Thursday, January 17, 2013

"As My Grandmother Sleeps"

My grandmother is 86 years old.
86 years of books and letters.
86 years of experiences, good and bad.
86 years of being.

She sleeps a lot now.
It's part of the dementia.
Slowly she is drawing away.

When she awakes I like to sit with her.
I make jokes about commercials with elephants in them.
"You don't need medicine for an elephant. You need a zookeeper."
She laughs.

She asks me to explain what's on the news.
I make up crazy explanations.
"He's really a Martian. That's why Oprah wants to interview him."
She laughs.

Mostly we are quiet.

I give thanks for the time we've had together.
Time talking about politics.
Time talking about religion.
Time talking about our family.
Time listening to learn about my past.
Time spent over ice cream and instant ice tea.
Time spent timelessly.

Valuable time.
I did not know how valuable the time I had with her was.
Now.... I do.

If now were then, she'd listen.
She'd offer advice.
She'd ask questions and clarify.
She'd encourage and build up.
She'd tell me to do good and help people.
Through her God would heal.

But now is now.
Now is different.
Time is short.
I am here for her.
Because she "is" and we "are" I am here.

So I sit quietly and wait for my grandmother to awake.
Soon, we will sit together.
I'll will make her laugh.
Mostly we'll be quiet.
That is enough.

Through her God does heal and I give thanks.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Life Worth Imitating (21st Century Monks)

A Life Worth Imitating (21st Century Monks)

I just ended a three day sojourn with Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Gethsemane located near Bardstown, Kentucky (and also near the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, which was unfortunately closed the day I went for a visit). I hadn't been to the Abbey since my Beeson experience, and had always longed to go back. I had always remembered the place as being quiet and had enjoyed singing the Psalms with the monks. However, since there were a few loving-but-somewhat-closed-minded members of my Beeson Class freaked out about all the Catholic religious imagery (not to mention the veneration of Mary, an image of the "feminine divine" which always makes virtually all Protestants uncomfortable on some level), I wondered what it would be like to go by myself without others unpacking their theological baggage (because Heaven knows I have enough of my own).

Verdict: It was a good experience. 

There's something about the monks singing (or chanting in the Gregorian sense.... we didn't sit around going "ohm, ohm, ohm") those Psalms on a regular schedule that's calming. Reassuring. Maybe even hopeful. There's something about knowing those guys are singing Psalms each and everyday that's reassuring. It's a sign of "groundedness" in a world that's ever changing. A mark of God's never-ending devotion to us via the monks' devotion to the world on behalf of Christ. It was just good. 

My favorite service of the day is "Compline", the final service of the day. I told my wife that my impression of Compline is the monks are singing lullabies to one another, the world, and the Lord. In addition to the Psalms, the monks sing this prayer: 

Before the ending of the day
Creator of the world we pray
that with thy gracious favor thou
wouldst be our Guard and Keeper now

From fears and terrors of the night
defend us Lord by thy great might
and when we close our eyes in sleep
let hearts with Christ their vigil keep

O Father this we ask be done
through Jesus Christ thine only Son
who with the Paraclete and thee
now lives and reigns eternally

My last sermon before I left was all about imitation. Are you imitating the life of Christ and are you discipling someone else so their life might be imitating the life of the Christ? I was thinking about this as I worshipped the Lord with the monks. Monks are all about imitating one another as they seek to imitate Christ. This is their attempt to be just like the disciples: They are seeking to imitate His disciplined simple lifestyle, prayer life, dedication to the Father and world, life of reflection, and even the fellowship he experienced with others. 

I'm not saying that Jesus acted, dressed, and ate exactly as the monks do today. The lifestyle of the monk is Jesus' lifestyle re-imagined into a particular context and for a particular purpose. Jesus and disciples seek to unfold the Kingdom of Heaven into the world. The monks are in their own way and specific place, attempting to live out into that Kingdom. They readily admit that their particular lifestyle isn't the only concrete example everyone should follow. Theirs is a specific calling, just as we are called in some specific kind of way. But the object of their calling is the same as the calling of every other disciple of Jesus: Through faithfulness and devotion to the way of Jesus, create the opportunity for others to find the rest, grace and peace made real in the Kingdom of Heaven now and forever. The monks follow the example set for them for the sake of the Lord and their neighbor, hence the opportunity for anyone to come and retreat with the Lord and from the pressures of the world. So should it be with us and others everyday in our home, in our presence as the church.

It's really the question of what example I have been setting that I take with me on this journey, but it's the question of what example I want to set I need to bring back home. 

This is what really drove me into this current journey -  all that's comforting and everything else that vexing about how I'm imitating Christ - to a monastery (and beyond) for some unpacking and reflection. Because just like the abbot of those Trappist monks, I have a responsibility in some way, shape, or form set an example and create an environment where people can both imitate Christ ultimately for the sake of God and others. Somewhere along the way what this looks like for me personally in the specific context of where I live and work has gotten muddled and confused. 

So I suppose on some level I'm looking for some variation of the order the monks live out every day. And while it probably doesn't mean singing Psalms and praying prayers seven times a day (eight, really, if you also count their daily Mass), wearing a robe, and making a fudge, the idea that everything in our life should be designed to bring honor and glory to God by creating a place of hospitality for all restless souls makes a lot of sense. Or as my friend (and current host) Paul Rebelo puts it, "a life built on serving 'The Other'". A place created through holiness, helpfulness, prayer, grace, mercy, and a vision focused on imitating a life dedicated to the restoration and liberation of others in a Kingdom built on love and not force, should be the essence of every church, every home, and every heart that calls Jesus, "Lord". 

The world needs some 21st Century monks. What that order looks like is what I'm chasing.

A House Re-Purposed for Hospitality

A House Re-Purposed for Hospitality
On the first day of my journey heading toward the Abbey of Gethsemane after eating dinner with Nevan, I stayed at a bed and breakfast, Tucker House, located in the Louisville Metroplex. I took advantage of the "Traveler's Special" which made the stay more expensive than a night at a Motel 6, but a lot less expensive than a night at a Holiday Inn Express. Since I had my fill of sketchy hotels during the research period of my dissertation (Example: I stayed in a Howard Johnsons in Dallas where apparently someone was shot in a drug deal gone bad, a fact I learned in a newspaper the day after I checked out), I opted for the Tucker House.

If you are in the Louisville area I couldn't recommend the place any higher. It's very nice and clean. The house is decorated to the period it was built (the antebellum south). The breakfast, which was made by the proprietors, Devona and Steve Porter, was killer... absolutely fantastic. And it was nice and quiet. Will definitely take Aimee there someday.

I had the opportunity to interact with Devona during breakfast. They serve the meal in what I can only describe is a large Sitting Room framed with large windows overlooking their property equipped with a dining room table. It's adjacent to the kitchen and you can see the person cooking at the stove through a serving window. As Devona made my veggie omelet, cherry-nut scones, and gourmet bacon (told you the breakfast was killer.... they also served a grapefruit which was halved, sectioned, the top coated with turbinato sugar, and warmed on high under a broiler for five minutes.... sprinkle a few blueberry on the top and give it a try) she told me a little bit of history of the house. Apparently original owners who built the home, the Turners, were slave owners, and the wife, Nancy Jane Turner, was known to be a brutal master. 

To be honest, that bit of information creeped me out, and truth be told would have deterred me from staying in that building had I known it in advance of booking. As a Christian I don't believe in karma (the concept of which, as I understand it, in Hindu culture is more about the supernatural measure of a life as opposed to the "what goes around, comes around") but if there was such a thing, a place with a brutal slave owner I'd think would be thick with bad vibes. 

But upon further review, a couple of things occurred to me. First, the Porters, given their understanding of the home's history, make sure people of all cultures and races are made to feel welcome (and in fact all different types and kinds of folks have stayed in that home under their care and watch). Since they purposed the home to provide hospitality, that's what it does now (and they do it very well). The history of the place, which is pretty sinister, isn't determining it's future. The current owners, after much painstaking and extensive restoration, have restored the structure to it's former glory, but have redeemed its purpose. In a place which was oppressive, now there is a welcome for everyone. There's a good sermon in there somewhere.

And the other reflection I might share is that while Tucker House is now living out as a "second act", so too are it's owners. Devona talked about how one day while working in a marketing company in a job she hated, one day she just snapped and without provocation indicated to her boss that she was quitting. A month later, after wrapping up her work and handing off her assignments, she was unemployed, wondering about her future. At the time recently remarried, Steve asked her if she could do anything professionally what would it be, and she answered, "Own and operate a bed and breakfast". Now she's living the dream. 

Of course I'm sure it's not all roses and cream as a B&B operator. They might occasionally, for example, get a boarder who when asked if it's OK for breakfast to be served at 8am, will look at them like they have three heads (I'm on retreat, man) or drink all the diet ginger ale in in their hospitality fridge. But at least the new problems that are now hers are different than the old problems she could no longer carry. That, and she carries them with someone else whom she loves and loves her back. For Devona, I think there is a grace manifested in the reality of her life each and every day just by waking up. 

And so it should be for all of us.

Dinner With My Publisher

Dinner With My Publisher (Sounds Kind of Hoity-Toity Doesn't It?)
The first day of this journey I stopped in Louisville to have dinner with my publisher, Nevan Hooker. Nevan not only owns Minister's Label Publishing, but he is also the man behind, which is a website making available resources of all kinds for children's ministry. While I can't say either one of us got rich trying to ride the coattails of Bob Russell, we both learned valuable lessons from the experience. I hadn't talked to Nevan in a couple of years, so this was a chance to figure out what those lessons were (beyond me not ever wanting to go though the process of writing a book again in someone else's voice).

I won't get specific in regards to Nevan (his story will someday make a pretty good book itself) but in the case of this book, his willingness to be entrepreneurial not only closed a few doors, but opened a few new ones. That's what we talked a lot about over a nice dinner. If you are willing to, as Nevan so aptly put it, "throw some spaghetti up on the wall to see what sticks", life is bound to get a little bit messy. Nothing ventured is nothing gained, but everything gained has a cost, and sometimes the price paid is pretty dear. The price might just be money or time, but it could be a relationship, profession, and even the threat of your sanity. That's way life works sometimes, I suppose. When you think outside of the box, some chapters in relationships and institutions close, and while pages turn to reveal a new chapter of growth, hope, and opportunities.

In Nevan's case one door closing (working in a huge church in Louisville) because he was seeking to open a lot of new doors, led to new doors being open (or namely, the creation of For Nevan there have been rewards and costs, but ultimately it's enabled him to do what he set out to do. It was interesting and informative to listen to him reflect on all the changes this has meant in his life. It was also interesting to find out for the first time the degree of risk he took to publish that book as he was seeking to make things happen. 

Leaving dinner I couldn't help but reflect on the chances I've taken, and both the cost and reward of those risks taken. Giving up on law school meant getting the chance to go to seminary. Giving up on taking a small church meant getting to take advantage of the opportunities that come to staff people and associates in larger churches. Walking away from the WOC meant learning a lot about myself in the pressure cooker that was the IGRAC, and ultimately getting to live and serve in Goshen at First UMC. Giving up the chance to go to Indianapolis meant getting the chance to find out what it's like to live and work in Lima in my current capacity. On and on it goes..... the road not taken and the journey made.

In any event, it was great to see Nevan and here how well things are going for him. Here's hoping a national fascination with Bob Russell sweeps the country and our book gets downloaded by the millions. But in the event that doesn't happen, you'll be in my prayers Nevan. Can't wait to see what your next adventure holds.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Getting Serious About Staying In Love With God

The United Methodist Church has three - and only three - general rules.

  1. Do Good
  2. Do No Harm
  3. Stay In Love With God

I've always had a clear sense of what it's meant to do good as a pastor. I've always tried to keep this at the top of the list and pushed the congregation hard to do good in the process. Unfortunately, sometimes when you try to do good, people often end up feeling harmed. They think they are getting left behind or choices are made that conflict with their priorities. So ministry for me has largely been a balance between trying to do good, and doing my best to help people heal when they feel they've been harmed.

But somewhere in the midst of doing good and doing no harm, staying in love with God ended up being placed on the back-burner. Outside of my daily Upper Room devotional (which I highly recommend) all of my study and reflection went into the work of the ministry. All my energy went into trying to keep everyone focused on heading in same direction, trying to work out whatever differences came up, and work through moments of brokenness. Little energy was going into working on the one relationship that needs to be right, so that all the other ones rest on solid ground.

This has taken on me, personally, a real toll. I must credit my wife with forcing me to acknowledge this. As a member of our staff for the last couple of years, she's experienced first hand the complexities of this work. The difficulties of trying to keep everyone focused on fulfilling all three, The Great Commandment:

"The most important commandment," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
(Mark 12:29-31) 

The Great Commission:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
(Matthew 28:18-20)

and The Great Requirement:

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8)

It was Aimee who begged me to just take some time, and go seek God's presence. It was the SPRC and staff of Community UMC who gave me the blessing to do so (for which I am thankful).

So I'm taking some time off from the ministry of the Lord, to just go chase the Lord. You've heard of a "date night" where couples set aside a night once a week or once a month to reconnect, focusing only on one another over dinner.... this is time I'm setting aside to just be in God's presence. To let the Lord know that every other relationship I have will only grow and flourish if I'm right with Him first.

I'm going to listen to Trappist monks chant the Psalms just like they've been doing for 1200 years. I'm going to spend some time some other folks who want to figure out how to be spiritual and holy, and not still not be overly weird. I'm going to visit some friends of mine who are ministers who have been down this road and know what it's like. And I'm going to visit my grandmother whose health is deteriorating slowly, and ask the Lord to be present with her.

Mostly, I'm just going to invite God to speak by getting away from the noise, and go to a place where I might be able to patiently listen. To go find that place Jesus always went away from the crowds where he could sit in his Father's presence.

In the meantime Daniel Hughes and our Lead Lay Pastor, David Imler, are going to take care of preaching at the Shawnee Campus. Charlotte, Daniel and our staff will all be available to serve and guide you. Christ's wonderful ministry will continue at this church... and with a little prayer your pastor will come back refreshed by Living Water and Bread Alone Which Satisfies.

I'll preach this Sunday, and then you won't see me again until early February. Until then, do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God.

God Bless,