Archive for October, 2011

October 31, 2011

Pastoral Care Through Text

When texting became all the more mainstream (especially with those under the age of 30) around 2005-2006 ish, I was a bit skeptical of the practice. What was the point? Why not just call someone?

Even with my reservations, I got in, especially as  youth in the church where I was serving full-time were texting me no matter if I liked it or not. My cell phone bills soared. So, eventually, I broke down and bought a texting friendly phone plan too. I found that certain youth would only come to events if 1) they didn’t have anything  to better to do 2) I texted to remind them to come. If I wanted a youth group, texting was a key!

And, soon I found myself texting my husband when a meeting ran over or when I was going to meet him for dinner. I texted friends happy birthday. I kept up with my sister in college through texts. Texting was not just “for the youth” it was part of my personal life too. Of course, it didn’t replace personal contact and even voice-to-voice phone calls, but it enhanced communication in an ongoing relationship.

Yet, when I became the pastor of Washington Plaza, I thought for a while that my texting days were over as far as work stuff was concerned. “No one here will be kept from coming to an event because I forgot to text them, ” I thought. I was entering as the pastor of a congregation made mostly (at the time) of folks over 60. However, a few folks, though have surprised me. (It always makes me smile to get a text message from someone over 50. Always).

But as texting has become all the more mainstream in culture and we’ve added some young members to our roles, texting as pastoral care has become all the more important part of what I do. In a given week:

Members text me to tell me prayer requests or to give me updates on sick family members.

Members text me to ask for rides to church or to let me know if they will or will not be at a Bible Study.

Members text me to remind me to perform a particular task before Sunday morning worship begins if they are out sick.

I text members to check on them when I know they’ve been going through a particularly difficult time.

I text members to let them know about the urgent needs of those in our community such as a death or a hospital stay so that they can extend their arms of service in our community too.

I text members to tell them that I missed them in worship and can’t wait to see them again soon.

You can call a text message impersonal form of contact, but ultimately, it is contact. Contact is all about love, concern and faithfulness to those in whom we are covenanted together in community with. I will keep  doing whatever it takes to have members and visitors alike in this community know that I care about them and so does the church– even if it means sending them a message I thought never would be considered pastoral: a text.

October 29, 2011

The Ten Commandments Revisited

Tomorrow in the conclusion of our “Intentional Life” series, I’m tackling the topic of what the giving of the Law, in particular what the Ten Commandments might have to offer us has how God intents for us to live in community.

As I prepare to preach this week as this often happens, there is just too much good stuff that can’t fit its way into a clearly delivered sermon. The statements below are from Prof. Amy Erickson found on the Working Preacher resource site. I wanted to post this for all of the WPBC crowd, to give you a teaser about what is coming up tomorrow, but also because I feel the following is worth pondering. Especially in light of the growth of the Occupy movement taking hold all around the country which is challenging the rest of us to consider again how God’s greatest intention for us all goes back to the common good of all people. What if we began to see the church in the wilderness in need of God once again to lead us up the mountain?

So check out the Ten Commandments again by reading this first. Then, how might the these statements challenge us in our becoming as a church?

If I may be so bold (since this is about preaching the Ten Commandments, perhaps a little brazenness is in order!), I’d like to think out-loud about how struggling, mainline churches might imagine themselves in the wilderness. I hear so much conversation that depicts the mainline church in the U.S. as dying, in part, because it no longer enjoys a privileged place in society.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, when churches don’t have the money to pay the grocery or water bill, they sometimes long for the way things used to be, for the fabulous food in Egypt. After all, journeying through the wilderness can be terrifying — all the securities and apparent guarantees of survival are gone — but the wilderness could also provide the church with an opportunity to re-define itself according to what matters most.

It strikes me that we might view the church as a community liberated from the bonds of Egypt (read: American consumer military culture), where success and value are enumerated according to the grain stored in silos and the height of the building projects. Many mainline churches have lost wealth and security — but perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing.

What if we viewed that loss — that displacement from the center — as redemption or as liberation? Perhaps it is an opportunity to embrace the basic contours of the covenant that whittles us down to our essentials — to be a community that places loyalty to God and care for the other at the center of our lives. In the wilderness, maybe we can hear the voice of God more clearly — calling us to live into this covenant.

See you all for more conversation tomorrow!

October 27, 2011

What Marriage Is and Not

Today, I’m celebrating my fourth wedding anniversary alongside a man I think is a really amazing guy, but instead of turning this blog post into a purely personal narration of how much I love this man I admire more than any other in the world I wanted to consider marriage in a much larger context.

As part of my vocation, I probably get to talk about and participate in more marriages than the average person. People come to me for marriage counsel. I receive requests to officiate the weddings of others, most for whom regular church attendance is not a part of their week. I lead pre-martial counseling sessions for couples entering into the unknown of martial bliss.

And, in all of this, one thing is for certain, we all have screwed up ideas in one way or another of what marriage is. It takes time and long (actually very long) conversations and life experiences to work it all out. Whether it is because of the marriages (or lack thereof) that we’ve observed growing up, or unrealistic expectations of  what a partnership can be imposed to us from our culture, or unmet desires within our own lives that we hope another can “complete” us if we just find the right person . . . marriage, if we choose to enter it is often doesn’t turn out how we might have planned. It can be both better than we ever imagined or worse.

There is one thing I know for sure about marriage and that is both partners have to be in 100% at all times. Nothing more and nothing less. Because:

Marriage is not finding a relationship that will meet all of your needs. Larger networks of friends and family are always important to sustaining the ebbs and flows of any long-term partnership. For me, I dare say that my girlfriends and other family connections are what have helped my marriage keep going especially at its lowest points.

Marriage is not a relationship with someone who you can expect to stay the same year after year. As much as you hope grow wiser ever year and maturity through the good and not so good choices you make, so will your spouse. Change will come not matter if we like it or not, so marriage has always been and always will be about a lifelong relationship of learning.

Marriage is not about bliss every single day. Fighting over what movie to see, disagreeing about what kind of chicken to have for dinner, and miscommunication about some of the deepest emotions your partner shares happens in even the best marriages. Just because you have a bad day it doesn’t mean the marriage is bad. . .

Marriage is not about committing to someone whom you know and love perfectly on your wedding day– for the journey has just begun. As I look back on our wedding pictures, I think “I barely knew Kevin then” (though I thought I knew him amazingly well at the time) for what we’ve been through together over the past four years. I think in many ways we’ve both surprised each other– both receiving what we didn’t expect on the day we first said, “I do.”

Marriage is not salvation from the home life that you are trying to escape. No person, no matter how amazing they are can transport you to a world where your past life experiences aren’t important in shaping your becoming. In making a new family together, you have to honor the past.

Marriage is not just about having sex without guilt and/or having children.  For those who get married out of the guilt of “we’ve already had sex so we must get married now” I fear this is not a good reason to start a lasting partnership. Marriages are about sharing your whole life with one another of which sex is only a part. And, children, when they are present in a home, are ultimately not enough to keep marriages strong. The adults have to work on this . . .

I wish someone had told me all of this about marriage when I first begun this adventure. But, I’m sure, as I know four years is only a short period of time, that my learning about what marriage is and isn’t has only just begun.

October 26, 2011

New Writing Venture

I recently started writing with Provokive Magazine, an online journal which seeks to address this:

In a world saturated with people shouting at each other, it’s rare to find a place where people can engage in conversation with each other. Provoketive Magazine hopes to change that. We’re creating a space of rich conversation about life, faith, justice and culture without judgment. Our desire is to provoke the reader’s imagination through conversation and open up spaces of dialogue, learning, and hope.

My first post for this site was formulated out of a conversation with a faithful blog reader and church member– you know who you are🙂 I hope that you will join me and others on the conversation at Provoketive. Here’s a teaser to my piece called, “The Gym and the Church: I Can’t Get to Either.”

 . . . .I have to think this unique pastoral challenge of mine– getting butts in the pews as the old saying goes– is not so unique to my context. In our over simulated, over scheduled world especially among urban dwellers, attending to our soul through church involvement is often valued by the spiritual as important, but not important enough when sleeping in on Sunday morning seems all the better for life/ work balance. . . . Read more by clicking here.

October 25, 2011

And ‘They’ Say the Church is Dying. . . I Wonder Why?

How many more wake up calls do denominational leaders need before they realized that what they are doing is not working and dying a slow (and painful for the rest of us) death?

I was attending this afternoon the “Senior Pastors Only” breakout session at the DC Baptist Convention annual meeting which Washington Plaza is a member and I found myself insulted, discouraged and wanting to throw up my hands and saying, “What’s the point?” once again.

Our church is a member of this ABC-USA regional body for several reasons– we want to be connected to our larger family of Baptists, we want to be known as an American Baptist church, and we want to partner in missions. Personally, I am indebted to the DC Baptist Convention for its recognition of my ordination, vocational placement service when I was a new seminary graduate, and for the friendship with other local pastors that I have made through attending activities supported by the convention.  As a church, we are personally grateful for the way in which the DC Baptist Foundation came alongside us and helped us with our loan to repair our building last year and for its celebration of diversity, especially racially in its composition of churches. I pray for a really bright future for DCBC as I think there are some good things going for us that could be even better.

But, if this current Annual meeting held this week at the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church in Silver Spring, MD is any indication of the new direction its leadership is taking, I fear convention life in DC is a sinking ship for progressive churches like Washington Plaza.  We need sessions where we stop playing around with pleasantries and simply say more often what is actually going on.  There is division among us. We don’t know each other. We aren’t really doing anything new or exciting just going through the motions of the same old things. The church is speaking a langauge that no one “unchurched” understands or cares for anymore and denominations seem to pushing its pastors toward more of the same.

During the session I attended, the presenter addressed the room as if it was 1950 in Alabama. We were told about how to take care of our “wives and children” on repeated occasions. And the word “he” was always used as the pronoun to address who a pastor was. Even though there were at least 6 or more women in the room who were senior pastors of churches like myself, all of the examples the presenter gave related to men. For example, he goes to a men’s breakfast every month with other men just like him. He started small groups for other men. It was as if the presenter assumed that the women in the room were pastors’ wives. Gross. Really, really gross. And, this is not mention the fact there was no senstivity to those who are single.

I’m all for theological diversity. But, a celebration of diversity always begins with attention to context and respect for those who are different from you. Diversity always encourages out of the box thinking because no assumptions are made that individual thinking is better than that of a group.

For those who think the church and denominational life is out of touch, out of touch and dying, then I say today that I sadly agree with you.  Thank goodness, I’m a Baptist after all and tomorrow I can get back to the work of my local congregation, an autonomous body of believers who isn’t afraid to try new things.

October 24, 2011

Intentions and Holding on to Hope

Change is inevitable, growth is intentional –Colin Wilson

Such was one of the quotes we discussed together as a small group gathered at the Brunson’s home on Tuesday night last week. Gathered together in the spirit of stewardship season as our theme is “An Intentional Life” we talked about the ways that we’ve each been both intentional in our life practices . . . and not.

As we sat around the long dinning room table and shared with one another stories from our own journeys, I could help but think about a theme that has been present in several of my conversations both in and outside the church lately. “Does life get better than this?” people muse with me. “Or, must I simply resolve that this is all there is?”

Every time I’ve heard this question raised, a part of me has cringed on the inside because of what it says about hope. To be moving in life without hope– to believe the pain we feel in the present and the countless ways our lives have not turned out like we’d planned is the essence of life– seems to be giving up too soon.

I often hear people saying similar things about our church. We’ll never be this or that . . .  and it makes my heart hurt every time I hear it because it means folks are giving up dreaming thinking that what they see in front of them is ALL there is.

On Saturday morning, a group of us gathered ironically around the same table (thank you Brunsons again!). This time it was the church council planning retreat. We set our dreams first of what we’d like to see happen in the church in 2012 and then took a step back and said to each other we are going to be intentional to do this activity and lay aside the rest for later.

It was a freeing exercise I believe for all of us. Freeing because it allowed us to move in hope and not feel overwhelmed. While there are a lot of really GOOD things that all of us want to do (and usually it is the dreaming types that are in leadership positions in the first place), we simply can’t do it all and keep going as a congregation. Putting our best foot forward often means taking a two steps back and those two steps really aren’t so bad.

So, as our group drafted our 2012 intentions in areas of worship, fellowship and mission activities, we said to each other as church leaders that our little and mighty congregation is full of hope. And it is hope that we keep on keeping on and move forward.

October 24, 2011

Having an Intentional Vision

Intentional Vision

Exodus 17:1-7

When you were a child what were your dreams for your life? What did you want to be when you grew up? What did you imagine your life would look like?

Did you dream of being a doctor, a lawyer or a firefighter? Or a grand supreme winner on Star Search (as I did at age 6)? Did you hope you’d one day get married? Did you wish you’d one day have children that were as beautiful as Barbie and Ken and living happily ever after in Barbie’s pink house? Did you draw pictures of the home you’d believed you’d raise your own children in one day with a red door and shutters that open and closed with ease?

But the reality is that as much as each of us had dreams and hopes for what the days of our life would hold, in actuality all of our lives in some way or the other has not worked out as we planned.

It’s true as it is said, that no child grows up and says to their parent or caregiver, “I want to be an addict when I grow up.” “I want to
get a divorced after a long custody battle with the woman I thought I’d love forever when I grow up.” Or, “I want the house I bought with my life savings to go into foreclosure when I grow up.”

The reality is: sometimes we don’t even make it to the Star Search stage outside the makeshift one in our own living room. Sometimes, we find ourselves in mid-life living out of our car and not the house with that red door. Sometimes, our children grow up not to look or act like Ken and Barbie and drive us completely nuts.

Some of these situations, of course, stems from moments when we’ve lacked willingness to make good choices, but a lot of it comes from life just being life, in this broken world of ours that seems to become more broken all of the time. And, as a result, there are moments– and you may have had one of them week– when you want to throw your hands up in the air and say, “This is not the life I planned for myself.” Or, “This is not the life I really want to be living. Ahhh!”

For as much as we’ve had good intentions and good desires for our lives– to own a home that can be a blessing to our family and others, to be in long-term partnership with someone in whom we can love unconditionally and who loves us back, to be a parent who sees our children having children, life doesn’t give us what we always want. It is often even our purest and deepest desires that just don’t seem to pan out. No matter how hard we worry, pray and hope for the best and as much as we watch others being blessed, it seems that our hands come up empty time and time again.

If this is the situation that you find yourself in this morning– wishing for things in your life that you don’t have, then you are in great company as we examine our Old Testament reading for this morning among the Israelites. For they too, had a good desire, a need in their lives that they longed to be fulfilled yet simply was not. They were thirsty. I mean, really, really thirsty without a drop of water left.

I don’t know the last time you were thirsty.  I can’t remember when this was for me. It’s rare in our water bottle and water fountain on every corner culture that we “die of thirst” literally or metaphorically in this neck of the woods very often if at all. Water  is something we have enough of, almost always, unless of course a tropical storm threatens to come through and our neighbors hoard the bottles of water off the shelves at Safeway and Giant leaving nothing for the rest of us . . .

But, in the wilderness where the whole congregation of Israelites found themselves on this journey from Egypt to the undefined and yet undiscovered Promise Land was, the resource of water was everything.

To find water was to find life and either you had it or you didn’t: their search for water would be uniquely tied to who they were as a people. For example, just three days after crossing the Red Sea– the big and dramatic– experience of faith, the group was short on the provisions of water and the Lord had provided and God directed them to some springs. But again, they were without saying to Moses in verse 2, “Give us water to drink.”

And, such was a good, normal, everyday, essential need, right?

H2O, we know, is critical to our very existence: the definition of a need. Most medical professionals will say that a human being, in reasonable to good health can only live between 3-5 days without water before suffering from extreme dehydration and shock leading to death.

So, while, we read Exodus 17 with thoughts in our head like “here they go again complaining,” simply the Israelites sought to express a deep need when they told Moses, their spiritual and administrative leader, “We must have water now!” This “following God” and “making a new life” for themselves plan was not working out.

In the meantime, however, what were they to do? How were they to wait? How were they to respond to an unmet need that they were powerless to fix? Did it mean that their need was not really a need? Did it mean that God had abandoned them and truly wanted them to die as they feared?  It sure felt that way . . .

It’s easy to kick the dog when you are down right? And, so, went the days of the lives of the Israelites and their relationship to Moses. As they perceived God not giving them the life they wanted, they took out their pain on the easiest next best thing: Moses. Voicing their frustration to the point that we hear Moses fearing for his life in verse 4– believing that in their extreme thirst the crowd might stone him if they didn’t get a drink and fast.

Moses’ natural response to the crisis as a leader was fearful of the crowd’s response, but tempered. We hear in the words of this text, Moses wanting the crowds to simmer down, stop bothering him and simply trust that God could provide– as this was God’s job to meet their needs.

I can imagine, if I were a member of the crowd, I would have found Moses’ calm as a cucumber leadership style really annoying.

Trust that God would provide? “Oh, Moses,” I would have said, “It’s so much harder than that. When, tell me, when God is going to get God’s act together and find us some water.”

For, secretly they hoped that in Moses’ bag of superpower, bring on the 10 plagues kind of tricks, he could lead them by another spring and they’d worry about water no more. But, such was just not going to happen.

A friend of mine shared with me this week a similar frustration with the world and with God. After being out of work for the past nine months due to a company downsizing in these difficult economic times, she is currently at the end of her rope. After sending out over 500 resumes, doing everything she can to do what experts say to do when you are looking for work: networking, staying on a schedule everyday and trying not to get down on herself even as the funds in the bank account slowly begin to run down, she feels the best parts of her life are dying more every day.

After interview after interview, rejection letter after rejection letter, and sleepless nights and pleas to any religiously minded person she knows for prayer, my friend shared she was beginning to think that God had forgotten her. No one in her life seemed to care that she was out of work and without a job coming her way soon, she might lose everything she’s worked so hard for including her modest home. Life was not certainly turning out as she wanted.

But in the spirit of these same frustrations, the Israelites were asked, beginning with Moses, to be active in their faith of God and to begin to see beyond their circumstances in a way they’d never seen before.

These were Moses’ instructions from God: “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. . . . Strike the rock” God said, “and water will come out of it.”

I can imagine that laughter erupted from the crowd and anxiety of what might be next (if this didn’t work) consumed Moses’ thoughts. This God they were serving was just getting crazier and crazier all the time . . .

Professor Amy Erickson puts it like this, “It strikes me (pun intended!) that God choose to bring water– and the life it symbolizes and will impart– out of something that appears to be lifeless. . . . Out of Egypt and out of the wilderness, God will find ways to make life flow in the unexpected ways.”

Even with all the pre-rock striking anxiety, when it does work, the provision of water is NOTHING like they expected.

The water came not from a spring (as it did before) nor from going back to Egypt (as they had suggested). The provision was resurrection before their eyes! That out of something that seemed life-less and certainly not life-giving, out flowed streaming of living water: a big ole rock!

Which begs us as a congregation, as seekers of this same God to wonder: where is our water? Where is our rock to turn to? Where is our spring? Where can all the hurting hearts among these pews this morning find hope once again? Where is the spring where we can know life can be and will be better than this?

Using our text for a guide this morning, our answers come in thinking for a minute about the quandary of the “My life didn’t or isn’t turning out the way I wanted” situation altogether. Let me ask you the same question of you in a different way.

Does scripture tell us that in life, we should expect to receive the dream we dreamed for ourselves when we were a child? Does scripture tell us in life that we should expect, as we follow God, that our lives will look exactly like everyone else around us?

I hate to burst your bubble this morning, but the answer to both of these questions is no.

Never does God promise us that in this life we’d get everything we want or that we can be confident that our lives will fall in the patterns just like our those around us.

But, if our unmet desires, are desires of lasting value, that are in line with the people who God has created us in all of our uniqueness to be– then, we’d better watch out. God is going to be showing up in our lives in unexpected places, just as God did for Israel.

Showing up in places in our lives that we thought were long dead– dead friendships, dead partnerships, dead vocational aspirations, or dead paths we’d traveled down our lives before– and pouring from them water once again.

Not only so that we can receive what we’ve longed for, but so that the community around us can be reconciled and blessed by God too. Notice in this provision of water, not only is water given, but reconciliation. Moses, once distraught that the congregation would stone him, recognizes the Lord was among them and they all experienced God’s provision together.

And, indeed our lives still might not turn out as would have liked them too (such may never change), but if we are open to God’s direction, God’s rocks of blessing, then I dare say our lives might turn out better than we’d ever dreamed from our days of playing with Barbies and Gi-Joes.

If you’ve noticed this morning the title of the sermon, “The Intention of Vision” you might be thinking, that all of this is nice but has nothing to do with casting or setting a vision. Yet, such could be farther from the truth, even if I haven’t made such a point explicit for you this morning.

For when we are intentional about seeing our life as God see it– not as worthless, not as used up and wasted and most certain not dead– then, we begin to have vision for what is up head.

Vision, if you and I want to see the world from God’s perspective . . . for ourselves, for our families, and for our church, begins with laying down the ideas we have about “What we wanted to be when we grew up” so that we as children of God, can help us see “what our Heavenly Parent wants us to be when we grow up.” Which is what the month of stewardship every October is indeed all about– re-centering our lives on God’s vision for us, instead of just our own.

This morning, when you came into worship this morning, you were given a stone. It’s yours to keep or throw away (as long as you aren’t going to throw them at your pastor anyone else). But, if you feel so led, I’d invite you to have this stone be for you this week and in the weeks ahead a tangible symbol of your intention to align your life with God’s vision for you and for us collectively as a church. I invite you to simply hold it in your hand as we sing our hymn of commitment in a few minutes.

May it be a reminder of the one who can bring forth water from the largest or oldest or most regrettable stones that surround your life– remembering every time you touch its smooth texture that indeed the Lord is with us. And, will never leave us to face our perils of the journey alone.


October 20, 2011

Stop Bullying Now

Today, I got an email from Ross Murray who is the director of Religion, Faith and Values for GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)– an organization that I personally support. In this email he encouraged the following:

“I’m writing to ask/remind you one more time to go purple and ask your constituents to go purple this Thursday, October 20 for Spirit Day. Millions of Americans wear purple on Spirit Day as a sign of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and to speak out against bullying. Spirit Day was started in 2010 by teenager Brittany McMillan as a response to the young people who had taken their own lives. Observed annually on October 20, individuals, schools, organizations, corporations, media professionals and celebrities wear purple, which symbolizes spirit on the rainbow flag. Getting involved is easy — participants are asked to simply “go purple” on October 20 as we work to create a world in which LGBT teens are celebrated and accepted for who they are.

Religious communities are an important part of the support network for many LGBT youth. Spirit day is a great opportunity to get involved and make your support known!

So consider wearing PURPLE tomorrow in support of all of those who need to be reminded that they are seen, heard and matter to the human race. And take some time as you do to consider who you know that might need some encouragement that they matter to YOU.

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October 18, 2011

Art, Pastoral Life and Books

The pastoral life like any other profession, I believe is an art form. To practice it is to create: to explore the unknown deep waters of life through practice, mistakes, more practice and more mistakes and hopefully come out with something beautiful on the other side.

One of the best things I do to stay grounded in the art of pastoring is befriend and stay in close friendship with a couple of pastors who I know are on a similar journey of growth as pastoral artists. Though something as simple as going to lunch regularly with other Revs or finding moments in our hectic schedules to remain an important part of each other lives, I make my membership in an artistic community.

To foster this type of togetherness, sometimes we just talk about what is going on in our lives (you know even pastors need a pastor), sometimes we attend church or denominational functions together, sometimes we get our nails done together (the female pastor friends types). In these get-together ideas are shared among us. “Hey, what are you preaching on for Advent?” Or, “Have you ever taught a book study on this topic?” And, new practices for ministry are brought up, “What if our congregations did this together?” or “Have you ever considered partnering with this para-church group?” And then there is the all important question: “What books are you reading right now?”

But, there are some books I can’t read with other pastors. In fact, I refuse to read them as much as I want to be respectful of the interests of my colleagues.

I won’t read books that are poorly written or come from a tradition that do not affirm my existence as a female pastor. There’s so much I have to learn from those I first respect, so good to start there, right? And, I won’t read books that have prescriptive ideas of a one-size fits all approach to ministry.

Recently in a clergy meeting, we decided to read the book: Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be recently published by the respected Alban Institute. Even though I suspected this volume would be one of those that I didn’t like very much, I picked it up and tried to read as much as I could. And after 50 or so pages I really wanted to throw it across the room. It all seemed like well-meaning, but scripted advice. For to be told the four things you need to do to be a good pastor is like giving a kid you think has the talent to be a good artist a paint-by-number kit and saying: “There’s your training.”

Churches like paintings, are made up of unique people, settings and histories, so to give advice in this way to its leaders– though some of it may be good common sense– is to assume that all of this uniqueness doesn’t matter. It assumes that doing ministry in an urban setting in Washington DC in a Baptist church is the same as doing as ministry in a rural setting in Wyoming in a Catholic parish, which of course just doesn’t work.

If we truly see ourselves as pastor artists, then, I think some expanding our horizons is in order. There is not really a church growth plan in a box that is going to teach us everything we need to know to run “good” or “successful” churches. Artists after all become more creative and interesting the more they create outside the normal boundaries and experiment.

Recently, I read a quick page turning novel, which did more for my creative life than any “how to” volume could. Cutting for Stone follows the lives of two boys from birth to adulthood, growing up with adoptive doctor parents in Africa and is full of unexpected twists, turns and vivid scenes that made me feel like the characters were actually friends of mine. Deep in the story are truths about the human condition of pain, loss, jealousy, and redemption. It was a mine of diamonds for the pastoral life that I’m still mulling over even though I finished it weeks ago.

With encouragement from my clergy friends, a bookshelf full of novels and other “non churchy” books, I’m going to keep reading and experimenting with this life I’ve been called to lead. Though today feels like one of those “blank canvas” type of days, I hope that by the time my work is through for the day I’ll have some creative ideas to what might be coming next . . .

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October 17, 2011

Intentional Dependence

Intentional Dependence

Exodus 16:2-15

Only when you trust someone, do you begin to really get to know them.

Such was a life lesson I began to learn from all of the youth group trips my parents forced me to attend, beginning in the 7th grade.

Every fall, when the air was crisp and cool like it is beginning to feel right now, the motley crew of suburban churchy teenagers and I along with our leaders would board a bus headed for the mountains. Though many of us attended with the hopes of hanging out without our friends, usually our youth leaders would have something else in mind as a purpose of the weekend: group bonding.

Sounds simple enough, but the measures such leaders would take to teach us how to trust each other always seemed extreme to me. I will never forget the fear that came over me as a scrawny little 7th grader on my first fall retreat when I was introduced to the “trust fall.” Some of you may be familiar when this activity too from similar workplace retreats.

The concept of the trust fall was simple: each participant in the group would be asked to climb up on a large platform, in our case, built into a tree, and stand with their back to the group assembled below with their hands crossed like this (place hands across chest). The group standing below would lock their hands together to their corresponding partner. And, then, as the person up on the platform, you’d be asked to fall backwards “depending” that your group mates would catch you.

While the whole activity takes merely a few seconds from start to finish, the emotional toil of preparing for and processing the experience afterwards took much longer. For, as much as I wanted to be the “cool” new 7th grader, I could remember how I felt about being such in a vulnerable position of being held, carried and supported by older kids that I barely knew.

But, after (with much encouragement) submitting myself to the trust of the trust fall, feeling like I was on top of the world, like no other experience– for even though I shed a tear or two in anticipation of the actual fall, the group still accepted me. In our trust of one another through this exercise, we began as a group, the experience of really getting to know each other.(Watch out church council members… we are having a retreat this Saturday).

In our scripture passage for this morning, no matter if they liked it or not, the Israelites were also facing their own version of a “trust fall” experience as well. For since we last journeyed with them last week, when courage had been their intention in crossing the Red Sea, in no time, they faced new challenges. For as much as they thought they knew this God who had told them to walk across the sea on dry ground, they were realizing that the adventure had only just begun. Maybe they didn’t know this God as well as they thought.  . . . for life was getting just a little bit more scary than they imagined.

The land they found themselves in was somewhere around the Sinai Peninsula, a geographically barren place. Differing from the lush vegetation that the Israelites had enjoyed in Egypt next to the Nile River, the change in scenery meant that gathering basic necessities for life was all that much more difficult.

And so what we hear them doing as our passage opens in verse two is complaining– saying the grass was greener on the other side of life, literally.

But such outcries weren’t new to the story. Such was what had happened when they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army soon approaching saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die?” and such was also what they said when it became apparent only three days later that water was going to be hard to come by in the desert

Yet, protection from their enemies and water was not their only need. Soon the Israelites voiced concerns for food in verse 3 saying to Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

We hear these words coming out of their mouths and our first instinct is to judge and say shame on them for complaining, but the truth be told, they really did have every reason to voice their concerns. Like I felt climbing for the first time up on that platform getting ready to fall into the arms of my just as inexperienced peers, so the Israelites had never seen or done anything before
like this either.

None of them had attended Boy Scout camp and gotten their “how to survive in the wilderness when your leader doesn’t even know where you are going” badge.

None of them had gone on a pre-mission trip to plot out the locations where food and water could have been.

None of them had been given any sort of road map so that in this crisis they could at least muster up some of their own intellect to figure out what might be next.

They were where they were because they were following the deity they knew as Yahweh after all, so seems fair, doesn’t it that a lament to God was in order?

After all laments are all about giving voice, as one theologian writes, “to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear and danger. [To lament is to] call upon God to see arise and act.”[i]

So, in their laments, they were actually turning toward God in the hopes that in making their requests known, that God actually heard them.

But the thing is about laments, which we know from the times when we make them in our own lives too, is that the solutions we come up with are not always the most level-headed solutions or even the best scenarios at all for getting us out of our predicaments.

For the Israelites, their complaining lament focused on going back to Egypt. They wanted to go back because it was a land, even with all of its oppression was a place where they at least knew the rules.

They knew that they only had themselves to trust there. And if they put their head down, worked hard and sought to do as they were told, then hopefully their slave masters would show pity on them. And, at least at the end of the day in Egypt, no matter how hard it was, they earned food by their own hands to put in their mouths.

However, only when you depend on someone do you actually begin to get to know them.

But, this journey, as it began at the Red Sea and would continue for many years to come would not be about what life was like in Egypt. It was and always would be about God and getting to know Yahweh who had called Moses to be their leader many years ago by saying: “I AM who I AM”

You see, the time for self-sufficiency was over, working hard to earn their own keep or even having a predictable life routine. The journey in the wilderness would be about getting to know this God who was leading them with a cloud by day and a fire by night– and some surrendering was in order. To know this God, they’d have to first depend on him.

As we continue to read this passage, we see that the provisions of God, came from the heavens– and no matter if you believe this part of the story was an actual miracle or just some circumstances of chance– the message is still the same: the ways of God were different from life was in Egypt. And now, out of Egypt, what the people were most to learn was all about this God. And as the Israelites
got to know this God, they too might have to say to one another, “What is it?” because it was going to be nothing like they’d ever seen done before.

I love verse 15 for this very reason, for when the bread came and the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” for they didn’t know what it was. And the actual translation of “what is it?” is the word manna which we know the bread as in our Bibles today.

In every morning that the people gathered the bread and in every evening that gathered the meat, promised by God as their provisions, they were practicing faith. They were relinquishing control. They were being intentionally dependant
on God.

I can imagine that countless of the people had never been that dependant ever before in their lives. They’d never seen anyone they could depend on other than themselves before. They’d never really seen the point before.  And, I can imagine as this challenge was placed before them, that they didn’t like it very much either. But, it was their calling regardless: to trust God.

I shared with all of you last week that on September 30th a dear friend and mentor of mine, Joseph Smith, who had preached here once before and with whom I had served at a previous congregation, had died.

Joe, for those who knew he was a man who worked hard his entire life serving in various ministry position through the DC Baptist Convention that Washington Plaza Baptist is a part of. He worked almost too hard sometimes. His wife Margaret of over 50 years was always encouraging at him to take a break, slow down, stop. But, that was not how Joe rolled.

He regularly spent hours of his time in his study organizing his preparations for anything he was in charge of and always thinking of ways that he could be most helpful to those in the sphere of influence in his life, even when he was said to be “retired.”

However, out of nowhere, most unfairly, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, though not a smoker, over a year and a half ago. Recently, after chemo and a series of blood conditions developed as a side effect of his treatment, Dr. Smith was weak and fragile only taking baby steps around his house with a walker. The man who had gone and did some more (more than anyone ever asked him to do) was now utterly dependant on family and friends who could look after him.

In one of our last correspondences with each other he wrote me about how hard it was to be the one in need of the visit instead of  being the pastor making the house calls. He told me how much it ached him when he no longer had the energy to be the first one to reach out or contribute to the care of others. He hoped people would not forget him in his time of need. Though such a sentiment came to me through a comment he posted on my blog, the feelings he shared were a modern version of a lament of how hard this dependant
stuff is for all of us.

I don’t want to be one of those preachers who stands here before you this morning and says that God sends onto this planet drought, famine, life-shattering illnesses like cancer in order to teach us how to be dependent creatures.  Sounds too much like a sick plan of an abusive Father, rather than a loving God to me. Because I don’t believe in a God that willing places us in harm’s way just to teach us a lesson.  I don’t believe in a God who is that evil like that.

But, what I do know is that God desperately wants us to know who God is. And, sometimes the trajectory of our lives, in this broken world of ours will take a turn into the wilderness, unavoidable to us: a place where all seems lost.

And it is in the wilderness, like no other time in our lives, that we can learn about who God really is. A God who says to us, I hear you, I see, you and even if the provisions I provide look like manna (“what is it?”) still you will be nourished. Still you will be full.

So, today, I ask you, where you do you want to go to church?

Where you want to make your house? Do you want to live in Egypt? Or do you want to be on the journey to the promise land?

If you want to go back to Egypt and what has worked for you in the past, then know there is no freedom there. There is no leader here who knows your name. There is no hope here that life will be better tomorrow; just more of the same.

But if you want to go to the Promised Land, if you want to abide in the presence of the One who knew you before you even knew yourself if you want to know the One who says I am the beginning and the end, then, dependence is a word that has got to come into all of our vocabularies.

For our calling is to get out on the ledge a little more and to fall into the arms of a God who can be trusted is in fact not as a bad as we thought it might be– for when we make our laments, when we tell God what is really on our minds, some “what is it?” might just be falling to us on the horizon.

Let us stand still and in whatever state we find our lives in today: receive.  Singing together, “Here I Am Lord.”


[i]Elna K. Solvang “Lectionary for August 2, 2009: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15.”

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