Friday, November 30, 2007

Climbing and ministry

When I lived on the west coast my passion was mountaineering. I enjoyed all aspects of climbing, from rock gyms to local crags to summiting Mt. Shasta in the summer of 1997. One thing that climbing taught me (that I need to apply to ministry) is that it's not a sprint. I remember during the Shasta climb my partner and I reached the 10,000 foot point pretty quickly. The parking lot was around an elevation of 7,000. Anyway, we had considered going higher, but by the time we reached Helen Lake (which was at 10,000) I was feeling some altitude discomfort. My head was aching and my stomach was uneasy. We decided to pitch the tent and spend the night acclimating. I'm glad we did that because the following morning I woke up feeling much better, ready to attack the rest of the mountain above.

I've recently have had ministry experiences in which a spiritual "altitude sickness" seemed to arise. The body is aching, the head is hurting and the screaming need is to stop and rest a bit. Such occasions remind me of climbing Mt. Shasta, where rest points are necessary to acclimate to the new altitude. Try climbing too fast, and the body will react negatively.

Another thing I learned in climbing Mt. Shasta was that the destination (the summit) was made significant by the journey. Had a helicopter simply dropped me off at 14,179 ft (the summit pictured above) the view would not have held the same beauty. There's something about using the ice ax, the crampons, the ropes and the warm layers to ascend the mountain that make the view more picturesque. Were it not for those moments when each step took 5 seconds, the air felt thin and the wind was too loud to think, the goal would not have been so special. Ministry has incredible parallels to climbing. I have to remember them, meditating on what God has already taught me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Praxi Fide

Several discussions I've had recently regarding "Lex orandi, lex credendi" (Latin loosely translatable as "the law of prayer is the law of belief") have revealed that a faith community's practice is not separate-able from that community's faith. On the contrary, the practice is an outgrowth of the faith maintained in that community's tradition. Take for example church music, the church does not maintain one belief about the work of the Spirit in their midst and another belief about the music's work within people. Instead, it is more accurate to say that the belief that the church holds about music's work within people is an outgrowth of their belief about the Spirit's work among people.

This is going to be true in any number of church practices. That is particularly true in various rites and rituals associated with a tradition's faith confession. For example, I recently sought to imagine separating the form of one's baptism from the faith one has in baptism. It was my attempt to suggest that the faith associated with baptism superseded or made less relevant the manner in which one was baptized. However, this failed to take into account the manner in which one's faith is manifested in practice. Praxi fide (or "faith practice") acknowledges that one's practice grows out of not only the faith they have in Christ, but also the faith they hold in common with the believers they join. When one takes communion with a body of believers, or engages in worship practice with them, the practice itself is a confession of solidarity with the faith community they're in.

For this reason, imagine that one comes to a new church which has practices that differ from those that they have known. The Praxi fide of the new church is not separable into the faith the community holds to and the practice is represents. They are linked in such a way that the newcomer now has the opportunity to confess their common faith with the new church through undergoing a common practice. It would be evidence of the human tendency to slip toward a gnostic separation of matter and spirit (to which we all are susceptible) to attempt confessing common faith without embracing common practice. As Praxi fide is played out in each church tradition's unique context, believers do well (myself included) to remember that faith is not merely assented to in the mind, but it is practiced in the flesh, with the people of God around close by to express "Amen."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Spiritual Disciplines: Meditation

Because my spiritual life needs a shot in the arm, I'm starting to read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I've completed his description of the first of the "inward" disciplines: meditation. Amazing that he would appear to begin with the most difficult one first considering the pace of our society and culture. The lost art of meditation has become so foreign to our understanding and instinct that the dominant view toward meditation tends to gravitate to a fascination with the eastern mysterious practices. Meditation that is prescribed in the Holy Scriptures, and thus Christian meditation, is quite different from the "new age" pursuits. On the contrary, instead of trying to empty one's mind and being, the goal is to full up with the truth and wisdom of God. Determined contemplation is required for this.

This takes me back somewhat to my days at Temple Kung Fu studios in Seattle, WA. In those days I was surrounded by instructors and students that followed Grand Master Simon's brand of "Neo Ch'an Buddhism." GMS taught his meditation in the form of three progressive modes or "sittings." The 1st sitting was when the practitioner would sit on the floor with correct posture and, with the use of their breathing, empty the mind. In the 2nd sitting one would remain seated in the same manner as with the 1st, but in this case use proper breathing to focus their mind on a specific point. Along with this focusing technique, the goal is to also become more aware of the "energy" (or chi) that flows through the body during times of this focusing. This is where the chi training has its beginning: focused awareness of chi energy flowing through the body and eventual interacting with its flow, potency and direction. The 3rd sitting differed in that one did not have to remain seated, but instead could lay on the floor as well. The goal was to be in as relaxed a state as possible. By means of proper breathing and concentration, you would enter an inward journey called "walking to the river." It was taught that you should imagine walking down a country pathway to the a river's edge whereby you would cast into the river those flaws about yourself you wanted to discard, or extract from the river those traits you wished to add. In this way, you take control and responsibility for the development of the soul.

At the time, I couldn't quite put my finger on what bothered me about such practices, but made the determination not to participate anyway. This conviction was challenged more than once as fellow instructors showed disapproval for my choosing Scripture as my meditation source instead of Simon's method. Nevertheless, I remained persuaded that Simon's method was to be avoided, and a biblical approach should be sought. Over the years my understanding of what a biblical/Christian approach to meditation might look like has increased, but this has not made developing the discipline any easier. I'm as addicted to busy schedules and constant motion as the next American. My hope is to take a fresh crack at the historic spiritual disciplines celebrated in the Church, and experience something of the depth of intimacy with God that saints of the past have enjoyed. If I can just carve out the time, meditation with my God calls out, and I plan to answer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Completing a course

Last Monday was the final evening of class for the course (EO18 - Introduction to Archaeology) that I taught with Sherry Klein at Dallas Theological Seminary's Center for Biblical Studies. What a pleasure that was! For a young instructor in training, a better group of students could not have been assembled. They were enthusiastic, curious, hard working, inquisitive and encouraging. Previously I had taught Bible Study Methods, which was also a real joy. This course was a great nourishment to the soul, knowing that God teaches people with such tender care and somehow sees fit to allow my participation in his training of them. What an awesome responsibility, and a sobering ecstasy that is.

However, there's also nothing like completing a thing either. Having felt recently like too many irons were in the fire, I was also looking forward to the conclusion of the course. Frankly, the roles of husband-father-student-pastor-chaplain have been time consuming enough. To have the additional role of CBS teacher on top of those was quite out of balance. Fortunately, it was just for a 10 week season, but it should be admitted that I would not have sought to teach such a course had I known last spring that I would be a pastor in the fall. Nevertheless, it is now completed, bringing the satisfaction that only the reality of "completion" can bring.

Have you ever noticed the secret pleasure that one takes in yanking the bookmark out of a novel or non-fiction tome that you just finished? Consider the sense of well-being taken from beholding a structure that you have labored over that now stands before you fully assembled. The feeling of completion is a fulfilling one, driving us to labor beyond our comfort toward the prize of satisfied finality. Consider the college student who remains diligent throughout the last year with one eye in the books and the other eye on the graduation date on the calendar. Think of the runner who receives the extra energy from deep within once the finish line is in sight. The thrill of completion is a powerful motivator. Once completion is achieved, the inner peace of another task seen to the end is worthy of meditation.

I have other currently running tasks calling for completion though: the present course being taken from DTS, as well as the overall degree program of the Th.M. Completion calls out from the task and bids be to labor beyond comfort, to keep the goal in sight and remain balanced through the journey. She charges me to read my required texts, attack the courses for the Winter and Spring semesters, and write with excellence on those subjects I'm learning. Completing a course, whether teaching it or taking it, brings the quiet confidence that God has brought me up to a point of persevering in study and labor to a measurable result. That is very satisfying, and is the reason why my commitment to persevere in seminary work remains unshaken.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Leaving time to date

I'm still struggling defining what exactly does "a day off" look like to a pastor. It certainly is not Sunday, for that is the most intense work day. It's also not Saturday, for many ministry activities and appointments occur of that day because it is a day off for so many others in the church. Typically I have heard of pastors taking Mondays off. This has not been so for me yet because I taught at Dallas Theological Seminary's Center for Biblical Studies on Monday nights. The resulting effect has been that I feel as though I've not taken a day off in two months. Oh yes, the canoe trip last weekend was relaxing, but it was still something of a pastoral function. In the coming weeks and months, I intended to sort out this problem.

With regards to leisure time, not only has my own time off fallen by the wayside, but also my time away with Naomi as well. This is most certainly not a acceptable practice. This is all the more made evident by how much I enjoyed this morning.

Naomi and I decided last night to designate weekly times that are spent alone with one another. We allowed for some flexibility for now whether they would be mornings or evenings (since she works until 6:30pm most nights and my meetings occur mostly in the evenings as well), but we did indeed follow up on the the decision by going out to Starbucks this morning. Over our chosen drinks, and the comfortable atmosphere we talked about all the significant happenings in our life right now. It was nice just to take the time to connect meaningfully about the issues that move us in this season of life. After that we went over to the new Dick's Sporting Goods store in Rockwall to imagine new recreation activities for our family. It was a great time.

All in all, it helped me remember that the schedule simply must not become too full to squeeze in time alone with my wife. Leaving time to date is essential to our relationship, and also serves as a time of refreshing relaxation for me too.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Around a fire

This last weekend I joined several men from my church on a canoe trip down the Brazos River west of Fort Worth, TX. We traveled 10 miles down the meandering stream that was fairly low due to the upstream dam's need to store water in its reservoir (recent rains were welcome relief from a drought). Periods of lake-like slow currents were interrupted by stretches of shallow rapids requiring pushing the canoe at moments. These were not enjoyment dampers in the least. On the contrary, the relaxed pace of the current helped the world slow down. It was refreshing.

Friday afternoon, after a suitable campsite had been scouted and selected, we unloaded the canoes and set up home for a night. The tent places were chosen and debris cleared away, but the vital component that really gives a campsite its magic was missing: a campfire. So I began gathering stones and placed them in a circle in the sandy depression of ground that the tents had been placed around. Not long afterward, others got the hint and began gathering wood from around the area. It was not long before the fire was lit and the dancing flames were beginning to have their entrancing effect.

What is it about fire that attracts the eye, slows the mind and brings normally high-intensity people to a slow crawl? Be it a fireplace in a home, a campfire in the county or even a simple candle on the desk, fire can mesmerize, clear the mind and facilitate rest. Native Americans used to gather the tribe around the fire for a myriad of reasons. The stories of the old ones, the dance of the warriors, the victory of the hunters or the commemoration of significant events all happened around the camps' fire.

Shakespeare wrote, "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings." If such a line can be applied to the the King of the Christian (Jesus Christ), then the "sad" story is one of redemption; for the death of our King resulted in our salvation. If one takes it further, then the "sad" story each one could tell would be about their redemption. Applied to the genre of Christian fellowship the line could very well be adapted to read, "let us sit upon the ground and tell glorious stories of how our King who died, but then rose again, redeemed us." Or even such a line could be adapted to reminisce about the Christian's necessary death-to-self with, "let us sit upon the ground and tell our stories about the death of my sinful flesh in favor of my submission to the Lord Jesus Christ." In any case "let us sit upon the ground and tell...stories" is fellowship building in any culture; how much more so in a Christian one.

The campfire can facilitate such telling of stories. The old fellows can tell of the story of the faithfulness of God throughout their lives. The young ones can tell of the struggles of growing up in such times as we have now. The middle-aged warriors can tell of the victories of the King in conforming them to His image. The campfire encourages us; no, it calls us to sit upon the ground and tell our stories, to tell THE story of how our king's death gave us life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Church Music: part 2 - music and personal responsibility

Because art can be such a subjective enterprise, responsibility falls on the receiver of said art to accept its expression in the spirit with which it was offered. I remember being the Director for a Thomas Kinkade signature gallery in Redmond, WA. Many would enter the gallery and get pretty much out of the painting what Thomas Kinkade would have wanted them to. I can be confident of this because of having read Kinkade's book Lightposts for Living. In that book Thomas offers a philosophy of life that he hopes will be reinforced by his artwork. For this reason, those who found in his art warm feelings of hearth and home brought on by the shades of light embedded into Kinkade's scenes were pretty much receiving from the artwork what he would have intended. On the other hand, every now and then, someone would enter the gallery and critique a piece for not having achieved what they wanted in a painting for their living room or entry way. I would smile and simply suggest that perhaps their tastes demands something other than what the artist feels is his place to convey. For those people, another gallery was most likely more appropriate.

In a church, music is performed and lead by artists who have a specific goal with the music they perform. They have an instinct for worshiping the God they know and love which they seek to incite others to develop. Those goals of their artwork must be clearly describable. For this reason, church leaders who interview potential music leaders must read the artist's "book" so to speak. The candidate's philosophy of church music, their thoughts on the integration of doctrine and art, as well as their personal worship of God are all written in their own "lightposts for living" beliefs. Once leaders have established that this is congruent with the church's doctrinal, traditional and cultural makeup, then the last consideration is musical style. Not that this is insignificant, but it takes a backseat to the weightier matters described above.

I say "weightier" because the doctrinal and philosophical matters are actually those that will affect a church the most for good or ill, and are the most difficult to change once a selection is made. Any musician can improve in skills and challenge themselves toward new varieties of expression. However, deeply embedded beliefs about doctrine or music's place in the worshiping culture of a church are seldom changeable once a position has been secured. Their is no doubt that the artist can improve in skills; but how likely is it that an artist will change his or her philosophy of art midstream? Thomas Kinkade's earlier works reveal the skills of someone young in his career, clearly showing improved skills over time. However, both the earlier and the later works all show the same philosophy of art expressed in Lightposts for Living.

For this reason, great responsibility falls on the individual worshiper in a church to listen carefully for an artist's philosophy of music and worship when they speak of it, or to talk to them directly about it on the side. In any case, church leaders rightly place greater weight on the thoughts given in the artist's "book" rather than critiques of an given piece, knowing that with patience the beauty in the artwork (music or canvas) will increasingly be perceived by the beholder.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The virtue of work

This last weekend men of our church assembled together to build a new storage shed next to our main building. The components for the shed had been purchased some time ago, but time for erecting the shed could not be secured until now. The crew started early and worked through the day pausing only briefly for lunch. It was, at times, entertaining inasmuch as men have varying approaches to construction and place different value levels on written instructions. Nevertheless, the project marched on with the parts coming together to progressively resemble the building it is supposed to become.

Since the work that occurred on Saturday and Sunday afternoon I've had moments to reflect on why it was that I took such great pleasure in the work-day. This is no exaggeration. I truly took pleasure in the work I participated in with the other men of the church. I now believe the reason I derived such fulfillment from the occasion has something to do with the virtue of physical labor as a spiritual discipline. In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Dallas Willard describes some "non-standard" spiritual disciplines that help the believer become conditioned to the divine just like standard disciplines such as fasting, study or silence. He suggests that physical labor is a spiritual discipline that also can assist the people of faith "work out" their soul to develop spiritual fitness for encountering God's work through them.

In this regard, the physical labor of erecting a storage shed can serve as a spiritual discipline for being conditioned better for divine influence. In can also fit the category of Willard's "engaging" disciplines of service and fellowship. After all, fellowship occurs in those environments when you can know someone better than routine habits allow. I've often said if you really want to know a man, find out what annoys him, see how he reacts after hitting his thumb with a hammer or when wall joints don't line up. Also, you know a man by watching what makes him happy. Observe what jokes he tells or laughs at. Does he laugh at himself? Is he patient with others not as skilled as he is?

It is the nature of men to reveal a great deal about their personality and character when performing physical work. For this reason, laborious activities have a virtuous component to them in how they unearth a man's soul. Anything from digging ditches, to carpentry to piling rocks to assembling storage sheds contain the virtuous exercise of bringing out the hidden makeup of a man. As a result, physical labor can produce more meaningful fellowship than other forms of attempting it. It is a shame that in our present culture, when the collective instinct is so much stronger to be served rather than to serve, that many other forms for facilitating "fellowship" are pursued among men (such as BBQ, football, entertainment, etc.) to the seeming exclusion of work. There is nothing wrong with those things, but physical labor often seems at the bottom of the list. How tragic this is, when it produces such fulfilling moments of brotherhood. I look forward to the next opportunity I have to work and labor next to my Christian brothers, get to know them in a manner that only hammer, the drill and the screwdriver can produce.