In-Sight: From Fear to Love

This is the final “In-Sight” post for this year.  It resumes on Monday, January 7th.  Since I have written about love in the last two “In Sight” posts, I thought I would conclude the year with another one.

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For much of his life, Henri Nouwen used the classical Christian image of journey to speak and write about the spiritual life.  One of his emphases about the journey was moving from the house of fear to the house of love. [1]. In one of his early books, he wrote about how fear undermines our fruitfulness in the spiritual life. Nouwen wrote about fear not solely from his academic knowledge of it, but also from his personal experience of it–an experience that recurred (sometimes with intensity) over the course of his life.

I have been re-reading what he wrote about fear because I agree with him that we are living in a fearful land, and that the bulk of nativism, elitism, racism, and discrimination is fueled by fear.  Fear has infiltrated the society and the church.  If we are to be the humans we are created to be and the Christians we are called to be, we must confess our fear and pray for grace to overcome it.

Of course, there are legitimate fears, but that is not what Nouwen was (or I am,) writing about.  Rather, it is the illegitimate fear generated by the egoic (individual) and ethnocentric (collective) attempts to to remain in control and justify the things we say and do in order to do so.

In this regard, we are very much a nation living in fear.  It is the fear which arises in the human spirit when we take our ideas and preferences and declare them to be normative for everyone else–the God-blessed way of life that charts the course, leaving the rest of us either to agree and be “in” or disagree and be “out.”

Fear eliminates room for discourse, replacing it with decrees and demands.  Complex matters are made to appear simple, with the either/or thinking that leads the fearful to allege, “we alone have the right take on things.”  Fearful people claim patriotic and religious terms for themselves, further alleging ” we are the only ones who represent these things correctly.”

To be fair, this is all fearful people can do.  To open the door to a wider look at things immediately diminishes their alleged certainty, and more significantly creates the possibility that they may have to change, which would almost certainly include an erosion or loss of their individual esteem and collective power.

Seeing this as he did, Nouwen wrote repeatedly that the only hope for fearful people is their movement from the house of fear into the house of love.  And with respect to national and ecclesial matters, love means respecting others, listening to them, and learning from them.  It means lowering the walls of self-imposed isolation and dropping the rhetoric of supremacy.

Only then can fear subside and love prevail.

It is lot to expect, but not more than God can do.

[1] Henri Nouwen, ‘The Inner Voice of Love’ (Doubleday, 1996).  Notice he did not say moving from hatred to love.  He believed (along with other psychologists) that hatred is an outward manifestation of an inner fear.

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Shepherd’s Care: Time To Be Respectful

This is the final “Shepherd’s Care” post for 2018.  It will resume on January 4th, and the series about time and ministry will continue.

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If indeed time is the precious commodity of our time, we must not only be good stewards of it ourselves, we must be respectful of other people’s time as well.  Here are some ways to do that.

First, keep meetings to a minimum.  I have lost count of the times I have read leadership literature which says many of our meetings are unnecessary.  One of the ways ways we can give the gift of time to others is not to make the ministries of the church dependent on meetings.  Meetings should be about authorizing things, not operationalizing things.  Meetings should be held to answer the question, “What shall we do?”  

Meetings should be about mission, not mechanics.  The “how” aspects can be decided other ways.  This requires authorization and trust on everyone’s part, but it is necessary if time-consuming meetings are to be reduced. Meetings should focus on discernment, not details. Hand off vision to task groups.

Second, keep task groups small.  Don’t invite ten people to attend task-related meetings when three or four can get the job done.  Task groups will recruit others to carry out the particular ministry, but a lot of people are not needed to decide operational matters.

Third, no matter the type of meeting, keep it within a reasonable time frame.  This requires a stated agenda that is followed so that “stream of consciousness” does not hijack the reason the meeting was called in the first place. Along with this, agree to limit conversation by asking for one view and one alternate view. Additional input is given only if it adds to what has been said.  Some meetings run too long because of repetition that is redundant. Nail down the big-ideas needed to make necessary decisions and then leave.

Fourth, learn how to use social media to your advantage.  Technologies like Skype or Zoom enable people to meet without showing up at the same place.  Imagine the joy of not having to leave your home to attend a meeting.  Social media can also be used to form working groups who can share ideas, make plans, and implement things without even having to call a meeting.  Again, here is where trust and authorization enable ministry to be planned and executed differently.

Fifth, keep ministry to a minimum.  That may surprise you, but I believe it is true.  Looking at the weely schedule of activities printed in church bulletins sends the message, “This is a very busy place.”  But what theology of time is defining the activism?  Respecting the time of others means asking, ” Why does the church exist? ” And asking it may reveal not everything taking peoples’ time is essential. When time is precious, doing essentials is necessary.

Sixth, spread out who does what.  Invite people into limited duty.  If people cannot be found to conduct a ministry, don’t try to get “the faithful few” to add one more thing to their church activity list.  Just say, “That’s a good idea, but right now we don’t have the folks to do it.”

The preceding items are only illustrations meant to spark your own creativity with respect to honoring other people’s time.  But there is an even deeper gift of time that you can give your people…

Define ministry as life-oriented, not church-related.  This means moving time into vocation and away from institution.  Cultivate and celebrate the time people are spending being disciples other than when they are at church. If serving Christ is too closely linked with holding an office in or attending a meeting at church, people will always feel, “I don’t have time for that.”  But if they are taught and encouraged to view all time as vocational, they will see they are in ministry all the time.  Service anywhere is service for Christ.

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Site Update: 2019 Theme

Having completed the 2018 Oboedire theme, “Practicing the Better” last week, I am ready to announce the 2019 theme: “Here and Now.”

 In some ways, it is an expansion of the 2018 theme, because the only place we can practice the better is in the present moment.  But my choice of “Here and Now” is more than a continuation, it is emphasizing what Jesus (and every other religion, for that matter) teaches: we live as God intends right here, right now. Abundant life is living in the present moment.

So…beginning on January 2, we will spend 2019 each Wednesday discovering insights about and exploring ways for living “Here and Now.”

 I’ve been preparing these posts for months, and I look forward to sharing them with you.  If you know of others who would be interested in joining the journey, encourage them to subscribe to the blog on the Home Page.

In the meantime, have a blessed Advent.  See you back here on January 2nd.

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Editorial:  Theological Obscurantism

My personality moves me in the direction of details, specifics, and particulars.  Sometimes a single word captures my attention for quite a while.  I have a built-in propensity to zoom in. This means that I have had to discipline myself to zoom out–to look for trends and connections–for things things that intetsect, link, overlap, etc.

I recently had a zoom-out experience with respect to something happening in certain segments of Christianity–an anti-science bias.  Putting the evidence together from fundamentalist resistance to the behavioral, biological, social, and cosmological sciences, it suddenly became clear to me that something larger is going on–a mindset is infecting certain theological thinking, a kind of “Bible only” way of viewing life and seeking for truth.  It’s called obscurantism.

It’s possible to trace the evidence for this in obscurantist thinking about the environment, climate change, meteorology, immigrants and refugees, and sexuality, to name a few.  In each of these areas, some Christians have become obscurantists, calling the ongoing discoveries of the scientific community (at least the ones they don’t like) “junk science.” Their allegation is supposed to be enough to stop the rest of us in our tracks, and prevent us from discovering things they either do not know themselves, or what they do know but don’t want us to know.

I first saw this in my reading about human sexuality.  I am far from expert in what the sciences are contributing to the Bible’s revelation that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but I have read enough to know some obscurantists are not incorporating current scientific knowledge into their declarations.  I have since found similar junk-science allegations by obscurantists in the topics above, and others as well.

This is both amazing and sad when, looking back in history, we see that many of our predecessors in the faith were also scientists–men and women intent on discovering how “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).  Their willingness, their vocation, was to give themselves to the use of science as a means of understanding part of  what theologians call progressive revelation.  And thanks to their efforts, humankind has been advanced and enriched in ways beyond counting.

To see the reverse of that inclination by Christian obscurantists is enough to know that their conclusions about particular aspects of truth arise from a flawed methodology.  It is a methodology which prevents certain data from ever becoming influential in our ongoing attempt to know better and better how God has made us and the world–and how we are to live with ourselves, with others, and all God has made.

Theological conclusions/interpretations (hermeneutics) arise from the contributions of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  By failing to take into account current scientific knowledge, the obscurantists skew the contributions of reason, which then has a ripple effect into the other three areas.

Almost always, obscurantism is the sign that something else is going on.  And when the obscurantism is in religion, it is usually an indication that some portion of holy scripture has been made a “sacred cow”–a cow that cannot be questioned, because it is part of what gave obscurantists their power in the first place–and keeps them in it up to the present. 

Posted in Editorials

In-Sight: The Grand Synthesis

God is the love (1 John 4:8).  God is creator (Genesis 1:1).  These are two fundamental affirmations of our faith.  Each is important in its own right, but when we weave them together, an even grander revelation emerges.

Clearly, the two affirmations are segments of one reality.  God’s nature and activity are congruent.  Who God is on the inside is how God acts on the outside.  When we apply this to the creation, it means that all God has made (and continues to make) is a manifestation of who God is.  The nature of the creation is love because God is love.  From the largest galaxy to the smallest particle, the cosmos is love saturated.

Teilhard de Chardin’s writings have revived this connection for me, and a book about him has helped me see the reality of cosmic love even more clearly. [1]  His ability to make connections between faith and science is insightful, and his perspective is a much needed one, as a growing number of theologians and scientists is discovering.

Last week, I used this “In-Sight” category to suggest a few ways we need to be living in a world overtaken by divisiveness.  Of course, I mentioned living in love.  But today, I feel led to stay on this theme to further reinforce it. [2]

To the extent that we keep the nature of God (love) and the activity of God (loving) in its essential singularity, we recognize that every cell, nerve, tissue, and fiber of our being is made by and infused with love.  We move with the grain of the universe when we live in love; we move against its grain when we do not.  It is that simple–and that marvelous!

We often speak about Christian maturity.  When we do, we are referring to one thing: maturity in love. I learned this long ago from E. Stanley Jones. Through his book, ‘Christian Maturity,’ I spent a year in daily devotion exploring the ways and means of maturing in love. [3] I have recently began re-reading the book, and the experience is deeply formative for me now as it was when I first read it.

Without minimizing the complexities which are creating our divisiveness today, I am willing to say that our multitude of problems stem from one source: the failure to love. To the extent we fail to love God, others, and ourselves we can then move on to justify our harmful attitudes and actions. 

We quickly become like Cain, who (for lack of love) fell prey to jealousy, and once there could allege he was not his brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9).  The extent to which we have ceased to love is always the extent to which we claim our separation from and superiority over others.  And with that perspective in place, we become strangers to grace.  We are living in a time of vanishing grace in the society and the church, and we are paying a high price for it. [4]

God is calling for us to live in love.  Our churches must be schools of love.  Our homes must be models of love.  Our spiritual formation must be aimed toward love.  “This is my Father’s world,” and it is made to be a world of love.

[1] Louis M. Savary and Patricia H. Berne, Teilhard de Chardin On Love: Evolving Human Relationships (Paulist Press: 2017).

[2] I recommend the book, ‘Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love’ (Orbis Books, 2018), compiled by Joelle Chase and Judy Trager.

[3] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Christian Maturity’ (Abingdon Press, 1957).  This book is scheduled to be republished.  I will let you know when it is. In the meantime, you can find it through used book outlets.

[4] Philip Yancey has looked at this in detail in his book, ‘Vanishing Grace’ (Zondervan, 2014).

Posted in In-Sight

Shepherd’s Care: Time To Pay Attention

Earbuds may go down in history as one of the most insidious devices ever invented.  They draw us away from the world in which we are present into some other world. That other world may be a good one, but it is not the one we are actually in. [1]  And to the extent we become patterned to live distracted lives, we run the risk of losing touch with where we are.  One of the gifts of time is the invitation to be attentive to the present moment and to our current location. [2]

Henri Nouwen was once asked in an interview to define the spiritual life.  He responded that it was impossible to do that in a a few words.  But the interviewer persisted until Nouwen said that if he were forced to define the spiritual life, he would say it is paying attention.  

His response was in keeping with a classic notion of spirituality: attentiveness.  God invites us to use our time to pay attention. That invitation comes to us in the exercise of our ministries.  In this post I want to offer you three ways by which we become increasingly attentive as clergy. [3]

First, we pay attention prayerfully.  We clergy are quick to say, “It’s God’s church.” It only stands to reason that we would regularly check in with “The Boss” (not Bruce Springstein) about it.  We are servants of God for Jesus Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).  Our primary attentiveness must be to God.  

Simply put, that means prayer.  As E. Stanley Jones described it–going to “the listening post” to get his “marching orders” for the day.  Eugene Peterson repeatedly said that his primary pastoral responsibility was to pray, using the chief means of grace to pay attention. [4]. It is in prayerful attentiveness where we are given “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Mark 8:18).

Second, we pay attention contextually.  Eugene Peterson emphasized the connection between vocation and location.  This attentiveness is rooted in the Incarnation, where Jesus came to “his own” (John 1:11), and shepherded his flock, calling his own sheep “by name” (John 10:3).

The importance of locality (a specific congregation in a unique place) moved Peterson to frame what he called the pastor’s question: “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [5]  By paying attention to our context we discover the soil into which the seed of the Word is meant to grow.

Third, we pay attention patiently.  The soil/seed metaphor (indeed, other metaphors from nature) calls us into living and working patiently with those whom we are called to serve.  It is a patience we first give to ourselves (vs. a frenetic attempt to do too much too fast, which only leads to superficiality), and then we give it to others. [6]

Natural growth occurs incrementally over time.  It emerges in the course of a journey more than in the conduct of an event.  Like nature, it is a seed sown, germinating, sprouting, developing, and only then–harvesting.  That’s why so much of ministry is waiting (dreaming, hoping, tending, weeding), and we only wait well (Joyce Rupp calls it “walking in a relaxed manner”) by being patient. Patience is a disposition which breeds attentiveness because it enables us to find joy in little things and to genuinely rejoice in small advances.

Prayer, context, and patience increase attentiveness in us and in our ministry.  They save us from “hurry sickness” and from living distractedly so that we fail to fully realize or appreciate where we are.

[1] I am exaggerating the earbud image to make a point.  There are, of course, times when earbuds take us into a world of relaxation, a world of learning, etc.

[2] Living in the present moment is extremely important, and we today are so incessantly lured to lead distracted lives, that I have chosen “Here and Now” as the 2019 Oboedire theme.  It will appear each Wednesday, beginning on January 2nd.

[3] I am grateful to have read about all three in the writings of Eugene Peterson, and seen them lived out in his life.  I’ve been thinking a lot about him since he died on October 22nd.

[4] Peterson went on to say, live, and teach that (on the basis of his own life of prayer) his primary pastoral duty was to teach his congregation to pray. This meant individually and collectively in worship.

[5] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.

[6] Peterson wrote a lot about this in his pastoral trilogy: ‘Working the Angles’….’Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’….and, ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant.’

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Practicing the Better: A Final Word

​I come to the end of this series feeling like a runner who must now pass the baton to the next person in the race. This series has been an extended one, but it could easily have been longer and deeper.  The runner could keep on running, but his/her alloted portion of the race has been covered.  Practicing the better is a long-distance run by a team of runners.  Each runner is advancing the baton toward the finish line.  As this series concludes, let’s look at what the baton (practicing the better) signifies…

First and foremost, it is means living in ways that bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), the root of which is love as summarized in the two great commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).  This is the essence of practicing the better.

Second, it means locality.  Jesus said that the Kingdom is near.  We use our stewardship to financially support ministries that practice the better in other places, but we use our servanthood to be involved in ministries nearby. Practicing the better is centered in “the local,” and we can only imagine how different the world would be if each of us were invested in our respective territories. 

Third, practicing the better is limited. It is doing what we can do–adding our piece to the puzzle.  For example, in the civil rights movement and other movements for liberation–Gandhi fasted, Merton wrote. King marched. Baez sang, Day extended hospitality, Mandela was imprisoned, Romero offered eucharist and priestly care. And beyond those we can name are the multitude of others who cooked meals, kept children, provided transportation, and offered rooms for visitors to stay in. No one tried to do it all.  Each did a part, and did it for the glory of God. This gives focus to practicing the better and prevents us from growing weary in well doing by trying to do too much.  There are more good things to do than God asks any of us to do.

As we end this series, I can think of no better summary for the phrase “the practice of the better” than the prayer of St. Francis.  May it be a living prayer in each of us…

Lord,

Make me an instrument of your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love,

Where there is injury, pardon,

Where there is doubt, faith,

Where there is despair, hope,

Where there is darkness light,

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled

     as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Posted in Practicing the Better