Thursday, April 26, 2007


The retreat I anticipated at the beginning of this week has been fulfilled in ways that I couldn't possibly have imagined. The interior work of the Spirit has run deep...deeper than I've yet experienced. In fact, the Spirit has taken up rather obvious residence in the deepest recesses of my life, faith and ministry and begun to take the sheets of the furniture and raise the shades on the window. The dark and dusty depths are being exposed to the light. Even though these areas that have been covered over a long time are now revealed and I suppose I should feel a little vulnerable, instead I am rejoicing at this. With the light has come liberation.

This work can be centered around once concept...Surrender. This has been the theme for the day. In the morning I considered the nature of my striving and my struggles in faith and ministry. I considered how the need to prove myself, particularly in stressful and challenging times, and what becomes a sliding off in my spiritual practices demonstrates a fundamental lack of trust in God, in others and in myself. The word that kept coming up was "surrender." I came to terms with a truth that I have known and preached and was able to apply for the first time to my own deep need. The times that I am least inclined to surrender and most likely to hold things closely and go my own way are the times I most need to surrender.

This afternoon as we were considering spiritual practices of leadership and in particular spiritual practices in the area of conflict new insights were born. I've long struggled with and argued with myself about my own predisposition away from conflict. I had to come to terms with my own fundamental errors in regard to conflict in the church. There will never, ever (at least on this side of heaven) be a time when conflict will not exist in the church. Christ himself reminded us of this. There is no way whether by leadership acumen, force of will, depth of spirituality or force of personality that will stem this tide (I knew that, but I chose, instead, to believe a narcissitic fairytale). Into this came surrender. Suddenly a spiritual practices approach to conflict became a concrete way toward submission.

I continued my walk, praying my breath prayer "Shepherd of the Flock--show me Your way." I reflected on the vision that God was springing forth in my life and I continued to reflect on surrender. As I walked and communed with the very obvious presence of the Holy Spirit, the weight of surrender began to grow. With each step, surrender and the thought of it became more and more a burden.

At that moment the most amazing transformation took place. I began to recall the joy, the exuberance and the sense of liberation that flowed out of the healing and release that I had experienced yesterday. It struck me in that moment that surrender was not a burden to carry. It is laying down the burden of feeling that I need to be the focal point of ministry, that I needed to be the catalyst for change and that the success and failure of the church was not dependent on wholly on ME!! (I already new this, too; I just wasn't sure I believed it). That was the burden that I needed to lay at the feet of Christ. That is what has been tripping me on my journey. That is the burden that I am called to lay down. That is what I must surrender. This surrender is what will enable me to take the next steps where Christ will lead me.

Shepherd of the Flock--Show me Your way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Escape or Retreat

As I fly high above California's Central Valley on my way to the 7th week of the Academy for Spiritual Formation the question of escape or retreat is beginning to focus my awareness. I had noble intentions to post last week. I had a wonderful reflection on the book of Ezekiel, which I will probable post in the future. Life and death got in the way of those intentions. Monday began with the tragedy at Virginia Tech University. The week became increasingly impacted as each day passed. Pastoral care needs grew as parishoners entered the hospital and one returned home from the hospital with hospice care. By midweek it was already a full week, but it was not over. I caught wind of a threat at one of our local high schools. It was a graffiti threat invoking the memory of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999. The threat was eventually deemed a hoax, but the emotions were already raw given the events in Virginia and the growing reports of campus and workplace violence across the country.

The sermon that I had intended to preach about the transformational power of the resurrection was taking on new and very real dimensions. Bearing witness to the power of the resurrection to continue to transform lives was becoming more and more necessary as we became increasingly confronted with the pain, grief and brokenness that was expressing itself in violence across the country.

Thursday's early morning sleep was interrupted by a call to the home of a church member whose adult daughter had been murdered in her home by her estranged husband, who then took his own life. This crime was witnessed by the couple's three children. I have been concerned about family violence for a number of years. I have, in my previous congregation, held annual domestic violence awareness events to raise people's consciousness about the epidemic. I didn't realize how much I'd back burnered this ministry until I was confronted with the pain of this family. It became very difficult and much more real than it had ever been as I ministered to this family.
I have arrived in San Francisco now and am sitting in a Starbucks enjoying a relatively quiet moment in anticipation of the beginning of the week. As I feel myself begin to unspool from the week's events I'm working through the conflicted feelings of whether I'm "escaping" or "retreating". There is a significant part of me that could very easily run away from this. I think about the Bob Seger song, "Against the Wind" where he speaks these words that cry out from my heart today: "I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." I could be content with keeping these tragedies, this kind of violence at arms length...someone else's family, someone else's congregation. I suppose that there is a certain amount of sanity and normalcy to a comment like this. But I also realize that that train has left the station. I do know now what I didn't know then. So I guess one could make the argument that escape is simply not possible.
Therefore, if escape is not possible what do I do with the idea of retreat? Retreat feels different. It isn't desertion. It isn't a permanent state of separation. It is not withdrawal with no thought of ever returning to the fray. As I begin this week my only thought is to take a deep breath. I want to slow down enough to breath in deeply the Spirit and the Spirit's power. I want to draw into my soul the Spirit's healing and wholeness. This is a time to rest a little, retool, resupply and reorient myself. One of the things that I know about myself is that I can very easily develop a bunker mentality. I sharpen my focus and narrow my field of vision in order to address a crisis. It happens quickly and almost imperceptibly but I have found it very difficult to break out of it without some kind of retreat.

Last week was a seminal week in my life and my ministry. It shook me in a lot of ways. By the grace of God, I have an opportunity this week. I have a retreat laid out before me and I pray that I might experience the grace that I will need to grow into this new experience. This is not simply a prayer for myself. It is a prayer for my church family. It is a prayer for all whose lives have been touched and forever altered by violence. It is a prayer for all those who are searching for a new way through.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Is Monastic Community Possible?

This may seem like an odd question in the early 21st Century. In our highly individualist culture this may seem an inappropriate question. The prospect of living in cloistered communities, under order, taking spartan vows and living in poverty may seem completely out of step with post-modern culture; however, I believe that there are important lessons about the modern church that we can learn by taking a fresh look at monastic life.

There has been a lot of evidence in the media about a growing trend toward narcissism in the society at large. I’ve seen emerging evidence of a “me” culture and the obsessive drive toward personal satisfaction. From user defined content on the internet to a consumer driven culture that packages patriotism with material consumption we are being sold on the notion that we owe it to ourselves to satisfy every desire. This culture is creeping into the church. I’ve seen a creeping trend toward a satisfaction-based commitment to the church. What I mean is this: As long as a person is satisfied with what they are getting from the church everything is fine. When something happens to destabilize that satisfaction some will leave in search of a church that will satisfy their needs. The Church of Jesus Christ, the Body of Christ, is not built on a satisfaction-based model. The church is fashioned by the work of the Holy Spirit and through our unparalleled commitment to Jesus we come into alignment with that Body that exists independently of us.

In the last few weeks I’ve been reading through the monastic rule of Benedict of Nursia. This monastic rule has established a community of faith that has existed for more than 1500 years. This rule raises commitment to Christ to be the first and unequaled commitment. No other human want or commitment can compete with this commitment to Christ. This is an austere path to community, but given the current trend in our culture, there may be something to be said for this sort of commitment. While Benedict’s call to physically live in community may not be part of Christian’s calling, we can live in the spirit of that kind of radical commitment to Christ in which we put our commitment to Christ and the community above our own wants.

As I’ve read the Benedictine Rule, I’ve been confronted with some of my own shadow side. As I’ve lamented the emerging satisfaction-based commitment to the church, I’ve realized that the ego-centric roots of a consumer culture church have been present in my own life. I’ve labored with my own sense of entitlement about what the church should be like. I’ve come to the difficult realization that simply because I am the Senior Pastor I’m no more entitled than anyone else to have my wants satisfied. Since I have no intention of leaving and I can’t expect all of my wants to be satisfied, I’m forced to come up with a middle way. I’ve known for a while that the church wasn’t about me and my ego but this represents a much deeper learning of that truth. It’s been relatively easy to not invest my ego in the church when things were going fairly well. It has been in times of conflict that I realized I haven’t completely taken my ego out of the equation.

Through reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and reflecting on my own frustrations and anxieties I’ve come to understand more completely that the Church, the Body of Christ, exists independently of us. The Church exists before us and it is not our creation. We don’t shape the church. The Church was created through the work of the Holy Spirit as the means by which God calls us out of our sin into a life of faith. Through the Baptismal Covenant we become initiated into the community that existed before us. It is pure hubris to expect the church to conform to our wishes. It is our faithful work to bend our wishes and wants to the community through our singular commitment to Christ…even for pastors this holds true. I can not expect everyone to be on their best behavior and to fly in formation all the time.