Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Power of Persistence

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Most people think ministers have a solid prayer life. When I envisioned my call to divinity school, I couldn’t help but picture cloistered little monkish students squirreled away in their rooms or libraries juggling thick books on the history of the church, stopping their study every so often because they are overwhelmed with the urge to pray. Divinity school, as many of you know, is nothing like that. The image of monkish little cloisters was destroyed by the reality of theological arguments and all night study sessions fueled by copious amounts of coffee and cookies with the fear of failure hanging thick overhead. Many of my former classmates are now ministers, and I know we are just like most people--busy, running about, answering emails, talking on our smart phones, trying to figure out how to squeeze in a pastoral visit when we are also supposed to attend a committee meeting. Trying, like all of us, not to let anything slip through the cracks.

It’s hard to get all the chatter out of our heads when we pray. We are busy people, with spouses and children, work and deadlines, school and soccer practice, and all sorts of crazy and new-fangled types of social media like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn, and so on, with countless requests to join one more thing that will take up our time.

This past Lent, I tried to take 15 minutes a day and listen to a guided prayer meditation produced by Benedictine monks in England, but I kept missing days. Once I missed because of a CHANGE meeting where we discussed the creation of disaster response teams from churches, negotiating with banks to put foreclosed properties on the market, and pushing forward on education reform. Another day I missed because I was helping organize racial reconciliation and social justice workshops at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina General Assembly. One night I missed because I fell asleep early. I had dinner with friends visiting from out of town another time. Once, I went on a long walk and just forgot. I’m not very good at being still when I’m supposed to.

Jesus tells us in Luke 11:5-8, part of the lectionary text for this week, that we must be persistent in our prayer. He gives an example of someone who has unexpected company and goes next door to ask for food, but his neighbor won’t answer the door. Jesus encourages him in verse 8 to keep knocking, for, “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” This persistence passage tells me that prayer isn’t always a passive activity, but an active response to make something happen. Like the anecdote about the praying man who was drowning and passed up two ships and a helicopter because he thought God would save him and still died, we know we should use what God gives us to make change. The real blessing occurs when we do this not only for ourselves, but for the good of others. We know from many of Jesus’ parables that “other,” “neighbor” and “friend” stretch our mindset for our day-to-day frame of reference for church relationships (think of The Good Samaritan story in Luke 10, where Jesus gives a parable about a total stranger in need as an example of “neighbor”).

Everyone has talents and gifts through which he or she can persevere in a life lived as prayer. What gift, talent, or resource do you have to offer your community? I encourage you to pray about it, and then act on it persistently.

Let us challenge ourselves to always answer that knocking door, knowing that in doing so we are living into our calling as children of God, disciples of Christ, and agents of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Separate but Equal

by. Rev. Darryl Aaron

Traveling abroad really does take one out of his or her comfort zone. Early on during my recent travel abroad it was clear that I was stepping into unfamiliar territory. The mission of the trip was titled, “Going into Hard Places: Trips That Make a Difference.” Actually, I welcome the opportunity to enter hard places. However, all too often some who enter hard places enthusiastically come away from these tough territories highlighting the differences between “them and us” and thereby increasing, rather than decreasing, the chasm between God’s people. Traveling to Moldova and Bucharest took me more than a few miles away from home, but the distance covered could not erase the eternal imprint which I made upon each different person that I met. Throughout our journey I encountered experience after experience that validates this truth.

When my traveling partners and I arrived at our destination, our host and his young son met us. Later on that evening at their house both miles and mores were linked by the simple act of a father shoving his kid in the right direction. Specifically, the dad asked the son to play the piano for us but the boy wasn’t interested; he didn’t like to play the piano even though he had excellent skills. After a little coaxing (and eye-balling) from his dad, the boy eventually did what all young kids do when parents have made positive investments into their lives. The reluctant adolescent slowly meandered over to the piano and artfully displayed his gifts through song after song. His music alleviated the fatigue which resulted from our long excursion and reminded us that God’s gifts in each of us sometimes need a little push. The dad of this young boy has done what parents all over the world have always been doing: sacrificing so that the rooms for their kids will always have high ceilings. The father’s persistent insistence reminds us of the wedding at Cana where Jesus’ mother had to ignore her son’s reluctance to exercise his gifts so that the guests could discover that joy was available and burdens could be lifted. Sometimes many years and many miles separate us, yet we still find ourselves on the same plane—separate but equal.

Various experiences in Bucharest and Moldova underscored the truth that we are separate but equal. These experiences ranged from discerning that pastors everywhere want to be successful at what they do, to realizing that ministry everywhere is ebb and flow, to understanding that marriages are both rewarding and regretful, to seeing that universally people really are trying to be good witnesses, even while stumbling and falling. However, there is one incident that provided the strongest impetus for my putting these thoughts on paper.

One morning we visited a college in Moldova where we met and worshiped with a group of students. During lunch the professors were discussing the students’ curriculum and the discussion proved to be lively and stimulating. Noting that there are more than 12 nationalities represented in the college, the professors shared how specific missionary methods were given to exclusive students for “hard places. “ The professors said that because many of the diverse cultural mores and folkways of their pupils do not overlap, students are separated into groups where individual needs can best be addressed. Hearing this, I immediately thought, “Separate but equal!” In fact, as soon as I heard this concept of separating students in an academic setting voiced, history erupted from a soft spot within me and spilled out of my mouth in these words, “To me this sounds like separate but equal.” Right away, all of the Americans at the table knew the connotations of my remark. Sadly, although I had lost my luggage and my claim check somewhere along the trip, I was still carrying some “baggage.”

The College is sending young Christian missionaries back into Islamic regions with a thorough knowledge of both Christianity and Islam, and yet I was afraid that their backpacks might also be filled with the old burdens of racism and prejudice. If there is ever going to be authentic reconciliation among people, then all walls must be torn down. Dilemmas and controversies are best resolved when we all sit at the table and reason together. Differences are more readily recognized and celebrated when partitions are eliminated. Miles and mores can easily separate us but we can never be equal unless we believe that each of us must learn from one another. I can never really love my neighbor unless I sit at his table and eat his food. The professors learned of the baggage inherent in “separate but equal” because we were at the table together. There we exchanged disappointments and dreams—we touched each other’s marks of Christ.

I am grateful for the chance to have gone to another hard place and to have had God reveal himself one more time in the hard and soft spots. It is my hope that all missional efforts provide opportunities for God’s people to come to the table to simultaneously acknowledge our separation and affirm our equality in the kingdom of God. Amen!

Rev. Darryl Aaron is the pastor of First Baptist Church East Winston on Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem, NC. He wrote this reflection after a trip to visit CBF field personnel in Bucharest and Moldova, led by Rob Nash of CBF National and Pat Anderson of CBF Florida. Rev. Aaron was also a featured preacher during Dr. Charles Bugg's "Preaching the Missional Journey" workshops at the 2010 CBF General Assembly in Charlotte.

Monday, July 12, 2010

“The Missional Church & Denominations” – A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

I recently read The Missional Church & Denominations: Helping Congregations Develop a Missional Identity, edited by Craig Van Gelder. This book pulls together essays of denominational and religious leaders who speak to the importance of transforming our communities of faith from being reliant on attractional, programmatic thinking, into missionally-minded congregations that are following God’s call beyond their walls and into their communities and world. Reading their comments, I cannot help but be excited about what this century holds for Christianity. In this age of pluralism and diversity, Christians have the opportunity to build relationships that reflect the dynamic calling of Christ who wanted followers to go out into the world.

Authors comment on various aspects of the need for transformation in our religious structures and the challenges that stand in the way of such change. David Forney encourages us to abandon our “institutional idolatry” that value bureaucracies over the relational work motivated by the Spirit of God (66). He uses the book of Hebrews as a model, both for it’s portrayal of Christian hope and it’s call in chapter 13 to journey outside the safety of the city gate as Jesus did. Alan Roxburgh claims that denominations and churches must accept change as the Jews in Babylon changed under Jeremiah’s mandate to reform themselves in this new place. We live in a secular society where denominational identities, traditional church models, and church attendance records are in flux, and Christians must learn to move past unhelpful and outdated programmatic responses. Denominations can engage in and embrace pathways to new, non-hierarchical, missionally-engaged leadership. Their examples and learning processes can become a resource for churches, when paired with coaching, toward a more community-engaged church with open space for believers to journey together in this new age (101-103).

Writers also use examples from their own denominations for why change needed to occur and how it happened. Daniel Anderson states that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has the idea of the Missional Church in its DNA, based on the fiery example of Reformation leaders. They followed the mission of God to reform the church, but eventually became bogged down in orthodoxy and Pietism. When the ELCA formed twenty years ago, they realized the need to hold it’s tradition of orthodoxy and practice in check with confessional piety. It wasn’t that they needed to do away with tradition, but they did need to renegotiate the boundaries of each strand of DNA. They also try to use their church structure for collaboration rather than hierarchical order, though they sometimes slip into programmatic solutions to missional questions (186-193).

I was struck by the fact that many of the writers of different essays from various backgrounds in this book were saying two very similar things. First, God is a sending God who is on a mission in the world. Churches, as a whole, must join God on that mission, rather than merely thinking programmatically and compartmentally that anything outside the church walls belongs in the outreach or missions programs. Second, the idea of being missional is centered on the idea of a Triune God who is dynamic and relational in the world. In the same way, we must abandon our hierarchical structures for networks--ones that are more communicative and conducive to sharing ideas and gifts. One essay writer, Dwight Zcheile, points out that corporations have already begun to embrace more fluid leadership models, and notes that the church’s tendency to “lag a generation or two behind” accounts for the reason the church as a whole hasn’t yet adopted such transformed structures (140).

Perhaps the greatest summary of what missional is and why communities of faith might consider transformation is articulated by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America at the close of the book, which he refers to this idea in the context of “God’s calling for our future.” He states:

“A missional church places its commitment to participate in God’s mission in the world at the center of its life and identity. “Mission” places the focus on what God is doing in the world, recognizing that God’s mission is always ahead of us, already active through the Spirit in the world…For the missional church, mission is not an activity or a program; rather, it lies at the center of the church’s identity” (267).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Psalm for Coffee Drinkers

by Dr. Mark T. White

Author Harold Kushner has proposed what he calls the instant coffee theory of life. He says that when you open a new jar of coffee you tend to dole it out in generous portions, because you have a jar full of coffee. But halfway down the jar, you tend to be a little more conservative. You realize that the jar isn’t going to last forever. By the time you reach the bottom of the jar, you find yourself measuring your portions very carefully, reaching into the corners of the jar for every last grain.

We tend to treat our time that way. When we are young, we think we can afford to waste time. We have an entire life in front of us. We feel as if we will last forever. But about halfway through life, it begins to dawn on us that we are not going to live forever, and we begin to reevaluate every area of our lives.

By the time we reach our 50’s and 60’s, we realize that we have fewer years ahead of us than are behind us. And toward the end of our lives we ask, “How did life go by so quickly?”

In the oldest of all psalms, Moses expresses the same thought. Life is very brief. “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away.”

What should be our response to the brevity of life? Panic? Despair? Hedonism? No. Moses prayer is that God will “teach us to number our days that we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom.” I like the way the Living Bible translates verse 12 of Psalm 90: “So teach us how to number our days and recognize how few they are. Help us to spend them as we should.”

Moses says that we are to measure out our time as carefully as we apportion the final grains in the coffee jar. Yes, time is brief and, therefore, valuable. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The best use of time is to spend it on that which outlasts it.”

Mark T. White is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Clayton, NC, and this article first appeared in their church newsletter, The Outlook.