Monday, June 27, 2011

Ministry as Spiritual Practice

by Rev. Mahan Siler

I, like many of you, live from three public vows: baptism, to love from/with/as Jesus loves; marriage, to love Janice (and children); and ordination, to love and serve the church. Of course, at the time, I knew so little about the promises I was making. (Aren't you also amazed at your leaps of faith?) Nevertheless, these oaths framed my core identity, frames on which I have been hanging life experiences ever since.

The pressure I felt as a pastor, both external and internal, was to give priority to ordination. This priority was fueled by my need to do well and the needs of the congregation for my time and energy. That's appropriate. My baptismal journey toward Christ-ness is my responsibility, not theirs.

In this reflection, I am wondering about the ways that ordination, that is, serving the church, gave me a spiritual practice, a way of inner transformation dramatized in baptism. These come to mind.

Preaching was one. It seemed to come around every three or four days. But, more often than not, it was a rigorous spiritual discipline, a kind of extended “lectio divina.” All during the week I could ruminate on the upcoming texts, listening for the Word of life for me as well as the congregation. In my better moments, I carried the text with me into pastoral conversations and institutional concerns, on the look out for connections with the text. If I allowed it, the text would be working on me, more so than me working on the text. In retirement, someone asked if I would miss preaching. I remember my response: “How will I know what I believe?” I miss this regular spiritual practice.

Second, I think of our presence with the dying, death and subsequent layers of grief. It is our specialty in a generalist vocation. Along with the “fear and trembling” of being present in such vulnerable, sacred moments, there was also a mirroring of my own mortality. Always I left pondering, “what really matters?” Each time I felt more keenly the gift of “now” in all its preciousness. And returning home, invariably I hugged Janice a little longer.

Third, there is pastoral care in other contexts. Because of our calling, we enter, upon invitation, into the private places of a person's life and be there with presence, and sometimes sight. But also we are there as learners. We are privileged with a “ring side seat,” close to the fight for meaning and the yearning of faith. We are students. They teach us, each one.

I note one other way that ministry was a spiritual practice of transformation, when I allowed it. We engage in so many difficult conversations, difficult relationships, and difficult crises. When we declared our ordination promises, none of us anticipated so many difficult interpersonal challenges. But, if I had the courage to see, each encounter would unveil my huge needs for security, approval, esteem, power and control --- all characteristics of the egoic self. Each one offered the opportunity to transcend self-preoccupation. Each challenging difficulty invited the option of letting go, trusting, forgiving, and surrendering to Spirit at work for Shalom in all things.

A couple of quotes address this very point:

“Christ is revealed in those with whom we have the good fortune to be stuck.” Stanley Hauerwas

A Tibetan prayer: “Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened and my practice of liberation and universal compassion may be truly fulfilled.”

Nothing is wasted. Everything that happens is grist for transformation. Everything can contribute to our baptismal journey.

Mahan Siler is a retired pastor working with pastors and a member of the Circle of Mercy Church in Asheville. His website is

Monday, June 20, 2011

Generations & Generosity

by Rev. Christina Whitehouse-Suggs

Being the mother of a five year old has taught me a few things. One, breakable things are NEVER as far out of reach as you think they are; two, hugs and kisses are usually the best medicine for a bump or bruise; and three, she is ALWAYS watching. That means that if I want Kara to be polite, use good manners, and clean up after herself, I’d better be doing it myself. The logic follows that if I want her to be a follower of the way of Jesus, devoted to the Church, concerned for the poor, and a generous giver, then I need to model those traits for her.

Too often, I hear the lament that young people just don’t give to the church the way older folks do, that us 30 and 40-somethings are cynical, “me” oriented, suspicious and only concerned about what’s in it for us. And to some extent, that is true. My question is, “Where did we learn these traits?”

We are the “fast food generation” who was raised on Happy Meals, taught to read by Sesame Street, and grew up in after-school programs. Who taught us how to care for others? Were we taught to give generously and support things we loved with our time, energy, AND money? The economists have labeled us “Generation Debt”, the ones who are “upside-down” in car payments, mortgages, and credit cards. We are a generation obsessed with instant gratification.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not placing the blame entirely on the shoulders of our parents and grandparents. At some point, we young adults need to suck it up and take responsibility for our poor giving (and spending!) habits. But we could use a little grace and education.

In her excellent article, “Generations and Generosity”, Ann Updegraff Spleth, ministry colleague with The Columbia Partnership, outlines some assumptions about generosity; that it is a learned or conditioned response, religiously motivated, shaped by childhood experiences, and influenced by our adult life experiences. That says to me that we can learn (even as adults) to be generous… but it helps if we are taught this Christ-like trait early on.

To all the saints in the Church who have the most generous hearts and spirits I have ever encountered, I am speaking to you. Help us. Teach us. Be patient with us. We are trying to grow up and be responsible and generous adults.

To my fellow Gen Xers who are struggling to pay bills and raise children and follow the risen Christ, I feel your pain. But if we are serious about following Jesus, then the generous Spirit of God should captivate us and become a priority. Let’s become a generation of redeemed Zacchaeuses who find the joy in giving.

Christina Whitehouse-Suggs is the Associate Coordinator of CBF of South Carolina. This article originally appeared in their monthly newsletter, Fellowship. Christina also blogs at Thoughts from the Journey.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bible: The Story of the King James Version - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

On the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, I thought I would read a book that discussed how it came together. Bible: The Story of the King James Version was written by Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester in England. Parts of this book are interesting and informative, and ministers might want to use information gleaned from certain chapters if they are doing a history series in their church. Other parts, however, are very dry and tedious, which the author even admits at one point.

In general, the first four chapters on how the King James Version came about and the last four chapters on the KJV in America and modern times are worth a read to expand your knowledge on what many do not know about this translation. The middle contains details about various versions of the KJV, what passages were changed throughout the years in revisions, which printers got the rights to print the Bible, and various intricate details. The most important take away from this section is that the KJV you read today is not the original 1611 version. Revisions and different editions reflect the modernization of the English language and different interpretations of the original Hebrew and Greek that came about over the years.

The chapters on how the KJV came to be are fascinating. King James called a conference in 1604. The proposition of a new biblical translation came about, which pleased King James for several reasons. First, he could have an alternative to the Geneva Bible, which espoused criticism against the monarchy. Second, an authoritative translation dedicated to himself would reinforce the idea that he was the leader of a national church. Instructions, procedures, and translators were procured, and Campbell details the translation and production of the 1611 KJV.

One of the most interesting chapters is entitled “The Bible in America.” The British author discusses how the Unites States missed the rationalist movement that occurred in Europe due to the First and Second Great Awakenings. He appears to take the establishment side in the argument between Charles Chauncy (a rationalist) and George Whitefield, who argues for a personal conversion experience. The same day I read this chapter, I watched God in America, a PBS documentary where American religious historians discuss religious history. They side with Whitefield, because they link him to the champions against the establishment of religion (like the Virginia Baptists who would later implore Thomas Jefferson to fight with them for the separation of church and state). It is interesting to see the argument from both sides—American historians as the benefactors of the separation of church and state, and a British historian, who has no problem with the wedding of the two in England, where the queen is the head of the Anglican church.

Campbell catalogues later translations like the RSV and NRSV, as well as different editions and the motivations for their printing (The Green Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible). He also laments the decline in classes on the King James Version and literature. While the KJV was seen as being out of date linguistically at the time, it is now appreciated for its almost poetic prose. Campbell regrets our loss in understanding the effect it has had on the English language and our many idioms and sayings.

All in all, it was a fairly interesting read but very tedious in parts due to the high level of research and cataloguing of errors and misprints (especially the middle), but a more thorough reading of the first four and last four chapters with a brief skim of the middle should garner some interesting topics for any series on the KJV or the history of the Bible for educational purposes within the church.

Monday, June 6, 2011

American Wealth & Global Poverty

by Dr. Randall Lolley

Did you see the headline, “Bottom Half Have Just 1% Of All Wealth”? The story is almost as much bad news as Christmas was good news this year. A recent report from the World Institute for Development of Economies Research of the United Nations provides some staggering statistics.

The richest 1% of the world’s population owns 40% of the world’s wealth. The richest 2% own 51%. The richest 10% own 85%. Now here is the horrible, scary part. The bottom half of the world’s people - 50% of the world’s population - own just 1% of the world’s wealth. That is 3 billion human beings virtually out of the wealth loop.

Whatever happened to human worth?

Whatever happened to basic equity?

Is it any wonder there is so little peace on earth? Hungry and sick folks have other priorities than well-fed, well-kept folks.

Consider this: $515,000 net worth (houses, land, salary, savings, retirement plans) catapult a family into the top 1% of the world’s entire population. How many people do you know who own that much or more?

The average net worth of us who are citizens of the USA is $144,000 per person. The average net worth per person worldwide is $2,200. We Americans comprise just 4.7% of the world’s population but own almost one-third (32.4%) of the world’s wealth.

How blessed are we to live in this good land! The Christmas season just past marked a period according to a variety of surveys, when the average American Christmas-season shopper spent between $775 and $875 on presents.

That is 1/3 as much as the average person on earth accumulates over a lifetime!

I am not speaking negatively about the wealth we have been able to enjoy in our country. People on the whole have worked long and hard for it. But, I do have to mention a Scriptural principle straight from the lips of our Lord’s Apostle, Paul of Tarsus: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful to that trust.” (1 Corinthians 4:2).

What a trust ALL of us have been given; and it has come by way of amazing grace showered upon us by our Lord Jesus Christ who lived his entire earthly life among this world’s 99% at the bottom of the world’s wealth/food chain.

Randall Lolley is the current Interim Pastor of Greystone Baptist Church in Raleigh. He has pastored First Baptist Churches in Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro, and was the former president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared in Greystone's church newsletter, Greystone Today.