At the Edge. My First Thoughts On My Wife's Fight.

I told my two kids that the emotions they would feel would come and go and be like a roller coaster.  Yes, even in the middle of class, tears might have to be fought back.  A simple thought or moment could stun them.  How did I know?  Because this is not my first rodeo with cancer.  The difference is I’m not the one fighting, my wife is.

I’m on the sideline this time and I’m going to be up front, it sucks.  This is the woman I love.  My best friend, my partner in crime, the one I share my memories with and the mother of my kids.  We’ve been married for 19 years, going on 20 and that means I’ve now spent more of my life in a home I have shared with her than the home I shared with my folks.  It took a few minutes for that to sink in today.

What’s more is that I’m a pastor.  I’m supposed to have answers for this.  Bible verses should just pop right out.  The right one, at the right moment, and said in just the right way.  But they’re not coming, not like that anyway.  

I am really thankful for all the Facebook messages and notes.  The e-mails from fellow clergy really mean a lot, really. 

I think something should be different but I know, from experience, it won’t be, not just yet.  Right now is the calm before the storm.   We’re just on the edge of things, “There Be Monsters” signs are posted but we’re not far enough into the forest to get a sense of the danger.  Not yet anyway. 

I don’t know what I don’t know but what I do know is we have faith.  We have hope.  We have love.  There is no banging gongs here.  This is a place of shadow and even here, God has placed the standard of His reign.  Even in the darkness, the presence of Providence is near. 

Faith.  Hope.  Love.  These three have been enough.

Faith.  Hope.  Love.  Heather, my love, God is here.  God is enough.

Invested: Make Your Life Count

These days I live a bit on the redneck side of life.  I wasn’t always that way but I get it honest as my family has pretty deep roots out in Texas.  Whether it was the oil fields of west Texas or the farm land to the east, I eventually came around.  Back in the high school days when I was trying to get as far away from my parent’s way of doing things, I wondered and struggled with just who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.   God got hold of my life as junior in high school and it was then that I heard God’s call into ministry. 

At the heart of that calling, was a desire to make sure that my life counted.  As I got older I realized that making our life count, may not always mean being counted as the best or the greatest.  One of my favorite songs on the subject comes from a Montgomery Gentry song from few years back.  Take a listen…

(I started the video at 2:20)
I learned quick those GTO's don't run on faith
I ended up broken down in some town north of L.A.
Working maximum hours for minimum wage
Well, I fell in love, next thing I know
The babies came, the car got sold
I sure do miss that old hot rod
But you sure save gas in them foreign jobs
Dad, I wonder if I ever let you down
If you're ashamed how I turned out
Well, he lowered his voice, then he raised his brow
Said, lemme tell ya right now

That's something to be proud of
That's a life you can hang your hat on
You don't need to make a million
Just be thankful to be workin'
If you're doing what you're able
And putting food there on the table
And providing for the family that you love
That's something to be proud of
And if all you ever really do is the best you can
Well, you did it man

I suspect you’ve got a song or two like that one that bring you back down to earth.  I suspect that when that song comes on the radio or pops up in your play list, you want to belt it out at the top of your lungs and you hope no one else is in the mini-van.  In those moments, you wonder, how have I made my life count?

I suspect Moses was a lot like we are.  He’d been run out of Egypt for fear of getting caught for murder.  He won the hand of a shepherd’s daughter and was spending his life living the life taking care of a bunch of sheep when he met God in a burning bush

Exodus 4:1-5 ESV  Then Moses answered, "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you.'"  (2)  The LORD said to him, "What is that in your hand?" He said, "A staff."  (3)  And he said, "Throw it on the ground." So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it.  (4)  But the LORD said to Moses, "Put out your hand and catch it by the tail"—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— (5)  "that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you."

Bob Hulsman of the Barnabas Foundation brought to my attention what maybe one of the most overlooked questions in the Bible, “What is that in your hand?” Moses saw a staff.  A stick.  A tool.  God saw in it an instrument of grace to free a people who would be God’s chosen ones.  Whatever we have God, God can and will use! 

Stewardship and giving is not and never has been about trying to give all your money to a church.  I can see how you might feel that way though.  But stewardship is exactly like the conversation between Moses and God at the bush, we respond to what God is doing (a bush that is burning but not burning up) and react to what God calls us to do (throw down the staff).

A word from God should lead to action for God.

I was 16 when I was offered the opportunity to give to an organization called Compassion International.  Back then it was the cost of a cup of coffee a day.  For $16, I could adopt a starving child.  At 16, I had a job and I realized, “I can do that!”  I did, and that was how I learned to tithe.  A word from God lead me to an action for God.  God didn’t need me to give.  I needed to give, I needed to understand everything isn’t about me.  Eduard needed me to give too, because he needed to live.

You may not believe that what you have is a gift from God.  I get that but also suspect that along the way in the life, you had some circumstance, some person that helped you out and gave you a step up.  There is word for that, it is called prevenient grace, or the gifts God gives you before you even know God is giving it!

By giving, you are investing.  You are going to be an instrument, a gift of grace to someone else.  Like Moses, you have something in your hand, something in your life, something in your career, you may not think it to be much at all but as Shawn Lovejoy, Pastor at Mountain Lake Church, noted a few years ago to me, “God qualifies the unqualified.”  God takes a Moses and he takes a Jonah, a Noah, an  Elijah, a Peter, a Paul, a Martin Luther, a Martin Luther King, Jr.  But he also takes a Ken, and a Don, and Deborah, and a Logan, and a Donny, and a Josie, a Randy, a Bob, a Patience, and a Ruth.  And God calls us.  And a word from God leads to action for God.

“And if all you ever really do is the best you can, well, you did it man.  That's something to be proud of,  that's a life you can hang your hat on.”

What kind of life are you hanging your hat on?

The Return of Lectio Visual (for Tuesday)

From Iconreader

This coming Sunday I begin a new sermon series and the first sermon comes from this encounter between Moses and God.  Before scrolling farther down, let me invite you to take time to just "soak" in the image.  Then begin considering each of the five parts of Lectio Visual.

Take time and move through each step.  Note the questions in the following paragraph for suggestions as you practice Lectio Visual.

            Look (Read):  Consider deeply the image and what is being “said.”
            Linger (Reflect):  What is the verse or word being given to you?
            Led (Respond): How are you being called to respond?
            Lay (Rest): Be in God's presence.
            Live (Return): Moving back into the world with how we've been changed.

As you look at this image, what words come to your mind?  Look at the people,their body language.  Note the colors chosen.  What speaks to you about the location?    Specifically, what Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak to you?   You may think of a recent news article or a quote by a famous person.  So it maybe from another word or phrase that you are  inspired to look up a Scripture.  If you need help, you might try going to to do a search through the Bible using a key word that comes to you.  In this case, the upcoming Sunday is regarding Moses and his conversation with I AM at the burning bush so you may want to spend time with Exodus 3-4

Remember that there are those images, icons or symbols that appeal to us.  We are  now an incredibly visual society and images are important.  Christianity has been using images since the earliest days of the church.  BUT, we need to realize that there are also images that don’t attract us or inspire us with joy or peace that are just as likely to be used by God. 

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take it as a guide for your prayer through this day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.  If it is a full story, consider using more of Lectio Divina which I talk about elsewhere on my blog.  

Haikus on a Monday

Awkward and alone.
No longer whole: shattered.
Pot shards and soul shards.

A hidden treasure
in shelter.  Shining.  Gleaming.
Ravaged.  Tried and torn.

I heard my soul speak.

I get stumped at times and I lose track of my own thoughts and feelings.  I misplace parts of my experience.  When I do that, and do it for long enough, I find poetry helps me center.  The haiku form seems best for me.  During my experience with the Two Year Academy of Spiritual Formation there were many friends who found their voice in poetry.  I rarely did but I do know when my soul cries out, it will, at times, cry out in poetry.

Long before there was Twitter limiting our characters, the haiku developed rules to keep the syllables to a minimum.  5. 7. 5.  I need those rules.  They function much like a rule of life and the simplicity and guidelines those rules offer, well, they push me to dig deeper, not just into vocabulary but into the soul work.  My soul work.

The Psalms are the reminder to us of the raw power of the spiritual work.  The words found there are real, raw, and ripping.  Some of them we do not like at all.  I think that is because they reveal our own base natures, the real needs we experience as human beings when our outer facades fade and fail us.

I heard my soul speak.

For Lack of Better Words?

I would love to write every day and I know I am not alone in that desire.  Most days I do write something though it is rare, at this time, that I feel the need to share it. 

But I feel there is a pressure to respond immediately these days.  I’ve been asked to respond to tragedies in public forums at times.  I get it, those are times people are looking for a comforting words and counsel from a clergy.  But that is not what I am talking about.

Maybe I am wrong about it but my feeds keep blowing up with everyone feeling their need to give an opinion.  


About anything. 

About everything.

Maybe the solution is getting off social media completely, or just learn to cope.  But I wonder if it is doing something to us, to our relationships, our lives, our society, and our friendships.  And here I am now, giving my opinion.

We need to find better words.  We need better words to describe those who we disagree with on important issues.  We need to choose better words before we condemn an entire race, religion, and gender.  We need better words to speak about those experiencing injustice, poverty, and unemployment.  We need to better words to speak about the rich, the 1%, our leaders.  We need better words to speak about those of a different political perspective than our own.  We need better words to talk to our children, our friend’s children, or a stranger’s child.  We need better words when we speak to our partner.

And we need better words when we speak about and to our enemies.

I don’t think we lack better words, I just think we are too lazy to use them.  It is so much easier (and far more fun) to build a silo, an ivory tower, a fortress of solitude, and cast verbal grenades and condemn others for what?  They vote differently?  They believe differently?  They speak different?  They act on different convictions?

Here is where I am.  I am stuck in the middle (though I’ve been told there is no middle).  My conviction is that I can’t be like Jesus if I take sides without hearing another point of view.  I don’t mean READING another point of view, God knows, I think, that we’re failing at that as a practice of faith or friendship or dialogue.  In the written word, we only seem to demagogue.

We are a lot like Hugh Laurie’s character, “House.”  He avoids dealing with patients believing he’ll be a better doctor to them.  The problem is, he does the same with everyone in his life.  It is really hard to love people at a distance who you’ve never known up close.  That is what I get out of Jesus’ words,
Rather, love your enemies, help them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then you will have a great reward. You will be the children of the Most High God. After all, he is kind to unthankful and evil people. (Luke 6:35 GW)

It is hard lend to someone you've not met.  It is hard to help those you've not ever known.  If you lack better words, then just be quiet for a while.  Just love others for a while.  Just listen to other people for a while.  Stop writing for a while.  And be glad that the Most High God does in fact keep his word and is kind to unthankful and evil people.

Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner, another unthankful and evil person.  Amen.

Where Does Spiritual Direction Fit In Christianity and Methodism?

Oh what a foolish child I was!  I can say that now, as a parent, for I see now the wisdom of my parents’ advice so many times, so many years ago.  Why am I reminded of this today?  I have two teenagers who live under my roof and each day it seems I open my mouth and hear either my dad or my mom speaking.  Oh what a foolish child I was!

We equate diplomas and accreditation with people who will give us wise counsel.  Most
times, this works out for us.  Yet, it seems to me that more often, the greater wisdom is found in the lives of those who carry no parchments and titles with them.  I think of my grandparents often when I think of wisdom and direction.

My dad’s dad and I had it out a couple of times.  He was a man hardened by struggle, who never slacked off and provided for his family as he baked in the west Texas heat maintaining oil wells for Gulf.  I’ll not ever forget the night when, with tears, he said to me, “Don’t be like me.  Stay in school.  Don’t be like me.” 

One of the struggles in church (and society for that matter) is that we have too many who seem to be saying the very opposite: “Be like me!”  I get the e-mails for promotional books.  I get the postcards for the next conference.  I hear colleagues maintaining the idea that if we’d only be like this person or that person, hold to this philosophical approach or implement these “cutting edge” plans, we’ll be successful.  Be like me.  Be like them.  Be like us.

In his book, “Soul Care,” Kenneth Collins points out that the sins of lust, drunkenness, and greed, dull our senses but so does boasting in our intellect, freedom and refinement.  Collins writes,”To use [John] Wesley’s own words, ’Dozed with the opiates of flattery and sin,’ these people imagine that they walk in great liberty.  It is actually a mistaken freedom, however, a freedom not to serve God and neighbor, but only to continue in sin (57).”  This, I think, is one of the blinders we install into our spirituality, namely, to ignore our sins in all their forms. Another is to dismiss the need for spiritual direction for laity and clergy.

The role of spiritual direction, while not always described by that term, is one of the foundation elements of the Christian spiritual journey (and Methodism as well).  Read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ many conversations with people one-on-one.  We find a pattern of questioning and listening and then the plain, simple words of guidance Jesus gives.  Paul’s and Peter’s letters reflect this.  Look at Paul’s personal letters of direction to Timothy, Titus and Philemon and we find Paul giving direction without missing the opportunity give correction.

The Methodist movement has embraced the ministry of spiritual direction and guidance from it’s inception.  Steve Harper makes note that as Methodist Christianity caught fire, John Wesley began relying on the example of spiritual direction given to him by his parents.  Dr. Harper notes, “The grand principle which gave rise to their ministry was ‘watching over one another in love’ – a clear reference to the spirit and methodology of sound guidance (Prayer and Devotional Live of United Methodists,74).”  Our soul care needs to be entrusted who care more for another than for the promoting of self.

It is important to note however that as we watch over one another, we are not to make anyone feel weak, “…only pilgrims on a way of formation that none of us is able to achieve ultimately or perform perfectly (75).”  Our lives should be permeated by the fruit of the Spirit, for it is, “God's Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways. And because we belong to Christ Jesus, we have killed our selfish feelings and desires. God's Spirit has given us life, and so we should follow the Spirit. But don't be conceited or make others jealous by claiming to be better than they are. (Gal 5:22-26 CEV).”

From the informal direction from friends and peers to the more formal relationship I have with a spiritual director, I continue to experience and see the fruit of the Spirit being formed in my life.  This direction keeps me on the rails, helping me recognize the change being done in my soul is only evidenced in how I am living with other people in this world.  A spirituality that only informs or conforms and does not transform is not Christian spirituality. 

At a time when our lives are hidden behind our avatars and constructed social media images, the need for connection and direction is all the more important.  None of us can simply assume it will happen but we must be intentional.  If you’re interested in knowing more, read my thoughts here or better yet, I encourage you to visit Heartson Fire which is the website of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and has a directory of UM directors.  Or consider Spiritual Directors International who also has a directory and maintains the guidelines for spiritual directors.

On the Trail as the Pilgrim: Praying the Jesus Prayer on the Journey

I recently posted regarding the week my daughter and I spent backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.  One of the things our time on the trail reminded me was how memories are made in living not watching others live.  Intentionally separating ourselves from digital communication was a renewal of personal communication.  It provided great conversation for her and I, for us and the people we met on the trail and for me, it was a chance to meet up with God in a unique way.

          In the past few years, I’ve begun changing the focus of my blog and writings toward spiritual formation.  During that time my ministry as a United Methodist pastor has been directed toward helping both churches and individuals engage in spiritual practices which help us not just speak to God but to listen to what God is speaking to us.  One of the formative elements of my journey and my teaching has been in regards to “The Jesus Prayer,” and I’ve written about it in other places.  It is a simple and profound prayer which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

          On the trail, as I hiked my own hike, I prayed the Jesus Prayer and prayed other “breath prayers” over and over again (Note, a breath prayer is a prayer in the same structure as the Jesus Prayer.  It is formed by an individual addressing God regarding a particular yearning or need in one’s life).  Each step I took, each breath I took, I spoke the prayer again and again.

          The story and history of the Jesus Prayer is best told in the book, “The Way of thePilgrim.”  The tradition of the prayer comes from the Orthodox Tradition of the Church.  It is a very ecumenical prayer and though simple, is profound.  The history of the book is unknown as is the identity of the pilgrim.  The author writes,
“In the first part, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,’ it leads our thoughts to the life of Jesus Christ, or, as the holy Fathers put it, it si the whole gospel in brief.  In the second part, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner,’ it faces us with the story of our own helplessness and sinfulness (pg 135).”

          With each step and with each breath, the phrases of the prayer rolled around in my mouth, in my head and in my heart.  And it was in the journey that I came to realize that the trail, the actual, physical journey opened up my soul to the work of the Spirit.  In the book, the story of the pilgrim is one of journey, of physically seeking and moving. 

Why is that important?  Maybe it was something like Saul/Paul, maybe Jesus needed to speak to him on the road.  I’m not sure but I can tell you that I experienced something on the trail I had not in prayers at home or in the sanctuary.  I could sense the Spirit pulling out of me two people, two moments in time, buried down deep who I need to make amends to.  It was at once easy and difficult but I doubt that I could have come to that place in my soul had I not been at that place on the trail.

We are a sent people not a staying people.  We are not called to rest on our laurels but in Christ Jesus.  

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