ly, I am not superlative at blogging. With COVID and the work on the ground during and through the pandemic, the blog came off the priority list. I had every intention of writing during my spiritual renewal leave this summer, but I did a lot of resting and reading instead! I hit the ground running in mid-August and have been running since.
What writing I have done has been limited to, wait for it.... my book! The one I swore would be done by my last birthday, then swore would be finished during my leave this summer. I have made good headway, and am determined that i will complete the writing at the very least before my birthday at the end of October! I hope to have it out in November (is that wishful thinking?).
That said, stay tuned for Hacking Ministry: Practical Wisdom to Save Your Vocation Bacon. I'll look forward to seeing what you think about it. I also look forward to seeing if that title makes the last cuts.... but I like it, anyway.
We are living history right now, friends. Nobody taught us anything in college or seminary about how to lead anything or anyone in a time of global pandemic. It is taking everything to keep all the ducks lined up without losing our minds.
Two weeks ago, as the first cases of COVID-19 began to surge in the US and first recommendations, and then regulations to practice social distancing began was a watershed moment for the church and its leaders. As movements were restricted and "non-essential" businesses and gatherings were curtailed, we realized that church, this thing we give heart and soul for, and more, couldn't go on the way it always has. At least for the foreseeable future.
What happened then was incredible: churches that had never considered using technology for broadcast began to use Facebook Live and ZOOM, YouTube and other livestreaming apps, and began thinking of ministries in whole different ways. That part was incredibly exciting--church people and pastors coming into the 21st century! Willingly! An amazing leap forward as pastors began livestreaming worship, and creating daily Facebook devotionals, and adding ZOOM bible studies to their calendars! All while managing families and the expectations of parishioners and trying to keep themselves safe and healthy.
I wondered how long it would take.
Within a week and a half, colleagues were mentioning stress and seeking advice from social media groups and friends about how to manage it all. Some were breaking down, some were finding themselves stuck in old bad coping habits or developing new ones. Some were ready to quit. A few were energized. All were deeply concerned about their congregations and the people they love within them. They wanted to do the absolute best they could in an anxious time.
And so they got busy.
All were trying to keep up a pace they had set out of the gate, as it were, and most had set a sprint. I'm afraid this is a longer season. The stress and fear and exhaustion I am hearing is bearing that out.
Busyness is, of course, a classic response to anxiety. It's a form of panic; creating things we (think we) can manage, in the face of something huge we cannot. When I get stuck in that pattern, I usually don't recognize I've done it again, until my anxiety subsides and the crisis is mostly behind me.
What I have learned over these years is that an enormous component of leadership is looking at the long view, then setting a pace to match those future needs as well as the immediate ones. It is vital to look beyond the crisis to the recovery and what needs and goals there might be when the "new normal" begins.
It is possible to set reasonable boundaries around time and work, even in times of crisis. Every time I have given in to panic, I have lost my ability to lead well.
My prayer is with all the leaders trying to find the best way. Trying to decide what their congregations need, while meeting what their families need. Trying to learn new technologies. Trying to help hope happen around them. And trying not to lose their bearings.
Does anyone still do Spring Cleaning anymore? I mean real, deep-down, wash the walls-hand-scrub-the-floors-launder-the-curtains-wash-the-windows-organize-the-closets, Spring Cleaning?
I am guessing not. Who has the time? Who has the energy? Who really wants to get into all that? Did you know most cleaning services will do only what Spring Cleaners call basic cleaning? No windows, no hand cleaned floors, and certainly no closet purges--nobody likes to do it, even if they are getting paid for it.
But think back to a day when Mom or Grandma (in my case, anyway) might have made you help with Spring Cleaning. Remember? I do. There was something to finding out how dirty your surroundings really had been, without your realizing it. There was something to the sense of accomplishment when a stroke of the sponge or rag revealed a clean surface. There was something, after a long day of water and cleansers, and “no, that’s not enough; do it again” in that feeling of having gotten something well and truly done. Can I get an Amen?
Whether or not we do Spring Cleaning in our homes, it is true that the same principles apply to our spiritual lives. We may have gotten untidy about our spiritual disciplines of prayer and scripture-reading. We may have stopped picking up after ourselves (figuratively or literally!) at some point, leaving the refuse of poor choices and poor habits littering our psychic and emotional space. We may have simply stopped participating in our own spiritual house, thinking that someone, by some chance, would just come along and do it for us (this does not work in households, why should it work in our souls? I’m just sayin.’)
Take advantage of the energy of Spring, and the anticipation of Easter’s hope and promise, and do a little Spring Cleaning in your soul. Toss out some old habits, or old junk that you’re hanging on to. Dust around the corners and find out what you forgot was there. Rediscover nooks and crannies you forgot were part of you. Open the windows and let the fresh air of God’s spirit blow through you and bring some new life and new energy. Make new habits to keep the place up. It’s a wonderful opportunity and challenge—take it!
How many of us have made the wish for more time in a week, or a year? Every four years, we get this odd opportunity to have one. What use do we make of it?
I have a friend who has a birthday on February 29; I think he celebrated his twelfth birthday this year. He has one big party every four years, and feels like a youngster every time. I have another friend who takes the day off and sleeps as much as she wants to.
What do we do with the gift of an extra day?
I have colleagues who have asked their parishioners to do something extra, something out-of-the-ordinary, to commemorate the Leap Day. I hear that some take the day off work to perform service of some sort or another, others resolve to be cheerful all day to everyone, still others make special contributions to some mission or other.
It isn’t every year we get an extra day, and it isn’t every day we get the opportunity to do something we can do on no other day.
On past Leap Days, I have contacted family members with whom I had not spoken for a while, I have done some work at home taking care of some mundane tasks I had simply let go for far too long, and I have caught up on work. This year, today is a Saturday, and I have planned to be at the farm, taking advantage of the bonus time--there's a kitchen that has to get done. I would have planned something more spectacular, I suppose, if I’d had more time…
I wonder why we need an extra day to do all those different things? Do we need an extra day to show and share kindness, to get the little things done, to tend to the needs of the world? Upon reflection, probably not. Maybe we just need a reminder every now and then…
In the midst of all the planning and preparation for Easter in 2012, I was confronted with the reality of a dear friend's death. He had been ill for years and at the end, fought and lost his almost constant battle against a body that kept trying to betray him. He was 56. I miss him.
What I admired, is that while his body failed, his suffering never conquered him. He had bouts of depression, but he never gave up. His faith kept him whole. Even when he was hanging by a thread, he knew that God was with him. He kept his faith, kept his trust, at times when others would have given up. He knew most of those things Paul writes about suffering and pain, and yet knew the persistent grace and love of God through them.
What I learned from him is that there is something in suffering that can refine us. It pares away the silliness of our lives and brings us to the elemental things. Life, love, faith. honesty. It can make us real. Like that old story of the velveteen rabbit, whose parts have been worn away and who isn’t whole anymore, but who is more real than can be understood—my friend was that kind of real. His suffering, his pain, brought him to the basic things, the eternal things. It taught him, and those who paid attention to him and the way he lived, to look beyond the surface, beyond the struggle, to see what is right and true and lasting and pure. No matter the varnish he put on it, the jokes he told, the way he deflected the attention, the man under the surface was that kind of real, the kind that comes only when one has tasted and touched suffering and seen the grace of God through it.
Paul said to the Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God. For us, that means not disease or dialysis or depression. Not lymphoma or pneumonia or hospitalization, or medications or infections or medical technology. Our friend knew it, felt it, lived it, and it made him who he was. I hope I have the ears to hear and the eyes to see and the heart to live it too. May we all…. -originally written 04.2012
We seem always to want something we don’t have. We endlessly strive for something more. To be “content” is a dying art, practiced by a dwindling few. We are influenced by television, by our friends, by our own unrealistic dreams, to seek something more. Jesus had something to say about that, in what is perhaps his most widely-recognized teaching, the Sermon on the Mount:
"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to God than birds...What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met." --Matthew 6:25-33, The Message
One of the best-known stories of Jesus is the story of the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes—the miracle of the feeding of more than 5,000 people from almost nothing. What a rich, rich story that is; for me, it’s a story of “abundance thinking.”
Abundance thinking is choosing to believe without question that everything that is necessary is already present, if we look deeply enough and become open enough to see it. It’s a choice to see solutions where others see problems. It’s a choice to be receptive to whatever may come, because we know the resources to get through will become evident.
This is the opposite of “scarcity thinking.” When we say, “there isn’t enough to go around,” we are coming at things from a perspective of scarcity. We panic, because if we open ourselves, we might lose something. We might not have enough for ourselves. Scarcity thinking influences everything we do—it becomes the lens with which we see the world and the people around us.
I think the great miracle of that story was not the bread and fish; I think it was the move of the disciples from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking in about a minute and a half. From ‘we can’t possibly’ to ‘we can.’ The wonder of the day is the transformation of the disciples. They move into a different way of understanding faith, and God, and what the kingdom of God looks like; they see that the kingdom of God isn’t away somewhere, in someone else’s hands. It’s not to be bought and paid for as some sort of simple transaction that will solve a problem. What they learn is that the realm of God is abundantly, overflowingly at hand, from the resources that are already there, from what is already within; it changes what they do and empowers them for the rest of Jesus’ ministry, and their own. They won’t always remember—they will sometimes slip back into old patterns. What they learn on this day, though, is that this abundant kingdom-of-God way of being in the world changes everything about what they do and who they are. It changes us as well. -orig 11.2014
I have had countless conversations with people in all stages of their spiritual journeys who feel their faith is dry and stale. They don't know how to revive it, and some are not even sure they want to try.
All too often, faith feels remote, tied to an ancient book or to the traditions of the church, and not always like a living thing, and we can get discouraged about it: What does something so old and dusty have to do with my life? Why bother with something so abstract and archaic?
The thing is, our God is not tied to a book of scripture, nor to stories of the dimly lit past. Our God is always of the past, and the present, and the future. There is no beginning, no end, with God. God is in our stories, whether we notice or not.
What does that mean for us? It means that the story of each of our lives is unfolding all the time, and God is always present in that unfolding. For some, this is a little intimidating; for others, it is comforting. We should be mindful of it, however it makes us feel, because it means that there is always possibility and potential ahead of us. I have known persons who felt that one mistake, one weak moment of wandering away from God, was somehow permanent. I have known persons who felt that God would never want them back. I have known persons who have never known that God might want them in the first place.
What we desperately need to take to heart and know to be true is that our stories are always pregnant with the possibility of redemption and renewal. Our stories have a happy ending, whether we can see it or not, because God is always in it. This is not to say that every ending is easy, or that it will be what we expect or want. But God is always in it, and there is joy to be found in that.
What would it look like to take a look deep into our own faith story, with no pressure, no deadline, no goal besides to see what it looks like. What does it look like? Who have been the important persons or experiences along the way? Where has it taken you? What have we learned, and how have we grown. Leading people through exercises like this often opens up memory and understanding.
Grant me, O Lord to know what I ought to know, to love what I ought to love, to praise what delights you most, to value what is precious in your sight, to hate what is offensive to you. Do not allow me to judge according to the sight of my eyes, nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of my ears; but to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual, and above all things, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of your will. – Thomas à Kempis
How do we know when God is speaking to us?
As Christians, we say we want to listen for God’s voice and do what God wants us to do. It is in those times we are really serious about it, when we feel an urgent need, when we really want to know, that we struggle to discover what that is--what that voice sounds like, what it is God wants us to do. Who has the real answers? Who has the truth?
There are churches on every corner, each with a different message; televangelists; politicians speaking like preachers; doom-and-gloomsayers; each one proclaiming that they’ve got the true word of God and the authority to speak it. There are religious folks on both sides of any hot-button issue in politics or culture--whether it’s war, peace, abortion, homosexuality, global environmental emergency, or economic crisis—every one of them is convinced that they’re speaking the inspired truth, revealed by God.
But there are times when God’s truth is spoken, and it is possible to know it. We know it in the teachings of Jesus: what he says gives us a glimpse of the realm of God—what it might look like for the presence of God to be more powerful than any other person, thing, illness, addiction, weakness, power, or principality in this world. In Jesus we hear a word, a truth spoken in power and with authority—because it has no conditions. It demands nothing but choosing to listen, requires nothing to earn it, yet gives everything: freedom, release, healing, wholeness, purpose.
It’s not necessarily flashy, or showy. We think of God’s guidance being spectacular, and often wish it would be. We look at the story of Moses and the burning bush, and we wish God would be that evident, that obvious. It would be great if we could always know what God wants because it always comes with a show. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. God’s word for us often comes in a whisper, a nudge, a conversation.
That’s often the way to discern what is the true word of God. When we encounter something that helps us to establish a relationship with God, and it exists only for that reason, then it is of God. When we hear a word that strikes a chord somewhere deep in our souls, and requires only our response to it, then it is from God. Maybe it is just that simple…
It is not always easy always to have ears to hear and hearts to discern, and the courage to listen always for God. I have discovered, however, that every time I forget, I miss out on something important.
Michelle Bogue-Trost is a devoted follower of Jesus, a pastor, preacher, leader, teacher, and mentor, committed to the health of individuals and congregations.