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Archive for the ‘spiritual formation’ Category

People would tell me it was my best sermon. It was the sermon they remembered the most. Except I never preached it as a sermon. I only mentioned it in the introduction to an appeal for help with a church function.

Once a month or so, the church would place red folders (like the kind some churches use to record attendance and visitors) at the end of each pew. Inside each folder was a sheet of paper listing some “opportunities to serve.” People are encouraged to read through the list, see if something interested or excited them, and then sign with their name and telephone number.

The tasks that were listed were usually short-term and very concrete. For example, we asked for people who were willing to bake a cake for some event, to help out in vacation Bible school, to help drive a new refugee family around, to help plan Advent worship services. You could sign up, help out, and then be done with it.

One Sunday, I introduced the red folders by saying that I had heard recently about a minister who said to his congregation, “Sometimes when we are asked to do something, we say `Yes’ even though we want to say `No.’ We say `Yes’ because we’re afraid that, if we say ‘No’ we’ll feel guilty. Instead, we say `Yes’ and feel angry because we’re too busy, we’re not really interested in doing the task, we’re feeling pressed into doing it. If the choice you’re facing is between saying `yes’ and feeling angry or saying ‘no’ and feeling guilty, I want to encourage you to go with the guilt. Say ‘no.’ ”

After sharing this story, I encouraged our congregation to take this same attitude toward the appeals for help in the red folders. “You should not sign up unless it is something you want to do,” I said. “Go with the guilt!”

The phrase caught on. Many of our most dedicated, faithful and over-worked folk received it with a tremendous sense of freedom and relief. Some worried that the important but less glamorous work of the church wouldn’t get done. They were afraid that everybody would take it as permission to be lazy, to avoid their responsibilities.

There was a possibility that people might react that way. But two factors worked against it. Firstly, the hardest workers in any church don’t usually work out of duty or obligation. They love their Lord and they love God’s Church. They believe in what their church is trying to do. Out of love, they give their time and money and energy with great generosity. They might wish that others would contribute more of their fair share. They may use words like “responsibility” and “duty” to describe it; however, they would probably admit that the work they do for the church isn’t mostly a matter of duty or obligation. It’s a matter of love.

The challenge is not to get people to work harder out of a sense of obligation. The challenge is to get people to love God more and to believe more passionately in the mission the Church is accomplishing.

Secondly, the “go with the guilt” message was part of a bigger shift in our congregation’s way of being the Church together. It developed out of a belief that the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the Body of Christ. The Spirit gives gifts to the church’s members. These gifts fit together for the well-being of the Body. Not everybody will enjoy doing the same things. Some people love crunching numbers; some people love pushing brooms. Some people love the time they spend in the kitchen, some people love the time they spend serving at the local mission.

The challenge is to trust that God knows the work that needs to be done to keep His Body functioning well, and that God is supplying the gifts among Christ’s people to do it.

We must believe that the Spirit is at work in people’s lives pushing, prodding, and pulling them to serve their Lord. The challenge for us is to create an atmosphere where people feel free to respond to that pushing, prodding and pulling in creative and daring ways. Because we’re all learning and growing together, it is all right to try something, even if it doesn’t work out the way we had expected or hoped. It is more important to have tried it.

I love telling the story about Daniel Brown who was pastor of a very large and busy church in California. When people ask him how the church got to be so successful, he tells them that they just kept trying so many things that, by the law of averages, some of them had to work! We all need to work on that “law of averages,” trusting in the Holy Spirit’s presence throughout.

Sometimes God leads people in directions they’re uncertain that they want to go. When people say that they aren’t sure of themselves, we need to encourage them not to let that stop them from moving ahead. If they are venturing into new territory, they can expect to feel uncomfortable. They can take things slowly, one step at a time, as God gives them the courage to move ahead.

One of the advantages of the red folders idea is that they allow people to try out new tasks in small chunks. Newcomers don’t have to jump in by volunteering to be the Chair of a committee. They can help set up tables and still feel they are contributing.

People who are exploring new directions in their lives can sign up for short-term experiences. They can be part of the worship planning team for six weeks and then be done with it. Those who are busy elsewhere and who cannot commit a large chunk of time can help out in short-term activities and still know that they are contributing.

Believing that the Holy Spirit has placed more than enough gifts among us, the congregation was always looking for ways to allow people to contribute their gifts in ways that take account of the realities of their lives and that will help them grow. Our energy was spent less and less on trying to convince people to do the very important work we thought needed doing. Over time, the congregational focus changed from “getting the programs done” to “growing the people.’

New questions became important: How can we help people discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? How can we help them become conscious of the gifts they have and don’t have? How can we help them take down the blockages that keep them from responding to the Spirit’s work? How can we help them overcome their fears? How can we provide new opportunities for them to experience the wonder and privilege of being used by God in His work of healing the world?

The church can still get caught in worrying where it will find the people to meet the agenda which is already planned. But the direction it is moving in, is one where growing joyful servants of Jesus Christ is the focus.

0f course, there are some risks in moving in this new direction. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring forward anyone to run a program that the leaders consider vitally important for the Church? What if nobody wants to teach Sunday school? What if nobody wants to be in charge of keeping the building in shape? The self-images of the minister and of the congregation are at stake. As clergy, we’re very used to trying to meet the expectations of the congregation. As congregations, we strive to offer the kinds of programmes that we think people want. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t come through for us?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our church is learning to trust God instead of ourselves. If the Holy Spirit has not provided persons or gifts to run a particular programme, perhaps that programme doesn’t need to be run—at least not by us. If we don’t run it and people miss it enough, somebody will consider it important enough to commit time and energy to it—eventually. If we don’t run it and nobody misses it, then it wasn’t needed after all. Sometimes we can forget that we are not the only congregation that God is working in. Some work God will give to us to do. Some work God will give to another congregation to do. We don’t have to “do it all.” God asks us to be faithful to the call God places among us. That will keep us more than busy!

All of this means that we must, first and foremost, be a people of prayer. We have to stay close to God to hear what God is saying to us. If there is nobody to do something that we think needs doing, is it a sign that we aren’t hearing God’s call to us? Or are we trying to do it the wrong way? Or is there somebody who needs some growth and encouragement before being ready to take up the work? Or is this work given to another congregation to do? Prayer will help us find the answers. And even when we are sure that it is something we are called to do, we will still have to stay close to God. God is the One who will give us the courage and energy and joy to do what God asks us to do.

“Go with the guilt.” I didn’t know it when I said it, but it was a first step towards growing and serving our Lord with delight and joy.

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Our lives are not just a series of disconnected episodes. Our lives are part of the story God is telling. Even though we cannot always see the design, God has a purpose that God is working out.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, says God, “neither are my ways your ways but the word I speak will not return to me empty. It will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55: 6-13)

God’s purpose is that we shall “go out in joy and be led forth in peace, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” That is where we are headed, where the journey will take us, where the story will end.

The stories in the Bible provide a roadmap that helps us find our way there. Some of the stories we shall not like but they are stories of the encounter between God and God’s people. They represent the accumulated wisdom of the people who had committed themselves to living in covenant with this God who kept speaking to them and shaping their lives. 

When we set ourselves within these stories — when we take them seriously and meditate upon their meaning; when we let one portion of them be interpreted by the rest of them; when we allow Jesus to be the final re-interpretation of the whole — they stop being strange, peculiar stories of a distant place and long-ago time. They become stories in which God is speaking to us. We hear for ourselves how much God loves us. We hear for ourselves the ways in which God is shaping our lives so that we become capable of receiving that love.

We do not always get the message. There are some parts of scripture whose meaning will remain a mystery to us. However, we keep at it. We keep making our lives available to these stories because, whoever strange the way they speak my sound, it is not a stranger who speak them to us. It is the One who has known us and loved us from the foundation of the world. It is the One who, in Jesus of Nazareth, went to hell and back to bring us home in peace and joy. 

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Do you know someone who is knowledgeable in every subject except ‘life’ and how to live it well? There are different kinds of knowing. Perhaps the most useful comes when you get to the point where you know that you don’t know everything. Living wisely means keeping open to the unexpected.

Imagination is the ability to acknowledge that there is more to this world than what can be reduced to facts and charts and worked out by long-range planning. Imagination is the capacity to be open-minded enough to admit that there’s more going on here than what we can see and touch and hear.

As congregations move into the new future that God is creating, they need to find ways to cultivate the imaginations of their people and of the faith community as a whole. Not just imagination in general, though; imagination that is alert to the ways in which God is working in and through them and in the world. They need to cultivate practices whereby they live into the stories of scripture. All of our stories are stories of a God who operates beyond the known facts. Whenever our God acts, God opens up worlds that everybody else had thought were fixed, tied down, closed, settled:

Abraham and Sarah, childless in their nineties, end up with descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea — because God shows us and invites them to risk trusting God’s promises.
Hebrew slaves in Egypt become a nation that, in the midst of greed and violence, offers an alternative world of covenantal neighbourliness — because God acts to set them free and moves into faithful relationship with them.
Jesus creates a new community where the last, the lost, and the least find they are given new life, new hope, new identity.

As we immerse ourselves in these stories, our minds and our hearts and our bodies are being formed in imaginative, creative, open ways.  We don’t have this world all figured out: we don’t know for certain what can happen and what cannot. We loosen the tight grip of control by which we try to keep everything safe and predictable. We surrender certainty and rest in the mystery of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.

The psalmist prays,
Lord, I have given up my pride
and turned away from my arrogance.
I am not concerned with great matters
or with subjects too difficult for me.
Instead, I am content and at peace.
As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms,
so my heart is quiet within me.
Israel, trust in the Lord. (Psalm 131)
now and forever.

Charles Spurgeon said, that this is “one of the shortest psalms to read and one of the longest to learn.” It is the prayer of someone who has discovered the truth of God’s creativity and faithfulness beyond all our facts and answers and solutions. There is the mysterious presence and action of God whom we can trust with our lives because this God  loves us beyond all our knowing.

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In our tradition, when we baptize someone, the congregation promises to nurture that person in the Christian faith. However, when the person being baptized is an infant or small child, and the parents seldom bring that child to worship after the baptism Sunday, congregations can struggle with how to fulfill that promise.

I read the other day (I hadn’t marked down the source) about an African-American congregation that held a family-night event with the focus on “Stories In and Through Hard Times”. Participants were invited to recall proverbs, sayings, or songs that hey had heard while they were growing up. They were then to share a story of how that wisdom had helped them through hard times.

Some of the proverbs shared were, “God didn’t bring us this far to leave us,” and “Hold on to God’s unchanging hand”, and “Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the

The children and youth were then invited to ask questions of the adults and to add their own stories.

I am thinking that this might be a way for congregations to live into the promise they made at baptism. In the “Children’s Time” spot in worship (or before or after a psalm that prays to God about trouble), the people in the congregation could be invited to share a proverb or phrase from a favourite hymn that has helped them hold on in difficult times. If they were comfortable doing so, they could tell the story of the experience in which that proverb or hymn was helpful. If the musician(s) were comfortable with playing hymns without much notice, the congregation could also sing the hymn. The children could be invited to ask questions.

And then, what about creating a “wall of hope” on which was written the proverbs or phrase from the hymns that people shared. The wall of hope would grow over time as the proverbs/phrases were shared.

 

 

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One of the tendencies in our culture is to try to manage things by making them one-dimensional. A friend and colleague, Paul Miller, has written in his blog about the importance of dealing with life’s complexity — of keeping things complex so that we experience the full richness of life; of learning to navigate life’s paradoxes. Specifically he reflects on spirituality and how the richest treasures are to be found by keeping it multi-dimensional.
I encourage you to check out what he has to say:  http://waterloopres.blogspot.ca/2016/03/more-on-dwelling-and-seeking.html

 

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Conversations about equipping the baptized for their ministries turn quickly to matters of spiritual formation and discipleship. What Christian practices need to be embraced? What does evangelism and witness look like in our context? What enables people to discern not only where the Holy Spirit is at work but also what their call is in that work?

What is apparent is that behind those questions lie more foundational questions about the nature of our congregations. What does spiritual formation and discipleship look like in a church culture where that has not been a priority? It is difficult for people to discern where the Holy Spirit is already at work when they are unpracticed in such elemental disciplines as prayer, standing under the scriptures, and talking about faith together. Exciting new initiatives lose steam when those who participate in them are not deeply grounded in the Source of Life. As Elizabeth O’Connor articulated the wisdom of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” Frank Viola has warned, “You cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place” (Discipleship in Crisis, e-book).

What is needed is not simply a matter of offering more courses and seminars on discipleship or evangelism. What is needed is a shift in the culture of congregations. A new imagination for what it means to be the church needs to be cultivated. A different set of symbols, metaphors and narratives need to shape the ethos of the United Church of Canada.

Chris Pullenayegem, New Ministries Animator for EDGE, outlines the process of change as a matter of asking some basic questions:

*What has to remain?

*How do we do it more efficiently so that resources are freed up for new experiments?

*What do we need to let go of in order to create space for something new?

*What new things do we need to do in order to make this new thing happen?

Andy Crouch, in Culture Making, advises that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it. . . . If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world . . . if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal” (p. 67).

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the ways congregations teach the faith and form disciples of Jesus (didache)  as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

3) Didache (Teaching)

It is not uncommon for leaders to lament the biblical and doctrinal illiteracy of the people of mainline congregations. There are long-term members of congregations who, if asked, could not find the book of Genesis in a Bible. Most clergy have had the experience of congregational members telling them that they want more Bible studies but, when the study groups are offered, few people sign up to attend; even fewer stay with the group for more than a few weeks.

However, there appears to be movement toward more intentional discipleship formation in some churches. Some of this is driven by the need to form Christians who are equipped to survive as Christians in an indifferent and sometimes hostile environment. The current context brings to the fore the challenge for disciples to be transformed by Christ rather than conformed to the culture.

When people are helped to deepen their discipleship, they become more willing to take on leadership roles that are shaped by the call of the Holy Spirit upon their lives. Taking on these kinds of leadership roles, in turn, often compels them to go deeper in their discipleship. They need to learn how to pray more deeply; they need to know better the story that shapes the lenses by which they see the world and gives hope; they need to recover the distinctive language of faith that articulates what God is doing in their lives and in the world; they need to develop maturity in Christ which includes the humility that shapes faithful relationships.

Congregations are finding new ways of delivering the content of Christian faith. They are more participatory and interactive, engaging not only the mind but also the heart and the body. They recognize that many adults learn best when content is not isolated into separate subjects but is integrated into and related to actual experiences.

Many congregations are finding that adopting Christian practices have helped people deepen their spiritual life and engage in the ministry to which they are called. “Practices are shared actions that, when taken together, weave a way of life amongst a people” (Alan Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The Shape of the Church in our Time, p. 49.) In particular, in churches that understand themselves to be mission outposts of God’s reign, practices help them see the world and God’s work in it in new ways.

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