Clarification

Yesterday I posted an update here. A good friend and trusted colleague contacted me after reading that update to share a concern that my thoughts as expressed there might be misconstrued as heresy–Pelagianism, specifically. Knowing that I am not a heretic, it was gently suggested that I take the post down. Because I didn’t have time yesterday to address the misunderstanding, I agreed that this was the appropriate action to take. That call, however, came a few hours after the update posted and, therefore, was read by some. Consequently, I want to clear up any misunderstanding as to my meaning.

Particularly in American culture, it is common to begin the new year with a focus on self-discipline, especially when it comes to limiting food intake and sedentary inclinations. With that in mind, I began that post by repeating a comment made by someone else that suggested God limited himself by giving us free will, and how that concept of self-limitation had been rattling around in my mind.

First potential misunderstanding: By “limit” I was not suggesting that God compromised his purpose or his divinity in any way. What I meant was that God chose to create humans with the capacity to decide whether or not we would love him. He could have hard-wired humans to love him, but that would negate the very concept of love. So God limited–restrained, controlled–himself in that he made a choice about what qualities he would give to his creation. And one of those qualities had the potential to grieve the heart of God.

I went on to reflect on my own experience of being parented and parenting…

I grew up in a well-controlled environment. That control was often exercised through manipulation, so that’s what I learned to do. “Limiting myself” was not an option I considered when it came to my will! I was well into adulthood and my children were mostly grown before I came to understand my own manipulative behavior in trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. It was certainly easier in some ways to employ manipulation, bending their will to what I thought was best for them, rather than watch them make poor decisions. But once I understood the lack of love in that kind of manipulation, I had to learn to limit myself. And more than once since then I’ve felt my heart would break as I watched one of my kids live out the negative consequences of their willful choices.

Giving us free will was risky. God was taking the chance that his beloved humans would choose not to love him. And that’s exactly what we did. What’s more, God knew that we would. It seems to me that it would have been so much easier on God to just create us subject to his will, rather than allowing us to choose whether or not we would be. But making someone love him was not truly love, as there is no sacrifice in it. Perfect love always requires sacrificing manipulation in favor of freedom.

My point here is that my instinct is to satisfy my own will, regardless of the means. But God offers me a better way. God invites me to love by limiting myself, those natural tendencies and instincts that do not reflect his perfect love. Again, God doesn’t make me do that. I get to choose: God’s way or my way?

Now, to deal with the second potential misunderstanding: Pelagianism. As I understand it (I am not a theologian), at the heart of the Pelagian heresy is the belief that humans can exercise their gift of free will by initially choosing God. So if you read my post and thought that I was suggesting that, I apologize for my lack of clarity. Scripture says–and I believe–that no one comes to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and no one comes to Jesus unless God calls them (John 6:44). Furthermore, Paul says quite clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So, let me be clear…I believe that I could not have come to the knowledge of Christ nor attained salvation through His atoning death on the cross apart from the grace of God. It is by the grace and calling of God that I considered Christ, not through any initiative of my own. God in his grace and mercy sought me out, but it was up to me to respond, to accept and receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ. God didn’t make me do that. I was given a free will to choose to believe in Christ or to reject God’s gift. That is the story of every single Christian I know. Christ was not forced upon us. Christ was revealed to us by the grace of God. And we are able to decide whether or not to accept Christ because when God created human beings, he lovingly gave us free will. God didn’t have to do that. He did not have to exercise his creative power in that way. But he did. Thanks be to God!

So, how do we respond to such an extravagant gift? When I consider THE GOD of all that is, seen and unseen, choosing to give me this precious gift of free will, offered with perfect love, I am overwhelmed. And so I choose to exercise that beautiful gift by bowing daily before God in prayer, asking for the strength to limit myself…to discipline myself…to submit my will to his. Amen and amen.

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Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?

 

Embracing Downward Mobility

Throughout my working life, I have often borne the title of “Assistant.” I’ve been a medical assistant, an administrative assistant, a loan assistant and a ministry assistant. My current title is “Associate Pastor,” which means I serve as assistant to the pastor, among other things. I am also an ordained deacon and, as such, one of my functions is assisting priests and bishops.

I came of age during a time when assistants were often thought of as second-class workers, people who couldn’t quite “make the grade” for anything more. Yet I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school, and made the dean’s list in college. Being an assistant has always been more about my personality than about my abilities. My natural dispostion is to help and to encourage; my spiritual gifts align with my dispostion, as do my learned skills and natural abilities.

There have been seasons in my life when I objected to the assistant title. I didn’t necessarily object to what I was doing, just to what I was being called.It felt like I was being relegated to a lesser role, to second chair. It precluded recognition as any kind of leader. I preferred to identify with Jesus the King rather than Jesus the Suffering Servant.downward mobility

What about Jesus? He certainly practiced downward mobility. God became man–Jesus–and came down to earth, where He willingly stepped into the role of  Suffering Servant. From God to man, to servant washing feet, to criminal nailed to a cross, to death. Downward mobility…in order that He could lead us out of death into eternal life.

I am reminded of the wisdom of two Anglican bishops. In commenting on his role as bishop, one said that it appears to the world that he is climbing the ladder of success. “In reality,” he said, “becoming a bishop has nothing to do with upward mobility but, rather, just the opposite. It’s about downward mobility, becoming more and more a servant.”  In the Anglican tradition, one is first ordained a deacon before he/she can become a priest; one must be a priest for years before being considered for consecration as bishop. Deacon means “to serve.” Which brings me to the wisdom of the second bishop. As he was preparing to ordain a priest, he said to the ordinand, “Remember, once a deacon, always a deacon.”

It has taken most of my life to embrace downward mobility, to realize that being an assistant is a good thing, and that I can indeed lead from “second chair.” This is who God created me to be; it is what God created me to do. And it is where I find true joy.

 

My part to play

David and Paul. Two very famous men in the Bible, each in his own right. Both were warriors, David employed slingshots and swords while Paul used words. One man remembered for his adultery, the other remembered for his zealous persecution. Both transformed by God’s love for them, and their love for God. Two men separated by hundreds of years, each instrumental in God’s plan for his Kingdom.

Did either of these men know the impact their lives would make? I doubt it. Scripture tells us that each knew that God was with them, guiding and empowering their ministry. They surely dreamed of the legacy they wanted to leave, but I can’t imagine that they could begin to comprehend how their actions–their very lives–would impact the Kingdom of God for all eternity.

I, too, have a role to play in God’s Kingdom. From where I sit today, I can hardly imagine that it is anything near the magnitude of David’s or Paul’s contribution! Nonetheless, by God’s grace, I still have something to give. To allow false humility, fear, or low self-esteem to dissuade me from doing my part is to throw a monkey wrench into God’s plan.

Surely Nathan knew that confronting the king was taking his life in his hands, yet Nathan responded obediently to the Lord’s direction. He went to David and pointed out that he had despised the Lord and done what was evil in God’s sight. Rather than killing Nathan, David confessed his sin, repented, accepted forgiveness (and the consequences of his adulterous behavior), and was restored to his role in God’s plan. While Nathan was a prominent figure in David’s life, in comparison to David, his role in God’s big picture plan is minor.

Or what if Ananais had submitted to his fear of Saul, rather than to God’s instruction that he go lay hands on blind Saul so that he would regain his sight? What a critical moment in God’s plan! Yet we never hear another word about Ananais.

Not all of God’s faithful are renowned.

I cannot clearly see the whole picture of God’s plan. Yes, I understand some of it and, the more I study scripture and pray, the more revelation I have. But I can’t fully realize the impact of my contribution to the whole of the story. I can only do what I can in this time and this place, obedient to God’s instruction. Today I can pray for someone to be healed. Today I can point the way back to God’s grace and forgiveness. Today I can trust that, whatever my role–whether it is known throughout history like David or Paul or Nathan or Ananais, or whether it is only known by those in my little corner of the world–it is an important part of God’s plan.

So is yours. You have a part to play, too. And when we all play our parts well, we join Jesus in bringing God’s Kingdom near.

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Everyone has an agenda. What’s yours?

White Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies. I faithfully watch it every year—have for more years than I will admit to here! I was reminded today of a particular scene… Early in the movie, Wallace and Davis encounter the Haynes sisters in a contrived meeting. When Betty confesses that her sister Judy set up the meeting under false pretenses, Wallace chuckles and comments that “everyone has an angle.” In today’s parlance, we might say “everyone has an agenda.”

The reason this scene came to mind is that I was reading about a pastor who entered a resistance-to-changenew pastorate with some pretty high expectations. When he encountered resistance to his agenda, he became angry at the people who were opposing him. He couldn’t understand how they could disagree with him on several fundamental issues of the faith. He fell into a pit of despair.

Are you familiar with that pit? I am! Want to know the quickest way to fall into it? Insist on your own agenda without listening to those who will be impacted by it.

Years ago I served on the staff of a large church that prided itself on its Wednesday evening programming which had for years been a mainstay of their discipleship offerings. It had begun during an era when most churches had Wednesday night services. Consequently, schools did not schedule extracurricular activities on Wednesdays. Offices and retail establishments closed their doors at 5:00pm. Kids had homework that could be completed in under an hour, and usually without the aid of a parent. But as all that began to change—businesses remaining open until all hours of the night, kids having homework that requires hours to complete and parents pushed to help them if anyone is going to get to bed at a decent hour, and schools scheduling extracurricular activities every night of the week–we struggled to have enough volunteers. I found that my agenda became all about feverishly recruiting volunteers to cook and serve the meals, lead Bible studies for adults and children, and keep the nursery. I became angry and frustrated with what I heard as excuses for not cooperating with my agenda and, eventually, I fell into that pit of despair because I failed to make them see serving as I saw it: a fundamental faith issue.

By God’s grace, I had a conversation with a mother of three kids whose husband traveled extensively. This woman served faithfully in a couple of ministries, but as she shared her struggle each Wednesday to get the kids home from school, start homework, make it to church in time for dinner, stay for Bible study afterwards, then return home to finish homework and get them in bed in time for a full night’s rest, my heart gave way. Expecting her to serve on Wednesdays was saddling her with an unbearable burden!

I began listening to other parents of school-age kids and heard much the same story over and again. Parents said that they came in the door and their family splintered, kids going one direction and adults the other. No wonder my agenda of recruiting more volunteers was meeting with such resistance!  We were encroaching on the precious little family time they had!  What we meant for good was in reality straining for our families. It was obvious our Wednesday night programming needed to be modified. Interestingly, when I brought this to staff meeting, suggesting that we scale back our Wednesday activities, I met with the same resistance I had been offering. No amount of explanation would sway the staff’s thinking. Their agenda was set in stone.

This reflection has been a good reminder for me, and I share it in case you need to hear it, too. Whenever we meet resistance to our agenda, it is wise to stop and listen. We should ask questions that are motivated by a sincere desire to understand, rather than a selfish desire to push our agenda. We need to listen carefully to the answers…listen for the voice of God through the voices of others who oppose our agenda. It may be that God isn’t a fan of our agenda, either!

Joseph’s Bones

And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt… Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”  -Exodus 13:18b-19

In her Advent devotional Lighted Windows, Margaret Silf suggests that the Israelites carried the bones of Joseph because “he was their dreamer, the symbol of their God-dream.” She goes on to encourage us to carry our dreams with us, too, because it gives us the energy we need to continue our journey. Ministry is hard work. Indeed, it is joyful work…but hard, nonetheless. When we get tired, it’s easy to lose our way, to forget why we began this journey in the first place. Our vision becomes cloudy and the Voice that called us seems so distant now.

Advent is a notoriously busy season for anyone in ministry.  For those serving on the staff of their church, there is a church to decorate, extra worship services to plan, Christmas celebrations to attend, and visits to the homebound and the sick. For those in ministry outside the church walls (i.e., all Christians!), there are angel trees to coordinate to provide gifts for the poor, Christmas banquets to feed the hungry, coats and blankets to collect to give some measure of warmth to the homeless. Add to all of that the decorating of our homes, the gifts we purchase and/or make, the extra baking for cookie exchanges… Suddenly we find ourselves tired and confused, wondering why we began this journey in the first place.

That’s when it’s time to take out Joseph’s bones.

Create space for some quiet reflection. Remember the times when God unmistakably touched your life, when he called you to this particular ministry path–whether it is in the church, in the home, in the community, or in the marketplace. Remember when you knew beyond a doubt that God was leading you purposefully. Margaret Silf refers to this place of remembering as “a sacred space and a still center in all our confusion,” and she encourages us to return to it regularly for replenishment.

God’s voice is still there, even in the midst of the busyness of this Advent season. We just need to remember the sound of that Voice in our ears, then wait quietly and listen patiently once again.

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Yes, I do have control issues!

There. I’ve said it (well, typed it) out loud. Of course, friends and family will not regard this as a startling admission. They are more likely to ask why I’m just now figuring this out! Actually, I’ve known it for a long time and I’ve been working on trying to control it (pun intended!) for years. But as is so often the case with self-awareness, I just came to another threshold of understanding.

During a conversation with a friend yesterday, I was hashing out how to schedule volunteer ministry orientation. In just six weeks our church will move to a new urban location. We will again be renting space, this time from a faith-based non-profit organization. There is much to do to figure out how to create a worshipful atmosphere each Sunday, organize all our “stuff,” and orient teams so that they can set up/take down efficiently.

And that word efficiently is what trips me up. It is like waving a flag at my control issues!

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Because our parish is made up of people, there is a wide range of tolerance among us for messy. Some don’t mind it at all, just as long as we gather together for worship and fellowship on Sunday. Others find messy to be a distraction from that worship and fellowship, and prefer some semblance of order. (You an probably guess where I am on that scale!) Finding the balance is critical, and that means respecting the individuality and diversity of our little community of believers.

In defense of order, it is necessary for efficiency. And we live in a culture that places a high value on efficiency. Our demand for software that integrates all our mobile devices seamlessly, our frustration when technology doesn’t move fast enough or maintain a connection, and our outrage over stalled traffic are all evidences of our desire for efficiency. Our dependence on technology has conditioned every one of us to desire efficiency in at least some area of our life.

Back to yesterday’s conversation and my control issues… In attempting to work out a schedule for orientation, I was trying to take into consideration how many of our volunteers serve in more than one ministry area, how many families of young children have both parents serving, and the realization that we are entering into the busiest season of the year for most folks. I was making myself crazy trying to problem-solve for everyone! That’s when my friend posed two critical questions: “Do you expect others to problem-solve your calendar issues? Did you expect someone else to problem-solve your childcare issues when your kids were little?”, which led me to the aforementioned threshold!

God has ordained that the body of Christ be interdependent (1 Corinthians 12). That means we have to respect each other and learn to work together. We all have to be willing to give, to flex, to accommodate as needed, always keeping in mind that we are one body. (The body can’t work efficiently when the right foot heads south and the left foot goes north!)

While I need to be aware of all the variables when it comes to organizing an orientation for our volunteer ministers during the Christmas season, I also need to accept that I am not in control of each person’s calendar or family situation. My attempts at problem-solving for everyone won’t help us learn to work together efficiently. It will surely lead to frustration for all of us, and likely to burn-out for me.

Crossing that threshold is trusting that the volunteers who can make room on their calendar will attend the orientation. And it is accepting that our first few Sundays may be a little messy…and that’s OK. I’m not in control.

But I know who is.