Category Archives: Ministry

A Spirituality of Geography

If you have lived in different regions of the country, or nations of the world, you have likely observed, even at an unconscious level, that geography – or location, some might say “land” – often impacts spirituality. In other words, we are often shaped and formed, even spiritually, by where we live.  The landscape becomes an influence on how we perceive life, interpret the Creator, and participate in our own spiritual identity. 

We hear about this influence of land or region with respect to other aspects of life.  For example, who among us Americans is not familiar with the political moniker of “red” states and “blue” states?  This way of describing political affiliation with a more conservative (red) or progressive (blue) political identity has been in vogue for decades now.  Today we are even hearing about “purple” states!  If pressed, we could most likely color in our own map – a simplified paint by numbers exercise – of where these states are located.

Another influence of geographic location might be correlated to one’s pace of life.  Those who inhabit a more urban landscape with its busy streets, bustling congestion and condensed population are typically more likely to associate with a faster pace to living.  Interpersonal greetings between unfamiliar “strangers” can be rare in these locales.  “Keep your eyes down and go!”, seems the norm.  Whereas those in a more rural part of the country may find affinity with a less hectic pace.  And to not return a “hello” or “good morning” would simply be considered rude.

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Filed under Christian Faith, Cycling, Ministry, Spiritual Formation

Goals Help Us Move Forward

Are you a goal setter? A new year is often a time when persons put some thought into what they hope to accomplish on the blank canvass of a fresh calendar. Whether engaged in with intentionality or as a passing musing while on a long drive, there is something about looking out the windshield into another year that prompts us to reflect. In doing so, we may consider what we want, need, or hope to accomplish with the gift of this next year. Setting a few goals can make a difference toward these thoughts becoming more than mere wishful thinking.

Perhaps you’ve heard about SMART goals? SMART is an acronym that can help one realistically establish direction in goal setting. SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. These are the kinds of goals that can propel an individual or organization forward. For example, let’s say I have a goal to get in better physical shape in 2023. Phrased in this way, the goal is admirable, but not too particular from the general “wish” of many people. If I want to improve my goal in a way that fits the SMART framework, I might edit it as follows: In 2023 I will work to lose 10 pounds by June 1, while following a heart healthy diet, exercising 45 minutes 5 days a week, averaging eight hours of sleep per night, using a health app on my smartphone for accountability. With this wording, I’ve created a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goal.

I promise you that there are multitudes of folks with good intentions contemplating gym memberships as the new year begins, but those with SMART goals will likely follow through on those intentions at a much higher rate than those without. So, if this is true of our behavior individually, what about congregationally? Should we, as a church, have goals? Would it help for us to be as specific and thoughtful about our ministry goals as we might be concerning our individual goals? What does a SMART church goal even look like?

We will never know if we don’t attempt to formulate one. Would such a conversation energize your leadership team? Could you, as a leader, bring up the topic and invite others to collaborate with you around it? I’m guessing almost every congregation might benefit from some goal setting in one area or another. Here are some potential general arenas of ministry that might be ripe for goals: Evangelism (introducing others to a relationship with Jesus Christ), Discipleship (helping believers grow in faith formation), Stewardship (educating and shaping disciples in their practices of giving), Missional expression (taking steps as a congregation toward greater outward expressions of ministry with the community), Fellowship (working to build relationships, provide tools for reconciliation as needed, and strengthen true expressions of covenantal community).

Any of those general ministry areas would benefit from reflection on Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound goal setting. So why not have the conversation? Pick one or two areas of ministry that you feel led to work toward together in 2023 and begin formulating goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Be sure to incorporate times of prayer (collective and individual) into the process, so the goals that emerge are led of God. In this process you will unleash imagination, energize participation, and realistically set direction for the coming days, weeks and months.

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A Christmas Prayer

During Advent this year I have been working through a devotional resource called The Promised One published online by Christianity Today. The reading for Sunday, December 18 contained this line that has stayed with me, “Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story offers us perspective on our own seasons of waiting. We’re reminded that there’s no expiration date on our prayers.

I have always found the inclusion of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s parents, in Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:5-24, 57-80) to be interesting. There are a couple of Old Testament prototypes that foreshadow their story. Abraham and Sarah, as well as Hannah come to mind. These too were folks who knew what it was to wait in prayer. The specific prayer they had on their hearts, like the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and many couples yet today; was the prayer for a baby. They longed to conceive and become parents, but were hindered in those efforts due to some cause of infertility. Scripture often pronounces it much more pointedly, stating but “Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” Have you ever noticed in these instances that it’s usually the woman who is blamed and named as barren? Just saying! Then, to add insult to injury, there’s that comment about their age! It reminds me of trips to the doctor in recent years when his response began “well, at your age”.

But let’s come back to the topic of prayer, and specifically prayer waiting. This line from the devotion, “there’s no expiration date on our prayers” is one that should offer every long suffering prayer warrior hope. Keep praying. Whatever it may be that you are praying about, keep praying.

What lies behind this admonition? Do we “keep praying” in the belief that our prayer will one day be answered as we hope? I’m not sure that’s the rationale. Yes, it worked out for Zechariah and Elizabeth in that their prayer for a baby was finally answered. But there are so many other couples who’ve struggled with infertility that have not had that prayer answered in the same way. So, the admonition to keep praying may not be because prayer will be answered in the way we’ve prescribed, but that prayer will be answered. Prayer will be answered in the way God determines. That may align with our hopes. God may be moved in that direction. But the prayer might also be answered in a different way, an unexpected way.

I suspect the admonition to “keep praying”, as a response to there being no expiration date on our prayers, is an acknowledgement that God’s time is so often not our time. This is where I lift up those Greek words for “time” that we’ve heard, or used, in a sermon: “chronos” and “kairos”. One word speaks to chronology, the sequential measurement of time, as with a calendar; the other speaks to the fullness of time, or God’s time and timing, as with perfect timing or the right time.

The answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer, after untold years of praying and maybe being on the verge of giving up, came in the fullness of time as the incarnation came about. Their unexpired prayer was in the ears and on the heart of God as other events aligned in a perfect timing kind of way. John would come as the forerunner of Christ, to prepare the way. The prayers of this faithful couple would come to fruition in ways they’d never imagined. Zechariahs’ temple discovery was that God hears prayers, and God has a long memory when it comes to those prayers.

This reminds me of an experience I had more than once in pastoral ministry alongside the prayers of a faithful spouse, most often a wife, who had spent a lifetime of marriage praying her husband would come to know the Lord. Day in and day out, Sunday in and Sunday out, those prayers were lifted up as she kept her daily practices of faith, and took the children to worship, seated alone without her mate. Perchance he would join her at Easter or Christmas, but there was no pretense of a new pattern, until for some reason there was. I can recall two such men, husbands both who had been prayed over faithfully by believing wives, and others they’d conscripted to pray, who finally gave their hearts to Christ and followed in a profession of faith through baptism. No one was more overjoyed than those faithful praying spouses! They had kept praying, believing that there is no expiration date on a prayer.

At Christmas I’ve often felt led to pray for our world, our nation, and other big items in a special way. I guess it harkens back to the angel’s announcement of “peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind”. This year’s Christmas prayer will include some oft repeated prayers of mine from the past year and years. I pray, for example, for peace in Europe, specifically for the people of Ukraine; but also for peace in Myanmar, and in Haiti and all other parts of the globe where war and violence reign. I pray for a more peaceful nation and homeland, where differences in opinion and outlook are not allowed to fester and divide, where statesmanship will again replace partisanship. I pray for migrant people, many on the move to flee violence, to find peace and know a better life. I pray for mercy from the lands where they go, the shores on which they arrive. I pray for health for all, and that we not weaponize or politicize efforts at healthcare, and that their be greater equity for all people to gain access to it. I pray for congregations to be united and at peace, working together in the cause of Christ’s kingdom. I pray for missionaries who take the good news next door, across the state, nation and globe. I pray for pastors who preach, counsel, guide and work among disciples of Jesus – may they be encouraged in their work, and renewed in their energy. And I pray for families who are apart, that they may be together in-person if possible, and through technology if not, or in spirit at the very least.

I pray these prayers, and invite you to add yours, in the conviction that all prayers are heard, and that no prayers have an expiration date. Merry Christmas. What are you waiting in prayer for this year?

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Matthew’s version of Ancestry.com

In the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we encounter a genealogy list. It’s the lineage of Jesus, going back 42 generations. It is listed in three groups of fourteen (Jesus to the Exile, the Exile to King David, and David to Abraham). Ho hum, you might think, as you stumble across all these names; especially if genealogy is not your thing. But let me invite you to linger with this list for a moment. Much as those who dive into Ancestry.com often discover hidden truths, or those who have swabbed their cheek and sent in a “23 and Me” DNA sample learn unknown aspects of their heritage; sitting with Matthew’s version of Jesus’ family tree has its own lessons to reveal.

In addition to such high caliber hall of fame type ancestral names (think Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Hezekiah), there appear the names of five women in Jesus’ genealogy. Not only would it have been uncommon for women to be listed in a patriarchal society, but why the inclusion of these particular women in a male driven system of reporting? What is it that Matthew wants us to know and reflect on as we read names like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (listed simply as Uriah’s wife), and Mary?

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The Wonder of Waiting

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. – Luke 1:21 NRSV

I have met very few people who enjoy waiting. Yet, here we are again in the season of Advent, with one of it’s major themes being “waiting”. We await the advent of King Jesus. Wait a minute, you may think, hasn’t Jesus already come? Isn’t Christmas the celebration of his birth? His incarnate arrival on earth?

Yes, but of course this is true. Yet, Advent is also about our wait for the return of King Jesus. We await his second coming, even as we remember and celebrate the advent (or arrival) of his first coming. We wait for the consummation of the age. We wait for the kingdom of God, inaugurated in Jesus’ first coming, to fully arrive in his next coming. Come, King Jesus! How we need you today.

As this Advent season takes hold I have been discovering a new understanding of what it means to wait. You see, I’m in a liminal season myself. It’s a time of new beginnings and transitions professionally and personally. While the new chapter of ministry has begun and continues to unfold with all kinds of new discoveries, challenges and opportunities; it feels like the personal transition is a bit delayed. I’ve already begun this new life among Baptists in the Dakotas, but my wife and household have yet to arrive. This was all by design, a choice we made as my beginning took place alongside the beginning of another academic year for my teacher spouse. Knowing her to be the caring and considerate professional she is, I didn’t want her to have to jump ship mid-year on the lively group of first graders she was just beginning to round into form. So, we wait. I wait. What has already begun is not yet fully realized. What has started will one day be continued, be complete – our move, the relocation of our household and partnership to the same location of shared experience yet again.

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