Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Pattern of Discipleship: Part 3

In response to my last post, my friend and colleague Shawn commented:

What I'd like for you to say more about is resisting “oversimplification in favor of true simplicity”. Are you pushing against step-by-step approaches to discipleship in general (if so, how does Live-Grow-Share address this concern) or is their something bigger here you hope to move away from? Perhaps to be more clear, what do you mean by true simplicity?
I would say fundamentally, oversimplification ignores complexity whereas true simplicity addresses it.

Oversimplification will not acknowledge that subtlety or nuance exist, let alone value them. True simplicity takes on subtlety, nuance, and complexity, reorders it, and emerges with a-whole-nother perspective on things.

I’ve been intrigued by this idea ever since I read “Church Unique” by Will Mancini. A few weeks ago I wrote this:
In the past few years, there has been a push for clarity, simplicity, and focus. I dig that! But in the rush for simplicity, sometimes we go too far and become simplistic. Have you noticed that many congregational "Vision Statements" are essentially re-arranged versions of someone else's? Will Mancini says that churches get bogged down in complexity and never move through it into the happiness of true simplicity because "the tunnel of chaos is too unbearable." So maybe the "simiplistic church" (constrasted with the truly "simple church") fails not because we go too far, but because we don't go far enough. Rather than shy away from complexity, perhaps we should push through it and discover where we end up on the other side.
In terms of Christian discipleship, a strictly linear approach does not come to grips with the complexity of real life. Sometimes I feel like I’m “back at square one” with God. You know how, for example when something bad happens or you are highly stressed out about something, God can feel really far away sometimes? Or you really screw something up and have to come crawling on your knees to God to beg for forgiveness?

If I’m thinking linearly, that could be perceived as a failure. It translates as God being somehow “further away” from me. However, if I’m thinking cyclically or seasonally or MC Escher-ly, then I know that the feeling of being “back at square one” with God is not the same “square one” as last time. Something has happened in the interim. I am different now than I was then. It is not a failure, it is a new opportunity, and God is as near to me as ever.

So, I think I’m answering Shawn by saying “yes” to both – I’m pushing against step-by-step discipleship and also trying to get at something bigger. I believe there is value in acknowledging, engaging, and moving through life’s messiness so that we might emerge on the other side of it with newfound clarity. True simplicity wouldn’t pretend that life isn’t complex; true simplicity re-prioritizes that complexity and “so orders our lives” that we are able to flourish in the midst of it.

Let’s make it real. One week I am in worship, loving God and loving neighbor, feeling groovy and all that. Having thus renewed the covenant, I head out into the week to grow in my love and knowledge of God and share that love by serving my neighbor. Then I experience a heartbreak, something deeply personal that makes me want to withdraw from the world and just wallow for a while. The next Sunday I come to worship, but I feel disconnected and angry, and I don’t really want to be there at all.

Now, if I’m thinking of my Christian journey as a straight line from point A to point B, how do I process this week? A detour? Sliding backwards? Things are supposed to just get better and better, as I get closer and closer to the bull’s eye, so what went wrong?

But if I could think of my Christian journey as a set of stairways, each one leading to the next, going ever onward and imprinting a life-pattern on my heart, I would be able to take the messiness of this week and incorporate it into my walk. Maybe I could even manage to think of the heartbreak of this hypothetical week as one of the steps on the journey, and now that I’m back to worship God, I have taken that step and discovered that God is right there through it all. I’m in a different place, but never far from the presence of God.

Okay – I kind of just wrote out those last few paragraphs as a stream of consciousness exercise to see how it felt. So, does it make sense to anyone? (I’m not even sure yet it makes sense to me, so if you are inclined to comment, feel free.)

Or, I might say it like this, "The fruitful, God-related life develops with intentional and repeated attention to five essential practices that are critical for our growth in Christ." - Bishop Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Living, p. 8

I would emphasize "intentional" and "repeated."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Pattern of Discipleship: Continued

Foreword, of sorts:

For this rambling, I will use two terms that are in need of a bit of definition, for clarity's sake. The first is "Bordenian," in honor of author Paul Borden. A Bordenian approach to discipleship assumes there is a bull's eye, we are supposed to do nothing except hit it, and eschew everything else that detracts from doing so. I neither love nor hate Bordenian discipleship, it is what it is. But the reality is, a Bordenian approach is very, very popular right now, and so the question is not "Do you like it" but rather "What are you going to do with it."

The second term is "organic," which is terribly cliche, but I couldn't think of another word. I will use it to describe an approach to discipleship that emerges from within the community, and includes as much as possible the messiness, subtlety, and nuance of real life. This kind of discipleship sees inherent value in each moment without needing it to lead to anything, resists oversimplification in favor of true simplicity (which may be too subtle of a distinction, perhaps), and tends to value identity over activity.

OK? Those two terms may not be crystal clear at this point, but I'm moving on, so if you are still with me, here we go:

I hope to use Bordenian energy to orbit with an organic discipleship pattern.

See, I don't really think in terms of aiming at a bull's eye when it comes to discipleship. I think in terms of being conformed to the image of God. I think in terms of clothing ourselves in Christ. I think in terms of desiring to be perfect, by the grace of God, as the heavenly Father is perfect. These are the scriptural images that inform my perspective on discipleship.

Translated, in means being imprinted with a Divine pattern. Poetically, it means we clay vessels are shaped by the hands of the Potter. Pragmatically, it means living an intentional life-pattern that allows ourselves to be shaped by God. That's why there are holy orders - that's why there are divine offices - that's why there are monastic rules - to engage a pattern of living that might open up a way into the pattern of the Divine. The pattern itself is not the point; like an icon the pattern serves to orient us toward God.

And so I would like for the discipleship plan we are creating to articulate the pattern clearly, in Bordenian terms even, but avoid the linear thinking that narrows the possibilities to "first A, then B, then C.." etc.

Said another way, I would like for the path itself to BE the bull's eye. The journey IS the destination. The discipleship plan itself is a life-pattern, and engaging the pattern is what facilitates the imprint of the Divine pattern on each of us, and on the community.

"How do you measure growth?" I hear someone ask. "If there's no bull's eye, how will you know when you hit the target?" or "If there's no destination, how will you know if you are making progress on the journey?"

I answer, Spiritual growth is imprinting the pattern more and more deeply. Rather than a linear path toward a destination in which one leaves behind one moment in order to get to the next, this pattern utilizes the naturally occuring cycles of life - days, weeks, seasons, years, lifetimes - to grow organically. Every morning we wake up, but it is not the same day as yesterday. Every Sunday we worship together, but it is not the same week as it was lat week. Every summer we feel the heat of the sun, but we are different than we were the year before. Every year there is an Advent, but our anticipation each year is shaped by what has happened to us the year before.

Here are some things I know:

There are people who come to church exhausted, dragging themselves out of bed to attend worship, carrying the heavy burdens of their lives with them and hoping to unload them.

There are people who are quite comfortable in life, successful even, who come to worship when it doesn't interfere with their overflowing schedules.

There are people who come to worship only when they have some specific job to do (usher, greet, sing, etc.), but rarely otherwise.

There are people who come to worship because it's just what you do every week.

There are people who come to worship because it is the primary gathering of the community of faith, intended to renew our relationships with God and one another, and designed to facilitate a genuine encounter with the Divine.

There are people who participate in some kind of ministry (service, mission, community), but do not see any need to attend worship of any kind.

There are some people who neither worship nor serve, but exist on their own, without any church involvement whatsoever.

And so forth ...

I hope that the LIVE - GROW - SHARE pattern, or whatever it eventually ends up being, might be helpful for any and all of these people, as we all seek God and try to live the best lives we can. As we all try, as my mom used to pray at my bedside every night when I was a kid, to "be the kind of people God wants us to be."

(If you have put up with this rambling so far, I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions. Thanks!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Pattern of Discipleship

Here is a synopsis of the spiritual growth plan that I was inspired to create at Annual Conference this year. I owe a great deal to Rev. David Conley who led a workshop I attended, Rev. Melissa Dodd who is a fantastic collaboration partner, and Kory Wilcox who is rarely ever inside the box.

Please take a look and let me know what you think, does it make sense, will it flow, could it work in a local congregation to help people grow in faith, etc.? Thanks!

A Pattern of Discipleship – A Metaphor for Spiritual Growth

There are 3 Stairways:

*Live – (Worship)
*Grow – (Faith Development, Fellowship)
*Share – (Mission & Service, Hospitality, Generosity)

- Walking up one of the stairways always leads you to the next, like an MC Escher painting.

Living unleashes growth; growing inspires sharing; sharing enables living.

Stairway #1:
*LIVE – People are created in the image of God, so in a sense we are created to worship. Worship of God is the heartbeat of the church.

And spiritual growth doesn’t stop with worship, it begins there. We worship, which then unleashes us to grow, so we turn the corner onto the next stairway:

Stairway #2:
*GROW – The possibilities expand, to Faith Development (growth on a personal level) and Fellowship (growth in relationships). Faith Development and Fellowship are like the head of the body.

Spiritual growth doesn’t stop there; discipleship is a community event. When we experience growth, it inspires us to share, which is the next ascending stairway:

Stairway #3:
SHARE – The possibilities expand even more, encompassing Generosity (sharing our resources with others), Mission & Service (sharing our time and energy for the sake of those in need), and Hospitality (inviting and welcoming all people). This aspect of spiritual growth comprises the hands and feet of the body.

Sharing leads us naturally back to living, as the pattern of discipleship comes full circle. We find ourselves at the foot of the next stairway, which is the first stairway, and we worship.

*But it is not the same, this time*
This time around, our worship is shaped by the growing and sharing that have preceded it.

And so the pattern of discipleship is a fractal; each smaller piece is the same shape as the whole.

Discipleship is much more than just repeating the same activities over and over again. Spiritual growth means moving up the fractal pattern of the 3 stairways, expanding ever outward as we grow closer to God.

OK - what do you think? Comments are most welcome...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Annual Conference Wrap-Up 2010

With Vacation Bible School and other events happening at church this week (read all about it right here), I haven’t had much of a chance to reflect on Annual Conference this year. This was my 10th Annual Conference (not counting a handful I went to as a kid), and it was very good. Maybe top two or three.

And what made it so good? NOT format. Content. And let me say it again – Content! There was nothing new or innovative about the format – big meeting rooms, worship, plenary teaching sessions, workshops, lots of paper with lots of names and numbers in lots of notebooks. But the content was great, focused on growing deeper in our relationship with God.

Actually, there was one innovative session the format of which was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before. Friday night, we met around Tables of Grace and Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher led us in holy conversations as we shared our meal together. It was very cool. I was one of three people providing some musical accompaniment for the event, but I got to share in some of the conversations.

Coordinating all of the conference content on spiritual growth, deepening our relationships with God, set a tone for the weekend that was grace-filled and … dare I say it … holy! There was none of the divisive rancor that can from time to time characterize our meetings. Now, the flipside of that, of course, may be that there are some significant issues that we have been avoiding talking about for a while. But on the other hand, I believe that sessions like this one will make conversations about potentially divisive issues better in the future.

This year, I knew almost all of the ordination class, and many who were being commissioned. And at the same time I knew many of the retiring pastors, including my dad. It was a strange “sandwich generation” kind of feeling, watching people I know and love retire and watching people I know and love be ordained or commissioned. And thinking about how every one of them is starting a new chapter of ministry.

This year we heard a lot about the Healthy Church Initiative. HCI has generated a lot of gravitational energy in Missouri, and other conferences have noticed and are starting to request the program for their own congregations. Now, I have heard some colleagues who have been a bit skeptical of HCI, especially when words like “effectiveness” get tossed around rather flippantly, without sufficient definition. But ever since I read the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, I have no trouble at all with being a part of a complicated, highly structured organization like the UMC. The key learning of that book for me was how to use the energy of the organization to orbit around it, neither getting sucked into the gravitational pull nor drifting aimlessly in the vacuum of space. That has been my approach to participating in the HCI as a Pastoral Leadership Development I teacher, and it has led to some wonderful moments of insight and spiritual growth. I will always be grateful to the person who introduced me to that book, and I commend it to anyone who works in a large organization, company, or denomination.

Melissa, Donna, Kory, and I came home from Conference this year renewed, and with some inspiration and insight about spiritual growth in the church. I have a whole spiritual growth process in my mind that is based on an MC Escher painting! We were inspired by Mike Slaughter to focus relentlessly on the mission of Jesus Christ. My friend Rob Barringer encouraged us to percolate through Christ so that we take on his aroma (great metaphor, Rob!).

In short, there is motion in the Missouri Conference, in a positive direction. I like it! Bish Schnay-Z has led and continues to lead in a way that inspires and energizes me for ministry. It truly feels like the false distinctions among evangelism, social justice, personal spiritual formation, and sacred community are dissolving. I am hopeful, and pray that God will reveal the best way to bring it to life in the phenomenal congregation I serve.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

One of Those Weeks - VBS!

I love Vacation Bible School! What a great week. I don't remember ever having VBS on the week immediately following Annual Conference weekend, however. It's pretty exhausting, and it's only Wednesday!

And when you add in a few other things - stepping into the middle of a parental confrontation in Fellowship Hall, leading a funeral service complete with military honors at graveside, an afternoon filled with bringing holy communion to people unable to leave their homes - and this can truly be called "one of those weeks!"

And it is one of those weeks where, at the end of the day as I sit in my home with my family all around me, the tired that I feel is one of those good kind of tireds where you know that you're doing good stuff. You know what I mean? Sure I'm tired, but it's because I've been doing ministry, and that tends to wear a person out.

And at the same time, I am grateful, so unexpressably grateful, for the people with whom I am serving. Campbell UMC is such a phenomenal congregation, and the people that I have witnessed in action this week are truly my heroes. Here's a few of them:

- Melissa, Scotty, and Wendy are amazing in the Bible story room. We are definitely having a blast together!

- Kristi and Jill and their crew of people serving at VBS are fantastic. I have seen so many grown-ups talking and laughing and playing with the kids this week, and it makes me smile.

- We have more youth helpers at VBS than we know what to do with, and they are all great.

- I told a church member who is a police officer about the confrontation at church and he immediately gave me his personal cell phone number and told me to call him any time. Many others have taken extra care during "pick up" and "drop off" times to keep an eye on the kids.

- At the funeral, 50 or more members of the 101 Sunday School class were there to sing a tribute for their friend, and Bobby gave a moving eulogy.

- Donna, who coordinates the home communion visits and goes with me to assist, is so gracious and gentle with all of the people we visit, I am inspired by her every time we go.

And the list could just go on and on and on...

Ministry is hard, but at the same time a deep joy. And when you have the privilege of being in ministry with so many incredible people, ... well there's just nothing much better than that in the whole world, is there?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Making Idea-Machines Inside Your Head

"Thousands of competing contradictory impossible visions that make no sense at all because they can't all fit together but they do fit together, he makes them fit together, this way today, that way tomorrow, as they're needed. As if he can make a new idea-machine inside his head for every new problem he faces. As if he conceives of a new universe to live in, every hour a new one, often hopelessly wrong and he ends up making mistakes and bad judgements, but sometimes so perfectly right that it opens things up like a miracle and I look through his eyes and see the world his new way and it changes everything." - Orson Scott Card, "Xenocide"

The quote above is from the sci-fi novel I'm currently reading (again), and is spoken by an alien who is able to communicate telepathically with the main character, Ender Wiggin. The alien is remarking to another alien about what she has discovered in Ender's mind. And she is amazed by what she has found there.

I was floored by these sentences when I read them last night, and I read them over four or five times. I am caught up by the idea of conceiving new universes to live in every hour, of building an entirely new "idea-machine" to respond to every different situation. At a time when there are literally thousands of different ideas being submitted to BP as ways to stop the disastrous oil leak (which now has its own Wikipedia entry, btw) in the Gulf of Mexico, and nothing so far actually working, it may be a strange time to celebrate the amazing, unlimited potential of human creativity. Or maybe the current "case study" clarifies, sharpens things.

Here's an article that says the human mind has brainstormed all of these ideas - more than 30,000 have been submitted - and BP has kind of "triaged" them so that a couple hundred have made it to a team of engineers to see if they might work, and the few ideas BP has tried (each of which was an idea from their own organization, none from those submitted, btw) have been to no avail.

What's happening here? Truly, is the human mind capable of imagining a way to extract oil from 5,000 feet deep in the ocean but incapable of imagining a way to stop it from leaking? This is like figuring out how to put a astronauts on the moon but not knowing how to get them back to earth!

But back to my larger point: given the right atmosphere, human beings are capable of almost unbounded ingenuity. When given permission, people can become so much more than we think we're capable of. And when that ingenuity is unleashed in a community of people on a mission, like the church for example, what happens borders on miraculous! (You knew I'd bring this back to the church, right?)

The trick for the church is to define the mission in a way that allows for the ingenuity to happen in a creative rather than a destructive way.

For me, the time has come to stop making jokes whose punch line is "But we've always done it that way" and start just doing things differently. I cannot imagine that God created us with such wonderful minds, only to have us minimize everything down to it's basest level. I celebrate innovation! I celebrate nuance! I celebrate obfuscation, if necessary! Just be different, for the inherent value of difference.

I've thrown down the challenge to the staff here at Campbell - think differently, do something new in ministry, innovate! I've preached about it, too - asking people to be bold and take risks in ministry ON THEIR OWN, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I figure, if it's truly inspired by the Holy Spirit and it is focused toward the end of realizing God's mission in the world, my approval or disapproval (or the approval/disapproval of any particular church committee, either) isn't going to matter anyway.

In the past few years, there has been a push for clarity, simplicity, and focus. I dig that! But in the rush for simplicity, sometimes we go too far and become simplistic. Have you noticed that many congregational "Vision Statements" are essentially re-arranged versions of someone else's? Will Mancini says that churches get bogged down in complexity and never move through it into the happiness of true simplicity because "the tunnel of chaos is too unbearable." So maybe the "simiplistic church" (constrasted with the truly "simple church") fails not because we go too far, but because we don't go far enough. Rather than shy away from complexity, perhaps we should push through it and discover where we end up on the other side.

So I'm going to be making "new idea-machines" in my head from now on. I'm sure that most of the ideas I generate will bomb. But I'm also sure that a few of them will succeed! Bring on the complexity ... new ideas ... it's innovatin' time!