Posts Tagged With: spiritual

The Church: The Practice Field for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a nice word, isn’t it? It brings up images of reconciliation, restored relationships, people getting along, and everyone being nice. If only it was that easy. Forgiveness is, quite honestly, hard work. It doesn’t always happen quickly, nor does it always happen easily. It takes a desire to get better at it. It is anything but natural for us sinful human beings. And yet it is crucial for relationships as well as a witness about the nature of the God who is committed to forgiving us. We can continue to grow in our ability to forgive. It takes practice. The church is precisely the place to do so. The church, you see, is the practice field for forgiveness.

Forgive me (haha!) for using a sports metaphor here, but I believe it makes a good point. Using American football as a “for instance,” there is the practice field, and then there is the separate, official game field. The practice field gets used to hone skills, learn plays, and repeat them until they are automatic. This practice field is where you make mistakes, try again, and work at each skill until you get them all right. Then you take those refined skills to the official field and see how well you do in the real situation of a game against another team that will test how well you’ve practiced your skills. Then you’re back the next week at the practice field honing, refining, and practicing your skills even further.

Forgiveness is one of the skills that we work on as disciples of Jesus. We do so because it’s central to our life in Christ. We do so because it is the foundation of our relationship with God. We do so because forgiveness is the nature of God who created us, gives us life, and who holds us in constant forgiveness. To understand anything about God—to have anything to do with love—we have to understand something about forgiveness.

So we work at it. Within the community of the church we can practice, hone, refine, and learn the ways of forgiveness. Here in the family of faith we make our mistakes, we try again, and we work at forgiveness of each other. As we try this skill out in the world around us, the official game field, we have our forgiveness skills tested. Sometimes we find that it’s harder than we thought. So we come back, again and again, to the church. For it is here, on the practice field, that we hear, learn, experience, try, and grow in our practice of forgiveness. Here forgiveness is granted to us over and over. And here we get to try it out on each other and see how it works.

Even on the practice field forgiveness can be difficult. It is still hard work. But the crucified and risen Christ who lives in and among us accomplishes it. Through Christ forgiveness is the nature of the church.

The next posting on this site will provide some practice skills we can work at to hone our forgiveness.

Categories: religious, spiritual disciplines, spirituality | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Insights into the Election of a Bishop, Part Two: “The Presence of God Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

Part Two: “The Presence of God Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

This blog is mainly a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding and participation in God’s mission. However, the next few posts will be more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.

Here’s the situation: I was recently a “middle of the pack” nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial at whatever level you are open. You can catch up by reading Part One here.

Because of the way the bishop election was set up, my name, photo, and biographical information (resume), along with the 16 other pre-nominees, were quite public for more than two months before the actual election process in April. The rationale was to give voting members plenty of time to review information on potential candidates and to come to the assembly prepared to nominate and vote in successive ballots.

In the meantime, I had informed my congregation council of these events and possible ramifications. They were supportive, asked appropriate questions, and agreed to keep this confidential ntil such time as we could agree on the most appropriate way to inform the congregation. We decided that a congregation-wide email, written by me, would go out in the next few days. That would be followed up by verbal explanation by me on the following Sunday during worship. My fear was that the congregation would somehow receive this news as a desire on my part to leave them—which couldn’t be further from the truth. The congregation, however, was characteristically supportive and promised to keep this election process—and me—in prayer.

On another front, many conversations among fellow clergy-types included the list of seventeen potential candidates. There was a lot of evaluation, a lot of questions, and a lot of critique. Motives were guessed at and qualifications examined. This began as a time of severe self-consciousness for me. I felt as if I needed to remain quiet among colleagues lest it appear I was somehow campaigning for this office. At the same time I wanted to remain authentic and speak among them of those things about which I have knowledge and passion. It was a difficult and tension-filled balancing act.

In the midst of balancing this fear and tension God broke through in a couple of impressive ways. The first involved my daughter, who for medical and other reasons had left college before graduating a couple of years earlier. She came over to the house one evening and announced to my wife and me that she had applied, and had been accepted, to return to college. She told me that if I could enter into this bishop process in spite of my terror, she could face whatever issues might come her way and complete her degree. As a self-proclaimed education snob, I was beyond grateful. I was thrilled. I was delighted. If I had the skill and agility, I would have danced. Even if this was all that came out of this whole “bishop thing” (as my family and I now called it), that was more than enough.

 

The second thing God did was exorcise a personal demon in my life. All of the old torments from Junior High that I thought I had dealt with long ago had been resuscitated in this process. Irrational fear and self-consciousness that I thought had been put to death had merely been covered over. Now that I was more or less forced to deal with the vulnerability that accompanied being one of the seventeen potential nominees for bishop, God took the opportunity to rid me of many of those fears. As I dealt with my paralyzing terror of ridicule, mockery, and snickering, I became aware of how much influence those things still had in my life. I also became aware of how their hold on me was disappearing. I can only explain the liberation I was experiencing as an exorcism. The demon of fear was being cast out of me. I was being set free. This was a biblical experience in the most profound sense of the term. It was deeply spiritual. The crucified and risen Jesus had come, found me in my terror-bound captivity, and set me free.

 

A member of my congregation asked me, a couple of week before the synod assembly, what was going on with me. My preaching, this person said, now has a further power and clarity that wasn’t there before. My only explanation was that death and resurrection are real. I was experiencing it. Again, if this is what came out of the “bishop thing,” I would be more than grateful. I was, for the first time, content in the chaos and weirdness of this pre-election process. Let the synod assembly come. Whatever happened would be fine with me. The outcome of the election of our new bishop in some ways no longer mattered to me. There was no pride at stake if I wasn’t actually nominated and no anxiety if I was actually elected. It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about me. It was about God continuing to reveal God’s self in some strange and wonderful ways. There was peace. My yoke was now easy. My burden was now light.

 

I was ready for anything at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I fully expected the Spirit of God to be at work, even through the church! Which will be the focus in Part Three.

 

Categories: american christianity, religious, rostered leaders, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Insights into the Election of a Bishop: Part 1, “Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You.”

This blog was always intended to be a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding of participation in God’s mission. However, the next few posts will be more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.

Here’s the situation: I was recently a nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Granted, I was a “middle of the pack” kind of nominee, but a nominee nonetheless. I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial on whatever level you at which you are open. So here we go. Part One: Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You–

The Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, elected a new bishop at its most recent assembly in April. I couldn’t be more pleased with the selection of the Rev. James Gonia as our new bishop. Jim is without a doubt qualified, competent, experienced, gracious, humble, and called by God to that position. I am elated that the RMS is in such very good hands indeed.

The process leading up to that election was new for us. It involved months of discernment, prayer, meetings, and reading. Last December, all people in the RMS were invited to consider submitting the name of any ELCA pastor they deemed likely to be nominated for the office of bishop. Bear in mind this wasn’t a nomination, it was a “pre-nomination” of those considered likely to be nominated once the assembly opened in April. Confused yet?

As it turned out, I was among the group of “pre-nominees.” No one was more surprised than me to find that I was on that list with 63 other pastors. Someone thought I was at that level of leadership, clarity, maturity, and responsibility to have submitted my name for consideration on this list. I had, apparently, fooled at least one person.

In order to remain on the list of potential nominees, the 64 “pre-nominees” were asked to submit biographical information by filling out a three-page online form. This information would then be publicized throughout the entire Rocky Mountain Synod. Since I had never seriously considered myself “bishop material,” and had never really aspired to that office, declining this offer to fill out detailed information on my views of the office of bishop, my gifts, my challenges, and more seemed an easy call to make. I intended to save myself the embarrassment and headache of this process by simply removing myself now. I didn’t necessarily feel called by God to be a bishop, knew all too well the gaps in my own leadership, and understood that I had a slim-to-none chance of being elected anyway. Withdrawing seemed an easy decision.

But in conversations with God, my family, and trusted colleagues about all this, here’s what I realized during the intervening weeks. This process for me was less about “winning” an election and more about what God may be up to. Maybe I wasn’t called to be bishop, but perhaps I was called into the process for other non-bishop reasons. If God was doing something, and I was being invited to be part of it, then maybe I should consider going along and seeing what that was about. As a strong introvert and foundational nerd whose default setting is to shy away from any situation that might open me up to ridicule, this prospect was terrifying at a core level. I desperately wanted out.

Up until now all this had been someone else’s doing. I hadn’t sought this out; someone else had given my name to the synod office. But if I submitted the requested biographical information, I was saying in a very public way that I was open to being considered for the office of bishop. I could hear the taunts and jeers now, surprisingly similar to those that haunted me through Junior High and High School. “Hey, everybody, look at Moss! He actually thinks he’s got a chance at this! Ha! Who does he think he is? What a loser.” And I could already hear the sneers and the laughter echoing from all corners of the four states and part of a fifth that make up this synod. Junior High terror again, only now swelled to a multiple state level.

“I can’t do this,” I told my family after several sleepless nights. “This whole thing simply terrifies me. I can’t sleep, I can’t think, I have knots in my stomach. This is worse than when I tried out for the Junior Varsity basketball team in 7th grade. The whole school was laughing at the skinny near-sighted geek who thought he could play basketball. It’s just not worth it.” At that point I was glad I didn’t know who had submitted my name because I was thinking somewhat less than charitable thoughts about them.

Then my 25-year-old daughter had the audacity to remind me that as they were growing up, I had always told my kids that when facing new and difficult choices, “fear doesn’t make your decisions for you.” “Doesn’t that apply to you now, dad?” she asked. Dammit. Parental sayings of wisdom are deliberately abstract and are supposed to be for the benefit of the children. They were not meant to be used as weapons to be hurled back at you when you least want to hear them. Because they are freakishly effective.

I stewed on this for a couple more weeks. I spoke with colleagues, confided with my wife, and prayed some rather unpleasant prayers. I pretended I knew just how Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane, and told God that since the salvation of the world was hardly at stake here, couldn’t I just be let off the hook?

But finally, if for no other reason than avoiding accusations of hypocrisy from my three adult children, I quickly filled out the biographical information form and, with trembling hand and churning stomach, submitted it the evening of the last day it could be accepted. Then I went and threw up.

My closest consolation at this point was that there were 63 other pre-nominees. I was certain most of them would also fill out the biographical information and that my name and photo would then be lost in the midst of them. To my horror, when the bios were published, there were only 17 of us. My name, picture, and hastily drafted biographical information were thrust out into uncontrolled internet space where I was certain the mocking and snickers would be unrestrained. My insecurities were flying brightly high atop the flag pole. Every molecule of self-doubt, nerdiness, and inadequacy had risen up and was standing at full attention. There was, from this point on, no place to hide. What was more, now that it was public, I had to tell my congregation.

Watch for Part Two: “The Presence of God is Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

Categories: faith practices, religious, rostered leaders, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Passionate Spirituality of the Mainline Church

Like 9,303 other people (as of this posting), I follow Rachel Held Evans on Twitter @rachelheldevans as well as through her blog, I find her refreshingly honest and hopefully theological. I’ve been so impressed with her writing that I downloaded her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions,” and am currently about 2/3 of the way through it. I’d highly recommend it to those who believe Christianity is judgmental, hateful, condemnatory, and out of touch.

Which is why I was surprised when in some of her latest blog posts she acknowledged she is having a hard time finding a church home. She wrote about it in a couple of blog posts entitled “15 Reasons I Left the Church,” and its sequel, “15 Reasons I Returned to the Church.” Both were articulate, honest, and helpful. Again, I’d recommend them. She was inundated with responses from mainline Christians, who invited her to their church or recommended she try a mainline in her town. She responded in a third blog post, “The Mainline and Me.” In this patient post she gently explained that although she appreciated many things about mainline churches, there were some things missing for her, such as biblical literacy and an emphasis on “cultivating a personal spirituality.” As a pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation (ELCA), I had to admit she has some points as I experienced not-so-subtle pangs of conviction. I felt there was more to be said, but wasn’t sure exactly what.

A couple of days later I got back on Twitter and read some tweets from another source I find refreshingly honest and helpful, “Friar 1 and Friar 2.” These guys are also mainline Protestants (PCUSA), and aren’t afraid to be cynical, straight-forward, and theologically precise. Also having read Rachel’s blog posts, they responded by pointing out some of the ways mainlines have successfully revealed the kingdom of God in the world. An emphasis on social justice and standing fast for the ordination of women are among the most significant contributions. I found myself feeling liberated and inspired.

I realized that I experience the deepest and most profound sense of spirituality not when I’m studying the Bible or at a spiritual retreat, but when I’m holding the hand of a hospice resident as they take their last few breaths. I’m moved by the presence of Jesus when I place the bread and wine of Holy Communion in the hands of a tearful visitor who hasn’t been to church in decades. I am closest to God when I’m in the pre-op room at the hospital saying a quick prayer with a terrified surgical patient. The movement of the Holy Spirit is practically tangible as the congregation gathers around the font while water is poured and promises made. These are deeply and profoundly spiritual times, and I am humbled to stand on holy ground in those moments.

Rachel Held Evans is right. We mainliners don’t always articulate a profound personal spirituality, but it doesn’t take much scratching to uncover an unfathomable depth of communal spirituality. Take part in a congregational program that helps ex-cons prepare for job interviews or participate in a weekend prayer retreat. Both are good things to do. Both are spiritual. Both are walking with Jesus. But for me, it’s no contest as to which one I can articulate with more clarity and passion. Yes, we mainline Christians need to better explain our motivation for our work in the world. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quiet about it, even among ourselves. But if you’re looking for a bottomless wellspring of spiritual life, a mainline church that has relationships with her neighbors is second to none. I am spiritually invigorated by the emphases of the mainline church. I am grateful. In a spiritual way, of course.

Categories: Church in Context, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Response to “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus”

It’s more or less viral. The snazzy YouTube with the young Christian man professing his love for Jesus right alongside his hate for what he calls “false religion.” Because so many will watch this video without thinking it through, and follow a cultural assumption that seems pretty popular right now, it warrants a response.

Full confession: I’m a religious person—in fact, a professional religious person—therefore I have a bias. I also love Jesus, and therefore have a bias. Keep that in mind.

I think this devout Christian young man has some points to make that the Christian religious institution should heed. We aren’t perfect—we are at least as sinful and corrupt and broken as everyone else. And that includes those who have little use for religion. Many of this YouTube poet’s accusations are valid. We ain’t perfect, folks. We need to do a much better job of confessing that, recognizing we are forgiven for that, getting over ourselves, and getting on with Jesus’ work in the world.

But here’s the problem: it’s impossible to separate our views of Jesus from our religion. In fact, whatever it is that has shaped our views/relationship/love for Jesus IS in fact our religion. To believe one can come to some objective and clear perspective on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus all by one’s self is naïve at best, foolish at worst. We are all products of our culture. We have been shaped by societal, historical movements and see the world through the lenses produced. Scientific method, empiricism, individualism, the industrial revolution are only recent influences that have formed our perspectives. Our religious eyes are part of who we are, and we are products of our culture.

So when an enthusiastic young Christian vows the worthlessness of religion, he’s expressing a shallow view and a misunderstanding of who he is. Disavowing “religion” as an institution is actually a religious perspective. It’s just one that is shaped by current cultural trends rather than the wisdom and struggle of wise followers throughout the centuries.

I have a bias, yes. But I will choose to make sure I listen to those ancient Godly people—most of whom are wiser and more spiritual than me—who’ve learned from God, wrestled with God, and gained some insight from God. The forms and practices of Christian religion have weathered the centuries and helped create some sacred space for people like our YouTube poet to come to know, and to love, Jesus.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, faith practices, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Are You Spiritual or Religious?

1 Christmas (B)

Isa 61:10—62:3; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

 Are you spiritual or religious?

I was driving home one evening a few weeks ago, coming west on Alameda, complaining to myself about the glare from having to look right into the sun. But then the sun dipped below the mountains and a spectacular color show appeared in the sky. The light was streaking through these layers of wispy clouds in a way I’ve never seen before. It was breathtaking. I pulled out a camera and took a couple of pictures of it—which, of course, don’t do justice to this scene. Maybe because it was a camera on a phone, and maybe because I was taking the pictures through the windshield while I was still driving. But the majesty of that image was beyond description. I’ve driven west on Alameda at sunset hundreds of times, but I’ve not seen anything like that before. It was like beholding the glory of God right there in front of me. I happened to be coming home at just the right time. It was a spiritual moment.

Have you ever chanced on a spiritual experience like that? Coincidentally being at the right place at the right time?

Anna and Simeon, I think, had a spiritual experience kind of like that, but bigger, more profound, more dramatic, more global in scale. And in another way, their experience was quite a different one altogether. It was religious.

They were hanging out at the temple, seeing all kinds of people coming in for all kinds of reasons; including bunches of babies and mothers coming in both to dedicate the baby (at 8 days old) and for the rites of purification for the mother (either 40 or 80 days after giving birth)—the same every day. So what’s one more poor couple coming in with yet another infant? How did they know this was the Savior of the world? How did they recognize him? To everyone else who saw them, this was simply another non-descript little Jewish family, bringing the sacrifice required by the law for the poor. To date in Luke, only Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds knew that this baby was God’s salvation for all of us; hardly a brought or respectable audience. And this was before the days of texting, email, or twitter. But to eyes of faith, this was the glory of the Lord right in front of them.

How did they know this was the Savior of the world? How did they recognize him? Apparently, seeing this baby made all the difference in the world for them. They had been waiting, watching, longing to see the salvation God was bringing into the world. Now, upon seeing this new baby, their lives are fulfilled. It’s such a big deal that Simeon says that now he can die in peace.

So, how do we know when we see the Savior of the world? How do we recognize him? God’s salvation has come, it is present, whether we see him or not. Our recognizing him doesn’t change what God does in the world. However, it does change us. It is spiritual, yes, but not only that.

I’m here to tell you that we can see the glory of the Lord among us. It’s not just luck or coincidence or being in the right place at the right time. And it’s not just spiritual. Anna and Simeon were prepared. It’s more than just the chance of being on West Alameda on a certain evening. It’s knowing where to look. It’s more than just spiritual; it’s religious.

That’s how Anna and Simeon’s experience is different. They didn’t just happen to be in the Temple on the day Jesus came in, and just happened to recognize him—like chancing on a beautiful sunset. They were expecting him to show up every day. And they were prepared for him to come—every day.

That’s the part that we don’t always want to admit. They were ready for God’s salvation to come to them and to the world. We aren’t prepared for it to be so close and accessible. And we aren’t ready because we have fallen into a cultural trap.

There’s a cultural movement now, where people proclaim, sometime with great pride, they are spiritual but not religious. Horse-hockey. Not only is that quitting, it’s spiritually dangerous. The best it gives you is a bland hope that you can be in the right place at the right time, a hope that you can recognize a great spiritual movement if you chance on it. Being spiritual without being religious is like trying fad diets. You might chance on one that works, but why not practice eating habits that have proven to work over long periods of time? Being only spiritual leaves you blind and vulnerable. But being spiritual as shaped by our religious practices gives us a context to see God at work, the preparation to recognize God’s salvation in our midst, the ability to concede God’s grace in the hardships of a broken world.

Anna and Simeon were each ready. They had been preparing for many years to see God’s salvation come into the world. They were ready not just because they were spiritual, but because they were religious. Simeon was moved by the Holy Spirit. But he knew it was the Holy Spirit and not his own inner desires because of the rites and practices of his Jewish faith, which pointed to the Messiah. He was able to recognize the movement of the Spirit.

Anna was in the temple all the time, worshiping, praying and fasting according to the particularities of her Jewish faith (she was a prophet, of the tribe of Asher). It was within the context of practicing their religion that they were ready for God’s salvation to come to them—to recognize God’s movement in the world. They had practiced their religion, and so they were ready. And in being prepared, they recognized hope and life when it came to them.

So be ready for God to show mercy. Be ready to accept forgiveness. Be ready to be made new by grace. Be ready to see God in the midst of pain.

Practice religion. Start with corporate worship every week. Receive the bread and wine of holy communion. Spend time each day with some scripture; you can start with a small devotional booklet like “Christ in Our Home.” Pray often and at times that aren’t emergencies. Give away more than seems prudent. Practice forgiving those who’ve hurt you. Talk to other religious people about how they are seeing God’s salvation in the world. Do this every day. Again and again. As if you were preparing to see God do amazing things in the world—and in your life. God’s salvation comes—even to us. God is at work in the world—even in our lives. Be ready. Practice. In other words, be religious.

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