bittersweet sunday

Today I announced to my church of the past 4 years that I will leaving in 8 weeks.  In the split second of an unexpected announcement, one cannot filter their initial emotions.  Likewise, it is extremely difficult to deliver news that can potentially cause sadness and pain.  It was hard to see the kids faces as their expressions of confusion and sadness focused on my every word.  It was equally as hard to see the joy on the face of one who is the “spiritual leader” of this church.  Sometimes a stone face might be the best pastoral decision.  It will be hard to leave behind the relationships that have grown so deep over the past 4 years, but I feel that I am following God’s lead in this decision.  I have never been more excited about a new beginning than I am in preparation for this move.

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remaining silent

I’d never understood what it felt like to be in the minority.  When I heard stories of the Civil Rights Movement, I couldn’t understand why it was so hard for people to speak up for their convictions.  How hard could it be to take a stand and give others permission to follow your lead?

It’s extremely hard I’ve found.  Going against the majority is threatening.  When a church is intolerant of diverse opinions, you dare not share a different perspective without the expectation of being ostracised.  No, you won’t be publicly humiliated, just drug through the mud when you’re not around.  So you can decide: honestly offer your understanding as one more dimension to be considered and risk being cut off from the fellowship, or simply remain silent (and blog!).

I trust that there are churches out there that would be appalled at this behavior.  Churches that don’t operate in a social structure learned in middle school where the “in” crowd can speak freely and everyone else must learn to agree or keep quiet.  I imagine Jesus would encourage open discussion, laying all interpretations on the table to be sifted through and reconstructed.  I imagine Jesus would remind us that his death and resurrection was for all who believe, majority and minority alike.

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constant discernment

We usually talk about discernment as the activity that precedes a journey.  We discern which direction God wants us to go, then we take off in that direction fully focused on what God has called us to do.  There is something good in the determination we show, but there is more to discernment than this.  Anyone who has been on a roadtrip can attest that it is much better to consult the map several times along your journey than to study the route only once before loading up the car.

The best way to affirm that you truly discerned God’s will, is to practice constant discernment.  Just like a roadmap, if you are on the right track then your journey will be confirmed.  If you are not on the right track, you will have to re-orient yourself.

What I percieve as my calling to youth ministry was an emotional experience when I was 20 years old.  I stood around Lake Susan at Montreat Youth Conference, participating in the candlelight service.  Over the PA system a voice said, “All rising freshmen, extinguish your candles.”  Many of the lights disappeared in the darkness.  Then the rising sophomores, juniors, seniors and adults were instructed to do the same.  Finally only the recently graduated seniors’ candles were lit.  As I sat on a hill overlooking this exercise, I heard a voice say to me, “Their lights are going out.  Who will help keep them lit?”

I thought to myself, “I will!  I’ll help them keep their lights shining!”  I percieved this as a calling to Youth Ministry and I have done little to look back ever since.  Today I’m reminded to practice constant discernment.  Am I still following the map I’ve been given, or have I set my own direction and hoped God would bless me along the way?

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the dirty business of the church

I have been interviewing for a new position at another church for six months now.  It was a large church very far away from my home, but I made it through several phases of the interview process and had grown extremely interested in the position.  After the final phase: the weekend visit, I have received a phone call that the search committee would like to end the process with me now.  Honestly it was a demoralizing and painful phonecall to take.

As with anyone who receives this type of phonecall, my first questions were, “What was it about me that you didn’t like?  Is there anything I can work on for my next potential interview?”  The initial response was that I just didn’t seem to fit the church, which could mean millions of things!  As I pressed for more specific examples of areas I can improve, the search committee chair said, “We believe in our process and we took into consideration all the feedback everyone gave us from your weekend visit.  We felt like you connected extremely well with our youth and we know that you are a very gifted youth worker.  But we felt that it took you a while to connect and engage the adults.”

The next statement nearly drove me to hang the phone up on the spot.  She said, “This position is of a director in every sense of the word.  Much like a band director guides the different sections of the band, this position will direct many different aspects of the ministry.”

Those were my words.  That was my analogy.  In my short meeting with the Interim Youth Director, as he stumbled and stuttered through a shaky explanation of what it is like to lead the youth ministry at this church, I interjected my philosophy of what youth ministry should be, to his deep sigh of relief.  He obviously liked the idea, so he used it to stab me in the back.

I didn’t defend myself and claim my analogy.  As I listened to the explanation of the committees’ final decision, it was becoming clear to me that it was the Interim’s opinion of me that reigned supreme.  It became clear that they did not feel that I am suited to carry out my own philosophy.

I trust in God’s plan.  We had prayed that if this was not where we were meant to be, that it would be perfectly clear to us.  Up until that phonecall, it was looking fairly clear that we would be moving.  The sting of the door being slammed in our face is fading and we are moving on, thankful that it was made clear that this wasn’t the church for us.

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separating yourself

I often wonder if anyone in Hitler’s Nazi Army ever stepped back and reassessed the situation if WWII might have been different.  I wonder if members of the KKK or street gangs ever put some distance between themselves and their organization, if they might see how warped life has become.  But then I wonder if church people don’t also need to separate themselves from time to time and look at life with fresh eyes.

It is no secret that churches are not immune to the selfishness, pride and arrogance that infiltrate all of humanity; the church is, afterall, made up of people.  But when selfishness, pride and arrogance find a way to wrap themselves in the disguise of “doing God’s will,” the church is no better off than any of the other warped organizations mentioned earlier.

The church is a collection of sinners, but we have the uncanny ability to forget that fact.  We have an unnatural ability to lift ourselves up as God’s people and point the finger at all “those sinners” out there in the world.  We love being around people like us.  Even more, we like to be around people like us that justify our sinfulness.

Sometimes we need to step back, “be still and realize that God is God.”  When we find ourselves truly in God’s presence, our sinfulness is to much for even us to bear.  When we are alone before God, the secret agendas with which we’ve been malipulating others suddenly become void.

Step back.  Rest in God’s presence.  Contemplate the words of the prayer you’ve prayed before:  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

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what’s our motivation?

Our Christian faith teaches us to humble ourselves and put others needs first.  We are taught to strive to love unconditionally in the same way God loves us.  We are taught to do without excess.  And yet it seems that the driving motivation behind many Christian’s lifestyle is the promise that one day they will reach an eternity of riches, lavish living and “everything you could ever imagine.” 

It makes me wonder how popular Christianity would be if we learned that our eternity will be more like resting in God’s presence in a raggedy old cave somewhere.  Isn’t there a hint of selfishness in dreaming of the day that we can shed these Christian values and pamper ourselves in our reward?

It’s like this: when we fast, Jesus teaches us to not draw attention to ourselves and cry out as if we are going through such torture.  If we do that, we lose the point of fasting in the first place.  And when the fast is over, we don’t park ourselves at the all-you-can-eat buffet and eat ourselves sick.  The fast means nothing if no discipline is gained.  So could it be that this life on earth is a “fast” to teach us the discipline we need in the eternal life where God’s presence is enough and materialism is offensive?

What’s our motivation?  Am I to try to be more Christ-like so I can gain more “stuff” in heaven?  Is my service to the poor just an eternal manipulation to raise my own status in heaven?  God, whether heaven is my eternal resting place or not, help me to reflect you well in my time here on earth.

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yes, but why?

Young children all go through a stage of wonder in their life.  Nothing is acceptable at face value.  They want to know “why?”  Why do I have to eat these things on my plate before I have cookies that taste much better?  Why do I need to get a bath tonight when I just had one yesterday?  Why does a bird fly away when I come close to it?  Why? 

At some point in life we allow ourselves to kick in to autopilot and we forget to ask ‘why.’  I’m observing an interesting thing happening in our culture that might simply be solved by asking ‘why’ more often.  No one percieves it as a problem because the product is not ugly, mean or disruptive.  Actually, the product is making the world a better place.  Who would want to put an end to that?!

The problem is that we’ve placed so much emphasis on the fruit, we’ve inadvertantly neglected the root.  Our churches are doing great things: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, warming the cold, preserving the planet and other very worthwhile efforts.  Our fruit is as good as its ever been.  But more and more people are beginning to see that the church is not the only “do-good” organization in the world.  We need to refocus on why we are producing this fruit.  Why are we serving the less fortunate?  Why are we visiting the sick?  Why?

If we don’t tend to our root, the tree will soon topple over.  Jesus Christ calls us to love one another in the same way that God first loved us.  Is our service pointing others to the God that loves them or simply making us feel better for doing good things?

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