Mission Attracts

Mission Attracts

Those were the two words that the Rev. Rosemary Mitchell, Senior Director of Mission Engagement and Support with the PCUSA, spoke as she finished her comments during a panel discussion at the most recent Association of Mid-Council Leaders Annual Meeting in Chicago. It was my first meeting with this group as I am still settling into my first full year of serving as your Presbyter for Vision and Mission. Quite honestly, the meeting was at times as dry as it probably sounds and was, at other times, wonderfully engaging, broadly informative and refreshingly insightful.

tent citiesRosemary Mitchell’s comment, “Mission attracts” was one of those refreshingly insightful moments. She revealed to us that she had spent nine years in secular work before she returned to serving the church in her most recent position with the national church. One could hear the frustration in her voice as she described the difference between her experience in the secular world compared to the sacred world of the church. She said in the secular world when agencies face economic difficulties they double down on their essential mission. In the church when we face economic difficulties we table our mission priorities until things start to look up again.

She wanted to share with us the lesson from her secular work where she learned that agencies survive tough times by asking the community to invest even more deeply in their essential mission until they can get on stronger footing again. She said her experience is that people do respond to pleas to invest in mission. Then Rosemary summed up her comments with this simple two-word reminder, “Mission attracts.”

FearWhen I first took this position I had this vague sense that I had two primary foci—to invite the presbytery into a shared vision for the future and to organize ourselves around shared mission commitments. After all, my title is the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. Of those two foci, I was completely comfortable stepping into the role as a “visionary” as much of my past work has been rooted in helping people and organizations see possibilities and help them live into their imagined future. I was less sure of what I would bring to the arena of mission. Much of my work has been deeply rooted in Christian mission, but for me mission always seemed to be the healthy byproduct of good vision work.

But I am increasingly convinced in this uncertain and vulnerable time that we will not be able to separate out the vision thing from the mission thing. In fact, I am convinced that whatever vision we cobble together over the coming months and years will be a direct result of reminding ourselves, recommitting ourselves and doubling down on our essential mission. Mission shouldn’t be the luxury of having abundance, but the very root of who we are even in scarcity.

Presbyterian pewsI have spent years working with organizations and churches discover and live into a vision. Not surprisingly, mission has, in every case been a natural byproduct of that work. But I am wondering if, in this time, it isn’t vision that comes first, but mission. I am wondering if our vision will become the natural byproduct of work rooted in a recommitment to our essential mission. Maybe the question isn’t who do we want to become (the vision thing), but who are we now in our deepest and most authentic expression as Presbyterian Christians.

Maybe we shouldn’t be looking to the future for our vision, but to the people who grace our lives and our neighborhoods right now. Maybe our vision already exists in the mission that awaits us at our own doorsteps.

Do we have homeless sleeping outside our doors?

Are there people who are feeling alienated, isolated and lonely in the neighborhood around us?

Are children and youth left unattended after school?

Do seniors sit at home all day with no social and meaningful connection?

Is there food insecurity among families around your church?

Do people get along and enjoy a sense of community in your neighborhood?

I am the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. A year ago I was all ready to dive in on the vision thing. Today I am not sure that is best first step. Vision can paint a picture of the future we want.

Mission is what will get us there.

Thank you, Lisa.

What a gift!

Eight months ago I was just at the beginning of getting out to the churches of our presbytery in my attempt to listen for what God was doing and might be planning to do in coming years. I also had just started writing under the blog title of Holy Breadcrumbs as I was looking for an image to communicate how I believed that our emerging vision would emerge. I have described dozens of times my belief that the future of the presbytery is not going to show up in some well-thought out long range plan, but is going to appear more like bread crumbs in the wilderness guiding us one step and one day at a time.

Lisa, an especially astute, creative and kind church leader took me aside and asked, “Would you like me to see if I could come up with a pattern for a stole that would help you tell the story of following these holy breadcrumbs?” It didn’t take me long to blurt out a yes. “I would be thrilled,” I said and over the last few months she experimented with patterns and colors, consulted with me, and then went to work.

I am absolutely delighted with the stole. Besides it being stunningly beautiful against my white preaching robe, here is what I love about it.

  1. HB Stole 1If one stands back a few feet from the stole one can see that there is perceptible path or pattern that weaves its way through the length of the stole. I imagine that this is the lens that God may have. If God is the author of our futures God may have a path already chosen for us. God may already know exactly where we will have to turn left, turn right and wind our way through the confusing and convoluted choices of life. If predestination is a solid doctrine then our destiny may already be established by God and God is the only one who knows exactly where this sacred path is taking us.
  2. HB Stole 4But if God is standing back and has the full picture we are the ones who can see only one, maybe two breadcrumbs at a time. I love the way Lisa sewed together a long series of brown and tan-toned pieces to represent the breadcrumbs. But if one is actually on the path (not with God’s perspective) one can only see the square ahead, to the right and to the left. The task is not to have a final destination in mind, but to simply trust that following the breadcrumbs (the brownish pieces) is the most faithful approach to trusting God on this ecclesiastical pilgrimage. I love that it is not always completely obvious which square is the next step until you get right on top of it. Sort of like looking for the next breadcrumb around the next corner.HB Stole 3
  3. Lisa chose bright colors to offset the more subdued brown and tan colors. I don’t know exactly what her symbolism was, but I do know for me that the diversity of bright colors represents the diversity of our presbytery, the diversity of people, the diversity of lifestyles and theological belief, and the diversity of regional differences. But I am also one of those Presbyterians who loves the word beautiful (a reference to A River Runs Through It) and the stole reminds me how much my spirituality is based on looking for beauty, enjoying beauty and creating beauty. I used to feel that my main Christian mission was to heal hurt and right wrongs. I continue to feel that way, but I also have felt called in recent years to do as much to create beauty as I do to heal wounds. This stole reminds me how much beauty is at the root of my Christian spirituality.
  4. HB Stole 2Anyone who knows me knows that the back of the stole represents the place in my life where I receive some of the deepest joy in my life. I am a life-long cyclist. But more than just being a fun activity or good exercise the bike often serves as a sort of body prayer or moving meditation. It is tough to describe, but there are times when the rhythm of the pedaling, my lungs contracting and expanding, the connection to the road, and the beauty of the surroundings propels me into a place of prayer. I can only say that at those moments I feel like I am in rhythm with God and it is as close to a mystical experience as I ever come. The back of the stole is covered with bikes, but for me it is like looking at a prayer rug.

Thank you, Lisa.

Repairing the World Together

“The City Repair Project helps communities become safer, healthier, and happier by transforming urban spaces into common gathering spaces.”

Those are the words on the business card of City Repair, a Portland-based non-profit that I had the chance to visit a couple of weeks ago. I made the connection while reading the book Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia—Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. In an essay by Mike Carr, City Repair and its founder, Mark Lakeman, were highlighted as an example of a visionary approach to restoring “the spirit of the village” in a way that the Earth and its inhabitants share a sacred mutuality.

city repair
Bringing a neighborhood together around intersection street art

When I first heard of City Repair I had images of a large warehouse where appliances and furniture were restored and then sold to benefit the disenfranchised or those with less means than the average person. I knew that it had a non-profit, mission-oriented purpose. What I didn’t know was that the target of their “repair work” was communities themselves and healing the disease of alienation and isolation that our modern affluent society has forced upon us.

I walked out of the offices and the words tikkun olam came to me. I had a vague sense that this Jewish commitment to do good in the world had some connection to City Repair’s own approach. My subconscious knew exactly what it was doing. Tikkun olam simply means “world repair.” I had just walked out of an office dedicated to city repair and the Hebrew version of world repair showed up in my mind like a cartoon word balloon.

linking handsI was struck by how permeable the line is between that which we consider religious and that which we consider secular. Our religious institutions are committed to building community because we have a belief that the “God of all creation” established this as a sacred and essential purpose for humanity. We are more whole human beings when we are connected to each other. Agencies like City Repair also build community, but their incentive emerges from a belief that humanity is at its best and its healthiest when we are connected in a mutual and intimate social network.

I have been thinking about this as I live into my role as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. I know that that the original language about building partnerships with others in ministry in my job description was focused more on ecumenical relationships—that is, those relationships where we share a common Christian identity and narrative. I remember while I was in seminary during the 1980’s how impressed I was by the ecumenical movement. I had grown up in a wonderfully nurturing congregation, but in hindsight I could see how insulated it was from the larger issues of the world. I loved the emphasis on joining other Christian partners in mission.

Welcoming allBut the world has changed again. Fueled by that same initiative to act ecumenically I am wondering if to just be ecumenical is to be insulated from the larger issues of the world. Today I wonder if living out the ecumenical spirit means to be interfaith, inter-religious, and inter-spiritual. I wonder if it means learning how to partner with people and agencies who share a common mission even if they don’t share a common identity and narrative.

I was struck two weeks ago as I left my meeting that City Repair is doing the same good work that the concept of tikkun olam (world repair) advocates. The work is the same. All that is different is the narrative that feeds the work that heals our broken world.

Maybe the lines between the sacred and secular are not all that dark and thick. Maybe we are closer to being on the same side than we thought. Maybe God is happy with anyone who wishes to repair the world and build the beloved community.

Enjoy God now!

“Drum, dance and sing—every day!”

That was the statement a friend of mine shared a couple of years ago when I asked, “How do people survive when the world turns crazy?” She told me that some Native American tribes, who have lived with national trauma for centuries, have a saying, “Drum, dance and sing—every day!”

Group around fireI was reminded of this as I have been talking with my colleagues around the country about how they are supporting their church leaders in this time of shrinking resources and ecclesiastical anxiety. Interestingly enough, a pattern seems to be developing. Church leaders who are gathering into groups are increasingly focusing on self-care and spiritual growth and support. It is not that lectionary groups or groups focusing on certain programs or missions have completely gone away. But increasingly church leaders seem to be responding to opportunities for good self-care, enjoyment, deep relationships, and spiritual nurturing.

I am not surprised. Twelve years ago I remember experiencing a similar subtle shift. I have long appreciated the first answer to the Shorter Catechism (despite its patriarchal language), “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” As I reflected on my life a few years ago, I realized that I had charged ahead in life with a laser-like focus “glorifying God” but had largely ignored the other half of the equation, “enjoying God.”

hiking in mountainsThese days when I write my To Do list I almost always include time to either cycle, walk, hike or swim and carve about a half hour to play guitar. I also have become obsessive about my own spiritual self-care. With only rare exceptions I start every morning with about 25 minutes of gentle yoga and then about 45 minutes reflecting on some spiritually rich literature and engaging in a stream-of-consciousness prayer journaling practice called “Morning Pages.”

Our religious traditions have always encouraged this type of spiritual discipline and self-care, but it wasn’t until my life became terribly complicated and the world starting going crazy (or at least that I started noticing it!) that spiritual disciplines became a necessary and mandatory part of my day. I have spiritual disciplines not because I am deeply religious, but because it is how I survive!

I write this as I reflect on my role as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission and the state of our congregations these days with the story of annual declines and anxiety over our ecclesiastical futures. I know when I first started nearly a year ago that a wise mentor reminded me that this work that we do “is a marathon, not a sprint.” What I heard in that, whether he meant it or not, was that one can’t put off the “enjoyment of God” until after all the work is done. One can’t push too hard for a short season (like a sprint) with the expectation that we can catch our breath again and take care of ourselves after we cross the 100-yard finish line.

DrummingI like the Native American saying, “Drum, dance and sing—every day!” Each of us will have our own version of that. For me it is cycling, hiking, swimming and playing guitar. For you it might be gardening, quilting, cooking, and playing cards. For another it might be gathering with friends, listening to classical music and entering the world of film. For the presbytery it might be gathering in cohorts where church leaders celebrate each other, support each other and enjoy each other.

“The chief end of all of us is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” My friends, we are in for the long haul right now. There are no easy fixes, simple answers or immediate payoffs.

Don’t forget to drum, dance and sing. Don’t forget to bike, hike and swim. Don’t forget to laugh, love and live!

Don’t forget that God wants to be enjoyed just as much as God wants to be glorified.

Have a good time!

 

Breadcrumbs, breadcrumbs…

One set of breadcrumbs has run out!

About a month ago I could feel that my commitment to reflect on the lectionary was feeling a little forced. Eight months ago I committed to teaSitting in a chairse out this vision thing through the lens of our weekly lectionary texts. That has been a wonderfully grounding way for me to engage in this period of listening. Rather than settling into my writing chair with an already established agenda, the lectionary has provided me a way to listen for God’s subtle voice rather than pushing already decided agendas.

Most weeks I have been wonderfully surprised how my conversations with the lectionary and my conversations with congregations have overlapped and mutually fed into each other. I think back to just three weeks ago when the lectionary focused on Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees to not confuse human tradition with God’s commandments. At the time I was processing the whole “To robe or not to robe” on Sundays as I have moved from church to church with their different traditions and practices. It gave me an opportunity reflect on the lectionary and on my experiences at the same time.

Newberg Sanctuary
First, Newberg sanctuary on night of great conversation with Session

But increasingly now I am finding that I have more to say than the lectionary affords. While the lectionary provided a good foundation from which to work it is now starting to get in the way. I don’t mean that scripture is getting in the way—just the prescribed lectionary. What I mean is that what I think God has for me to say doesn’t always fit with what our common lectionary nudges me to say in a given week. I have discoveries from my time with you and from my conversations with mutual colleagues who are wrestling with the same kinds of questions and challenges. The list of potential blog topics is growing faster than the opportunities I have to share those topics with you.

Which, by the way, is good news!

If I spent the first ten months of my time listening to you and for God’s voice, it feels now like we are moving into a time where I have as much to say as you do. I hope you know that I will never be a person who talks so much that I can’t hear you. I think the staff in the presbytery office will confirm that I am a listener first and a proclaimer second—which fit my style as a weekly preacher. I used to tell the churches I served that a good fifteen-minute sermon took about eight hours to pull off—seven hours to listen, one hour to write and fifteen minutes to preach! I only slightly exaggerate.

cropped-holy-breadcrumbs41I have used the image of holy breadcrumbs to guide our way through this time. For eight months the lectionary was calling me as a way to ground this listening period and make sure that I wasn’t going off on some rabbit trail. I am enough of a preacher and a Presbyterian to know that I will still return to the lectionary from time to time. But other topics are now calling. The holy breadcrumbs seem to be leading me to share less my reflections on the lectionary and more on our discoveries as we embark together on this ecclesiastical pilgrimage into God’s unknown future.

There is a method to my madness (as the saying goes). In this anxious time there can be two mistakes—either not moving quickly enough or moving too quickly. I am hoping that I have kept a good balance—listening first, visioning second. I do love the lectionary, but I will leave it to our preachers to focus on that spiritual discipline.

I don’t know where the holy breadcrumbs will take us, but I do know that it is time for a shift. Lectionary and listening were paramount in this first stage. Now it’s time to tease out a vision. Now it’s time to take another step into our emerging future. Here is a glimpse of where my head and heart are taking us.

Upcoming Blogs Topics (stuff I am thinking about!)

Self-Care and Spiritual Practices in a Time of Anxiety

Churches and the Affordable Housing Crisis

Following the Energy (translated: Trusting the Holy Spirit)

Joining Others in “Repairing” the World

The Parable of the University of Colorado Campus

Why I Say, “Teasing Out a Vision”

Hi. My Name is Brian. I am a racist.

‘Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” ‘  Mark 7: 27-29

Quite honestly, it’s shocking that Jesus would refer to the child of a Syrophoenician woman as a dog.

I suppose we could twist our minds into an impossible pretzel and say that Jesus must have been kidding—nothing like a little off color humor to lift the spirits of a woman in crisis. Or maybe we could use the scholarly approach and say that Jesus didn’t really say those words; they were the words of a later redactor. Or we could say that he was only testing the woman to see how deep her faith went–would she shrink away at the first hint of a degrading remark.

BibleBut I am going to stick with what the text says. For the purposes of this blog I am going to take the Bible at its plain spoken word. I am going to assume that Jesus meant what he said and that the woman’s response is equally authentic. I am going to assume that Jesus indirectly called the girl a dog and that the girl’s mother gave Jesus a little lesson in his own theology and missiology. I am going to assume that, in this case, it was the woman who was the teacher and Jesus, the student.

We aren’t used to thinking of Jesus this way, right? We start every red-letter quote by Jesus with the assumption, “I wonder what Jesus is trying to teach me this time.” We assume that Jesus is at least three steps ahead of us up the ladder toward God and is therefore more integrated as a person of compassion, inclusiveness and kindness.

Yet in this text it would not be a stretch to say that Jesus showed signs of both racism and sexism—either because the woman was a foreigner or because she was female or because she was both. “Your child deserves no more than a dog,” he seems to say. Eek! This is really hard to hear. This is not the Jesus I put on my bumper sticker and proudly proclaim to the world.

dogsBut what really interests me in this short series of three verses is what isn’t said. The woman answered Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Without even a moment to pause and take a breath, Jesus seems to have an immediate revelation, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

How did we go so quickly from a nasty put down to opening his heart to a healing miracle?

What surprises me about this text is the utter lack of any attempts by Jesus to explain, excuse or defend his comments. If we can trust the text to be true Jesus uttered a rather derogatory comment, the woman called him on it, and without a moment’s hesitation Jesus altered his attitude, his perception, his understanding of his ministry and broadened his calling—all in the matter of a split second. He saw his racism and sexism and changed it on the spot!

Now that’s divine! Yes, maybe he acted less than divine in his derisive comment, but as soon as it was pointed out to him he transformed himself into a more integrated, more inclusive and more compassionate person.

Seriously, who does this? Wouldn’t most of us, when caught in an embarrassing moment first try to wiggle ourselves out of it by saying, “Oh, what I actually meant was…” Or we rationalize our dumb comment by saying, “You misunderstand. I actually really like dogs.” Or, if we are convinced we are still in the right we dig ourselves an even deeper hole by defending our narrow-mindedness, saying, “Read your scripture. God loves Jews. Don’t waste my time on God’s cast offs.”

woman with insightThis is what amazes me about this text. Remember in John 8: 32 Jesus says, “The truth shall set you free.” I have this sneaking suspicion that the Syrophoenician woman spoke such a pure version of truth that it smacked Jesus right in the face. I have a feeling that the woman so utterly shocked Jesus with her truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the truth comment that as soon as he heard it he dropped his jaw and said to himself, “How right she is! Why didn’t I see this before? What a dolt I have been.”

We proclaim in our confessions that Jesus is both human and divine. Sometimes we think that Jesus is divine because he is perfect in every way. He is kind to every person. He always speaks the truth. He washes his hands before every meal, brushes his teeth three times a day and never jaywalks.

But I wonder if Jesus divinity is tied less to following all the rules and being perfectly moral than it is tied to a divine orientation toward life. If Jesus is perfectly oriented toward God, he still might make mistakes, but he also has perfect clarity about where he is going. It appears that all he needs is the occasional person to remind him, “Even dogs deserve God’s love, compassion and healing.”

The problem is not that we have too many racists and sexists. The problem is that we don’t have enough people acknowledging their racism and sexism when its pointed out to them.

Hi. My name is Brian. I am a racist and sexist. Please be brave enough to show me my blind spots.

To Robe or Not to Robe

“In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition.”  Mark 7: 7-8

I had a real dilemma this week as to whether I would offer a reflection on the romantic love poem of the Song of Solomon or the rich opportunities in the Gospel of Mark as Jesus rails against the Pharisees and their almost single-minded devotion to upholding religious traditions that are more human in origin than divine.

romantic coupleI was tempted to play with the Song of Solomon. Just the fact that we almost never hear a sermon from the erotic love poems of the Song of Solomon tells us something about who we are. What we avoid tells as much of a story as what we choose to preach from the pulpit. I wouldn’t say that I am avoiding the Song of Solomon this week. It’s just that this text on human vs. Godly traditions in Mark is so apt to our current ecclesiastical future that I can’t miss an opportunity to offer some reflective thoughts. Love poems will come later, I promise!

Since beginning my position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission ten months ago I have found myself running through a little exercise every time I preach in a church. The question always comes up as to whether I should wear a robe or not. I share this with you because the exercise that I move through each time seems to have its basis in this distinction between honoring a human tradition or honoring a sacred covenant (a commandment from God).

Warner Mountains
Hiking in the Warner Mountains just 20 minutes east of Lakeview

This last week was a perfect example. I preached in Lakeview—the lovely, but isolated town in SE Oregon that is nestled right at the foot of the Warner Mountains and boasts miles of hiking trails, mountain biking, fishing, hunting and even a ski area just ten minutes from town. I asked my host before I left Portland, “What is your tradition with regard to robes? Should I wear a robe or not?” She told me, “Wear whatever you are comfortable with, but I am sure many would appreciate seeing a pastor in a robe.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but I decided not to wear a robe. I dressed in a pair of sharp-looking dress slacks and equally sharp dress shirt with matching tie and topped it all off with my Guatemalan stole. This way I could look respectable and pastoral all at the same time. But I also decided to preach without a manuscript and walk among the congregation in the center aisle.

The funny thing is that I am not consistent church to church in what I wear and how I preach. In the past few months I have worn on a couple of occasions my white preaching robe and preached from the traditional pulpit. On one occasion I preached wearing a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved casual dress shirt and opened up the sermon to questions and comments. One might think that I am wishy washy. Most often I follow the pattern of the pastor. Does she wear a robe? Does he usually preach from the pulpit or in the aisles?

Lakeview PCIn the case of Lakeview it was made clear to me my host both let me know that my comfort was important to them, but that it sure would make a lot of people happy to see a pastor in a robe. But I didn’t think that that is what Lakeview most needed. The future of the church is not dependent on recovering a higher liturgy. The future is dependent on connecting with the people and the community.

What I realized about how I go about my decision to robe or not has less to do with the particular tradition of that particular church and more to do with how my choice to robe or not helps them experience the presence of the Sacred on Sunday and connect to their community.

Robing up in the pulpit is really a human tradition. It is an important tradition, but nowhere in the Bible do I see a clear commandment that wearing clerical collars or flowing robes is morally and spiritually mandatory. No, what is mandatory is finding ways to connect with our fellow brothers and sisters. What is mandatory is a worship that has integrity, is respectful, is rich in meaning and helps people connect with God. What is mandatory is finding ways to love God and neighbor.

I believe the future of the presbytery and the future of our congregations will be dependent on sorting through our traditions and deciding what goes on the list of important human traditions and what goes on the list of God’s “must haves”.

Robing or not robing is not all that important. What is important is connecting with God and connecting with neighbor. What is important is not placing any barrier in our worship that separates us from God. A robe can be a barrier, but so can nakedness!

It’s not about robes. It’s about whether what we wear or don’t wear invites us to sacred connection.

Cold Feet? Walk Anyway

‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”’ John 6: 66-67

It seems that Jesus had offended a few of his less committed disciples. It is interesting that the text refers to those who “no longer went about with him” as disciples. Disciples are, by definition, followers. It would have been one thing if the text had said, “Some who heard Jesus were offended and decided not to listen to his crazy talk anymore.” Or if the text had said, “A few people checked Jesus out and weren’t that interested in his message and moved on.”

ASUS 4 204But that isn’t what the text says. It says that “many of his disciples turned back”! It says that some of those who had decided to follow Jesus changed their mind. It says that many of those who had formerly decided to be followers got cold feet. It says that a bunch of people who had originally signed up for the journey with Jesus erased their names on the registration form after paying their deposit.

It is one thing to dismiss someone before you really know them. It is another thing to commit to becoming a follower and then back out. Following usually assumes a certain level of commitment, a decision to stick it out even when things get hard or a little weird. There is a difference between a disciple and a fickle follower. This seems to be Jesus’ question to the twelve disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” It was as if he was asking, “Are you also fickle followers or are you in all the way?”

ASUS 4 151I remember a very clear moment when I got cold feet and just about backed out of a commitment I had made. I had planned a bicycle pilgrimage through the West that was really just one big, 4,000-mile clockwise circle that started in Portland and ended in Portland. My plan was to visit all the towns and places I had lived as I sorted through the rubble of my emotional life after a divorce. But I also was doing this for the Church. Recognizing that our ecclesiastical life represented a wilderness experience of sorts I had committed to seeing what I could learn about our faith by going out into the wilderness myself.

My trek would take me through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado—all places I had lived at one point or another. The next destination after Colorado was the Bay Area and, unfortunately, a very imposing and terrifying Nevada desert lay between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras.

As I neared the desert in Delta, Utah and the thought of 400 miles of 100-degree heat across a barren desert, I began rationalizing, “I don’t really need to cross the desert on my bike. No one will blame me if I just take a Greyhound for this section.” For four days I went back and forth, first rationalizing my way out of the experience and then recommitting myself to the experience as had been my original intention.

ASUS 4 154In the end I steeled my nerves, calmed my fears and made the necessary preparations to pedal my way across the Nevada desert on a section appropriately signed, “The Loneliest Highway in America.” I was glad I did. It was the toughest part of the whole 10-week trip and the most illuminating, deepening and revealing. I will never forget how I felt both completely alone and completely loved by God all at the same time.

But when the going got tough I almost got cold feet and took a short cut. I almost took the wilderness out of the wilderness experience. I almost made a mockery of discipleship. I almost became a fickle follower of my own commitments.

Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart.

And sometimes even committed disciples get cold feet. My advice then is to keep pedaling, keep walking, and keep following. You’ll be glad you did.

The Language of Desire

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” Ephesians 5: 18

I always knew that debauchery wasn’t a quality to which one should aspire, but it wasn’t until I focused on this text that I actually took the time to get a clearer definition. “Debauchery—excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures.”

It was ironic that on the same day that I read this lectionary text from Ephesians that my morning meditation was from St. Teresa of Avila, a Christian mystic. The last stanza of her poem “The Sky’s Sheets” reads, “Any real ecstasy is a sign you are moving in the right direction. Don’t let any prude tell you otherwise.”

unhappy dogOh, Teresa! Those words can get you in trouble! Speaking of ecstasy in the church and calling those who raise their eyebrows at such juicy words, a prude? Eek! Those are fighting words in a denomination often teasingly referred to as the “Frozen Chosen.”

I almost wondered if St. Teresa was targeting the author of Ephesians, possibly even the apostle Paul himself, as being somewhat prudish. We all know that he has a reputation for warning people about the consequences of engaging in the “things of the flesh.” But I don’t think that St. Teresa was targeting Paul or whoever the author of Ephesians was.

At first blush, Ephesian’s reference to “being filled with the Spirit” may sound a bit tamer than St. Teresa’s pursuit of ecstasy, but I have a feeling that they are referring to the same intoxicating experience that comes with having a life-long love affair with God. I have a feeling that the unspoken assumption in Ephesians is that if you are going to act like a let-everything-hang-out-drunk, let it be because you are intoxicated with God’s Spirit rather than the spirits behind the bar.

I want to tease this out because I believe that St. Teresa of Avila is speaking to a modern sensibility—that is, that religious devotion isn’t about reigning in one’s passions (in order to avoid debauchery), but is about trusting and following one’s passions on the path to deep religious communion, connection and, yes, even ecstasy.

bicycle view of valleyIn recent years, I have found my own spiritual life shifting more toward the experience of the mystics. St. Teresa captures well the source of this shift. At one time, my faith was built on a sense of moral obligation to do what was right. Today, my faith is built more on the fruit of following my passions, listening to what my soul most deeply craves, and doing what I most want to do (I know this sounds rather selfish, but all creatures who are created in the image of God should trust a few selfish desires!).

This shift could be captured best by saying that I used follow the commandment to love God but now I have followed my heart and fallen in love with God. That latter description mirrors the language and experience of our tradition’s Christian mystics. It’s a simple little shift in words, but a seismic shift in how one approaches faith.

This last Sunday I saw these two worlds almost collide. I felt some obligation to attend one of the churches in our presbytery as part of my role as the presbyter, but the truth is, what my soul really craved was to be out on my bicycle touring the beautiful country roads along the Willamette River south of Corvallis.

church worshipI toyed with the idea of just riding and not going to church. It didn’t feel right. Then I toyed with the idea of going to church and not riding. That definitely didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until I discovered the mystical source of both that I had my answer. I knew that I wanted to ride my bike as I experience so much of God’s goodness while churning the pedals over hills, coasting through fields of alfalfa and hay, and gliding along the riverbanks as herons take flight. But I also found myself deeply wanting to join “my people” in church on Sunday as we journey together through life. I had to find my way beyond the language of obligation to the language of desire to find my answer.

With my new found discovery, I got up at 6 a.m., rode to Starbucks for a quick cup of coffee and breakfast, churned out a brisk forty miles on the bike and arrived at the 9:30 a.m. service all sweaty, stinky and dripping wet in my skin-tight Lycra shorts and fluorescent orange jersey. But I had done it. I had honored what my soul most deeply desired—to enjoy God’s goodness out on the isolated country roads on a cool morning AND to worship with my Presbyterian family (even if most kept a safe distance from this stinky worshiper!).

The author of Ephesians warns us not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. I think what he is saying is, “Get drunk on life. Get drunk on God. Drink from the well of love. Follow your passion. Seek ecstasy. Do what your soul most deeply desires.”

In other words, “Don’t be a prude!

 

“Little Sister” Stereotypes

“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” John 6: 42

Oh my, oh my, oh my!

little sisterI know this story all too well. I have a “little sister.” She was born almost exactly two years after me. In my mind, my little sister was always just a little bit behind me. She was born later. She was younger and smaller. She didn’t excel academically as I had. She didn’t get elected to school and club offices as I had. And, as a young adult, I didn’t stray nearly as far as she did from culturally approved behaviors.

This was the narrative I had crafted for my little sister. This was the stereotype I had settled on. This was the lens through which I interpreted my sister’s life, her choices and her behaviors. In my mind, she would always be my little sister, the one who lagged just a little behind me in every way.

laughing boy with bible“How could Jesus be marked with the heavenly seal,” his detractors seem to ask, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Is not this that little boy we saw growing up who was wrestling in the mud with other boys, teasing the sheep, and playing adolescent pranks on his neighbors? Is not this that average little boy who grew up just down the street from us?

Isn’t it interesting how we create a narrative and a stereotype around people and then can only see them through that particular lens? I did that with my sister. Unfortunately, for many years my story of her didn’t change and grow, but she did. I was well into my thirties before the scales fell from eyes. One day I looked at her and realized, “I have a really amazing little sister! I can’t believe how strong, how courageous and how faithful she is.”

el salvadorI had thought of myself as being the more ambitious of the two and then one day I realized that while I was following the predictable path of school and work she was out changing the world. By the time I was in my second church she had spent six years as a missionary in El Salvador, raised three children on foreign soil, survived a civil war, and spent another four years in Paraguay building churches. Today she and her husband are building a “completely off the grid” underground house on eighty acres of land in northern Wisconsin. Quite honestly, she puts me to shame!

I share this story with you as I think about what the scripture has to say to our current context. I wonder how often we, like Jesus’ detractors and me as a big brother, fall into the trap of only seeing people through the stereotype and the narrative that we have created for them. We, in religious institutions, often settle on an lazy narrative and split the world into two easy camps—the churched and the unchurched.

skateboard girlBut is it possible that there might be a God-infused spirit in that unchurched person that challenges our default narrative to simply place them in the “unchurched” category? Is it possible that God is showing up in people and places that don’t fit the story that we have reserved for God? Is it possible that God is actually busy creating the kingdom with average people down the street, the son of Joseph, little sisters, the smiling checker at the grocery store, the panting runner who races past you every morning, and the fussy neighbor on the other side of the fence?

Is it possible that God’s world is bigger than our world?

Is it possible that our default narratives have more fiction than non-fiction in them?

Is it possible that God just laughs at our “little sister” stereotypes?