Tag Archives: ministry

Loving Local

One social justice issue that College Avenue Friends Church cares about especially deeply is hunger. You can see this in the many among us who volunteer at the local ecumenical food cupboard, in Jan Palmer’s Take Along Lunch program that helps hungry kids get through the weekend, and the Oskaloosa Summer Lunch Program that I especially want to highlight here. The Summer Lunch program was pioneered by a wonderfully Christ-like woman named Martha Comfort, who launched and directed the program on a volunteer basis for its first three years. It became a non-profit under the umbrella of the United Way of Oskaloosa and because of the high poverty levels in our community it is both fully reimbursed for every meal by the USDA, as well as is not required by them to ask the children for proof of their neediness. It now has twelve sites in the Oskaloosa area. Martha recently stepped down from the program as she graduated from a graduate program in social work and plans to pursue further ministry in the new doors God has opened to her in a slightly different direction.

At a Golden Circle program (a monthly small group for senior members) the winter before last, Martha came and told us about her program, and immediately I wanted to learn more about what it would take to become a site. College Avenue sits of course right next to the Friends Park, the shadiest park in Oskaloosa on a hot summer day, and its recently updated play structures and sand pit are the perfect place for large groups of kids to play. Historically CAF had its Jack and Jill preschool whose legacy is readily seen in our facility’s ample kitchen and nursery, which is a wonderful plan B location in the case of rain or bad weather.

After finding out all that was needed was a small about of food safety training and a few volunteers, and all we really had to do was show up and love on the kids and serve them, we started last year out as a smashing success. Lunches were served MWF from noon till 12:45 with a fifteen minute craft or game following. Martha brought a bunch of donated sand buckets to give the kids at our first launch last summer and the first day we had around thirty kinds having a blast in the sand box! I mostly did the activities and picked up the food, and got a chance to meet many of the kids in the neighborhood and minister to them. One child known by many of the neighborhood kids had died tragically from an allergic reaction to the anesthetic from a simple tonsil removal, and though I was not technically allowed to proselytize because of federal funding, the kids knew I was a pastor and I was of course free to respond to their questions.

I knew all of this work was worth it when I saw the kids enjoying hospitality together as equals free of the poor kid stigma I grew up with, as well as mothers enjoying each other’s company in a welcome break from the isolation that comes with small children. Also, many of these kids did come out in the fall for our movies in the park, and I remember one day walking over to the church when seven kids riding their bikes all greeted me gregariously shouting “Hi Pastor James!” when before, they might not have even realized a church met there for worship or recognized me at all. Seeds of love were scattered very thoroughly last summer, and I pray some of these relationships that started last year will continue to deepen and grow, and of course come to discover that Jesus is at work.

This year our Peace and Social Concerns committee at CAF is beginning to gear up for launch May 31st. This year, my wife Liz will be the head cook of the program, and we recently built a weatherized bulletin board in the park to help communicate to people in the park opportunities they will have to experience the love of Jesus at work among us. Liz is especially suited for this work and has been gifted to serve in the area of hospitality. Her degree from George Fox was focused on equipping her to start a restaurant, and she spent three years as the head cook of Barclay College. The amount of volunteers that showed up and worked hard to bless these children is truly inspiring and there are many ways to get involved for those who have interest.

God’s heart for justice is clear, but not all justice ministries need be perceived as overly political. I believe most what is needed is eyes to see those in need in our community and compassion to serve. There are many tangible ways of ministering to the hungry that are very practical and dead simple, and perhaps even fully funded in some cases. All that is sometimes needed is a space and a helping hand. Love has to be shared, and I believe, must be seen in the form of action. How might we as the church better share the love of Jesus with those who are hungry, and perhaps build relationships where their spiritual hunger may also be addressed? It is my conviction that the more one knows God, the more one recognizes His love for the least, the lost, and the last. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and it is the natural response to first loving God. When someone asked Jesus who was their neighbor, he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. Let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see what God might dream for our neighborhoods, and our world!

Agape,

James


Failing Forward

potters-handsJesus said to the church, as he left this world, to “go and make disciples.” He said more than that, but for a second I want to wrestle with a little of what that means. A few quick points up front though: ancient people often gave more weight to what was said at the end of a person’s life. This means there is good reason to think this should be taken as the most important thing Jesus wanted to impress upon us. Next point, though it is often called the Great Commission, in the original Greek this is clearly a command. It is not a suggestion, it is not to be seen as one option among many. This is something God has not only revealed from His will, but something He expects our wills to conform to. And the last thing to get out up front, is that the word for disciple, mathetes, has at its root the idea of being a learner. Being a disciple at its core has to do with learning the way of Jesus, literally doing the things Jesus would do. This requires the heart, a deep commitment and passion for growing in the way of Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit. It requires the mind, an openness to taking the word of God into ourselves and letting it change us. And it requires our strength, there is work to be done. It requires us to live differently, to grow some spiritual muscles and respond with spiritual reflexes. It takes all of us. God will settle for nothing less.  

I have spent a lot of time reaching out this year. I really appreciate the Quaker understanding of “released” ministry, which often has released being used in a financial sense, but I also truly believe a pastor should not be “chained to a desk,” but should be out where the people are. I know that reaching out is a crucial thing, something that is a part of the calling of every person in any every church. It keeps us sharp. It helps us see where God is at work. As clear as the importance is of reaching out is, discipleship is more concerned with what to do when that reaching out actually grabs someone.

God has revealed to us that He is seeking disciples. This is not the same as converts. It is not the same thing even as church attendance. Jesus is offering far more than a regular opportunity for weekly worship. We, of course, DO want people to come and be a part of our fellowship. We do want people to worship with us and be a part of our Sunday morning community. Church attendance alone, however, is not the only metric of discipleship. It probably isn’t even the best metric. It is completely fair to ask the question, if not that, then what is?

I think a person who has embraced becoming a “learner” of the way of Jesus, is primarily concerned with relationships. Relationship with Jesus is first and foremost, but this can’t just be a “God and me only” thing, growth in Jesus happens personally, but also corporately. It is a corporate, not private, faith to which we are called.

Three kinds of corporate relationships are commonly emphasized in discipleship: First there are mentors. Who do I see as a mentor in my life? Thinking in terms of age may or may not be appropriate here. A person could be older and not spiritually mature. But a mentor is not necessarily older as much as more mature spiritually, but even that isn’t quite there yet. The person has to be growing and sharing the wealth of that experience. A mentor is someone who is actively investing in others, concerned about their development. Often this is a “Barnabas,” a person who encourages and challenges people to grow. So who is that person to you? Who is your Barnabas? If you don’t have one, who would make your list of people to ask? Often we have more to lose by not asking, than we do by asking. Who wouldn’t be flattered someone else saw maturity in you they wanted to seek out for themselves?

Next are peers. Peers are people actively growing but who are much closer to the same place of maturity. Small groups and accountability partners are intentional forms of peers, but there are unintentional peers as well. Peers are the easiest kind of relationships because we feel like equals. We often have the same affinities and interests. We feel the most comfortable around our peers, because they are the most like us. Peers walk with us. They are like a “guide alongside.” Perhaps the biggest problem with discipleship in the church is that we are content with surrounding ourselves with peers, but the truth is that God has more growth for us than we can get purely from people who are like us and we feel secure around. It is to “poke the bear” to say it that pointedly, but some things just need to be said.

Lastly is relationships with the people WE are mentoring, people we are actively investing in. To be a disciple is to embrace becoming a disciplemaker. Jesus had the three, the twelve, the seventy, and the multitudes. Imagine how much stronger the church might be if we each had even two mentees in our lives? Again, this does not have to be a physically young person, but a spiritually young person. It would go a long way toward making disciples if each of us could do a bit of soul searching about who we would choose to invest in.  Jesus had twelve he was actively investing in, people he took along with him. He chose them specifically for this purpose. This means choosing is a part of it. We can’t invest in all people equally, so we might consider striving for some old fashioned Quaker simplicity. We have to learn to say no to the right things, in order to say yes to the right things that God is calling us to do. Sometimes that is people in our own families. Sometimes it might be someone with similar interests, or similar spiritual gifts, or just people we see potential in. Sometimes we might need to prioritize “chemistry,” people we find a kindred spirit in. Sometimes it might be simply a burden we have for another person. Sometimes it might be the person to whom we feel a call to simply try and do the most good we can.

Discipleship is not a formula, some kind of “one size fits all” kind of deal. Human relationships are messy things. I do want to offer some wisdom that has stuck with me about the changing roles involved in discipleship:

1) I do, you watch

2) I do, you help

3) You do, I help

4) You do, I watch

There are various things this process could be applied to, but at its core it is about empowering others by passing on opportunities for growth in the way of Jesus. It could be used just as easily in a bible study setting as in a stand alone project together. Too often we just throw people in the deep end and see if they drown. We ask someone to take over a responsibility and we step back, but we offer very little of the middle two roles. The trick is in letting go of control. We want to short circuit the whole process by stepping out too quickly. This is, whether we realize it or not, just throwing people in the deep end of the pool. They need to be guided through this entire process. They need to be invited along and empowered. We have to be very intentional and put the time in in each of these roles, or we will never get to see the torch actually get passed. It might just be a fumble that burns both the parties involved.

I know many people in the church are diehards who would “go down with the ship” if need be. They have served faithfully for years, shouldering many burdens and responsibilities. Out of love for the church they have kept tight control—quality control—over the work of ministry. We justify this with a lot of fears, perfectionism, and talk of the Lord’s desire for us to strive for excellence. But let’s get real, the work of discipleship is intentionally “working ourselves out of a job.” Quality control, at many points, prevents discipleship. It is disempowering, because we are not raising up disciples and passing on experiences that help others grow. We are hogging them to ourselves because that way we don’t have to be afraid. That way we minimize risk. That way we can feel needed, important, busy, and indispensable.

But whether driven by fear or laziness, self serving motives or a sincere desire for excellence, if we do not share the power we have and give people room to fail, and help them pick up the pieces and learn, we are not only not being obedient to the very purpose of the church; we are ensuring a big storm will come that will bring the steeple down in a thunderclap. In not taking others along, and not doing the hard work of empowering others, we are setting up the generation after us to be “in over their heads” even more than we are. The way the world works today, young people are fragmented, disconnected, and unstable in many ways. There are few mentors, few mentees, and a whole lot of peers trying to pretend they have it all figured out. But young people today are not being taught things many older people take for granted, things as basic as how to manage a household, balance a checkbook, even cook a meal. No one has time for this, because it is easier to just do it ourselves so we know what we are getting, and it is faster to do it ourselves anyway.

Our society is very much a society where we throw people into the deep end. But Jesus is calling us to more than this. How can the church through God’s grace offer something better? Jesus invites us to a deep and abiding relationship, and he is inviting others through us to the same—and really, he has used others to bring us this far all along the way. How can our lives live into this reality? How can we be people who God uses to do for others what those who came before have done for us? How can we invite people into relationships where we can share Jesus? Where we can connect youthful, reckless passion and seasoned, hard-won wisdom? How can we let go of control, and use our power to bring others along, and bring them up in the wonderful things God is doing through a church at its best?

These are important questions, questions I will be wrestling with the rest of my life. But make no mistake, it is not about who shows up to worship as much as it is about God, and where God is at work. Weekly worship is a wonderful thing, but it can’t be the only thing. Jesus did not say, just before ascending to heaven, “Come ye into the sanctuary once a week, sing a few songs, listen to some preaching, and try to drag others along kicking and screaming if need be.” Jesus said “go and tell” not “come and see.” Jesus said make disciples—life-long learners of the way of Jesus, not converts—people who gather once a week to say hi to their peers.  Jesus does not ask us to squeeze a bit of God time into our overflowing lives, as they are bursting at the seams… he invites us to become like him. He wants us to grow in being responsive to the call of God. He wants us to be open to letting others speak into our lives. He wants us to play a part in investing in the spiritual lives of newcomers, novices, and even “nowhere to be seen’s” on a Sunday morning. Sometimes God is at work on the front porch, while we are inside biting our lip about the wrong slide popping up and wrecking our favorite worship jam.   

As a pastor, my job is not only to “go” myself, but to send others, and to take others along with me. To use my power to empower others, and share experiences that help each of you to grow. I admit, this is really, really hard and every fiber of my being fights against it. Like everyone else, it is all too easy to neglect the work of empowering others. It is all too easy to play to my strengths and keep control, and do what I can to avoid mistakes and keep everyone happy. But I can’t let you do that, and you can’t let me do that. The truth is, Jesus never intended that for us. To be disciples—learners—means to fail at times. It means “amateurism.” It means risk. It means letting go of control, even watching others fail to help them pick up the pieces and become learners. But this is what being the church really is. It is not a production. It is not what gets printed in the church bulletin. Jesus disrupted the expectations of people in worship one time and the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff. We too can put our expectations before what God might be trying to do, if we are not careful.

I am not asking you to find faults in me. I am not asking you to help me grow into some kind of super hero pastor with a cape on, who can do all things perfectly and never needs anyone else to lift a finger. Sure, I could improve on a lot of things, from preaching to time management to making sure my lawn gets mowed or my kids don’t destroy the house before you come over to visit the parsonage. But the look of squeaky-clean, polished perfection is actually a sign of death, not a sign of life. It is the pristine of the graveyard, not the messiness of a playground where life abounds and maturity is forming. Jesus calls us to the schoolhouse. Jesus calls us to fail at the small things, and to help others “safely fail” at the small things, that we might win at the big thing: making disciples. This is not checkers, this is chess. Jesus is the King, and as his pawns we need to make sure we are playing the King’s game. We each have our power, but not so we can cling to it. I have played chess with many people more concerned with losing their queen—the most powerful piece on the board—than with how the game will end. What is your endgame? To make disciples as Jesus commands us to, we must begin with the end in mind.

Agape,

James     


Monday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Powerless”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Devotion:

 

The Apostle Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He came tot he church as an enemy, and joined the church as a trophy of God’s grace. Paul wrote Romans long after the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, yet he wrote about the theological realities at work in the gospel story. In Romans, Paul further explores the justice of God. He does this directly, but also indirectly as he elaborates in the mercy of God, and God’s heart for reconciliation. Paul reminds us that this divine mercy sought us out, that God heard our cries for a way back to Him. He sent Jesus, as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love of us,  and that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul points us through this passage to the spiritual reality of atonement at work in the actions of Jesus leading to the cross. It was to a world that was trapped in sin that Jesus came and died, but as Jesus died–so our sin died with him. As he would soon rise triumphant, the seeds of reconciliation and restoration sprung forth into the world… beginning to work themselves back into creation like leaven through the dough.

Lectio Divina Instructions
Lectio Divina (or divine reading) is a spiritual reading of scripture. We come to the scripture not for study only, but approach the text in a sense with openness to receive from God. The traditional lectio framework has four distinct stages outlined in the instructions below.

Reading God’s word (Lectio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 slowly twice (this is the larger reading from a physical bible). If you are doing this in a group have the listeners close their eyes to help them focus on hearing. As you read listen for a word or phrase that seems “illuminated” for you. Sit in silence a couple minutes.

Reflecting on God’s word (Meditatio)
Read the passage again. During the silence reflect on how the passage speaks to your life today.

Responding to God (Oratio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 again. During the few minutes of silence consider how God is calling you to
respond. Pray and tell Jesus your intended response to what you have heard. It might be praise or action of some kind, or something to think further on etc.

Resting in God (Contemplatio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 one final time. Rest in the words in silence for a few minutes. Close in prayer.


Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice “Hearing the Minority Voice”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Luke Chapter 2

Devotion:

Women play many vital roles in the gospels. It is Mary who is seen as essentially the first believer in the Messiah as we just read yesterday. And it is Anna the prophetess who waited patiently and prayed night and day to see the savior of Israel come, and even understood that his ministry would be outward focused. As Jesus grew in stature and understanding, likely other women shaped and formed the experiences he had that lead to the example we find in the gospels of a man who  would include women in his circle, teaching them at his feet as a rabbi would teach a disciple. Jesus spoke to women across cultural and ethnic lines as we see at the well in Samaria, and more than that released that woman to bring the gospel to her village. It was women who discovered the tomb was empty and it was women who brought word of the resurrection back to the male disciples.

Jesus had great compassion for the lived reality of women. He stood up to the teachers of his day who taught it was acceptable to take advantage of vulnerable women by marrying them and then looking for a fault somewhere where they might send them away disgraced and deflowered, rather than honor the responsibilities and good faith in marriage. Jesus even stood up to those who brought a women caught in the act of adultery, people who were quick to stone the woman but not name the man in their midst who was equally guilty of the crime.

Despite the equality with God seen in the act of creation at the beginning of the bible, despite the prophecy of Joel being fulfilled in Peter’s early speeches in Acts, and despite Paul’s teaching about how there is now no longer male and female in Christ: the church still struggles at times to grant women equal status. Men, often ignorant of their positions of privilege, can unfairly dismiss and tune out the contributions of women, devalue their work, and limit their opportunities to do the things we see so readily in the scriptural example of Jesus radically including women in his traveling ministry. Jesus had deep spiritual friendships with women; he used his power to heal them physically, and to advocate for them socially.

The video  following this devotion might be somewhat controversial due to its language and explosive subject matter, but its ability to help men and women understand the different realities women face are unique and worth the risk in my opinion. It is truly a powerful and unflinching look at the world women inhabit, and I believe one that unmasks privilege and gives us a chance to see the world from a gender reverse perspective. But be warned, you might be offended at some of the language and content. The short video below is in French and its title in English translates as Oppressed Majority.

Query: Where does your striving for humility and Christ-likeness give room for the minority voice? How do you challenge the ways the world receives or rejects you that stand against the God given equality of others as children on God?


On Callouses and Callousness…

Where the church isI love the church. I see it as a way that God has blessed the world. For all its (our) flaws, it is such a wondrous thing that God uses us. It is amazing that God sees us as His Bride, veiled in white, without spot or blemish. For many of us, this metaphor about the church seems strange. I think especially men struggle with the thought of being a bride. But it is interesting to think about how the various New Testament metaphors work together to show us something of our calling, anything from the “bride” and “body” metaphors that reveal something of our union and unity with Christ, to the “the people of the Way” that emphasize following the example of Jesus. No one metaphor or even Greek word captures the concept of the church in all its fullness, so what we see in scripture is something like the many facets of a diamond. Each side shows us a bit more about this mysterious role we play “co-missioning” with God.

There are many biblical names for the church, a primary one is ecclesia meaning “called out ones,” a term borrowed from the Greek city state governing tradition. It once meant a meeting place where the citizens could speak their minds and try to influence one another in the political process. The early church borrowed this term and filled it with new meaning, getting back to the “called out ones” definition it implied. Within the church, however, I think it always kept that communal and participatory spirit. One can see this dynamic in our monthly meeting for business. As God’s set apart or “called out” people, we come before God together seeking leadership, but also bringing ourselves into the process of how God’s will will be carried out among us.

Of all these descriptions and metaphors for the church, perhaps the most forgotten one is its most mundane: workers. While lacking a bit in the “romance” department, there comes a time in any relationship where we come face to face with the realities of the ordinary, what Wendell Berry eloquently describes as the art of the commonplace. Many of us can remember fondly a time of our first connection with God, the initial “falling in love” side of our relationship. Like any good marriage however, our relationship with God can take love into some new areas of our lives as our relationship deepens. Yet often love requires work, it requires us actually taking our own baby steps toward the place our relationship with God is going. In the gospel of Matthew we find this short description of Jesus leading His disciples by example—almost daring them to follow Him into a new place, a place it seemed that was full of work we might share with Him:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Mt. 9:35-38)

In our day, work can be so overwhelming. It spills beyond the healthy boundaries we want it to, like a river flooding beyond its bounds. Technology like smartphones has brought the office even to our dinner tables, it would seem. Yet in the sea of opportunities for work that hem us in on every side, how can we keep our eyes open? Jesus saw these people God had put in His life. His eyes were open to their poor state and He had compassion on them. He challenged His disciples to look around at all the work God wanted to do in bringing these people spiritual leadership. He asked them to be willing to be sent out like workers in the fields.

I worked on a farm a bit in Kansas, and I know that there are different stages of farming, stages like planting and cultivation, not just harvesting. When the harvest comes though the work kicks up into high gear. I like many of you, have worked literally from sunup to sundown—for weeks on end—trying to bring the harvest in to be stored away in safety. In farming, as in life, there are seasons. Seasons for planting, cultivating, and harvesting; times of starting new works, developing these works to maturity, and completing them. This works exactly the same in spiritual leadership. There are no shortcuts, and there is a lot of work to be done before we will ever see a hint of fruit. Yet we must keep the big picture in mind. We must be in tune to where we are at in the cycle, and be responsive to the needs of this time. As Jesus reminds us, sometimes the biggest contributions we bring are not our skills, or even our gifts and talents. It is our willingness. It is our eyes of compassion that can see beyond the urgency of the present moment, beyond the ordinariness; eyes to see the ways where we can use our own two hands to make a difference in the lives of those God has put around us.

I have the feeling that so few of us have embraced the part of our relationship with God that helps us see life as workers, not because we don’t love God or have compassion, but simply because we are so busy. In our world today, each day comes to us with a smorgasbord of opportunities, whether they be for work or play. Yet the church is essentially relationships; with God and of course others, both those who know and have yet to know God. If we fill our lives too full, we may well be workers (and working ourselves to death in fact), but we can too easily be workers for the wrong harvest, pouring all our time and energy into things that do not allow us any time for our roles as messengers of God and spiritual leaders who point to Him. Like many of you, I am in the same boat. I have kids and a car payment, and seemingly endless hurdles to jump and deadlines to meet.

How do we discern which opportunities to pursue and which to say no to? We have to say no to some things… or our relationships with God and each other will become dilapidated and we may well even drive ourselves mad. I think Jesus points us to an answer, though it is not an easy one. We have to suit up and go to work. We have to go out into the fields and do what we can, even in the face of more work than we could ever do. I heard a story once about an ocean storm that brought thousands of starfish out of their habitat and onto the shore. As thousands lay dying like “fish out of water,” one small boy started throwing them back one by one. A cynical man nearby tried to tell the boy to stop, that what he was doing didn’t matter in the face of all that need. The boy said, “It mattered to that one!” and “It mattered to that one” and kept on flinging starfish for as long as he could.

Even at our best, there is no way we can fix the urgent need of our world for God. We can only do our small parts, yet these parts matter. They utterly and truly matter and it’s easy to forget that. The part we play as workers of the field is important, for we become the hands and feet of Jesus that touch people’s lives. But like the man in the story we can become cynical in the face of the great needs of our world today and this cynicism can paralyze us. The thing is though that we are not trying to do it all by ourselves. We are workers working together… working for the same Master and working on the same harvest. How can we be a church that seeks to live this out? How can we resist the cynicism that paralyzes us and the business that fragments us?

The church is often likened to a sporting event: lots of people in the stands who desperately need exercise… watching a few people on the field who desperately need a break. In our day with all its busyness, a lot of people have not even felt like investing the time of coming to the stands. The problem with all of this is that it misses the point of “co-missioning” with God. Church was never supposed to be mostly something we consume from the stands, it is supposed to be about following Jesus, becoming like Him as disciples. Like it or not, this takes work. It takes risk. It takes us prioritizing our time not merely around worship on a Sunday morning, but around strengthening our relationships with God and each other. Some things, many things in the spiritual life, cannot be done for us. Change starts first in the heart of the one who seeks it. But first we must ask ourselves how badly we want it. May we pray this week that God would give us eyes to see what God wants to do in us and through us. May we see our daily walks with more compassion. May our willingness grow, not merely our skill.

Agape,

James


A Bit of a Snapshot

Pencil hiigh speedMany pastors in the Yearly Meeting serve on various Yearly Meeting committees, and frankly, I was trying to escape from Yearly Meeting last year without joining any of them. At Yearly Meeting, however, I found out that along with accepting this call I inherited a de facto membership on William Penn’s campus ministry committee. Historically the pastor of College Avenue Friends seems to always have played some sort of role in campus ministry, and I am very comfortable with this as it lines up perfectly with the call God has long placed on my heart. In fact the very reason I wanted to avoid joining a committee was because I wanted to deepen my roots to Oskaloosa Iowa, the people of our community, and of course, to William Penn University. As many of you know, with the cutting of Spencer’s position and the restructuring of the campus ministry committee, people are asking new questions about how the campus ministry program at Penn will continue. Various committee members have taken up certain aspects of campus ministry. Scott Biddle will be involved in various ways. Tom Palmer will continue his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). I felt the Lord put on my heart that I should get involved with coordinating chapel, and Bailey Hupp has been indispensable in helping me learn the ropes of how this is to work.

While on my trip to Oregon, a young woman named Beth from the William Penn Chronicle sought me out to ask what is happening with campus ministry at Penn. Though she will likely pull a few things here and there from what I wrote as she was intending to create her own article, as I reflected on what I wrote for her I couldn’t help but include it in full for my newsletter. Beth’s last question on behalf of the students may well be the question many of us at College Avenue Friends are also wondering about. It seemed fitting that after many meetings and a bit of experience now connecting with students at chapel so far that some kind of update was in order. Beth’s questions helped me put into words a bit about what has happened, what is happening, and perhaps a little bit about what God has in store for campus ministry in the future. These were her questions to me and my responses to them are included below:

1.) What position do you hold within the church?

I am the pastor of the church, however I prefer the title released minister. This title fits better with the Quaker idea of the priesthood of all believers in which everyone has a call to ministry and can serve God in whatever vocation they inhabit. Basically it means I am a minister among ministers…

2.) How do you feel about the termination of the campus minister position, and what direction do you think they will take now that there is no one officially in charge?

I have mixed feelings about the termination of the campus minister position. I consider Spencer to be a close friend and a co-laborer in the work of ministry.  On the one hand I feel that Spencer was very effective in one on one connections with students, and his ministry will be sorely missed. He really invested in the lives of students and in the building up of leaders. I also think he took the school’s mission statement seriously regarding the pursuit of excellence, yet he marched to the beat of a different drum and was seeking that excellence in ways that are not easily quantified or understood. On the other hand, not having one person “in charge” and decentralizing the work of ministry resonates with the Quaker understanding of how ministry should be a shared burden. Many people were understandably upset by the decision, fearing it would eventually lead to the demise of all effective ministry at Penn. There is a danger that this sentiment could in fact turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as hurt feelings replace actual engagement, but I see this not as a step toward “the end” but a step toward a new beginning. There is a great deal of opportunity here to reimagine what campus ministry could look like here at Penn. While a volunteer-led model does lack a bit in efficiency (though not necessarily effectiveness) it really opens up ways for people to get involved, to share together in the work of ministry, and strengthen the historic relationships between WPU and Iowa Yearly Meeting, and of course, College Avenue Friends Church.

It was once common knowledge that College Avenue Friends Church was called into being to serve as a light to William Penn University. Before the days of car travel, Quaker students of old wrote a letter to the Yearly Meeting and to a few country churches asking them to consolidate and build a church near the college so that the students would have a sorely needed place of worship. These students sparked a real change with their request, resulting in the birth of our church. Unfortunately a few short years after the church building was built, the college had a tragic fire which resulted in the death of a faculty member and student who attempted to salvage the academic records inside, only to have the bell tower collapse upon them. When the college rebuilt after this tragedy at its current location, I think the role of College Avenue Friends as a place of student worship was eventually overshadowed by Spencer Chapel. Time and other factors have led to a long stretch of growing apart and a weakening of the vision originally cast by WPU students of a place to worship God they could call home.

If nothing else, the cutting of the campus minister position has pushed us toward reflecting on the relationship between WPU, Iowa Yearly Meeting, and College Avenue Friends Church.  I believe that the desire to rebuild these historic relationships is a divine appointment. Our church had a meeting to discern God’s leading for us in light of the university cabinet’s decision and it seemed clear God was calling us to step out in faith, and in a spirit of love and humility, seek to strengthen our historic role as a light to WPU, impacting its students, faculty, and destiny as God leads. The spirit of unity at that meeting was palpable, and there was a real sense that we should “take the ball and run with it,” making the most of this new opportunity, and rising to face this challenge with the grace and humility it deserves.

Though there is no one person—such as a campus minister—officially and visibly “in charge” at present, that does not mean no one is in charge of campus ministry at Penn. I am a part of the newly restructured Campus Ministry Committee, a group of wonderful folks honestly trying to go forward in this new direction and help make it work. While some are still wounded by the decision itself, we recognize the importance of serving the spiritual needs of the Penn community. This work has always been larger than one person, and as I mentioned earlier this is opening up new opportunities for service. The piece of this I am taking up is the role of chapel coordinator, something I am very excited about. It is a great way to connect to students, though of course many students have to rush off immediately afterward for class. At chapel we are striving to embrace a sense of hospitality, regularly sharing a home cooked meal together as the early church often did. We are shooting for a more interactive approach, seeking ways to grow in depth and authenticity through table fellowship, discussion, and challenging one another to grow and serve in tangible ways.

Many ministries at Penn such as FCA, Intervarsity, sports devotions, and student led bible studies are largely autonomous, free standing entities. It is exciting to see Team Christ—a newly formed student led group—grow and thrive, reaching out to the Penn community in Jesus’ name. The biggest struggle involved in not having a campus minister is that communication and coordination of all these wonderful student led ministries is a real challenge. Good things come from cooperation and collaboration, and this is harder to do without one person acting as a point of connection. The committee is seeking some graduate assistants to take on the role of Spiritual Life Coordinator, connecting and communicating the work of ministry on campus, as well as investing in Religious Life Scholarship students and being available to minister to students, faculty, or staff. A job description has been created and the committee is beginning to promote the position and seek those whom God is leading to serve in this way.

It is hard to see a great deal of fruit presently stemming from the work of our committee. I for one am still learning the context of my small corner of campus ministry involvement and as of yet ways of gauging effectiveness seem elusive. Yet there are real signs of hope on the horizon. The opportunities present in this new work are something of a new testing ground, calling for creativity and collaboration between students, volunteers, and of course, faculty and staff. So many of the seeds we have been sowing will not sprout until next year and beyond, but the framework we have been working on will hopefully serve the spiritual life of WPU for years to come. I for one am excited about what God is up to and bringing forth in this new adventure.

Agape,

James Tower

Released Minister of College Avenue Friends Church and Chapel Coordinator of WPU


The Cry of the Heart

heartThe final thought I want to leave us with as I conclude my series on worship is, how do we evaluate worship? As with many things, you can’t just ask one person. We all have our opinions of course, but most of us know we can only speak to our own experience. Neither could we ask a certain demographic like young adults, or our more “seasoned” members. I suspect even if we asked everyone at once the criteria for each person would be different, likely based on what was familiar and even what was going on in their lives at that moment. If, as I have tried to point out, performance level or even people’s enjoyment cannot be very good indicators of a worshipping community’s response and participation, is there much left for a person like me who plans worship services to go on?

In reflecting back on a Sunday morning worship experience, there are some occasional feedback comments that spring to mind. To be honest, though, most of what comes to mind is the ethereal looks on people’s faces—the passion or lack of enthusiasm I see on your faces staring back at those of us sitting on the stage. I would love to have some kind of congregationally based planning group to help me evaluate how planning for worship actually “achieved” worship, but so far my own leadership in this direction has been slow coming and difficult to say the least.

I do know one metric I would love to be the sole criteria for whether or not the plans for leading our congregation into worship have been successful: were people’s hearts pointed to and encountering Jesus? Among the various other criteria such as what is biblical and theologically grounded, the historical practices of the church, and the metric of our own sense of the familiar—whatever we end up doing, be that singing, praying, or listening to a sermon, no matter the technical excellence involved, if people are not genuinely encountering Jesus it was hardly worth the effort. There are always things that could have been planned better or gone as planned better and evaluating worship from a technical standpoint cannot be avoided. Moreover, evaluating the technical specifics of worship is both needed and necessary. The only way we can step down that path though is with a great deal of humility, honesty, and open mindedness.

Different elements of worship can both add to, or take away from, the flow of the corporate worship experience. This isn’t black and white territory either, for each person’s experience is subjective.  Amid all of this are bound to be both solid food and hiccups. As long as there is a human element involved, every now and then you get a curve ball thrown your way. One of the most difficult things a person can do is evaluate the technical side of worship with grace, keeping the proper balance of both speaking the truth and doing it with love.

Things being off can be distractions that take away from the experience of seeking God in community. Small details such as sound system quirks, a song leader being too far from a mic or singing too softly to be heard, various musical missteps, the lyric slide arriving too late on an unfamiliar song, a boring sermon—all of these things can play havoc on that faint nerve of OCD within us all. Yet what we do with this negative energy in worship can have a profound effect not only on our own worship, but that of those around us. There are powerful destructive possibilities at play as we find ourselves stepping into a critical role. Being a trained musician, speaker or sound tech means one can no longer be unaware of the many hiccups of a worship gathering. This sort of training in fact pushes us to be aware of things others might not be, as part of this training involves actively searching for fault to correct it. I know my training as a sound person and speaker can at times be an obstacle to being caught up in worship, it can stop me from focusing on a song or sermon in very tangible ways. Even without training, some of us can find ourselves knowing something is off, even if we lack the words to describe it.

Being critical however is not without its strengths. It calls us to ask dangerous questions beyond simply “did people like it?” It also helps us ask big questions such as, “are we merely singing these songs because they are familiar, or popular?” We can learn a lot about what we care about by what questions we are willing, or even are unwilling to ask. It takes a great deal of grace and humility to evaluate worship from a technical standpoint. This is because it pushes us beyond our own preferences and biases. If we are not pushed beyond our preferences and biases, we are simply being ruled by what is comfortable for us. I believe worship should be so much more than doing what we do because we have always done it that way or simply adopting whatever is trendy. I believe worship should be an experience of encountering God. The details are only semi-important, and hopefully help us along the way to that encounter. Yet on the other hand, the details matter a great deal and we should take them with the utmost seriousness.

A popular Christian artist named Matt Redman was a signed and successful professional musician, yet his church in Australia was deeply divided by the worship music. People grew so bitter about the rift between traditional and contemporary styles that the lead pastor took the bold move of cutting music from the worship services. After a few months without music they slowly began introducing spontaneous a capella music into the services. This singing came from the hearts of the congregation, not merely the stage. The church music rift eventually healed and became revitalized. The main criteria of the worship actions on a Sunday morning became “did our actions form a deep experience with Christ in the hearts of the believers in the congregation?” From this experience Matt Redman wrote a song called “The Heart of Worship” that became something of a surprise anthem among the early 2000’s contemporary worship music scene. So many churches resonated with the message of the song that nearly overnight it was sung in many English speaking churches across the globe.

For my final thought concluding thought about this series on worship, I simply want to leave you with the lyrics of Redman’s song, “The Heart of Worship”:

When the music fades

and all is stripped away

and I simply come.

Longing just to bring

something that’s of worth

that will bless Your heart.

 

I’ll bring You more than a song,

for a song in itself

is not what You have required.

You search much deeper within,

through the way things appear,

You’re looking into my heart.

 

I’m coming back to the heart of worship

and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it

when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

 

King of endless worth,

no one could express

how much you deserve.

Though I’m weak and poor,

all I have is Yours,

every single breath!

 

I’ll bring You more than a song,

for a song in itself

is not what You have required.

You search much deeper within,

through the way things appear,

You’re looking into my heart.

 

I’m coming back to the heart of worship

and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it

when it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

 

Agape,

James

 


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