Month: February 2014

Teaching Our Children to Pray

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We were driving somewhere. We are always driving somewhere. To a practice or a lesson or an appointment. A siren came from behind us, then we saw the lights and I pulled over. The ambulance zoomed past. “Say a prayer,” I said. “Why?” asked the little voice in the back seat. “Because somebody is in trouble and needs our prayers.”

The morning drop off always fills me with emotion, as my kids clamor out of the car with their winter gear, backpacks, sneakers and homework. “I will be praying for you all day.” I say. “I love you with all my heart.”
“By Mom, I love you too. I will be praying for you too.”

Our cat, Frasier died a few years ago. We still talk about him. The death of a pet brings up all sorts of questions about heaven and God and where he (the cat that is) is. We buried him under our magnolia tree. It was the saddest day ever. We read the book, “Cat Heaven” and everyone shared what we loved about Frasier. We told God we were thankful that he got to be our pet.

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A few years ago our daughter fell out of tree and broke her femur. It was bad. Really bad. On the way to the emergency room she was in shock and started to fall asleep. “Stay awake” I said. “Let’s name all of the My Little Ponies.” “Pinky Pie,” (Lord, hear my prayer), “Rainbow Dash,” (Lord, hear my prayer), “Minty” (Lord, hear my prayer)…..

There are a lot of things we teach our children. We teach them manners. We teach them hygiene and self-care. We teach them skills and tricks of the trade that we have learned on our own or have been passed down from our parents and grand parents. But I would make the argument that one of the most important things we can teach our children is how to pray.

We need to teach them that God is not a genie who grants wishes, or gives you an A or the winning goal. Rather we need to teach them that God is ever-present.

My mother taught me to pray. At bed time we always prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray dear Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray dear Lord my soul to take.” That prayer always freaked me out. I really didn’t mean it. I always added the line in my head, “but please don’t take my soul tonight, I have plans tomorrow.”

Nevertheless, there was something comforting about the nightly ritual of my Mom and I visiting God together and taking account of the day. What was good about it, what was difficult, where did I see God?

If we want our children to have a faith life, a prayer life, we need to have a prayer life.

My Mom always had a prayer-book by her bed. She was always yearning to go deeper into a meaningful relationship with the Divine. I always admired her for that. I watched her go into her room for times of silence and meditation. I watched her read books by Thomas Merton and Joan Chittister. She modeled and still models a prayer life I hope to attain.

Dear God,
I had to remind my children of many things this morning. I had to remind them to brush their teeth and put on their shoes and get their library book and remember to practice. I confess that I forgot to remind them that you are with them every moment of every day. Maybe it’s because I forgot that for myself. I forgot to remind them that you are with them when they take their test. Maybe it’s because I forgot you are with me when I am tested. I forgot to remind them to look out for the kid who is having a hard day. Maybe it’s because I am not looking out for my neighbor. I forgot to remind them to count their blessings. Maybe it’s because I forgot to count mine. Lord, give me the presence of mind to be present with you so that I can model for my children what it means to have a life a faith. Not because it’s the pious thing to do, but because I need to be in relationship with you just as much as they do. Please be with our children today as they step off to school. Be with our teachers and all who come into contact with our kids. Give them the skills and patience and presence of mind to see them as your children. Be with every parent today who in reminding their kids of everything, has forgotten the One Thing that truly matters. Wrap us in your love and shroud us in your grace, we pray in the name of your Son, Amen.

Building a Team

Our staff has been working on defining ourselves and working as a team. If your church staff, or any other staff for that matter, would like to work more collaboratively with a common purpose and understanding, here is the two day retreat we put together. We used Patrick Lencioni’s book, “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” as our primary source.

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Prior to the retreat, each staff member took the Team Assessment found in Lencioni’s book, the Myers Briggs and Thomas Killman assessment.

Day One
Reflection on Scripture and Prayer
Listing of Expectations for the two-day retreat
• To be open to one another
• To understand each other
• To work more as a team
• To understand the responsibility and role of personnel
• To know who each of us are
• To be able to hear God
• To follow through on decisions made in the next two days
• To laugh together

Overview of Book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Comments:

BUILDING TRUST

Each staff member shared three things about themselves:
1. Where they grew up
2. Number of siblings
3. Most challenging childhood experience

The Question of Trust
Lengthy discussion on the history of trust among the staff.

Looking at the MBTI: Compare who on staff shares common personality traits.

Extroverts/ Introverts

intuitive/ Sensory

Thinking/ Feeling

Perceiving/ Judging

What is our Team’s Myers Briggs?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the type?

Day 2: CONFLICT, COMMITMENT AND ACCOUNTABILITY

CONFLICT

How did your family deal with conflict when you were growing up?

Assessment of the Thomas Killman Conflict Tool
Competing/Collaborating/Compromising/Avoiding /Accommodating
What are the downsides and advantages to ways in which each of us handle conflict?
What are our growing edges?
Discussion on Triangulation
What is triangulation and where have you seen it?

COMMITMENT:
The following were some specific issues that we all committed to as a team.

1) Structure & Schedule of Meetings
• Staff meetings are at 9:30 on Tuesdays. They include all staff. They will begin promptly at 9:30 and will adjourn at 11:00.
• The structure will be:
o 9:30-10:00—pastoral care, ministry sharing, calendar (close with prayer at 10:00).
o 10:00-11:00—program time (planning, etc.)
o Those who need to leave at 10:00 after the break can do so if necessary; everyone is welcome to stay for the entire meeting.
o At 10:00 we will review agenda for the current meeting and discuss agenda items for the following week’s agenda.
• In addition to weekly staff meetings, Shelly will meet individually with each staff member either weekly or bi-weekly (some weekly and others bi-weekly).

2) Behavior During Meetings
• No electronics (except at agreed upon times to check calendars, etc.)

3) Preferred Method of Staff Communication
• Communication that is “all staff” will be through email.
• For communication that is between two (or several) staff members they will establish together the protocol (might be different for different groups)
• For any communication that is an emergency or requires immediate attention, we will use any mode available until we receive a response.

4) Timeline for Responding to Email
• Will respond by the next working day for that particular staff member (this will exclude Sunday mornings when staff is busy with other activities).

5) Non-Work Hour Availability
• Since we cannot control the times that people will send emails, texts, phone calls, we will support one another in determining when we will receive communication. We acknowledge that each staff member needs to have some hours set aside to be with family, rest, etc. when we will be “unplugged” from all communication. Those times will be different for each staff person, but we will support one another and hold one another accountable to honoring those times for family, rest and renewal.

6) Importance of Timeliness for Meetings
• We agreed that it is very important for us to honor the start time and end time of our staff meetings so that we are being respectful of one another’s time.

7) Use of Common Resources
• For example: children’s toys, staplers, office supplies, paper supply closet

8) Role of Personnel

9) Approaching other Ministries
• Staff should check with the staff member responsible for a given area before approaching church members in matters regarding that ministry. Work together across ministry areas.

10) Acceptable behavior between staff members and between staff and congregation

11) Items for follow-up
• Create a common theme (have a starting discussion below)
• Be sure that all position descriptions are up to date
• Be sure that personnel liaisons are in touch with their assigned staff members
• Explore other scenarios and solutions for healing and diffusion in times of complaint/disagreement
• Follow-up retreat soon
• Share minutes of Friday session with Personnel Committee

ACCOUNTABILITY

Staff Common Theme Discussion

“United as One Body in Christ” (I Corinthians 12)

This theme represents our desire to strengthen the staff as a team (UNITED) and also model this unity with the congregation.

Next Steps
Annual planning meeting and leadership development retreat
Topic Includes budget discussion, major strategic planning overview, leadership training

DATE:

Quarterly Staff Meetings (two days –off site)
Worship planning, Programmatic planning, Team building

DATE:
Weekly Meetings (See Notes Above)
One on One Ad hoc Meetings (dates noted)

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS:

What are you going to work on to help us become a team? How will you contribute to creating a team atmosphere? How will you work to help bring our common purpose to light?

The Perfect Community: Sermon on Matthew 5:38-43

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Today we finish studying the Sermon on The Mount. I was thinking what it would like if someone preached on the final paragraph of one of my sermons without looking at the entire sermon. So as we read from the Gospel of Matthew one more time, let us remember that this is the end of a sermon that began with we have called the Beatitudes.

Hear now our reading from the Fifth Chapter of Matthew:

Matthew 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Startle us, O God, with your truth, and open us now to your love, which never ends, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

I wonder how this sermon Jesus preached over 2000 years ago went over with the audience of the day? I mean every week it gets harder and harder to swallow. If you were the kind of person who always gets picked last for the team, if you were poor, persecuted and powerless you might feel some hope. But at this point if you were powerful, popular and productive you might wish you had picked a different prophet to listen to.
Jesus says this is what it takes to experience the kingdom of God on Earth. This is how to live in a community that is sacred – that is God centered – that is Holy. If we want our society or our community to be most like the Kingdom of God – here is what it takes.

It takes a reversal of what it means to be blessed. The poor and persecuted are blessed. They are seen and redeemed, not someday when the die, but today -right now. Next, if we want to make a community sacred, we ourselves have to be the light of world and the salt of the earth. In other words, we need to spread goodness and life to all people. Third, it requires an the belief that says that our thoughts become our actions and that say we believe we must do what we believe, not just because the rules tell us we should, but because we know we should. And then today, we are told how to treat our enemies. If we do all this he says, then we will be perfect. Now before you perfectionists get too excited Jesus is not saying we have to be flawless. Rather if we love the way God loves, which is without partiality, we love the way God loves and that is perfected love. God doesn’t have favorites.

This is not to say that we do not stand up to our enemies – quite the contrary. We do respond to them – we respond to them in a way that reflects the character of God.

Let me explain:
Jesus is speaking to a group of people who are living under an oppressed regime. There are enemies everywhere. There is injustice daily. It’s a scary, scary place. Jesus says, “here is how you should respond if you are being oppressed or threatened, you turn your check, you give your coat, you go the extra mile, you love them and you pray for them.”

Jesus is sending a message here that can only really be understood within the context of the day.
There were rules about how people were to hit. Essentially, fair fighting.

You can only be struck on the right cheek in two ways, one by overhand blow of the left hand or with the backhand of the right hand. But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for “unseemly” uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.

This means the saying presupposes a setting in which a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? “Turn the other cheek.” What would be the effect? The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist–which would have meant treating the peasant as an equal.
The peasant was in effect saying, “I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore.”
When Jesus says “go the second mile” and “give your cloak to one who sues you for your coat” he is making similar suggestions.

Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile. If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you and carry it themselves.

Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment, a cloak.

So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well. “Strip naked,” as Walter Wink puts it. Show them what the system is doing to you. Moreover, in that world, nakedness shamed the person who observed it. I imagine the audience chuckling here. They see that he is showing them how to stand up for themselves without lowering themselves.

Jesus is being so clever here. He is providing ways to strengthen a community that is experiencing injustice. He is giving direct ideas of how to stand against evil and fight for dignity, without returning violence with violence or losing one’s dignity. Why is this important? Why is passive resistance ultimately more effective than the use of violence? Why is it better to rise above then raise a rifle?

There is a story about a kid named Jeremy Garber who hung out at a fast food restaurant during college summer. The restaurant had hired a new security guard to keep things under control with fights that would break out sometimes in the parking lot. The guard seemed to especially enjoy the power that he had in the establishment. He would “use his taser on the metal edge of the serving counter and snap at people for putting their feet on the scuffed plastic tables, just to prove he was in charge and had the weapons to back it up.”

But one time while Jeremy and his friends were there the guard leaned back in a seat and put his feet up on a table. And one of his friends, Paul, being a fair-minded person, thought he would hold the guard accountable to his own standards so went up to him and said, “You really shouldn’t yell at people to keep their feet off the table and then do it yourself. It sets a poor example.”
“The guard drew his loaded handgun from his holster and set it on the table. He responded with menace in his voice, ‘That’s why I get to do what I want.’” They all held their breath. Paul could have done something that might have escalated the violence or walked sheepishly away.

But instead Paul did something that neither Jeremy nor the guard expected. He reached for a plastic spork off the counter and in a mock-menacing voice said, “Well, I have a spork.” “The guard, disarmed by Paul’s humor, laughed, put the gun back in his holster and took his feet down off the table. The entire restaurant breathed a sigh of relief, and (Jeremy and the other friends) bought Paul’s meal in celebration of his creative response.” (All quotes taken from article, A Spork in the Road, from The Mennonite, November 16, 2004 issue)

Jesus said, ‘Love… your…enemies.’” It’s a short phrase that became a defining one for the early Christian movement. And by love he doesn’t mean romantic love or even friendship love, he means Agape love. The kind of love that Jesus has for us – Godly love. Why? Why is this so important in creating the perfect community?
Imagine a community where people didn’t steal, but rather shared with others in need. . Dream about a world where women and girls were not trafficked for profit, and where the aged, the alien and the infirm were honored instead of marginalized. Think what work would feel like if employers never exploited their employees, what courts would be like if witnesses never gave false testimony and judges didn’t accept bribes

Jesus wants us to be transformed. He wants us to have an innate compassion for people not just a compliance for doing what we are told.

When that happens, he says, the people of God reflect the character of God. They spread all sorts of positive social roots that build a healthy community that’s nothing short of “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And it’s perfect not because we always reach the ideal, but because above all things we seek to be “merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Jesus is teaching us that it is not enough to pray for peace. We must love the very ones who create the violence. If we return hatred with hatred, evil with evil, anger with anger, spite with spite, all that is left is hatred, evil, anger and spite. Ghandi said, “ the only devils in the world are those running around in your own heart”.

We can begin to practice love of enemies even in the conflicts that we experience with one another, our friends. How we view one another in a time of disagreement. How we model disagreeing without being disagreeable is how we create a more perfected community.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day begun. “Could it be,” asked one of his students “when you can see an animal at a distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. Another asked, “ is it when you can look at the tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “It is when you can look upon the face of your enemy and see that it is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot see that, it is still night.”

Jesus finishes his sermon on the mount with a vision of perfection – “telelos.” He will use that word one more time in his ministry. – And this is important. It will be the last word he says when he dies on the cross. He will say, “it is telelos.” He will live the vision he preaches. It is finished. This sermon foreshadows his death. Could it be that we betray Jesus when we are not merciful or treat others with dignity? Could it be that Jesus was willing to turn his right cheek, walk an extra mile and strip naked for us? We believe he died for all of us – each and every person. He died for the criminal on the right and the criminal on the left. He died for you and he died for me. Could it be that we are his enemies and that he is praying for us? Could it be that we betray him? Could it be that every time we have hateful feelings about another person we are denying the Christ within them?

When Jesus calls us to live out this heightened law, where we don’t return violence with violence, we don’t objectify women, we moved to be reconciled with our neighbors and be willing to give up all we have – – is it possible that he is articulating the lengths he will go to be in relationship with us? You see when we hate our enemies, or hurt our enemies, or rejoice when our enemies get what’s coming to them – we are hating and hurting Jesus. – Because Jesus resides in them just as much as he resides in the people we love. When all people are treated with the same level of dignity and love, our communities will be perfected. They will be truly sacred. Let us pray for the strength and character to live as Jesus preached that day long ago. Rest assured Jesus prays for us. Amen.
Amen.

When the Balancing Act is Just an Act: Redefining Motherhood

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“I lost it last week,” she said.

A ICU nurse and I sat in the dance studio waiting for our daughters to finish their class. I had my computer on my lap, trying to redeem a sermon, she had a box of little bows and bags of bird seed. Her son played quietly on his privileged one hour a week time on his iPhone.

“Really?” I said. “What happened?”

“I just don’t think I can keep this up… Working nights, my husband travels, I’m a Girl Scout Leader, we have basketball and ballet and hours of homework. I told my friend at lunch, I just don’t think I can keep up this balancing act.” Her children were 5 and 8.

Suddenly I am the mom with older children.

“Yes,” I said. “I understand.”

What exactly are we, and by “we” I mean the mother I met on the plane who gets up at 5:15 and makes a full, hot breakfast for her boys every morning, and the mother who forgoes friends for her children’s play dates, and the mother who is told every day that she looks tired (Um, that last one would be me), and any other mother who says to herself, “I am losing it!” trying to accomplish?

Something is wrong here.

I’m not sure how to fix it, but I am telling you that this generation of mothers are exhausted, over functioning and feel an enormous amount of pressure to make sure their kids have everything they need to succeed, that they are successful in their careers and give the outward appearance that everything is fine. Inside they feel alone, stressed, tired and responsible.

This is not a pity party or to cast blame or even a lament.

It’s to simply say that the conversations I am having with every mother, friend or stranger, are too similar to not hear a common theme: that there are a bunch of women out there in minivans filled with winter gear, sticky notes, calendars, sports gear and Starbucks, who are smart, strong and capable and trying like hell to keep it all together.

So, fellow mothers here is something I want to tell you:

We need to give ourselves a time out and redefine motherhood for our generation and generations to come.

You are not alone and you are not crazy. We are with you in your craziness.

You don’t have to do it all. I know you feel like you need to, but you don’t.

The worry you have for your child today will be a faint memory is six months. This too shall pass. Keep your perspective. Remember that you do not have to take fourth grade math. You already passed fourth grade math. It is not your math assignment. Let him fail. Let him succeed.

You only have one body. Take care of it.

What do you want your story of motherhood to be? How do you want to answer about your experience as a mother when your adult children ask you “how you did it?”

The balancing act is just an act we are all pretending to perform. The truth is we are all getting up, finding the missing sock, hoping there is milk, looking for clothes that haven’t been worn a hundred times this winter, trying to hide the wrinkles, remembering the backpack, getting out the door, and saying “I love you.”

“I love you.” Friends, if you remember to tell children that you love them, you have been a great mom today. You are a wonderful mom. You are doing a terrific job. Be kind to yourself.

Remember that the One who created you and calls you “child” loves you too.

Will You Come With Me?

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Have you noticed how often the preposition “with” is used in the Bible?
Ruth said to Naomi, “I will go with you.”
God said to Moses, “I will be with you.”
Emmanuel means, “God with us.”
Jesus said, “come with me and I will make you fishers of men”…..”take nothing with you”….. “and remember, I am with you until the end of the age.”

One of the most comforting comments I can receive from a friend is when they tell me they are with me. They can’t fix the problem, or change the situation, but they are with me in it. Telling someone you will go with them, be with them, and are with them, is a tremendous gift. Knowing someone is with you, even in your failures and disappointments, your struggles and your imperfections is the mark of a true friend.

There is no greater friend than the one who says, “I am with you.” Meaning, “I hear you. I understand. I won’t forget this conversation.”

Ministry in its truest form is really about being with people in their daily lives. It’s about being authentic and non judgmental. And it about invitation. The church is not a distributor of goods and services, its a place that does good and serves.

In January, our Elders, Board of Deacons, and Trustees all got together for a day long retreat. It was the first time, in a long time, that all three leadership groups were together as one. The leaders recognized that there were many untapped resources and gifts in the congregation and that they needed to stop thinking about their area of ministry in isolation from one another and start thinking about the church as a whole.

After a long and healthy discussion where they talked about overcoming past grievances and moving on and asking the question, “what is God’s purpose for us today?” It was determined that the leaders wanted to engage in shared ministry.

For the next year the common theme all ministries will raise as the most important is: “come with us.”

No ministry will be done in a vacuum or by one individual. The most important question we need to be asking right now is “who can we invite to come with us in this ministry?” We can invite individuals and groups and other committees to pray with us, to do mission projects with us and to worship with us and we can ask if we can go with them to do the same. We can invite the community to be with us and we can be with them.

Ministry is about invitation to serve and worship. It’s about being with each other in the doing. Ministry is active. It’s an adventure.

“For where thou goest, I will go.”

Ministry is about being. It’s about being with people in their daily lives. It’s meeting them where they are and being with them as God takes them where they need to go. It’s about showing up and listening and being present. “I’m here. I’m with you. I’m not leaving.”

Jesus, “stay with me as I pray.”

Are you with me?

“COME TO ME with all your weaknesses: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Rest in the comfort of My Presence, remembering that nothing is impossible with Me. Pry your mind away from your problems so you can focus your attention on Me. Recall that I am able to do immeasurably more than all you ask or imagine. Instead of trying to direct Me to do this and that, seek to attune yourself to what I am already doing. When anxiety attempts to wedge its way into your thoughts, remind yourself that I am your Shepherd. The bottom line is that I am taking care of you; therefore, you needn’t be afraid of anything. Rather than trying to maintain control over your life, abandon yourself to My will. Though this may feel frightening— even dangerous, the safest place to be is in My will. “For nothing is impossible with God.” LUKE 1 : 37 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. EPHESIANS 3 : 20 – 21 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. PSALM 23 : 1 – 4”
― Sarah Young, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence

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Do or Do Not: There is No Try – Sermon on Matthew 5:21-31

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Of all the conversations I have had about religion and culture, more than any other scripture passage, it has been our reading today. The guilt, shame and regret of divorce is so painful and our scripture doesn’t help much. Jesus has some very strong words about the law and marriage and society But before we assume we know what Jesus is saying here – let’s be sure we know what he’s talking about.

Before we take his words and assume that he speaking to Americans in Indiana in 2014, let’s take his words and understand that we think they were spoken in Aramaic, written in Greek, spoken to Jews and Gentiles on the Mount of Olives around 27 AD.

Jesus has something to say to his community about the laws they follow.

Let’s begin by understanding how Jewish people understood the commandments and laws in general. The Ten Commandments were not given by God as punishment, they were given to a community that needed restoration and direction.

The Ten Commandments were given to people who were in the wilderness – both literally and figuratively. A large community of people, known as Israelites had left a life of slavery, the only life they had ever known, in search of freedom, a concept they have never experienced, in a land they have never seen. They don’t know freedom. They cannot comprehend how a community that is free from slavery is to behave. What does it mean to be a truly free community? Does it mean we are free to do anything? What does freedom in the eyes of God look like?

The Israelites needed parameters of their freedom – a code of communal living. So God provided them with a gift. It’s a gift in which God says “if you want to know freedom, this is how you should treat me and others.” We often think of the Ten Commandments as a list of things we should not do, but in truth they are more about what we should do.

As Perry Yoder has observed, “We have forgotten that Israel’s liberation was an act of God’s grace, not a necessary response to Israel’s merit. Law is how the liberated, saved people of God respond. The Ten Commandments, or literally, the Ten Words essentially set a vision on how to live in a just and safe community.

Every child goes through a phase when they lie to their parents. “Did you take and eat the last piece of cake when I told you not to?” We ask. “No”… they say….as chocolate covers their hands, lips and teeth. Now they are in double trouble, they stole the last piece of cake and they lied about it….to their parents. At least three commandments are broken here and they will be heading straight to eternal damnation. Right? “Wait a minute,” we say. Before we send them to hell, let’s teach our children about why it’s unsafe and unhealthy and unfair to take without asking, to hide the truth and to not obey rules set forth by parents. Because when family members lie to each other – adults or children, the foundation loses trust and when families steal from each other, the foundation loses its stability and when children don’t obey their parents, parent’s lose their minds. – So the Ten Commandments are very much like parameters families put in place to keep their children safe and to ensure that the entire family is respected and trusted. – Are you with me?

O.K. So, now that we understand the purpose of the law, let’s see what Jesus has to say about three of them. Jesus lifts up Murder, Adultery and Divorce. He takes these three huge topics and uses a formula called antitheses. Jesus approaches three laws and says: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately murder, but the anger that lies at it’s core. Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately adultery, but the lust in our hearts. Our real problem, he says, is not when to allow divorce, but the brokenness of our relationships.

The antitheses are challenging — refuse to harbor anger, honor oaths whether in marriage or to your neighbors, desire justice so much that you would rather suffer a wrong than impose one on another, love your enemies and pray to God on their behalf. These teachings indicate that what a person does is only part of the problem. This kingdom demands radical discipleship so that even a person’s thinking transformed by contact with God’s reign. My friend has a bumper sticker that says “your thoughts become your actions, chose them wisely.” That’s Jesus argument this morning.

Jesus is really speaking about morality here and how our internal conversations lead to external behavior. You are not only supposed to not murder, which I think we would all agree is a good thing, but also not harbor the anger and rage that leads to murder. You are not supposed to commit adultery, but have the lust in your heart for the other person that leads to adultery. The issue, Jesus says is not the divorce, but the broken relationships.

Going back to our chocolate cake scenario: It’s one thing to teach our children not to take without asking and then lie about it, because it’s a rule that shouldn’t be broken. It’s another thing for them to understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s a rule or not, we want them to mature to a point that they know what is right and wrong based on a universal understanding of justice and fairness. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg calls this the six stages of moral development. The first stage is Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment. At this stage, children and some adults see rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid punishment. If I take the cake without asking, I will get in trouble, so that’s why I’m not taking the take. If I have an affair, I might get caught so I better not. If I commit murder I could go to jail, so I better think twice.

Advancing all the way to the sixth stage of moral reasoning is based upon universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules. If I take the cake without asking I have not shared and have disrespected our family. If I lust over another person I am objectifying another human being and living in a fantasy world. If I harbor anger over another person to the point that I think about murder I’m actually destroying myself.

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus was the most advanced moral thinker. He made it to the sixth stage and I think that is where Jesus is challenging his audience today. Don’t obey the law because you might get caught, obey the law because the feelings behind the actions hurt you and other people. Put another way, if people didn’t harbor anger there wouldn’t be murder, if their wasn’t lust, there wouldn’t be adultery , if relationships stayed whole, there wouldn’t be divorce. His argument is that anger, lust and broken relationships destroy people and communities.

In the Star Wars movies, there is a character who would definitely be placed at the sixth stage of Kohberg’s thinking and that is of course master Jedi, Yoda. Young Luke Skywalker goes to Yoda for training to be a Jedi Knight. In his training, Yoda tells Luke to do something that seems impossible – to take a ship out of a muddy pond. Luke says, “I will try” And Yoda responds, “No! There is no try. Do. Or do not.”

Jesus telling us, don’t try. Instead, do, or don’t do. Decide. And then act.

Imagine a society that doesn’t harbor anger, isn’t motivated out of lust and keeps relationships whole.

Now, hear me clearly, Jesus knows we are human and we are going get angry, and we are going to think things we shouldn’t and we are going to have brokenness in our relationships. Jesus knows how human we are, because he was just as human. So the purpose of his sermon is not to go home and beat yourself with a rod about how imperfect you are. The purpose of his sermon is to challenge us to live into a higher moral thinking, relying on grace and forgiveness when we fall. It’s to not try. It’s to do. The Pharisees and other law abiding folks may not commit murder, but they still have anger. Jesus says, good luck seeing the kingdom of God. The challenge is living a life of righteousness and righteousness requires grace.

L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become grace-filled people through the daily and disciplined practice of Christian obligations. He writes:

“Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about a ballet dancer, or, if you prefer, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.”

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to the higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that the kingdom of God may be made known on earth.

Don’t go out into the world and try to be the person God created you to be. There is no try. Do. Or Do not. It’s your choice. Remembering to stay strong in the force. For without it, we will surely fail. – May the Force Be With You.

Amen.

Dreams

images

I met a cab driver the other day.

He was from Iraq. Twenty years ago he escaped for his life from Sudam Hussein during the first war and in his words was saved by American solders and placed in a refugee camp. After two years living as a refugee, he came to the United States.

He had his Bachelors and Masters Degrees in urban planning. He always had a dream of getting his doctorate and working in the field of architecture. When he first came to the United States, he wasn’t able to prove his academic achievements. After the second war in Iraq he was able to access his diplomas.

But, by then it was too late. He had responsibilities by now. A wife and two children. He had his children’s education to consider – bills to pay. “He liked Chicago,” he said, as he drove me through the snowy, grey streets of Hyde Park.

I looked up into the clay sky. “More snow,” I thought. And took in deep sigh.

He was a kind man.

What happens to the dreams that never come to life? What happens to the talents that are never fully realized? What happens to the visions that are never made real?

Are they stored in a warehouse in the universe for another day? Or do they dissolve like snow?

He dropped me off at the airport. “Thanks for the ride” I said. “I hope you get your doctorate some day.”

“No, it’s too late for me. I’m too old now. It’s my daughter’s turn.”

“Well, take care.”

“You too.”

A Dream Deferred
Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

en-trench-ment

image

en·trench verb \in-ˈtrench, en-\
: to place (someone or something) in a very strong position that cannot easily be changed

Full Definition of ENTRENCH

transitive verb
1
a : to place within or surround with a trench especially for defense
b : to place (oneself) in a strong defensive position
c : to establish solidly
2
: to cut into : furrow; specifically : to erode

Governance and Ministry
How Congregations Organize

Adapted from Chapter 3 of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership by Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant

While congregations are remarkably diverse in many ways, they tend to be organized under three common structures: Board Centered, Committee-Centered, and Staff Centered. These patterns have less to do with church “polities” (i.e., congregational, episcopal, and presbyterian), cultural or ethnic make-up, or intention. Inherited traits and the size of the congregation tend to drive the way congregations organize.

The Board-Centered Congregation
Congregations usually start with a cadre of highly energetic and committed members. When the group grows to the point off wanting anything so formal as a board, it naturally calls on those who have taken charge of pieces of its practical work: music, education, building, finance, membership, and so on. This is a good, workable board structure for small congregations. Board members have earned their leadership status by taking responsibility; they work closely together and everyone who needs to know and make decisions is already in the room. However, even as a congregation grows, this structure often persists beyond its effectiveness.

The Committee-Centered Congregation
The committee-centered model of governance is so common that many people assume that it is the only proper way to run a church or synagogue. The essential trait of the committee-centred model is that both governance (deciding “what” and making sure it happens) and ministry (deciding “how” and doing it) are in large measure delegated by the board to its committees.

Typically, committee-centered congregations adhere to the Map Theory of Committees, that every programmatic decision resides with a committee. So, for example, if an idea involves music it has to go before the music committee. The Map Theory creates a bias against change by putting standing committees in a position to veto change.

The committee-centered structure often emerges out of a board-centered structure as a congregation grows. Instead of shifting decisively away from a board-centred structure to something else, boards make small adjustments over time. Committee “liaisons” may replace committee chairs on the board, and decision-making power shifts to committees. The board spends more of its time responding to requests—for permission, for approval, for comment—from the committees.

The animated illustration below shows how “supercommittees” such as finance and property can emerge. Triangle relationships come into play as committees report to the board as well as petition or attempt to influence other committees. This triangulation becomes more complex when staff is added and/or when the board has not clarified its working relationship with the main clergy leader. This leads to tensions. Added staff can lead to a new “supercommittee” of personnel that might have another name like “staff-parish” or “mutual ministry.” When the personnel committee’s role with the staff team is not clearly defined especially problematic triangles result. The personnel committee becomes an alternative boss for anyone who does not like the real boss. The triangles can multiply.

Here are some common less-helpful features of the commitee-centered model:

A passive board that spends most of its time listening to reports, responding to proposals, and arbitrating conflicts rather than envisioning the future, creating long-term goals and policies, and ensuring organizational performance. The board has no agenda of its own—only the sum of the agendas of its committees.

A miserly approach to delegation, in which boards and committees approve projects provisionally and then bring them back repeatedly for criticism, reconsideration, and approval of next steps. This can be a highly frustrating process. It also can be a crutch for people who want to avoid accountability.

A fragmented staff whose members connect more strongly with their natural consitutuencies—educators with parents, musicians with the choir, administrators with the finance committee—than to the staff as a team.

The Staff-Centered Congregation
A response to the shortcomings of board- and committee-centered governance has been the staff-centered governance model that sometimes goes under the names of “permission-giving” or “purpose-driven.” It starts with a charismatic clergy leader who articulates the congregation’s mission and vision and recruits “ministry teams” of paid and unpaid staff to carry it out. This structure encourages a pastor and staff to say yes to new ideas and helps ensure that deliberative processes do not get in the way of ministry. One congregation that adopted this structure coined a slogan to describe its governance reforms: “Fewer meetings, more ministry!” So what’s not to like?

Some disadvantages:
Dependence on one leader. If the leader leaves or is discredited, the institution can take a long time to recover. This risk can be mitigated by a succession plan.

Decisions are limited to a few, or even one person. It does not take advantage of the power of a committed group of people to make better decisions. It is not participatory nor does it take advantage of every member’s gifts for discerning the congregation’s mission. A community willing to be patient with people’s differences and indecision will correct and improve the insights of even the most gifted individuals.

Some Even Worse Ideas
Usually people who utilize these governance practices have the impression that denominational polity requires them, or that they are widespread. The fact that one or both of these impressions may be correct does not make the ideas any better.

Elected committees and committee chairs. The congregational meeting elects every committee chair and sometimes every committee member as well. Who is empowered by voting on a slate of 30 or 130 nominees? It might seem to be the nominating committee. In practice, the de facto leader of each committee (who may be a staff member) ends up doing most of the recruiting, thus the official nominating process is as empty as the election.

Staff reporting to committees. While this may seem a natural way to describe the relationship between staff and committees, what happens when there are conflicts between clergy, staff, or committees? Who is equipped to supervise, evaluate performance, or arbitrate issues?

Multiple governing boards. In some congregations, a board of trustees control the money while the program board does most of the work. Sometimes one board is said to be responsible for the “business” aspects of the congregation while another board takes charge of the “spiritual” part. This can be a set up for conflict, for a strong bias against anything new, and for creating an excessive dualism between mission and money.

Jumbo boards. Congregations that grow sometimes expand their board proportionally, perhaps on the vague theory of proportional representation. If a board’s job is to make sure the congregation adheres to its mission and purpose, it’s important that it be the right size for the task. Large boards (more than a dozen members) find it difficult to think imaginatively as a group or stay focused on a finite set of board priorities. As a rule, large boards tend to be more passive and less able to engage the staff as strong partners.