Archive for March 2014

Shift happens - do we practice good process in it?

I often repeat the motto, ‘In a transition, the process is always more important than any one result.” For example; If you are moving your family to another city, you may think it is important to pack your glassware so that your cups don’t chip. In reality, the process of getting everyone in the family to make the transition, have their concerns recognized, and feel positive about the move, is more important. Surrounding any result we wish to achieve in a transitional period, there is a greater process. Sometimes by sheer will power and the cunning manipulation of others, we achieve our desired result. Often we fail in the process to establish relationships and procedures that we can live with in the future.

    Consider the 16 year old boy who wishes to have a driver’s license. His parents inform him of certain requirements; he must faithfully complete household chores, keep his grades up, and get a summer job to pay for gas. For months, the boy can think of nothing but how much better his life will be with a driver’s license. He signs up for driver’s education and begins lurching his way through actually driving a car under adult supervision. He goes to the test, thinking he knows all that he needs to know, and fails it twice. When he finally gets his license, he will say that this end result was everything. In actuality, the character lessons he learned from the process will prove much more valuable. The education that he has received by doing the process may save his life and benefit countless others. 

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the story of Jonah. In the third chapter, the people of Nineveh enter into a process of prayer and fasting in order to save their city. When the forty days are up, and there’s been no divine judgement, they go on their merry way. Neither Jonah, nor the people of Nineveh, seem to consider that the process of prayer and fasting might be the real lesson. I don’t think God invented prayer for us to get the results we want. If the people of Nineveh had valued the process, their city might be here today.

    Prayer is an essential aspect of any healthy transitional process. Through fasting and wilderness prayer experiences, we learn to focus, not on results, but on relationships, spiritual principles, and legitimate process.

    There is an old (and slightly new age) saying:

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

    When you get to where you are moving to, or when you complete the next major life transition that befalls you, will you have added to your tool box of life skills some spiritual processes that will help you to be a better person?

John 9

The story of Jesus and the Blind Man in John 9, is very ‘John.’ It’s funny and deep. Like the stories of the Cana Wedding (expectations), Nicodemus (rebirth), the Woman at the Well (understanding), it plays with a one word spiritual theme, in this case blindness. Like some super-Socrates, John crafts the dialogue so that we come to see that we don’t really see what we think we see about the spiritual theme. I remember reading this passage in seminary and for the first time, I got John. I had read his gospel many times without noticing that each thing Jesus says is misinterpreted and that leads to someone asking a stupid question. The answer to the stupid question goes way beyond what the person’s (or the reader’s) capability to grasp spiritual things. In the end, John tells us that you can’t see Jesus unless you are really ready to see Jesus.

    The pharisees ask the formerly blind man to rat Jesus out. The man responds by telling his direct experience. They respond by telling the man all the things their great learning has taught them about people like Jesus. The blind man says, “I only know what I see.” 

    On one level, it makes perfect sense that a person born blind would focus on the moment by moment experience of his senses. The fact that our eyes are working every waking moment, makes us blind to the actual experience of seeing things. We look for what we expect, rather than what is. We are blinded by what we know or have learned. We don’t see what we are seeing right now. We live in the past or the future instead of the current moment of experience. Our assumptions about people and things blind us to current reality.

    Going to the next level, this story is also about enlightenment. Those who have sat under Buddha’s bodhi tree, or been reborn like Nicodemus, or been rescued from demons, like Mary Magdalene or the man who was Legion, see the world differently. One might also mention Plato’s story of the cave, but those who aren’t enlightened hate that story. Both Jesus and the former blind man are victims of mistaken identity. Those who are enlightened in this world will be mistaken for nuts.

    Then there’s Jesus, who everyone is talking about, but nobody is seeing. It is amazing how much Jesus talk we can have in the church without dealing with the reality of our day to day experiences of him. When we wake up in the morning, is Jesus helping us to see this day and live it fully? Are we able to be Jesus in our love for the person we are looking at in the mirror? Are we able to take that honest acceptance of people as current reality and carry it into our relationships with those whom we have previously found to be difficult? Can we live without prejudice? Can we speak to our kids, spouse, or neighbor without judging them for past failures or weighing them down with future expectations? Can the kingdom of God be in us, the way the gift of sight is now in this formerly blind man?

We are rarely as blind as when we look in the mirror
Lent 4
You may have more options if you do more research

Straw Polls are meant to gauge opinion in order to see if an idea has enough popular support to go forward. In times of transition, however, they can get us into serious trouble. Say, you are in moving to a new leadership situation or pastoral appointment. Early on, you will run into something that the outgoing leader or current pastor instituted that seems unpopular. You weigh in and say, “That’s something we should reconsider.” Before you know it you’re conducting a straw poll and finding seven or eight people in agreement with your first impression. Here’s where you get in trouble:


  1. Decisions are made by one of three methods: Authority (you choose), Majority (Vote of all eligible and present), and Consensus (also know as discernment). Healthy decision making process is one that uses the appropriate method. Straw Polls appear to use the Majority method, but are really subject to you acting as an Authority. You are the one who judges the results of the Straw Poll and declares them valid. This introduces confusion into your leadership. Soon, people don’t know what things you’ll run through channels, what things you’ll act by fiat on, and which items will be decided by your chosen inner circle.
  2. The Straw Poll sample size is usually too small and will lack diversity. The parliamentary process of alternating speeches from those for and those against, ensures that the people closest to the microphone don’t become a lopsided sample of the whole body. The only way to insure that those whom you are listening to a fair representation of public opinion is to intentionally seek out those who would speak against the change. Straw Polls rarely do this.
  3. Straw Polls are often done before all of the facts are in. Do you know why the old policy was put into place? Could the situation look different at different times of the year? What are the personal interests of those who are urging you to take this Straw Poll? Will you be stepping into an invisible conflict?


In a period of transition, don’t take a Straw Poll!


For Clergy making a move to a new situation, this means a one year moratorium on casual decisions. For the six months prior to the move, don’t get lazy. Don’t allow a few available folk make a decisions that should be made by the whole council or some other appropriate committee. For the first six months in the new place, intentionally run every thing through proper channels. Ask yourself, should this action be decided by Authority (you choose), Majority (the Vote of those on a committee), or by Consensus (using an intentional discernment process). The leadership style you demonstrate now will be one that set up your ministry for either years of conflict or fruitfulness that abides beyond your tenure. 


This warning goes along with the first rule of a healthy transition:


In a period of transition, the process is always more important than any one result.

John 4:5-42

There’s nothing churchy about Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. It takes place outdoors and on the road. We know the location, but the importance of the place is in its current insignificance. The well is mostly empty. The disciples, who act like the ushers at the back of the church handing out bulletins and taking attendance, are gone. The crowd is absent. There are no rules, no social protocol. Just Jesus and this woman. Anyone who takes this text and tries to say something from it in support of institutional religion, or to get something done in their church, is doing the gospel great harm.

    Jesus knows just the right thing to say to this woman to prepare her for spiritual transformation. He asks her to bring her husband. There is something in each of our lives that acts as a hinge. For some people its money. For others its status or the position they hold in their career. Still others are spiritually shut down because of childhood traumas or past violence. For this woman, the door that needed to be swung involved her relationship with men. Since the issue is between this woman and her God, John throws a veil over the specifics. He says simply that she has had five husbands and is living with a sixth. I’m sure that the conversation she had with Jesus included much more than what we have the right to know (see John 4:29).

    Part of what we hope for in our spiritual walk, and particularly in Lent, is this kind of confidentiality. There is a mixture of shame, guilt, and uncertainty for each of us surrounding the spiritual hinge point(s) of our life. What we need to get to is that place where we are honest to Jesus and we, in turn, hear his acceptance. This is essential.

    The woman, not Jesus, attempts to shift the conversation back to institutional matters. She asks, “Where is the right place to have a church, which denomination should it be, and how many candles belong on the altar?”  


    Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  


    How would you say this line in your own words and choosing examples from your own experience? This is a test, only a test. Can you speak without church jargon for a few minutes and tell how you know God as spirit? What moments in your life have resonated most fully with spiritual communion and the true worship of God? How does this incident of Jesus and this Samaritan woman speak to the essential nature of our shared humanity?

    It’s only after there has been sufficient honesty in this conversation about spiritual hinge points, that Jesus reveals his nature as the Christ. How do we get sufficient honesty in our lenten journey and the journey of our people to be prepared to see Jesus as the suffering God on Good Friday?

Nothing Churchy going on here
Lent 3
From where you are... the road has a beginning, middle, and end

Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This fact becomes obvious when you are stuck listening to someone who can’t tell a story. It’s not just that the order of events gets mixed up in bad stories, it’s that things don’t happen when you need them to happen. Good story tellers begin with something that hooks your attention. They develop plot and character in the middle. They end with a memorable conclusion. 


When you go through major change in your life, you want your story to be a good story. Too often, our transitions proceed chaotically. They begin with events that don’t hook our spiritual attention and prayer life. “We’re moving to Sheboygan,” you suddenly say to your family. Have you begun this transition well? The middle stuff of packing and saying goodbye is often done without much attention to the individual needs of the people involved. How does this life event fit in with the character of your life and the vocation you have from God? Finally, when it ends, will you be in a good place emotionally, spiritually, financially? There is an end to every transitional period; the children of Israel do eventually leave the wilderness. If you intentionally do transition as a process, though, the chances of your life change having a meaningful conclusion are greatly enhanced.


Change happens to us whether we want it to or not. Major changes in our lives always have components in which we are at the mercy of others. In even the best planned move to Sheboygan, there are things that are out of your control. We fret about the unplanned and the undesirable. We miss the fact that 63% of what happens to us in every transition is under our control. OK. I made that statistic up. What if the actual figure for your current life change were half, or 35%, or 10%; would you be justified in having a pity party and refusing to take ownership for your own decision making process? What if you actually had control over 90% of the outcomes of this transition, would you be justified in behaving like a perfectionistic prima donna?


It is important that you put the beginning, middle, and end, of your transition on a generous timeline. In the hypothetical move to Sheboygan, the beginning starts when you seriously contemplate a move. Critical issues in the beginning include: confidentiality, discernment process, vocational self-understanding, trust, big-picture overviews. We often don’t have a choice over where our transition story begins. It is important that we slow down and pay attention to the critical elements listed. Have we engaged all the spiritual resources that we will need for this move?


The middle is the active, part here/part there, think I’m going to lose my mind, part of the story. Critical issues include: making a good first impression, your relationship to authority(s), accepting loss, identifying what is new, exploration, financial concerns, having fun, and making lists (managing details). You need to intentionally plan for oasis moments in the middle of the wilderness.


The end extends until you are settled into your new stage of life. The transition to Sheboygan should become a memory, with a healthy conclusion to its chaos and uncertainty, about six months after you arrive. Critical issues in the end game are: developing new relationships, leadership style, vision setting for the next stage, collaboration. This phase shouldn’t be thought of as a honey-moon where you try to get your way. Instead, it is a time where good habits are formed and the style of your leadership put on display.


Thinking about transitional process as a series of ordered steps, helps us navigate major changes of life. Like so much in life, managing major change is a ‘learn as you go’ affair.


John 3:1-17

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room, probably your mother. The room, in fact, was likely to be quite crowded, but the person who really mattered at the moment of your birth was your mother. She was in that moment, truly indispensable. The same thing needs to be said about spiritual birth. When a person comes to themselves and given the opportunity to find fulfillment in this world and hope for the one to come, they are never alone. There is at least one other person in the room, usually God.


Even in the church, we forget this mystery. When we tell our own birth stories, we often forget to mention the obvious, that our mother was radically involved in our birth experience. My son was the first in a series of seven or eight births that took place that night in the local hospital. The nurses and doctor were so busy that by the time morning came, they didn’t know our child from Adam. But, his mother did. There are many people who hover over our spiritual life, but only one mother-God.


There are of course, children who are adopted out of their mother’s arms, never to be reunited. Life is, for all children, a process of separation and exploration of their independence. Consider Nicodemus. The man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the order of Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. His birth stories spoke about the people who were his teachers and elders in the order, and not the one who gave him birth.


When we hear Jesus commanding Nicodemus to be born again, we shouldn’t think in terms of Nicodemus adopting a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where there is only one other person in the room that matters, and that is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible. Our tendency to speak of rebirth as a once in a lifetime decision, however, obliterates its power. The point that Jesus is making, is that God will be the one who is birthing us. When we need it, God will do it again.


I wish that I could give people a formula or process for rebirth. The spirit, however, blows where it wills. The Church has followed in the tradition of the Pharisees in shifting the focus of our birth stories away from God and on to the doctors and nurses that attended our birth. The only way to reverse this illness, is to be born again. Unfortunately, that message may be hard to preach.

Lent 2
See things as a child. Ask "Why?"

I heard a story recently about a young man from Ohio who got amnesia while working on a study fellowship in India. He had an unexpected reaction to an anti-malarial drug and woke up not knowing who he was. He wandered down to the train station where he was eventually taken in by the local authorities. They thought he was drug addled and it was some time before his parents from Ohio were contacted. You may be wondering what all this has to do with fixing your church or transition. In time, the young man considered what had happened to him to be a gift. He was for a brief time able to see new things with new eyes, unencumbered by preconceptions and prejudice.


The young man’s family brought him back to Ohio. Looking through old photographs he jogged back most of his memory, except for much of the previous year. Two interesting things happened. First, he broke up with his girlfriend Ann. She received him back warmly and he found her attractive, but his beginner’s mind and eyes saw their relationship differently. Sometimes the accumulation of life’s events and the things we think that we know, obscure what our soul would see if we were meeting someone for the first time. A little naiveté can save one from entering into a disastrous marriage.


The second thing I found fascinating about the young man’s story was how quickly he returned to India. Even though many of the facts and skills that he needed to fulfill his fellowship grant were lost to him, he was willing to go the second mile for his vocation. Sometimes we need fresh eyes to see our calling in life. He came back to India able to see it like someone who woke up fresh in that land. Second birth seems to be required for us to be truly citizens of two places. This has a lot of significance for Christian theology, but also a practical application for pastors who are called to a new parish.


The concept of having ‘beginner’s mind’ is borrowed from Zen Buddhism. What we remember often gets in the way of what we need to experience in this moment. What we have accumulated in terms of language, skills, prejudices, and habits, may be inappropriate for the new work we need to do in a new situation.


Here are some practical hints for valuing your beginner’s mind and seeing things afresh in a new situation:


  • Learn the three year olds trick of constantly asking ‘why.’ It’s more important that you learn why people do things than for you to get up to speed quickly. 
  • Be a tourist. Ask to be shown the sights. Pretend that you get lost easily (I don’t have to pretend). Ask people tell you where things are, listen for and ask questions that will help you to know community and church history. Discover context and note what people love and hate.
  • Listen more than you speak. Ask people to tell you about themselves and the relationships they have had with other pastors. Be like an amnesiac who doesn’t know your part of the relationship history, because then you’ll discover the hidden expectations of the role you are stepping into.
  • Don’t preach on your first Sunday. Observe how they do worship. Let the lay people lay out the bulletin. If there is communion, participate in it, but position yourself to look in each person’s face as they receive the sacrament (preferably by doing intinction or distribution at the altar).
  • Don’t preach your old sermons. You may go to your notes to save exposition time, but challenge yourself to preach as if you were born into this church. Choose your examples to fit the people of this context; mention their stores, workplaces, and sports teams.
  • Observe how conversation flows at committee meetings. Positional authority (who has which office) and Functional authority (who does which job and has the power to make things happen) are rarely the same in a local church. The list of nominated officers is largely forgotten by the time you arrive in the summer. Try to discover the oral tradition behind each church office, staff position, fellowship group, and volunteer team. Don’t try to run things by the book until you are clear that the book is an improvement in each particular instance.
  • Avoid the phrases; “I’m used to doing things this way,” “At my previous church, we did…,” “I have training in…,” and “let me take care of that, I know how to do it best.” Be the old dog who wants to learn new tricks.
  • Unearth land mines carefully. What people are sensitive about is different here than it was in your previous situation(s).
  • When you learn people’s names, learn one thing about them that doesn’t have anything to do with church.
  • Be intentional about your calendar. Until you are into your third month there, avoid taking on any reoccurring obligations. Don’t be in the same place every third Monday of the month. Keep flexible until you know what your family obligations will be, especially if you have children in school or a spouse seeking new employment.
  • Give priority to fun, get to know you, informal, events in the church and the community. Put district, conference, and all ‘clergy only’ events at a low priority for the first six months.
additional author: 
David McLean, his book “The Answer to the Riddle is Me”
This American Life (NPR, 2010)
Matthew 4:1-11

What an odd choice. Jesus you’ve just been baptized and announced to be God’s gift for humanity; where are you going to go?  Jesus’ answer, “Away from it all.” We live now in a world of constant connectivity. I grew up in a time when if you passed people on the street talking to themselves, you knew they were crazy. Now, if you are simply walking — I mean looking at the world around you and putting one foot in front of another —- people ask you what’s wrong with your cell phone. Information floods in. We refuse to simply be quiet. We contribute our tweets to the chaos. We have become crazy people.


Jesus didn’t need to get away as much as we do. He chose forty days of wilderness. Complete isolation. He had no cell phone reception or wifi. The world lost his wisdom from Facebook for forty days. He heard no one. Even the devil honored this choice of solitude until the last few days. Jesus only needed forty days to reestablish his sanity, how long do you need?


What comes from our constant communication is clutter. You know that closet or room in your house where you just stuffing things for later? This is your soul on constant communication. People are always saying things to you. Even when they don’t have anything to say, you keep listening. And when you listen, where does it go? In one ear and then into that closet which also contains your soul. So you fight back by tweeting the world your every fluffy thought. But when you talk nonsense, a copy is always left behind in your soul closet. It’s like your inner self needs to keep a receipt for every jibber-jabber transaction.


So how do we stop? That’s what Lent is about. Forty days isn’t enough, but perhaps we can discover which closet our soul is stashed in and put our junk elsewhere. This year, don’t do something; sit. This year, don’t give up chocolate; give up constant communication. Establish a space. It may be fifteen minutes each day when we stare out our bedroom window and our cellphone is down the hall on its charger.


What came from Jesus being in the wilderness was clarity. In the end, he knew three things that you and I don’t know:


He knew that because God spoke everything into existence, his word is more important for our daily life than bread. Prayer should be like breathing.


He knew that doing something great, doesn’t make you a great person. Instead of jumping off high buildings or trying to be the perfect parent or running in the Boston Marathon, we should simply be who we are meant to be. Character is everything. The daily walk of being in the moment is a crazy thing to lose.


He knew that spirit is more important than stuff. Look how shallow we have become. We worshipfully tag our Pinterest wish list of clothing, household decor items, cars, and gizmos. Jesus is deep. Hear, Oh Israel. The Lord your God is one. You shall worship Him with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and all of your soul.

This is your soul on constant communication
Lent 1