Saturday, July 06, 2013

Stop and Go (part 1)

I was a youth pastor for a long time. Long relative to how long youth pastors usually last, anyway. The benefit of this is that now, more than 20 years when I first started working as a youth pastor, I've had the chance to see how my work, long ago, continues to play out. Since I've been out of that kind of work for almost a decade, even the youngest middle school students I worked with are now in their early twenties, and as for the oldest ones.... well, I had a senior from my first year at Shawnee who just turned 40 (which is to say that I was only four years older than she as a pastor, which probably as a Lead Pastor I would never be OK with today.... but then again, when I was a kid, we were never buckled in the backseat and we could ride our bikes halfway across town without any supervision, so I come from a different age). Via mechanisms like Facebook, you are able now to get some sort of feeling for where all these young people are at now.

Some are active in churches. Others aren't. Some have left Christianity altogether, either for another faith or atheism. Some have taken on all the trappings of modern evangelical Christianity - conservative socially, theologically, and politically. Others are much more open and progressive. Some are spiritual, but not religious. Most have been married. Many are divorced. Some have come out of the closet, and are living openly at gay and lesbian adults, many in committed relationships. Quite frankly, where they are spiritually is all over the map.

It's been a fascinating study. 

When I've asked, I've found in the majority of these adults the experiences they had as teens has helped shape the course of their faith journey. For most the experiences they had as teens were important and positive. If asked most list a camp or mission trip or a leader from that time and place as an influencer on the direction their faith life has headed. While the number of these folks isn't exactly replete with pastors, missionaries, and seminary theologians, these ministry experiences got people thinking about God. Who God is, what God wants, and what that might mean for them. And they've continue to wrestle with this question as time has passed and they discovered too, who they were.  They've changed over the years, and as a consequence so has their relationship with the Lord. 

The book of Ecclesiastes is the journey of a person who was trying to figure out both who they were and who God is, and where those two questions meet. He's a person who has tried to find meaning and hope in both austerity and excess. In selfishness and holiness. He's run the whole gamut. He's been everything you can be socially, emotionally, and intellectually. And in Ecclesiastes 3, we get a little bit of that wisdom he's discovered through experience shared with us.

1    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2     a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3     a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
4     a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5     a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6     a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7     a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8     a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Pretty striking if you think about it. The author has found that contrary to the platitudes he's heard in his life, that he's found there were times that required him to be engaged in all of these things. Killing and healing. Destroying and building. Giving his everything and giving up. Life he discovered had called him to all of these moments. Sometimes extreme moments. But those moments never last. At some point, they cease, and a new time for something else arrives. It's when you've refused to acknowledge the moment has changed, and so should you, you can you end up in some real trouble.

Balance. To realize both the character and competency of Christ, we are called to a life of balance. Work and rest. Ebb and flow. And what's more, to not be surprised that life will be this way. To not feel disappointed or abandoned in those times that are difficult, especially, but to realize they are just a part of living. A part of being a disciple.

I'll be the first to admit this isn't easy. Fortunately, I don't have to be. The Apostle Paul beat me to it. We tend to think of Paul as a single-minded, driven individual whose every waking moment was focused on how to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles. But Paul paints a different picture. He tells us Romans 7 that his inner life is split. That some things he knows he should be doing, he does, but that there are other things he knows he needs to do that he just can't bring himself to. On the other side of the ledger, Paul acknowledges there are those things in his life he ought not to be doing, but he does anyway. He acknowledges too that no matter how much he tried to make himself obedient to divine law and order, that he found himself failing. It was only in Christ he found he could begin to bring this together. 

And maybe that's because Jesus, it would appear, in what by all accounts was an extraordinary life, doesn't let relationships with others get him imbalanced with the relationship he has with his Father. He has moments when thousands come to hear him preach and other moments when people want to throw him out of town. He's tested by those not sure of who he is. He's pushed by those who think he's dangerous to the good of the order. He's overwhelmed by huge crowds  who want something from him. He's visited in the middle of the night by someone who is worried how it would look if he came to him as a seeker in the middle of the day. 

And yet Jesus continues on. He goes to the big crowds willingly, and he withdraws to be alone to pray to God. He feeds the masses, and then when they come back looking for more he refuses to feed them again physically, imploring them to seek a different kind of bread from the Lord. He always goes back to the fundamental relationship he has with God, and works out of it.

His life was an ongoing ebb and flow of being sustained by a different kind of bread. We see this, and yet can't seem to work this much into our own spiritual life.

I mean for example, let's just talk about prayer for a moment. If we keep saying that it's important to seek the Lord's presence, and that prayer historically has been foundational to God's presence in the form of a a new understanding of purpose, or a new resting place where peace can be realized, what does it say if it's hard for you to pray? 

Is your schedule too busy?
Are you afraid of silence?
Do you just not know where to begin?
If there too much clutter in your life?
Is there some unresolved anger at someone else, or at the Lord, that is dominating your thoughts?
Would you do better with a set time and place for prayer that would inform the prayer life for the rest of your day?
Are you not convinced your prayer is being heard by anybody? 
Have you honestly just not actually, really ever tried to pray?

All of these possible responses, and others, gives us a window into who we are. How we define our relationship with God, and how maybe the times and our experiences have defined our relationship with God. But if we are unable to pray in a way that's really meaningful, what does that really say about the nature of our relationship with God? And you can begin to do this with every and all relationships with others, our relationship to our possessions, job, wealth, those who are different..... 

Is our life so out of balance, that in the end our relationships are suffering, and as a consequence so are we?

John Wesley always believed himself to be destined to do something great for God. It's a path he could have chosen or not chosen to take, but from an early age he felt this burning in his bones that God wanted to use him mightily. That belief was born from his mother, Susanna, who upon John being saved from a fire that was consuming the family home (a fire John believed was set by parishioners who disliked his father, who was their Anglican vicar) as a child, felt God spared her son for this reason. We don't have any record that she felt the same way about any of his 18 other brothers and sisters, but considering that nine of her children died as infants, John being spared probably for her took on even greater significance. Something she bore down into him as she raised and educated him as a child. 

John's destiny in many ways was set for him, but he still had to wrestle out what this meant. He tried by sheer will and the force of his own effort to grow into this destiny placed upon him. He completed his studies as Oxford and was ordained in the Anglican Church. While at Oxford he mapped out a disciplined life that marked out every moment of his day in times of prayer, study, service, worship, and even a little bit of rest. Others joined him in his systematic pursuit of God, and the number of these methodical Christians - Methodists they became known - continued to grow. He even took a pastoral appointment to the colony of Georgia, seeking a greater challenge of evangelism to Native Americans and slaves, far outside of the limelight that the work of Methodists in England could have brought him.  

But the peace Jesus promised in the book of John (My peace I give you. My peace I leave you.) was not his. It bothered him that despite all he was doing for the sake of the Gospel, he still wondered whether or not he was truly accepted and forgiven in the eyes of God. It forced him home to England, and for a time not doing much in the way of ministry. It was only in the silence and quiet of Aldersgate that Wesley heard God speak on his own terms.

Work and works had to give way to rest and listening. 

We have to pay attention to these movements. Movement in our lives. Movements in our times. And seek how we feel about them, what they say about us. About who we are, and where we're going. 

If we find all of our identity and purpose in our work, is that good? Is that bad? What is God trying to tell us?

If our core relationships are broken, what is required of us? Do you move further away, or do you make some changes to draw closer and make some repairs?

If you never feel like you are enough, but yet you are told that God loves you, what does that say about you? About God?

In the midst of a discipling relationship, where we are seeking to become like Christ by putting ourselves under his authority by receiving a little help from someone of integrity to help guide us, as we learn who God is and what God wants, we will learn much about ourselves... and it might not always be very pretty.

I started being discipled by a pastor who lives and works in Ft. Wayne via Google Plus and the folks at 3DM sometime early last fall. To be quite honest, I would have never have chosen this particular individual on my own to begin helping learn how to walk around the circle, which involves us...

Listening for God.
Sensing when God has spoken.
Reflecting on what has been said, and figure out what now is required from me.
Sharing this word with others.
Making a plan to be obedient to what God wants.
Being accountable to others to follow thru.
Listening to how that plays out with God later.

Being in a group with this leader and five other guys, as I listened to how their lives were being navigated professionally, personally, in regards to their family and friends, their health.... I didn't feel so great about my own life. Certainly I had something to offer but starting with the most fundamental of all my relationships with others - namely my wife and kids - I began to realize just how much God wanted me to grow in Christ's character and in his competence. 

It scared the crap out of me after more than 20 years of marriage, and being a father for 14 years, how much more I didn't know than what I really did. How much I took for granted and how fundamentally how much growing I still had to do. I began to realize how much my identity and self-worth were tied up in being Pastor Bryan, and how little I thought about being "Aimee's husband" or "Max's dad". 

It started to really mess me up. Call it a midlife crisis. Call it the bottom of defining my worth by working my tail off for since I was in seminary. Call it whatever you want. All I knew was that by January, I knew and those who truly loved me knew, I had to get away and start sorting some things out... which is why the first week of January I found myself chanting Psalms with the monks who are brothers together at the Abbey of Gethsemane in a remote part of Kentucky. 

Everything for me just stopped, and I had to go to a place where I my title or history meant nothing, and the only thing I could do was wait and listen to God on God's schedule and God's terms. 

You at the heart of this Christian faith is the relationship we have with God, and the greatest gift we can give one another is to help discover how to live that relationship out authentically. Not perfectly. Not in some pre-packaged sort of way where we say all the right things and do all the right things as it seems to have been determined by a few influential preachers, lobbyists, and writers. But authentically in a way that shapes all our other relationships. To know when we need to set aside something else, and move closer to someone who needs us. To draw away from the hustle and bustle, and seek a place of solace and peace in the presence of God, and God alone. To spur one another on in this journey so that the peace and purpose and joy promised, is theirs. 

To learn the rhythm of how the Lord wants us to live, and become obedient to that rhythm. Which leads me now to ask you three questions:

- Do you have someone of integrity in your life you can be completely real with who you know seeks only that you would know the movement of God in your life?

- Are you sensitive to the way you are using your time, energy and resources to accomplish that God wants to accomplish though you in your life and the lives of others?

- Are you sharing what you are learning with somebody else?

So this week, I leave with those questions, as we keep thinking about living a life in God's rhythm, and next week we seek to confront the possibility that if we take this seriously, something, or things, might have to be pruned out of our lives.