Monday, March 29, 2010

Internal Dialogue

As written on my blog at the Christ the King, Wilbraham website:

The last two weeks have sort of been a mini-transition period for me: as my work with the US Census begins to wind down and I finish up the last of my seminary applications, the central narrative of my life has begun to shift from “Wow I’m so tired” (see my March 17th blog post) to “So what do I do next?”  For one, I’m extremely excited for my immersion experience at Christ the King to be my only major focus going forward, but I’m also excited to have the mental space to improve myself in others ways.

An area for self-improvement became quite clear to me last week after preaching a sermon the previous Sunday.  Immediately following the sermon, I frankly didn’t think I did all that well… I thought I had a strong message to convey, but I doubted I conveyed it very strongly.  What really upset me though was not that I thought I gave a lousy sermon, but instead the reason why I thought I gave a lousy sermon.  I always loved speaking to large groups (both politically during my time in Washington and spiritually at Calumet) but over the past couple years I began to dislike “being the guy up front.”   I felt much less confident than I used to, and I blamed that lost of confidence on a number of experiences… losing my mother to lung cancer, being (falsely) diagnosed with cancer myself and being unemployed for roughly two months after I left Thrivent Financial (amongst other things).  I came out of my sermon really angry with myself for losing my self-confidence and thus not preaching/ speaking as well as I used to.  In a more general sense, I was angry that despite many recent successes, my confidence still wasn’t what it used to be.

Last Monday when I arrived at CTK Pastor Sara let me know a few folks had told her I gave a good sermon, but more importantly, they had told her some specific things they got out of my sermon.   I was told the day before after worship that I had done a good job, but I assumed people were just being nice.  Given that people were able to name some pretty specific things they got out of the sermon though, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t that bad after all.  Similarly, last Tuesday a supervisor at the census office asked me to continue on in a different leadership position once my recruiting job ended… all along I had thought I was doing alright working with the US Census, but I never thought I was doing a great job… turns out it was good enough to be asked to supervisor others.

The following passage from Isaiah illuminates what I started to realized after both incidents:

You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be nothing at all. For I, the Lord you God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Do not fear, I will help you” (Isaiah 41: 12 – 13).

While some tough stuff happened to me in the last two years, it wasn’t those things that kept me not feeling very good about myself.   Much like in the Bible verse above, many of my issues were things I simply made up… those things warring against me were internal, not external; I was caught in a cycle of being way too hard on myself, and being more cognizant of that negative internal dialogue seems like a great goal to have over the next month.  Just coming to that realization has helped improve my self-confidence a great deal already, in only five days.

This blog post is getting a bit long, but as a quick illustration think of your child, a kid in your Sunday school class or frankly just anyone else misbehaving.  How often does yelling or being really harsh with that child or person help them to improve?  It might scare them into obedience, but only real constructive criticism and encouragement works to foster personal growth.  I suspect that many folks have a similarly negative internal dialogue to my own… if we’re gentle with others to create a nurturing environment for growth, why is it often so hard to be similarly gentle with ourselves? What does God want our internal dialogue to sound like? Just something to think about ☺

God’s peace,

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Surprising and Spontaneous Acts of Love

For those that weren’t there this Sunday, I wanted to briefly go over what I talked about during my sermon, and for those that were there, I thought it would make sense to reiterate what I said (in perhaps a slightly more coherent message) and also to add a few additional thoughts as well.

Here’s the gospel story from last week, where Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume at the home of Lazarus. It’s a story that’s in all four gospels in one form or another, suggesting it was a very important story to many of the different groups of early Christians:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12: 1-8).

Try to picture the scene in last week’s gospel story… it’s sort of strange, and really surprising, particularly if put in our own contemporary context. Imagine having the following folks (and perhaps others) at your next dinner party:
  1. A recently dead, still perhaps very stinky guy (that might be one reason for all the perfume) lounging around waiting for his “welcome back” dinner to be served… that’s Lazurus.
  2. Someone that was journeying to your home, happy to be with his friends, even though he would soon be heading over to your local capitol city where he faced certain persecution and death… that’s Jesus.
  3. The least likable, least trustworthy of all your friends, who for some reason was appointed by the previously mentioned friend to hold onto his wallet (and iPod… and cell phone… stuff like that). This not so trustworthy guy also randomly decides to be really practical and criticize all the fun that’s about to happen… that’s Judas.
  4. A person who is really stressed out about getting dinner ready, not able to fully appreciate the company of her friends, and is “cumbered by many things” (Luke uses that phrase)… that’s Martha.
  5. The weirdest person in the group… perhaps refered to as a “space cadet” or something perhaps a bit nicer… the spontaneous loopy one. Right before dinner is served at your that evening, she decides to pour a big bottle of perfume on one of your guest’s feet… and that big bottle of perfume costed her a year’s worth of wages… that’s Mary.

Who of these characters do you most identify with? Maybe the practical side of Judas? I could see that making sense… but even more likely, you probably identify with Martha. She’s doing exactly what she’s “supposed to do,” and while in fact she is doing a great deed (the meal couldn’t have happened without her), but is so burdened with stress she can’t fully appreciate the surprising new things God was at work on.

Who comes out as the hero of this gospel story though? Which character do you most want to be like? Mary is the character forever remembered (in all four gospels) for her act of amazingly spontaneous, extravagant love… I bet you probably most want to be like her (or Jesus, but being exactly like him would be pretty tough). It’s still tough though to even be like Mary though… we’re so often burdened, so often weighed down by various things, we can’t fully appreciate the gift of life around us… we can’t seem to always be spontaneously kind and loving to others.

I know I certainly have to think about more fully appreciating life and being spontaneously… I think it’s something worthy for all of us to think about.

God’s peace,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Six Days You Shall Labor...

As posted on the Christ the King, Wilbraham website:

Whenever seeking to discern God's call, identifying y0ur weaknesses in a given vocation is equally important as identifying and developing your strengths.  I intend my time of vocational discernment at Christ the King to be no different of course, and while it's been really helpful to identify some of my gifts for ministry over the past month, this past week was really a lot more about discovering (or in some ways reaffirming) one of those areas that I need to work on.  Namely, I'm absolutely horrible at allowing myself to take a break.  Furthermore, during those few opportunities I do have for relaxation, I'm equally bad at allowing myself to put aside the concerns and stresses of work.

While my time at Christ the King is not particularly stressful, my other job recruiting enumerators for the US Census can often be, and both roles combine to make it so that I really do not have a Sabbath (or in non-Biblical terms a real day off) most weeks.  On top of my busy schedule I'm still in the middle of the ELCA Candidacy process, finishing up some seminary applications and leading my own church's youth group.  Last week things came to head as I was finalizing plans for a youth group retreat weekend.  A couple of the kids had dropped out at the last minute, and while the retreat still went amazingly, I got stressed out to the point where I had what was probably a migraine for the first time in my life.  I ended up having to call out of work this past Thursday due to the migraine, and I got sick earlier this week as well.

After a whole lot of reflection (and a bit of rest), it occurred to me how silly it was that it took me getting sick to allow myself a day off.  I also took some time to reflect on the fourth commandment:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day, therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Ex. 20: 8 - 11).
When God spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses, he put taking a day off ahead of not stealing, not committing adultery, and even not murdering others... seems like God certainly thinks taking a day off is pretty important.  The question then becomes why does God hold the Sabbath so highly; why do we need a day off?  Especially after my experience this past week, my reverent guess would be that without taking a day off to be with friends, family and God, it's nearly impossible to follow the first commandment.  Without taking that time to enjoy and fully be present in His creation, it's easy to begin putting other things before God... whether it's working to attain financial security for your family or working to ensure your church's youth group will have an amazing weekend, having a Sabbath helps us remember to allow God to work through us, instead of trying to achieve things on our own.

While I still have more than enough learning to do in terms of allowing myself to take a break, I am happy to say that after a great conversation with my supervisor yesterday, I'll no longer be doing Census work on Saturdays, thus having a full day without professional commitments.  Especially during the season of Lent when we're exploring how we can sometimes feel distant from God, I encourage everyone to really think about whether or not they've created a true day of rest for themselves, and how that rest can bring us closer to God.

God's peace,

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Two Are Better Than One

My weekly blogpost on the CTK Wilbraham website:

While this week has been really busy for me (thus the late blog post), it's also been a week of great fellowship and great learning at Christ the King.   While getting to know many of you better over dinner, during adult forum and at other times, one notion has continued to come into focus for me: the gift of community.  One member of the congregation recently told me "Christ the King is a small congregation, but it's mighty!"  After spending almost a month now with all of you, I couldn't agree more, and it's due to the strength of the community here.
From singing in the choir, to organizing coffee hour, to serving on church council or writing the weekly bulletin, it seems like almost everyone at CTK is actively involved in life of the congregation.  While other churches may be bigger or have a larger budget, I honestly think that it's a pretty rare blessing to find a congregation that has such a high percentage of its members contributing to the community.  First, I think it's important to celebrate and thank God for having such a strong community.  Second though, it's also important to ask how we can be good stewards of such a blessing.  The following passage from Ecclesiastes really sheds some light on that notion:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?  And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken (Eccl 4: 9 -12).

I've been reading that Bible verse to campers the first night of camp at Calumet since 2003, but this week the first struck me in a brand new way.  The message of helping and supporting a friend is obvious, but I think there's more here, particularly in the part about having a good reward for toil...  what is that reward anyway?  Outside of being able to achieve more together, the experience of working together allows for even greater grow as a community, thus adding to our reward.  While being a good steward of community does indeed involve achieving and doing God's work in the world, it also involves learning from that process of achievement.

God's peace,