Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Homeward Bound (again)

We finished our final session this morning and that means it’s all about the homework now.  Educating Brian, though an ongoing adventure, is getting closer to a big milestone.  After getting all my homework done for this module, I’ll begin the thesis/project portion (which will take about 1 year).

It’s hard to believe my 2 week trips to St. Stephen have come to an end.  These have been rich days.  Challenging days.  Formative days.

Hemingway famously said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  This isn't Paris and I'm not a young man but my time at SSU has definitely become, for me, a moveable feast.  It’s been incarnational learning, a gift that will keep on giving as years roll by.  The time spent outside of class with my fellow modulites and faculty members has been as valuable as the hours in the classroom.

So now I rest and pack and soon I’ll load up with some of my friends for one last drive to Boston.  We’ll chase sleep one more time around the airport terminal and tomorrow morning start the last leg of our journey home.  It is well.

I’ll leave these updates for now with this final quote.  It comes from our morning conversation and the amazing book called, “The Imitation of Christ”.

“Be humble and a man of peace, and Jesus will be with you.  Be devout and still, and Jesus will remain with you.” - Thomas A Kempis

Thursday, March 21, 2013

An Alternative

This afternoon we finished up our course on the Hebrew prophets.  A month or so ago they were giving my head some trouble, this afternoon it’s my heart.

The prophets paint a picture of an alternative community in the midst of the dominant community.  Think of Martin Luther King Jr. preaching, “I have a dream!” and you will have a sense of what the prophets offered Israel.  Instead of a thousand tiny mirrors reflecting back the glory of God in the way they lived, the way they treated the poor and the disconnected, they way they loved God by loving the outcast, they had no time or room for reflection.  Where Moses covered his face with a veil because of the glory, they veiled the glory of God by their indifference and idolatry.

Bad Israel.  Bad. Bad.

But then Peter comes along and has to say this to you and me, “But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.”  Moses talked about a day when we’d all be prophets.  Joel predicted it.  Peter said that this is that.  Short version: we are born to be an alternative community, a different story, a sign of what life can be like with God as King.

And the question that’s gnawing at my soul this evening is: why don’t we do it?

Do we offer an alternative community to poverty?
Do we offer an alternative community to violence?
Do we offer an alternative community to sickness?
Do we offer an alternative community to insecurity?

Do we offer a better story than the world is offering?  Why do our leaders sound just like the leaders of the world?  Why do we treat women in the church the way we do?  How is that a better story?  Why do we accept the fragmentation of community as normal and hide in our homes from each other?  How is that a better story?  Why do we have a class system in the church?  Why do we insist that pastors deserve some privilege over and against anyone else in the church?  How is this a better story?  How is this a prophetic alternative?

In class, one of my friends and fellow modulites talked about how encouraged he was that churches in his city come together these days to do works of service in their community and to share resources for people in need.  I'm glad they do and it is a hopeful sign.  But it’s also a sad commentary that those details are actually remarkable.  That that story isn't normal.

God, have mercy on us.  Have mercy on me.  Yahweh, may we burn these veils, may we tell an alternative story with our lives.  May we become, once again, the prophetic community Jesus died for us to become and may our story oppose the dominant narrative until that story is too ashamed of itself to continue.

Spiritual Formation Final

This is my prayer collage from Spiritual Formation today.  As my friend Shawn said, I'll let my art speak for itself.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Poverty Mentality

Imagine a jar full of jelly beans and you have to guess how many are in there just by looking.  Guess how many beans there are in that jar and then add 10 and you’ll have the number of times I've been at Christian conferences where someone addressed our poverty mentality.  I've been in conferences where it was prayed off, broken off, commanded off and yelled off.  And in all the years that I've been going to Christian meetings I've never once heard someone say what Jeremiah said about poverty mentality.

Jeremiah 22:16
“He gave justice and help to the poor and needy,
    and everything went well for him.
Isn't that what it means to know me?”
    says the Lord.

According to the Old Testament or First Testament prophets the fastest track to trouble and landing in exile is abusing those who are weak, doing nothing for those who are in need, exploiting the poor and hurting.  This is the poverty mentality that the Scriptures warn us against, not "thinking we don’t deserve to be rich" but thinking we do.  The poverty mentality the prophets call us to is to be mindful of the widow, the orphan, the weak, the impoverished.  Help them...or else.

“Isn't that what it means to know me?”

It’s been a potent combination to go swimming this afternoon in the prophets right after a big meal of Francis of Assisi.  Hard not to get a cramp in my soul.  But then maybe that’s just exactly what I need.  I need to be drowned in a poverty mentality until my heart no longer beats for stuff, ‘til my body no longer responds to stuff.

How is a pilgrim supposed to live in a land of plenty?

"Make us worthy, Lord, to serve those people throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands, this day, their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give them peace and Joy. Amen" - a prayer of Mother Theresa

The Thing Is...

Imagine if the call to follow Jesus required you to leave everything behind?  No more attachments, no personal property other than the one set of clothes you have on, no home of your own, and living on less is part of your vocational ambition.  Too hard?  Nobody lining up to say, “Yes.”

But here was little Francesco and his little group of followers who laid down any claims they might have to ‘stuff’ and a comfortable life.  And they grew and added to their number and they spread, both men and women followers, those who withdrew and those who stayed within their contemporary culture.

I've come away from this morning wondering how we can say “too hard” when this is precisely the sort of life that Jesus called his followers to live.

Don’t dismiss the question by its practical implications.  That’s too easy.  We've run as fast as we can to find a way to make the church as much like culture as we possibly can so it will be easy for people to join.  Perhaps that’s exactly why the lines are not so long?

A prayer in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mother Tongue

I've heard from people who translate the Bible into other languages, especially for the first time for a people group, that even if the people understand English or French or Spanish, they long to hear the Scriptures in the language of their heart.

These afternoon classes have been for me all about hearing the Hebrew prophets in the language of my heart.

As a charismatic believer in the Vineyard movement I've often felt that I had to either be charismatic or have a brain but I couldn't possibly enjoy both.  I've hung out with other Vineyard pastors who either have no interest in theology or are very interested and quite fond of a 3rd or 4th century heresy that they want to share, oblivious that in another time and place their ‘new revelation’ was dismissed as an old error.  Occasionally I get to talk with other pastors who embrace both the Spirit and their brains.  I cling to those moments for all they’re worth!

Today I sat and listened for 4 hours again to our prof make much of God, of Scripture, of the children of Israel and the Church.  The lens through which we viewed all these: Jesus.  He spoke both as one who knows Jesus and one who knows the Spirit.  He spoke to us using both sides of his brain.  He spoke to us with awareness of history and of culture.  He spoke as an American who has lived a couple decades outside of the United States.  He spoke with appreciation for those scholars he has studied with whom he sometimes disagrees and he spoke critically of those scholars he has studied with whom he often agrees.

There was one paragraph of thought that was shared that made my little heart grow three sizes today.  Here’s one of the phrases: “Glory is dangerous.”

I was once told by a prophetic type that I was made to minister in Spirit and in Truth.  This ministry module at SSU has brought me into a whole new place with what that means to me.  These two years have been a grace of God, not only because they've brought order to my brain cells but because they've put fire in my spirit.

I've still got a lot to learn but one thing I'm sure of tonight is that I won't be going home the same man who came to this module.

Have you ever heard a truth that transformed?  What was it?

Clock Watching

This morning we were back to spiritual formation.  The focus of our contemplation, listening prayer and conversation was “attachments”.

We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one…Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.” - from Principle & Foundation, The Spiritual Exercises

We all form attachments.  They can be healthy.  But there has to be an order to our attachments.  Disordered attachments will lead us away from God or at the very least become an obstacle between our want to discern and our ability to hear.  As we took time to listen this morning I felt God illuminate some of my ‘disordered attachments’, my “I can only be happy if…” places that need to be picked up and put back on their appropriate shelf, or tossed out or redeemed in some way that God only knows.

One of the attachments I became acutely aware of was my attachment to this course and this group of modulites.  As class went on I found myself watching the clock and waiting for a moment like Joshua had where time stands still.  I've had moments like that.  But not today.  Not this week.  I love and hate that we’re coming to the end of this experience.  Not that I am, but that WE are.

Like Martin Sheen’s unlikely band of companions on the Camino de Santiago in the movie, The Way, we modulites have become a tribe as we've walked out this pilgrimage together.  They've become an attachment.  And so I watch the clock and squint my eyes and wish for the sun to stand still.  But it doesn't   Life isn't like that.

So I come to a place of acceptance.  What happens next will be what God wills and the journey will continue.  When we first landed here it was the last module for some but the story continued with us and in our going the story will continue with us but it will also continue here.  But we will continue to be attached to each other.  Whenever we hear someone talk about St. Francis or hear someone order Irish whiskey or talk about the pyramids or refer to C.S. Lewis as whiny, the clock will stop for us and in a moment between seconds that only we will be aware of we’ll return to this time, this place and these friends because sometimes attachments make us stronger.

How do you order your attachments?  Are you able to hear the symphony or does that toe tapper in the row in front of you have all of your attention?  What attachments give meaning to your story?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Time Flies

This afternoon we started our new track on the Hebrew Prophets.  I’ve been looking forward to this.  I’m one of those weird people who love the Bible the way other people love Star Trek, Legos or trains.  I can get absolutely geeky about it.  I’ve embraced this geeky side of myself and generally I kept my fill reading the Bible, reading books about the Bible, listening to podcasts or talking to one or two friends who share my inclination.

I don’t dress up as a Bible.

Just thought I should make that clear.

So from 1:30 to 5:30 today I was experiencing a special kind of bliss.  I think I talked too much but my enthusiasm for the topic got the best of me.  4 hours went by faster than a grande cup of fresh, dark roast coffee in the morning.

First, our prof gave us a principle of interpretation that was right up there with “Context”.  If I write it down here you would probably, and maybe rightly so, say, “meh.”  But believe me when I tell you it was huge for me.  Right up there with finding out I needed glasses when I was 10.

Second, this thought that came from the meta-narrative: “The in breaking of God is relentless.”  Again, that may rate a, “meh.” from you but I assure you it is a hopeful, empowering, comforting truth.  He started in the beginning.  He hasn't stopped.

Wherever or whatever your happy place is, this afternoon I was in mine.  And I only have 3 more of these sessions left.  It reminds me of the weeks I’d spend on my Aunt and Uncle’s farm in the summers.  The start of the week seemed so long and by the middle of the week I was desperate to make time stand still and stretch out the hot days and cool breezy nights.  There were way too many comic books to get through, not to mention the Tom Swift novels, before the week could end.

A satisfying day today and I appreciate all of you who have made this possible.

What did you learn one day that changed the way you looked at a whole bunch of other things?

Life is Complicated

Churchill once described the actions of Russia as “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”  This morning we spent a chunk of our morning with Bernard of Clairvaux and if I was asked to sum him up, I’d borrow Churchill’s words.  If Bernard was on Facebook his relationship status would permanently be set to “it’s complicated”.  Having started with history I came to the reading of Bernard’s own words with scepticism and aversion.  What good can come from a man who promoted the second crusade?  What sort of twisted thoughts will we read from a man who prepped the knights templar and advanced the “just war” theology of Augustine to new levels?

And it turns out that Bernard of Clairvaux was as complicated as any other human being that’s lived.  I suspect in a world of white hats and black hats that those of us who perceive ourselves in with the white hats are always wearing black in someone else’s version.  I'm equally suspicious that those I think are committed to wearing their black hat have been the Lone Ranger for someone, somewhen, somewhere.  Bernard was no stained glass saint.  And with every brilliant word he wrote, insight he shared and analogy he drew, for me his biggest lesson is that each of us has the capacity to stumble on Monday, kick the dog on Tuesday and still offer a reflection on beauty on Friday that makes grown men weep for love of God.

He drops some soul bombs like:

“There are two things you should know: first, what you are; second, that you are not what you are by your own power.”

“We are transformed when we become like him.  God forbid that a man should presume to be conformed to the glory of his majesty rather than the modesty of his will.”

“God is sought not on foot but by desire.  And the happy discovery of what is desired does not end desire but extends it.”

“The cause of loving God is God himself.  The way to love him is without measure.”

“Those who do not share the troubles of others but, on the contrary, spurn those who weep or mock those who are happy, and do not feel in themselves the feelings of others because they are not moved by their emotions, how can they find the truth in their neighbors?”

Perhaps you've never launched a Crusade but you opened up a can of something on your children this morning and this afternoon you question your salvation.  Maybe you sang love songs to Jesus on Sunday but spoke a harsh word to your spouse on Monday and now you wonder if you've ever really loved Jesus.  It could be that you've been a light to many friends who were trying to find their way and yet after last night you can only think of yourself as a fraud and nothing you've ever said or done counts.  Come and meet Bernard of Clairvaux, come and meet David the broken King of Israel, sit down with Peter and listen to the rooster crow, come gaze into your reflection in the pool of Siloam and accept that the face you see is still a reflection of the glory of God and this is “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Self-Inflicted Wounds

This afternoon we talked through some key elements of Learning to Suffer Well.  The philosophy of thought this book rests on is: 1) Life is often hard, 2) God wants to help (though we do not always know what this help will look like), 3) Our response matters.  The daily readings were formed from 1800 years of Christian experience, distilled into understandable beliefs and do-able practices for the present day that, when exercised, will help anyone learn to suffer well.

We’re going to suffer, might as well get the most out of it, eh?

As a Christian book this can be a hard sale.  We spend a great deal of time and energy playing theology twister in order to avoid suffering as a part of our faith experience.  The beautiful thing about the grace of suffering though is that you can run but you can’t hide.  Suffering always wins “hide-n-seek”.

But mid-way through class we took an unusual detour.  We left the road less travelled (we’d already left the normal road at the start of the discussion) and jumped on the path even LESS travelled.

The path of self-inflicted wounds.  Suffering we bring upon ourselves.

There are the wrongs we've done to others and the wrongs that others have done to us that both bring about suffering.  And then there are the self-inflicted wounds that open up a whole other world of pain.  We talked about the suffering that comes from shooting our own wounded, poking ourselves in the eye with the sharp stick of judgement, writing checks with our mouths that our character can’t possibly cash.

Dr. Fitch shared a passage that stands as a brilliant standard for measuring our ministries.  Forget butts in seats, dollars in baskets and our name on a billboard.  Here it is from Isaiah.

“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.
    He is my chosen one, who pleases me.
I have put my Spirit upon him.
    He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.
He will not falter or lose heart
    until justice prevails throughout the earth.
    Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction.” (42:1-4)

Some of us are building a brand, some of us are building an ego, some of us are building a church, and some of us are building the Kingdom.  Looking over Isaiah 42:1-4 will help us figure out which one we are on any given day.  As pastors, as followers of Jesus, as people who will be recognized by our love, we need to know those with whom we live and know them well enough that we which read is the weakest and which flames are only a flicker.

To do otherwise is to miss the point all together.

May all who are suffering tonight know the comfort of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  May the mystery of Christ’s own suffering be oil on our wounds and the wine of his blood be strength to our failing hearts.  As you limp along this road into the darkness may you remember that the fastest way to sunrise comes from walking deeper into the night.  May you find a safe people to call home where no one screams at you, no one crushes your heart and they walk beside you humbly, justly and with mercy on the soles of their feet.

Good Suffering

A primary color of this module has to be ‘suffering’.

Not only is it part of our spiritual formation track but it’s a heavy presence in our Bible track with the Old Testament prophets and equally so in our counselling track.  In all 3 cases we’re not being told how to avoid suffering or how to help others stop suffering but rather to embrace suffering for the necessary color it brings into our journey.

This morning we felt, thought and discussed our way through two similar but different accounts of suffering.  The first was “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis.  In AGO, Lewis bravely shares his journal entries from immediately after the loss of his wife to a prolonged battle with cancer.  It’s a raw, courageous, and profound record of how a man of faith and intellect is reduced in both, reduced to ashes.  He eschews easy and patronizing answers.  He bares his soul.

The second was, “A Grace Disguised” by Gerald Sittser.  In AGD, Sittser shares the story of the sudden, tragic loss of his wife, mother and daughter in a car accident and the journey of suffering that followed.  It’s “processed grief” but his telling is still raw, vulnerable and sore.  He writes from the vantage point of 3 years out from the tragic accident but he makes it clear, life will never be the way it was before, he will never be the same person he was before, suffering is transformative and we are either destroyed by it or changed by it.

In both stories we see the incredible grace of suffering that expands and enlarges our capacity for God as it stretches our soul beyond what we could ever imagine it could bear.

Lewis writes, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.” 

And again, “Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

I want my life to be full of all the colors of God but this color, in almost all its shades, I confess, I fear.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Invitation to Joy

Our journey into joy continued this afternoon through contemplative exercises.  Contemplative exercises after lunch when you’re not fasting or sitting in an ice cold room is a bit of a challenge even if you’re a keener.  The warm, bright sunlight was streaming into our room as we gathered to listen together for what God was saying.

I find these sessions very rewarding and I'm taking that as a huge sign of growth in my life.

I'm an ‘information junky’ and time at school that’s not spent ‘learning’ seems to me to be time wasted.  But there we sit in our circle in silence.  Wasting our afternoon on God.

Today it felt like God was giving us a gentle invitation to go deeper into joy.  It’s felt like Lorna introduced us to joy yesterday as you might introduce a friend who others have heard of or heard about but haven’t been close to.  This afternoon it was like a chance for us to hang out with joy on our own, trade stories, get more familiar with each other, go below the surface.

One of my fellow modulites, Shawn, after some reflection shared this quote by Henri Nouwen, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

The last two days have led me to re-orient myself on joy.

Here are the questions I'm contemplating this weekend as a part of our spiritual formation.  I invite you to join me and contemplate along with me and record and consider your own answers.

1) When in your life have you been filled with great joy?  How have these experiences shaped you?

2) Who has been the patron saint of joy in your life?  Who/what has stifled or spoiled your joy?

3) How do joy and ministry intersect in your life?

4) What practices might nurture a greater atmosphere of joy in your home and community?

5) What will be your legacy of joy to the next generations?


“We need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation. Because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow but also a cup of joy will we be able to drink it.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

Stealing Fire

    I find it amusing when evangelical’s quote C.S. Lewis.  It either means they do not know or they choose to ignore the body of his work that is decidedly NOT evangelical.  It also means they do not know or they choose to ignore his praxis which was also decidedly not evangelical.  I’m cool with that in both cases but it always makes me chuckle to myself – given the judgment we generally cast on the still living but similar Christian writers of our day.

    This morning we went in the “Way Back Machine” to visit Gregory the Great via Thomas Oden in order to steal some fire – to discover the treasure that is Gregory’s work on pastoral care – and bring it back to warm, consume or fuel our own pastoral care in the present.

     Gregory, a Roman Catholic priest, resisted but was eventually made a Pope in 590.  If you have ever heard a Gregorian Chant, you've been touched by his brilliance and creativity.  The tiny, evangelical Bible College Brian voice of my inner dialogue shouts its opposition to learning anything from a Catholic, especially one who was Pope.  The rest of me sneaks in and grabs what I can because wisdom has taught me that you get fire where you find it.

Gregory talks to us and these are some jewels that fell out of his mouth…

“For no one does more harm in the Church than he, who having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly.”

“For the mind often lies to itself about itself…”

“The ruler should be discreet in keeping silence and profitable in speech, lest he utter what should be kept secret, or keep secret what should be uttered.”

“But those who rule others should show themselves such that their subjects are unafraid to reveal their hidden secrets to them.”

“Wherefore, all who are superiors should not regard in themselves the power of their rank, but the equality of their nature; and they should find their joy not in ruling over men, but in helping them.”

“Good should be loved for its own sake, not pursued under the compulsion of established penalties.”

“Indeed, he is a poor and unskilled physician, who aims at healing others but is ignorant of his own ailment.”

“Thus, by concealing their sins from men and displaying their virtues to them, they both reveal what they should be punished for through concealing it, and hide away, by disclosing it, what they might have been rewarded for.”

Gregory’s book on pastoral care is actually filled with practical advice for taking care of people’s souls as well as looking after the soul of the one who would venture to pastor.  I'm glad Oden picked up Gregory, I'm glad Fitch did too and I’m very glad that he’s been introduced to us modulites who can bring this profound guidance down from the mountain and back to all the villages from which we've come.

I've learned a lot from my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters but the greatest thing I've learned from them while here at SSU is that there’s so much more to learn from them.

I end with Gregory’s own words of conclusion, “"I, miserable painter that I am, have painted a portrait of an ideal man; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers, so that, as my weight is sinking me down, you may uplift me with your meritorious hand."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Summing Up This Afternoon

Good stuff. 

How Comes Joy?

This morning was all about spiritual formation with Lorna leading the way.  Spiritual formation is the course I would have signed up for thinking I was going to get an easy credit.  As it turns out the one part of our course with no papers to write or books to read tends to mess with me the most.

It started out simple today with Lorna feeling led to make our session about joy.  Joy is positive right?  Joy should be easy.  First we shared around the group our own sense of how our soul was doing, some reflection and then she led us into and exercise on joy.

Thomas Merton wrote, “The announcement is the great joy that the Lord is present and living in the world: that the Lord is with us. Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you. This is what we are constantly announcing in the liturgy, that the Lord is present in the world.”

And Martin Buber said, “The beating heart of the universe is holy joy.”

After more listening prayer and reflection we were given 30 minutes for quiet reflection, mediation, whatever you’re most comfortable calling it when we get quiet and our hearts listen to God and our own soul.  We were to consider joy and where and when we personally find ourselves caught up in the experience we call joy.

My reflection created this list. There is no order to this list, no prioritizing, it simply reflects pictures and moments where I know I’ve experienced joy.  (The picture that came during further reflection with my class is that joy for me feels like that moment when gravity has lost its hold on my spirit.)

I've made this Wordle to emphasize there is no intended order to the list below - here's how it feels:

Wordle: Joy

And here it is as a list:
1) Walking in the woods.
2) Playing in the surf.
3) Helping at the Food Pantry and other practical acts of service.
4) A house full of good friends.
5) Seeing people get it.
6) Teaching or preaching about Jesus.
7) Sharing beauty with my wife. (Scenery, art, experiences)
8) Travel adventures, especially with my wife or children.
9) Gaining an enriched understanding of the Text.
10) Watching a great movie or reading a great book.
11) Discovery.
12) Feeling like I have encouraged someone on their own journey.
13) Writing something meaningful to me.
14) Connecting friends with friends.
15) When I see, hear or feel the presence of true community.
16) When he whispers something to my heart.
17) A conversation with depth.

The question is, why aren't these built in to the rhythm of my life then?  Why do I fill my time with things that fill time rather than things that bring joy?  Why is my daily life so full of things that not only don’t spark joy but steal creativity as well, leaving me flat or depressed?

What stirs up joy in you?  And how do you plan to make it an intentional part of your life?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Good Life

This afternoon we talked about the good life.  We also spent time helping each other get un-stuck.  We ended the session with an examen that led us to an interesting encounter with Jesus.

Here are the key beats behind the rhythm of a good life:
1) Celebrate
2) Lament
3) Acceptance
4) Good Work
5) Embracing the Other
6) Invitation towards wholeness
7) Love

If it’s your intention to enjoy the good life a simple place to start is to listen closely and see if you can hear these 7 rhythms beating in the background of your life.

When do you celebrate?  What do you celebrate?  Do you make intentional room in your life to party?

When do you cry over injustice?  When do you moan that things are the way things are and they shouldn’t be that way?  Do you give yourself permission to express your dissatisfaction with the world the way it is?  Can you weep with those that weep?

Can you accept what is or are you always trying to change it?  Can you just be or must you be in motion?  Is it possible for you to see that the hard times are also possibly the best times?  Would God ever put you in a painful situation because it’s good for your soul?

Those are the first 3 rhythms and questions that can help you dig in to them.

At the end of our afternoon session was an examen and I found myself stunned by the simplicity of it and where it led me to.  I’m still processing one of the briefest but most profound moments I’ve ever had in prayer.

And I didn’t say a word.

Tonight it’s homework and story time.  I’ll fill you in tomorrow!

Are You Here?

As a kid, my brother and I would have fun at night at my father’s expense.  Dad would almost always doze off on the floor as we watched something on T.V. together.  But it wasn't a sound sleep, he was half in and half out and we would catch snippets of his side of some interesting conversations.  Our fun came from asking him questions like, “Dad, can we take the car for a quick drive?” or “Dad, can we have a million dollars?”  He would mumble some reply and we’d roar with laughter, especially if we could get him to say, “Yes.” to one of our requests.

This morning’s session on counselling has left me wondering how often I’m in conversations without actually being there.  Being present.

I’m pretty sure how my wife, the elusive Donna, would respond to my wondering.

The heart of the wondering is not just how present I am in conversations with others but how present am I in conversations with my inner self?  Or with God’s Spirit?  Am I tuned in or am I anxious to accomplish my own agenda?

Early this morning I finished an exercise involving the voices in my head.  The internal-voices we all have but often either deny, ignore or demand silence from.  This exercise was about facilitating and then mediating a conversation among them.

Here’s a reading that went along with the conversation:

We are trying to be several selves at once without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self. And each of our selves in turn a rank individualist, not cooperative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes.”

If I can’t be present with myself, how can I possibly be present for others?

Where or when or with whom do you find it hardest to be present?  What would happen if you let the aspects of your personality carry on a conversation about a situation where you’re feeling stuck?

This afternoon we’re digging in deeper and then practising on each other.  Good times.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What Do You Hear?

This afternoon our 4 hour session was focused on demonstrating care.  At the top of the list of ways to demonstrate care is to listen.  Listening is more than being in the same room as someone speaks and listening that makes a difference – not just for counsellors but for husbands, wives, parents, children, co-workers and friends – is empathetic listening, it’s active listening.

We did an exercise in class that involved listening and being listened to, both for 20 minutes each.  Afterwards we heard of a previous class that did the same exercise but for 15 minutes each.  During the debrief one of the students noted that that was the first time in his life where someone had sat and actively listened to him for 15 straight minutes.


Listening is a powerful gift that we can give to each other.  It’s not a cheap gift either.  It means we have to surrender our own wants, thoughts and needs for a period of time and make the other the most important thing within the range of our senses and in our own heads for that same period of time.  That 15 minutes, once a week, could be enough to save a lot of troubled marriages.

And it still won’t happen.

Deep down we seem to fear listening.  Maybe because we’re afraid of what we’ll hear.  Maybe because we’re afraid we won’t hear anything.  Maybe because after we listen someone might ask us to share.

Tonight my homework is to listen.  My assignment is to listen to my own thoughts, the disparate aspects of my own personality, bring them all to the table together and work through an issue where I might feel stuck.  Rather than denying that whiny voice, I'm supposed to listen to it.  Instead of stuffing the angry voice, I'm supposed to hear it out.  This could get interesting.

Below is a TED talk that came up during our 4 hours together this afternoon.  It’s a little longer than the usual but definitely worth your 20 minutes.  After you've watched it give this question some thought: what person in my life can I give the gift of 20 minutes of uninterrupted, active, empathetic listening to?  Maybe it's your spouse, maybe a friend or a neighbor.  Maybe it's your own soul.

Here's Brene Brown.

Familiarity Breeds...

The saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Being back here at SSU for my last module I would modify that saying to, “Familiarity breeds comfort.”  Our first morning session wasn't the ‘jumping into the cold swimming pool’ shock that I feared.  It was more like easing into a warm gathering of old friends.

This morning’s material that ranged from the history of philosophical thought to the work of Thomas Oden regarding Gregory the Great in reference to pastoral care, reminded me what I love so much about SSU.  The theme or cord that ran through the fabric of our morning discussion, for me, was redemption.  Jesus becomes this lens for us through which we can view all of history, B.C. and A.D. through a redemptive world view.  There aren't disciplines or studies that are closed to us as followers of Jesus, rather we are able to sort through a great deal of rubbish to come up with some extraordinary treasure.  Often we don't have to dig very far.

Gregory did this with people and he called pastoral care the art of arts.  It’s not science, despite what some would have us believe.  One size does not fit all but Jesus gives us a capacity to both enter the worlds of others as well as to make room within ourselves to receive others and their world.  I kept thinking of the material we've read for our Old Testament prophets sessions next week and the question the prophets kept asking, “Is God the god of Israel only?”  God hasn't demanded that we learn his language in order to get close, he chooses to come close and speak our language that we might become closer.

There is firmness about SSU, a clear sense of who they are, what they are about and their vision at the same time there is a great accommodation here to meet each student where they are and to help each of us develop into whatever we’re becoming.  A reflection of the Imago Dei.  It’s comfortable here even as I'm getting stretched out again.

This afternoon we delve into the first session of our counselling track.  On the table today, the exact nature of my personal dysfunction.  I can't wait.

When have you encountered some unexpected treasure in an unusual place?  When have you found a community where you could relax?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Questions and Answers

One week from today, God willing, I’ll be back in class at SSU.  For the past few months I've been an ambitious but ultimately clumsy juggler trying to keep school work, work work , family time and my pilgrimage all in the air.  Getting back to school will be cathartic, a purge as the voices that all my readings have put in my head will get exercised.

I still don’t know if this is synchronicity or good planning but the 3 main tracks of this module have created a “perfect storm” for me that has left me with far more questions than answers about what I do, my vocation, and what “church” is supposed to be about.

It feels like a lot of what I've read has confirmed to me that there is another way.  But the materially also makes me wonder if I only hear what I want to hear, only see in the material what I want to see.  Israel had two groups of prophets in the Kingdom and those that got it right are the ones whose books we call canon today.  Is it possible that the church has two groups of prophets today and we’ll only know which group is “hearing God” after a generation comes and goes?

10,000 questions are bouncing around the interior of my brain and truthfully it has been hard for me to be in the moment lately.  I'm thinking about school work, school bills, things undone, things to be unlearned and I'm wondering what really important thing did I forget about today.

Prepping for this module has been rich.  I've found another mentor in Gregory.  Add him to my list of “witnesses”: Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, Herbert, and Buber.  I've discovered the beauty of Brueggemann’s words about the prophetic imagination and find myself at odds with myself as I object to and am drawn to his vision at the same time.  And the third track on counselling has been essentially asking me to figure out how broken am I.  If my brain has a purée button, this module has pushed it.

But this time next week I’ll be sorting it out together with my fellow modulites.  We’ll share thoughts, ask questions, be given more questions, be presented with versions of reality that are alternatives to what I've previously believed in.  And it will be good.

A great big “Thank you!” to all who have kindly supported this endeavour with prayer, finance, patience and reading my reflections on this experience.  After this module I will have follow up homework but no more class time.  That’s happy sad for me.  I will move on to my final phase where I write my thesis or project.  In the midst of it all I will continue to keep you posted on what educating brian looks like.  Next week I’ll be “live blogging” my module.  If anyone is interested in following along there will be – roughly – 3 posts per day (short) that will attempt to sum up my education experience from each day.  If you’d like to really get into the experience you could read ahead: OT prophets from Isaiah to Malachi, Gregory the Great on pastoral care and come up with a list of reasons why pastors pastor and do the things they do (hint – not all our reasons are good and sometimes our pastoring serves to cover up some personal defects we’d rather you didn't know about!).

There's a lot a still don't know but this much I'm sure of - it's a grace to be able to learn.

As always, those who'd like to help me get educated can find out information over there --> or by contacting SSU or emailing me.  Thanks!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I'm neck deep in prep for my next and last module at SSU.  That factoid is both bitter and sweet.

Intended or serendipitous the 3 tracks of this module are demanding a great deal of introspection.  At the heart of all 3 tracks is the question of my own heart.  My vocation is being a pastor.  I get paid for it, but it’s not really my job.  It’s more like an assignment.  And the questions being shoved in my face: what does healthy pastoral care look like, how would the prophets asses me as a shepherd, how would the Chief Shepherd evaluate me, what masks have I put on to cover up the broken pieces in my own life?
In the midst of this process I read a post today about a mega-church that has had a major turnover in leadership with the well-known senior pastor being the “last man standing”.  All the departing elders and leaders had to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to get the generous severance package they were offered.  Silence comes with a pretty nice price tag.  And I'm left trying to imagine what scenario a church member would have to be in to see leader after leader asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement about their experiences on the leadership team of their church and they wouldn't think something was seriously wrong?

Disclosure seems to be a big part of this module.  The assignment that I'm using this post to procrastinate writing is a 700 words-ish paper on the masks of behavior I use to hide behind. We've read a text that we can draw on and while I don’t feel any one “mask” the author lists is a fit, I can see pieces of my camo in several of them.  I know that I sometimes become passive and indecisive in order to avoid making the “wrong” decision.  There are times I feign ignorance of the effects of my own actions when I really had a very good idea going in that someone was going to get hurt/disappointed/let down.  Sometimes I get “busy” on a project simply to avoid dealing with that which needs to be done.  I sometimes put myself down to trigger others to compliment me
But not all the time.

A key step in recovery (from the fall) is brutal honesty.  It’s easier to practice that on others than it is on myself but only when I practice it on myself can I recover.  Practising it on others can be one more mask to avoid my own … stuff.  I am not the person I used to be and neither am I the person I am becoming.  But following Jesus has given me a greater sense of comfort in my own skin.  Rather than the shame and guilt that is so often connected to Christianity I find in following Jesus a growing sense of self-acceptance and confidence to be real and pursue authenticity.  As a pastor currently swimming in the Old Testament prophets, I want to be a shepherd who doesn't tell people what they want to hear but what they need to hear.  But this means, for me, acknowledging that every message I speak needs to first be received by my own soul.

I've still got a lot to learn but this much I know, I will never ask my other leaders I work with to sign non-disclosure agreements about their experiences with me.  If I fear people speaking the truth about me I’ve proved the message of the Cross.  If I fail to encourage those I live with to speak the truth about me and our experiences together, I've negated the power of the Cross.

"Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me."

I'm getting there...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Job Anyone Can Do

Being a pastor is a lot like being a sports coach or a referee.  I've been all 3.  I’m not sure but that probably says something about me.

When I reffed basketball almost every dad in the stands was sure they could do better than I was doing and they offered loud, verbal suggestions confirming their expertise.  Nearly any sports game I’ve been to or watched on TV there are fans and announcers who feel competent to coach as their comments make abundantly clear.  Being a pastor is like that.  Almost everyone in the church knows what you should do, should have done, what would be better or at least not as worse.  They know what you should have said in your sermon, how you should have counselled that person and what your real motives are behind what you said, did, and/or wrote.

I am meeting people all the time who are pastors who have no theological training, have never went to a single class on pastoral care or hermeneutics, and didn't let silly things like that keep them from their calling.  “The Holy Spirit is my school!”  Words you never want to hear from your surgeon or your pilot.  But pastor, c’mon, anyone can pastor.

I've sat in board meetings where farmers, mechanics, accountants, homemakers, insurance agents, data processors and daycare workers have all critiqued my work, suggested areas of improvement, voted on and evaluated my performance over the previous year and given me books on random occasions that they thought would “help”.  My recurring fantasy was to show up at their place of employment to offer them some constructive criticism on how they could do their job better and make suggestions I clearly expected them to follow despite having no experience whatsoever in their field.

But pastoring is different.  Anyone can do it.  Everyone inherently has the knowledge base and skill set to do my job the moment they decide to follow Jesus.  Which is cool.

And then you come across a book like “Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition” and you think maybe, just maybe, your vocation is specialized and maybe, just maybe leading a church is anyone’s job but pastoring a church is quite another thing.  Oden’s unpacking of Gregory’s insights into the care of souls has been an encouraging, inspiring, challenging and affirming read.  A short book, I've been reading it slowly, savouring each page – which is not good for my assignment list but is good for my soul.

At the same time I'm reading through the prophets and the recurring theme – Jesus, yes but along with Jesus – is that the pastor/shepherds have really let the flock of God down.  Those meant to protect, feed and guide the flock have fleeced them and sold them to the wolves for a profit.  This is the other part of the pastoral picture that is intimidating.  It might be my vocation but these people belong to God – and he’s watching.  To be invited and welcomed into someone else’s life is sacred ground.  We trample all over people and fail to realize that every life is a “take off your shoes” holy place, every story is sacramental.

Perhaps we pastors are responsible for the demise of our own vocation.  Perhaps we have lowered the bar by our own behaviour, attitudes and misdeeds that we've created an atmosphere where it’s easy to believe that anyone can do this job.  At least anyone can’t do worse.

I've still got a lot to learn but this much I know, leading a church and pastoring the flock of God are not the same thing.

(NOTE: the above is a reflection that comes out of my current reading.  I am currently experiencing a supportive, encouraging, generous, patient, loving church full of leaders and work with a leadership team that has only been honoring and caring.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Unoriginal (or i Am Not Alone)

I've started my reading for my last residential module at SSU.  I will be there again for two weeks this March and after that I only have my thesis or project in order to complete my work.  Only.

The first book that I chose to start my reading with for this cycle was written in 1984.  I’ll tell you more about it another time.  This time what I want to tell you is that I've discovered all my original thoughts about ministry, my core convictions about pastoring that no one else in the world shares with me, those beliefs about and philosophy of ministry that make me the odd duck when I have conversations with other pastors – they were all written down in 1984.

To compound this revelation the inspiration for the book comes from a man who lived and died before the current calendar hit A.D. 1000.

So it turns out some of my most ‘original’ ideas that I was planning to write my thesis on have been around for just about 1550 years.

In many ways this discovery sums up my experience at SSU.  Pursuing this degree has been as much an education about me as it has been about the subjects we've covered.  First I learned how much I did not know that I thought I knew.  Or it might be more accurate to say how much I had to unlearn.  And now I am faced with how unoriginal I really am.

And I'm happy to discover this.

I can’t tell you – meaning I won’t tell you – about all the times I've been in conversations with groups of pastors and heard the song from Sesame Street playing in my head, “one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong, can you tell me which thing is not like the others …”.  In reading for the different modules I've stumbled on men and women separated by time, geography, experience, ethnicity and education who have already learned or concluded or discovered what blood, sweat and tears have led me to believe.  Don’t misunderstand me though, I'm not suggesting I'm in the majority.  Hardly.  But there’s a certain peace I have found, a quiet confirmation that I am not alone and I am not crazy – or at least I'm not crazy by myself.

I'm not that smart but this much I know, there is a way to follow Jesus and lead a church community that leans into and onto incarnation and invitation.  Others have gone there before me.  I am not alone.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Educating Brian Isn't Over Yet

How do you make decisions?  I’ve been trying to decide what comes next in my education.  Do I take a break and get my feet under me in our new church, city, home and job or do I keep rolling with the master of ministry program I am enrolled in?  Honestly, I was feeling overwhelmed at the workload ahead.

Here’s how I decided.  I spent a week decided that I would take a break.  I listened, reflected and listened some more.  I listened for God’s voice but I also listened to how that decision was landing on my own heart, mind and spirit.  Then I spent a week decided that I would keep going and do the last of my 4 modules in March.  And I listened, reflected and listened some more.

Ultimately the decision that I felt the most peace with was the decision that would take the most out of me. 

I'm taking on this next module in March and with lots of grace I’ll be able to get the work done for that and do my job and see my family as well.  This was the decision that felt settled and certain.  Not going is an easier choice but nothing about it left me feeling settled.

So now the reading list cranks up and my head gets jammed packed again and my fingers type like crazy and I move closer to completing a long term goal.

Making decisions can be hard work.  Acting on those decisions even harder. 

I’ll be posting some of my discoveries, favourite quotes and progress reports here over the next few months.  As always I only can get by with a little help from my friends.  If you’d like to contribute to Educating Brian there are details over on the side bar.  I’m deeply indebted to the kindness and generosity of all of you for caring about what I’m up to and sharing this adventure with me.