Creating a Habitat of Call

samuel-and-eliAnd the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant hears.’”                  1 Samuel 3: 8-9

Eli, the aging spiritual leader of Israel, offers us of a vivid reminder of what it means to mentor others, especially youth and young adults in our churches. Eli, the older man and Samuel’s teacher and mentor, recognizes Samuel is being called by God. Samuel is youthful and obedient, but doesn’t yet recognize God’s call on his heart. Eli helps Samuel become aware of God’s call at great personal sacrifice.   Eli knows he will lose his position of authority and his family is to be punished for the actions of his sons. Eli, in effect, allows his family to die off as servants, knowing a new generation must move into the leadership of the church.

We, “the old white men” of power, and those in control of the church, could learn a lot from Eli. Are we actively affirming and looking for the next generation of church leadership, or are we clinging to power? Are we helping to create an environment where youth and young adults are made aware of, and can respond to, God’s call? Are we helping to create a “habitat of call”?

The concept of “habitat” speaks to an environment or an ecological system where different species of plants and animals coexist and flourish.   The soil, the weather, and the seasons all cooperate to allow certain species to thrive, while others live elsewhere, or don’t seem to thrive in a particular habitat. Young plants and animals are protected and raised in the habitat and mature to become part of the environment. There is a sense of discovery and wonder for what lies outside the habitat and there is a profound security and rhythm within. Habitats must be preserved, nurtured, and protected. So it is with the habitat of call.

The habitat of call moves to the rhythm of the Spirit. The habitat is attuned to the call of all creation and flows with the energy of the Divine. In a habitat of call all people live into their role as mature members of God’s kingdom and each person is called to ministry: we are all part of the spiritual ecosystem. God calls each of us toward wholeness and community: God says grow! The more “mature” members of the ecosystem need to teach and nurture others toward God’s call on their lives.

Vital local churches provide the soil and plant seeds to create and develop leaders for a vital and sustainable denomination. Youth leaders, pastors, lay leaders, and all adults in the church ecosystem serve as “horticulturalists” to protect and nurture the growth of new leaders. This tender care begins in Sunday School, matures in Youth Group, and must be reaffirmed post-high school. Youth camps and mission trips are crucibles of call discernment and growth. Efforts toward helping youth and young adults discern their call tie inextricably to the renewal and revitalization of the church. But the habitat also needs to grow leaders of all ages and backgrounds, not just care for the young.

A habitat of call is about developing leaders for the church who provide strong and healthy stock on which to graft new growth. We have to intentionally look for a new stock of leaders, help them discern their call and grow, affirm them and let them bloom, and continue to support them and encourage their growth. Those in clerical and lay leadership roles should always be searching for the next generation of leaders. We should have a continual process of training our replacements. And leadership development and support doesn’t end when they say “yes”. It is an ongoing process.

Creating a habitat of call means we have to commit for the long haul – this will take decades, not years. This effort requires a change in priorities and some serious pruning. We need to put our resources where we claim we want to go – which areas get water and fertilizer? We may have to get rid of a few species that refuse to thrive. In the end, however, we just may be able to save the environment we call the United Methodist Church while leaving a legacy for future generations.

John Wesley could have been thinking about maintaining a healthy habitat when he said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist…but I am afraid they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to the doctrine, spirits and discipline with which they first set out.”

Holy Fire: Awakening the Human Heart

Holy FireAs Pentecost approaches, I have been doing some thinking about the early church. I wonder what they had that we, the current church, are missing? How could so many people be filled with the Holy Spirit, be motivated to preach the gospel, take care of each other, spread the good news around the known world, and even face death for the sake of the cross?

 

Of course, church historians will remind us that early Christians had personally known Jesus, or heard stories from people who had witnessed his ministry. And, they might remind us the early church believed Christ’s return was imminent and they would be once again be with Jesus. Nevertheless, how can we capture that “holy fire” of the first Pentecost and put it to use for the Kingdom of God?

We talk about developing disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but the real transformation that must first take place is the awakening of the individual human heart. It’s not about structures, or organization, or finances, or programs, or getting younger people in the doors, or the style of music – it’s about a church that can touch each human heart and make it aware of the divine connection with the Holy One…a connection waiting to be discovered again and again.

The awakening of the human heart cannot be gained by the imposition of another’s beliefs, nor is it simply an intellectual argument. It is hard work and must be done by the individual. There are tools to help; but ultimately, each of us has to do the work ourselves. We have to continually reflect on what we read, what we hear, what we see, and how we act to look for the truth, to seek the authentic movement of the Holy Spirit…and, who has time for that kind of work?

How can the organized church facilitate the awakening of the human heart? I think it starts by making the work of the inward journey a priority. Perhaps we need to deemphasize some things and reemphasize transformation…put our money where our hearts need to be, so to speak.

How to we do transformation? I really don’t know, but I know when I have seen glimpses of transformation.

  • I’ve seen it happen during some amazing, authentic worship
  • I’ve seen it when I pray individually or with other spiritual friends
  • I’ve seen it during a service project when we think about someone beside ourselves for a few days
  • I have seen it in small, long-term, covenantal groups that affirm and hold each other accountable

I have a hunch that if more of our human hearts were truly awake to the divine and ablaze with holy fire, the work of the church would take care of itself. Volunteers would step forward, giving would be sufficient, social justice would be a priority, inclusion would not be an issue, and the world would be transformed. Maybe transformation of the world starts with an awakening of our hearts.

 

Gabriel

annunciationHello, my name is Gabriel. You may know me as the angel God would send to deliver really important, special messages. Before God sent me to deliver a message to a young peasant girl in Nazareth I should have been called “Gabriel the Reluctant”, or even “Gabriel the Slacker”.

 

 

After God explained the message I was to deliver and to whom I was to deliver it, I was like, “Really…that’s your plan”?

I mean, why not pick a royal family for the Messiah; why not just form a human Christ from clay – you were pretty good at that once; or why not just go down there yourself, kick some butt, destroy a few kingdoms and empires, reestablish the throne of David – you know, like we used to do in the good ‘ol days?

But God said, “Gabriel…dude, trust me on this – just deliver the message to Mary”.

So, I visited Mary and delivered my message. “Greetings, favored one…the Lord is with you (yadda, yadda, yadda)”. She looked really scared, and I worked with that fear trying to design my message to scare her off, to get her to say ‘no’. When she asked how she could have a child since she’d never been with a man, I thought I had her. The stigma of having a child out of wedlock would be too much for her to bear. And, surely the fact that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a child in her old age would convince Mary that this was just “crazy talk”.

When I told her “nothing will be impossible with God”, I was really thinking (you are so screwed, or you are in such deep doo-doo, or I hope she says no, because this is really a dumb idea).

But, Mary simply said, “Here Am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Wait a minute, did this kid just say yes to this crazy idea? Doesn’t she know what she is getting herself into? And does God really know what God is doing to this young woman? I couldn’t believe my hearing. I was amazed at her simple acceptance, her faith, her “yes”.

I returned vowing to become a more trusting, faithful messenger for God. One who would simply trust and say, “yes”, like Mary.

Stardust

merging-galaxies_1083_600x450Scientists now theorize the universe began some 13.7 billion years ago. Scientists are not sure what existed before it happened, or how it happened, but they think they’ve figured out when the “big bang” happened. Another feature of the universe that scientists know to be true, but can’t explain, is that the universe is expanding; not only expanding, accelerating in its expansion.

I like science, and I believe science and theology are not mutually exclusive. Science, in my opinion, is the human attempt to understand and explain the world around us. I have no problem accepting a universe that is still being created because I believe the Creator is still at work in the universe. If we believe God can be present and active in our lives, why limit ourselves to a “once and done” creation story, or even establish parameters of time for a divine creator that is an unfathomable mystery?

Why couldn’t God have ignited a “big bang” that sent elemental particles in all directions? Could it be that these particles combined to form minerals, plants, animals, and a gradually evolving consciousness? Could humans have evolved into the “self-aware and self-reflective consciousness of the cosmos”? Could it be, like Joni Mitchell said, we are stardust?

What if every part of creation was infused with holy stardust, a divine spark? How would that cause me to care for creation? How would I treat the Earth and its resources, plants and animals, my fellow humans? Recognizing a bit of the Divine, God’s image and likeness in each other, is truly the beginning of the journey toward peace.

Something I appreciate about science is any hypothesis can be changed in light of new evidence. In other words, as science learns more about the formation of the universe, theories will change, and new concepts developed. Why shouldn’t it be the same for our concept of the Divine?

To limit our concept of God to a set timeline or fixed interpretation is to limit God. God is limitless, indefinable, infinite. We can’t put God in a box and think to ourselves, “Good, I’ve got that figured out!” How arrogant, but oh, how human of us to try.

Let us not limit God nor limit those around us, nor access to creation and its glory. Look for the divine spark, that dash of holy stardust in all things and all people. And, if God is still creating and we are still evolving, there is divine hope for all of creation.

Tau

tauI don’t wear much jewelry: watch on left wrist, wedding ring on left hand, the occasional class ring or ID bracelet on the right. Certainly not a necklace – that would be, what…too flashy? But, one day feeling particularly spirit-filled, I purchased a cross on a string at a Christian bookstore.

This “cross” was a capital Tau carved from olive wood and on a thin waxed string, like a shoelace. So, it was masculine and could be a cross, or could just be this cool symbol around my neck. I couldn’t commit to the shiny, link chain, metallic crosses in the store that seemed to scream, “Christian!”

On the way home from a week of spiritual discovery, my new “cross” proudly displayed around my neck, I checked in for my return flight at the airport. As the ticket agent was helping me check a bag she remarked, “Are you a priest?” When I said, “No, I’m not a priest”, she commented, “You have that look about you”. I thought to myself, “Man, this spiritual formation stuff is really working!” But, I figured it was the cross.

I re-entered the world and wore the cross for a few more days. Then one day, having removed the cross, it was placed on top of the dresser into a jewelry box, where it has remained for over six months. I think the cross represents my commitment to Christ.

There were days when I wore the cross outside my shirt and was not afraid of people seeing and labeling me as a Christian. On those days I am not ashamed of Jesus, I would not deny him, and I’m willing to live out my faith.

There are other days where I wear the cross under my shirt and thereby hide it. No one knows about the cross or sees it. My faith remains under the surface. It might be revealed in the right situation, like when I felt safe in the company of other Christians.

Then, there are the many days when I do not put on the cross, or forget I even have the cross. Sadly, those days have lately far outnumbered the days when the cross is remembered. It’s not like I have forgotten about Jesus, it’s more like I don’t care, a subtle, but far more destructive attitude.

It takes courage to be a follower of the man from Nazareth, especially in a world that tries to convince you that it’s all about you; that life is for the taking and your prosperity is the result of your hard work.

Our allegiance to Christ turns those assumptions upside down. To be first, you must be last. To be rich, make yourself poor. Instead of grabbing all the gusto for yourself, care for those on the margins. Love your enemy.

Really, Jesus, are you kidding me? No wonder I want to hide, or better yet, forget the cross. By wearing it, I might have to act like a follower of Christ.

Boys!?!

young-harry-ron-hermione In a line from a Harry Potter movie, after Ron and Harry have behaved in a particularly clueless and insensitive way, Hermione shakes her head stomps off as she mutters under her breath, “Boys!?!”  Meaning, what is it about guys?  Why don’t they behave like normal people?  Why don’t they relate to others like girls?  In my own life, I remember when my oldest daughter came home from her first day of kindergarten and proclaimed, “Boys are dumb!”  I’ve learned since, that opinion of men remains pretty consistent with women as we age.

Boys are dumb, at least in the way we relate to each other.  We don’t share emotions well, nor open ourselves to be vulnerable, and rarely admit we are wrong.  And men have trouble forming close personal friendships with other men, let alone a relationship approaching “love”.  And, as close as two heterosexual men may be to loving each other in a friendship, they are afraid to say it to each other or describe their relationship as loving.  There is enough homophobia and machismo out there for most men to avoid the “L-word”.

I do not have a good male friend. And while I might have had one in the past, I was too dumb to cultivate and maintain that friendship. I have many more female friends and could easily say I love them, and not in a sexual way. I am old enough that “sex” no longer occupies my consciousness every waking moment. I love them like Francis and Clare of Assisi loved each other, like spiritual friends. Not so with guys.

I feel the need for a male spiritual friend.  My new spiritual director is male and I hope to develop an intimate spiritual companionship with him. But, I still feel the need for a spiritual buddy.  A guy who golfs, or hikes, or likes music, or goes to the gym, or even…wants to read the Bible and pray.  I know guys like that must be out there, but I’ll probably never meet them because I can’t explain my needs to another guy.  Boys are dumb!