Prayers for Annual Meeting

by Karen Richter

Good day, SWC friends! It’s Annual Meeting time! Like many of you, I am full-up with travel plans, budgets and resolutions, to-do lists, and tiny bottles of hair products. Instead of the “usual” blog article for this first Monday of May, I’d like to share with you my prayers for our gathering in Albuquerque.

Spirit of Life; Spirit of Love – we ask that you cover our Annual Meeting with good gifts:

  • That a spirit of prayer mark all parts of our time together.
  • That volunteers for the hosting congregations have a good experience and feel appreciated.
  • That delegates and guests are welcomed with hospitality.
  • That all persons speaking in the plenary sessions and workshops feel heard and valued.
  • That relationships with one another and with You are renewed, deepened or begun afresh.
  • That we might more fully cherish our covenants with one another.
  • That each person present listens gracefully to the voices around them, especially when there’s disagreement.
  • That we grasp opportunities for celebration and connection.
  • That our inaugural anti-racism training goes smoothly and that lay and clergy participants and participant/facilitators are energized and inspired to further reflection and to work in counter-oppression movements.
  • That travel is a safe and enriching time for those who are coming to Albuquerque by car or plane.
  • That each person attending leaves with a sense of renewal and centeredness around their calling in the United Church of Christ’s setting in the Southwest Conference.
  • That we each travel home safely with energy to work alongside God and our brothers and sisters to further our mission and vision in the world!

Spirit whose name is mercy, hear our prayer! Amen.

Expectations

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

On January 29th my wife arranged a shin dig for something rather different. I had started to lose my hair from chemo and we wanted to shave it. Her awesome life affirming self invited some of our peeps over to shave my head. It was a very awesome day, actually. Lots of love and humor.

In the last few weeks I have had my nearest and dearest tell me why they didn’t shave their head when I shaved mine. Each time this revelation was presented to me, it was a bit confessional like they were getting something off their chest. “Here is why I didn’t shave my head… but I love you…”

What I loved about this is that I never wanted them to shave their head and I never knew they thought I wanted that.

It’s made me laugh to myself when I think of it. It has made me happy to know that they love me that much. And it’s also got me thinking about expectations.

They can really change things. Truly.

Expectations can pause a relationship and freeze a moment that never really existed anywhere but in imagination.

Expectations are created to get a perceived need met in a very specific way. We place these on ourselves and others. All 7 billion of us on the planet have an agenda and most are based on the same wish: to know we matter, to know we are safe, to know we are loved. Yes, there are those in the world with nefarious motives, but most are not. Most just wanna feel love.

I have learned a lot about living this season of my life. I have learned about relationship, fear, sickness, self-love, compassion, hope, anger, grief, affirmation.

I have learned about our responsiveness to mortality and fragility. I have learned we can make hard stuff even harder.

The last 16 months have been ridiculously hard for the people who love me as we fumbled about post trauma and now, post cancer diagnosis.

Sickness is made worse when there is unspoken expectation. It makes it so much worse when already it is incredibly hard.

We are scared.
We are angry.
We are hopeful.
We are moved.
We are tired.
We are all the things that happen when the worst happens.

I find it heartening, funny and real to find out my dad and my best friends all thought about shaving their head and worried that I wouldn’t feel loved by them if they didn’t.

Such a tenderness in that…

And we could laugh together because they admitted this expectation was in the mix.

So how can we know we matter in relationship without expectation? I think it starts with knowing expectations don’t foster closeness.

The expectations we place on ourselves to know the end of the story and see it coming removes us from the best of life. It removes the mindfulness of being. It removes the spontaneous love that happens when we are present to each other.

We create something new when we are truly present with each other. We are never truly with one another if we are constantly rating our relationships based on expectation rather than being aware of what is happening in the present moment.

A healer in my life talks about skillful response rather than being reactive. I like that a lot. I have learned we can meet our needs much more skillfully if we remove expectation and see it as limiting.

If we set down the expectation we have room for other things that truly meet our need for connection:

Authenticity
Honesty
Invitation
Kindness
Vulnerability
Relationship
Love

And amazing hair.

image credit: Dax: “Some of my peeps who shaved my head on January 29th. Our son Angelo did the bulk of the shaving but he had to go be a grown up at work before we got the group pic.”

Rising from Ash

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I met my nephew AJ when he was two years old. His mom was dating my younger brother and I was very excited to have a potential nephew in my life. I couldn’t have been more happy when that wish became a reality and they both joined our family.

AJ was seriously adorable. He had more energy than all my family combined. The kid was the sweetest to his mom. This ended up extending to all parts of his life and relationships. AJ was and is full of light and life.

When he was six I picked him up from an after school program to take him to karate. We were getting in the car when I heard a woman saying his name. I looked up and a woman was walking toward us with a little boy in tow, likely the same age as AJ. The little boy was wearing a helmet and had some facial disfiguration. I don’t remember this child’s name so we’ll call him Josh.

I got out of the car, uncertain of this woman’s intentions in calling out for him and approaching him.

She asked “Are you AJ?”
He nodded.
She said, “Josh has been talking about you all the time. He says when kids tease and hurt him that you tell them to stop and you are very kind to him. I want you to know how special you are. Thank you for being so sweet and kind.”

Each word filled my heart.

I asked him on the drive how he felt about what she said to him. He said “I just like Josh.” This little guy sure was amazing. Such a beacon by just being fully himself and choosing love.

AJ’s mom and my brother ended up separating and later divorced. I know divorce. I have experienced it quite a few times in my childhood. I knew how hard it would be. As everyone tried to figure how this next season of our lives would work, we lost regular time with AJ. It became the occasional holiday and outing.

When AJ was 12 we stepped up the relationship to being in his life regularly. I remember being nervous picking him up the first time after having seen very little of him in the few years prior. Quite simply, I wondered if he would still like me.

AJ initiated conversation right away, telling me a story from his life. So easy and light. It felt like we had never lost contact. And I really liked him. A lot. He was funny and thoughtful. He was and is a huge guy, but such a gentleness and openness. He’s unmatched in that area.

As the years continued we spent time as often as we could. Sometimes it was frequent, sometimes a dry spell. Regardless of the amount of time that had gone between our visits, we picked right up where we left off and there was always laughter.

The events of the past year made some conversations in my family and friend group very intense and hard. I had endured a sexual assault that massively leveled me. We had talked to all the adults close to us. I had no idea, though, how to tell AJ. I felt protective of him and did not want to hurt his heart. I did not want to burden him.

As is characteristic of this dude, he sensed something was wrong and asked me direct questions about it. I answered honestly. He took it in. He sat with it and we talked about all the other things going on as there was A LOT going on for him.

AJ was turning 18 and he was readying himself to join the Marine Corp that July 2016. We held space for honest talks and then maneuvered to humor. Good stuff. Honest stuff. Life giving stuff. And what an incredible emotional intelligence he showed throughout all of it.

The time I had with AJ between January and July was precious and sacred to me. As my focus began to turn outward to support AJ, I felt relief from the intensity of my internal world that was reeling and begging for healing. By loving AJ and showing up for him, I was healing. Love is funny that way. Loving action changes a heart and circumstance better than any New Years Resolutions ever could.

As the day approached that he was heading out to Boot Camp for the Marines, I was feeling the reality that AJ would be leaving. It never feels like the right time for those you adore to leave you. I knew releasing him was important and love lived out.

AJ sent me tons of things to prep me about what he was going to endure. He was signing up for such a hard time and yet he was facing forward. He was meeting life and saying yes. Unswerving and resolute. He was prepared and ready for what was next.

The three months he was away were actually the hardest for me since the assault. I didn’t necessarily link this to his leaving, though that worry and pain was fully there, too. The hard time just was what it was. Trauma recovery does not ebb and flow in a way that makes sense. It’s painful and overwhelming. It is also necessary to walk through that pain.

AJ endured an exhausting, all encompassing season and landed on the other side. He was officially declared a Marine on 10/14/2016. I couldn’t wait to see him!

I picked him up the very next day and noticed that nervousness rising again. Is it going to be weird at all? Is he going to still like me? He got in the car and said, “I have so much to tell you!” And he did.

Stories of how AJ had overcome, what felt triumphant, what the funny moments were, what comrades he now had filled our conversation. He held his head differently. He walked with the confidence that comes from living the life you challenged yourself to live. I got that familiar surge of pride that I had when he was six years old, reaching out and being loving.

Some other emotions rose up within me, too. Admiration.
Inspiration.
Awe.

I had been feeling shame about how hard the last three months had been, chastising myself to heal faster. I imagined AJ in the Boot Camp circumstances, pushing through, embracing the season of difficulty as a necessary one, and just meeting life with agreement and willingness. As I saw him this way, I saw myself in a new light. He was still standing and so was I.

The constant overwhelming circumstances hurts. The exhaustion hurts. The self doubt hurts. The loss of all things familiar hurts. And yet the human spirit is remarkably resilient and full of life.

This year has been a season of leveling for me, a burning down of life and a wonder if I will survive that heat and pain.

Am I forever broken?
Am I ever going to enjoy life again?
Will I ever be able to live again?
Will I ever rise again?

My nephew held up a mirror of sorts as he shared his lived experience. I started to believe the reflection of healing, living and thriving that was emanating from him and reflecting back to me. I found room in my heart to believe that it could be mine as well.

My nephew is pretty special in that he lives his life as a determined and steadfast participant, co-creating his world with the best next step being his main focus.

My nephew no longer goes by AJ. He gave that up around age 11.
My nephew’s name is Ashton.
I call him Ash.
He helps me rise.

 

Speaking Truth is a Duty

guest post by Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director, New Mexico Conference of Churches

I’ve been speaking with pastors over the past two months and although I have 5 specific questions, the content of these conversations is deep and wide. A few themes are emerging:

Hope: I anticipated hearing at least a few complaints, but frankly, there have been precious few. Most pastors experience great satisfaction and joy in their callings; some feel overwhelmed; but, rarely is heard a discouraging word. Moreover, the sense of hope is linked to growth among the members and leaders of the churches: new ideas, new visions, new challenges and new opportunities are combining to create new steps for Jesus’ followers.

Relationships: Every pastor, at some point and always in a unique manner, identified ministry as grounded in strong relationships: with family, colleagues, members, neighbors, and friends. Moreover, all affirmed that their effectiveness in ministry is directly related to these relationships. Most spend time and energy being with others — so that together, they will be strong for doing the ministries entrusted to them.

Speaking out…together: This theme included a bit of sadness and/or frustration. Almost every pastor interviewed expressed a passion for speaking the truth of our Christian values and convictions in a bold and free way; but also expressed was the persistent awareness that in our culture, the voice of many churches is inaudible. The “Christian voice” has been kidnapped by evangelical or conservative churches and the progressive or socially engaged churches have been put on mute. The pastors I interviewed longed for to speak out, together, and be heard.

In these days of political turmoil and distress, the voice of the silenced progressive, socially engaged and liberal Christian churches is needed. A very helpful article, “Unprohibited speech“, Christian Century, July 20, 2016 reminds:

“There’s no law against religious leaders speaking and living out the truths of their faith…What (by law) is prohibited is an explicit endorsement of a candidate.”

This is followed by a stirring string of strong words churches may speak.

“Churches are free to say that a candidate who threatens opponents with violence is undermining the basis of community.

They are free to say that a candidate who targets people of one religion for discriminatory treatment is attacking the basis of everyone’s religious freedom.

They are free to say that campaigning by name-calling and personal insult is an affront to reason.

And they are free to say that a candidate who sneers at the disabled, ridicules people because of their appearance, and promises to engage in torture fails to understand that all humans are made in the image of God.”

Dear ecumenical community, we are old and young, rich and poor, Protestant and Roman Catholics living in New Mexico; let us speak up as individuals, as church leaders, as congregations, as an ecumenical community of believers. Let us claim the freedom we have to lift up our distinct and deep Christian values…especially within the current political context.

Share with me your statements and I will share them with the ecumenical community of the New Mexico Conference of Churches.

I remain, steadfastly, Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director.

Innovation Lab Making an Impact

guest post by Rev. Sue Joiner

Note by Kenneth McIntosh, Church Growth and Renewal Coordinator for SWC:

“Last October, Sue Joiner and Ann Marie Stranger from First Congregational Albuquerque participated in the Innovation Lab Workshop held at the SWC office in Phoenix and led by Rebecca Glenn. They have attended video conference coaching group meetings in the months since then, and have facilitated an exciting process of innovation and healthy changes at their church. Enjoy this article, be inspired by some of these ideas, and remember that there are still openings for the Innovation Lab Workshop round #2 happening this fall.”

We began our process with a team of a dozen leaders in January. We were inspired by the Innovation Lab technique of experimentation, deep listening, prototyping and learning as we go. We interviewed people about the church to hear what their deep hungers were. The theme that was repeated the most was connection. Then we created a survey to help assess what would most meet that need for connection. We gathered to assimilate the information and discovered some themes:

There is a longing for meaningful relationships and we are addressing that by creating opportunities for people to get to know each other. We did a Lenten series using the book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons. We had four groups meeting at different times and places over a six week period. These were so well-received that we are doing three groups this summer – one group is reading a collection of short stories set in New Mexico, another is reading the book Being Mortal, and a third will gather later this summer to read plays and look at the themes as they relate to our lives. Our Green Justice team is sponsoring a dinner and movie discussion to explore food justice issues in more depth.

We talked about connecting in worship. We have found ways to integrate children in worship and relocated our children’s corner to give children better access to their own resources. We have added some visual arts for Easter and Pentecost. We did a community Candlelight Memorial Service for the victims of the Orlando shooting. Our sanctuary is now 100% LED lighting (a result of the Green Justice committee and our commitment to making the space more welcoming).

We are looking at our building as a resource and seeking to make it friendlier. We put rainbow doors on Lomas (a major street outside our church) that say, “God’s doors are open to all”. We want to do more with the inside of the building. We are committed to a master plan for the building. We have a trainer and opened a fitness room in our basement that is open to the community.

We became a Green Justice Congregation on May 22 so we are finding new ways to live out this commitment.

We are planning to send care packages to any UCC student at University of New Mexico (we are counting on churches to send us the names of students who are coming to school here).

We are committed to finding new ways to make our building and our community a place of connection. We are finding new ways to get the word out about our extravagant welcome. We are committed to the whole person and to a welcome that is long lasting.

Do Your Chairs Need Balancing?

by Amanda Petersen

I meet a lot of people who want to run away to the woods and leave society and all its complications behind like Thoreau. Living away from everyone is the way to get closer to God. There is a truth to the power of solitude and its relationship with God and ourselves.

I also meet a lot of people who run away from solitude. The thought of sitting alone for 20 minutes with nothing else but themselves sounds horrifying. They will do whatever it takes not to be left alone with the thoughts in their heads, let alone an Omnipresent God. Often they are wonderful doers of good works.

As always in the contemplative life, there is a need for both solitude (love it or not) and community (love it or not). There is no running to whatever corner we feel comfortable and staying there.   Did you know that Thoreau had three chairs in that cabin? One for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.  In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle states “These three chairs plot the point on a virtuous circle that links conversation to the capacity for empathy and for self-reflection. In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to assay that is authentically, ours. When we are secure in ourselves we are able to listen to other people and really hear what they have to say.  And then in conversation with other people we become better at inner dialogue.  Solitude reinforces a secure sense of self and with that the capacity for empathy.  Then conversation with others provides rich material for self reflection just as alone we prepare to talk together, together we learn how to engage in a more productive solitude.”

Now, Turkle’s focus is conversation, yet isn’t the spiritual life fueled by our real connections? Whether with self, others, or the world, it is all grounded in the Source that is our being. Living a life that finds a place for all three with the intention of drawing closer to Love is a very rich life that sees beyond the complications of circumstances or voices that make one want to run and hide. The contemplative life is one that honors the self, relationships, and society. Take a look at your life. Are you exclusive in one area? Is it time to balance your life with solitude, relationships, or service? Let me know your thoughts.

Over the next three weeks, I will look at those chairs individually in the upcoming newsletters.

In fact, I’d love to have a conversation about it. Come join us for one of the Dinner and Conversation Nights: June 17 or July 15 from 6 – 7:30 pm.

Restacking the Stones: one prophet’s lessons for revitalization

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons, Designated Conference Minister

Preached February 14, 2016 at Congregational Church of the Valley, Scottsdale, AZ

“On the tenth of Tevet, 425 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar [King of Babylon] began the siege of Jerusalem.

“Thirty months later, in the month of Tammuz, after a long siege during which hunger and epidemics ravaged the city, the city walls were breached.

“On the seventh day of Av, the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Nebuzaradan, began the destruction of Jerusalem. The walls of the city were torn down, and the royal palace and other structures in the city were set on fire.

“On the ninth day of Av, toward evening, the Holy Temple was set on fire and destroyed. The fire burned for 24 hours.

[Jewish] “Sages taught: When the first Holy Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. They ascended the roof and declared: “Master of the World! Since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to You.” They then threw the keys toward Heaven. A hand emerged and received them, and the priests threw themselves into the fire (Talmud, Ta’anit 29b).

Everything of gold and silver that still remained was carried off as loot by the Babylonian soldiers. All the beautiful works of art with which King Solomon had once decorated and ornamented the holy edifice … [t]he holy vessels of the Temple that could be found… The high priest Seraiah and many other high officials and priests were executed. … Many thousands of the people that had escaped the sword were taken prisoner and led into captivity in Babylon, where some of their best had already preceded them. Only the poorest of the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to stay on to plant the vineyards and work in the fields.

“Jeremiah, [who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem], also promised that the Jewish people would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.”

Today’s reading from Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13 is the beginning of that story.

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild

God works in and through people not like me.

I notice first in today’s text that God speaks to people of different political and religious and ethnic and cultural heritages than the ones described in Scripture as Israel. God’s speaking isn’t limited to me, or people like me, or my religion, or my country, or my friends.

God has a long history of transforming people once enemies into friends. God has a long history of speaking through people and nations that appear on the list of ‘not God’s people,’ people we may have placed on the list of ‘not friends’ or even ‘enemies.’ God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, in circumstances apart from the expected!

Ezra 2:59ff tells the story of a group of people who wanted to go with the Jews to Jerusalem – people whose spirit God had stirred for the endeavor – but who could not prove that they were Jewish. These people, too, became part of the most important resource in accomplishing God’s tasks: people. Think of it, the all-powerful God who spoke into being the universe, the earth and everything in her, repeatedly chooses to work through people to accomplish the divine will rather than to speak it into being. And God was willing that any person who responded to the Spirit’s stirring should be included in the work of rebuilding the Temple.

What a powerful lesson for us in today’s world! In this time of hate and discrimination disguised as religious freedom, in this time of anti-Muslim vitriol, God’s speaking isn’t limited to us – to Christians, to evangelical Christians, to Americans.

In Ezra’s day, God proved that God is not limited to the religion or the followers of the religion revealed in the Judeo-Christian sacred texts. What would have happened if Ezra had taken the position that God could only speak through him, or people like him, or people of his cultural, religious, or national heritage? God’s activity in the world to bring us Jesus, divine activity that we celebrate this Advent season would have been halted in its tracks!

Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.

In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, …10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord,

In the second year, not the first, not immediately. Later. After a time for adjustment. Lesson #2: Essentials need tending to immediately. Everything else can wait awhile. Sacrifices burned on the altar from the very beginning; in fact, sacrifices by ones who remained in Jerusalem probably never stopped. But the extras, like maintaining the building that was the Temple itself, could wait. 70 years it waited. And 2 more years it waited. Finally, after folks had established themselves in the new land, the new culture, the new religion, in their homes with their families, then they began work on the structure that was the Temple.

The first thing the returned exiles [did was] rebuild their own lives. They [did] not go straight to the task at hand. This is significant because it implies that God is interested in re-establishing people’s homes before God’s own temple. The priority is not to focus on the bricks and mortar of our faith, but in the re-establishing of right relationships with each other. [Families and the] community come first.

There is always a debate in doing mission work as to whether to fix people’s relationships with each other, with the land, with health or with justice before doing any work reconnecting people with God and faith. This story of Ezra seems to suggest that grounding ourselves in good relationships with each other comes before whatever the task at hand might be.[1]

The future isn’t supposed to be like the past.

The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be. Most of the people who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians had long died. Their children had children. And those children had children. While some of the exiles returning had seen Jerusalem in its last days, the majority of the people returning with Ezra were one or two-generations-removed from the Jerusalem and the Temple they were hoping to rebuild. Most of them had never lived in Jerusalem or sacrificed at the Temple or even seen the house of God they were commissioned to rebuild! It had been 70 years!! In terms of the Exodus story, that’s twice as long as it took the generation whom Moses led out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.

In that 70 years, without access to the Temple or the Altar, the Israelites had become the Jews. New traditions that weren’t in their Bible had developed. New theology and interpretations of Scripture had arisen. Judaism had been conceived. Of course the future was going to be different.

But that didn’t stop some people from grieving a past they couldn’t recreate instead of celebrating the future that they had the chance to birth.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites…with cymbals, …11 and they sang responsively, “For [God] is good, for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

Ones who were grieving their inability to return to the past forgot that rebuilding is never about returning things to exactly the way they were. Rebuilding is about being sure the best of how it was shapes how it will be. And in our text the author says the ability to make that distinction is what separates ‘old people’ from ones who remain ‘young at heart’ forever.

The Jews in Ezra’s day were called to determine what it meant to live into a new future that God was actively creating in their midst. But what that future would look like was only beginning to emerge when the exiles returned, and with mixed results. The former glory of God’s presence and of the temple was lacking in this new iteration of the temple according to some. The new temple, moreover, was to be under the patronage of a foreign ruler (Cyrus), not an autochthonous ruler like Solomon or David. And finally, whereas Solomon’s temple was built while his kingdom was militarily strong (2 Chronicles 1:14-17), the new altar was established while this small band of Jews was still under threat (Ezra 3:3). The future, indeed, would not be the past. What gives continuity to the past, present, and future, however, is the faithfulness of God.

To be vital, to be faithful to the person and work of God, Ezra and the exiles had to see themselves and the events in their lives as God at work in their midst for their day.

Rebuilding is resource-intensive.

Rebuilding is a resource-demanding endeavor. Vv. 2-3 list people as the most important of those resources; v. 4 reminds us that rebuilding takes money and goods. Cyrus’s decree is honest about the investment rebuilding requires:

and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

…everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar …All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

Churches evolve over time. People who are a church mature and die, and join as new members and move away. Children grow up. Pastors leave and pastors arrive. With those events, the ways in which a congregation relates to one another and relates to God evolve too. And every so often a decree comes forth, a door open for a church, in a big way, to be reconsidered, revalued, repurposed, reorganized, revitalized, re-resourced, rebuilt, and yes, sometimes even reposed. Every so often God stirs spirits for a new work. People are called to make choices about how they will, or if they will, participate in the make-over. Choices need to be made with intention and with prayerful discernment about what parts of the past and its traditions are so important they will be carried into the new future, and what parts of the past are ready to be laid to rest in order to realize that new future.  The question, then, is if and how you will be a resource for what God is actively doing among you.

God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, and in circumstances apart from the expected!

Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.

The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be.

Rebuilding is a resource-demanding; it takes everything all of us bring to the table.

How are these lessons from Ezra playing out in your life? In the life of your church? How can these lessons empower us to do new ministry that leads people to life-transforming experiences?  Will you be a contributor or a complication to the rebuilding effort? Amen.

 

[1] Spill the Beans. Issue 17, p. 23

 

 

Christmas & Bowen Family Systems

by Amos Smith

Christmas is a time for family. Above is a picture of my family growing up. Family is never perfect. Every family I have encountered in ministry has challenges. Some hide the challenges better than others. Yet, challenges are always there.

How we deal with the challenges of our family of origin has profound repercussions for the rest of our lives. Family and the dynamics of family relationships give us the blueprint that tends to define our future relationships. I have a high regard for Family Systems Thought or Bowen Family Systems as it is commonly called. Bowen Systems has given me and many other ministers and rabbis a more accurate understanding of faith community dynamics than any other paradigm.

One of the counter-intuitive insights of Bowen Family Systems is that all of our relationships are inter-connected. In other words, if a man is having challenges with his wife, instinctively one might think that the best thing for him to do is to work on that relationship. Yet, often Bowen Systems would say, “If you are having challenges with your wife work on your relationship with you mother.” If a woman is having challenges in her relationship with her son, she may need to work on the relationships she has with her ex-husband, husband, or brother. And the list goes on… For a humorous representation of what this might look like in the twenty-first century you may want to take a look at the television show “Modern Family.”

During the holidays many people are stressed by all the preparations. Yet, what is more important than the meals, the stuffed stockings on the mantel, the lights, and the presents under the tree, are our relationships. Seen correctly, beyond shallow commercial and cultural trappings, Christmas at its best is a time to work on our relationships with the people we love. And when one relationship grows in honesty, good boundaries, respect, and love it will have ripple effects on our other relationships.

Merry Christmas!

Slow Churches in the Lead

by Amos Smith

I just finished reading Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison (much of the writing below is paraphrased from the book’s Introduction).

The authors of Slow Church explain that the industrial revolution made us obsessed with speed—fast cars, fast food, fast computers, and “the fast track.” In resistance to this, an international “Slow Food” movement arose. The Slow Food movement has inspired other Slow campaigns. Cittaslow (Slow Cities) was launched by a group of Italian mayors in 1990 and now includes more than 140 communities in twenty-three countries, which are committed to sustainable agriculture, local food cultivation, local land use, and hospitality.

Other manifestations of wanting to down shift sometimes, rather than stay in high gear, are Slow Gardening, Slow Parenting, Slow Reading, Slow Design, and Slow Art. There is even a World Slow Day, which some playful Italians recently celebrated by issuing fake citations to pedestrians who were walking too fast or taking too direct a route.

Canadian journalist Carl Honore describes “the cult of speed.” Fast and slow, Honore writes, do not just signify rates of change; they are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life.

“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections—with people, culture, work, food, everything.” (pg. 13)

Many church growth models come dangerously close to reducing Christianity to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed, and sold, instead of cultivating a deep, holistic discipleship that touches every aspect of our lives.

“Following Jesus has been diminished to a privatized faith rather than a lifelong apprenticeship undertaken in the context of Christian community.” (pg. 14)

Congratulations to churches that foster sustainable community that is primarily about relationship to God and relationships with each other. Congratulations to churches that understand that the quality of relationships is more important than the numbers of bodies in the chairs on Sunday and the number of dollars in savings.