why God works slower than I would often like

So I just got back from a conference in Portland about transformation, innovation and the future of the church.  It was a really cool conference where we learned from some secular innovators about design thinking and leadership through the unique challenges of the creative process.  It really was pretty great and often inspiring.

But, having said all that, there was something that was kind of nagging at me the whole time: I felt a certain sense of anxious, fear-driven urgency to the whole thing.

This was probably because we talked a couple times during the conference about the United Methodist ‘shelf-life,’ or about how long we have until it all our institution kind of implodes in on itself.  This was not new information to me as I heard it all through the ordination process, as older generations in the church have been ‘Princess Leiaing’ me and other young clergy for years, i.e. ‘help me, Obi Wan, you’re the only hope.’

But, as we sat and listened to these wonderful and inspiring stories of innovation and creativity there was this underlying narrative at work within me (and maybe it was only me): ‘well you better do this quick and fast and big or the whole thing’s going to fall apart.’

The funny thing that occurred to me in hindsight was that the presenters never talked about rushing the process or about instant results.  In fact, they often talked about just the opposite. They talked about patience, perseverance, stability, and longevity.  The story of their companies and their ability to innovate weren’t about a quick fix, a one hit wonder, or a time where everything just kind of blew up in an instant.  They presented a different pace of growth, a growth that happens over years of cultivating an idea, a process and a way of life.

As Christians, I believe we are called to resist the narrative of quick fixes and instant gratification.  We are called to cultivate lives of patience, stability, and longevity over a lifetime.  As Eugene Peterson once said, ‘discipleship is long obedience in the same direction.’  Perhaps we in the church need to be committing to the long haul of sustaining innovation instead of jumping from one thing to the next in hopes that eventually it will blow up and save the church because, in the end, the church doesn’t need another savior, it’s already got one.

So I feel resolved at the moment to keep trying to do what we are doing at simple church, to tweak, to pivot, to respond, to innovate, to respond faithfully to the creative call from God, but to remember that my timeline is far less significant in the grand scheme than God’s timeline, captured by these words of Teilhard de Chardin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”

 

why I’m old fashioned (when it comes to churchy things)

One day after a lesson on church history, a youth from our community said: “Robert, you like really old stuff a lot, don’t you?”  I replied, “The older, the better.”

See, for me, when it comes to cultivating a spiritual life or a religious practice, I think that older is usually better.

I believe the practices and disciplines we’ve inherited from the past have some spiritual truth embedded within them which is timeless and carries with it the ability to speak across generations.  This is why tradition matters to me as a pastor at simple church and which is why our worship gatherings are pretty darn traditional and old fashioned.  It’s because we believe that we don’t have to invent it all ourselves, it’s not up to us to forge some new way of being in relationship with God.  Our living generation is not THAT important in the grand scheme of things.

In fact, it’s probably more often the case that we shouldn’t even try, because I don’t know about you, but if it were up to me figure out how to cultivate a spiritual life my spiritual practice would be pretty self-focused.  If left to my own devices and operating as a religious free agent, I’d probably self-select a ton of spiritual practices that are all about filling me up and giving me a sense of well-being in the world.  I definitely wouldn’t choose to give away 10 % of my money or practice regular confession, but, the truth is, I desperately need these practices for God to help save me from myself.

Existing as part of a historical tradition enables us to fit ourselves into a larger, more mysterious and wondrous worldview.  In other words, it allows us to fit our story into God’s story of grace and hope.

Being spiritual and religious is an exercise in humility and trust.  Humility in believing that I am not innovative enough to make it all up from scratch and trust in believing that there is something of God at work underneath all these old fashioned traditional practices which is powerful enough to open our hearts to be brought into alignment with God’s heart, which beats steadily and timelessly for the healing and restoration of the whole world.

on the value of being lost

from the reflection Sunday at simple church.  cultivating calm, centered, compassionate lives.

it’s helpful if you read Luke 15:1-10

The setting for these stories that Jesus tells, of a lost sheep and a lost coin, is a confrontational moment where Jesus is responding to some Pharisees about his preference for dinner companions.  The text says some Pharisees were grumbling ‘this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  This is a constant throughout all of scripture just FYI, anytime anyone is called to do something different, radical especially when it is done with radical inclusion in mind, there are always naysayers, negative Nancy’s, Debbie downers.  Maybe you experience this in your life, your family, your work.  People who are always just down on you no matter what you do, maybe there are people in your world that you can never satisfy NO MATTER WHAT.  It seems to me that more often than not these folks usually ‘grumble’ about what you are or aren’t doing right.

The Pharisees’ major complaint against Jesus is that he is talking, relating and gathering tax collectors and sinners, and not only is he talking to them, he’s welcoming them and eating with them.  It’s important to remember that back in the day who you chose to eat with was a MAJOR deal.  It’s kind of like a high school cafeteria, what table you sit at defines so much about who you are as a person.  Jesus lived in what we call an ‘honor and shame’ society.   Basically, we have the same societal structure still to this day, but back in the day, they were a little more overt about it.  Basically, the goal of life was upward mobility to a more and more honorable place through the accumulation of wealth, prestige, or power and authority of some kind.  You were also supposed to avoid moving down the ladder to a more shameful place, the more lowly places, the places on the bottom rung reserved for the marginalized, weak, poor, sinners, and tax collectors.

These two dualistic categories were, in fact, ontological statements about who you were as a person.  Right, so the Pharisees even say, this man (notice how they don’t use Jesus’ name, naming someone is empowering) eats with sinners and tax collectors.  They are basically defining these people with these shameful and shaming titles of sinners and tax collectors.  These folks are defined by the fact that according to the Pharisee’s they are the lost and the forsaken and their understanding of the world said, why would anyone waste their time with people like this.

But Jesus is the incarnation of God’s radical, inclusive grace, Jesus is the in-breaking of a new kingdom, a new reign, a new order of human community, Jesus is flipping all of the understandings and categories of people and ways that we define ourselves and others.  Jesus is coming to save everyone from the bondage of sin, shame, judgment and preconceived notions of righteousness, Jesus wants to unbind those who are bound and set them free with perfect love and amazing grace.

So he tells these two stories where the most valuable thing in each is the thing that’s lost.  He inverts the ‘normal’ way of seeing things.  See the normal way of seeing things is to say that all those sinners and tax collectors, the lost sheeps and lost coins were expendable.  The way of the world would say- cut your loses- don’t sacrifice the honorable for the shameful, don’t waste your time, energy, resources looking for the lost, the lonely, the powerless, focus on being more successful, gaining more honor, moving up the social ladder instead of down.

But Jesus says if you want to know what it means to be saved and made whole you have to dive into the world of the lost, you have to know forsakenness , you have to know the bondage of shame, or sin, or feeling like you are just a mistake, because all of this, recognizing it in vulnerability will allow you to be set free and to know the God who seeks you relentlessly because God desperately wants you to know the depths of God’s grace for you and everyone else in this world.

There is a value in being lost.  This is super counter intuitive for me because I love to know where I am going, I love to know which direction I’m heading, I love the fact that my iphone has two different map apps.  Just in case I don’t like the suggested route in one I can always pop onto the other one to make sure I have the fastest and shortest route.

 

Getting lost is unsettling, daunting, there’s a real sense of powerlessness, and there is a certain amount of shame we carry with it.   Why?  Because of ego, because we want to be right all the time.

Getting lost, being lost, teaches us about humility, vulnerability, honesty and compassion.  Being lost allows us to know the active grace that seeks us out constantly, even when we are found and safe and secure, but in those moments we don’t really appreciate it, those are the moments we might know it up here, but don’t necessarily know it in here.

We are going to get lost, literally and metaphorically.  There will be times when you feel far from God.  Times when you feel alone, afraid, and forsaken. Jesus tells us, and more importantly shows us, that this will happen, it’s not a matter of if but when.   There will be a time when all that you do feels dry and meaningless.

This is part of the spiritual life.  We need be get lost, we need to wander, we need some discomfort in our lives along the way because that’s often the time when we grow the most.  When we go into the shadow side of our lives, when we examine those things we’d prefer to keep hidden, when we acknowledge the burden and shame we carry, when we re-forge broken relationships, when we see the log in our own eye instead of the splinter in the neighbors, when we enter into solidarity with someone whose hurting and struggling and some of their pain becomes our pain, from these places real transformation happens, from these places we know grace, forgiveness, acceptance and peace in a new way, from these places we are made into a new creation.

How do we make it through these times?  That’s why God gives us trusted sources to double down on.  Prayer, scripture, community, mentors, friends, family, therapists, pastors, the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Double down of your trusted sources of encouragement, strength, grace, acceptance, and love.  Continue to follow a rule of life even if it feels empty, or devoid of meaning  .  Trusts that there is a wisdom to these things that’s bigger than you

And most importantly

Remember that God’s love and grace pursue you relentlessly, God is waiting to throw an awesome party with all the faithful and the angels when transformation happens, and it will happen if you hold on.

I want to end with a prayer that I find to be one of those trusted sources, Thomas Merton.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

learning to live and love intentionally

Simple church exists to cultivate calm, centered and compassionate lives by following a rule of life.  As we enter into this fall and we re-launch our evening worship at 5pm on Sunday weekly (starting Sunday, September 11th), I thought it might be helpful to revisit what it means to live by a rule of life.

Simply put, a rule of life helps us to live and love intentionally.  It means committing to a transformation spiritual practice that you can actually do every day, week, or month; with the underlying belief that this rule of life will help you to see, to know and live into the rhythms of God’s grace (life-giving love) at work in the world.  A rule of life helps us to practice an ongoing awareness of God’s presence and to intentionally seek God’s grace in every movement we make and moment we have in this thing we call our life.

As with most things that actively transform us, it’s always better to start off small and go from there.  And as a friend/colleague/mentor and all around awesome person always says, “Do what you CAN and not what you CAN’T.’* In other words, a rule of life is something you commit to, but it is not something you beat yourself up over if you don’t ‘do it perfectly.’   This will actually negate the point of the whole thing which is: learning how to be more compassionate….

Ok, so what is your rule of life?  What practices do you have which fill you up & empty you out for the sake of the healing and restoration of your neighborhood/city/world?  Can you take a step back and be more intentional about how you approach your life, your parenting, your job, your family relationships, your finances, your diet, etc?

As we re-launch simple church worship I wanted to propose a new, simplified rule of life based on the Greatest Commandment Jesus gives us 1. Love God 2. Love your Neighbor 3. Love your Self.

Here’s how I parse it out:

Every day I will strive to prayerfully enact these three rules:

  1. Love God. Do something prayerful directed toward loving God- go to worship, pray the  Lord’s Prayer, sing a hymn, sit in silence for any length of time, practice Lectio Divina, dwell in grace.
  1. Love neighbor. Do something prayerful directed toward loving another person- a small act of compassion, pray for someone, help someone in need, confess your resentment/anger at another person to God, or any number of random acts of kindness one can imagine, offer grace.
  1. Love Self. Do something prayerful directed toward loving yourself- yoga, take a walk, eat a healthy meal, pay off some debt, practice generosity, receive Holy Communion regularly, accept grace.

Is this rule of life complete?  No.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it does seem like a good, maybe even a great, place to start.

If you don’t want to do it alone, you don’t have to, join us Sundays at 5pm.  Because a calm, centered and compassionate life is possible.

www.santamoincaumc.org/simplechurch

*quote borrowed from Rev. Nicole Riley