Let us Ramble: Holy Movement

I have been working through some books lately on spiritual formation. One of them is “Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life” by Henri Nouwen. I am finding it a rich feast of a book which is written to people of all sorts. I highly recommend it if you enjoy a good deep book!

I found myself pumping my fist to one particular passage on the ninth page. Henri Nouwen writes:

“Those who live lives worthy of their calling have been ‘reborn from above’ and are able to see with the eyes of faith and hear with spiritual ears. Their lives of discernment are characterized by single-mindedness: they have but one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things. In the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, they live the truth and seek to ‘come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (John 3:21 NRSV). Such persons are so caught up in God’s love that everything else can only receive its meaning and purpose in the context of that love. They ask only what questions: ‘What is pleasing to the Spirit of God?’ And as soon as they have heard the sound of the Spirit in the silence and solitude of their hearts, they follow its promptings even if it upsets their friends, disrupts their environment, and confuses their admirers.

People reborn in the Holy Spirit with spiritual understanding come across as very independent, not because of psychological training or individuation but because of the fruit of the Spirit which ‘blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes’ (John 3:8). Spiritual rebirth is an evergreen openness to let the spirit of Jesus blow us where it pleases.”

At various times in my career I have been accused of being too quick to bolt out the door to situations beyond my understanding. There’s some truth to the accusation, but I have to admit that sometimes people love that I have this tendency. I will be praying and I will feel a need to call someone and I will call at just the right moment. I once felt the urge to pull into a hospital and went into the wrong entrance where I met a colleague whose wife had just been admitted in need of a prayer and a hug. The Spirit definitely blows where it pleases and I find nothing so exhilarating as coming across the Spirit at work! I have come to embrace that part of my spirit that loves hearing that quiet voice.

This sign is sitting in our church garage. I want to mount it over my desk!

Of course, this tendency to be always on the move is a very Methodist kind of tendency. Read the Book of Discipline of the UMC and you will eventually find the historic examination put before every Elder before full admittance into ministry. In ¶336 of 2016 Book of Discipline you will find the 19th examination to be in the hard-coding of ministry for United Methodist pastors. That examination asks

: “Will you observe the following instructions? Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary…do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.”

I believe Nouwen’s evergreen openness to the Spirit works very well with the historic nature of the Methodist circuit riders. When the road and the circuit used to be before you there was a world of possibility with infinite opportunities. Encouraging circuit riders to never idle away the time made sense. Again, this was not meant to be done in fear of God’s anger but instead to aid an easy conscience in the minds and souls of those called to ministry.

Nowadays, I think that these words are often lost in our culture. To believe that we should never trifle away time is something this is bucked against even within religious circles and the idea of never spending more time than necessary someplace is beyond most of us in the ministry world. Between office hours, worship slide creation, bulletins, and other things that tie us to a desk it can be easy to see why such thoughts of intentional movement are beyond most of us. We are often ensnared by the very things meant to help us accomplish ministry!

There is a part of me that misses the idea of intentionally seeking that disruptive still small voice of God. Let’s be honest—I long for that voice on a regular basis. Do you long for that voice? Do you thirst to know what pleases God and feel passionate about joining into that great ministry? If so, my friends, I invite you to listen, to seek, to discern, and then to follow.

Let us Ramble: The Will of God and Disappointment

So, I am coming up to the end of my paternity leave. I have been spending a lot of time caring for an infant, two older children, and their mother over the past two months. There has been time for bonding, time for cooking, time for laughing, time for crying, and a lot of time for reflection while changing diapers.

In the midst of this time of leave, I have been reading a number of books. One of those books is Simon Tugwell’s “Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality.” Tugwell’s book begins rather strongly with some strong words of admonition. Tugwell speaks of the many moods that the church has held over the span of her life. In my own words, it seems that Tugwell believes that the church has been timid, self-assured, arrogant, humble, bold, and headstrong at different points in her life.

With all of these moods in her past, in times of crisis there are often a myriad of directions in which she can wander. I do not find this particularly shocking as I too have a myriad of directions that I can travel to when under stress. Sometimes I snap at the stressor, occasionally I shrink back, sometimes I have patience, and sometimes I will do something completely different. Tugwell, on the very first page of his work, makes the admonition that in “a time of confusion like our own, when people become disillusioned with the church and with christianity, should be a salutary, educative time, when we face the facts.”

Tugwell proceeds to point out that the church must struggle through questions and seasons of disappointment. I believe there are two reasons why Tugwell is correct in inviting us to confront our disappointment..

First, as Tugwell himself argues, the church is not about fulfilling our hopes, dreams, and ambitions. As a minister, at moments I daydream of coming into a packed church which is filled with parishioners on a Sunday morning. I know lay leaders who have dreamed of people begging to bake for coffee hour or for acolytes who will always light the candles perfectly without any need of guidance. Many people have hopes, dreams, and ambitions about life in the church, but Tugwell is correct. The church of Jesus Christ does not exist to fulfill our own will, but “is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.”

What does that mean? I do not believe that means forcing our views on others, but it may mean realizing the things we desire and the things that God desires are often very different. I might want to have a perfect acolyting moment every Sunday, but that child who cannot walk without assistance may be called by God to have a role in lighting the candles. Involving her might mean doing something different, like setting up a temporary ramp or assisting her up the stairs. Allowing her that role in the life of the church may cause us to end church five minutes late. Are those five minutes my time or God’s time? My view of what should be may have to go unfulfilled and that can be disappointing. My view of what should be might have to be discarded entirely, but the church of Jesus Christ does not exist to do my will but God’s will.

Second, hinted at by Tugwell, but not entirely fleshed out, is another reason why a church following Jesus might be frustrating and frustrated. Tugwell, while referring to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Antioch, writes on the third page of “Ways of Imperfection:”

“[Jesus] is our true life, and apart from him we are only ghosts, masquerading as human beings but lacking substance. Faith is the beginning of life, but this has to be fulfilled in charity, and this is a practical matter, involving generosity to others, patient endurance of insults, gentleness, and above all else, belonging to the church, in communion with the bishop and his clergy.”

If Jesus is our true life then we are called into newness. I had professor in undergrad named Dr. Casey Davis who always spoke about the “already and not yet.” Christ is our true life and in Christ we have circumcised hearts! We are already living into that new life but to be entirely transformed has yet to take place. We will live into the fruits of the Spirit fully and completely. We have already begun but the complete fruition of that task has yet to be accomplished. We are already becoming more like Christ but that transformation is a process that can take a lifetime and usually longer.

Disappointment is necessary because we are living in an imperfect world as imperfect people. We should face that disappointment and imperfection with open eyes and courageous hearts. Despite our best efforts, we are but ghosts. Our righteousness is like a rag compared to that of Christ. The church is disappointing at times because it is full of people on their way towards Jesus. When the church is purified and enters into glory, she may lose everything about her that disappoints, but we are still on the journey. Tugwell is right to invite us to be aware of our situation.

So, what if we look at disappointment with the church as an opportunity? What if we find places in the midst of our disappointment to find the will of God? Where are we being led? What opportunities and adventures lie in our future when things are not perfect? Where is the voice of God leading us? What can these up and down moments on the journey teach us about the will of God and where we should be led?

One last quote from Tugwell this morning. On the seventh page, Tugwell quotes the writer of the didache as saying: “If you can carry the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. If you cannot, do what you can.” What if instead of focusing on our challenges, we do what we can?