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Monday, May 27, 2013


A relaxing weekend full of fun, rest, reading, and recreation was topped off by something work-related, but so fun nevertheless. I have just started my third summer with interns for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, and tonight we had our first online training session. After far too much goofing around (and I can't complain about it, because I participated in it!) eleven interns and myself got down to business through Go-To Meeting, even though we were spread out from Santa Barbara to Long Beach to Escondido to Barstow. I love technology...

One of the books we are reading together is titled This We Believe by Will Willimon, and we started with these words from the Introduction: 

"Do not attempt theology at home! You can't do faithful Christian theology on your own— thinking about God is a group activity." 

We spent some time talking through this thought in light of what we would be doing together each week in our training. It set the stage for a tremendous hour and a half of spirited discussion (and laughter, of course) around several different topics. I was buzzing with energy when we signed off! It is part of why I really enjoy working with young adults -- their energy, questions, and earnest hope is so contagious. And it definitely keeps me feeling young.

I thought of our collective exercise in God-talk as I spent some time afterward chipping away at a whole other book entirely, one that has really got me wrapped around its finger. It's called The Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman. I'm quite positive I'll be writing more about this book soon. I cannot even begin to sum up what it says, and it would be a great disservice to try. I will say that Wiman is saying things about faith, doubt, belief, grief and God that I have never encountered. Part of it could be due to the fact that though this is a book of essays, he is primarily a poet. His gift with language is frankly stunning for me at times. It is both thrilling, and daunting. Take a risk and read it for yourself. I really don't think you'll regret it.

ANYWAY... these two statements from the book hit me tonight:

Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair.

In fact, as I've said, this is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself.

Chew on those for a few moments.

Tonight, during our intern training, I mentioned that the plan to "think about God as a group activity" makes sense especially in light of the fact that the Bible is what I call a "plural document." In other words, the Bible was not written to individuals; essentially, all of the "you's" in the Bible are in second-person plural. It is a community document, to be read (and listened to) in collective worship and study. Certainly, we benefit greatly as we read the Bible on our own. But we can never forget that it is addressed, from start to finish, to the people of God. I illustrated my point by taking a well-known passage from Philippians, asking them to hear it as it was written, addressing the entire church at Philippi:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (1:3-6)

We all agreed that we have received those lovely words in a card or inscription in a book... and while they are personally inspiring, they take on incredible meaning when we think about them in terms of a community of believers. Because then, the inspiration comes in being so connected with God's people as he weaves and binds us together in this crazy process of growth and partnership. As Wiman tells us, we are moved from despair to truth, life and hope. Glory.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What is Leadership?

I have had a great week, and it's only Wednesday! On Monday I finished launching eleven summer interns into ten-week ministry projects that are located from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and then coached a team leader in the Midwest who is guiding a ten-member national team doing social media and all forms of digital communication. On Tuesday I met for several hours with a married couple who are co-pastoring a 108 year-old church in Los Angeles that they just moved to... The church started as historically Anglo, and now has three different services meeting on campus every Sunday: one in Spanish, one in English and one in both Cantonese and Mandarin! Today I met with a woman who is mentoring youth pastors all over the Los Angeles area, and then met on Skype with two pastors in Seattle area.

The ages of these people range from 20 to 45, but they all have one thing in common: they are leaders. I love identifying, raising up, training and walking alongside such leaders. Not only does it bless me to hear about their ministries and challenges; it also keeps me sharp in my own learning and growth.

Despite years of experience, I know I still have much to learn. So I am a sponge for all manner of books, articles, seminars and wise mentors. But last night I was reminded that Jesus is still my best teacher. In our home group we spent some time reading through Luke 9:1-17, where Jesus sends out the disciples to start learning how to minister. As it says in the opening lines, he "gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal." Sheesh -- no big deal, right?

After reading this passage on our own and sharing our impressions in our study, one person pointed out something I had failed to notice, that really blew my mind... she noted how the disciples are described in the whole section:

  • Vs. 1: "Then Jesus called the twelve together..."
  • Vs. 10: "On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done."
  • Vs. 12: "The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him..."
  • Vs. 14: "And he said to his disciples..."
It is important to read through the passage yourself to see what happens, but in a nutshell: the twelve are sent out to extend the ministry of Jesus by casting out demons, healing diseases and proclaiming the kingdom of God; the apostles come back with glowing reports of what happened; the twelve are tired after a long day and want the crowds of thousands to be sent away; and the disciples are schooled in what it means to truly care for people.

It would be fun to really dig in and do some extended word study on each term. I do know that the "apostles" are the "sent ones," and the "disciples" are "learners" or "pupils." In our group we enjoyed seeing the arc of the disciples' leadership development in a very short span of time -- they went from being empowered and sent out to being humbled and needing to learn... again and again and again.

I'm here to report that, through repeated trial and error, I have discovered that this cycle will never end! As we grow in faith we are empowered and sent out, but we will stumble and trip as we go. The question is not if, but when

Surround yourself with people who want to be apostles and disciples. Learn from them, learn with them. And study the life of Jesus together for the best training possible. 

(For further study and learning, I have also grown from the pursuit of spiritual disciplines. Here is a set of articles on the twelve classic spiritual disciplines that I wrote last year...)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Give Us This Day

In the last four years I have been reflecting on the story of manna in scripture. If you're not that familiar with it, it is in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 16. The Israelites have fled Pharaoh's oppression and enslavement, and are being led by Moses through the wilderness.

Though they have every reason to believe in God's care for them at this point (having seen miracle upon miracle through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, described in the preceding chapters of Exodus), the Israelites do what all of us do when things don't go the way we want or expect: they complain. They are hot and hungry, and it feels like they are in a desperate situation.

In spite of their lack of faith, and their whining, God provides for them. He gives them meat to eat, and "a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground," that "was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey." The Israelites called it manna, which according to a couple of Bible encyclopedias I looked at, derived from the words "What is it?" (man hu) They could boil or bake it, but they would only receive enough for each day. If they tried to hoard it, it would rot.

Right around this time in 2009, I was in transition. I had moved out of one position I had had for about fifteen years. Unfortunately, this decision was made right before the economy completed tanked, and job hunting was not a walk in the park. This is what I wrote then in this blog:

I am waiting upon God's timing and provision for work these days. It is a daily discipline, and more and more I am seeing how little patience and faith I truly have. I am used to having a plan and making things happen. But for now, I have a clear sense that that is exactly what I am not supposed to be doing.
Instead I am growing, very slowly, in learning how to pray about things daily, with open hands. And this week, I discovered another way to cultivate reliance on God.
Food. That's right. Through food.
To save money, I started relying more on the stockpile of food in my pantry, which was more than adequate, but which wasn't always filled with what I wanted to eat on any given day. I also started to eat seasonally. This is how I described it a couple of years later:
I love, love, LOVE red bell peppers and could eat them every day. And in 2011, I can eat them every day, thanks to hot houses in South America and semi-truck trailers hauling food all over tarnation. But I choose to eat red bell peppers when they are in season where I live. By eating seasonally I am reminded to enjoy God's provision in God's timing. Sometimes he gives us things to enjoy, and sometimes he asks us to wait. And it is often in the waiting, and anticipation, that I learn how to deeply enjoy the things he gives me.
Sure, eating seasonally in May is FUN... tomatoes are coming out, farmer's markets are filled with peppers and zucchini and loads of luscious fruit. Yessss! But in January, when there is not much good fruit to be had and the dominant vegetables are turnips, celery, kale and kohlrabi, it's much more challenging. I want to jump ship, cruise through the frozen food section and eat what I want. 

But if I can hold to it, through prayer and self-discipline, what I discover, ever so slowly, is that if I follow the principle of manna and learn how to eat what God provides rather than what I want, a foundation develops in my soul that then is able to receive the other things that God provides... circumstances, relationships, disappointments, changes, you name it. In other words, God used the experience of manna to teach the Israelites to rely on him for every thing, every day. This fosters faith and dependence and intimacy with God.

So these past four years I have been trying to learn from the Israelites in Exodus 16. Rather than complain about anything that is not to my exact liking, what if I seek to gather only as much as I need each day, rest on the Sabbath and "draw near to the Lord" (vs. 9)?

But on vacation recently, I discovered some new things about manna. I was reading through the Gospel of John and came upon the feeding of the 5,000 (verses 1-14). I was just about to skim over it because yeah, how many times have I read this story? Then I remembered I was on vacation, and decided I wasn't in a hurry.

Immediately after the feeding, Jesus withdrew from the crowds to be by himself. Then he walks on water to rejoin the disciples. All in all, a rather exciting day, right?

But look what happens next:
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 
If I really want to keep learning about manna and reliance on God's provision... oh my. For the first time, I realized that the feeding of the 5,000 was (in part) an object lesson for the disciples, to connect the miracle of manna, something that had been memorialized for centuries by Israel, with Jesus. Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 was a foreshadowing of the remarkable sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; similarly, the provision of manna in the desert, which sustains and nourishes Israel for forty years, was a foreshadowing of how Jesus himself meets our most basic needs... IF we rely on him each day. In other words, while the stuff of life meets our physical needs, it is only Jesus who meets our deeper and more significant needs -- emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, eternally.

As I grow in relying on him day by day, may I not stop at simply enjoying the blessing of a full stomach; may that satisfaction be the reminder that only he, the giver of all good things, is ultimately satisfying. It is Jesus himself for whom we hunger and thirst, and every thing else is a mere substitute.