Spirituality, Calling, and Ministry

Spirituality, Calling, and Ministry

Today ends my first year, of a three-year “Certificate in Spiritual Companionship with Practicum in Daily Life,” at St. Thomas University (for more information, https://www.stu.edu/theology/programs/spiritual-companionship-certificate-program).

This year’s focus was on Christian spirituality, faith development, and the basics of Spiritual Companionship (also known as Spiritual Direction).  Starting next fall, year two will focus on the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.”  The third, and final year, will focus on the actual practice of being a Spiritual Companion/Director.

Some enroll in this program simply to deepen their own spiritual practices.  Some do so to enhance the ministries they’re already doing.  Some will actually become professional Spiritual Companions/Directors.

But, what about me?  Why am I, after 24+ years of ministry and two seminary degrees, taking a course in Spiritual Companionship?  For several reasons….

One, I love learning, and felt like a specific program would be good for me.  And, a program focusing on prayer and spirituality was very attractive.

Two, though I’ve never technically been a “Spiritual Director,” I feel like I’ve done a lot of spiritual direction in my ministry, and would like to do it better.

Three, my current ministry role is not nearly as personal as previous ones have been.  As the “senior” pastor of a large church, there are more administrative responsibilities, less one-to-one contact, and fewer opportunities to be in ministry with parishioners more personally.  Hopefully, also offering the ministry of Spiritual Companionship/Direction will help me find balance in my ministry role and my pastoral calling.

What is Spiritual Companionship/Direction?  A Spiritual Companion/Director is a trained guide, who assists a spiritual traveler on their journey toward knowing Christ, and themselves, better.  A Spiritual Companion/Director is a listener, an encourager, a resource, a fellow-traveler.  A Spiritual Companion/Director is not a therapist or an advice-giver, or even necessarily a pastor.  The task of the Companion/Director is to know Jesus, and to walk beside, pointing the way, for another to discover Jesus and themselves.

As I come to the end of this first year, one particular thought has become clearer to me.

Though I met Christ as a teen, at a Christian summer camp, I didn’t really begin my spiritual journey until I graduated from college.  But, then, my life turned in a surprising direction.  Almost as soon as my spiritual journey began, I sensed a call to ministry.  Within months, still early in my spiritual development, I became a youth director.  Before I read most of the Bible, or understood much about Christian theology, I was enrolled in seminary.

From the beginning, my spirituality, my calling, and my ministry have been intertwined, as if they were one in the same.  Though we never discussed this in class, I’ve recently realized, more clearly, that my spirituality, my calling, and my ministry are three distinctly different things.  Though they’re interrelated, and overlap, they’re not same.

My spirituality is not dependent on my calling or my ministry.  My calling, though important, is only one aspect of my spirituality.  And, my ministry is simply the context/role where I strive to be faithful to my calling and my spirituality.

Too often, I’m guilty of conflating the three.  Many pastors do.  We act as though our primary duty is our ministry role and responsibilities, sometimes losing touch with our actual calling, and treating our spirituality as an afterthought, or something we do to fuel our ministries.  But, that’s backward.

Spirituality – meaning a growing relationship with Jesus – has to be first, even for ministers (I would argue, especially for pastors!).  Pastors may have abundant knowledge of theology, Bible, and Church management.  But, if they don’t have an active, personal, current relationship with Jesus, how can they lead spiritually?  If my role and calling are to lead people to Jesus, to grow in spiritual maturity, to discover their callings, and to know Jesus personally, then all of those things must first be true in me!

How can a pastor offer something he/she doesn’t have?  And, knowing Christ and myself is the goal, whether I’m a pastor or not.

I value my calling.  I’m committed to my current ministry role and performing it as faithfully as I possibly can.  But, both are secondary.

My spirituality must come first.  Knowing Jesus must come first.

That’s true for me.  That’s true for you.

 

A Tale of Two Leather Jackets

A Tale of Two Leather Jackets

Several years ago, my wife purchased an authentic black leather biker jacket for me – from a biker leather store in Daytona Beach, no less.  It’s as authentic a “biker” jacket, as any biker jacket can be!  I love it, and I love wearing it!

When I wear it, I feel tougher, and more intimidating.  When I wear it, I feel like a “legitimate” biker.  When I wear it, I feel a little “bad,” in the “good” kind of way.

But, I have another black leather jacket, that makes me feel something completely different.

About five years ago, shortly after buying my bike, I didn’t own a black leather jacket, and desperately wanted one.  If you own a bike, you just have to own one!  But, at that point, I couldn’t afford it.

One day, I stopped at a large garage sale.  It was quickly apparent that a group of adult children were helping their elderly mother “down-size,” by selling loads of the house’s contents.  Among the items for sale, I noticed several racks of men’s clothing, which I immediately assumed might have belonged to a deceased husband/father.  Hanging on the end of the rack was a black leather jacket.  It wasn’t a biker jacket.  But, at that point, I wasn’t picky.

As I tried it on, I noticed an elderly woman, whom I presumed to be the mother/widow, watching me.  I was pretty sure I was trying on her husband’s jacket, and worried that she might not be too happy about it.

But, it fit!  And, they only wanted $20!  I couldn’t not buy it!

As I was paying for the jacket, the woman – the widow of the jacket’s former owner – looked me in the eye, and said, “That jacket was worn by a good man!”  She really emphasized the “good man” part!

I can’t begin to describe the feeling I had in that moment.  I still feel it now.  I wondered, “Am I worthy to wear this jacket?  Am I good enough?”  I didn’t even know this woman, or her deceased husband, but I felt like buying the jacket – AND WEARING IT! – carried an obligation, a duty, a commitment to treat his jacket with the very utmost and highest respect!

No, it was more than that.  Though I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, and that his grieving widow might have been a little biased, in that moment, staring deeply into my eyes, she convinced me that her husband was a saint! “That jacket was worn by a good man!”  Somehow, I knew, and I know, that he really was a good man, and that wearing his jacket carries the expectation I’ll strive to be a good man too.

Though it may sound silly, I feel an obligation to be worthy of that jacket!

To this day, I can’t wear it without seeing that woman’s eyes, and hearing her voice – “That jacket was worn by a good man!” – and knowing that I’ve made a commitment to wear it as well as I can.  Though I never met the man, and I’ll likely never see his widow again (in fact, I doubt she even remembers the moment I’ve described), he’s set a standard of charactwer for me to strive for.  When I wear his jacket, I want to be a good man too.

Someday, when I’m gone, when the jacket passes on to someone else, I hope someone can still say,“That jacket was worn by a good man!”

But, my other black leather biker jacket?  Not so much.  It’s just cool.

Unpredictable paths…

Unpredictable paths…

“History unfolds itself by strange and unpredictable paths. We have little control over the future; and none at all over the past.”  Winston Churchill

This week, I’m visiting Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela), Guatemala, speaking to English-speaking Middle and High School students at the Inter-American School’s Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The Inter-American School is a private, Christian-based, English-speaking school.  But, the students (mostly Guatemalan) come from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds.  This week, I get to tell them about Jesus!

The reason I’m this year’s Spiritual Emphasis Week speaker is, my daughter, Malinda (Miss Rains, to her students), is the IAS art teacher.  And, I’ve never been good at saying “no” to my daughter!  Actually, I wouldn’t have said “no,” anyway!

As I was about to speak to the students, this morning, a thought crossed my mind…

“How the heck did I end up here???”

How did a 50-year-old gringo end up telling a bunch of Guatemalan kids about Jesus?

To many who know me, the answer might seem obvious…

  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala.
  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala, because she went on a mission trip to Guatemala, with her mother and me, when she was in high school.
  • We were on a mission trip to Guatemala, because I’ve been leading mission teams to Guatemala for years.
  • I’ve led mission trips to Guatemala, because I met a missionary, working in Guatemala, in 2007.
  • I met a missionary in Guatemala, because I was a campus minister at Florida State University, looking for a place for my students to serve internationally.
  • I was looking for a place for my students to serve, because I was impacted by a mission trip to Mira Flores, Mexico, when I was 22-years-old.
  • I went on a mission trip to Mexico, because I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, and the trip was already planned.
  • I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director, because I had just (VERY UNEXPECTEDLY!) felt like God might be calling me to become a pastor, and the Youth Director position became (unexpectedly) vacant at the same time.
  • Before that, I had recently begun attending FUMC Orlando, AND LOVING IT.  Before that, I had recently graduated from college.  Before that… well, lots of things happened!

Looking backward, of course I ended up here, this week, doing this.  But, if you told me, when I was in school, that some day I’d be visiting my adult daughter, in Guatemala,  telling Guatemalan kids about Jesus, I’d have laughed.  I didn’t know much about Jesus, and I couldn’t have found Guatemala on a map!  My family didn’t go to church, nor did we travel internationally.  I studied German in High School, because I couldn’t imagine ever needing to speak Spanish (even if I never came to Guatemala, living in Florida, Spanish would have been a LOT more useful than German!)

How, on earth, did I end up here, now?

The truth is, even if you’re never invited to speak to kids in Guatemala about Jesus, most of us end up in different places, doing different things than we ever would have imagined.  We set goals.  We make plans.  We have dreams.  But, life usually has unexpected twists and turns, altering the course of our paths in surprising ways.

“We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“The Lord directs the steps of the godly.  He delights in every detail of their lives.  Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”  (Psalm 37:23-24)

“This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is good for you and leads you along the paths you should follow.'”  (Isaiah 48:17)

How did I get here?  It’s God’s fault… or blessing!  I choose to believe the latter.  And, I speaking of choice, I believe our choices also have a lot to do with where we end up.  In fact, I increasingly believe that every choice we make – every step we choose on our journeys (including choices ignorantly chosen) – have a lot to do with what steps will follow.

So, that’s how I ended up, sitting in my daughter’s classroom, this morning, and I’m so thankful!  I never would’ve predicted it, but I’m so thankful for it!  And, I can’t help but wonder what this moment of my journey will lead to next!

So, where are you this morning, what are you doing, and how did you get there?

And, I wonder, what’s next for you?

 

I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

Bikini Bike Washes

Bikini Bike Washes

An attractive young woman, wearing a minimal bikini, is washing motorcycles, while the (male, and not so young) bikes’ owners sit back and stare.  Actually, the oglers outnumber the bikes being washed.  And, I don’t think they are ogling the bikes.

I’m having my motorcycle serviced today, at a dealership, and waiting while the work is done.  It’s a Saturday, and the dealership is as much a biker hangout as a place of business.  A band is playing.  Burgers and beers are free.  There are as many “hanging out,” as there are shopping.  But, I suspect shopping is the hope of the dealership, and the motivation for its generosity.

And, in the midst of the action, a young woman in a bikini is washing dirty old mens’ motorcycles, while they sit back and watch her work.

As a pastor, I know I live in a bubble.  This isn’t my normal world.  There aren’t many bikinis in my world.

And, I’m an advocate for treating women with the dignity and respect they deserve, not as objects to satisfy men’s desires.  Many men aren’t.

But, in light of the recent “Me too,” movement, I’m surprised and saddened.

You might be thinking.  “She chose to do this.  She’s getting paid, and probably tipped!”  I’m sure she did, and I’m sure she is.  I don’t know why she took the job.  But, I doubt it’s because she enjoys washing bikes or being ogled by old men!  I doubt this is the fulfillment of her career-goals.

Maybe she needs the money.  Maybe she doesn’t have many other employment opportunities.  Maybe she believes her beauty is her only asset.  Maybe it’s the only reality she knows.

Part of me wants to offer her a beach towel to cover up, and to tell her, “Yes, you are beautiful.  But, you’re so much more than your physical beauty.  You have a heart.  You have a soul.  You have talents, and abilities.  You have potential.  You have value – and your true value is not your ability to turn men on.  You are a beloved child of God, and you deserve better than this.”

Part of me wants to apologize.

I won’t.  I don’t know her, and I might sound like I’m judging her for her choice.  She doesn’t need that, any more than the ogling.  Maybe that’s cowardly.  I don’t know.  But, I won’t.

So, while I won’t be talking to her, I’m writing this for all of the women and men who might read this.  If you think this is worth sharing, I hope you will.

Ladies – you have inestimable worth, beyond your physical attractiveness.  Men may, or may not, find you physically beautiful.  Men may, or may not, find you sexually desirable.  Men may, or may not, pressure you to comply to their desires, or demands.  Regardless, your body, your beauty, and your sexuality is your own, and you have a right to decide how you use it.  If you want to wear skimpy bikinis and wash men’s motorcycles, fine.  It’s your choice.  But, I doubt you really do.

Your body and your beauty is certainly not all you are.  You deserve to be treated with utmost respect.  You deserve to know your value.

Men – just because there are women who are willing to wash motorcycles in bikinis, or present themselves in other overtly sexual ways, doesn’t mean they want to or enjoy it.  Yes, beauty is appealing and enticing.  Yes, lust is a difficult drive to master.  But, that young woman you’re staring at, is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, and maybe someone’s mother.  She has a heart and a soul.  She has a story.  She has dreams.

And, brothers, we degrade both women and ourselves when we objectify them.  You are more than your lust.  You are more than your animal instincts.  A large part of being a man is the way we view and treat women, and how we practice self-control.

Men, let’s be good men.

Please remember, she’s more than an object.  She’s more than your object.  She a person, just like you.  Treat her with the same respect you would want for mother, sister, wife, daughter, or yourself.  Treat her with respect, even if she doesn’t ask you to.  Treat her with respect, even if she doesn’t know to respect herself.  Treat her with respect, because she deserves it.

 

 

Post-Easter Pondering

Post-Easter Pondering

For the second year, I’ve written daily blog posts for Lent.

I don’t presume to believe I have that much to say, worth sharing publicly.  I could have just journaled daily for Lent.  But, there’s something about the discipline of writing a complete thought, that others might read, and the accountability of public posting, that’s particularly helpful to me.

Like I said, I haven’t presumed anyone would read anything I write.  But, for those who do, I am grateful.  I hope it’s been worth your time and attention.

On this Monday after Easter, I thought it might be useful to reflect on what this Lent has meant to me; specifically, what I’ve learned from the discipline of daily blogging.

Reflection 1:  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting

When I wrote my first post, Two Essential Elements, on Ash Wednesday, I never could have imagined how the events of that day would unfold.  By nightfall, seventeen were dead, seventeen were injured, Nikolas Cruz was in custody, and our entire community was in a state of shock.

We scrambled to change our evening Ash Wednesday service, to provide comfort, care, and prayer in the immediate aftermath, as we have with much of our ministry every since.

Personally, I had no idea how this tragedy would affect me emotionally, spiritually, and theologically, leading to some significant wrestling with God and a difficult search for Truth.  It’s been a difficult journey, as has been evident in some of my blogs.  Though I still have questions, and am still uncomfortable with some of the answers, I’ve been forced to dig deeper than I would have otherwise.

Reflection 2:  Closer Observation and Deeper Reflection

Daily blogging requires a fresh idea, worth putting into words, daily.  Knowing I needed something to write required me to be more observant, and more reflective.  I had to pay closer attention to the details of life, of conversations, of what I was thinking and feeling, and what I was reading and learning.

I can’t help but wonder how much of life I normally miss, simply because I’m not paying attention.

Reflection 3:  A Complete Thought

Reflecting is often open-ended, as were many of my blogs.  But, offering a blog for public viewing requires a higher degree of “completion.”  A particular blog may have started with a question, or a partial thought, or an observation.  But, before I could hit “publish,” I was compelled to complete my thoughts, to the best of my ability.  Though I often end posts with questions, I tried to never leave a reader wondering what I was attempting to say.

Reflection 4:  Everything is Spiritual

Yes, I’m a pastor.  Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about God.  Yes, I spend a lot of time reading spiritual material.  But, beyond that, looking for daily inspiration for blog posts has opened my eyes to spiritual truths in unexpected places.

God is everywhere, in everything.  All we have to do is look.

Reflection 4:  Views, Likes, Comments, and Shares

I’ll confess, I’m a bit obsessed with how people react to my writing.  I’m always curious about what posts attract readers’ attention, and which ones don’t.  I wonder what will create controversy.  I wonder what will be helpful.  I wonder about how much of my self to reveal.

I’m embarrassed to admit, I check my stats a lot.

Vanity.

Some days are more humbling than others.  My least viewed post, Remember Your Baptism?, was only read 29 times.  But, that anyone – even 29 anyones – chooses to ready these posts honors me.

On the other hand, What Broke Him, was read over 3600 times, and shared on Facebook 961 times!

I also realize blogging daily may be overkill.  I don’t read the same writers everyday.  Why would anyone else?  I can’t help but wonder if less is more.

Reflection 5:  Am I Passive Aggressive?

As I’ve been learning about the enneagram (I’m a 9 and The Journey toward greater health and wholeness), I’m learning that 9s (my type), have a tendency towards passive aggression.  The last thing I want to be is passive aggressive.  But, I do, admittedly, avoid conflict, often swallowing and suppressing my hurt and anger.  Perhaps that anger slips out in unconscious ways.

Undeniably, I’ve felt the freedom to be “snarky” in a number of my posts.  Would I be as open and honest in public, or face-to-face?  Honestly, probably not.  Have I use my blogs to be passive aggressive?  Maybe.

This is, very likely, one of my growth areas.

Reflection 6:  TV and Social Media

For several years, I’ve given up TV and Social Media for Lent.  Though my blogs automatically post to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been “logged out” since Ash Wednesday.  Normally, I give up TV and Social Media, simply to create more space for quiet, reflection, reading, and writing.  And, after Lent, I’m never in a hurry to turn the TV back on, and I’m usually slow to reengage on Social Media.

But, this year, with all of the negative news, especially surrounding the Parkland Tragedy, I was glad to be shielded.  I suspect, in my own inner-turmoil, watching the news or reading ugly posts would not have been good for me.

Reflection 7:  Post-Easter 2018

My personal belief is, whatever we do, or stop doing, for Lent, ought to have some impact on your life when Lent is over.

For example, in 1992, I gave up meat for Lent.  I’m still a vegetarian, 26 years later.

What about this year?

Some have asked if I will continue blogging.  I certainly won’t be blogging daily!  Last year, I blogged sporadically; mostly after major events, or if something was on my mind.  This year, I am going to attempt to write a weekly post, every Monday, and then when I feel led to write anything else.

I also have a stack of books to read – as always.  But, these were books I planned to read for Lent.  The Parkland tragedy, and my inner-turmoil, forced me into some books I hadn’t planned to read.  So, my Lent stack is still mostly unread, now becoming my Easter reading, instead.

Reflection 8:  Grateful and Curious

If you are reading this, or any of my previous posts, “thank you.”  I’m honored and grateful you take the time to read what I write.  I’m grateful when you respond.  I’m grateful when you share my writings with others.

And, I’m curious.  Is there anything you would like for me to write about in the future?  Any topic?  Any issue?  Any ideas?

I’m very open to your input, questions, suggestions and requests.

Thank you again for reading my posts.  Have a blessed 50 days of Easter!