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Claiming YOUR Ministry

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 8-10

Most folks might be unaware of this, but tomorrow (October 31) is the day officially designated as Reformation Day. That means it's a day when we celebrate the contributions of those pioneering folks like Martin Luther who helped make the Reformation possible.

In progressive communities we also use the occasion to remind folks that the Reformation wasn't just a one-time event that we remember; rather, the Reformation is something that each generation is called to participate in for themselves as they continue to claim their faith in ways that are relevant today.

With all of this in mind, I've thought quite a bit this week about what it might mean to re-form our communities – both in historical and contemporary terms. There was one aspect of the historical Reformation that I think creates a wonderful bridge for us to use as we cross over into modern times and think about how those principles of reformation can guide us today. That principle is the priesthood of all believers.

You see when it came to the issue of religious/spiritual leadership, for centuries faith communities clung to examples like the one lifted up for us in today's reading from Leviticus. They thought of religious/spiritual leaders as ones who were clearly set apart from ordinary folks in a variety of ways – including the sort of intricate rituals spelled out in Leviticus 8. This sense of being set apart was originally created in order to establish a sense of order in the community and create a healthy degree of respect for those leaders.

Over time, however, something unfortunate happened as a result of this. People began to see ministry as something done "for them" by "others". It helped cultivate a culture of apathy (i.e. "I won't worry about that, I'll have the religious/spiritual leader take care of it for me"). It also contributed to the notion that there were places where religious duties were expected to be performed (i.e. at church) and places where religious duties were not to be performed (places like the "real world").

It's no wonder that by the 16th Century some folks were feeling a little restless about the spiritual direction of their faith communities. They longed for new ways of being that would recognize two things: (1) the active role that ALL people should take in the development of their faith, and (2) the expectation that the expression of our faith would spill over into ALL areas of our lives.

With that in mind, today I have a challenge for you in holding true to the principles of the "priesthood of all believers."

Today I want you to spend time thinking about what YOUR ministry is. You may not be an ordained, licensed, or commissioned minister – but there is no doubt in my mind that you are engaged in some expression of ministry.

Get creative in identify that form of ministry. It doesn't have to be a ministry tied into an institutional expression of "the church" (i.e. serving on a committee or holding a position). Rather, your ministry might be fully immersed in the real world (i.e. being the one at work that people come to with their problems, or the passion with which you parent).

Whatever place and whatever form your ministry takes, find the opportunity this Reformation Sunday to give thanks for the ways God has worked through YOU to touch and change the world!!!

Til next time …

Setting Things Right

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 4-7

When I went through my coming out process, I found the first two months represented the hardest time for me. I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed. Because of that, I was quick to lash out at others.

One of the individuals who received the brunt of my angst was my mother. She was very slow to come around in terms of extending her acceptance. No matter what I said – no matter what resources I made available – she resisted my every effort. Occasionally in the midst of our arguments my frustrations would boil over and I would say something that I didn't fully mean.

Over a period of time, I realized the accumulated effect of my behavior on her, and I wanted to do something to make it up to her.

I spent several days looking for the perfect object that would express my sorrow. One day I found it. In order to understand my purchase, you need to know that my mother loves Teddy Bears. They are a symbol of warmth and love to her. Besides that, she says, they're cute. That day I stumbled upon a stained glass circle. Inside the circle was a picture of a Teddy Bear. It had a cap on its head, and the bear was playing with a ball. I bought it immediately. The bear represented the warmth and love I wanted to reclaim in our relationship while the cap and ball represented my desire for things to return to normal.

My gift worked wonders. It helped show my mother that I put my relationship with her before my desire to be right. To show her appreciation, she hung that bear in the kitchen window – just above the sink – where she sees it every time she washes dishes. I also get to see it every time I visit their home as well. Each time I see that silly bear I smile for it reminds me of the importance of taking the time to say I'm sorry.

Today's passage from Leviticus contains lots of instructions for how people were supposed to express their sorrow for the ways they damaged their relationships – with God and with others. Of course none of those ways were as warm and fuzzy as a Teddy Bear. Nevertheless they were important because they stopped people in their tracks and invited them to think about ways they could repair broken relationships.

All of this makes me wonder about you. What things do you do in your life to express your regret or sorrow when you break relationship with God or another? Those rituals or symbols can be very important instruments that help you get back on track.

Til next time …

Making Sacrifices

What I'm Reading Today: Leviticus 1-3

As I embark on my reading of Leviticus, I realized today that I'm coming into some of the most culturally-bound material of the Scriptures that is perhaps least accessible to modern readers.

Why do I say that?

Well, you don't have to read much further than today's passage before you start tuning some of the material out. The portions of the passage that detail how priests are to slaughter animals and spread their blood around the altar, for instance, are especially offensive to our modern sensibilities and are extremely likely to cause us to tuned out the material.

So what – if anything - do passages such as today's have to offer us on our spiritual walks?

The answer to that question would vary somewhat depending upon one's theological approach. There are many traditionalists, for instance, who would suggest that all of this talk about sacrifice (and how those sacrifices atone for our sins) establishes a context for what Jesus did for us when he surrendered his life on our behalf. As someone who thinks outside the box, however, this is not the route I travel.

I tend to read the material and think of it as a challenge for us to make sacrifices of our own that say, "My relationship with/connection to God IS important – and I'm willing to devote a serious amount of time and resources to nurture that relationship!"

When I talk about making sacrifices, I don't use that phrase within the context of atonement theory (i.e. "we're giving these things to God in order to make up for our shortcomings"). No, when I talk about making sacrifices, I mean that we are going out of our way to make choices that suggest our relationship with God is so important to our lives that it impacts (dare I say, even detracts from!) other aspects of our lives.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Five years ago – when I needed a new car – I had a lot of options about what I could buy. I made a conscious decision that the car payment I took on would be smaller than the amount I pledge to my church. This decision helped ground me in what is more important in my life. The result of this is I had to do some extra shopping around to find something that fit this parameter. It also meant that I passed up some of the bells and whistles that I could have included in my purchase. I have never regretted that decision, however, as it has helped keep me spiritually grounded.

It's easy for us these days to think to ourselves, "God is loving and grace-filled – so I'll start by devoting my time and resources to things that I want/enjoy and devote to God whatever happens to be left over. God will understand." That can happen in the way we spend our time. That can happen in the way we spend our money. Today's reading invites me to challenge that laissez-faire attitude and perhaps push myself to express my gratitude by putting God first.

Today, I would invite you to think a bit about those sacrifices you make that express the depths of your gratitude and your desire to help meet the needs of God's creation. Do you find yourself devoting to God things that accurately express the depths of those feelings, or do you simply return to God what happens to be left over after you've tended to the other areas of your life?

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 38-40

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting for representatives from local churches in the Northern Association of the Southern California-Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ that was held in Atascadero (boy, what a mouthful!). One of the topics we spent considerable time on was discussing a shift in the way the United Church of Christ is thinking about the way it goes about authorizing people for ministry.

For the past several years, individuals who participated in the process were called Students In Care. The name implied we assumed those on the path toward authorized ministry were students in seminary who were preparing to serve local churches at the end of their process of authorization. Now, the denomination has acknowledged that not all individuals who want to be authorized are seeking placement in a local church. In addition, we are also acknowledging that not everyone who feels a call has attended/or will attend seminary. Thus we are exploring ways of acknowledging other ways people prepare themselves for the practice of ministry. Each of those changes is important.

There is one more layer of the discussion that I found even more intriguing.

In the old model, it was assumed that everyone who began the process of authorization for ministry was expected to see it through. Now, the denomination is stressing that the process should be a time for deep spiritual discernment. Therefore those who begin the process should be open to the possibility that at the end of their time the individuals may decide they do not want to be authorized for ministry. Therefore, they have renamed what we refer individuals involved in the process. Rather than call them "Students In Care" they will be called "Members in Discernment".

We were even told that this emphasis on discernment is something that shouldn't be stressed just for those individuals interested in the possibility of being authorized for ministry: that emphasis should extend to everyone in our local churches since – as Protestants who believe in the old Reformation adage of "a priesthood of all believer" – everyone in our local church has some sort of call. Our job is to help them discern it.

That might sound good in theory, but the question remains: what is discernment?

I usually describe discernment as the process whereby we discover our call (or God's leading in our life).

So how does one go about discerning one's call?

There are a variety of ways to do that. None of them are easy by today's standards. In fact, I wish I could have an experience like the Israelites in today's reading where - when God wanted them to travel, a cloud would lift from over their Dwelling; and when God wanted them to sit still, the cloud would remain over The Dwelling. If only it were that easy to discern things in our lives!

My question for you today is this: what process(es) do you use to discern God's leading in your life? For those of you at Woodland Hills Community Church, look for opportunities to explore the issue of discernment together in coming weeks/months.

Til next time …

Spiritual Gifts

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 35-37

Over the last several years I've learned that lots of folks make one particular assumption about the price of living together in community. "If you want to participate in the life of a community," they say, " then you are going to have to end up doing all sorts of things that the group needs but that you hate doing!"

I am unusual because I totally reject that line of thinking. In fact, it is that very assumption that has done more to undermine the life of our local churches than anything else. I make the radical assumption that communities thrive when people are asked to contribute the things they LOVE to do!

Each time I bring that way of being into a community, I find there are lots of folks who are initially suspicious of that approach. "It sounds good in theory," some say, "but it's not practical. After all, if we organize ourselves around people doing what they are passionate about – who on earth would ever take out the garbage, crunch numbers to create a budget, or care for the screaming babies?!"

I never argue when I hear that response – I just try to let a little time pass and allow people to grow into my way of being. I do that because I trust that eventually a shift will start to take place in the community. Slowly people will realize, for instance, that there are people with the spiritual gift for servanthood who love caring for the community through acts of service – acts like taking out the garbage and vacuuming. There are folks with the gift of administration who love transforming numbers on the page of a budget into a vision for the community's future. There are folks who have the spiritual gift of helping who love to comfort a screaming baby until it calms down.

The problem is that those of us who live in community aren't patient enough to let the process work organically. We get in a hurry and plug people into open slots without a second thought about whether their gifts match the community's need. Consequently we end up putting people into positions they don't enjoy and then later wonder why they suddenly stopped participating in the life of the community.

Given my assumption that spiritual community should be a place where people explore and develop their passions, it's no wonder I was fond of today's passage – for in that passage we hear a little bit about Bezalel and his role in the community. "Moses told the Israelites, 'See, God has selected Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. [God] has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skills, ability, and know-how for making all sorts of things…" In other words, the community was called to honor Bezalel's gifts and put him in a position where he could use those gifts to build things for the community. What a concept!

Perhaps over a period of time, you have allowed those communities that you participate in to plug you into a slot based upon the group's need and not your own spiritual gifts. As a result, you might be feeling a little bit disconnected. If that's the case, spend some time today contemplating your gifts – those areas in life where you come alive with joy and passion. Once you find such areas, consider pursuing opportunities to put those gifts into action!

Til next time …

Being Lead

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 32-34

From the time I was in middle school, I have been a leader of some sort. In 5th grade, I was elected to my first public office: secretary of my class. Ever since then I've held a leadership position of some sort.

When I first started leading groups, I had a very narrow definition of what a good leader was. I thought a good leader was someone who laid out his or her agenda for the people, got the people on board, and then enacted that agenda. All of the emphasis was placed upon me to be clever and take folks where I thought they should be lead. In other words, leading was all about ME.

That model of leadership worked for a while. By the time I reached my early thirties, however, I realized that such a model of leadership would no longer work for me. As my faith grew and my life experiences accumulated, I realized that while I often thought I knew what was best for myself and the group – the reality was that I didn't. There had been so many times in my life when I was more concerned about stubbornly holding on to MY agenda than I was about meeting the needs of others.

My control issues were so great that I mistakenly assumed "letting go" – or being flexible– meant that I was abdicating my responsibility as a leader. So I held on tighter to my agenda.

It wasn't until I entered parish ministry in my mid-thirties that I began to realize that there was only one way I felt called to lead. That way was predicated on being flexible and allowing myself – and the community's I serve – the ability to follow God's leading and not just my own.

On my good days those things are relatively compatible. On other days, however, my leading is more reflective of my ego and agenda than it is God's. The goal that I have established for myself, however, is to continue to grow in my ability to get out of the way as much as possible and let God lead in and through me.

Because of my lifetime struggle to understand what it means to lead, I can relate to Moses' frustration with the challenges of God leading. In today's reading, for instance, Moses cried out: "Look, you tell me, 'Lead this people,' but you don't let me know whom you're going to send with me. You tell me, 'I know you well and you are special to me.' If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans!"

So many times in my life and ministry over these past eleven years, I found myself crying out the same thing. "Let me know what's going on!" In retrospect, I am often God didn't. For the places where God has led me and the community's I served have been beautiful places that I would have probably never chosen to go on my own – since the journey initially would have looked too scary and too difficult.

So how about you? How do you do with this notion of responding to God's call even though you have no idea exactly where that call will take you?

Til next time …