Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Miracle Worker

Pictured is my beloved Sandy, at the famous pump where Helen Keller learned her first word, "water."

This weekend, my wife and I went to see "The Miracle Worker." It's an outdoor play held annually during the Helen Keller Festival for a couple of weeks around the date of her birthday. It has been years since I have seen this inspiring story.

Her teacher is often called the "Miracle Worker" because she courageously unlocked the brilliant mind of this 7 year old girl who was deaf, blind, and mute.

What is a miracle? Is it solely an act of God? Or do we participate in miraculous work in partnership with God? What is the relationship between divine initiative and human participation? What difference does intercessory prayer make? The subject raises lots of questions.

I have grown to believe that God wills goodness for the world and is always wanting to pour out blessing. This does not mean we always "get what we want" because there are some blessings that are deeper than what we want. Those of us who are followers become participants in God's working of miracles, great and small. The question becomes one of how we look at the world around us with an eye for the mytery of God. Do we see only the pain and brokenness? Or do we see the healing and grace in the midst of all that life brings?

A quote from Albert Einstein sums it up for me: "There are two ways to live; one is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pulling Ourselves to the Rock

A Spirituality of Prayer

A man named Peter Annet once wrote that praying people are like sailors who cast their anchor on a rock and pull. They imagine they are pulling the rock to themselves. In reality, they are pulling themselves to the rock.

This morning, I ponder what it means to pray. What a journey my prayer life has been. At times prayer has flowed so freely, naturally, and powerfully as a response to God's divine initiative in my heart. Yet at times prayer has felt dry or cumbersome and has required a good amount of effort. Yet in all the ebb and flow of prayer, I sense that God uses even my efforts to draw me to God's very self. Even when prayer seems like work, it is grace.

A few months ago, I was leading a class and was surprised when a parishoner said, "I don't get into intercessory prayer, because once I found out it doesn't really work and you don't get what you want, I thought 'what's the point'." Wow. Stunned, I smiled and gently moved the conversation forward with a reminder that for others, this kind of praying is very meaningful. But I've been thinking about it ever since. How sad that she misses the point of prayer.

Whether intercessory prayer or one of the other ways of praying, the life of prayer is not to move God but to be moved, not to get God's attention but to become attentive. For me, it has been a means of grace, a point of entry into the kingdom of God, and a way of putting my spiritual antennaeus up and sensing a deeper mystery. Prayer changes things, yes. But even more often than that, prayer changes me. It brings healing to my heart, rest to my soul, and perspective to my mind.

Friday, June 19, 2009

God's Design for the Church

What is God's design for the Church? With mainline denominations in a long, slow numerical decline, there has been a lot of buzz about how to turn it around. What has emerged in this culture of anxiety about institutional loss is an interesting ecclesiological delimma.

Our "ecclesiology" is our theology or spirituality of the church. I am all for growth and have committed my ministry to it. But I believe there is a vast mystery underneath the surface of our efforts to save the institutional church. It's a mystery that we have trouble tapping into when we are in the tunnel vision of focusing solely on our own efforts and not on what God might be doing.

Leonard Sweet helps with this in a book called "So Beautiful." He notes that in the discovery of what we call DNA, it was called "so pretty!" He says that this divine design reflects God's design for the body of Christ. The three woven strands he identifies resonate with me. They are the "missional", "relational", and "incarnational". Sweet calls for a reunion of these three essential, complementary strands.

Sweet gives language to my search for mystery under the surface. I also believe he reflects the breadth of scriptural ecclesiology which I long to reclaim. God's design gives us a wonderful and healthy balance.

If we focus solely on the missional, we could become fixated on reaching more people, but can't, because we are trying to reach them with bane spirituality in a culture that couldn't care less about the strength of institutions but is yearning for authentic relationship with God and hands-on ministry that changes the world. If we focus solely on the relational, the church could become little more than a social club that cares for its present members, lacking either the drive to share the gospel or or a sense of Christ's presence in their midst and in the world. If we focus solely on the incarnational, we can become little more than a social service agency, losing a sense of the call to share the gospel and invite others into a personal relationship with Christ.

If we could find away to step out of denominational emergency "fix it" mode, and tap into the vast ocean of mystery, we might find that God has given us a vision of the church that is highly missional, highly relational, and highly incarnational. We might discover that ministry is not about just one of these things but about a balance of these things.

I have served in a number of growing church situations, and growth wasn't because of my talents or of some gimmick or method. As I reflect on my twenty years, I think it has been a journey of discovering the mystery of God's organic design for the body and finding wholeness. I have made some mistakes for sure, but in my best moments, ministry has been not been about implementing "my plan" but about listening for what God is already doing and lovingly working to remove the barriers to natural health and growth. Sweet is right. It's beautiful when we see God's design at work.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Musings on Mystery

Mystery. What a word. 1 Corinthians 2 reminds me that Paul "proclaimed the mystery of God" not in big words but in simple Christ-focused terms. Yet, he said, "among the mature we speak wisdom," a wisdom "secret and hidden," revelaed through the Spirit which searches "even the depths of God."

Oh Lord, over the past ten years, you have uncovered your depths to me. I have been immersed in your grace and baptized by the fire of persecution and pain, which brought me into union with the peace of the cross and with the communion of saints. It is as if a new dimension of grace was opened to me, a fourth dimension that is unseen but so very real. It is as if you gave me a sixth sense with which to discern the life of the Spirit.

Thank you for these ten years. Thank you for "depth plungers" like Sacred Heart Monastery, Thomas a'Kempis and Nouwen and Teresa, and the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Thank you for my spiritual director who listens to my struggle and sense of awkwardness about being thrust into leadership and asks questions that help me consider this strange new positioning I feel in light of the larger "plunge" I have taken. Thank you for Uncle Warren's funeral, which not only celebrated a life well lived but reminded me that there are things larger than life, principles worth risking life itself for. Thank you for so many means of grace and the numerous people I'm in covenant with who reveal them to me in one way or another.

There is a larger mystery and it's human nature to be drawn into conflict on surface issues related to the mystery's movement rather than plunging in. You are leading me, and I know not where, guiding me and I know not why.

Where does this passion for holy conversation and leadership come from? It has everything to do with the holy conversation that began in me ten years ago and everything to do with my fascination with the Old Testament Trinity icon. It comes out of a ten year conversation with God. You have blessed me with a glimpse of mystery, and all I can say is "wow." Thanks be to God.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tribute to Rev. Warren Hamby

I am posting this on the day of my Uncle Warren's Memorial Service. The brother of my mother, Rev. Warren Hamby was a very special part of my life and an inspiration to many as pastor and preacher. Here is an inspirational story about his ministry during the Civil Rights movement when he served as pastor of Galloway UMC in Jackson, Mississippi. It is written by my cousin, Warren (Ren) Hamby, Jr.

"There was another instance ... when I found Daddy crouched in the back of our carport after dark, his shotgun on his lap, ready to use it if necessary to protect us. Not long before, a family who belonged to our church were almost killed when a bomb planted by the KKK ripped apart the front of their home. Fortunately, Bob Kochtitzky, his wife, and their infant son had just gone up to bed, thereby escaping death. The following Sunday Daddy read a statement from the pulpit denouncing the violence, proclaiming that those decent, law-abiding, church-going citizens and preachers who remained silent in the face of such atrocities must share part of the blame. His statement was carried in the Jackson newspapers. In Jackson, Missisippi during the 1960s, this was no way to gain popularity.

"I was returning from a date or something like that, when I started to enter our house through the carport door and saw Daddy sitting there in the darkness with his gun. He told me to go inside immediately. He had been seeing cars drive slowly past our house, cutting their lights, once even shining a spotlight into the shrubbery next to the house. Were we to be the next victims of the KKK, because of the statement Daddy had read? I quickly retreated into the safety of our home, leaving Daddy there to defend us. But it wasn't long before Daddy came inside and laid the gun in the corner, appearing quite relieved. It turned out that the cars passing our house were the police. Although we hadn't been told, they were watching our house, along with a number of other possible targets in the city, to prevent further bombings from taking place. Daddy learned this when he bravely approached one of the slowing cars and waved it down to question the driver.

"For years, I remembered this as another example of how my father was willing to lay his life on the line just for our protection. But as I grew older, I began to see the incident very differently. In truth, Daddy had put his family in grave danger. He didn't have to read the statement. We would have been much safer and secure if he had simply preached an old-fashioned feel-good sermon, dismissing the bombing as a fluke tragedy brought about by ignorant extremists who would certainly be brought to justice.

"He didn't have to read the statement. But then, I might have never learned that there are principles that are more valuable than life itself. That are worth risking one's own life for. That are even worth risking the lives of loved ones for. But thank you, Daddy, I did learn this. These are the principles that Daddy lives for. And these are the principles that he will leave firmly engrained in us his children for as long as we live."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

My Annual Conference Highlights

Some of you may like to see a complete update on all the things that happened at Annual Conference this year. Here is a good synopsis on the conference web page (note that it starts with a report on the last day and moves backward, so you may want to read it "bottom-up"):

Brief Summary of Annual Conference

My son Jeremy served as Youth Representative from the Northeast District so it was nice to share that experience with family. My Dad and sister-in-law were part of things of course. Some of the personal highlights for me:

- We established a new major priority on Missions, in addition to the 4 priorities we already focus on (New Communities of Faith, Natural Church Development, Effective Leadership, and Empowering a New Generation of Christians). The last of these was the focus of this year's entire Annual Conference.

- My sister-in-law, Paulette, who has been on the conference staff in missions has taken a denominational position over Volunteers in Mission in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the UMC and we wished her well. They will be moving the regional office from Atlanta to Birmingham next year.

- In expressing our gratitude to retiring ministers and welcoming new clergy into the fold (one of the annual traditions of Annual Conference), there were 5 or 6 female clergy who retired. Many of them are friends Sandy and I have looked up to for years. It was acknowledged that we have come a long way over recent decades that have led us to the point where we now have numbers of clergy women retiring. I was inspired.

- One of the most difficult parts of conference this year was the honest report on our beloved Sumatanga, which is having a serious financial crisis (in part due to the economy and in part because long-term usage is not as high as it needs to be to make ends meet sustainably). There was lengthy discussion on how we can support this blessed and dear ministry of holy ground and a new plan for the future is being developed to keep it going.

- This was my last year to serve as coordinator for the Ordination Service, the largest (and most complex!) service of Annual Conference. I have thoroughly enjoyed this because of my love for liturgy and worship but will be passing on the mantle to my friend Mikah Hudson since I no longer serve on the Board of Ordained Ministry.

- Because I served as alternate delegate at General Conference 2 years ago, and was one of 2 delegates who responded to the invitation to write position papers on constitutional amendments we were voting on for ratification, I co-lead a discussion session on these amendments and spoke to a couple of them on the floor as they were debated. All in all, this came out pretty well but one of the amendments I spoke to was rather contraversial so it was an ... interesting experience!

- It is always a blessing to spend time with friends and companions in ministry and to meet new friends. Annual Conference is an extended family reunion for me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Old Testament Trinity

On a recent Academy, I experienced more about Orthodox spirituality. In the process, I fell in love with this particular icon from Easter tradition. It depicts the "Old Testament Trinity," the story of Abraham entertaining three guests who were the Lord in disguise. If you "read" the icon from left to right, you can see that it is Father, Son and Spirit, and each little detail reflects deep Trinitarian spirituality.

While I won't go through the various visual details here, I encourage you to meditate on it. It reflects not only deep beliefs about the nature of God but the mystical spirituality of the heart. We are drawn into a communion, not just a concept. Through the work of salvation, we have been made whole in God and invited to the table of love and life. Our lives are a never-ending journey back to the source.

I encourage you to spend some time with this visual prayer experience that transcends time. Join the ongoing prayer.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Imitation of Christ

I have a new iPod Touch application that shares quotes from Thomas a'Kempis' "The Imitation of Christ." From what I understand, this ancient work of spiritual depth is the most widely read spiritual literature besides the Bible.

It opened my heart to a whole new world of spirituality to read it several years ago. As I feel led, I will share quotes from this great work from time to time on my blog. Here's one:

Seek to be patient in bearing with other's faults and infirmities whatever they are, for you, also, have many things others have to put up with. If you cannot change yourself into what you desire, how are you going to be able to change someone else into what you desire? We are always ready to see others become perfect, but we do not change our own shortcomings.