Thursday, January 29, 2009

God and Money Mixed?

There was a high-profile motivational workshop held this week here in Huntsville featuring outstanding speakers such as Rudy Gulliani and Zig Zigler. It was a business seminar with about 9,000 people in attendance. I imagine it was exciting and helped many people lead more productive lives.

I read something, though, that disturbed me in a report on what must have been a good event. It caught my attention because of title of the article, “God and Money Do Mix”. Hmm. There is nothing wrong with being compensated for creative work, but the way this was phrased bothered me. I read on.

The seminar emphasized that the love of God can peacefully coexist with the love of financial success. In fact, speakers were reported to have said that loving to make money can enhance godliness ... if that wealth is shared with others. One quote was "You can have everything in life you want, if you help enough other people get what they want."

Well, that's where they lost me. Of course God desires that we lead creative and productive lives. When we share what we have with others in need, we certainly pass on blessing. But LOVE? LOVING to make money?

Jesus said something about that. “You can not love both God and money.” The Bible also says “the love of money the root of all evil." The problem is not money itself but the love of it. Money can certainly be used for good. But the LOVE of making money is self-serving idolatry.

I mean no offense, but this is poor Christian ethics. I wish the name of God wouldn't get mixed into these kinds of things. I encourage you to be good stewards of all you have been given. That's a wonderful joy. But keep your love focused on God, and the self-giving agape love of the cross guiding your life as you relate to others.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Leadership Lessons from Captain Sully

As I sit at my computer to write on January 20, I reflect on the incredible historical significance of this day. We ended staff meeting a few minutes early to catch what we could of the inauguration on TV. I have watched every inauguration as long as I can remember, beginning a journey of prayer for every president who serves our nation in this proud tradition of democracy. But I noticed that something new welled up in me today, something deep and emotional. Just a handful of years ago, I had trouble imagining that someone other than a white male could be elected president of our great country. I have always been offended at the racial prejudice I witnessed in my dear home of Alabama growing up, and have often been frustrated that we seem to move so slowly. Yet here we are.

My thoughts then move past our history of prejudice to the demands of leadership in general. I am thankful for those who are willing to serve such a high office (and I’m glad I don’t have that job!). It would be tough to be leader of our nation in such a challenging time. Then I remember that the mark of true servant leadership is not that things always go well, but how well we navigate things when they don’t go so well.

This leads me to reflect once again on the event last week that can teach us much about servant leadership. For those who weren’t in worship on January 18, I am referring to the “leadership lessons” I proposed that we can learn from “Captain Sully”. You know the story. Last Thursday, an airplane landed in the Hudson Bay due to some excellent flying skills on the part of Chelsea Sullinberger, after a flock of geese shut down both engines of the plane. All 155 passengers made it. Here is what we can learn:

1) Sometimes geese fly into your engine. There is no way to engineer life so that nothing bad happens, and things will not always go your way. People will disappoint you and tragedy will happen. Maybe somebody needs to make a bumper sticker that says “Geese Happen.”

2) A strong leader calmly does your best to navigate the situation to safe waters. Was Sully a bad pilot? Absolutely not! Why do we think that if we have problems, there is something wrong with us? Problems are a part of life. They are “opportunities waiting to happen.” The very definition of excellence has to do with what happens when things go badly.

3) The point is the journey, not the destination. I watched many survivors interviewed, and not one of them complained because they did not reach their destination! They were grateful to be alive. We, too, are on a journey together, and the trip is what’s important in life. Life is not about success, achievement, and having everything you want. It’s about the path.

Whether we are thinking of the highest of offices in our country or the lowliest of servant duties at church or in your family, there is much to be learned from Captain Sully.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Methodist Pastor and Civil Rights Leader Gives Benediction at Inauguration

Those of us who are Methodist might appreciate this article written by Kathy Gilbert about a prominent United Methodist pastor and Civil Rights leader partipating in the inauguration. As we pray for our President Obama, let us pray that he might be the servant leader God would desire him to be.

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said he had some hints he might be the pastor to give the benediction at the inauguration of president-elect Barak Obama.

But the cell phone call still took him by surprise.

“He (Obama) called me on my cell and left a voice message,” he said. “When I called him back, I asked to speak to the 44th president of the United States and he answered, ‘Brother Lowery, I think that would be me.’ We both laughed.”

After joking with Obama for a moment, Lowery said he had to pause to catch his breath. “Suddenly, I remembered I was speaking to the 44th president.” He said the thought of speaking to the first African American elected as president was overwhelming.

Lowery, 87, a well-known civil rights leader who was a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will deliver a two-minute prayer during Obama’s inauguration.

“They tell me I will be able to look out and see the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I am going to pray with my eyes open because I know I will see Martin smiling at us,” he said.

‘Someday’ is now

Lowery said as he was fighting for the rights for African Americans to vote more than 40 years ago, he never dreamed he would actually see the day when an African American would become president.

“We used to say, ‘Someday an African American will be president,’ but we never thought it would happen in our lifetimes.”

He added he never imagined he would be taking part in the inauguration.

Obama’s election is the first step to seeing King’s dream fulfilled, he said.

“I am not so concerned about what I will say as I am whether I will be able to get through it. It is going to be so emotional,” he said.

Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King in 1957. King named him chairman of the delegation to take demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 to Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Wallace had ordered the marchers beaten—an episode that became known as “Bloody Sunday”—but apologized to Lowery in 1995 as the civil rights pioneer led the 30th anniversary re-enactment of the historic march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

As a United Methodist minister, Lowery was elected a delegate to three General Conferences and presided over an annual conference as acting bishop in 1966. His prophetic voice was instrumental in moving the church toward the goal of inclusiveness. He served as pastor of United Methodist churches in Mobile and Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, where he led Central Church for 18 years.

Controversy over Warren

Obama also selected the Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., is openly opposed to gay marriage, and Obama’s selection of him has drawn criticism.

Mike Newdow, an atheist, has filed a federal lawsuit against Warren and Lowery to block prayers and any mention of God during the inauguration.

Lowery said when Obama extended the invitation to Warren he was just keeping his word. “He said he was going to reach across lines, and that is what he is doing.

“I disagree with some of the things Rev. Warren has said about homosexuals,” he added.

However, Lowery said he respects the president’s choice.

“I am not afraid to stand with people with whom I have differences,” he said. He recalled during the aftermath of the civil rights battles he gave a workshop on race relations for members of the Ku Klux Klan.

“A judge gave them a choice of going to jail or taking my workshop,” he said. Laughing, he added, “About five of them took the class.”

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reminder of What Church Is All About

Sometimes one of my parishoners reminds me of what church is all about. Rachael teaches a children's Sunday School class and posted this article on Facebook. I asked her permission to share it on my blog. I hope it inspires you like it does me.

When my 5 year old was only 3, the church needed teachers for 2-3 year old Sunday school class. In a fit of insanity, I volunteered. I figured it would be good attention for my youngest son. After all, he spent all his time getting dragged to activities for his older brothers. Also, the church family had been wonderful. We all participated in different activities, so I figured it was my turn to contribute. I thought I could do it for a year, especially since I was splitting it with someone else.

Now, I am not sure how these things are supposed to end. But, I really don’t want it to. I have been blessed by the most amazing children. The class is very small, but the faces change over time. They change because they are growing, but they also change because they move up and new children come in.

I have done this long enough now, that I started having emotional moments of reflection. One hit me hard tonight. Joe and I were talking about girls. He complained, “Mom, there is a girl at school that always looks at me and says, ‘hi’. She is from church. I don’t know why she does that.” I started naming kids from church that I know attend his school. Finally, I guessed correctly, “Anna!” I love Anna! Anna is so sweet. I am very attached to that little girl. She used to attend my Sunday school class. One day, a couple years ago, when my boys were being typical boys, she looked at me and said, “My mom says that boys are weird.” What the boys were confirming by action, I confirmed with words. She and I have joked about it ever since.

This episode of reminiscing made me think of other kids that have been in my class and moved on. Connor was smarter than he should have been at that age, but he tried to be patient with me. It always tickled me when he would stare at me and sigh. Now when I see him somewhere else, he smiles and acts excited to see me.

Nicholas was always hilarious. His speech was delayed due to hearing problems. Being brilliant and having wonderful parents, he caught up very well. His progress was apparent one day when his mom walked in to pick him up. After she prompted him, he commanded, “Give me a minute” and turned around to continue playing. I’ve missed him and his smile since he moved up to the big boy class.

Many of the kids were shy about coming in the class at first. My beautiful Harper, with long curly hair, was one of those. She will turn 4 soon and I will miss her, too. She explained how she will have a princess party. For a month before her family vacationed in Disney World, she told me all about it. After she returned, she told me all about it. I love the way she talks about things that are important to her.

Aidan is my assistant teacher. She is actually a student, but she is very strict and could easily teach the class. I ask her to help pass out and collect supplies. She is very smart, but she runs a tight ship for such a young age group. I think she will be a strong business woman.

John is ready for college. He has a huge vocabulary. In the middle of a lesson, he will start singing a hymn. The first time, I expected him to stop after a few lines. Now, I know I have to interrupt. He will sing 4 stanzas of a complicated song whenever the spirit moves him. Also, he hasn’t seen the relevance in adding to someone’s name. While everyone else calls me “Miss Rachael”, he just says, “Rachael”. I love how he thinks for himself.

Carter is relatively new to our church. For the first few weeks, his mom stayed with him in class. He did not like to stay. When I walked in this past Sunday, he was playing like he had been here his whole life. He did a wonderful job participating and letting us get to know him better. He has the cutest little grin and he knows how to use it.

Our newest friend in the class is Bronwyn, she is so darling, but she is not used to our routine yet. She reminds me of every other child when they first moved up to Sunday school and how they grow into the class. She is more affectionate toward the water fountain than others have been. If we don’t watch her closely, she will get the little plastic dishes from the play kitchen and fill them with water.

Each of the children brings me so much joy. They are always happy to see me, whether in a restaurant, grocery store, or at church. Then I realize that I am their first Sunday school teacher. They are learning about Jesus, but they are also learning other things. They are learning to sit at a table for a lesson. They are learning to follow directions. They are learning how to color and make crafts. They are also deciding if they like coming to Sunday school. I pray that God will continue to do these things through me.

I am thankful that the parents entrust me with so much. I am thankful for the relationship that develops with each student. I am thankful for the opportunity to know the parents better. I am thankful for watching these children grow up in the church. I am thankful for what they do to my heart. I thought it was my turn to contribute, but all I do is receive. The blessings flood my life and overwhelm me with God’s love.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Beginning Again, Again

This week, my Covenant Group went on retreat to Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman. We meet every six months for group spiritual direction in various places. It was an awesome experience for me to bring a group so important to me back to a place so significant in my journey.

About ten years ago, when I was going through a really tough time in ministry, I came to this place for private retreat. I don’t remember why I was first drawn here, but I’m glad I listened to whatever was nudging me. The joy of the silence, the singing of the daily liturgy, the holiness of the space, the richness of the library, and the biblical hospitality of the community opened up my spiritual journey to a chasm of depth. I kept coming back. It led me to eventually to explore the Academy for Spiritual Formation and other avenues for joining the dance of a more contemplative life.

Toward the end of this week’s retreat, I walked the labyrinth near a couple of the others who were feeling meditative as well. Half way through, I came back to a spot close to the entrance, a bend just to the right of the opening of the slender trail. As I stood there looking toward the very center, it occurred to me how often in life I go back to the beginning. Here I am again, back on holy ground where something profound began. Here I am again, at the beginning of another year full of hopes. Here I am again, struggling with relationships and feelings, responsibilities and challenges, seeking the light again. Our lives are much more like this labyrinth than like climbing a ladder. The more we journey, the more we are back at the beginning. And yet we are so much farther along at the same time.

Thomas Merton said of prayer, “We do not want to be beginners but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!" I hope that 2009 is a year of beginning again. Perhaps it will be for you.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Placing Ourselves into the Hands of God

Here is a wonderful covenant prayer for the new year from my own Wesleyan tradition:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

I believe that God is moving people to step out of the "little picture" of their lives and look beyond into the bigger picture of mystery and grace. This is my prayer for me, and for us who are on this quest.

I have decided that my task as a pastor is not to provide excellent programs, make the numbers, or please everybody. My central task is to help people embrace a bigger mystery: to step out of life as we know it into the world of the Spirit, to find the deepest blessings in a transformed perception about things already before us, and to open themselves to the lifelong process of being formed in the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another.

May this be a year of placing ourselves into the hands of God more fully, more completely.