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Stretch Goals and Growing Edges

“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~Hebrews 12:1

“Run in such a way that you my win [the race]. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” ~1 Corinthians 9:24b-25

Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews both use this metaphor of an athletic competition to describe the life of faith. We do not stop once we have received the gift of faith, but rather we keep going, running even, to the finish line. They do not just speak of running the race, but of training to compete.

Even the most talented runner cannot simply run a race and win. They must train regularly, not just running, but warming up with the appropriate stretches, lifting weights, eating the proper foods. If not, their bodies will not be prepared for the challenge ahead. Faithful disciples are growing disciples, and growing disciples are ones who keep training, learning, stretching, just like athletes do.

In order to train and prepare, we have to set goals. And in order to grow, those goals have to make us stretch. What is an area in our spiritual lives where we feel the tug of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps we are feeling a call toward teaching, but we don’t have much experience or confidence in our skills. Or our prayer lives could use some renewal. Or you have been asked to lead something you have never led before. Or to fundraise when asking for money makes you incredibly uncomfortable. If we aren’t a little uncomfortable with what the Holy Spirit asks, we probably need to stretch a little more. How can we meet these challenges faithfully, without fear, and also grow as we answer the call?

If you are called to teaching, you can see if someone is willing to partner with, mentor, and/or train you. If you are hoping to pray more regularly, or engage it more deeply, you can use simple tools to schedule prayer time, like this author suggests, or try new prayer practices. You can do this with available resources, or you could consider engaging a spiritual director. You can use similar practices to engage scripture more deeply. If you are being asked to lead something unfamiliar, or raise money for a passion project, think about what partners you can engage in the work. We don’t have to do any of this alone!

Learning is often about doing. We learn best on the job, so to speak. So, actually teaching, praying, leading, fundraising, singing, doing mission. It will be challenging. We will make mistakes. But leaders are people who invest in their own growth so others may also grow. Trying, failing, and trying again are part of the process. If we are not being stretched, if we are not making mistakes, if we are not frustrated sometimes, we are probably not learning or growing.

Desiree Linden, the 2018 Women’s winner of the New York Marathon has this pinned to the top of her twitter feed:

“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.”

Where is the Holy Spirit calling you to stretch and grow? What is the growing edge of your faith? What are ways you can answer that call and meet the challenge? These are questions we need to keep asking ourselves in order to be faithful disciples and leaders. So, let’s go seek some answers to these questions together!

large play red push button with 'easy' written on it in white

Focus on Leadership: Push Past Easy Answers

“Jesus!” – No, not what you might be saying when you took down your Christmas lights and decorations, but rather the ubiquitous and enthusiastic answer to any question at children’s time in community worship and Sunday School. Jesus the Christ, whose birth into the world as a tiny human we just celebrated. Jesus, a man who was (is – because, Jesus) also God. Jesus, who called the disciples, and continues to call us. Jesus, who is at the center of our worship and our lives, pointing us always toward God and God’s coming into the world. Of course Jesus is the answer to every question, right?

Well, not if I ask who guided the Hebrews out of slavery, or the prophet who John the Baptist was quoting, or who was baptizing people in the wilderness before Jesus started his ministry. And that matters because if our only answer to questions of faith are Jesus, and love others, we are probably missing the meaning of Jesus and what it looks like to love others.

Who are these “others,” for instance? And what does loving other people look like? For too many of us, we feel good about following Jesus when we are simply being nice to people in the grocery store, or posting “thoughts and prayers” on the Facebook post of someone grieving or in crisis. But what does it look like to push past the easy answers we give so glibly, and love the way Jesus loved?

Jesus found himself challenging the core values and understanding of the world at the tables of the rich and powerful. Jesus broke up petty fights between disciples over who would sit at his right hand. Jesus rebuked the idea that his death could not happen. Jesus had a deep understanding the tradition, people and law that formed the Jews. He quoted prophets and law and had a family line that included both royalty and impoverished outsiders.

Jesus did not accept the easy way or easy answers – from his own disciples, from the people they met along the way, or from the most brilliant Jewish leaders – he challenged them to go deeper. It was not that they were always wrong, but that too often they didn’t understand the depth and consequences of their answers.

For a young lawyer, it was not enough to love the people you knew and liked, but it was necessary to see people you detested as your neighbor. Clever rabbis who knew the law inside and out needed to understand that if Sabbath was not life-giving, it was worthless. The rich and powerful needed to see that empire is a human creation, therefore only worth the value we give it. The faithful had to hear that it was not enough to follow the rules of faith, but one has to empty oneself to be filled with God.

And none of this has changed. We are tempted to give and accept the easy answers. We say that people are “good” if they are nice to us, even if they say or do terrible things to others. We do not challenge conventional wisdom or group think even when we know we could do more.

As leaders, in our daily practice, in our pastoral care, in our committee work, in our teaching, in our congregational decision-making, we need to push past the easy answers. When something doesn’t feel quite right, it is ok to slow down and talk it out. When someone invokes the name of Jesus, but does not act like Jesus, we need to hold them accountable. When it would be easier to walk away from a conflict, we need to forgive and ask for forgiveness and seek a way forward.

And, if we do these things, those who look to us for leadership, for an example, will seek to do the same.

clear glass globe on a rock in front of a pier going out into an ocean, the pier and sky inverted in globe

Focus on Leadership: Doing a New Thing

Here in the United States, the season of Advent follows closely on the heels of our celebrations of Thanksgiving, which seems quite appropriate. The national celebration of Thanksgiving is not without controversy. The stories we tell about the origins of the celebration tend to center a mythical peaceful shared meal, and flatten out the real stories of the interactions, personalities, ideals and ideas of those involved, whether European settlers or indigenous occupants of the land being settled. Likewise, the stories we tell during Advent can flatten out the realities of a difficult story, as we remember the joys and the angels, and forget that that joy was a surprising gift in the face of a difficult new reality.

Advent is about the preparation it takes to do something radically new. The preparation of individual hearts, a family, a community and a world. And even with God’s own messengers delivering the message, “Do not fear,” it did not mean that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were going to have an easy life. Before the birth of Jesus, they have to confront their own feelings of inadequacy, confusion and worry over reputation. After the birth of Jesus, they have to undertake a harrowing road trip to a faraway land, not certain when or if they would be able to ever see their families again. All of this for two young people who had likely never gone further than Jerusalem.

Beginning something new tends to come with more questions than answers. We have never done it before, so it can be difficult to know if we doing it the right way. If there is a right way. The church in the United States is on the edge of something new. That, we know. What it will look like, what we will look like, afterward, is something we are not sure of yet. It is tempting to tell easy stories – to reach into the past to find comfortable models of doing church that worked then, or to assume that all people who follow Christ will be able to find a common way of working together simply because we have the same ultimate goal.

The reality is that none of this is easy. Our Advent scriptures do not let us off the hook, either. But, they give us an excellent guide on how to deal with uncertainty and fear of the unknown. They tell us to prepare ourselves because we cannot know how we will react when we meet strangers who do things differently, who may not like the same foods or speak a different language. We are told first not to fear. We are told to prepare our hearts – not to harden them, but to leave them open, soft. We are told that we will take the familiar ways of life, and turn them on their head. We have to be ready for how we think the world works to be overturned. And we have to be ready to meet the fears, anxieties and differing expectations of what that means or looks like.

These are the things that do not change, however: our God loves us no matter what, and calls us to join in loving all creation and created beings in the same way; part of that love is looking out for your neighbor – if we are not making sure your neighbors are safe, have food, aren’t lonely or sick, we aren’t doing it right; change is coming – will we continue to extend our love, or will we try to hoard what we have and hide? Be prepared – be awake, look for God, love others. It is both the oldest command, and part of bringing in the new thing God is creating in our midst. We are going to find ourselves doing many new things, doing old things in new ways, and becoming new people. How will we respond?