Changing A Child’s Story

One book at a time, we can change the narrative, change, the statistics, change some lives…

My church heard the call issued by our conference Poverty Taskforce to make an impact on generational poverty through literacy. All year, some of us have volunteered as reading buddies at Hillis Elementary and we have worked since Christmas to try to purchase FIVE BRAND NEW BOOKS for every student there.

Why books?

It has been shown that having less than 25 printed items in a home is an indicator of poverty.

Prisons are built based on literacy at the third grade level.

And because a love of reading sparks imagination, creativity, and helps students succeed.

Last Thursday, our church delivered all 2,346 books to the school and the students got to pick out their own in a free book fair. It was one of the most amazing things I have experienced in my life.

Hillis Book Giveaway

It is hard to imagine the impact that one day and those five books will have, but I know and trust and believe that each one is a seed planted that will change a life.

Thankyou, Immanuel UMC for your generosity. Thank you, Hillis and especially Erin McGargill for helping us and being open.

Thanks be to God for moments like this :)

 

Keep P.U.S.H.ing!

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My aunt Barb has been diagnosed and treating uterine and ovarian cancer for about two years now. She has been through a few rounds of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Some of it has been successful! Some of the cancer has returned. It has been an up and down journey, but she has had quite a few healthy months in the midst of it all.

Through everything, family and friends have been a huge support and together they have participated in Relay for Life the past two years.

As Team Triple B, their slogan is “Keep PUSHing”

For them, PUSHing means that you Pray Until Something Happens.

 

Pray Until Something Happens.

 

In these past six weeks, we have talked a lot about prayer. We started out by talking about prayer as group activity… something we do together. Pastor Todd talked about prayer as an intimate relationship with our parental God. Trevor invited us to think about prayer as something that is always hard and always necessary – a sweet devotion. Our guest preachers, Pastors Ted and Mara, have led us in a variety of disciplines and continued to stretch our thinking on how we practice prayer.

While I was away on leave, I spent every single morning in prayer. I wish I could say that I always spent every morning in prayer, but as Trevor so eloquently stated in his message, prayer is hard work.

Yet, on my renewal leave, my only real task was to pray. To pray for you. To pray for our ministries. To pray for God to guide me and us. And I read a lot about prayer as well.

One of the things that kept striking me is that we need to pray like we mean it.

We need to pray about those things in this world that we really want to change.

We need to pray until something happens!

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus was walking into Jerusalem and he passed by a fig tree. Even though it was out of season, he looked for fruit and didn’t find any. So he said, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” The tree withered, dried up, and died within 24 hours.

Jesus prayed… and something happened!

Now, I’m going to be honest… this is a rather strange story that leaves us with all sorts of questions:

Why would Jesus punish the tree when it couldn’t help that it was the wrong season?

The scripture says he was really hungry… so maybe he was just really grouchy, like I often get when I haven’t eaten in a while…

Because, I mean, what kind of Jesus is this that arbitrarily causes things to die?

United Methodists don’t typically buy into the kind of prosperity gospel that says if you pray for what you want, you will get it.

We are fully aware that all kinds of faithful people pray for things like healing and miracles and help and the answers aren’t always what we want.

Maybe that is why even though it is a story mentioned in both Matthew and Mark, most of the cycles of scripture readings pastors use completely ignore this passage. We’d rather Jesus didn’t have this encounter with the fig tree.

 

Yet, the core of the message here… aside from the weird stuff with the fig tree… is repeated over and over again by Jesus.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9)

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains… nothing will be impossible (Mt 17:20)

If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

If we pray… stuff will happen! Not little stuff… BIG. GIGANTIC. POWERFUL. MOUNTAIN SIZED stuff!

That’s what scripture tells us.

That’s what Jesus keeps reminding us.

Prayer is powerful.

 

There is a important thing to remember in this power of prayer, however.

This power only works when our prayers are aligned with God’s will.

If I started praying for a bigger house today… I probably wouldn’t get it. Because that is not about God… its about me.

As 1 John puts it: If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for what he wanted… but he ended that prayer: not my will, but yours be done.

What I love about my aunt’s prayer during this time  is that while she has all sorts of hopes and wants and desires for her treatment, their goal is for God’s will to be done.

They are going to Pray Until Something Happens.

That might be good news and healing. It might be deeper relationships.  It might not be the ending they want, but they are open to discovering God’s blessings and God’s answers along the way.

And through it all… they are going to pray.

 

I have found that we don’t hesitate to lift up prayers asking for healing. We are even pretty good at lifting up prayers of gratitude.

But there are things in this world that we are called to do and change and work towards… and we forget to pray about it!

We get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to ask God to be a part of it. We keep thinking it is all about us.

And when we do so, we forget to tap into the mountain-moving power of prayer that is right there at our fingertips.

 

 

And that is what we need to do.

Last fall, we sat down and spent some time asking God what we were supposed to do here at Immanuel. And out of those conversations as leadership, we set some goals around places we have passion and we felt God was moving. Now… we need to pray about it.

We need to Pray Until Something Happens.

 

One of those goals was that we wanted to increase our visibility in the community… We want get to know our neighbors better… And our goal, our hope, is that those new relationships will mean there are 10% more people here in worship at the end of this year.

But you know what… we haven’t really prayed about it. We haven’t asked God to help us with this work. We’ve been trying to do it on our own.

 

Another goal we set last year was create space for people to serve here at Immanuel. We want to make sure that everyone is connected to some kind of ministry beyond Sunday morning. And one of the pieces of this goal is to encourage new people to embrace God’s gifts in their life and we wanted to find a place for 10 new people to serve on our ministry teams.

But we haven’t been praying about it. We haven’t asked God to help us.

 

And as the Iowa Annual Conference, we have this amazing new goal. As United Methodists, we want to make a significant impact on poverty in our communities and we think we can do something really big by addressing the opportunity gap in education. And so, we are being asked to get involved with an effort to distribute half a million books and to give a million hours of time over the next year. And it is a big and awesome and mountain sized goal and we are just getting started…

So you know what… we had better start praying for it.

 

In fact, we need to start praying for all of these things.

We are going to need God on our side if these things are going to happen.

If the world is going to change… if the kingdom is going to come… if God’s will is to be done, we need to ask for God to be involved.

We need to start praying until something happens.

 

As we leave worship today, you’ll find that there are some tables at the back with three different stations.

Each station relates to one of those goals I lifted up in the message this morning.

And at each station is a prayer card I want to invite you to take with you.

I want us to commit to praying for mountains to move.

I want us to commit to praying every day that God’s will be done in our midst.

 

You don’t have to pray for every single one of them… but pick at least one.

Commit yourself to prayer by name.

If we have at least 50 people here in the church praying for every one of these goals do you think God will hear us. Do you think God will sense we are not only people who care about these things, but we are ready for change. We believe. We have faith that God can make a difference here.

 

Ghandi once wrote:

If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water,

Or stir up the fire with the bellows

Or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our book-keeping table,

Or, burnt by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice-field,

Or standing by the smelter’s furnace

We do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery,

The world will never be saved.

 

We may not share the same faith as Ghandi, but we all believe in the power of prayer. And Ghandi’s words remind us that prayer is not just for the super-religious, and prayer is not only for renewal leave… prayer is something we are supposed to be doing every second of every day of our lives.

 

We should be praying when we work.

We should be praying as we play.

We can be praying as we brush our teeth and drive to work.

We can pray at the dinner table.

We need to be praying everywhere, all the time, about everything.

 

And what I want you to do is take one of these prayer cards this morning and pray your heart out.

Put it on your bathroom mirror and pray it every morning.

Stick it in your car and pray before you get to work.

Take more than one if you want to, and put them wherever they might be a reminder to you.

Bring your prayers to breakfast and take turns each saying your prayer together.

 

Pray… even if your faith is as small as a mustard seed.

Pray that mountains might move.

Pray that kids might learn to read.

Pray that we might meet and grow with new people.

Pray that every person might find a place to connect and serve.

Pray.

Pray Until Something Happens.

Winter is Coming

As an introvert,  I dont often make small talk with fellow passengers on a flight. Now that you can use a kindle during taxi and takeoff, my nose is often in a book or playing a game on my phone.  But today, even my game of “caveman story” couldn’t save me from a conversation with a new single-serving friend. And I’m grateful.

It turns out we both went to seminary. And are currently in non traditional sorts of ministry.  We had a great conversation about mission and development and empowering local communities.  We also talked about how messed up the church can be.

At one point,  he said we need to do as much as we can to serve God before the winter of our lives.  In many ways,  he was talking about the life cycle of churches… and how many of our congregations are living in their winter days. Or at least approaching them. What good can we do before we die and fade away?

On the first leg of my flight, I had been reading the “Game of Thrones” books ( book 2, in fact) and there, “winter is coming” has a slightly different meaning.  We know how seasons work, with their cycle of life and death and life again.  However,  in Martin’s world, the seasons go on for years and are unpredictable in their length.  The world is in the midst of a long summer… around a decade in length.  But as the lords of the north often say, “winter is coming. ”  It always does. So you must prepare.

The world as we know it is changing.  Whether we are actively dying or merely adjusting to a change in the climate,  we have to pay attention and we must act.

Bullard’s life cycle of  churches describes how a congregation is born, matures and dies. He talks about vision, relationships, programs,  and structure being the driving forces in various stages of that cycle.  Unlike our physical human lives,  however,  churches can begin a new cycle if only they allow vision to take the reigns.

We need to not only believe winter is coming,  we need to see what kind of life is required of us to make it through.  If we don’t… if we keep pretending that the good old days of summer will last forever, we will die before the thaw.

May our churches see… and may they chose to live differently.

Writing… just not here

I sat down with the Bishop a few weeks ago and he asked me if I was still writing.

It was a hard question for me to answer, because I full well knew this blog has been neglected in the past few weeks and months.

notepad

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing.

To start with, I finished my manuscript for this book as part of the Abingdon Press “Converge Series.”  I even got my Cokesbury catalog in the mail yesterday and saw the cover inside!  I’m not ashamed to admit I was a little giddy to be published.  Although it isn’t in the Advent section, it makes a great Advent group study (hint, hint).

I also was busy preparing materials for Advent and Christmas for Imagine No Malaria.

So, words have been going down on pages.

But I haven’t done a lot of the personal reflecting that is a part of my blog writing, so in that sense, no, I wasn’t doing the kind of writing that really feeds my soul.

That needs to change.

Building Structures from the ground up

This weekend, I started to unpack boxes of books in my new home office.  My large and spacious home office with built-in bookshelves + church office with a wall of shelves just doesn’t quite fit neatly into my new 9′ by 12′ space.  Especially since I only have one small bookshelf left over from college.

But I unpacked the books anyways.  I needed to see what I had in order to know where it would go.  I had piles of theology books, biblical studies, pastoral care, leadership, spirituality… etc.  As I thought about the work of my new position, the leadership and ecclesiology books went on said bookshelf and my biblical studies books found a place on the top shelf in my closet (still accessible, but I won’t need them every day.

After looking at the space and what we needed, Brandon is building me a bookcase to sit low and long under the window.  I’ll have room for pictures and communion pieces on the top and room for most of the rest of my books underneath.  We are hanging shelves for paper and file storage on another wall.  We are building the foundations for what I’m going to need to make the most of my space and resources.

 

As I think about this work as a field coordinator, right now I’m building a lot of foundations, also.  I think I have a fairly good idea of what we need and where we are going.  I’ve laid out all of the pieces of the puzzle and can see what its going to entail.  Now we just need to build the actual structure to hold it.

My job for this time means I’m on the phone and sending emails… alot.  I’m seeking out volunteers.  I’m building networks of relationships.  I’m getting the right people resources in place so that we have a structure to do some amazing work out of.  Gradually, it is coming together… but I think it is going to be a lot more work than simply building some shelves =)

Breaking down walls through humility

I just stared reading Kathy Escobar’s “Down We Go.”

In one paragraph in the first pages, she blew open my world.

Escobar writes:

Humility stems from a theology of brokenness, an honest acceptance of pain in our own lives and in the lives of others… Embracing a theology of brokenness also breaks down the divide between “us and them” and ways we remain protected from other people…

In the midwest, and especially in rural, german, blue-collar Iowa, pride is a big thing. We refuse to talk about our problems. We are quick to help others, but hesitate to accept help from others. We serve those who are less fortunate, and are not willing to speak of our own brokenness. And that is a problem.

Without being humble and admitting our brokenness, we will always have walls between us and others. We will always be helpers and not true participants in community. The kingdom of God is about a radical sharing of our lives with the Body of Christ… Warts and all. It is about allowing others to serve us, getting dirty alongside our brothers and sisters, and always remembering it is God who gives us strength… Not ourselves.

I have always thought that laying aside our pride was an important step in the move towards community – but there is something about the way that Escobar wrote that paragraph that really crystallized it for me.

Or perhaps it was the intersection of those words with a visit to the nursing home today.

I sat with a woman who spent her life taking care of other people.  She was quick to lend a hand and prided herself on how little attention she paid herself.  But now she can’t do that anymore.  She relies on other people every single day of her life. She was forced to stop by health problems. And a caretaker who has no one to take care of can get very frustrated, indeed.  But this lovely woman is swallowing her pride and asking for help.  Today, I reminded her that is precisely why we are the Body of Christ… to take care of one another.  That we have to recieve as well as give.  That we have to allow others to serve and minister to us.  It is a hard lesson for any of us to learn, and yet the only way we can truly accept one another as equals is if we start off in an equal place.  We are all broken.  We are all in need of the love and grace of God.  We all have places of darkness and pain in our lives.

Thanks be to God that there are others to walk with us… and thanks be to God for raising us out of our brokenness into wholeness of life through Christ Jesus.

something to identify as

I heard a song on the radio this evening by Patrick Stump featuring Lupe Fiasco called, “This City.”  It’s a new single, it has an okay beat and the lyrics are kind of lame.  As one listener texted in, it sounds like a song that should be on high school musical.  Teen pop, whatever.

But as I sat there thinking about the lyrics, I thought, here are two guys who are totally proud of their city, in spite of all of the bad things that happen in it.  They mention corruption and gentrification and racism and even the weather, but they love that city (Chicago) anyways.

My emergent cohort read this month Tony Jones’ new book “The Church is Flat.”  He describes a relational ecclesiology that he finds within emergent theology and emergent congregations across the United States.  Being his doctoral dissertation, it is a bit heavy, but was a good mental exercise to explore.

As I drove in the car listening to this new song playing on the radio, running through my head was the conversation I had only an hour before about identity and belonging and authority.

Pulling from new social movement theory and characterizations, Jones claims that the emergent church movement helps people to claim a “new or formerly weak dimensions of identity.” In the process, the “relation between the individual and the collective is blurred.” The actions, behaviors and identity of a person become all wrapped up into the movement and your very participation in that movement gives you an identity.

Think about it like this:  50 years ago when a couple introduced themselves to new neighbors, one of the first sentences they might have shared was, “We go to the Methodist church.”  Their very identity was wrapped up in the church.  They raised their children in the church.  They belonged on the church softball team.  But then came the 60’s and 70’s and that communal identity started to be questioned.  The next generation would go back to the church only to raise their kids, if at all.  And then the GenXers who followed were either not brought up in the church at all, or it was a background institution that had little to no bearing on their personal identity.

As an offhand comment, there was a mention somewhere in the book about how that dillusion of identity also has come from parents marrying outside of their denominational upbringing.  A child of Lutheran-Methodist parents might have far less denominational loyalty as someone whose whole family has come from a particular tradition.
If we look at the religious landscape today, there are few who proudly claim their denominational identity as one of the primary markers of their personal identity.  I have a friend or two with a “John Wesley is my homeboy” t-shirt, but they are few and far between.  I am much more likely to encounter someone who tells me that they are a farmer or a vegetarian or a Marxist than I am to find someone in my daily walk who will tell me, I am a Presbyterian. Our churches do not form the core of our identities.

The claim that Jones makes in his book is that this is not true in emergent congregations.  In these communities, the life of the individual is tied to the life of the movement. They claim it as a part of who they are.  It impacts where they eat and what they buy and who they spend time with.  And that is a conscious action based upon their identity.

I am torn at many times in my life between denominational loyalty and faithfulness to the Wesleyan understanding of community.  While at times I hope and pray that they can be the same thing, there are many days when it is not so.  I want to belong to and lead a church that lives out their faith every single day, that is committed to the virtues that community cultivates, and that deeply seeks to follow Jesus Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes, the institutional church just doesn’t do it for me.  Sometimes, I see glimpses and I’m energized once more.
I guess what I’m saying is, I want to write a song called “This Church.”  And I want to proudly proclaim to all the world that I love this church, in spite of its flaws.  I found my faith in this church, it raised me to know and love God, and if I have my way I’m going to stay here. You can burn it to the ground, or let it flood, but this church is in my blood. And I want to be a part of a community that every day in small and ordinary ways, seeks the will of God in all that they do. I want to be a part of a community that has the gospel in its blood… whose very identity as individuals is predicated on their participation in the body of Christ called the church in this place.

Is that so much to ask?

postmodern holiness

I have been having a discussion with some colleagues about what it means to be disciples and pastors in the world today.

The question was raised about what it means to be holy and to seek after God’s holiness… especially in the context of the postmodern world we live and move in.

Some of us find the dichotomy of holy/unholy something of a misnomer.  Modernism tended to place these things at opposite ends of a spectrum.   We could easily categorize something as good and bad, holy and unholy, do this and don’t do that.

Yet I think that postmodernism has helped us realize that this is a much more complex question.  Holiness and unholiness are not matters of morals, nor are they black and white categories.

What is it that makes something holy?

Holiness comes about because something is set apart by and for God.

We typically use that to mean that as pastors, we set ourselves apart from the ways of the world and demonstrate a certain way of being. In the modern era, this meant things like don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t lie or cheat, don’t swear. Do wear suits and ties and below the knee skirts (for us women pastors out there).  Holiness becomes a check-list, standards for living, high expectations, a list of places you should not go.

But is that what biblical holiness is all about?

Didn’t Jesus do crazy things like turn water into wine and eat with sinners and touch the unclean?  Didn’t he get down and dirty and messy with his disciples?  Didn’t he preach the good news in every day language and use images that ordinary people would understand?

Which brings me back to the question.  What makes something holy? Does our answer change in this post modern world?  Who decides the answer to that question? What if holiness in a postmodern world is more about how we use and redeem the things of this world, where they are, in order to speak the good news of God?

I have been reading Elaine Heath’s Mystic Way of Evangelism.  She shares the http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=amomono&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=080103325X&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr stories and experiences of these amazing saints of the faith who have shared their faith through deepening their relationship with God.  One of those people is Phoebe Palmer, who realized that

holiness is about a life given irrevocably to God, which then in union with Christ the Sanctifier is empowered to be in God’s redemptive mission in the world… Christ is the altar, and whatever touches the altar is made holy

When things are given over to him.  When they are set apart, surrendered, turned over to our Lord, they become holy.  It is about God working in the midst of these things, not about us or the things themselves.

I did a funeral a little while ago and the family was not wanting to stand and speak, but had a few words they wanted me to share on their behalf.

They especially wanted to include the phrase – “He may have been an asshole, but he was OUR asshole.”

I wrestled with what to do.

If I’m completely honest with God and everyone, cuss words do occasionally come out of my mouth. Usually in the heat of the moment on the disc golf course when a drive goes about 5 feet and then hits a tree.

Things that are said on the disc golf course are different from things said in the middle of the church sanctuary from the pulpit. Maybe this is a false dichotomy. Maybe as a pastor I shouldn’t say those words even on the disc golf course… but I do.

If the me that God loves says those things out in open spaces… and if this family felt like they needed to say those words about their loved one… then I felt like I could take that language to God and make it a part of that time of worship and celebration.

So I said it.

I didn’t leave it there, however. I used that phrase to talk about how we are not perfect people and a funeral is not a time to paint a rosy picture of someone’s life – but to be honest and to celebrate who that person was in all of their fullness… and also to celebrate that God comes to each of us in our imperfection and loves us enough to save us.

Like Jesus, I met them where they were. I also found an opportunity to transform the language they were familiar with and the experience we all had that day – to use their expression in order to speak the gospel.

It has taken me a while to write about that day, in part because I’m never quite sure what others might think.  But this week in conversations about holiness and being a pastor, I had to admit that it was one of the most powerful experiences of community and ministry I have experienced. And that means that it needs to be shared and celebrated and lifted up.

Holiness is not something that I can pretend to have attained.  I am far from perfect, although I seek to be more Christ-like each and every day.

In the same book mentioned above, Bonaventure’s understanding of the imago dei is lifted up.  He believes that

humanity is uniquely charged to image the second person of the Trinity, in that humans should mirror God as Jesus mirrors God, as beloved children of God.

I pray continually that through God’s grace I might love as Jesus loved and who Jesus loved: the hurting, the broken, the alienated, the unclean, the grieving, the joyful, the sinners, the saints.

Maybe in this postmodern world the question to ask about holiness is not: is it in the rules for me to do this or not?  But will this better help me to love and serve this person?  Can this language/experience/person be brought to the altar of Christ? Is there an opportunity for the gospel to be heard right here and now?