A Well Played Life: Novice Player

photo (18)I will admit that I’ve had to learn to play. I was a serious child and teenager. As a college student folks would tell me that I had an “old soul.” I will give much of the credit for my transformation into a more playful self to my spouse Shannon, who helped me learn to relax, to laugh, and to be more spontaneous. I will give credit to my children who have allowed me to be silly and remind me when I am taking myself too seriously.

“We were created to have a sense of play imprinted on our souls . . . [b]ut somewhere along the path, our native sense of play and story gives way to an overlay of words and work.”
Leonard Sweet in The Well Played Life: Why pleasing God doesn’t have to be such hard work, 93.

Until I read Sweet’s book I did not think about the possibility that a sense of play has been “imprinted on our souls.” That somehow play and playfulness is part of God’s image and of the dynamics of God’s communal nature. This might explain the walks in the garden, pillars of cloud and fire, and the constant reminders of peace.

It is risky to play. We’ve been accustomed to production, to always being on the go. Playing puts at risk productivity which in turn puts at risk our sense of worth to the world and even to God. Yet it is play that opens up our imagination allowing us to see possibility and gives us the opportunity to try new things.

In trying new things through play we learn to deal with failure and disappointment. We learn to persevere! Like the toddler learning to walk or the teenager learning to drive it takes time and failure to accomplish great things.

The “novice player,” as Sweet calls ages 0-30, is ready to learn. This hunger gives us the opportunity to help young people learn to live a playful life and a prayerful life. We do this by modeling the joy of discipleship. Playfulness is contagious so as we tell the stories of faith in word, song, and gesture we pass on the meaning of a well played life to a new generation. Prayerfulness is taught by living a prayerful life with its rhythms of talking and listening, always with the goal of seeking God’s will.

Finally as people grow from learning to play to learning to pray they set the tone for seeing life as pilgrimage. Seeing life as pilgrimage recognizes that in the everyday of life there are markers that help us see and experience God. Pilgrimage requires letting go and being fully present at each step of the journey. Pilgrimage recognizes that no matter how many times we get lost our destination is secured in our home in God.

Play, prayer, and pilgrimage all help us see our lives as part of the tapestry called faith. In this tapestry we are able to be rooted in story and play not in words and work. A well played life indeed!

The Eyes that Have Cried

10371371_10152745197114050_343981751106196093_nI’ve been silent, maybe silent for too long. It is easier that way, at least it is easier for me, who is not close to the source of so much pain and aguish. As a religious leader I should know better, I should know that if I don’t speak then who will? If I do not lament and call God’s people to do the same then, who will?

Then I’ve thought of the times when I have felt in danger because of the color of my skin or my “funny” last name. The times when I’ve wondered if our “mixed children,” would find hospitality or would be rejected. The times when jokes were shared and glances exchanged that clearly indicated that I was not welcomed.

Now that I am often in a privileged position it is easier to stay quiet. I know that I should not, for me, for my kids, and for communities of color everywhere.

I watch in pain and a sense of hopelessness. I know that violence begets violence, but have I raised my voice as one who is convicted? No. Maybe because as I close in on a decade of pastoral ministry I am tired of seeing little change, in fact it seems that more than ever we are addicted to violence as a recourse.

I watch in pain and a sense of hopelessness. My stomach turns as we see another reminder of the deep seeded racism that plagues our society. In spite of all the so called advances people of color are still being targeted, labeled, profiled, and hunted.

I watch in pain and a sense of hopelessness. I read my Facebook feed and see news of a video with “proof.” Maybe I am not smart enough to figure out the connection. I thought that we were all innocent before proven guilty but when you are brown you should know better. Truth be told we are always guilty and we often do not have enough money to prove we are innocent. And if the latest struggles continues innocence or guilt will not matter because we are fighting for our lives!

I watch in pain and a sense of hopelessness. Quickly I recognize that a prayer comes to my lips:

“Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
from the bloodthirsty save me.” Psalm 59: 1-2 (NRSV)

I pray for deliverance from the forces of wickedness that seek destruction. I pray that the cycle of violence finds an end, that justice will push its way through the brick walls of hatred and apathy. I pray that all of us examine our hearts, repent, and become agents of resurrection.

At times like this I am thankful for the saints, especially Archbishop Romero. There I find much hope, comfort, and call to action. In one of his sermons he reminds us that “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

May God’s people become the eyes to our communities. Eyes of justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and a call for repentance. Eyes that give sight to our collective grief and to the realities of privilege. Eyes that cry alongside those that for generations have been victims of dehumanization. Eyes that cast a vision of the New Jerusalem, where Christ promises to

“wipe every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4 (NRSV)

Till then we must bear the pain and rehearse hope. Till then we’ll stand alongside and give sight. Till then we’ll call for justice and for peace! Maranatha!

This post first appeared on August 18, 2014 in Day1.org Key Voices Blog

Six Weeks In: A Commitment to Fruitfulness

Grapes_growing_in_ValpolicellaIn the last few weeks I have often been reminded of the many ways that a congregation can make a difference in people’s lives. Our experiences of worship are uplifting, there is a genuine desire to welcome all who come, and the leadership of the congregation seems hungry and ready for what God has for us next. Conversations outside the worship space speak to our missional initiatives, small group ministries, and our commitment to raising a new generation of people in “the way that leads to life.” These are only some of the ways that we speak of fruitfulness.

In the gospel according to John chapter 15 we encounter these words from Jesus:

15”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Jesus has just finished reminding the disciples to be agents of peace, that to love is the greatest commandment, and that they will have a comforter, the Holy Spirit to help them live into this way of life. Fruitfulness is only possible if we are the branches fed and nourished together by Christ-self.

Commitment to fruitfulness means that we are committed to discipleship. If our efforts at growth, kingdom transformation, and mutual care are not rooted in our desire for all people to experience God’s salvation then we are missing the mark. You can read more about a commitment to discipleship here but for our purposes I will say that fruitfulness is an outgrowth of a discipled people.

Commitment to fruitfulness also means that we are committed to numerical growth. This growth is not to be the end in itself but instead it comes from our desire to share the good news with others–because we have experienced grace we want others to experience it–and because we have shared the good news with others then “the Lord adds to our number those who are being saved.”

Commitment to fruitfulness means that we are committed to tending and nurturing the vine that is Christ and nurture others as they are grafted into it. This means that we are committed to a worship life that helps all who come to offer their sacrifice of praise in ways that help them grow deeper and stronger through the story we call faith. It also means that we are constantly initiating pathways for all who enter our campus to find a discipling community that models the way of Jesus through accountability, mutual care, and loving service in the world.

Fruitfulness takes intentionality, accountability, and alignment. We must focus all of our resources–people, money, facilities–towards our congregational mission. We must also be willing to constantly assess through discernment, asking the question “How is it with the soul of our congregation?”

I am thankful for these six weeks . . . I continue dreaming, hearing, and visioning. But most of all I continue praying for all of us, the people called Grace Community, that we are guided by the one who continues to grow the vine of God’s kingdom!

Six Weeks In: A Commitment to the Practice of Discernment

photo (17)There are many needs in our world. A quick glance at the local newspaper, evening news, or smart phone notifications serves as a reminder for all of us of the need that the world has for healing, wholeness, and restoration. Congregations have to figure out how they are being called to be agents of healing in light of all the brokenness. The question is, how do we decide what we are being called to be as God’s people?

It is easy to do what we have always done. In most cases this includes mostly internal programming that is member centered. Even when we engage missionally we tend to look at our initiatives from our perspective instead of from those that we are trying to reach. A sense of inertia begins to take away our missional energies and imagination.

The practice of discernment is a foundational practice that we must learn as a faith community. Discernment is about seeking God’s will for our life together. Practicing discernment helps us go beyond personal preference, a silo mentality, and member centered programs. In its place we as a people begin to hear God, knowing that God will show us the path and will provide for the resources needed to accomplish it. It is up to the leaders of the faith community, both lay and clergy, to lead into discernment. As Kenneth Carder and Laceye Warner remind us:

Integral to leadership is a coherent vision big and comprehensive enough to energize, inspire, and mobilize individuals and communities into something new.
from Grace to Lead: Practicing Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition, (27)

Practices of discernment are learned and fostered in discipling communities. It is in these communities of love, mutual care, and accountability that each person is provided with fertile ground for a life lived through discernment. Discipleship communities help our individualistic society recognize that making decisions through the lenses of faith is not a solitary affair but takes a community to test the spirits and make room for God’s voice to be clearly heard.

In her book Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, Ruth Haley Barton defines discernment as:

[Discernment] is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God–both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives.

This capacity for recognition and response is rooted in prayer, scripture meditation, and silence/listening.

Prayer is the basic posture of the Christian life. Prayer aligns us with God and God’s purposes and opens the door to the divine life. Prayer also unites us with our neighbors and the world by its insistence that, as the Lord’s Prayer tells us, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In order for discernment to be a fruitful practice we must foster a prayer-full life in our people and in our communal life.

In his sermon “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, tells us that “searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon)” is one of the “ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.” So it should not surprise us that searching and meditating upon scripture is one of the key ingredients to a practicing discernment. Through scripture we are able to remember our story, hear God’s voice, and align our will to God’s.

One of the most neglected yet most important practices in our life of faith is silence/listening. It is in silence that we are able to meditate on God’s word, receive the prayer of other believers and hear God’s voice. Silence is a learned practice, especially in our noisy world, that must be fostered not just in our individual lives of prayer but also in our life of worship and accountability. The silence allows us to discern by clearing the noise of our self-centerdness (the desires of the flesh: see Galatians 5:17) and  focusing our attention on the Spirit’s presence in us and at work in the world.

I believe that we as a people are being called to model and practice discernment for our communal life. No longer dependent on pastoral ideas, staff initiatives, and programs and instead begin together to hear God’s voice that is calling us to be agents of transformation, of God’s shalom (peace, wholeness, restoration, salvation), for our community and for those that God sends our way. In other words we are a sent people as well as a gathered people. It is in the rhythms of gathering that discernment takes place so that we are truly sent in God’s name and not in ours.

We must begin to test the spirits as we assess our current ministry, worship life, and calling. Where do we sense God calling us towards? What are the places where we sense energy, passion, and drive? What are the places where we sense anxiety, low morale, and paralysis? As Ruth Haley Barton reminds us “does our organizational culture transform or deform?” (79)

At it’s core a commitment to the practice of discernment is a commitment to a God centered way of communicating with God, with each other and with the world.

Anything less than clear, honest communication patterns places the community in great peril.”
from Pursuing God’s Will Together (101)

I look forward to the ways that God will speak to us as we commit to discerning our life together. What do you think?


Six Weeks In: A Commitment to Discipleship and Discipling

I hope that no matter where you go to church that you have heard about the word “disciple.” Early in Jesus ministry he chose twelve to come by his side and be helpers in his ministry. These became his disciples, his students, and his followers. As Jesus left this earth he commanded his disciples to “make” other disciples, to baptize, and teach them the way of Jesus.

Go out and make disciples in all the nations. Ceremonially wash them through baptism in the name of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 20 Then disciple them. Form them in the practices and postures that I have taught you, and show them how to follow the commands I have laid down for you. And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20 (The Voice Bible)

For two millennia the Church has been tasked with this important mission. We have been called not just to compel others through our witness to become disciples, but to form them and teach them the practices and postures of discipleship. It is out of the learning of practices and posture that disciples engage fruitfully in God’s Mission in the world.

If the fruit of the presence of the community of disciples — called the church — is God’s shalom then I am not sure that we have done our work well.

I am thankful that we as a congregation have recognized this reality. We recognize that although we have grown in number over the years that we need to be better in the ways that we connect people to discipleship opportunities and discipleship communities.

One of those initiatives is our Disciple’s Path course that we are piloting with our Lay Leaders and we’ll roll out across the congregation later this Fall. There Jim Harnish defines discipleship as:

A follower of Jesus whose life is centering on loving God and loving others.
Disciple’s Path Leader’s Guide, p. 20

So in light of this definition, what does it mean for Grace Community to be committed to discipleship and discipling?

I believe that it means that we are committed to discipleship as a posture, as action, and as behavior. It is simply not enough to intellectually ascent to certain beliefs or to do “good things.” Disciples model in their thoughts, actions, and speech a deepening love of God and neighbor. When we fail at living in a growingly loving way disciples acknowledge their sin, seek reconciliation, and submit to each other for accountability and continued growth.

Since accountability is a pivotal part of the journey of discipleship then discipleship formation cannot take place primarily within the worshipping community. Worship is an important aspect that is part of the formation and sustenance of disciples but it’s primary purpose is the offering of our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. In offering of ourselves we are in turn more deeply attuned to God and to neighbor thanks to the postures of the worshiping community: prayer, song, gesture, movement, word, and sacrament. It is these postures that provide the sustenance for our daily walk as disciples of Jesus.

The worshipping community becomes the conduit for discipling communities to emerge and thrive. The worshiping community’s (aka. congregation) role in discipling is to birth and sustain discipling communities. These are not just “small groups” as we have come to know in the last twenty years, where the primary function is fellowship and study. Instead we are being called to birth communities of accountability, discernment, mutual care, and mission. The hallmark and primary task is our growth in the love of God and neighbor through praxis in the works of piety and the works of mercy.

I continue to pray that we become such a birthing community. It is in that birthing of discipling communities that seekers find a place to grow into servants, that lives are restored, and grace encountered. It is in this commitment that the Lord will add to our number those who are being saved . . .