Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ten Things I Would Tell Myself

So it's graduation season, the time when we talk about beginnings being disguised as endings and when kids get their first taste of "the real world" (whatever that means).  This week, I began thinking about what I would tell my 18 year-old, about-to-graduate self if I could go back in time and share some things I've learned along the way.  Here is what I came up with:

1) Make friends with mystery.  The more you learn, the more you will learn how much you have to learn.  This world is full of wonder and mystery, and the One who made it loves surprises.  Don't feel like mystery is willful ignorance; rather it is the humble admission that Ultimate Reality doesn't fit easily into your brain.  To force it in explodes the brain and shrinks the reality at the same time.

2) Life is pure gift.  You have never earned one breath.  The sun comes up at the hand of a power not your own.  On the day you were born, someone else did the labor.  Life is pure gift.  So live it, because sleepwalking through it is an offense to the One who gave it to you.

3) Don't be ashamed to say you are on a journey.  There will be issues that you need to wrestle with and illumination will not come instantaneously.  Some people in your journey will claim that faith is certainty (arrival).  But faith isn't certainty- faith is trusting enough to keep going in the face of all the questions (journey).  Following Jesus demands one who is willing to journey- so don't be ashamed to admit that you are on one.

4) Don't focus as much on a prayer life as a life of prayer.  There are people who gauge their faith quantitatively, counting the number of hours they spend in formal prayer.  However, everything you offer up to God is prayer, so live in such a way that ALL of life is prayer.  It should be easier to identify when you are not praying than when you are.  Let prayer permeate your entire life- not just 1 hour (or 23) of your day.

5) Listen!  Pay attention.  God reveals himself through words.  Listen, really listen, to others when they talk.  Notice what is said and unsaid.  Don't just read books, listen to them.  The shortest way to your heart is through your ears.  As a minister, you will have your fair share of time to be the one talking.  If you never listen, you'll rarely have anything worth saying.

6) Have a soft heart and tough skin.  Have compassion for others.  So much of our society depends on numbness, but never lose the capacity to feel for others.  Let others in, warts and all.  At the same time, don't let every little criticism depress you.  Don't let others define your ministry or determine your character.  Sure, let others have an impact on you but never control you.  Be a servant to all and a slave to none.

7) Keep up with friends and family.  Don't assume they know your love and care.  Communicate it regularly.  There are a million forces in this world that prevent you from staying in touch with them, but let love outweigh them all.

8) Don't be afraid of the truth.  Jesus is the truth, so every time you seek the truth you are seeking Jesus.  Wherever you discover truth (whether in science projects, studying other faiths, learning from friends, reading the Bible, confessing your own sins) you can see a little more of God's heart.  Therefore, don't be afraid to peer behind partisan slants and sectarian creeds to seek the Truth that trumps all truths.  There will be days when all you have are doubts, but those are the growing pains of your faith growing up and branching out.  Also, speak the truth, as best you know how, with all the sensitivity love requires.

9) Never confuse your truth with the truth.  Most of the evils perpetrated in this world are laid on the altar of truth.  To assume that you have a sure view of God's reality is either to maximize your vision or minimize your God.  Humility is a virtue of the mind, as well as the heart.  Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean they are evil or that they speak no truth at all.  It might mean that both of you are right (or wrong).  Since God is an awfully big God, you need all the perspectives you can gather.  Read people you KNOW you will disagree with.  Listen to varying traditions.  Learn.  Grow.  Seek.

10) Love.  Love deep and wide.  Risk the pain and agony that love often costs.  Love God and neighbor as if it is the most important thing in all the world, because, well.... it is.  

So what would you tell your 18 year-old, about-to-graduate self?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Praise of the Mothers

The first chapter of Luke records a song/prayer from the mouth of a young girl, a virgin from Nazareth which was a small, insignificant town in Galilee that didn't even merit one mention in the Old Testament. Most scholars believe the girl to be in her early teens.  No doubt, she was from the lower rungs of the social ladder, and she had virtually no say in the affairs of her life.  Yet, God chooses this insignificant girl in the middle of nowhere to be the mother of the Messiah.  Before the chapter is over, she breaks out into song, praising the God who lifts up the humble (including her) and brings down the proud.  This is a song of social subversion, a God who makes justice in an unjust world.

Just three chapters later, in Luke 4, Jesus is preaching his first public sermon.  No surprise that Nazareth is the setting.  Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah 61, a text which speaks of God's renewal movement in Jerusalem and beyond.  The poor will be lifted up, prisoners will be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will be liberated.  Jesus states, "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," and he goes on to state that the scripture is not just fulfilled for Israel, but also Israel's enemies.  Again, this kind of message turned the prevailing social structures and popular theologies on their heads.  In his first address, Jesus announces a Kingdom which turns the world as we know it on its head.

While Jesus could have gotten this idea from his study of the Hebrew Bible, I believe it might have originated from somewhere else.  Perhaps Jesus' first inclinations of God were transmuted before he was even conscious of it.  I imagine Mary, nursing Jesus in her rocking chair in Nazareth, and singing a simple song  about an amazing God who turns the world upside down.  I imagine that song getting in Jesus' blood as much as Mary's milk did.  And by the time Jesus is an adult, Mary's song continues to sound through him.  When I read Jesus' sermon in Nazareth, I hear echoes of Mary's song from the same place.

I've come to believe that most of our views of God are more caught than taught.  They have more to do with intuition than formal training.  They arise more from observing attitudes and behaviors than reading books or taking classes.  If this is the case, then I am hard pressed to think of a more important role in the world than that of mothers, who shape children in their most malleable stages.

And so, on this mother's day eve, I would like to thank my mother, who in her words and actions, taught me to love the Scriptures.  She didn't just read for information, but transformation.  She didn't try to make them relevant to her life- she made her life relevant to them.  From my earliest days, I remember her praying from places deep within her soul to places deep with God's being.  Truly, deep called to deep.  Always, ALWAYS, she sought to serve rather than be served.  In times of conflict, she was the peacemaker, oftentimes absorbing pain and hurt that wasn't hers to begin with.  In all this, she loved my brother and me unconditionally.  While I have spent the last 12 years of my life studying religious matters, I can see that no class has shaped me more than observing my own mother.

I would also like to thank my wife, who is a wonderful mother to two incredible boys.  In many ways, she is their safe place.  When they are afraid, they want their mother.  When they are hurt, they want their mother.  When they are happy and want to share it, they want their mother.  She knows them better than any other.  She teaches them to see God in the little things, and she teaches them that loving God and others is the big thing.  She teaches them to consider others before themselves.  In her life, she exhibits joy and treasures relationships.  Even in their worst moments, Paxton and Truett never question the love of their mother.

And so, I would like to praise all the mothers out there, the normal women in the middle of nowhere performing the most mundane chores.  I would like to thank those whose songs of faith will echo in the lives of their children for years to come.  More specifically, I would like to honor my mother, Gina, and my wife, Rebecca, whose songs I can't help but sing.

Happy Mother's Day!!!    

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Farming With the Faithful

I grew up in a farming family, in an area where farming dictates the way of life.  There are days when my soul longs for a return to the farm.  Sometimes I yearn for a time that is categorized more by the seasons than the seconds.  Sometimes my heart cries out for a pace that is more reverent than suicidal.  Sometimes I hunger for work that depends on more than my two hands.  Thoroughly situated in an urban setting, I frequently miss the farm.  Yet, the longer I minister the more I see the parallels between agriculture and ministy.  (By the way- have you ever noticed how Jesus' metaphors for the presence of the Kingdom and faith formation arise from agricultural settings.  While this no doubt stems from his agricultural context, I also believe it insinuates latent compatibilities between agricultural work and Kingdom service.)

Here are some of the similaritites I see between the two:
1) Farming is work that depends on external elements.  A farmer can do everything right- plant the right seed at the right time, water appropriately, fertilize as necessary, and monitor appropriately- and he is still one drought, flood, pest, fungus, hail storm, or lightning strike away from losing an entire crop.  In short, farming is bigger than the farmer.  A bountiful harvest is nothing short of a gift from God.  Likewise, ministry transcends the minister (thanks be to God).  A meaningful sermon demands ears to hear, human transformation requires something like death and resurrection (which lie outside the minister's jurisdiction), and a healthy church depends on the presence of the Spirit.  Like farming, much of ministry is trusting the process to more potent hands.  A vibrant ministry is nothing short of a gift from God.

2) Farming walks the line between the mundane and the miraculous.  Farmwork is oftentimes monotonous- doing the same things every season, every week, every day.  It is predictable.  On the other hand, watching a seed grow from the soil, observing water freshen a parched field, and remembering how one seed in April produced 25 more in September grants a farmer a front-row seat to miracles.  Likewise, a preacher's schedule is full of the same, regular activities:  visiting, studying, praying, preaching...  Yet, in the midst of the mundane one can witness miracles- common, ordinary, natural miracles.

3) Farming takes time.  The work is done in seasons and can't be done otherwise.  One week will not a crop make.  Farmers cannot rush and hurry.  (By the way, have you EVER seen a farmer in a hurry?)  A crop demands numerous rains, multiple sunrises and sunsets, and patience.  Seeds do not sprout in microwaves over seconds but in the soil over seasons.  Likewise, ministry cannot be rushed.  It takes time for faith to mature and for the Kingdom to make its home amongst us.  In fact, it happens so slowly and quietly we tend not to see it at all.  Oftentimes, I find myself trying to make the church grow in one week- make disciples in one sermon- make a sermon in 30 minutes.  However, microwave ministry tends to create 30-second disciples, with no root to sustain them in the long run.  Hurrying ahead of God usually ruins the harvest.  Sometimes, trust seems like more work than work!

I guess I'm beginning to see how lessons from the field can inform one's ministry and hoping we all can be humble, patient, and faithful in whatever season of life we are in.  Thoughts?