Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Millennials and Mission: A Moratorium

I'm ready to stop talking about Millennials. I couldn't even tell you how long it's lasted, but for years now, every week, I see at least one blog post with "6 Reasons The Young People Are Leaving Your Church" or something like that. Everyone shares it, and we ministers read it and wonder whether we need to start scrambling to adjust our church culture/worship style/social media strategy to the winning approach that is supposedly going to fix this problem, and get younger people filling our buildings.

I'm beginning to wonder if the the big problem with Millennials is not that they haven't accepted our values, but precisely that they have. At least, they've accepted the implicit ones. With our words we said God is important, while our actions often taught otherwise. The message has come through loud and clear that when it comes to personal fulfillment/success/achievement/acceptance, these are essentials without which your life won't mean anything. God is good, but God can wait. In walking away from church, the next generation has simply done what many of the previous generation implied they ought to. But enough about Millennials. Really.

I want us to think about the actual directions these conversations have tended to move churches. When we are in a constant state of pandering to any people group, we are operating from a position of scarcity, and our primary goal is the survival of our institutions. We talk about gloom and doom. We despair over how the church can survive at all if it isn't the majority, controlling the economy and politics of our nation, and we forget Jesus' own language about the church being a narrow path that only a few would find. When churches are caught up in a panic about institutional survival, they hoard money and resources, they make desperate pleas for people to stick around (though they are unable to verbalize why anyone ought to), and above all, they don't take risks. The focus turns totally inward, and it can easily become a hotbed for accusations and tensions, because it eases our consciences if we can find someone to be at fault for what threatens us. We have far too many conversations about who we are trying to attract and hang on to, and far too few conversations about why it is we need them in the first place.

Let's remember the kind of God we serve. Our God was, is, and will always be a God of hope and action. God delights in releasing people from what enslaves them, and healing the wounded. Jesus explained the focus of his ministry by referring to Isaiah 61, that captives would be set free, that the poor would receive good news, and that a time of the Lord's favor would be proclaimed. As Jesus ascended to the Father's right hand, having risen from the dead, he established a mission, that good news would be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, that people aren't stuck in their plight, and that God is at work in redeeming people's lives, even now. We participate in this mission by leading people to faith and baptism, sharing with them the teachings of Jesus, and teaching them how to walk in his footsteps as disciples.

In general, I think we would do well to get away from using language about God "establishing the church." Before the church, there first came the mission, and the commissioning of the church was to fulfill that mission. Wherever the people of God are, because of their willingness to be available to God and God's purposes, good things should start to happen. In the way that salt seasons and preserves, Christians enhance and solidify the best parts of a community. In a way that light shines in the darkness, Christians live so passionately into God's mission that their loving presence is conspicuous. Christ's promise was that we would have abundant life, and the scope of that promise is as much about the present as it is about the future. We are in the work of saving souls, but we are just as interested in redeeming lives. In fact, the two concepts are really inseparable. We prepare best for the next life when we embody in this life the values and ideals by which we intend to live in the presence of God. In other words, "On earth as it is in heaven."

Rather than get caught up in counting our attendance, or fretting so much about what is going to "get more young people in here," what if we started making note of places within our communities, schools, and occupations where there is brokenness, hopelessness, or injustice? Who near your church building is working a dead-end, minimum-wage job, with no options? What if you got to know them, and tried to really understand what life is like for them? What if we committed ourselves to serious efforts to help the lost find hope and better life, regardless of whether they gave us some sort of allegiance in return? What if we undertook such large efforts to partner with God in redeeming what is broken in our world that the only way we could fulfill this mission would be to invite others to help us in the endeavor? What if we started including people to help us in our efforts who don't even know the Lord yet, so that they can learn through their experiences along side us what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Would they finally start to think about eternity when they can see it living within our hearts and overflowing into our actions?

I don't doubt I'll continue to be mindful of how churches can best connect with Millennials, or whatever generation it is that we are supposed to panic about next. I don't pretend that I'll quit noticing things like attendance and contribution at church. But I really hope that first and foremost, we will get completely caught up in the things that God can do if we make ourselves available for his use. If that results in new Christians--and I know it can--then terrific! But let's stop doing things simply because of a desire to placate a certain type of person or to save our institutions. God isn't going away, nor is the mission for which he created his church. God will finish what he has started, and we glorify him best when we do our part to help bring his work into fruition. If we're going to attract anyone to our churches, let's let it be because we have such a large vision for the good of the people around us that we need the extra help. Let's let it be that God's love in our lives is too evident to ignore, and they can't help but wonder what's making us the way that we are. Let's be so committed to the mission that we continue to pursue it, whether or not they show up. We love people because God has loved us, and not because of what we hope to get in return from them.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Review of From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the Not-So-Monastic Life by David Srygley


My friend David Srygley has a new book out on spiritual disciplines. As one committed to the importance of these practices, I was excited to read it, and I'd like to review it here.

Srygley, David. From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the No-So-Monastic Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Westbow Press, 2014. 161 pages.



Dr. David Srygley is the pulpit minister for the Arlington Heights Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. His book, From Cloisters to Cubicles (hereafter CtoC) developed as a result of his doctoral research for his Doctor of Educational Ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Some doctoral dissertations, when developed into books, can be too technical for an average reader to be able to read with much benefit. I was pleased that Srygley avoided this pitfall. He has included two appendices at the end of the book that contain more of the theological and pedagogical paradigms he is trying to underscore in his project. So for leaders and thinkers, the brainier stuff is still there, but he made a good decision by putting these resources in the back, rather than making them the introduction.

CtoC contains a helpful introduction to the study, and is followed by thirteen chapters that describe different spiritual disciplines. With each chapter, his goal is to bring a practice from merely an activity in isolation--as if within a monastic cloister--to the regular, daily activities of the person implementing the practice--more like a workplace cubicle. The disciplines he covers are: prayer, study, meditation, fasting, simplicity, solitude and silence, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

What makes Srygley's approach unique is that he takes a decidedly missional slant on the role and purpose of the spiritual disciplines. He states in his first chapter, "Spiritual disciplines are not for escaping the world; they are for engaging it!" (emphasis his.) I was pleased that Srygley never steps outside of this framework from chapter to chapter, consistently urging the practice of the disciplines in ways that can be integrated into one's daily routines, balancing internal and external focuses.

Srygley's material draws from a series of classes he presented at Arlington Heights as part of his research, and is written in a way that is intended to be used by the average church member. All chapters end with both discussion questions and journaling suggestions, which is an interesting way to integrate the ideas. Srygley acknowledges his indebtedness to Foster and Willard in particular for the "toolbox" and "textbook" on spiritual disciplines from which he draws. He engages their ideas, but CtoC is not merely a regurgitation of what Foster, Willard, and others have already done. Srygley makes a valuable contribution by encouraging a holistic use of the disciplines that, while interested in helping Christians connect with the divine, does not lose sight of our engagement with the world around us.

The book has few shortcomings, but there are a couple of areas I would humbly suggest. The chapters are all well-written, but fairly brief, and some leave the reader wishing for a bit more. Having said that, because his goal is to engage people who are new to the disciplines, it was important to keep things simple and digestible, even if a bit too brief at points. The book will make a fine starting point, but someone wanting to go further will need to continue seeking more resources. Also, one small point on style: Srygley is an enthusiastic public presenter. Sometimes for energetic speakers, in their effort to write enthusiastically they overuse exclamation points, which I felt occurred a few times. (My own tendency to do this makes me aware of it.) Happily, neither of these things is significant enough to diminish the book's usefulness.

In the future, I would like to see Srygley share more about his experiences in trying to help his congregation implement these practices. He has a passion for the importance of living an intentionally Christ-centered life, with a heart both for bringing the lost into the fold, and helping Christians to mature. I'm excited about what he's already done, and I believe he will continue contributing to this valuable conversation.

In summary, From Cloisters to Cubicles is a great first step for someone who (1) is completely new to spiritual disciplines and wants to have them explained in simple terms, (2) has some working knowledge of the disciplines and is looking for ways to integrate spiritual disciplines into daily routines, or (3) is looking for material to use about spiritual disciplines in a church class setting. I'm grateful to David both for his friendship, and for the good resource he has created in writing this book.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Forming a Rule of Life

Following up on my previous post about taking a personal inventory, the Rule of Life is a great tool for implementing healthy change in your life.


All important parts of life require planning. A lack of planning almost guarantees a lack of good development. This is true of sports, child development, education, and retirement. It is also true of our growth in Christ. Paul said as much in I Corinthians 9:27:
“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Rules of Life
The word rule derives from the Latin word regula, from which we get words like “regular” and “regulate.” Having a Rule of Life is a way to organize your life to ensure that you are doing what is necessary to keep your faith growing and your character strengthening. 

A Rule of Life really centers around two questions, which it combines into a third question:
1. Who do I want to be? 
2. How do I want to live? 
3. Put these together and you get: "How do I want to live so I can be who I want to be?"

Developing your own Rule of Life

Every person’s Rule of Life will be a bit different, as each of us have our own life situations, schedules, strengths, and weaknesses; all of which should be considered as we lay out a play for how we want to live. A good Rule of Life is thoughtful about life rhythms daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. Here are some questions you should ponder in thinking about what elements you want to include and how often. 

1. When I want to be closer to God, what do I typically find most helpful?
I addressed this in my previous post. Every person has some ways that naturally help them feel closer to God. 

When you put a plant near a window, you have to rotate it fairly regularly to keep the plant from becoming lopsided. Why? Because plants grow towards what give them life. We are no different. 

Begin by thinking about what for you is life-giving
A typical list of personal spiritual disciplines would include: 
Solitude, silence, prayer, reading Scripture, examining your conscience, confession, honoring your physical body (health & exercise), sabbath, fasting, journaling, fellowship, and worship.  

2. What are problem areas in my life, and how can I change them or redeem them?
What is taking life from you? What is making you feel empty and discouraged? These things don't come from God. 

All of us struggle with sin, and with tendencies that make us weaker in our faith. Most of us are painfully aware of what sins we struggle with. In addition to allowing time to pray about and repent of our shortcomings, it can be helpful to search for disciplines that move us to do the opposite of what weakens us.

For example, if you struggle deeply with gossip, it would be worth having deliberate time set aside to be silent in God’s presence, practicing the virtue of holding your tongue. If you spend a great deal of time fretting over relationships and how other people bother you, it would be good to have time set aside for regular self-examination where you focus more on what needs to be kept in order within your own life, and how you might affect others.

Another approach is to think about how we can learn to harness what is affecting us negatively in a way that helps us to grow. For example, a young parent might have very little opportunity for solitude or silence. The constant activity of young children could be a hindrance to spiritual growth, if the parent is seeking to grow primarily through silence and solitude. But if instead, the parent re-imagines time spent with children, it can be a source of growth. “Children are close to the heart of God, and when I spend time paying attention to how my children’s hearts work, it helps me to understand God’s heart better.”

3. What activities will stretch me as a Christian?
This relates to question one. Most of us have areas toward which we naturally gravitate. Introverted people find the disciplines of silence, solitude, and reflection very appealing. Extroverted people find fellowship, worship, and acts of service more appealing.

In addition to making time for what you naturally like to do, it is helpful to think about what areas of spiritual growth come less naturally to you, and commit to regularly experimenting with one or two of them regularly, as a challenge to yourself. 

The introvert may need to have a time each month where he or she experiences deeper fellowship with other Christians, or is involved in acts of service that require being out and about. The extrovert may need to learn how to be alone with God, with times of deeper reflection on Scripture.

I was called out on this in a class a few years ago. Each of us had to develop a rule of life, then share it with two classmates who would give us feedback. I thought I had put together a perfect plan, but my classmate kindly pointed out to me that 100% of my plan I could accomplish by myself. As an introvert, I realized I needed to grow in the area of fellowship and service. This will likely never be the primary way I relate to God, but I know my commitment to participating in disciplines that are less natural to me will help me to be a more empathetic and well-rounded Christian. 

4. When in my life can I realistically make more space for God?
Think about what times of the day you can start living differently. Do you greet God when you wake up each morning, or do you head straight for Facebook? How about meal times? Bed time? 
What days of the week could be reclaimed as opportunities for growth? Are there other scheduled events in the year around which you should plan to spend more time?

5. Who will hold me accountable for growing in Christ?
As you develop a plan for how you want to live, it is important to have a person or two to whom you will be accountable for living by this plan. In addition to planning times of prayer, journaling, reading, and personal retreats, I line up people who will be spiritual companions for me in the next year. I try to always find one person I want to mentor me, and another whom I desire to encourage. I arrange to meet with each of them on a monthly basis for the next year. Often, we agree to read a book or two together over the year to give us something to share about. It has produced some really meaningful friendships for me over the last few years, and deeply blessed my Christian walk. 
This is not to be a rigid, legalistic endeavor, but a flexible one, where you do the best you can, knowing that even if you miss some of your plan some of the time, you are still moving in a better direction because you have done so deliberately. Is there a person you could get with regularly for mutual friendship/sharing/mentoring as you both strive to be better Christians?

Forming a Personal Plan
The goal in this exercise is not to overburden yourself. The goal is to help you take some deliberate baby steps in implementing rhythms into your spiritual life that will help you grow towards your goal of being like Jesus.

The best Rule of Life is one that you will actually practice. Don't try to come up with a plan that Jesus himself couldn't live up to. Plan something that you really can do, and are willing to commit to. This Rule of Life practice is not for the purpose of creating a new Levitical code to provide you with a source of personal guilt. Sometimes you'll fail, and that's ok. Give yourself the grace of a new start and try again, and if you need to, revise the rule of life to work better for you.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” - Luke 6:40

Think about how your better life will look on a normal basis. Your personal Rule of Life should finally end up in a form like this (filled in, of course):

DAILY I will:
WEEKLY I will:
MONTHLY I will:
QUARTERLY I will:
YEARLY I will:

For me, I learned that the only way to make sure I'll follow my plan is to schedule it on a Google Calendar; the same way I schedule all other important life events. 

If we are going to live better, it won't happen on accident. Be responsible for your life, and commit your plans to the Lord.

Happy New Year!

Mark

The Contemplative Preacher: Taking A Personal Inventory

If as Christians we desire to grow, then growing requires changing. It is important that we give effort to the ways in which we want to change. Here on the last day of the year, it is a good time to take a personal inventory.

The simplest way to do that is to use an Ignatian-style question and ask yourself:
1. What for me has been life-giving?
2. What for me has been life-taking?

If, as James says, all good things come from God, then the things in our life that are from God will be helping us to live with purity, integrity, courage, peace, joy, mercy, and all other fruits of the Spirit. Things from our enemy will call us towards a life that is divided, secretive, selfish, frustrated, discouraged, and vengeful.

Part of making personal goals for a new year will necessarily involve removing from our life what is not from God and replacing it with the good things that do come from knowing God better.

Each person has their own characteristics that distinguish them from every other person.  Even twin children, raised by the same parents, in the same house, in the same town, at the same school, attending the same Church will be different people.  Without a doubt, our differences affect our congregations.  We’ve all seen contention where people of opposing preferences have a hard time reaching a middle ground.  Each of us has different ways that we prefer to respond to God, and we should be considerate of our fellow Christians’ needs.

Here are some of the ways that people feel close to God:

THINKERS
These get close to God by reading the Bible and other books.  They feel that they’ve heard a good sermon if they learned something interesting.  Some Biblical Thinkers would include Paul, Daniel, and Isaiah.

PRAISERS
These get close to God by worship.  They love to think of Heaven in terms of the awesome praise they’ll get to help offer up in the presence of God.  They feel it’s been a good worship service if people really got into the singing, and the prayers were meaningful.  Biblical Praisers might include David, Moses, and Mary the mother of Jesus.

CREATION-LOVERS
These really love beauty and aesthetic things.  They may struggle with the temptation to skip church and go camping instead, because for them, God is closest when they are in nature.  Why can’t we have worship outside more often?  They love to forward e-mails of pretty nature pictures, and to experience God’s majesty through His artistry.  Biblical Creation-Lovers might include Jesus, David, and several of the apostles who had been fishermen.

WITHDRAWERS
Some people feel like they can’t really be with God unless they have a quiet place.  They are naturally inclined towards contemplative prayer.  When they get “alone time,” they emerge feeling energized.  Biblical Withdrawers might include Jonah, Elijah, and Jesus.

FELLOWSHIPERS
No matter how much time you spend together, Fellowshipers wish you didn’t have to go your separate ways.  Being with other Christians energizes them.  They like attending worship services, but they live to talk to people before and afterwards.  They thrive on relationships.  Biblical examples of Fellowshipers might be Barnabas, Joseph, and Mary (Martha’s sister).

SERVERS
Some people need to be caring with their hands and to show compassion.  Ministries like Meals-on-Wheels are a perfect fit for them.  Biblical examples of Servers might include Tabitha (Dorcas), Abraham, and the Good Samaritan.  

All people are made in God's image, and can help us grow by learning different ways to feel connected to God. I'm sure most people would fit into more than one of these categories, as I know I do.

In my next post, I'll be talking about developing a Rule of Life, which is a plan for how you intend to live. For now, though, you might spend some time thinking about the ways you naturally do feel closer to God. It's important to allow space in your life to do what helps you to know God is near. Beyond this, I think it's equally important to find an area in which to push yourself that does not come easily to you.

I prepared this self-survey a few years ago to help people discern the areas they are most drawn to and the ones they are least drawn to. I'd encourage you to download it, print it, take it, and then see how the results sort out for you.

Spiritual Disciplines Preferences Survey

To receive blog posts in a newsletter form, feel free to subscribe here

Blessings,
Mark

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: The Word in Different Flesh

In my previous posts, I've talked about looking at Scripture in small chunks. Here I want to talk about looking at Scripture in ways that bring out the larger picture. 

It can be refreshing to experience Scripture in physical forms that are different than the traditional black, small-font, leather-bound book. There's nothing wrong with this format, but as its intention is to fit a lot into a small package, there are limitations to it. It doesn't lend itself well to note-making. Also, if you spent a lot on a Bible, you don't want to mess it up with ink that bleeds through those thin pages too much in certain places, or comments too full to allow space for future comments. 

Here are three ways I've been trying to bring Scripture out of the traditional bound book so that I can have different kinds of interactions with the text.

Method 1: Out Loud
As simple as it sounds, there is real benefit to reading Scripture aloud. I now do this with every book in preparation to preach from it. Until you give it a voice, you might not pause to consider many of the sounds and emotions involved. "When Jesus made this statement, did he speak quickly or slowly? Was he happy, angry, or disinterested?" When you try to give a voice to the words, it forces you to put yourself more into the passage. 

As you are reading out loud, it helps you to notice refrains. You'll more likely remember a similar phrase from an earlier passage when you are reading large chunks aloud in a single setting. 

One of the best aspects of reading aloud is that you cannot skip over anything. If you commit to verbalizing every word, you cannot stick only to the familiar or favorite parts. All receive at least some of your attention.

Of course, audio Bibles can be useful for this also, if you can avoid letting yourself tune them out with other thoughts. I've found audio Bibles to be especially useful in studying Proverbs. Where I rapidly jump from verse to verse, it is refreshing to have to listen and wait for a narrator to let you progress to the next bit of wisdom. One great way to get the Bible out of its binding is to return it into a spoken word format, as much of it was originally given.

Method 2: Mega-Scroll


In the last couple of years, my good friend Les Chapman showed me a method he uses for in depth Bible study that has been really helpful to me. He prints out the entire text of a biblical book, then tapes all the page edges together with clear packaging tape. Do all your taping on the back side. Also, it is good to apply a line of tape all along the outer most edge of the entire scroll, as it helps it to hold together and resist tearing.
What this gives you is a printed version of the Biblical text on paper thick enough for really making notes. In preparation to preach, I like to read through a book multiple times. I will experiment with reading through for different purposes, each time using a different color to make highlights of a certain emphasis. 


For example, I'll use one color for words of admonition, another for words of warning, another for Old Testament references, and another for descriptions of actions or deeds.
The benefit of the large scroll is that you can really see connections between passages that would not otherwise be visible to you. 


Sometimes I print the text plain, and do all the highlighting by hand. Other times, I do a lot of it in the document I'm preparing of the text, then supplement it by hand. The Revelation text in the image I prepared on my computer, then added to by hand. I had it on display in the teen classroom as we studied Revelation, and it was really helpful for them in understanding the flow of the book, and things like the patterns of seven. You can download the full Revelation text as I prepared it for printing here. Look at the last page of the document for a key to how I used different colors in preparing the text.


At Kings Crossing, I have been preaching through James. Here is the full text of James I printed, then read through multiple times, looking for themes and points to highlight. On this particular text, I opted to include no verse number or divisions, forcing myself to decide what I believed the logical breaks and transitions were. It's a healthy way to immerse yourself in the text.

The most ambitious scroll I ever created contained all of the minor prophets. This was a whopper that took up an entire bulletin board on a classroom wall. Originally, these books occurred together on one scroll called The Book of the Twelve. I wanted to read the minor prophets together in light of each other, and this method really brought out some fascinating connections. For example, themes emerged from the endings of some books next to the beginnings of others, making the thematic, rather than chronological arrangement of the Minor Prophets seem very intentional. Also, Hosea and Malachi create bookends through their emphases on marital fidelity and divorce. These are things you notice when you can look at all of the books at once, rather than flipping through small pages as you go.

Method 3: Printed Pages

For a less ambitious version of Method 2, there is still great benefit in printing out the biblical book on nice paper, and putting it in a binder. A recent Kickstarter project called Bibliotheca has attempted something similar to this. Though I intend to buy a copy, there's no real reason to have to spend so much when you can do your own without much trouble. 

I like using BibleGateway.com for this, because if you click on the little gear next to the Scripture, you can choose options such as whether or not you want the text to have headings, verse numbers, or footnotes. I copy and paste all the text from the website, having selected my text version and options.

When you paste it into a document, you have great options, such as creating huge margins for notes. You can pick a font and font size that is especially pleasing to your eye. Removing verse numbers and headings will help you read passages in context, rather than letting scholars guide you into what should be considered a section of thought. Play around with it!

These are some ways I have found helpful in seeing Scripture more in context, keeping the larger picture in mind. What methods have been helpful to you?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Tending a Sermon Garden

I want to share with you the way I've approached the weekly task of creating sermons, because I think for anyone in any sort of teaching/planning/presenting role, there are some things here that might be helpful.
To begin with, if you're going to be teaching with any regularity, you are always better off to have a plan. I have my sermon texts, titles, and general directions selected as far in advance as I can manage. I try to lay out entire series plans long before I'm in them. Right now I've been preaching through James. Here is a link to download the plan I worked out, then sent to my song leaders and secretaries:
https://app.box.com/s/iknq148bs6bqjcu47zj5

I committed that I wanted sermon preparation to be enjoyable, and not a frantic task at the end of every week. Whether you're preaching or teaching, I recommend that you try starting a garden for your lessons. Here's how this works for me:

In my desk, I have four folders. They are labeled:
- This Week
- Next Week
- In Two Weeks
- In Three Weeks

In each folder, I have one large notepad that I have titled at the top for the lesson plans it will contain, and the date which I will present the particular lesson.

I have carved out a regular time that is only for sermon preparations. For me, it has worked well for that time to be Monday morning. The secretaries know that for me it is study time. I generally go in before anyone else arrives, and I forbid myself from checking e-mail, turning on the computer, or even looking at my phone.

For the next hour or two--however long you are able to set aside for serious study--I use a kitchen timer to set my parameters, and begin working on my next four lessons, one at a time. Functionally, what this does is ensure that on the week I preach a given lesson, I will have already been thinking about the passage for a month, with three weeks worth of ideas. Each week I am encountering four different texts at various stages of their sermon development.

It breaks down to something like this for each individual passage:

Week 1 - 20 minutes. Taking a clean notepad, I label the top for the date, text, and title I've selected for the lesson that is three weeks away. I then shift all the notepads up one folder. So the one that was for "Next Week" is now placed in the "This Week" folder. As I am beginning a new text, this one will end up in the "In Three Weeks" folder. I always begin with preparation for the lesson that is furthest away, moving up folder by folder until I get to this week's lesson prep.

I spend a few minutes in prayer, then read the passage several times in the Biblical text and jot down all my first impressions on the first page of the notepad. What questions do I have about the text? What ideas does it bring to my head? If I have time, I will branch into a popular level commentary to get a few direction ideas.

Week 2 - 15 minutes. I read the passage in the Biblical text. I do not look at any of my notes from the first week, and I brainstorm again for whatever pops into my head as I've done the reading. I write these down on pages behind the ones I had written last week, never comparing the two. I will spend the majority of my time studying some textual aids and commentaries to begin fleshing out some other people's ideas about the passage.

Week 3 - 15 minutes. I read the passage in the Biblical text. I will spend time with a more scholarly commentary/textual notes and flesh out more scholarly research on the passage, adding their insights to my notes. As I read, if ideas hit me about ways to preach the material, I'll jot those down. I am now in more of a research phase than a brainstorming phase.

Week 4 - 30 minutes. I read the passage, paying more attention than usual to its larger context. I then read back over all of my notes from the previous three weeks. Most of the time, at this point, it is time to try and select which bits are most useful in flowing together as a sermon. I mark all of these in my notes, then make a page behind the others where I briefly write all of the major chunks of thought that I believe can connect well in a sermon form. Over the rest of the week, I finish out any study I need to do, the sermon outline and slides, and begin practicing.

Each of these times is governed by a small egg timer, so that I don't get too caught up in one passage and neglect to get work done on other upcoming lessons. When the timer goes off, I stop, file the notepad, and move on to the next one.

The real strengths of this sort of method are:
- You shield yourself against the dangers of abnormally busy weeks with unexpected stressors. You aren't bound by a need to get all your study done this very week.
- You have allowed yourself time both with and away from the passage in between brainstorming. This gives you a wide variety of ideas to pull from.
- You have a better sense of where you are going in future weeks, and can make plans for any special ideas you have or visuals you want, related to lessons you want to give.
- You spend more time in reflection on Scripture every week. Because I do this first thing on Monday mornings, it has really helped me to set a tone for each week, and to make opportunities to pray before I get into the grind of e-mails, visits, and everything else.

I like to think of this method as tending a sermon garden. In four weeks' time, I always have many more ideas than it is possible to use for a single lesson. I am therefore able to selectively grab the best of what's there. When I preach this material, I have already been living with it for a month. I believe it goes a long way in helping to make my sermons smoother and better formed. Also, this method works just as well if you aren't speaking every week. Even if this is a monthly rotation for you, if you go ahead and always work on the next four lessons at a time, you'll be ahead of the game. When you tend a garden regularly, it really does yield better fruit.

For now, this has been working well for me. When you prepare lessons for teaching or preaching, what has worked well for you? How do you plan and prepare well?


Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Ears to Hear

The way you hear Scripture underlies most anything else you would do for the sake of your faith. I've been grateful for the ways I grew up learning to hear Scripture, as well as for some new ways I've been tuning my ears to listen.

The ears I grew up learning to use were rational ones. There are things that this kind of hearing does well:
- You pay close attention to information, hanging onto names, places, times, facts, and details.
- You place a heavy importance on discerning a singular "meaning" of the text you're reading, showing great respect for the author's intended meaning in the author's historical context.
- You keep your brain engaged, ensuring that the elements of faith to which you cling are likely to have an intellectually honest basis in your life.

Growing up in churches of Christ, we have adopted this way of reading Scripture almost exclusively. Since our central goal for reading Scripture was to discern what the early church taught and practiced, we developed a tool for applying Scripture--our hermeneutic--that is precisely aligned for this goal. I think more than any religious group, we have thought deeply about providing a simple platform for church worship and structure that anyone can agree is well within the realm of what the early church would seem comfortable practicing. I like the idea that if Paul showed up at my church this Sunday, it would mostly feel like church to him. (I grant there are several elements that probably wouldn't fit within that mold, but a lot would.)

As a minister, I went through a really dry spell with Scripture. Scripture contains some rules and directives, but not all of Scripture is intended to be a set of rules, a blueprint, or a map. Once I had all the "facts" down of what was said, and all the specific rules figured out, there wasn't much else to do with Scripture. As I've grown in a more contemplative direction, I've come to love some aspects of Scripture that do not fit well within the rational mold of hearing the text. Specifically, Scripture does some wonderful things with mystery, joy, and imagination.

Here are some passages to consider:
- Ephesians 3. Paul is noticeably infatuated with the "unsearchable riches" of Christ. He can't get over his excitement of this "mystery" of who Jesus turned out to be. This has been shared with us, though generations of holy people were never privileged to see God the way we've seen God through Jesus. Later in this passage, Paul prays that the Ephesians can gain in knowledge of a certain type. Not just that they would memorize lists of kings and judges, but that they could know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Think about that...to know what goes beyond knowing. Scripture invites us to understandings of God that go deeper than the purely rational. This also leads us to wonder what God might be up to in our congregation, and in our time so that we, too, can experience knowledge of God that cannot be transmitted purely as a set of instructions.
- Jude 24-25. This passage is a doxology; an expression of praise. Sometimes God's overwhelming goodness moves us to praise him. (And if we didn't, the hills and rocks might anyway.) Joy doesn't need to instruct; only to proclaim heartfelt truth.
- Revelation 12. This is the story of the Gospel told in the literary form of myth. Talk of women with crowns of stars running from dragons just doesn't fit well into a rational reading; specifically one that is preoccupied with what rules are being given in any text. It is possible to analyze this text to death, but I think Revelation 12 is meant to be read much the way we would enjoy C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. You see the story of Aslan being put to death on the stone table, and it has the power to move you to tears. It isn't a historical story, but it's an absolutely true story, understood through the eyes of faith. Some things are so true and so powerful that they are best expressed with stories and metaphors, rather than explanations. This must be part of why Jesus preferred to teach in parables.

I could add things to the list like the Psalms and much of the prophetic poetry. Scripture engages our minds, but it also invites our emotions and imaginations to the table, because God is bigger than any of them can contain.

Here are some ways I've been trying to approach Scripture with ears tuned a little differently.
- In addition to reading for instruction, I read for formation. 
I used to be rigorous about daily Bible reading plans that were very goal oriented. My goal was to complete reading tasks, which for me took on its own form of mild idolatry: achievement. I often forgot what I read, but at least I checked it off the list.

I now tend to select smaller portions of Scripture, and read them repeatedly. Sometimes I spread this over multiple days. Think about the description of Jacob wrestling with God when Jacob said, "I won't let you go until you bless me." I continue to hang on to the passage, trusting that God's spirit-inspired Word is a well that won't run dry, no matter how many times I return to the same text. Amazingly, that's been true.

To start hearing Scripture differently, don't allow yourself to keep moving too quickly. Be willing to dwell with a smaller passage for more time. Read and re-read. Listen for a word or phrase that seems intended just for you, and be open to how God might be working on you through it. Sometimes it helps me to print off a Scripture on a single page so I can't give into the temptation to keep moving past it.

A great question to ask is, "If this is what God wants the world to be like, what will I have to do differently?" or "What is God calling me to through this text?"

I now don't begin textual or historical-critical research on any passage until I have first experienced it contemplatively. Listen to the text first as if it's God talking to you, then after that, enhance your understanding through good techniques of study and application.

I have started trying to experience Scripture communally, rather than privately.
Most Scripture started off as documents intended for a faithful community to hear together. I have been working the last couple of years at inviting other Christians to join me in contemplative listening. Rather than starting off with dates and historical backgrounds, we spend a minute or two praying silently. It's helpful to make space in your heart for God before you listen to God's word. I will have a couple of readings out loud of the same text while everyone listens. After we've heard the text, we will ask some questions like, "As you have been listening, what spoke to you from this passage?" "What is God helping us to imagine our world could be like?" Before we listen for instruction, we listen for what resonates with our hearts and our present places in life.

I've been doing this with my elders as we start our meetings, and it has been helpful to create a more spiritual approach to the things we talk about. When you let your imagination get caught up in God's imagination before you move on to the nuts and bolts of congregational life, you tend to see things with a better perspective.

We spent the last two months in the elder meetings, beginning each meeting with a reflection on the very same few verses from John 10:1-9. Amazingly, every single time our observations went in different directions, and fresh insights continued to surface from the same passage over multiple exposures. It's a passage about Jesus as a shepherd, and might be the most helpful study on shepherding I've ever done. There were no external sources brought in to the conversation; just committed Christians, listening intently to the word, and sharing together what we're hearing. The more we get in the habit of seeking God together, listening together, the more we become a true community of believers, and not just a set of private thinkers.

Scripture isn't just mine or yours; it's ours.

In a future post I'll share some ways that I'm dwelling with texts more contemplatively in preparation to preach and teach. Are there any ways you've refined how you listen to Scripture?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Resisting the Culture of Busyness

I'm now a couple of months into a new ministry setting. I have spent a lot of time in the last few years studying contemplative spirituality, and trying to implement spiritual disciplines with regularity into my life. The Doctor of Ministry program at Lipscomb has been especially effective in helping me to connect spiritual disciplines with ministry practices.  

Having spent a few years thinking about what a preacher's life ought to look like, this new opportunity in Texas has been a fresh chance to try to put my convictions into practice. One of the greatest challenges I've encountered so far has been the stark contrast of a contemplative way of life in the middle of an overcommitted culture whose effects are deeply rooted in congregational life. People are drowning in responsibilities, demanding bosses, overcommitted children, and everything else under the sun.  

We had an excellent class in our Faithbuilders group last week about the perils of busyness. One of the passages we discussed I have been trying to adopt as a model for spiritually-centered ministry.
Mark 1:35-38:35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”

It is really counter-cultural for us to choose time alone with God while "Everyone is looking for you." Even as Jesus had many opportunities to perform more miracles in the towns where crowds were already gathering, he opted to move on and keep preaching in new places. I believe he must have done this in part because he was experiencing a clarification of mission and purpose during his time alone with God, and therefore deciding how he would use his time. Jesus lived by acting instead of by reacting. 

A couple of weeks ago, the elders honored a request I had made as I began this new ministry. I asked that every year in the fall I be granted one week without any teaching responsibilities. The purpose of this week would be for me to pray, to read, and then to plan some for what I should preach in the following year. If God is to speak through my lips to his people, I must listen much before I dare to speak. I invited the congregation to pray for me and the elders as we would dedicate time the following week to seek God's path for our congregation. 

During my week, I had a harder time than I expected finding solitude. But as a result of my searching, I was blessed with a couple of new locations that have already provided great options for these purposes whenever I need them.  

After my week of prayer and planning, I resumed preaching. I was really humbled by how many people let me know that they had sincerely been praying for me during my time of preparation, and even long before then. But I also had a telling moment when a couple of gentlemen joked with me about my previous week. "It must have been nice getting paid without having to do anything." The people who said it are friends, only humor was intended, and no offense was taken. I was grateful for the reminder of the culture I'm preaching to. They provided me with clarity about the value that people generally place on prayer and contemplation. Specifically, very little.

People will tend to think:


  • If "keeping busy" is a sign of personal virtue, then the preacher--if the preacher is virtuous--must be the busiest of all. 
  • If hard work is what determines one's worth, then the preacher must be the biggest workaholic in the room; obsessed with getting things done. 
  • If prayer is nothing more than a benevolent yet ineffective thought, we should quit praying so much and tend to all these people who are looking for us. Praying's nice, but do something instead! If everything depends on you, you can't miss an opportunity.

And so respectfully, and gently, I am trying to be a leader who embodies the values that I think our culture is missing, even as people may resist or be puzzled a bit along the way. 

  • I am committed that praying might be the most important work that a minister ever does--if the minister is a righteous person!--and I will give time to prayer before I try to rely on my own ability to solve problems. Like the apostles, people may occasionally interpret prayerfulness as laziness, but I hope to be the kind of person that only a prayerful life can produce.
  • I am committed to being a spiritually-centered person, who can thoughtfully choose the God-directed path like Jesus, rather than constantly chasing the multitude of expectations that never cease. 
  • I am committed to being present, so that wherever I am, I am in the moment, valuing the people God has placed in my path, and being mindful of the significance that every moment contains when it is used for the purposes of God. No conversations need be insignificant. Coupled with this, I accept that I will not manage to be everywhere at all times with all people, and will sometimes fail to do everything that people will wish I would do. 
I can post just as much about my failures to achieve these things as I can about my good intentions. Even so, I'm going to make a few more posts about some of the nuts and bolts of what I've been doing here in Texas, hoping that some of them might provide you with some fresh ideas, or at least some encouragement to remember what you already know is important. I hope you'll respond; I'm a better person through your willingness to share. 

Blessings,
Mark

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Big Changes for the Adams Family

We have some major changes going on in our lives. This morning I stood up at the end of our worship service and announced that I am resigning from my position at Old Hickory, where I have worked for the last 7 years. I have accepted an offer to become the new preaching minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, located in Corpus Christi, Texas. Carolina and I will be finishing out our work at the Old Hickory Church of Christ on the last Sunday in August, and, Lord willing, plan to begin working with Kings Crossing on September 14th.

This has been a really emotional day. We've had lots of hugs and shed lots of tears. I had an especially hard time talking to my youth group, whom I love so much. They were crying and I was crying. Even if we didn't say much, at least we all processed our feelings a bit.

We have been so grateful for our time at Old Hickory. The elders have always taken good care of my family. We have been given a wide variety of ways in which we could serve and grow. They have allowed me to continue my education, and even paid for my Masters of Divinity. They have given me space to do some writing, which has led to me publishing four different curriculum books that I'm really proud of. We have had a great number of volunteers who have showed up and helped with every new idea I've come up with. We have never doubted that we are loved and appreciated at Old Hickory. We are not making this move because we are upset or bothered; it just seems like a great opportunity that we are really excited about starting.

At Kings Crossing, there is a lot we are excited about. The congregation relocated in 2006 to a new building in a rapidly growing part of town. They have some terrific people on staff that I can't wait to work with. The elders have a clear vision for the directions they want to see the congregation go, and I feel very humbled that they believe I can be part of this vision. We believe the congregation has terrific potential, and intend to work very hard to help them in whatever ways we can.

We really love Nashville, and will miss some of our favorite hangout spots; especially watching the Nashville Predators play hockey. At the same time, living 15 minutes from the beach has some strong appeal for us, too. Corpus Christi is a neat town, and we believe we are going to love living there.

In all of this, my family has been so overwhelmingly supportive. It is hard to know we will be so far away from all of them. But they raised me to follow God, wherever God seems to lead us, and I appreciate that they are standing behind us, urging us to do exactly this. They have been completely unselfish about this, and that has given me so much personal peace.

We are not moving away from anything negative. We are trying to move toward something we believe will be very positive. We believe it is God's timing.

I am so thankful for the confidence of the elders at Kings Crossing, and we hope to have many happy and productive years working with this good congregation. This is a major move for us, but we know that God will take care of us and bless us, just as we've always been cared for and blessed, everywhere we have been.

We are so thankful for all of you who have blessed us in our ministry. Please keep our family in your prayers during this time of transition.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tabitha's Hands

If you could go back to the first century, to Joppa, there on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, perhaps you could find a woman named Tabitha. You would be able to spot her because she would be busy caring for someone. All of her friends would have little gifts that she made for them. There would be tunics, shawls, scarves, or veils; whatever it was that women would make as little gifts in those days. You would probably see her encouraging younger women to be faithful to God and to their husbands. You might hear her saying the uncomfortable thing that needed to be said to the person that most needed to hear it. She would have cared too much not to tell them. But I wonder if you could have a look at her hands, what would you see?

Maybe you would see that her fingers are calloused and wrinkled. Maybe arthritis has set in, and her knuckles are protruding due to years of use. Maybe her hands tremble, and aren't quite as steady as they once were. If you didn't know whose hands you were looking at, you might even say they are ugly. 

A few years ago, I was talking with a fellow student about Dr. Jack Lewis, who has given his life to Christian higher education. We were talking about what a brilliant man he is, and how impressive his body of work has been. "But have you seen how thick his glasses are?" they said. "Years and years of reading thousands and thousands of books, preparing lessons and classes. His eyes are worn out, and he sure needs some thick glasses to read now." I guess some people would say that glasses that thick are unattractive. Sure he's smart, but look what it's done to his eyes. 

Some Christians go out in a blaze of glory, martyred for their confession and for their unwillingness to waiver. It happens in lots of places, even still today. But it doesn't happen to many people I know. Our martyrdom comes slower, and is more typically voluntary.

I wonder sometimes if when we speak of "living well," we have it all wrong. When we say we're "living well," we don't just mean we're avoiding evil or putting in a few volunteer hours. We tend to tie "living well" into our culture's philosophy, that your goal should be to make 50 the new 30, and 70 the new 50, and to remain as youthful as possible for as long as possible, because youth is beautiful and we want to be beautiful. When you can't tell that someone is as old as they are, they must be living well, we say. 

But you and I aren't going to live forever. At least, not until Christ raises this body and transforms it into something better. In the mean time, I think the thing that should concern us most is not so much living well, but dying well. Your body has been given to you as a gift, so that you can in turn give yourself to something that is worthwhile. I think about an old woman I knew whose back had become crooked and hunched over after she spent years caring for her ailing husband. Eventually, if you're working hard enough, you'll have the scars to prove it. Your body will bear the marks of what you've been doing with it for all this time. When I am placed in a casket, I can't help but wonder what scars, bumps, and callouses I'll be taking with me, and how they will have gotten there.

When one of God's children is laid to rest from this life, and God sees hands calloused from serving, eyes weak from studying, or a back warped from caring for others, I wonder if God thinks to himself, "I've never seen anything so beautiful."

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."
- Psalm 116:15