Tag Archives: pastor

Stay Hungry

Have you ever trained for something? Whether its music or sports or preparing for a final exam, training takes a lot out of you. It can be exhausting. But some of us, who have had our passion inflamed, who have felt a clarity of our callings, find a love that sustains us even as we train. Training takes a certain kind of obsession to be effective, because training is work and work takes energy and time.

I think in our day people value talent, but loath training. Talent is valuable, but the truth is, it can get in the way of training because people feel like they have arrived. Raw talent is an inspiring thing, but it is just that: raw. And some people who already have it feel like they have nothing left to learn, no new heights to obtain, and as the old saying goes the good can be the enemy of the best.

Paul writes in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” One of the blinders that needs to come off in the spiritual life is the blinder that tells us, “We have arrived. We have attained. We have taken ahold of what Christ has for us and now we can stop training and get comfortable. We can cash in our chips and punch out for the day.”

But as the Body of Christ we are a Body in training. We have not arrived, we still have a lot of work to do. The question before us isn’t simply whether we will do this work or not. The question before us is, have we lost our passion? Our focus? Are we missing the fuel that will sustain us? The clarity of calling? The hope of arriving someday? Paul points this out in his words: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Renowned scholar N.T. Wright translates this: “No, I am hurrying on eager to overtake it, because King Jesus has overtaken me!” I like his translation because it fits better with the theme of racing, a theme Paul is really emphasizing here.

Paul had Olympic running in his day, and like the Olympics of our day it was a worldwide competition. Not every country got to compete, but you can bet the Jews of Paul’s day followed the Olympics and knew the outcome. I love his illustration of running because running is all about forward progression. In the spiritual life, we cannot keep looking back, we must look forward for what God has for us next. We must keep an eye on the prize, but with the other eye we have to keep watch on the road before us. We can’t look back, or we could wander off course, or hit a pothole. We could miss the next obstacle and get hurt and have to quit the race.

I love the Friends church. I love our history and heritage. I love our stories of dauntless missionaries and saints. But perhaps the biggest problem with our denomination is that we have such a wonderful heritage we can end up making that the focus. But we can’t be effective runners if our heads are spun around the wrong way. We have to keep one eye on the prize. One eye on chasing Jesus sure, but we have to keep the other eye looking down where our next step is about to land.

We cannot be distracted by side issues. We cannot always be people who look back. We should keep our eye on the prize of reaching out and raising up disciples. That is the main thing and the real reason the church exists. It is the work each of us, in our own way, is called to.

We have a wonderful building. We have a beautiful church family. But we can’t, like a runner who finds himself in 1st place, stop straining on. A race isn’t over until it is finished. We have to work hard not only to keep what we have gained, but gain even more.

We can’t get comfortable, but should live into our vision and values statement that says: “College Avenue Friends exists not only for its own sake but also for the sake of those outside our walls that Christ calls us to love and serve. We are committed to pushing beyond the status quo and being a light to others in our daily walks of faith.”

The real treasure we seek in the Christian life is Jesus. It is not even the reward of heaven, but of being with Jesus. Heaven is not the goal, He is the goal. God calls us heavenward, but He calls us not only to heaven, but to Himself. And He calls us to be with Him on a journey, a heavenward journey. And Paul goes even further, from preaching to meddling as it were, as he challenges us in verse 15 “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you… Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

We might not always agree about what the next steps will be, but we need to take them together, trusting that God will make it clear for us as we walk together. As we cling to the truth that we have so far… as we cling to that bit of gold we have that God is still refining in us, God will reveal even more to us.

There is a maturity in knowing not only what we already know, but what we don’t know. It was said of Socrates that he was the wisest person in Athens, not because of how much he knew, but because he knew how much he had left to learn. Those of us with real maturity have a humble maturity, one that comes not only in acknowledging our strengths and successes and our victories in the spiritual life, but also in acknowledging our fumbles and foibles and failures.

A maturity that comes in the form of recognizing how far we have yet to go in becoming like Jesus, but seeking it together anyway. So, we live the Christian life as I have said so far, with one eye on Jesus. One eye off in the distance, filled with hope and keeping our eye on the prize. But we also keep one eye down at our feet, looking to overcome the next hurdle. Looking to keep what we have already attained.

Eric Liddell, the Olympian who inspired the movie Chariots of Fire, was a man of intense discipline used mightily by God. As a runner, he refused to run on Sundays, even when it cost him greatly. May we live purposeful lives willing to risk for God. Liddell once said, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.” It is my belief that the glory he was talking about was God’s glory not Eric’s glory, the glory revealed in us as God’s creatures, as we run the race He has before us. There are limits God gives us, limits like sabbath rest. And we do God’s kingdom little good if we work ourselves to death. But for some of us the greater danger is in letting our training regimen go… neglecting our prayer and bible reading and fellowship together. Sunday morning service was never meant to be the beginning and end of our spiritual nourishment, but the overflow of what God has been doing in our lives all week. Let us bring our best even there.

For those who want to win, there can be no looking back. There can be no pining for days gone by. There is only striving, a striving that melts away all our complacency. Where we want to be where Jesus is more than anything else. We are not looking at the distractions around us, the fool’s gold in our midst. We are not settling for our past successes… we are striving. Striving for even more growth on our journey with Jesus. There will be a time beyond the striving, a time victory is complete. But this is not yet that time. For now, the race is on.

Agape,

James


On Going Deeper and the Bleeding Edge

growthMysticism, or direct and unmediated spiritual experience, has long been a foundational element of what it means to be a Quaker. We, along with Christian brothers and sisters of many stripes, believe strongly that God IS already at work. God is at work both through the church and beyond the church. We also do not believe works and good deeds in any way earn our salvation. Somewhere in the tension of these two realities we find what is often referred to as spiritual formation. Christian spiritual formation is not a way of controlling God or manufacturing spiritual ecstasies, but it is a discipline—really a disciplined approach to life—that trusts that God is at work and seeks to assist in that work. It is trying to put one’s self in the best position so that the work of God would carry on unhindered.

During one of his talks at Barclay College, Fil Anderson, author of the book Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers, gave a wonderful metaphor for how we approach  this “work” we do. He likened it to the “work” of working on a tan. When we speak of “working on our tan,” it is really the sun that does the work; our work is just putting ourselves in the best position to soak up the suns’ rays. We are changed by our encounter, yet we recognize right away that in no way do we for one second control the sun.

We do not earn the rays. But there is a truth that our little part matters. There is a relationship between how we live and how available we are to God, and the fruits God grows in us. It is not a one to one correlation. We are finite, God is infinite. But we can to some extent, when it comes to the spiritual life, have the faith that the sun will shine and live into the truth of that reality. We can grab the spiritual equivalent to some oil and a towel. We can look for a sweet place to put ourselves before, and appreciate the warmth of, the Shekinah glory of God that is always shining to those whose eyes are open to take it in.

You might not realize it, but the sunflower is not called the sunflower because it looks like the sun in its way. The sunflower is called the sunflower because it turns its face fully toward the sun, and follows it across the sky all day. Like sunflowers, you and I, were created to point our hearts in God’s direction and always be slowly moving along with God in obedience, however small and unnoticed by others this work will often be. We do not do this physically, but it is at times just as subtle, just as secret, as a sunflower doing what it was created to do.

I don’t know about you, but I want to go deeper. I want to chase the mystery of God on the bleeding edge of faith. But this is not the work of one person who–like a Green Beret jumping out of a plane knife in mouth–pulls themselves up by some kind of spiritual boot straps. We cannot manufacture the work of God in ourselves. We are more like a plant than we want to admit. But even just looking at how living things are—finding the wisdom of the plant if you will—can tell us a lot about what is within our small sphere of work in the spiritual life. Like many things in life, it is not the responsibility of a pastor, spiritual director, mentor or any other kind of guru to see that this work is being done in your life. The work is your own to do. No one can do it for you, only with you. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8, servants serve in obedience to and in accordance with the plans and purposes of God, they are just co-laborers with Him. They “manufacture” nothing:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

I think it is fair to ask the question, “to what extent is a plant complicit in its own growth?” I think a lot of the work we do to further our growth is simply to keep God’s perspective before us. It is only in this perspective of faith that we recognize the truth that God is the source of life, not us. It is only through eyes of faith that we can recognize the fruit God has blessed us with. It is only through the eyes of faith that we can have a transformed perspective on what is happening within, through, around, and beyond us.

There is however the work of “letting” God work, and don’t let anyone fool you; letting is a lot harder than it looks. But unlike plants, we do have the choice of what we are soaking in. We have choice of the soil we absorb our nutrients from. “Garbage in, garbage out” is not God’s governing purposes for us. But it can easily become a metaphor describing our spiritual life. At the same time, not all that stinks is garbage. Sometimes the things we do not like are actually fertilizer, catalysts of positive change in our life. I have seen my share of pasty white computer geeks logging countless hours in places that do not prioritize the light. We too have the choice of entertaining ourselves to death rather than pursuing the spiritual life. We too, to some extent, make the choice of our priorities, of where we are planted so to speak. We do some of that work of soaking; it is good to ask ourselves now and then, as a spiritual query, “What have you been soaking in?”

The soil around us, when it is good soil, gives us context. When we are grounded in God and God’s words of life, we also become aware of the edges around us. They may not seem like bleeding edges necessarily, but there is something God does in us when our focus begins to look outward as well as inward, for evidence that God is at work. The soil around us gives us a sense of “placed-ness,” rootedness, grounding. We notice opportunities for loving service. We notice where God is at work in those around us, and we begin to seek Him out and join Him there. We even notice places we desire that work to be strengthened. We notice those planted next to us (people), and the ways we are connected.

Some varieties of bamboo, to the outward eye, seem pathetic and disappointing in the early stages of their lives. Even after a few years only a small sprout and a few leaves are all that can be perceived as evidence of growth. But often, beneath the surface has been forming a massive root system. Like bamboo we often must grow depth before we can grow height. Since we are so easily focused outwardly we can miss this truth, it really doesn’t matter which way you are growing. The invisible work God does to prepare us for outward work is every bit as important. Often I think we spend our time looking for growth in the wrong places. We level our frustrations at the one or two things that can be seen, and fail to notice the importance of all that is needed to grow. We forget that often we must practice growing and trusting God down in the earthy darkness before we can follow Him in the places of blinding light.

The sequoia, a giant among trees, looks strong and mighty but its roots are shallow. Other trees have about as much going down as they do up, but the sequoia does not. One thing its shallow roots do however is wrap themselves around one another. This is the secret to the sequoia’s strength, on its own a windstorm could push it over and bring about down, but because it’s roots join together with others its own deficiencies do not hold back its noble grandeur. It is in community, not in isolation, that our growth can push beyond the limits of our own roots. It is here that reaching our true potential can do so in safety, that our upward strivings form the true bleeding edge; the corporate canopy of a community stretched out to catch all the grace God rains down upon us.

Lastly, all living things do not stay frozen in time, they move and change. Where movement ceases, life ceases. All living things have cycles of death as well as cycles of reproduction. There is a journey with the bleeding edge that calls us to navigate change, to recognize our place in time. We enjoy the first fruits of eternal life, and look forward to eternity with God, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a hard look at where we are at in this journey toward maturity. Are we in a season of harvest, multiplication, or fallow? There is a story here, a history of God’s faithfulness. Salvation is best perceived with the hindsight of the past, with gratitude in the midst of today’s struggle, and with an eye filled with hopeful expectation for the future. Parker Palmer writes eloquently about different seasons of experience. Each part of the cycle of life has new things to teach us: there is a time for the bustling creativity of Spring, the tempering heat of Summer, the finishing work of Fall, and the life giving fallow that comes only through the path of a harsh Winter.

The bleeding edge will always point us to our need for God. It is always that point where we stop, and God begins, that God is at work. When I was a child I remember marking my age by half years because everything seemed so far off. It was amazing how big even a minute could be then. Now the years seem to whiz by before I even realize I blinked. Whatever season, whatever direction of growth, we face the same choice: reflective mindfulness or ignorance?  Actively chasing a fruit filled life, or passively coasting into the slumber of mediocrity? Will we be stuck on the past, or racing ahead of the future? Or will we be anchored in the present moment with God, aware of our bleeding edges; aware of what God is doing in this stretch of the journey?

There is a sacredness to the space life occupies. As we become comfortable being in that space, living into that space, and growing in understanding of ourselves, God and others… we would do well now and then to dare ourselves to risk going deeper: we would do well to find the life of obedience calling us to the bleeding edge of God’s sustaining grace at work within and without, above and below, inside our community and in that visceral place where we live in the moment with Him.

Agape,

James


Lowering the Pedestal

pedestals2Many of us fear confrontation. We often look at the escalating tensions that are created in confrontation as immediately divisive, and generally destructive. Quakers are known for their peace testimony, and at times this can degenerate into a permissiveness that can result in the death of peace itself. Yet true peace can never come from sticking our heads in the sand; it can only come when dialogue has taken place, issues are resolved, people are held accountable, and a mutual understanding prevails. Rather than deal with a situation immediately, at times we allow it to fester until it turns into something much larger and harder to deal with than it should have been. Rather than do the pruning work of confrontation when is like an easy shoot to pick off with our thumbnails, we can–through neglect–allow it to thicken until a chainsaw is needed.

Matthew 18:15-16 reminds us how we are to deal with confrontation in the church:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

If someone refuses to listen, treating them like a tax collector or pagan is not a rejection; it is a call to go back to square one if you will. It is a call to treat them as an unbeliever, which calls for an extra measure of grace. This scripture calls into question our usual practice of avoiding the person with whom the conflict lies and seeking out other people as sounding boards for us to vent our frustrations. This can quickly become what Edwin Friedman called “triangulation,” an unhealthy third-party relationship built by an overly anxious person to vent their anxiety on anyone other than the very person who is causing that anxiety. Nothing good will ever come from this type of avoidance. Jesus, in a sense, calls us to “conflict;” a constructive form of conflict that aims to restore our relationships. So often we settle for something less than full restoration, and Quakers are just as guilty of it as anybody else, especially when it comes to confronting those in leadership positions.

Our next covenant statement reminds us, “We will address conflicts with our pastor and each other in a direct and loving manner.” Not to go kicking the hornet’s nest here, but I will admit as a pastor I hardly get any feedback. At all. About anything. Sometimes no news is good news, but when you don’t get any feedback for a while often people will begin to  wonder, “is something wrong? Are people afraid to talk to me?” Pastor’s are regular people, they wrestle with fear just as every other person does.

I personally like that the Covenant statement uses the word “direct.” One of the biggest frustrations in the church is the illusion that communication has taken place. We are not mind readers, nor are we expected to be. We can expect that other people realize how much their actions affect us, yet if we don’t actually communicate with them, we shouldn’t be surprised at their amazement when our emotions finally explode. What is expected  of each of us is not that we would walk around on eggshells afraid to offend one another (pastor or no) but that we would have clear communication; that we would have strongly rooted relationships that could withstand the risk of confrontation, and that we would actually live as if this were so. Communication–especially communication that could lead to confrontation–is a messy thing; it calls us to demonstrate grace to one another, to offer forgiveness to one another, and to be honest with one another. Though challenging, the fruits it brings are worth the work involved. There are no shortcuts to this kind of fruit, and there never will be.

Our covenant statement calls us to settle for nothing less than a real relationship; a relationship where we hold one another accountable and make our intentions and frustrations known. Conflict can actually be constructive, because often needs and expectations are finally communicated clearly rather than bouncing around in our heads magnifying resentment.  It can be an extremely creative force in a loving community.

I for one do not want a superficiality in my relationships at College Avenue Friends that allows ticking time bombs to keep ticking out there in the dark. I expect people to be direct with me, whether tactfully or untactfully so. I am human. I am young. I am learning how to be a pastor. I am bound to make mistakes. I am bound to miss the mark, just as everyone else is. Seminary training does not make me a superhero. At times, I like everyone else, will need the truth spoken to me in love. Do not let the fear of not having the perfect words rob you of the opportunity to bring the truth back into the focus of your pastor.

In a Friends church there is zero theological basis for putting someone up on a pedestal.  The “mantle of authority” that other denominations put upon their pastors does not go along with the radical Quaker understanding of the priesthood of all believers. This understanding of a pastor from within (we are all pastors) means no one should ever fear confronting a pastor who has missed the mark out of fear of “raising their hands against the Lord’s anointed.” While I still believe serving as a “pastor among pastors” is a high calling, and I believe I am to live a life that strives for being above reproach, that does not mean I will never fail at anything or will never need growth in some areas. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking for trouble. I am not trying to invite a bunch of nit picking or hair splitting by asking you to hold me accountable and keep me humble.

Ultimately, I am not inviting criticisms of performance related issues, though there is at times a place for that. What I am asking, and what Matthew 18 calls all of us to demonstrate, is confrontation based on extending faithful action where there is unfaithfulness, to send love where love has been lacking. I am inviting you to examine the spiritual fruits of my life, not necessarily to judge me. And when (not if) you find fault, I invite you to confront me directly. I hope you can love me enough to do this, and I hope–when the tables are turned–that you will recognize the heart behind it when faithfulness requires I do the same for you.

Agape,

James


Adventures in Missing the Point…

BlindersWhen I asked my daughter if she wanted another brother or sister, you know what she said? She said, “No thanks, I got friends.” Kids can be brutally honest, uncomfortably honest. If a kid tells you you are fat, you are probably fat. Kids don’t just tell you what you want to hear. We all have those moments when truth comes to us from an unlikely source. When truth cuts like a knife, right through our little comfort blankets of denial. I am sure we all have stories about when a hard truth came to us from an unlikely place…

In Luke 7:1-10 we see a similar sort of thing. The truth about Jesus’ authority is acknowledged by a Centurion, someone the Jews of Jesus’ day would have seen as a person with merely “stolen” authority, at best. There is a real contrast in the Gospels with the religious leaders of the day, who missed that God was doing something new, and that the “least, the lost, and the last,” were seemingly more able to recognized that through Jesus, God was doing something new and unexpected among them. At times, an outsider can recognize something that eludes those who are too close to religion, people like myself. Sometimes truth can come from an unlikely source, like a Centurion. He represented an oppressive, occupying Pagan government. In the minds of many of Jesus’s hearers, people would think, “this guy is a Centurion… he is not allowed to have faith like that. He is an outsider. He may have the earthly power over 100 swords, but he is out of his depth on matters of faith.” Yet his position allowed him to see Jesus’ authority, something some were not willing to recognize. Jesus probably wasn’t easily amazed!

The bible is full of these kinds of stories… stories when God uses the absurd to make a point unmistakable; when an unlikely Balaam’s donkey, or young king David, or Nathan the Prophet comes bearing a truth no one wants to hear. Now and then, people with a past come to us, trying to make the best of a bad situation, trying to be faithful in a difficult situation as this Centurion was. As his servants pointed out, he had done a few good things out of his experience with becoming a God fearing gentile, like use his money to help build the local synagogue. Even this money though, might have been looked at with suspicion as being looted from the Jewish people in their occupation. He had authority, but it was a “stolen authority,” and in the eyes of the people of ancient Judea. He might never escape those scandalous ways he may once have used that authority in the eyes of many a person of faith.

I think we do the same in the church at times. If someone with a rough past begins attending your church and growing in faith, how long are their motivations eyed with suspicion? How long will the dirt of their past taint our views of the fruits in their lives? It’s simply a fact that God is actively changing hearts all around, but what happens afterward on our end? Do we forever second-guess people’s motives and shut our ears to their experiences of faith, or do we humble ourselves and learn the lesson God is trying to tell us from unlikely source?

While debating a well-known Christian, Nietzsche once said “In order for me to believe, you need to look a little more redeemed!” What a critique! When truth comes to us from an unlikely source, we have an opportunity, either to close our ears because we don’t like the messenger, or to be willing to let God use an outsider to teach us how to open our eyes. We can let our stature, our age, our education—really our unconscious arrogance—be a barrier to seeing the new things God is doing in our community and beyond. It is too easy to shut our ears to the critique of the little kid—the oddball messenger—but perhaps when we do this limit the ways God can speak into our lives, and even, what He can say to us. At times, God graces our lives with truth from outside our perspective, from outside the usual channels of our experience. Truths we miss when we are surrounded by our usual tribe, those who like us are too close for a fresh perspective. Yet God is always creating, always surprising. Why do we expect anything less from the Creator of all things? How will you handle your next opportunity?


Inward, Outward, Upward

My vision for the future involves a corporate threefold challenge toward inward transformation in Christ-likeness and identityoutward expanse of the influence of the Gospel within the local community, and strengthening our upward connection with the will of God.  God’s call toward inward transformation in Christ-likeness and identity as a child of God is a call to every believer. Understanding this call is a crucial element of College Avenue Friends’ spiritual vitality and depth, and is the core from which any effective ministry will flow. Things like personal holiness, integrity, and the fruits of the spiritual life in Christ must be experienced firsthand in the life of the believer before they can move outward and ripple spiritually through our world. As Jesus reminds us, we should be more focused on the plank in our own eyes before we will be able to help others. We must be challenged to pursue opportunities for inward depth and spiritual formation, putting ourselves in a place where we are malleable under God’s grace. My vision of a transformed and vibrant church is one that is growing both individually and personally, as well as collectively and corporately. I believe the key to numerical growth is to focus on spiritual growth, for a personally growing church will better meet the spiritual needs of our community.

Secondly I want to focus on the outward expanse of the influence of the Gospel in the community. This is the very mission of the church, and stems from God’s heart’s desire to reach and redeem the world. After all, He was so moved with love to redeem the world He sent His only Son to die and save it. We as a church need to be challenged to bring the Gospel with us in our daily walk, not only in our thoughts and actions, but also in our words as God brings occasion. As I hinted last week, the “hesed,” or loving kindness/steadfast love of God is one that must take the expression of action. God gives us a measure of His grace for us to steward, one for which we alone must exercise in love to those around us. We are called to develop the kinds of spiritual reflexes that allow us to boldly move as the Spirit leads to reach those God has placed in our lives with Jesus’ redeeming message of love and reconciliation. As Christians, we are often known for what we stand against, rather than what we stand for. It is time to reclaim the latter in the eyes of our watching world. We need to be a people of a message, the message of the gospel. I feel God wants to use me to equip the church toward engaging the local culture and community in ways that are bold and genuine, but nonjudgmental and unpressurized.

My vision of outward evangelism is much more interested in building bridges than fences and encouraging creativity in reaching and discipling those outside the church that God has placed in our lives. I plan to be looking for opportunities for “servant evangelism” within the community of Oskaloosa. Our church is a big supporter of foreign missions, but as the mantra of our age reminds us, we must not only “think global” but “act local.” Not everyone can go to a foreign country to serve Jesus, and the good news is most of us don’t have to. We are all called to ministry of some kind right where we are. We must find creative and intentional ways to put our light back up upon the bowl of our community. Service projects that demonstrate the ways the Gospel is working in our lives and Jesus’ love for the world are a great way to begin to build relationships with those around us who do not know Christ, or His life-changing gospel. Quakers are historically known for service that demonstrates the gospel. I want to challenge us to move in this direction, and to do so in a way that all of us, both young and old, can work together to the glory of God.

Finally, I am committed to strengthening our upward connection with the will of God. Obedience is at the heart of our corporate walk with Christ, and we must learn to listen to God if we are to learn to obey Him. As a community of believers, we must be a community of prayer, of sincerity and intimacy, and one that stays “in the conversation” with God in constant communion. Listening to the “still small voice” often takes practice and intentionality, and takes space. My vision for the church is one that fosters an unhindered and free “yoking” of not only the individual believer with experiential knowledge of the will of God, but of the entire community of faith as the body of Christ. I want to push us a little further in the direction of trusting our mystical experience, and toward a deeper trust that we may faithfully devote our lives to God in holy obedience. I hope to push us to deepen our experiences with open worship, corporate discernment, and worship as business.

I truly believe that Christ is still our Present Teacher, that we may still sit at His feet and follow His footsteps, that He gives us “ears to hear” His will for Oskaloosa. Some of this strengthening of our relationship to God will lead us toward strengthening our relationships with each other. I hope to push College Avenue toward being a community of greater openness and authenticity, that we may be a community where sin is confessed and struggles are known; that we may be a community that lifts one another’s needs up, both in prayer and in deed. In the early church they spent a lot of time together. They ate together, traveled together, and grew in Christ-likeness together. I desire to provide more opportunities for us to break free of our isolated culture and at times shallow Sunday morning greeting routines. I believe God wants us to be rooted deeply, both to one another and to Him. I want College Avenue Friends to stretch toward being a place of radical hospitality and fellowship, where the love of God is made known through us and among us.

While this vision is a lofty one, and is largely devoid of specific programs and promises, I feel it gauges spiritual growth in ways that are both practical and measurable. This vision reflects not only my heart as a pastor, but also my goals in a long-term sense. Feel free to critique it or help me improve it! I feel a deep sense that discipleship is a fundamental part of what God is calling me to do, and that modeling growth in these three areas will go a long way toward making disciples who make disciples as they journey with God through life. Numerical growth and other such measurable data are good to be aware of, but the true measure of who we are as a people is our faithfulness to God and to His gospel. We must also be intentional in counting those among us who are truly being discipled and who are actively building (and being built up in) intentional relationships.

I see these values as ways to “put some skin on” what discipleship means to me. These are the values I feel called to uphold in 2014, though this is the sort of work that may be relevant for a lifetime. However mysterious the details remain of how this will look as lived out together in love, I trust that we will discover the path together. If you feel God’s flame burning in your heart with passion about how we might specifically live some of this out as a community, I would love to sit down and talk about it. Remember, I am simply “a minister among ministers,” not really “the” minister. I am however, passionate about finding new ways (and strengthening old ways) of helping to empower and equip any one of us to live out his or her calling. May God bless us as we seek His face in 2014. May this be a year that Jesus’ presence is made known in Oskaloosa, through His church at College Avenue and a fresh chance for us to look a bit closer at our relationships, those inward, upward and outward, and to strive for greater depth as a community.

Agape,

James


A Sailboat for Christmas…

sailboatMy wonderful daughter Sophie got some new galoshes a while back when we went as a family to the pumpkin patch. As soon as she found out they were water proof she fell in love with them. She has great fun splashing around in Oregon’s many puddles. It is great fun to watch her play. Recently, as Liz and I have tried to figure out what to get her for a Christmas present, we just asked her. Her reply? She wants a sailboat. When I tried to explain to her that a sailboat would cost five years wages she just looked at me like “do it, Daddy.” God, I love my daughter so much!

This made me think of things like dreams and goals and cynicism. My daughter’s dream is pretty epic. She wants her own ship! I can imagine her piloting around the ocean on a great adventure, going wherever the winds push her, masterfully looking to the stars and navigating the tides. I see the look of sheer joy on her face as she lives out this vision. What better could I want for her? For now anyway, the five figures it would take (not to mention the physical strength) to live this dream make its realization impossible. But I have to admit to beaming with a little fatherly pride. Some people don’t have a dream that good at thirty, and my daughter isn’t three quite yet!

Dreams seem so foolish in our cynical world. Many of us don’t dream much bigger than a stable job and an 80 inch plasma T.V., but for some of us, underneath the surface is a passion, a vision, and drive. I count myself in this group. In the Burl Ive’s claymation classic Rudolph there is this elf named Hermy. He wants to be a dentist, which is pretty far from what I would want to do, but it is something noble and good. He just doesn’t fit in with all his dentist books and infantile attempts at practicing dentistry on toys. Just as in the song he sings, he is a misfit. In my quest to answer my call to serve as a pastor, this is the awkward stage where I live now. Most of the people in my life glaze over when I speak of the things I am passionate about. My passion to preach and teach is often not appreciated much more that Hermy’s vision of healing by pulling teeth. Most people could care less about the books I am reading and the things I am learning. These things just don’t fit the vision of those around me. At seminary I am bright student with great potential, at work I am Hermy. But some day these gifts I am itching to use and the preparations I am making now will find their home. Dreams don’t have to stay dreams. We equate the word “amateur” with a lack of skill, but it actually means to love something. GK Chesterton reminds us that “a man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well.”My moment will come and I will rise to the occasion. Some day…

But for now, I am looking to Sophie’s example. Perhaps it is a little naïve, but even though there are challenges, it is about time I looked up from them now and then. The challenges are all I ever see these days, and it is easy to forget the God-given passion and vision for which I am facing them. It is time to dream again these “pastor dreams.” To dare to dream of where I would love to serve instead of just feeling like I will be forced to wait around for some church that is just small enough, just dysfunctional enough, just on the brink of closing its doors enough, to risk casting their lot with someone new like me. To get outside of my own worries about how the math of day to day living will work out if I even land a pastor job. To get outside the cynicism of feeling like I have washed up on the “island of misfit toys” (or pastors).

My process of ongoing discernment has been a frustrating one to say the least, yet there is something about crystallizing a life giving hope for the future that is downright necessary. It helps strip away the things that are not a part of the vision. Michelangelo was once asked how he made his sculpture of David from marble, to this he responded “I sought out what wasn’t David and I removed it.” I pray that God will help me to find the place that this vision can be lived out, if it is His will to do so.

My dream job is to serve as a pastor: to be intimately connected with a community of faith’s hopes, dreams, pains, and journey. I would love to minister at a church while slowly continuing my education to the doctoral level, and later on to teach classes as an adjunct at either a Christian or a secular school. This would keep me involved in the lives of college students as well as keep me current in the world of ideas. I feel called to connect the ivory tower with the practical world in every way possible. I would love to help equip energetic college students to find new ways to “love thy neighbor, and to dream of ways in which the church could adapt to engage this world Jesus died to save. I hope that this will also provide many opportunities for research and writing in ways that serve the church. In a perfect world, this is what I would want. I hold this vision loosely, but if God lets me, I will live it out. Of course, He may have something unimaginably better in mind…


Conception of a Quaker Pastor

Released ministry is more than just a buzzword to me; it represents being provided the financial freedom to reach out more intentionally to the community outside the church with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not primarily to serve as a chaplain, though that is a part of it as well, but to serve as a spiritual usher who helps people find their place in the family of God. Ministry is something for all believers, yet some are called to be empowered financially by the church so their service will be even more effective. I feel called to serve in this way.

Philosophy of Role

The role of a pastor in a Friends congregation is not the model of a “sage on a stage” but more of a “guide alongside” approach. I see this role as not only equipping the body to do effective ministry and teaching, but as helping God to make and draw in new Christians to the body personally, so that continued discipleship in the community can take place. What I see as distinctly Quaker about this is that the pastor in this kind of released ministry is not only equipping others and empowering them to do ministry (in the usual pedagogic model), but also interacting outside the church buildings and circles personally, in the same way I hope to be equipping the congregation to do. I do not see released ministry as “leashed” ministry, i.e. doing certain things so the congregation does not have to, but as freedom to do even more of the same types of things the congregation is supposed to be doing and equipping them to do these things better.

Sharing Authority

Authority stems from responsibility, and responsibility from love. I want to empower responsible people to steward authority, and the only way to do that is to share the authority they need to succeed at what they are responsible for. Micro-management is not in the job description of a Friends Pastor. I plan to educate and equip committees, other groups, and individuals to understand the broad ways that they are free to make decisions and take actions, as well as communicate with the other groups within the body in an interdependent way.

The Priority of Christ as Teacher

I will admit I barely grasp the mystery of Christ’s present teaching of the body in relation to specific areas of implementation and function as of yet. Christ is the head of His church. Many within the church know Him as their Present Teacher and some do not. Many are faithful to His teachings and commands, while some are not. My hope, wish, and expectation is to help reveal the faith of the faithful to the unfaithful, within and without; to bring people to a place of submission and obedience to Christ’s present will in their lives. I desire that the Present Christ will help the body function in a spirit of unity and love that draws people in and challenges them to respond to Jesus. My hope is that what God does in the hearts of His people on Sunday morning will only be a small part of what God is also doing with, through and in them during the rest of the week in its tragedies, triumphs and mundane moments.

Philosophy of Worship

Worship is a blend of both pre-decided and spontaneous movements of the Spirit. At times, the Spirit will spontaneously—even drastically—alter what seemed like the way God was leading up to that point. Whether it is a sermon, a song, or an aspect of vocal ministry, I want to be in tune with God’s will and constantly developing such good spiritual reflexes in myself, and the congregation, that Christ will aid us in His own worship. This means that the plans I make will be held loosely and that the church body will be taught to do the same with their expectations.

Silence

Helping to facilitate worship in a distinctly Friends way seems historically to be one of encouraging those in the body to partake of the deeper realities of the spiritual walk, and to do this corporately. Not everyone comes to a place where they will fully appreciate the practice of silence, and unfortunately, that is a reality. Even as I deeply love silence, I feel that—like the forced liturgies the Friends once critiqued—silence can easily become a dead ritual if we do not continue to teach about its nature and embrace ways people can go deeper in waiting and listening corporately. Surely, the stewardship of silence means more to Friends than offering a pamphlet to the newcomer, it needs to be an invitation to the opportunity to be discipled.

Music

Often, the concepts of music and worship have become so entwined that people cannot conceive of one as possible without the other, to our detriment. I hope as a Quaker pastor to expand the bounds of worship beyond this. If a congregation is not very musical let them not guilt people into serving by singing every time there is a meeting. On the other hand, I also feel we have not harnessed the unifying power of music to its full potential. I hope to foster a spirit where new songs can rise up from within our congregations and empower creative people to find new ways to worship God that fit our context. I want to encourage people to steward music in ways that best build up the body and reach outside of it. The hymns we now often cling to were once written as much to bring theology into the coal mines, as to the pews. I want to recapture that vision in Friends worship.

Vocal ministry

I love the Quaker understanding that vocal ministry is shared by all, and the encouragement of such ministry to take place. I also desire everyone to listen to God and speak from that experience in obedience, yet I do not see prepared sermons necessarily as a threat to this. Regular Sunday preaching has become a reliable vehicle of God’s movement and a very intentional part of discipleship for us. I hope to stretch people’s expectations and push them to listen and respond in the moment as well as in the developing of formal preaching. It would be silly not to recognize that some people have gifts in preaching and teaching and will tend to use those gifts more than others. I want to make room for both of these, and empower both of these types of vocal ministry, neglecting neither.

Conclusion

            Looking back at what I have written here, it is hard to tell how “Quaker” it really is. Perhaps some of its “Quakerness” lies in its simplicity. I am clearly a product of my time, place, and culture, as well as the programmed system. I have however, experienced the depth of Quaker discipleship, and it has led me to an understanding that all Quakers are actually pastors. The problem is perhaps that they have not yet realized it. Perhaps that is what released ministry needs to be about in our time. Mine will be a journey of rediscovering the roots that bore the fruits I now enjoy, and inviting others to do the same.


Big and Little “F” Fatherhood

I have a lot of feminist friends at seminary. They ask the most amazing questions. Things like, “How important is it that Jesus was incarnated male instead of female?” or “Since God has no gender, why do we downplay the maternal imagery and lift up the paternal imagery of God?” I want to say first off that these are important questions to be asking, and that looking into the dualistic hierarchies we create as a society is a challenging endeavor that has earned no small amount of my respect. As I begin this blog, I hope you all know that it is coming directly from my own experience, my thoughts, reflections, and mystical encounters with God. These experiences have made me appreciate the more traditional view of things, i.e. the Fatherhood of God. It is not my intention here to push the buttons of feminists or use the Bible to oppress women by any means.  As a male who grew up with an ever shifting and usually bad person I was encouraged and expected to think of as my father, the word father had a lot of baggage and disappointment associated with it. How this has and is affecting me spiritually is more where I hope this reflection to go.

I grew up having no clue about who my biological father was, aside from knowing his name. Until my mom met and married Virgil when I was 16, father was kind of a dirty word, even a source of alienation from my radically divergent experience compared to people I knew growing up. Unfortunately nowadays my experience has grown increasingly common. As you can see, to this day I still generally refer to my stepdad by his first name. Even though I love the man dearly and for all intents and purposes he has been my father only rarely do I call him Dad. I reserve that for special times of heightened emotion, like Father’s Day or Christmas. Times when his fatherhood and love for me are crystal clear and my reservations are swept away.

Virgil is a great man, but aside from inheriting me and the rest of my siblings, it is not as though I was around much to see how it is done. I was pretty well grown up and the damage was largely already done before he walked on the scene. I also have recently tracked down my biological father and we have Skyped a couple times, and mostly just talk on the phone. I am still processing through how this new relationship helps me understand “father,” but suffice it to say our connection is less like most people’s experience. Most fathers don’t get a letter from a son they have never known completely out of the blue and try to start a relationship over the phone. Even this remote connection though, is far more helpful than looking for third-hand clues in “how to be a man” from TV and total strangers. I count myself very blessed for these times I have shared with Leo, my biological father who lives in San Diego, a mere twenty hour drive from here.

I lived in fear of the day I might become a father, because I had so few good models from which to glean understandings of what it means to be a father. I never felt like I would ever be ready, least of all ready for a daughter instead of a son. My daughter though, is now the very jewel of my life. I admit, it is frightening to think of how things will change when puberty strikes and boys come calling, but I know her life will be a lot less confusing than mine was. She will know deeply and always that two parents love her, and though there is much confusion in life she won’t be spared, the level of satisfaction I have in knowing she will know this simple truth is beyond my comprehension.

Whether mother or father, our parental relationships are one very important lens through which we see God. For many of us this lens is dirty, cracked, or worse. We can see God’s Fatherhood as cold and distant, angry, or wrathful. We can see God as a big “meaney in the sky” who can’t wait for us to screw up so He can spank us mercilessly. We can see God as an abusive parent who makes us do wrong and then punishes and shames us for it. If we aren’t careful, we can re-embody these cycles we inherited and expect nothing from ourselves outside of our own limited, and broken view. We can let being a victim excuse us from victimizing others, and pass blame on genetics or our environment, but the fact is we are responsible for our own choices. We cannot let our parents behavior excuse us from stepping up to the plate on our own, and making our own victories and mistakes.

As I found the Lord the inner category I had for father was slowly stretched and reformed. I was made aware of the love that is the defining force behind real fatherhood, heavenly or otherwise. I could see this motive of love behind God’s hand in every way He pushed me and refused to take no for an answer in our dealings. I could see this motive of love in the excellence He expected of me and the ways He encouraged me, invited me to participate in His nature, and challenged me to stretch and grow.  I often hear other people describe their experience with God as this great sense of inner “peace.” To be honest, when I hear this I can’t help but find myself a little suspicious. Thomas Kelly writes in A Testament of Devotion this simple prayer “Open thou my life. Guide my thoughts where I dare not let them go. But thou darest. Thy will be done.” I often find God asking me for obedience, even with two holy thumbs in my back pushing me. I find the opposite of peace, I find the “But Thou darest” part Kelly describes, at my every turn.

This relates to fatherhood in a way I am coming to notice as we raise our daughter. Simply put love dares. Love pushes us, not in a controlling or manipulative way, not to its own ends–but in response to itself. To share in its richness together. As fathers and mothers, we steward our love and are responsible for it and to it. Most of my fears about fatherhood turned out to be unrealistic or flat wrong. Love has dared me to stretch and grow in whatever ways best steward this love I have for my wife and daughter, a love given as a free gift from God. The selfishness I feared would make me an awful father still expresses itself in experiences of missing free time, a lack of personal space, and the isolation that is common to having a two year old. Yet the love of my Heavenly Father now lives in me and guides me as I navigate these challenges. I can pray with Kelly this prayer of obedience in all honesty, not knowing exactly how the challenges of parenthood will lead, but knowing the love my daughter and I share is worth every ounce of risk and pain the journey requires.

God dares us to accept His love as a child, unable to imagine the good and terrible things He has in store for us. But He also dares some of us to share it as a parent, in response to the needs of this present moment, whether that means changing a pair of poopy panties or dying to our own desire for a bathroom door that doesn’t fly open every five minutes. As you and I share this journey of fatherhood, let us define it in the holy ways of obedience, and the model God Himself presents to us. Let us trust His grace will illuminate our pasts and help us see His hand there, help us love fully in the present that we have with our children, and burn in our hearts the very vision of hope God sees the future with, for us and all of His children.


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