Recalibrating Your Soul

Recalibrating Your Soul

Among my favorite memories are early morning walks on the beach, alone, with my Panasonic RX4920 Stereo Boombox resting on my shoulder, playing my favorite reggae music.  Those were High School and college years, in the 1980s, on random Florida beaches, playing mixed tapes of my favorites songs by Bob Marley, UB40, and a lesser-known band, Steel Pulse.  Something about those early morning, walking alone, the sound of waves lapping the shore, and those reggae rhythms, recalibrated my heart and soul to their proper and preferred tempo.

It was good for my soul.

Riding my motorcycle is a similar experience.  When I find a long stretch of empty road – especially ones with some gentle wind and curve – cruising around 70 mph (give or take), my feet resting on my highway pegs, I relax, take a few deep breaths, and find my inner RPMs returning to their ideal operating speed.  I don’t have a stereo on my bike, and I don’t want one.  The mixed-tape I need has been permanently stored in my head.

I remember an opening scene of the Sons of Anarchy series: its night, and the Sons are riding a California highway, and, in the background, Jax says, “Something happens at around 92 miles an hour – thunder-headers drown out all sound, engine vibrations travels at a heart’s rate, field of vision funnels into the immediate and suddenly you’re not on the road, you’re in it. A part of it.  That’s why I love these long runs. All your problems, all the noise, gone. Nothing else to worry about except what’s right in front of you. Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold on to these simple moments.” 

I rarely go 92 mph.  But, I get his point.

I’ve experienced the same in a rocking chair, on my porch, on a cool Spring morning.

For some, it’s running or yoga.  For others, it’s fishing or canoeing.  For others, it’s horseback riding.  For some, it’s swinging a hammer.  For many, it’s keeping a Sabbath day.

Whether or not you’ve found a time, place or activity that uniquely settles your heart and soul, I think we all need it.  I know we do.  It’s just so easy to get out of whack.  Just like a motorcycle engine operates at an ideal speed and RPMs, but may need an occasional recalibration, I think the same is true for the human soul.

The stressful demands of life and work; the competing demands on our focus and attention; the countless distractions and interruptions; the flood of meaningless data; the barrage of incessant noise; the push and pull of wants, desires, and needs; the pressure to perform and measure-up to some ridiculous standard; countless worries and sources of anxiety; the external and internal critical voices; all muddling your brain, driving your heart-rate, and clouding your soul.  We all need moments – regular moments, frequent moments – and practices, to let it all go, to find your centered-place, to breath deeply, and to return to your best God-intended rhythm.

My soul needs it – demands it.  I bet yours does too.

 

Let it rain

Let it rain

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”  Hebrews 6:7 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And God permitting, we will do so.”  Hebrews 6:1-3

In essence, some spiritual teachings are foundational, even “elementary.”  Repentance, faith, etc. are the basic materials for establishing a foundation of faith.  Good, strong foundations are important.  But, foundations are meant to be built on.  A solid foundation is essential.  But, a foundation is only a foundation.  Therefore, “let us move beyond elementary teaching about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

My particular brand of Christianity is Methodist.  One of my favorite things about Methodism is our belief that, following conversion, God begins a new work in us, growing us toward full maturity in Christ.  We believe, with God’s help and our active participation, we will become like Jesus.  According to Hebrews 6:1-3, the “elementary” teachings about Christ are simply the raw materials for establishing a foundation for a life of faith.

For years, I’ve participated in home construction in a small Mayan village in Guatemala, called Chontala.  Most families in Chontala have traditional homes, made of adobe brick, like ones built by Mayans for millennia.  The main benefit of adobe is it’s free – just made of mud and straw.  The problem with adobe is it becomes brittle and unstable in earthquakes.  The homes we build are concrete block construction, which tend to be more stable in earthquakes and storms.

Before we can build the walls of a concrete block home, land has to be cleared, trenches have to be dug and leveled, and foundations have to be created from rock, sand, re-bar, cement, and concrete blocks.  Those are the elements of a solid foundation.  But, as Hebrews describes, the foundation is just the beginning.  Upon the foundation will be added walls, doors, windows, electrical, and a roof.  Then, families will add furnishings and personal belongings to make a new house a home.  Of course, most important are the beautiful families who will live in these homes.

Surrounding most of these homes are corn fields.  Corn is the primary crop of Guatemala, and a mainstay of a Mayan diet.  Corn seed, saved from last year’s harvest, is planted in fertile volcanic soil, and grows rapidly throughout the rainy summer months.  For countless generations, corn has been annually planted, harvested, and dried.  Some is eaten, and some is saved to be planted the following year.  It’s a simple, reliable, dependable, repeatable process, vital to Mayan life.

Daily, corn is ground and cooked into tortillas, tamales and atole (a corn-based hot drink, I don’t particularly like) – the basics of the Mayan diet.  From infancy to old age, corn nourishes the daily life and work of every Mayan.

This is how I imagine the metaphor Hebrews 6:7 describes,“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”   Our spiritual lives can be like those Mayan corn fields; abundantly fertile, sown with ancient seed, watered with dependable rains, producing fruitful harvests, nourishing the daily lives of many, passing on seed to generations of planting and harvesting yet to come.

Mayan corn is a dependable crop.  It always has been, for countless generations

Likewise, spiritual growth and maturity is a dependable process, with God’s blessing and our participation.

The question is, are we still focused on“elementary teachings?”   Or, are our spiritual lives growing, like “Land that drinks in the rain?” 

As Paul writes,I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

My Mayan friends have no control over the rains.  They simply plant their crops, and trust the rain to come and do its work.  Similarly, we have no control over the “spiritual” rains that fall upon us, or the crops we produce.  Our job is to faithfully plant the seeds of God’s word in the soil of our souls, and to place ourselves under God’s rain as much as we possibly can.

And, where does God’s rain fall?  Worship.  Christian friendship.  Prayer.  Study.  Sacraments.  Contemplation.  Service, mercy, and justice.  Silence and solitude.  Spiritual direction.  Place yourself where the rains of God’s grace flow, with an open heart and mind, and we will grow.

We will become like Christ.  We will become who we were created to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done.” 

What do you desire?  Elementary teaching?  Or, to become like Christ?

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

Privilege

Privilege

Last night, I was privileged to attend a lecture, at St. Thomas University, by Dr. Diana L. Hayes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University.  Dr. Hayes shared about recognizing the image of God in EVERY person and the ongoing problem of personal, systemic, and institutional racism in America.

As a white, straight, middle-class, college-educated, male, Christian, southern-U.S. citizen it’s taken me a while to grasp the place of cultural privilege I’ve been afforded.  I never did anything to earn or deserve the opportunities I’ve had, simply because of the life I was born into.  Nor have others, more marginalized by society, necessarily deserved the challenges they’ve had to bear because of their skin color, nationality, gender, sexual-orientation, or socio-economic status.

Even though public education is available to everyone in the United States, there’s no denying some schools are better than others, and some homes are more advantageous for learning.  I’ve never had to worry about being harassed by police for my skin color, or objectified for my gender, or condemned for my sexual orientation.  I’ve never had to worry about my personal safety, or where my next meal might come from.  I’ve never worried, for a moment, about being the victim of a hate crime.

I was, and am, fortunate.  I’m privileged.

I recently read Ta-Nehesi Coates’, Between the World and Me.  As a white man, it wasn’t easy to read.  But, I’m so glad I did.  Though we are, more or less, contemporaries, both having grown up in the United States in the same generation, our life experiences have been radically different, for one reason – the color of his skin, and the color of mine.

Through the years, I’ve denied my privilege, arguing, “Everyone has equal opportunity in America,” blind to the enormous head start I was given, and the myriad obstacles others have had to overcome.  For a season, I was apathetic, thinking, “It isn’t my fault I was born white and male.”  I remember resenting Affirmative Action and “Equal Opportunity,” foolishly presuming others were getting what I worked for.

For a time, I felt guilty.  Maybe I still do.

Now, I would say, I increasingly realize I need to use my place of privilege to speak, act, vote and pray for those less privileged in our world, facing much greater and much more unfair challenges than I’ve had to contend with.  I need to take off my blinders, do my homework, and seek to better understand other’s challenges.  I have a role and responsibility to play in advocacy for those on the margins, who do not have the positional advantages I do to leverage change.

And – let me be clear – I have much to learn from people who have lived on the margins.  And, I have much to honor and respect.  What has been handed to me, has been hard-earned by others.  Opportunities I’ve squandered, have been cherished by others.  Though the reasons are deeply unfair, those who’ve lived on the margins have a greater strength from the battles they’ve fought, have greater perseverance from what they’ve endured, greater wisdom from what they’ve witnessed, and a very different perspective on faith and spirituality.  Though I’ve no claim or right to their earned life lessons, I want to learn and I want to show respect.

Dr. Hayes specifically offered the following “Four Corners of Racial Reconciliation”…

  1. Develop the ability to hear and be present to black anger, seeking to understand, without becoming defensive.
  2. Create safe spaces that allow for different perspectives.
  3. Cultivate genuine friendships with people of different cultures, ethnicities, and life experiences.
  4. Develop a willingness to act on behalf of justice.

Though it’s been a journey, and it’s taken me longer than it should have, I am increasingly aware, increasingly open, and increasingly willing to do my part.  Though I still have a lot to learn, friendships to develop, and cowardice to overcome, I’m starting to get it.  I’m starting.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long!

 

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?