Jesus. Do you expect to follow a triumphant military figure that will lead you to victories over all your foes (real or imaged); or do you expect to follow the one who will take you to places where the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the wretched hang out?

Til next time …