Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Not-So-Glorious Thought

Sunday worship had some revealing moments for me. Since I was not preaching I was a bit more at ease and thus able to be more attentive to my own spiritual needs. This, by the way, is another benefit of taking a sabbatical). It is really hard for me to simply worship when I am preaching. It may be mostly my issue, and maybe other preachers experience it differently, but for me if I am preaching it is really hard to kick back and pay attention to my own soul during worship. Over time this takes its toll, and so sabbatical gives me a chance just to worship. (I will blog later about our worship plans.)

At early service this past week, one of the hymns we sang was "When Peace Like a River." This hymn has played a significant role in my spiritual life for a long time. You know how its, some songs carry special meaning for us. The third verse of that hymn goes like this: "Redeemed! Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin--not in part but the whole--was nailed to his cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul." I still remember the time when while singing this hymn, the Lord impressed on me the wondrous, glorious, mysterious truth of the thought expressed in that verse. And ever since, whenever we sing this song, that verse touches my soul in a sweet way.

Every time, that is, except this week. I sang the hymn as I always do, focusing on the words, and coming to this verse, remembering the thrill my soul feels at this glorious thought, anticipating--and nothing. I felt nothing at all. I got out my journal and made a note of this, wondering what it meant. It is not that I do not believe it any more--I do, actually more than ever. It is just that it did not stir my soul. And that scared me. It became a not-so-glorious thought.

I did not have much time to contemplate the meaning of this at the time. At second service one of the songs was "Filled with Glory." It says, at one place, "would You hear our cry, we want to see You glorified." Then the chorus repeats "Glorify Your name...we want to see You glorified." My mind went right to John 17 where Jesus prays and thanks God that he would soon be retuning to his place in heaven and would receive back the full glory that was rightfully his. He then says that he has given us his glory and prays that we would glorify him. Wow, that is my heart--to bring God glory. Why then do I feel this dryness of my soul?

Another song followed--a more contemporary rendition of Amazing Grace with includes a chorus that says "my chains are gone, I've been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood his mercy reigns. Unending love. Amazing grace." There are some chains that need to be shed from my heart.

Each of these songs, combined with my empty feeling from first service, coalesced to help me see more clearly the tired state of my soul. Unless I am stirred by the mystery of God and his redemptive work among us, I am in no position to preach it. I think it is as simple as that. Often, in the past, while preaching, my heart would sing and my soul stir as I unpacked the truths of God. Recently, it has just been hard work.

So that said and recognized, it is just another way of me realizing how much I need this sabbatical. I want to be careful not to put too much pressure on myself nor to lay too many expectations on God, or we might all end up being disappointed. However, I remain expectant as to what God wants to do in my life during this time, and I cherish the opportunity to drop back from the constant demand of output, and to have time for Him to put some things back into my life. I am very grateful for this opportunity. The leadership of the church has been gracious and I have received many words of encouragement from people in the congregation. God is at work within both of us.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Paul, the Spirit and the People of God

The other day I finished reading Gordon Fee's book Paul, the Spirit and the People of God. This is the book I recommended that you might want to read, if you are interested in sort of journeying with me during my sabbatical (which begins in 14 days, but who's counting!).

Some of you have asked me what book you might read that would help you connect with what I am studying while off, and this is it. I will actually be reading Fee's academic work on the Holy Spirit in the Pauline churches, called God's Empowering Presence, which records the biblical study that lies behind the summaries and conclusions found in Paul, the Spirit and the People of God. But God's Empowering Presence is a huge tome which includes highly academic language and assumes a working knowledge of Greek (at least to benefit most from the work). It has been awhile since I dove into something with this much depth (the day-to-day grind of pastoral work just does not lend itself to this kind of pursuit), and I know it shows how much of a nerd I am, but I am really looking forward to wading around in Greek syntax and the theological muck of pneumatology, in quest of that which is lacking in my own soul. I know that it will take more than reading the Greek New Testament for me to find what I need--there are things I need to experience--but believe it or not, such a study will be a breath of fresh air to my soul.

Some of you have already begun to read Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, and a few of you have shared that it is a bit difficult. And it is. First off, Fee tries hard to tone down his vocabulary to the level of where a non-theologically trained person can read it with ease. He achieves this goal with limited success, and so you will encounter some terminology that may be difficult. I think this is scant, but it will happen. Given that Fee is a world class New Testament scholar, I am impressed with his ability to communicate in a down-to-earth manner, and surprised at the ease with which his prose flows.

Secondly, the book may be difficult at places because Fee is dealing with some rather deep spiritual truths which are not for the spiritually faint-of-heart. And he occasionally deals with some difficult, and controversial issues. He does so with maturity and with balance, and comes out at places that simply bless my heart and, though they challenge me, they also usually affirm my own convictions. But, nevertheless, some of the concepts are deep and challenging.

So, basically, I want to encourage you to read this book. I think the most important parts of it for us as a congregation lie in the understanding it gives us of what it means to be a spirit-filled, spirit-led community of people--to be truly the church. I believe chapters 12 through 14 contain specific words to us as a church. But do not jump there and skip the earlier parts. The early chapters have really great teaching about how the NT has fulfilled the OT and about how the presence of the Spirit today fulfills the presence of God dwelling among his people in the OT. The early chapters contain solid teaching on the personal nature of the Spirit and on the difficult concepts of Trinity. Also, Fee's balance between power and ethics is foundational for the church today, as is his feeling that for the church to be vital in the post modern world in which we now live, a rediscovery of the vibrancy of the Spirit is essential.

We will have copies of the book available at church--for sale or to borrow--or you can purchase a copy on your own.
Paul, the Spirit and the People of God by Gordon Fee: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996. ISBN 1-56563-170-6

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Last Fall

(Note: I began writing this post before my mother's health took a turn for the worse. She passed away on August 2nd and her services were yesterday, August 5. As I was finishing this today, I could feel the emotional drag on my life as well, having now lost both parents in the span of less than 5 months.)

Doris and I were together with some people from church the other evening and they had read the "Why Sabbatical" posting on this blog (the first posting, actually, which hopefully you read) and they asked "So what was going on last fall." They were referring to this statement, "There have been times (most recently just last fall) when I came close to "throwing in the towel" and hanging up whatever it is Brethren pastors hang up when they quit."

I gave them a very brief answer and said I was thinking of blogging on this, since I guessed that others would have the same question. So here goes...

Last year in late summer I was really struggling. The bottom line was that I was looking to the wrong things and listening to the wrong voices. As usual, God led me to what I needed to get me through and to reorient my thinking. Here is a bit of what was going on.

If you are connected to ECOB you will remember that on 18 May 2008 we held the Sacred Assembly (based on Joel 2). That event was the culmination of about 2 years of rather intense spiritual struggle as a congregation. Specifically, our Lenten series that Spring dealt with understanding the spiritual strongholds that often invade our lives. That series was based on the life of Jesus and the numerous encounters he had with entrenched spiritual powers of a negative nature. After the Lenten series, I preached a sermon entitled "A spiritual Journey" in which I both outlined the spiritual struggle we were facing as a congregation and called for a new way of measuring our ministry. I called this a "Spiritual Yardstick." We then began a second series entitled "Demolishing Strongholds" which laid a practical foundation for the Sacred Assembly.

The Sacred Assembly of May 18, 2008, had a number of very positive outcomes for our congregation. I can now, and actually could last summer, recognize them. But it also affected the congregation in ways that on the surface could appear negative. Although our attendance, after growing steadily for a number of years, began to decline a bit two years earlier, the focus leading up to Sacred Assembly and the day itself, took a significant toll on attendance. This, naturally, has had a ripple effect on the congregation in a number of ways. Now, more than a year past the Assembly, most of us can easily see the positive benefits of this journey on the congregation; but last fall was a different matter for me.

Even though I had preached that we would begin using a different "yardstick" for measuring the health of the congregation, I admit I was still using the wrong one--at least in part. On top of this, I was very weary from the spiritual battles of the last two years, and some of the not-so-spiritual struggles with some aspects of the life in the congregation. I was not the only one feeling this--we were all weary after the Assembly--but in many ways, as the Senior Pastor, I was the primary one. No doubt my spiritual strength, or lack thereof, was a major factor in this low time in my life.

In the midst of this Tim left to pastor his home congregation at Parker Ford. This had an impact on me and on the congregation. I had conversations with a number of people, helping them through the grief process of Tim's departure. But who was helping me? And then the congregation very unexpectedly lost John Good. I had just that spring co-taught a course with John and I picked him up nearly every month for the Ministry and Evangelism Commission meeting on which John served. It is hard to explain, especially since I really did not hang out with John on much of a social basis, but his loss really had an impact on me.

So late summer and early fall of 2008 found me really low, both spiritually and emotionally. I really did contemplate resigning and doing something else with my life. Fortunately, I do have abilities and experiences that would enable me to do other things. Actually, I had two offers last summer to move on; one to pastor a church in another denomination, which was tempting, and another to return to the mission field. It is funny how God will test you when you are weak. Anyway, God was faithful during this time, and he pulled me through. He provided a number of things for me that made a difference.

First of all, there was a book. Sometime over the summer I had picked up a copy of The Pressure's Off by Christian counselor and leader Larry Crabb. I have this book listed on this blog's sidebar as recommended reading. It is a must read. It was exactly what I needed. His thesis is a simple one (though the book is a bit hard to read at times). Crabb asks, Are you following Jesus for the blessings or is experiencing the Presence of God enough? He shows how if we are in it for the blessings--and we know we are when we expect God to give us things (like the good life) and do things for us (like keep us happy)--we will never be at peace with God. But if we realize that God owes us nothing and that his Presences in our life is all we really need, and we seek that instead of the blessings, it takes the pressure off and we can live a different way.

Wow! I knew this, even preached it, but last fall I was not living it.

Secondly, a few of us from church attended the Willow Creek Reveal conference in Chicago. During the sessions there were speakers who seemed to be speaking directly to me. This conference was all about focusing the church on its primary mission of discipleship, even if it means the church becomes smaller in order to become more faithful. I needed to hear nationally known pastors talk about this and challenge us to get our focus right. And the worship at Willow was wonderful. I could feel my soul healing. I know sometimes we may wonder if the cost of sending some people to a conference like this is worth it. In this case, it saved me from leaving the ministry.

Thirdly, some people were key in my life during this time. As always, my coach, Geoff Davis, was very helpful. Also, some of the staff at church and those who attended the Willow Conference with me, were excellent support.

As a result of my struggle and the way God spoke during this time my mind and my heart changed. I was able to again come to church focused on God and what he had led me to share, and focused on the needs of the people who were there, and not to look at the numbers. It was an extremely freeing experience, and I am much healthier today.

In many ways I needed a Sabbatical more last fall than I do now. However, If I would have taken one last fall, I would have needed the time for emotional and spiritual healing and would not have been able to focus much on my own spiritual growth and what the congregation needs in the future. This fall, even though I am still very tired spiritually, I am in a much better place than last fall and I will be able to use the Sabbatical time much more wisely.