Wednesday, September 1, 2010

One Year Later

Today it is one year that I began the three month sabbatical that lasted till the end of November. Wow! A year has passed already. Hard to believe.

Some of you remarked that my blogging during sabbatical was really helpful and some of you noticed that it had fallen off some as the experience drew to a close. Both good observations.

I thought I would do this "one year anniversary" posting, then probably shut this blog down. I might start up another--we will see. Anyway, some of you have asked for a sort of recap, and that is what I hope to do in this posting. First of all, I will link you to a worship service in which I, our Moderator Steph Fassnacht, and my coach, Geoff Davis, reflect on the sabbatical experience from different perspectives. If you attend ECOB and were in church on January 10, 2010, you have already heard this--but for the rest of you, it may be interesting. Here is the link:

Of course, that presentation was made eight months ago, and only one month after I had returned from the sabbatical. What does my perspective look like now? First of all, it was impossible to maintain the level of quiet, alone time for worship, reading and meditation that I had experienced while on sabbatical. I knew that would be the case; if it were not, I guess a sabbatical would not be necessary. On the other hand, I thought it would we easier than it has been to maintain a regular schedule of time for quality reflection. I has been hard, and as for all of us who work day by day, it requires a solid commitment of time and focus. So I keep on.

Secondly, and from a positive angle, I am able to sustain a somewhat different level of balance in my life, since being back from sabbatical. I have exercised more (though still not enough) and have been able to stay more in control of my schedule, rather than allowing the schedule to control me. This is huge, and has as much to say about where I draw my value from as it does about anything else.

Thirdly, several people have observed that I have more energy and passion in preaching, than I did for some time prior to sabbatical. I think that is true, though it may vary with the topic/content of the sermon.

Fourthly, I feel less driven than before, and certainly less concerned about many of the outward ways we would often measure church and more in tune with deeper and more significant elements, though these are much harder to discern and to consider in any qualitative way.

Fifthly, for some reason, I more comfortable with preaching less. I did hit the ground running when I cam back, especially in relationship to preaching, having preached something like 19 out of 21 Sundays from December through April. But then I only preach four of the nine sermons in the next series and seven of the 12 Sundays over summer. Now fall will see me in the pulpit all but three (or four) weeks til the end of the year. I think the 13 weeks of sabbatical helped me and the congregation understand that variety in the pulpit has its place. I am not reneging on what is one of the primary elements of my calling--preaching--but am striving to build a level of trust and empowerment in the congregation.

Well those are a few personal reflections. I think I will end this for now, and do a followup post later in which I reflect a bit on congregational health, before I sign off of this blog for good.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Place Apart

Twenty-six years ago Paul and Dorothy Grout and three other couples moved to Putney, VT, to plant a Church of the Brethren congregation where there were no Brethren and where Christianity was rather weak. They had a five year commitment to each other to sort of live in a quasi-community setting and work together to raise up a worshipping community. Things went well and a church grew up in the village of Putney.

After the initial five year commitment, one of the couples left to pastor elsewhere and the couple had some struggles of a personal nature, leaving the work rather much in the hands of the Grouts. As the nineties unfolded, and it became increasingly apparent that sweeping, deep-seated changes were spreading though our culture and, consequently the church, Paul stepped back from his role as pastor and began to pursue answers to the pervasive loneliness, emptiness and brokenness of our world today.

This led Paul and Dorothy to form A Place Apart. A Place Apart is partly a place, but it embodies much more. A Place Apart is a movement that calls people who are longing for genuine spiritual transformation to gather around some mutual hopes and dreams and to purse holistic spirituality. You can go, as I did, to the "place" and spend time with Paul and Dorothy in spiritual conversation. In this sense APA is sort of a brethren L'Abri (Google it if you do not know). But you can also connect with APA by resonating with their deep desire to seek God in his fullness, and tapping into the resources they offer.

I spent a few days with Paul and Dorothy this past week. It was refreshing. Unbeknownst to me, Paul and his team have been asking very similar questions as have plagued my heart in recent years. What is genuine Christianity and what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What does Jesus really want for us, from us? Where has the church been strong and where has it been weak? Why are so many backing away from the church today, and from the Christian faith? (You may have read in the news this past year that the New England region is now the most secular area of our nation, beating out the Northwest which held this honor in previous years.) What has the rapid pace of our life, the dominance of greed and entertainment, the pursuit of wealth, and the extreme secularism of our world, done to our souls? How do we repair this damage? How do we live in such a way that Jesus is represented well to our neighbors, so that they might see God and the love that he has for them?

These are extremely difficult questions that many of us are asking these days. Paul quickly confesses that he has no definitive answers and there is no quick fix. We do know that there will be no program coming down form our denomination that will fix this. Institutional structures show increasing signs of deterioration and will likely completely fail in the years ahead. But there is hope and there are clues as to what God is calling us to. However, we are rather much on our own for find like-minded people and build relationships and networks together so that we might seek God together and build on one another's insights.

At the heart of APA lies the cry for spiritual wholeness and healing. Paul and his team have developed a way of looking at holistic spiritual formation around three motifs. (I was surprised at how closely these three concepts align with the three R's of discipleship that I have been writing and preaching about, but more on that at some other time. This similarity is no accident or coincidence but rather evidence of what God is raising up in many hearts and many places.)

I want to very briefly define the three motifs around which APA works at spiritual formation, but I do so with some trepidation. These concepts can be easily misunderstood, if one is not able to lay aside pre-conceived ideas around what these words mean. So I caution you to understand that what I offer here records my understanding from a short time at APA, and comes only in brief summary form. But here goes.

Holistic Spirituality means that we develop the Warrior, Mystic and Monk aspects of our souls. The Warrior relates to being spiritually and physically prepared for spiritual battle with the forces of evil present in our world, and in our own souls. The Mystic connects us with the spiritual world, and the movement of God, deepening our ability to know God and to recognize his ways. And the Monk part of us calls us to live in community with others and to order the pace and focus of our lives around the things that bring healing and wholeness to life. (Again, this is a very brief and simplistic explanation.) Paul and APA developed practical spiritual practices in each of these areas which seek to help us develop these aspect of our being with the goal of setting us free to be truly alive. I found it very helpful and refreshing, and it served to stretch my own thinking and to inform my understanding of the kind of spiritual vitality God is seeking to form in us. (Those of you reading this who are familiar with my Three R's of Discipleship can think about how they relate to the Warrior, Mystic, Monk motifs. I find the parallels amazing.)

I need to end this post for now. Let me conclude by saying that Doris felt my trip to visit with Paul would be very significant in regard to what I have been seeking during this Sabbatical. I think she was right, as usual.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God's Call

My coach asked me recently why I felt it necessary to spend part of this sabbatical by journeying back to some of my early experience with God. It was a good question which I have contemplated for a bit now. It has to do with stepping deeper into my life story, or what you might say is God's call on my life.

Understanding this call has been a process in its own right.

My initial call to the ministry was a very personal thing. I knew from very early on in my Christian life that God had some kind of a call on my life. Of course, I had no idea of what to do with that. My home church at the time had what is often called the "Free Ministry" meaning that the church was served by a plurality of pastors, all of which earned their living by working in the community as they shared the responsibilities of church leadership. Usually these were persons called from within the ranks of the congregation and chosen for their leadership ability, or potential ability. About a year after my life-changing encounter with God, my local church entered the process whereby they would call a minister to assist in the leadership of the church. To make a long story short, that call fell on me.

I was nineteen and only a year old in the faith. I was overwhelmed. The late Carl W. Ziegler, one of the great churchmen in our circle, oversaw the call process that evening and immediately asked me, "Did you also feel a personal call from the Lord, before the church selected you." My answer was a definite, "Yes," but that did not mean I had any idea what I was doing, or what was called to do.

I immediately entered the process whereby our district church leadership reviewed who I was and approved my being credentialed by the denomination. I entered a locally-based, district-led training program for people entering the ministry without a college background. After completing the course three years later, I was ordained. However, this small taste of academics wetted my appetite and I knew I needed more. Over the next bunch of years I completed my college degree and master's degree. During these years I worked either full or part-time, served the church in a volunteer capacity then later took a full-time pastorate, and tried to be a responsible husband and father.

Reflecting back on the experience I remember a conversation I had after having just been called to the ministry. A friend who had went off to Bible College after high school asked me what the focus of my ministry would be. I did not know what he meant. He said something like, "You know, will you focus on counseling, caregiving, preaching? What is your specific call?" I had no clue; I assumed I would just fit in with the pastoral team at my church. Which I tried to do.

This lack of clarity around what I was called to be persisted for some time. I tried really hard to be a pastor like respected pastors round me, at least as I perceived them. I felt that meeting the expectations of people would shape me into a good pastor. I saw pastoral leadership as largely preaching and taking care of people. As I served in a few churches, I began to sense a really high level of frustration, which often took me near to the brink of emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Sometimes that frustration showed up in my relationship with my family. Those memories make me sad. Fortunately, God's grace runs deep, and as Robin Mark sings, I often dipped my fingers in it. God covered my inadequacies with him mercy and grace.

Anyway, my frustration with ministry led me, in the summer of '88, to decide that the following summer I would resign my pastoral position and head off to school to do a doctorate in some kind of biblical studies with a view toward teaching. Several college and seminary professors encouraged me in this direction. However, in the fall of '89 the call came from the church to consider a term as missionaries in Nigeria, where Doris and I would work at a Bible College training leaders for the Church of the Brethren. After significant prayer and counsel, we accepted the call and left for Nigeria in July of '89.

I fully expected never to return to pastor a church. But God had other ideas, and one day while at my desk in the bedroom of our cement block house on the compound of Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi Nigeria, God clarified the call he had on my life. I was praying and meditating, and God took me to the first chapter of Jeremiah, and using Jeremiah's call, he made very clear what his call was for me. As I came to terms with that call, I began to understand why I lived with the frustration that I did during former pastorates. I was trying to be someone other than who God called me to be. I still struggle with some of that tension today--the tension to be what other people think I should be and being true to myself and God's call on my life. But Nigeria was a defining moment. God's call on my life is not unrelated to the circumstances around my conversion and the years of ministry which led me to Nigeria. It was important for me to revisit some of these places and events during this time apart.

I came back from Nigeria a changed person with a deeper understanding of my call and the role I was to play in the church. However, I had no idea as to how to do this. To make this worse, when we returned it was quickly evident to me that something had changed in American culture while I was away, and that served to reinforce my quest for new ways to lead the church. Fortunately God led me to some mentors, and He was faithful in continuing to guide me as I seek to do his will.

I mentioned at the outset of this post, that my call to ministry is a very personal thing. The re-call I experienced in Nigeria was equally personal and emotional. I still get teary-eyed when I think about it. I would like to share some of this call with you all in a future post, but I want to be careful that I convey things clearly. The more personal the experience, the greater the possibility that it might be misunderstood, by oneself as well as by others. That for another time.