A Simple Approach To A New You in the New Year

I do not do new year’s resolutions, at least not in the traditional way.  I have tried different approaches to it and have found most forms of this approach lacking.  The one thing I have learned through all those trial and error methods is they tend to be hung up on the start date.  “I’ll start the first of the year,” or “I’ll wait till I’m 30 and then begin,” or something of the like.  

There are two things which I have found to be most helpful.

First, when you have resolved to do something, whatever it is, determine the soonest possible date to begin doing it and do it, period.  In other words, no waiting.  Do it.  Somethings you might need a doctor’s’ okay for but most of the changes we usually make just need to be done.  Get started - go for it.  The wait just makes it worse.  Early morning lap swimming is what I think of.  After stretching, just diving in and going makes it easier.  

Second, do one thing.  Too often people want to tackle five or six things: start running, start lifting, drink more water, eat less red meat and eat more fruit.  Try to do too much, you do very little.  Instead let the habit approach take over, that it takes 30-40 days to develop a habit.  When it comes to getting healthy, I have found if you start with one of these, like exercising, your body will start sending you the signal for more water or more fruits and vegetables.  

There is a natural resistance to the reorganization of the body.  I always remember getting shots in the butt as a kid.  I would always tense up and my rear would hurt for something close to week!  When I finally realized that this little pain would heal whatever the sickness was, I learned to relax and the pain and soreness would subside as well.

And what applies to our physical bodies has also shown to be true in our mental and spiritual bodies.  Life changes and our moral development can cause undo stress.  Our emotions give way to anxiety or depression or anger or a number of other things.  Just as our bodies are not intended to remain in an adolescent state (thank the Lord!), our self is not made to stay in an adolescent state internally either.

In “The Evolving Self,” Dr. Robert Kegan observes these changes, “we may hear grief, mourning, and loss, but it is the dying of a way to know the world which no longer works, a loss of an old coherence with no new coherence immediately present to take its place.  And yet a new balance again and again does emerge...it is a new life, not a return or a recovery (pg 266).”  These are most often the changes we did not plan on, but they will cause us to grow up nonetheless.  

Funny thing is, we talk about transformation in religion but we are only comfortable with it to a point.  We have determined in religion there are places we are only comfortable with going.  We even try to define this for others.  When I was planting a new church, I withheld a raise for myself.  An outside supporter of the church said to me, “Ken, you’ve been called to start a church not take a vow of poverty.”  I determined this was not the right person I needed in that position.  

In and out of the church, of other religions too, I suspect, success is determined on symbols of power.  Most of our society views and measures our success based on symbols of success.  Moral development theories observe this is where most of us find ourselves as a home base.  It is measured in the size of homes and the types of cars.  It is in the size of your church or in Super Bowls you have won, or the titles after your name.  There is a lot of good to be done here.  But it is not where we ought to stay.  Jesus calls us out of this early in his public preaching when he said, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).”

In recent reading, I got stuck on Francis of Assisi’s life.  Father Simon Tugwell writes about how Francis’ worldview was changed by his encounter with Jesus Christ.  Francis saw that, “Christ came into the world as a servant, not a lord.  He was content to be at the mercy even of his enemies.  he surrendered himself even to death (131, “Ways of Imperfection”).”  In the forming of the order, Francis always struggled with the role of leadership.  He was insistent that the Franciscan monks remain in the church and supportive of local clergy.

We are to be changed people.  The teachers, the fathers and mothers of the Christian faith are all insistent on a change taking place within our lives.  We confuse it with various symbols or sects, non-essentials to the faith even.  Poverty is not the central tenet of monastic orders, “...it is rather the readiness to be in a position in which it is impossible for you to insist on your own will (131, ibid).” Kinda sounds a little Methodist if you ask me. Our will is to be in submission to that of Christ Jesus.

In this new year consider a more simplistic way and approach to your life.  Consider beginning where the giants of the Christian faith seem to have begun, by being obedient to Jesus Christ.  Read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John through this month and mark down where Jesus’ words seem to speak to you.  Then, focus on memorizing that one call to obedience each month AND seek to live it out as well that you might begin to be formed into the image of God this year.   

May you know God's mercy this year!

Sin Got Hold of Me: Taking Sin Seriously in Spirituality

Sin has got hold of me.  Besides the theological idea of original sin or the sins that plague my life, sin got hold of me.  It maybe the recent blog discussions about substitutionary atonement where it got my attention, but it may be older than this.  The debates surrounding homosexuality have likely played a role.  In all honesty (and I would not want to lie when I am writing about sin), I cannot seem to place my finger on it.

I do know one thing.  I have not been taking sin seriously.  My observation is, however, sin does not seem to be a subject taken seriously by many any longer.  Do you want to talk of social sins?  Well, that is a different matter.  Do you want to point out and talk about the generic sins of conservatives or liberals?  Sure, go for it.  How about the sins of western civilization?  Yep, fair game.  Communist Russia?  Well, okay.  How about the sins associated with a race?  Gender?  Orientation?  Yep, sure, and of course.

What about your sins?


What is the saying, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?”  You got it.  Me, my stuff, is off limits.  I define what is sin for me and you can just stay out of it.  Do not come at me or my tribe because we do things our way.  Keep your religious, hoity-toity, nose-up-in-the-air right there and keep out of my business!  And that is just what Christians are saying.

We have a personal savior right?  My relationship with Jesus is a personal one.  I determine the narrative and the way things go.  I have my buddy-Jesus and Jesus is just alright with me!  I hear you.  This is what I have been living too.  And I cannot do it anymore.  That is why I think sin has gotten hold on me.

I am not talking about the devil and demons being out to get me or anything.  No, I have come to realize I am not that lucky.  In describing how the early church mothers and fathers faced sin, Dr. Roberta Bondi observes, demons aren’t that worried about most of us because we, “...cave in to our desires too quickly for the demons to want to bother with us (pg 68, “To Love as God Loves”).  No, they are more concerned with the true holy men and women.  “God may move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform, but the Devil moves in ingenious ones to accomplish his victories,” is the observation of Henry Fairlie in “The Seven Deadly Sins Today.

The clever nature of the Devil used to be the idea that he sought to hide his existence.  Not only do I think he has done this well, he also convinced us that sin plays no role in our lives.  No, we act on moral obligations and when we don’t, we do what is immoral.  We make mistakes or have a character flaw but sin?  No, that is a word of a bygone era.

What I know, at least what I know in my soul, in the years of my journey, and my live as minister for nearly twenty years now, Fairlie is a wise observer of the truth.  We may call it, and cover it, even paint it up pretty and put it on Instagram but, “sin is our secret from others.  Only we know where, and how deeply, it has taken root in us.”  If we are really able to admit it, we know we have our blind spots too and the roots of sin go deeper still, far deeper.

The ancient writer of Proverbs observed: There are six things that the LORD hates, even seven that are disgusting to him:  (17)  arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill innocent people,  (18)  a mind devising wicked plans, feet that are quick to do wrong,  (19)  a dishonest witness spitting out lies, and a person who spreads conflict among relatives.   (Proverbs 6:16-19, GW).  The Apostle Paul would add his list in Galatians 5:19-20 to warn Christians about the “works of the flesh.”  Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth-century would put together his list of eight passions which the desert abbas and ammas wrestled with and later the Roman Catholic Church would outline the famous seven deadly sins.

But who wants to wrestle?  Deadly sins sounds so morbid!  I mean really, it isn’t like we drop dead right away, right?  We can give up anytime and besides, this is just a character flaw.  Sure.  Of course.  You’re right.  No doubt.  And yet, they do not seem to give me the joy or fulfillment promised.  Usually when something doesn’t fulfill as promised, we go back for a refund, or report to the Better Business Bureau.  

If our path and practices of spiritual formation are intended to move us closer Jesus; and to form us into the image and character of Jesus, we cannot so easily dismiss these behaviors for anything other than what scripture calls them: sins.  The writer of James puts it most succinctly, namely we are called to confession and to prayer which bring forgiveness (5:15-16)  If you have faith when you pray for sick people, they will get well. The Lord will heal them, and if they have sinned, he will forgive them.  (16)  If you have sinned, you should tell each other what you have done. Then you can pray for one another and be healed. The prayer of an innocent person is powerful, and it can help a lot.”  In addition, our ministry as Christians is to rescue others from sin!  (5:19) My friends, if any followers have wandered away from the truth, you should try to lead them back.  (20)  If you turn sinners from the wrong way, you will save them from death, and many of their sins will be forgiven.”

The ministry of spiritual formation is in large part, a ministry of listening to Holy Spirit’s voice in the life of those who are seeking to be formed in the image of Christ Jesus.  Those of us who are called to this ministry must seek to hear the voice of the Spirit in these matters as well if our spiritual direction is to be truly Christian.  Learning to hear takes time but it isn't like we don't know what conviction sounds like. As G.K. Chesterton observed, "We're all in the same boat and we're all sea sick."

A Place to Begin Hearing God's Voice

I have not surveyed any of my congregations.  What I wish I had done was begun writing down all the “spiritual” type questions I have gotten asked through the years.  I am going on 20 years of full-time ministry and I know there are plenty other clergy with longer track records than mine.  I bet we would not be all that far off if we compare notes.

At the top of the list of questions I get asked has to do with the theme:, how do you know God’s will?/ Is God in this?/ What does God want me to do?  Or something else similar.  I also have heard the wish list of many who wish they could “hear God the way I do.”  I have been a little surprised on the additional interest on these topics from people when they learn of my Certification in Spiritual Formation.

What I think needs to be established is one simple truth: we all have the same access to God available to us through Jesus Christ in prayer.  What we do with this access is where the issues seem to develop.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, kept an extensive journal chronicling his own prayer life (which was full of dry, questioning times I might add) and concluded in the end that prayer is “the grand means of drawing near to God.”

Steve Harper makes an extensive presentation for our attentiveness and faithfulness to prayer (and other devotional practices) if we are to further our relationship with God.  To be true to our traditions (especially United Methodists), he writes, “...we will find our place among those who have determined to ‘read and pray daily.’  Like them, we will realize it is for the sake of our life (pg 64, Prayer and Devotional Life of United Methodists).”

But does that really get to question of hearing from God?  In one part, yes.  We have to practice prayer, expressing a desire to know more of God.  You will have trouble finding anyone who is revered as a spiritual teacher who does not make time to pray.  From my own readings, I see this is true across religious traditions as well.  

Then how do we hear and discern God’s voice?  I think Fr. Ronald Rolheiser gives some great insight on this.  In one of his lectures he refers to the story of 1 Kings 19 and Elijah in the cave.  Elijah hears thunder, experiences an earthquake, and then, fire. These are “traditional” ways God had spoken in Scripture but this time God wasn’t there.  Then came the sound of a gentle breeze and this is when God shows up.

Since the 19th century, Christian spirituality has identified two streams, the kataphatic stream and the apophatic stream.  The kataphatic recognizes the need for images, art, music, means of grace, to help us know God.  On the other side is the apophatic which acknowledges we can know God by these forms but God is more than these forms.  We also must surrender “ourselves” and turn from idols which images can easily become.  

Usually, kataphatic and apophatic are seen as opposites.  But Rolheiser notes that on the point of discerning God, in their own way, the kataphatic and apophatic are in agreement.  In the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, Fr.Rolheiser observes, we find imagery which speaks of the two tones of God’s voice, “When we are in sin, when we need to be disturbed, then God’s voice will sound like a splash on a stone, its gonna be loud.  When we are in grace, God’s voice will sound like a drop of water going into a sponge.  It’ll be nice and gentle.”  Conversely, in St. John of the Cross, one of the predominate apophatic Christian voices, he “...simply says God’s voice will speak to you deeply. in the deeper silent places in your life. God will also speak in the big events of your life.  God will speak in the tragedies, the earthquakes of your life.”

There is certainly much more to consider.  However, the evidence in these writings seem to convey a record consistent with Scripture and tradition.  My own experiences have echoed the tones, as have the experience of others.   What cannot be dismissed is our willingness to be present before God with our prayers and with the Scriptures.  In a world saturated by sound, we are growing tone deaf to the voice of God.  There is no microwave solution for a cold heart but God is patient and the Scriptures affirm God's attentiveness to each person.

In the incarnation, we find Jesus’ conversations to be unique.  He does not treat everyone the same.  The gospels describe a Messiah who cares deeply for each person’s need and responds uniquely.  To the rich young ruler, Jesus is described as “loving him,” which seems to indicate a certain amount of care and compassion for how he must have spoken to the man (Mark 10:21).  When he questions those in the synagogue whether it is right to good or evil on the sabbath, Jesus is described as being both angry and grieved by their silence (Mark 3:4-5).

However, it is the Scriptures which we say contain all the knowledge sufficient for salvation and which contain what we need to know regarding God.  Listening for the tone of God’s voice must also be informed by these Scriptures.  Both streams of Christian spirituality are valid and scriptural but they must also be tempered and toned by the Bible.  God is speaking even now to each of us, maybe it is loud or soft.  Coming to know God’s voice is not only possible, it ought to be desired.  But like the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), we must be willing to go all in. The place to begin starts by making God a priority each week as part of a worshiping community and it grows as we make time each day for God too. (more on this to come.)

Lectio Visual for Advent with Isaiah

It is tempting to skip the time of Advent and jump right to Christmas.  As far as the Church goes, Christmas has not even begun yet!  Advent is our time of preparation and a chance to consider the state of things in the world prior to the coming of the Christ child.  The prophet Isaiah was one who lived in that time and God's coming and it is he who is pictured above.   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 www.biblegateway.com to do a search through the Bible using a key word that comes to you.  You might consider looking up an Isaiah text from the church calendar such as Isaiah 40:1-11 or 61:1-4 & 8-11.

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.  

Santa, Stormtroopers, and Spiritual Formation: Why All Three?

So, are you on the naughty or nice list this year?  You don’t have to confess or anything but just wondering if you’ve thought about it.  Right after Santa’s visit, well, there is New Year’s and all those resolutions to do better.  Nothing like a good guilt trip to ruin a holiday and leave it to a pastor to remind you of it!

But seriously,have you thought about it?  I know I have.  Being a parent has a way of doing that to you.  How have I done as a parent?  Did I find the right mix of patience and punishment or did I lose my temper too much and now my kids are scarred for life.  How about my job as a spouse?  As a son or as a friend and neighbor?  Dang, I could just go on and on

Start talking about religion and it only gets worse, I know.  Nobody wants to see the clergy coming around, everybody tries to run and hide.  If not, you get caught trying to run through excuses as to why you “can’t do this one thing” or “couldn’t be at that thing the other night.”  I get it.  It really isn’t the most important thing to lay it out before me every time you see me.  
You’ve got me all wrong.  My work is to help you misbehave!

I wrote in a previous blog post, “A spirituality that only informs or conforms and does not transform is not Christian spirituality.”  Christian theology points out the human race is corrupted by sin right out of the gate and God has made a way in Jesus Christ to redeem us.  Christian spiritual formation reveals the way by which we respond to God’s grace and then, misbehave with the status quo of sin.

Why have we so dismissed the Biblical understanding that there is a prince in this world other than the Prince of Peace?  Why, when this really does explain a great deal to us regarding God’s insistence on coming to save us?  One of my favorite authors at this time, Fr. Simon Tugwell, puts it well, “...it is the devil who is the prince of this world (Jn 14:30, etc.).  We are being incited to misbehave in his court, as well as to behave ourselves in God’s court!”  Tugwell draws on an ancient hymn to describe how we are called, “...to be unfaithful to our first love and forsake the snake who wooed and wedded us ("Prayer: Living with God," pg 26).”

What are we really getting away with when we run from God and do our “own” thing?  We are getting away with no thing as we fall again and again for the nature of the accuser, of evil itself. All we are offered is lies (John 8:44).  

While I am "Jedi Pastor Ken," I don't throw around Star Wars quotes, often or lightly, but I cannot help but think to the scene of Star Wars: A New Hope, as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo make their attempt to rescue Princess Leia from the Empire.  Dressed in stolen stormtrooper armour, they make their way to the Princess’ cell.  Upon declaring to the princess that they had arrived to rescue her, Leia responds, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”  

Do we not blow off the incarnation in the same way?  “Isn’t a baby a little small for a messiah?”  “Isn’t the church a little archaic for changing the world?”  “Aren’t Christians a little too arrogant about being the ‘only way?’”  This is why spiritual formation matters to us today for we shouldn’t be surprised when our salvation, our new life of freedom, comes in an unconventional package by the world’s standards.

God calls us out, beckons us, implores us, “hollers” at us, or what ever by a grace which never ceases. We are called to be a peculiar people in this world.  We need to look no further than Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Romans 12:2, NRSV)”  

Spiritual formation, by any means of grace, be it prayer forms for private prayer, the community of faith in worship, by public or private reading of Scripture, the sharing of the communion meal, etc., is evidenced in our transformation and how are minds are renewed to be attentive to God.  In large measure then, our lives should no longer resemble the pattern of the world.  

I’m not so worried about keeping Christ in Christmas as I am about keeping Christ in Christian.  We aren’t called to measure ourselves by how we conform to the world but by how we are being transformed into the image of Christ...even if we do come up short, God’s grace is abundantly sufficient.

Is There Room for the Miraculous In Your Advent Plans?

Last week, I, like many fellow Star Wars fans awaited the release of the new movie trailer.  With great anticipation we sought to gain new insight into the unfolding of one of the greatest movie franchises of all time.  We listened and watched and then debated what was revealed.  Yet nothing in the world actually changed.  The tragic and hateful actions of ISIS remained.  The debate surrounding grand jury decisions in Ferguson, MO and now New York, remain.  That, and another black Friday complete with the usual slate of horrific actions of greed once again came and went.

What also happened over this course of time was that there were cancers removed from people.  There were homeless who were fed and in some cases, even housing and new jobs began.  Babies were born too.  These are ordinary though.  I don’t think it so much that we have allowed Christmas to be commercialized to be the problem.  I am beginning to think it is we no longer consider the birth of Jesus Christ to be that miraculous.

Back in January of the year 2000, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer and our unborn daughter did a back-flip in the womb to put herself in a breech position.  Our son was just 17 months old.  A hundred years prior and certainly just 200 years prior, it would have been a real good chance that both my wife and daughter would have died in childbirth and a few years later, I would succumb to cancer, leaving my son an orphan.  We understood mortality.  There are many who still do all over our world today.

"The miracle that breaks the rules reminds us that the rules themselves are miraculous,” writes Simon Tugwell.  I have no idea what the mortality rate in giving birth would have been in the Middle East over 2,000 years ago but I suspect it was much worse than what it is today.  Every birth, I suspect, was seen as a miracle to some degree.  

Like so much, I think we take for granted and have ceased to see the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We do not resonate with the despair of the Jews of the first century living under the rule of Rome.  Being desperate for the newest iPhone or game system or upgrading to the newer model of BMW, does not qualify as despair.

We need Advent.  We need the fullest expressions of the season we can muster.  We need to find in our hearts the real despair of our souls.  It may mean we have to get in contact with the despair and isolation of someone else.  What we dare not do is to neglect the time and preparation leading up to Christmas morning for if we do we will miss the miraculous!  Advent gives our imagination permission to walk in the footsteps of those whom the prophet Isaiah describes when he declares, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.  On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned (9:2)." We might also find we find we are in the darkness ourselves.

We need the church for this.  We need the gift of age and experience for they often have known despair and the shadow of darkness is often a closer companion.  And we need the imagination of children, the playfulness and willingness to imagine.  In the end, it is choice we make to be willing to follow the story as it has been past down to us.  I’ve always thought Janet Hagberg said it best when she writes, “God does not make us move.  God’s grace allows us to move. (The Critical Journey, 14).”  If we are going to move; if we are going to be moved by the Advent story, it will be God’s grace which will free us.  We need a kataphatic spirituality, a spirituality with room for symbols and beauty for we need the full support of the Church for the story, the story of incarnation - the birth which is more than a birth - a miracle which reveals the miraculous!  

The symbols surround us.  The liturgy is present to guide us.  The music paints the pictures for us.  The proclamation speaks to us.  Why? “Because Christ is God’s real symbol, the icon of God, God is really present in a positive way,” writes Harvey Egan (“Christian Mysticism,” 403).  Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet God in the fullness of this season!  We dare not miss the miraculous because we see miracles as commonplace - God has not abandoned us...the Prince of Peace IS coming.  

Let me suggest at the least, fourteen suggestions of ways to make room this Advent:

  1. Been in worship for every worship service.
  2. Attend worship where the Advent readings take place.
  3. Find a Chrismon tree and spend time learning about the symbols.
  4. Research the meaning of all the Christmas colors used in churches.
  5. Volunteer to help where ever there is a need.
  6. Don't miss the Children's programs and pagents.
  7. Hear any special choir performances.
  8. Help feed the homeless.
  9. Give away at least one coat in a coat drive.
  10. Ask your pastor why they are preaching on certain texts during this Advent.
  11. Volunteer to read and light Advent candles.
  12. Volunteer in the nursery.
  13. Hold a baby at least once during Advent if you can.
  14. Attend worship at least once at a church of different denomination.

The question remains: will you seek Him?

When It Comes to Ferguson, Does the Church Have Good News or Just More of the Same?

Media of all types, it seems, add to the confusion and struggle of what has happened in Ferguson, MO. I, like most of us, have friends with differing opinions who often discuss, listen and disagree. I've tried to do more listening (but I've also been 'told' being silent isn't an option either). But divorced from our friendship, from covenant, our words can and do cut and hurt and become easily misinterpreted.

My son tried to do this very thing. The court of public opinion and open discourse seems to have no place for our young people though, not really. Instead of being welcomed as a young voice seeking his way, he was subsequently condemned and shouted down.  His words were misconstrued and no attempts to clarify were acceptable. As one with many clergy friends, I can find numerous posts where we are failing to consider the younger voices (and eyes/ears) entering into our conversation (not saying it was a clergy who wrote to my son either but it could have been).

As the United Methodist Church, we have said the voices of youth and young adults should have a place.  We all must remember that young minds and hearts are part of this too and as such, we need to be attentive to how their opinions are being formed. It is to this that I write because we need to be aware of how we are informing them.

So I would like to enter an additional opinion to what we (the Church) face in addressing what our society faces (not just in Ferguson, but also the world community as they watch and comment). That this past week was the Thanksgiving holiday but also the beginning of the Church year, should not be missed on us. In examining the role of thanksgiving on the life of the Church, Simon Tugwell notes that in times of suffering, it is here that it is the Church offers a true word of thanksgiving. The Eucharist contains both of these realities (suffering and thanksgiving) and “This is the hour of glory, this is the nub of St. Paul’s doctrine that we must rejoice always in the Lord.” He goes on to point out the reality of evil, the reality of the demonic (often present in suffering),

  "The devil is not interested in possessing our bodies, except perhaps as an incidental amusement, and he detests the carnal sins he incites us to commit - he is, after all, a fastidious spirit. What he wants is to make us despair and conclude that all is darkness, everywhere, for all time. It is against this creeping insinuation that we sing and shout “Alleluia!” (from “Prayer in Practice,” 96-97)"

The Church has a better word to speak and we ought to consider speaking rightly before we speak rashly. We are informing young hearts and minds, often younger than we realize. Do we have Good News or just more of the same news?

The Integrity Of My Faith: Thoughts from a Cancer Caregiver

When one is a pastor, people look to you for answers. Those answers often have as much to do with how we act as they have to do with what we say. Thankfully, clergy (and their families) do not live in the same “fishbowl” which just a few decades ago dictated much of what pastors were to do and how they were to behave.

We can look at a generation of pastors that “broke the mold,” so to speak, particularly when it came to church planting pastors. For good or for ill, we have seen pioneers, a raising of a new generation of hip pastors. Forget just wearing jeans and frosting your hair, we added cussing and craft-beer drinking to the list of things which were “acceptable,” well, at least for some. Technology gave us a whole new way to refine our “style.”

Many of us, myself included, took advantage where we could of some of these new freedoms and approaches. Sometimes we experienced the grace of more wise clergy and friends who cautioned us. Sometimes we did not. In many cases, we suffered, our churches suffered, and our witness suffered.

No matter how we might package ourselves, no matter how we might try to position ourselves to advance the Gospel or our “brand,” there is one thing we cannot escape. At some point we are going to come face to face with the reality of the integrity of our faith.

Integrity is important to me. Those who know me know this is a core value in my life, maybe THE core value. But even so, I come up short, “....for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...(Romans 3:23).” I am not able to escape this reality anymore than I can escape my need for sleep or to eat.

So when I speak of an “integrity of my faith,” I am talking about the nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty, knee deep in the muck and mire reality of whether my faith counts for anything at all. We can talk about all the surveys and stats. We can talk about vital congregations, but from my experience and conversations, people looking for God, looking for faith, want to KNOW that you KNOW God and that you KNOW you are KNOWN by God.

The integrity of my faith has been tested in a number of personal challenges. It was tested when I went through testicular cancer, in two battles with clinical depression, and in loss of nearly 50% of my vision to name the more public challenges.

Now, the integrity of my faith is being tested by my wife’s cancer and my role as a husband and father. The integrity of my faith strains at cords of my covenant as a United Methodist pastor and as a caregiver. It is not straining because I lack help or support, heavens NO! I am surrounded by the love and care of my church family and friends and colleagues.

The integrity of my faith is being tested because this is life. What is being tested is the integrity of faith which has been nurtured and has grown since I first responded to God’s prevenient grace back in 1987. What is being tested is the integrity of marriage vows, of my wife’s faith in me (and my children’s faith). And this faith is not, no, cannot be measured by the state of my interior life. The state of my interior life will be measured and made evident by the integrity with which I live.

Father Simon Tugwell writes so appropriately in his book, Prayer in Practice, “...we read that ‘the Word was made flesh”, not that the Word was made mind. Of course his humanity includes a human mind and the Church fought long doctrinal battles over it. But even so the Bible says ‘The Word was made flesh”, and there is an appropriate exteriority about our religion which we should take seriously.” He goes on to state more pointedly, “...we are human beings, and it is our humanity that is redeemed in Jesus Christ. So let us not be afraid to use human language in human ways when we draw close to God.” The integrity of our faith is tested more than just in our declarations of morality. I think it is tested most clearly in the facing of mortality - the recognition of the frailty of ourselves and those around us and those most dear to us.

With each breathe and prayer I make throughout my day, this is the integrity of my faith which is being tested. The truth is, it always was being tested. James even makes clear (I'm still not sure that  joy is how to describe what I’m experiencing right now), “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James1:2-3)” What I can say, is be attending to your faith now! Do you KNOW that you KNOW God? This is the assurance of salvation which we find promised to us (Romans 8:16-17) by St. Paul and passed on through the Methodist Revival. It is a true promise to us, do not wait for it, ask for it, seek it now when your faith is not in a time of testing.

I know whom I have believed in and HE is able to sustain the integrity of my faith. And that I say with all the scars upon my body and my heart.

Storytelling Week 2: It is Our Story

Act 16:25-40 CEV  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God, while the other prisoners listened.  (26)  Suddenly a strong earthquake shook the jail to its foundations. The doors opened, and the chains fell from all the prisoners.  (27)  When the jailer woke up and saw that the doors were open, he thought that the prisoners had escaped. He pulled out his sword and was about to kill himself.  (28)  But Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! No one has escaped."  (29)  The jailer asked for a torch and went into the jail. He was shaking all over as he knelt down in front of Paul and Silas.  (30)  After he had led them out of the jail, he asked, "What must I do to be saved?"  (31)  They replied, "Have faith in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved! This is also true for everyone who lives in your home."  (32)  Then Paul and Silas told him and everyone else in his house about the Lord.  (33)  While it was still night, the jailer took them to a place where he could wash their cuts and bruises. Then he and everyone in his home were baptized.  (34)  They were very glad that they had put their faith in God. After this, the jailer took Paul and Silas to his home and gave them something to eat.  

I could tell when I heard her voice on the phone, she was not happy.  “Pastor, I need to talk with you,” she exclaimed.  Jenny had begun coming to our new church start about a year after we had begun.  She had grown up Catholic but had not engaged God until recently as she and her daughter began coming.  At our new church, she wanted her daughter to learn about God but Jenny was on her own journey and had begun to ask questions about God.  We had given her daughter a Bible and they had begun reading it and had come to the story of Sodom and Gomorah.  That is when she called me.
“Ken, this is NOT a kid’s book!”  “How could God kill all those people?”  “Why would someone even write about this?”  How can I read this book to my daughter?” 

I’m not going to relay everything in our conversation as it was quite lengthy and it was a conversation that really taught me a valuable truth: our faith story does not happen in a vacuum.  Your story and my story of seeking God takes place in life, with people and in the midst of real life situation and sometimes, the real, messy, sometimes offensive and sometimes joyous, moments of life.  My life and my faith will forever be shaped and formed now by these past few weeks and these recent days of Heather’s cancer and the impact you, as a church community have had on me, on Heather and our family.  Our story as a family is now part of our story as God’s family here at Bethelview.  Our years of ministry together will be tied together because of this experience.

Christians, especially Methodist Christians, are a people of “One Book.”  That was a point that John Wesley made very clear.  Bethelview has been forever influenced by this truth.  How do I know?  For one thing, I’ve listened to many of you but I’ve also noticed something you may not have picked up on.  Each week, when you’ve come to worship, you have seen a picture of an open Bible.  You have a seen a Lamp on top of the Bible, reminding you that God’s Word is a Lamp to your feet and light on your path.  There is an open Bible with the greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding you that Jesus is God’s Word, the beginning and the end.  And, those of you who have come back into the closet, the original pastor’s office, there is the Ten Commandments.

Some good, godly people wanted to be sure the Church here at Bethelview didn’t lose sight of what mattered.  They are still telling the story of God to us today.  It isn’t their story.  It isn’t your story,  It isn’t my story.  It is our story.

As we read the story of Acts 16 (see above), we look at the impact of choices and connections, we see action and reaction.  Rarely do we ever consider earthquakes as good things.  In these circumstances, the jailer clearly is distraught by the events that transpire. What happens if Paul and Silas sneak out when the doors open?  It appears likely the jailer would have died.  His family would be left without a father and husband.  It may have meant Paul and Silas (and others) would have become fugitives.  It might also have meant the jailer’s family would come to blame their loss on Christians.

But those things DON’T happen.  The story of Paul and Silas becomes the story of the jailer.  The story of the jailer becomes the story of jailer’s family.  I think we get the miracles mixed up.  It isn’t about the earthquake and that Paul and Silas get out but that the jailer meets Jesus and so does the whole family.  What do you think Paul and Silas were most excited about?!?!?  We need to remember that this book is full of our story. This is the story of the ways God intervened and changed the storyline. That story line is one that God is STILL changing.

There are three things that I take away from this passage, three things I'd hope you'd remember:

1. The worst of circumstances can be used by God. Prison and earthquakes? This is why we need the blues and why I asked Brandon Reeves to come be part of this service and singing the blues.

2. Our actions can transform reactions. Be attentive to others. Always be looking out for others. People are always surprised when other’s serve. Ya'll know I wear a nametag just about everywhere and I've been an unpaid employee at places like Lowes, Home Depot, Dollar Tree and Target, to name a few. People are always surprised to learn later that I was willing to help them even though I didn't work there.

3.     Simple storytelling saves souls.  Verse 31 is all we need.  Simple question and a simple answer.  When life is most real, no one is concerned about what “-ism” you are in or what “-ology” you subscribe to.  “Keep it simple storyteller!”

Today, one family is responding to God's Story and becoming part of Our Story here at Bethelview UMC. Not only are we excited their joining, we're also celebrating the baptism of a father and son together...

What Next?

Week 2
Pray for an opportunity to share God’s story with them. Maybe it is something in your family, something at church, or something at work, where God was evident.

Storytelling Week 1: It is God's Story

I began this series because we need to talk about evangelism.  When I say "we" I do mean my church here at Bethelview UMC but also the larger Church.  The Church, mainly in the west, has shied away from it.  We have many reasons for doing so but coming up with reasons doesn't mean much when it is central to our mission.  That being said, we seem to have a hard time doing a lot of things the Bible outlines for us to do as well.  

This is a much more personal approach for me, I like good stories and I prefer to be IN those stories.  It seems to me, we've neglected one of the most important ways we can evangelize and share the Gospel and that is Storytelling, telling others what God has been about in the world.  More specifically, I think the best thing we can do is learn to tell our own stories of God's Good News in our lives.

This makes the Gospel real and current.  It brings us back to the Gospel truth that we don't worship just a crucified Christ but a risen Savior, God incarnate who cares what WE face - TODAY.  My story right now is raw and very real.  My fears fight to overcome my faith.  I have struggled to be available to my family and meet their physical needs as well as the emotional and spiritual needs as my wife fights cancer.  This IS where telling our story matters because Jesus IS alive, God IS faithful and the Holy Spirit IS present - right now.

So welcome to Storytelling!  I pray God's Story is more real to you and you'll get active in your part of telling it!
 Philippians 2:4-114 Let each of you look not to your own interests (gifts/spiritual endowments), but to the interests (gifts/spiritual endowments) of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself,  taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.      
There is a story of a conversation between Jesus and Gabriel which is purely fictional, but illustrates a good point...
      ‘After Jesus ascended to heaven, the angel Gabriel approached Him and said, "Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there."
      "I did," He said.
      "And," continued Gabriel, "do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?"
      "Oh, no," said Jesus, "not yet.  Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know."
      Gabriel was perplexed.  "Then what have you done, to let everyone know about your love for them?"
      Jesus said, "I've asked Peter, James, John, and a few more friends to tell other people about Me.  Those who are told will in turn tell still other people about Me, and My story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe.  Ultimately, all of mankind will have heard about My life and what I have done."
      Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical.  He knew well what poor stuff men were made of.  "But what if Peter and James and John grow weary?  What if the people who come after them forget?  What if way down in the twenty-first century, people just don't tell others about you?  Haven't you made any other plans?"
      And Jesus answered, "I haven't made any other plans.  I'm counting on them."’
                                               -- Lifestyle Evangelism,” Joseph Aldrich, p. 15-16

Evangelism is a scary word to most of us.  It brings ideas to our mind of walking up to some stranger or knocking on the door of someone in your neighborhood and asking them, “Have you met Jesus?” or “Are you saved?”  Even for those TYPE A, Extrovert People, this is intimidating.

The reality is most people who make decisions for faith in Jesus Christ do so because of the life and involvement in church with family and friends.  In his book, “The Unchurched Next Door,” Thom Rainer notes that 82% of people who are unchurched are “somewhat likely” to come if invited.  If that person is a friend, it is all the more likely. 

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is an important one, and it remains so to this day.  I think one reason for this is the comparison he makes in the verses I read at the beginning.  Paul tells the listeners we are not to be concerned just about our abilities; our gifts, but others, and emulate those good things in our life.  But then in verse 5-6 he tells us, as God’s Son, Jesus looks at the Father, and sees the role he is to play, and takes on OUR form.  What does he show us in doing this?  Not that we try to be God but to walk the path of being a servant, a slave.  High and mighty is not the goal but humble and meek.

We are called to be storytellers.  We are called to tell God’s story in our lives.  We do not have to be knowledgeable in theological terms or in Hebrew and Greek.  One of the reasons Rainer gives for why Christians are not reaching those who are unChurched is because we don’t witness, we don’t tell God’s story. 

You have family and friends who are not going to church but who are wondering and wrestling with their faith.  There are also people watching and waiting for a genuine friendship to happen with a Christian.  Rarely is difference going to be made if your friend Earl meets your friend, Pastor Ken.  I too have a mission field of friends and acquaintances I’m working to reach.  What if you told God’s story to a friend?  What if we all did that, what if we all lived the story and told the story?

And that story is the story we tell everytime we come to the table.  It is the story of God becoming like human beings – same skin and same blood.

 ‘I have given you an example’ (Jn 13:15) and in whose footsteps we are to place our feet (1 Peter 2:21).” (Pg 95, Tyndale NT Commentary on Philippians)

What Next?

The acrostic FRAN, stands for friends, relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors.  Think about one or two people in each category who you know is not engaged in a church or with God.  Write their first name down and start praying for them this month.  This week, simply pray for God’s best for them. 

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