Let us Ramble: Solitude, Faith, and Community

A noise tickles my ears as a buzz begins at 5:59 AM. My phone buzzes and begins to flash. I wake up early to check if the paths need to be cleared of snow before the teachers and staff of the church community arrive. After a cold time clearing up the snow with my snowblower and a headlamp, a hot shower to warm up chilled bones, and a hot mug of coffee, I settle at the table with my notebook. Soon, as the eggs bake for breakfast sandwiches for my wife and children, I will find myself digging through the Revised Common Lectionary.

This day I am flicking through the story of Saul being chastised by Samuel for caring more about what his people want than what the Lord required. I write a poem about Saul’s predicament while thinking and praying about what God’s message for Saul says to me as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor. The words are deep this morning as my heart struggles to make sense of the story of God’s chosen one being rejected for his actions. I weigh the passage carefully with others that have been dwelling in my heart.

I find these moments of devotion while the room fills with the smells of cooking breakfast to be sacred. They are not always perfectly isolated. Sometimes I finish my poem while my kids are making cocoa across the room. Occasionally a crying baby will interrupt this time with her needs. It is a time that actually gets interrupted regularly towards the end, but it is also one of the most sacred moments of the day. Even with interruptions, the ground I walk upon in those moments is holy.

In these moments of personal devotion, I sort through my dreams and prayers from the recently passed night. In these moments of personal devotion, I find inspiration that often affects the way I live out my faith life. In these moments of personal devotion, I often find the fuel that feeds quiet prayers for the community which follow. Have I read about love? Standing in the window, cleaning up dishes, I pray with love for the people in my church and community who are in need. Have I read about sacrificing for others wellbeing? I find inspiration to pray for the bus drivers who pass by the window. The personal devotions of my morning feed my time in prayer and help me to do a better job at being a part of a vibrant church community.

Henri Nouwen, in his book “Discernment” wrote (on the tenth page of his book):

“Communion with God alone in prayer leads inevitably to community with God’s people, and then to ministry in the world. But it is good to begin this spiritual movement in solitude…When we are alone with God, the Spirit prays in us. The challenge is to develop a simple discipline of spiritual practice to embrace some empty time and empty space every day.”

For myself, the moments in my day that are emptiest and have space for the Holy Spirit are between checking the paths to see if they are clear and when my children get out of bed. The time that I spend alone with God in those quiet places strengthens my relationship with God. That strength then leads towards others.

Invariably, my time with God tends to lead towards other people. Sometimes my prayers are led towards my family, but more often than not, I find myself drawn to pray for situations around me in the community and in the church. I want to be clear about this fact. My personal devotions do more than inform my prayer. My personal devotions empower my ability to pray. If the spiritual life of a Christian is a river, my time in personal devotion is one of the springs where that spiritual life finds the living water.

When the Spirit prays in us, our lives change. If you look back at a number of the great figures of Christian history, a lot of them speak about powerful moments of connection with God. Some of the descriptions of these moments can induce a blush! These moments of intimacy with God generally did not come out of a place of constant action. If you look, most of these moments come in lives marked by time spent with God. Like any relationship, a relationship with God that is healthy requires time spent together.

So, how do you begin to discern the right time for spending time with God? The first thing I suggest to people who ask me in person is that they chart out their day in blocks. What regular patterns emerge in your daily life? I found myself needing to wake up early to take care of sidewalks for the winter. As such, for this literal season, a period between that daily chore and when the rest of the day began emerged. For some people, there is a lull in the late morning, especially if you are retired or work a second or third shift position. Each person is different and taking a look at your regular patterns can help you notice places that are empty.

Second, if a person cannot find those moments of free time I suggest that there be moments in your day that might be better used doing something else. Back when I tried to engage in evening devotions despite my tiredness, I used to spend my mornings before the girls woke up listening to the news. The news often made me anxious, led to me feeling inordinately stressed at the beginning of my day, and often served more as empty noise than something of substance. I was better served by spending that time with God than spending it listening to the news. I still check the news later in the day, but I first ground my heart and my soul in God before facing what the world will throw at me.

Third, I often suggest that you begin with a simple devotion. There are wonderful resources available through many fine publishers. A trip to a local bookstore will often provide a lot of helpful options. Our church provides copies of the Upper Room Daily Devotional and we would work with anyone who wanted to explore one of the other options available. There are also a number of reading plans available through places like Bible Gateway that can help you to explore your Bible over a set number of days. Even the United Methodist Hymnal has a pattern for daily worship and prayer in the rear of the hymnal. There are many options available.

Fourth, try new things on occasion. If you, like me, enjoy the Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, consider using the Book of Common Prayer for a season. If you enjoy using Our Daily Bread, ponder trying out the Upper Room for a time. If you are going through a dry season, it might not help if that season is supposed to be teaching you something, but if your situation is simply fatigue—a change of pace might help.

What suggestions do you have for starting a time of personal devotions? Have any practices been particularly helpful?

Let us Ramble: Humility and Community

This year in my annual report to the church there’s a strong statement. I wrote in November and revised earlier this month the idea that “ We need to remember that we are a community unified and united in purpose.” I did not make this statement lightly as unity within the body of Christ is one of the most challenging and most important characteristics of a healthy church.

You will notice I did not write the phrase “uniformity” as the goal is one of connection and not utter conformity. Unity and unification around a concept is important for any community, but especially a religious community. To borrow from Henri Nouwen (on the ninth page in his book “Discernment”) we should be united around the idea of our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

There is nothing as antithetical to unification around this desire than arrogance. Arrogance leads us to believe it is okay to ignore God’s call to simple concepts like talking to people instead of about people. Arrogance leads us to believe that we are better than each other or better than those called to particular ministries. Arrogance leads us to engage in a lot of the behaviors that hurt and harm churches.

I think Bernard of Clairvaux puts it well. The saint from the 1100s has been translated (by the Cisterian Order in their 1973 critical translation) as saying “If ignorance makes beasts of us, arrogance make us like demons. It is pride, the greatest of sins, to use gifts as if they were one’s by natural right and while receiving benefits to usurp the benefactor’s glory.”

Now, what’s interesting about this quote is that Bernard prefaces it by pointing out that everyone should know two facts: what they are and that they are not who they are by their own power. Bernard states clearly that everyone needs to know that they are who they are by the gift of God and to accept their role with humility.

Leaders in the church (both lay and clergy) are called by God to places of leadership. They are given gifts and graces to fulfill their role. It is great arrogance to both take these gifts for granted and to ignore the responsibilities that come with them. Bernard warns strongly against dulling one’s blessing by forgetting one’s call and forgetting the purpose for which one has been blessed. Bernard, holding a very strong opinion, writes (pardon the 1970s language of translation)

“When a man, promoted to a high dignity, does not appreciate the favor he received, because of his ignorance he is rightly compared to the animals with whom he shares his present state of corruption and mortality. It also happens when a man, not appreciating the gift of reason, starts mingling with the herds of dumb beasts to the extent that, ignoring his own interior glory, he models his conduct on the object of his sense. Led on by curiosity, he becomes like any other animal since he does not see he has receive more than they.”

Leaders are called to live up to the blessings they have received. One of the greatest challenges that faces me as a United Methodist Elder is the echoes of the words spoken by Bishop Marcus Matthews over me at my ordination. I was told to “Take thou authority…” The bestowed authority is an authority that comes with challenges that are well addressed by this article from Ministry Matters. Nonetheless, it is a promotion that comes from a place of high dignity within my tradition.

On my desk there’s a list of people with arrows. I was ordained by Bishop Marcus Matthews, who was ordained by Bishop James Kenneth Mathews, who was ordained by Bishop Benton Thoburn Badly, who was ordained by Bishop James Mills Thorburn, who was ordained by Bishop Edward Raymond Ames, who was ordained by Bishop Robert Richford Roberts, who was ordained by Bishop Francis Asbury, who was ordained by Bishop Thomas Coke, who was ordained by Archbishop Potter, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Church of England, which was born out of direct apostolic succession from the beginning of the church.

There’s a high calling to the authority that was passed to me by Bishop Matthews. To ignore the weight and the responsibility of that calling would be a great sin. My authority as an Elder in apostolic succession comes with a great responsibility to not only maintain the standards of my office but to lead with integrity the people of God towards our one great and true desire.

Bernard’s words are not simply for leaders though. Believers in the church who are called to follow (both lay and clergy—especially if clergy serve in an episcopally based system or in a system where there is discernment of the body held over the discernment of the clergy) are called to know who they are, where they are, what is expected of them, and to accept the gifts granted to them by God with humility as well. Leaders are gifts from God often sent to teach us things that come unnaturally without help. Do leaders make mistakes? Yes, but they are often present to teach us things beyond ourselves.

As an Elder in that line of apostolic succession, I am also called to be a follower. I am asked to respect the bishop who has been discerned and sent to be the leader of my Annual Conference, am asked to respect my District Superintendent and the clergy who are called to assist in leadership through both the Order of Elders and the Board of Ordained Ministry. I am called to respect the Annual and General Conference, the Book of Discipline, the Book of Resolutions, and even to consider the non-binding words of the Council of Bishops with respect. I am called to participate in the life of the Conference and to use my voice, but I am also called to be a part of a system that is larger than myself. I am even called to consider the advice of the folks that I am called to lead, even if obedience is not required in that last situation due to the traditions surrounding both freedom of the pulpit and the role of the pastor within my church tradition. The calling to be a follower is as integral to my leadership as my call to be a leader.

In both these roles there’s a role both for knowledge and humility. Bernard writes:

“We should, therefore, fear that ignorance which gives us a too low opinion of our selves. But we should fear no less, but rather more, that which makes us think ourselves better than we are. This is what happens when we deceive ourselves thinking some good is in us of ourselves. But indeed you should detest and avoid even more than these two forms of ignorance that presumption by which you, knowingly and on purpose, seek your glory in goods that are not your own and that you certain are not in you by your own power.”

Bernard (in context) is talking about more than just physical goods. Bernard previously calls accepting praise for the spiritual blessings and spiritual roles that God has granted and gifted ability for to be no less than vainglory, which is excessive pride and vanity. Goods in Bernard’s view are more than just physical things. All that we have is given to us for the glory of God. When we claim anything as rightly ours by our own hand, whether it be a pair of jeans, a work of art, or a paycheck, then we are missing the point of why we have what we have in this life. To tie it back to Henri Nouwen, we have what we have for our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

It is the greatest arrogance to take what we have been given for this one purpose and to use it to do the exact opposite. God is love and calls us to love. If we turn what God has given us to purposes of hate, isn’t that rightly named demonic? God calls us to care for the least of the children of God. If we hoard what we have from God to the detriment of those who need us to be the hands and feet of Christ, isn’t that the very heart of arrogance? Aren’t such acts drawing away or usurping the very glory of our one true benefactor?

When we are blessed by God we are called to live for that one true desire. When the Holy Spirit works and weaves within us, the tapestry is meant for God’s glory. When the Son grants us life and a place within the family of God, we are called to follow his teachings instead of our own.

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.