the Covenant, ours together and ours with God

I started to add running to my morning exercise about a year ago.  At first, it started as just adding a ½ mile jog onto the end of my 3+ mile walk in the morning.  A year later, without pushing myself hard, I run/jog the majority of my 3+ mile route usually 2x a week.  It’s been a rewarding journey learning how to pace myself and trust my body as someone who’s overweight, an ex-smoker, and diagnosed with asthma at 15.

The time I spend exercising each weekday morning along the Lake Michigan shore is time I spend with God.  The team of ministers I work with have made a covenant, which includes living our discipleship and upholding each other and our mission for about an hour each day.  As I walk or run, I’m often in prayer, feeling the frustrations of my life and/or focusing on our team praying.  I also try to listen, to allow myself to be spoken to by God through my thoughts, to see God in the sunrise over the lake or the behavior of the water.  Sometimes, it lies motionless.  At other times, waves crash against the seawall where, at points on my trail, sea spray hits against my skin.  This morning, however, I heard God in a different.  God spoke to me through shutting out my surroundings.  In doing so, I had a brush with divine wisdom that I needed for today.  I want to share it with you.

On the mornings I chose to run, I often push myself.  I’m either tired from the day before and need to force myself to run through my fatigue.  Or, I try pushing my endurance and breathe a little harder, which is very rewarding when I am done and I feel the release in my legs and body.   Running can have a calming effect on my day that way.  If I do this often, my morning run changes the character of my time with God.  My prayer and medication is more based on feeling my way through.  I strive to find God in the run.  My thoughts focus on the meaning of my physical pain, the fatigue of my legs, and my thoughts compete with obsessions about how far I’ve run, whether I’ve reached the mid-way point, or how far I am from finishing when I can cool down and walk the rest of the way.  Pushing myself has a spiritual quality to it.

I often feel that all of us in denominational ministry, especially serving the Community if Christ, are running a marathon in our work with the church.  The pain and frustration I feel from pushing myself as I run can be the same experience of pain and frustration I feel emotionally as I try to fulfill people’s expectations in my role in ministry.  Whether preparing a sermon, running a meeting, or just trying to do the right thing by a church member – all in an environment of denominational decline and dwindling resources in which our problems are too big to respond to – I hit points in my role in ministry in which I just look for the finish line or obsess about how far I have to go before I can stop.   I’m looking for a break from the jurisdictional responsibilities and congregational problems that our North American church, as a whole, are facing.

I had a different experience today, though.  As I ran this morning, I began a little tired.  I had a 13 hour day yesterday.  And, on Sunday, I was a part of closing one congregation and at another that is trying to be reborn.  I had my mind on some relationships and projects that I’ve been trying to get control of and successfully complete.  Taking a different tact today running, however, instead of pushing myself I decided to pace myself because I wanted to run a little longer today.  During my time with God as I jogged, I felt God talk to me.  It didn’t come through the beauty of the lake or my meditations on God.  The moment of communion and epiphany came when I felt divine wisdom intersect with my body’s feeling and prayers as I was jogging.

Almost ½ way into my run, I realized I was really enjoying it.  Yes, I was tired.  My legs were fatigued and felt a bit heavy.  But, I was pacing myself and my body felt good.  I emotionally felt up and I wanted to keep enjoying that feeling.

As I continued to jog, instead of enjoying the beauty of the lake or the sun rays I could see descending through the cloudy morning sky, I closed my eyes and shut out all that was around me to focus on the enjoyment of jogging.  My eyes peeked open every few second just to make sure I stayed on the trail and didn’t run into cyclers or other runners on my path.  But, for the vast majority of those couple miles, I kept my eyes closed.  I didn’t focus on how far I’d run or how far I had to go.  I simply enjoyed the running.

I felt God speak to me through the experience about the pace of my mind and of my life in all this.  This wasn’t a mental exercise or logical conclusion I came to.  It felt like a moment of revelation – revelation for that moment, for today, for what I was struggling with at this point in my ministry and my walk and run through life.

As I serve in this call to the church, I don’t have any idea how long it will take before I see things turning around for my congregation, the congregations I serve, or the North American church in general.  I don’t know how long it will take before the decline and contention seems to end.  I don’t know if the search for good pastors or volunteers for church camps will ever become easier, or if there will be a change in momentum.  I don’t know how many congregations I will help close or watch struggle for direction.  I can’t see the finish line for this job, nor any sort of mid-way point.  And no amount of short-term accomplishments will change the overall trends.  All I can do is keep running.

But…if I pace myself, discipline myself to stay with the Covenant, discipline my life to pray for and seek community with others, I won’t only learn to enjoy the run.  I can learn to close my eyes and take my mind off the obsessive search for signs of change, for finish lines, and half-way points.  I don’t have to rely on my eyes to find meaning or see what I can only trust in faith, whether it be new life or just plain relief.

There is no finish-line in ministry any more than there is a finish line with Christ.  Ministry, like discipleship, is not a series of tests on fulfilling others’ emotional or scriptural expectations, or test of organizational accomplishments.  We are called to trust less in these criterion of success or fulfillment and, instead, on the covenant.   Covenant and discipleship are Christian code words for a different kind of life and different kind of community than our world offers.  It is measured in completely a different way.

True.  Life, and life with others, remains a marathon, of sorts.  But, we cannot measure our progress solely on what we can see.  It isn’t always about finding God in the beauty of our surroundings.  Sometimes, there is more tragedy than beauty.  We also cannot give into staving off life’s despair and difficulties by setting artificial goals with discernible mid-points and finish lines.  Ministry, like discipleship, requires that I learn to close my eyes and trust in what I cannot see.  Living in covenant with God and others requires trust, which is only learned when we can pace ourselves and enjoy the journey.  The Covenant, like our life’s journey, is sure.

Christ has crossed the finish line and continues on that we might learn to walk/run with him each day.

you are not alone

If you feel lost in your church right now, you are not alone.

If you read scriptures looking for answers, and you either find the same old passages or stuff you just don’t understand, you are not alone.

If it seems like you are the only one your age in your church or with your viewpoints, you are not alone.

If you continue to go to church, hoping to feel the Spirit or because you need rescue from the heavy feeling that can haunts you all week…and you rarely find it, you are not alone.

If you are shut in and beyond a friend’s reach or in a hospital bed and no one seems to visit you, you are not alone.

If you rage at the world, teetering on whether to give up or lash out, you are not alone.

If you’re having a hard time feeling good anymore, you are not alone.

If you started feeling numb a long time ago and it feels like your life is a bad movie you keep watching, you are not alone.

If the world doesn’t make sense to you anymore, you are not alone.

If you feel isolated because only happy people are on television commercials and the people around you see seem shallow, you are not alone.

If you are in a bubble and don’t feel like you can actually reach out and feel someone near you, you are not alone.

If you wonder why your grandchildren don’t call, you are not alone.

If you’re afraid your kids will never get off drugs or out of debt, you’re not alone.

If you cut or wonder if you can give up the addiction, you’re not alone.

If you don’t think you’ll every dig out of debt, you are not alone.

If you’ve lost your job recently and just can’t find work, you are not alone.

If you are under 30 and have cancer or know someone who does, you are not alone.

If you feel like you were born in the wrong body and you’re just not sure who you are or want to be, you are not alone.

If you gave yourself away to someone and, now, hate yourself and regret it, you are not alone.

What’s missing on this list?   These are all things that have touched my life personally or through family or a friend.

Chances are, whatever you are feeling or struggling with, there are others who are struggling too.  There is healing in finding common experience.  There is hope in real community.

You are also not alone because some believe that God, the maker of the universe, came down to have a human experience.  He experienced injustice, abandonment, tragedy, and victimization by the world he lived in.   They said he would come, so they named him, God-with-us.

If you’re looking for a sign, well, here is one.

You are not alone.

Learning to Write a Book

Matt2 bwToday is a self-reflection.

I’ve been writing my dissertation since March.  It’s quite a process, difficult to describe.  Professors and peers who’ve been through the PhD comment to me that this is something no one really understands unless they’ve been through it.  I can appreciate that; I feel the same way about several things.

A PhD, like the dissertation, takes a measure of obsessiveness.  The amount of concentration and tunnel-vision (the next level of focus) it takes is difficult.   It is work, at the level that begins to define a rite of passage.  The idea that you are making an original contribution to the field strikes me as a little difficult to believe.  But, I’ve come to see how a little shift in perspective makes a big difference.  And though ideas get regurgitated, it is these ideas in concert with yours that give your thought meaning and paint the difference.

The writing process, alone, is unique to each person.  This has been the most interesting part for me.  I’m learning how I write.  A dissertation is not a term paper.  I’ve written 40 and 60 page term papers.  But, nothing is like this process.  While it is difficult, I also enjoy it.  However, the writing comes in its own time.  I’ve explained it this way to many people.  Writing my dissertation is nothing like other things I do, like raking.  Raking can be hurried through.  Elbow grease and a dose of work ethic can speed up the process.   You can even do it quick and well.  But, writing is not like that for me.  Working harder, yes.  But, hurrying?  No.  Focus is less a matter of quantity than intensity.   A few interruptions can actually help the process.  Otherwise, its easy to get myopic.

Learning the right level and balance of focus has been the challenge for me.  I have needed to get away, to write a few days at a time.  But, then, I need a break.  Once I break and come back, the distance I’ve gained from my work helps the editing process.  Sometimes, I don’t even follow my own thoughts.

The reason is that writing is hard for me.  It is a discipline.  I try to explain it this way: maybe it was the time and period I was raised.  But, the writing process is way too slow.  It’s linear.  Unlike a picture or image that can be studied from a number of different perspectives, with several entry points, writing follows left to right.  It is more like a journey.  My mind is learning, struggling, to work that way.

My brain doesn’t naturally think that way.  Maybe it was television.  Maybe it was video games.  Maybe it’s because I’m naturally an extrovery who like managing alot of different conversations at the same time.  Either way, the discipline of writing is forcing me to do something different.   And as I tried to say in this post, there is something spiritual about it.

Until scriptures are definitively transferred to a new format (.mp3 or BlueRay?), their form as a text will shape our spirituality.   The fact that scriptures are either scrolls or codex (i.e. book) will shape our thinking about God.  God will always be a wonder.  Jesus will always live in narrative.  The Spirit will continue to come to us in moments of communication, inspiration, and despair.  All these are moments of human life.  They are also the qualities of a book.

Hieroglyphs, symbols, ink, text…literally, sentenced to life, on a page.