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Affirmation of Discernment, continued.

This post is continued from yesterday. I hope you hugged a preacher…

The decision to potentially pursue a ministry position with an established congregation would most likely mean moving out of the area – possibly out of Texas, yet again. We didn’t like the idea of moving away, but if the job didn’t come through with MWF, I didn’t really see what options were left. I’ve learned that you can do just about anything for a season – if it is important enough. But we all have limited energy and resources…and mine were tapped.

In late February we received the news that the MWF’s paperwork would not be finalized in time for the March grant deadline. It could be another year or more before the position would be possible (in fact, it is now May and the paperwork is still pending). It was time to initiate plan B.

Damn.

Putting together a resume was not half as difficult as getting my heart and mind to a place where A) any church would be interested in hiring me and B) I would be faithfully entering a new situation without bitterness and reservation.

I really believed that just making a decision to move forward would bring a semblance of peace. Isn’t that how it usually works? Even if it isn’t the outcome we’d hoped for, just the removal of wondering is typically a relief.

It wasn’t… at all.

The truth is, I felt fairly confident that if we accepted a position, I would throw myself into the life of that community…but it still seemed wrong somehow. This was when I started doubting just about everything in a significant way. How could I feel so strongly about what it was God had called me to and yet not be able to do that? It was as if Paul had received the vision about the man from Macedonia calling them to come help only to find that someone had extended the Great Wall of China right across their path.

An answer that seemed increasingly reasonable was that God hadn’t called me to anything, I was just making it all up in my clearly “nuts” head.

The day I sent out my first batch of resumes I had an experience which brought me more sadness about leaving Burleson and caused me to question everything all over again. Then a couple days later, I had another one (you can read about that here).

So I talked it over with Rachel and we decided to do something that neither of us wanted to do again – a path we’d even rejected in choosing to put together resumes. We decided to continue pursuing conversations with any of the churches that contacted us from the first round of resumes, but to hold off on sending any more until we tried one final round of fundraising.

Fundraising…ugh.

From conversations with MWF I felt confident that within two years I could have a full-time position which would allow to continue in our church planting work here in Burleson and also work to equip others to start new faith communities, as well as lead established ones in missional renewal. If I could just hang on for a couple more years.

At this point the “are you nuts” questions started bubbling up again.

Nuts or not, I put together a packet of fundraising materials. I posted them in pdf form here on this website, and started contacting churches in hopes of setting up a meeting to discuss our request.

I didn’t get any takers. That wasn’t really surprising – I’ve done fundraising before and I know how long it takes to get any traction with churches and missions committees. I wasn’t discouraged by the lack of folks jumping at the chance to support us…though I was starting to get a little antsy at the lack of any response at all – not even a “we’ll get back to you.”

I forwarded my material to lots of people, including several who I knew would be good at offering a careful evaluation and suggestions for how to improve.

One of those people was Larry Duggins, the executive director of the MWF. We were working together on a website project anyway so he asked if I’d like to stay a little longer in order to talk about my fundraising material.

In the two days before our meeting two separate churches (neither of which in or near North Texas) contacted me saying I’d made it past the initial “resume culling” and was invited to pursue further conversations about their ministry opening. Both asked me to fill out a questionnaire to help the search team get to know my theology and philosophy of ministry. Honestly, just trying to fill them out was difficult.

There was a (mostly) unconscious part of me that was rebelling and wanted to subtly undermine my chances of further interviews – easy enough to do. There was a more conscious part that just wanted to curl up in a ball. But I knew that if this was the door that God opened then I’d better get my head and heart into it – both seemed like good churches and if I wasn’t going to commit then, well…they deserved better than me and I needed to stop pretending like I care about following where God leads.

So I committed. I responded carefully and honestly (without being so in-your-face that they’d run in fear).

The day after both had been sent, I met with Larry. I was looking forward to some helpful insights on the fundraising process. Instead he said, “We looked over your stuff. We’d like to offer to pick up the amount you’re seeking to raise and have you start working full-time for MWF effective immediately.”

I think I was accepting the job before I’d even registered that it had been offered.

I’d like to say that my calm acceptance and conversation was simply an example of my awesome professionalism. But really, I was simply blindsided and in shock…in a good way for once.

I didn’t start shaking until the drive home.

Back to the discernment issue. If we hadn’t carefully and prayerfully made plans – and then stuck to those plans – there’s little chance that we would have been in place long enough for this to all play out. Sure, most of the plans we made didn’t pan out the way we anticipated. It was frustrating and exhausting.

In retrospect I can see how most of what we attempted over the last three years either taught us something significant about this approach to missional life and church planting (you should hear some of my stories of 2 am conversations with fellow security guards) or they kept us going until the next temporary phase came along.

In the moment it didn’t make sense that my prayers and processes of discernment lead to the perceived response of “I’ve called you to this, do it faithfully.” How? How could we keep going when the doors to support kept slamming shut? And yet, we never missed a payment.

That part really didn’t make sense. According to our budget and financial records, we should have run out of money MONTHS ago. But at the end of each month everything worked out. Every month.

I don’t think that our plans give God something to laugh about. Our plans, if they are developed through prayer and discernment, keep us moving forward when we can’t see where the road is headed. Our plans are one part of why we were still here to see God’s miraculous provision come to pass. Without prayerful planning – and sticking to our commitments even when conventional wisdom said to cut our losses – we most likely would have given up and moved on to something else entirely. Had that happened, I am confident that God would have still found ways to use our lives for his Kingdom, but we would have missed out on that which I believe God has been carefully and thoroughly preparing us. By sticking it out, we are more convinced than ever that we are doing precisely what God has called us to do.

And I wonder about those two interviews. The timing was very interesting. Was this a situation like Abraham on the mountain with Isaac where I was being given a chance to see for myself just how much I trusted God’s leadership? I don’t know if it was or not…but that’s precisely how it has impacted me.

I’ve been trying to write this post for a couple weeks…but I’ve been speechless.

Obviously, it was a short-lived affliction.

For the past 17 days I could feel the implications, lessons and reflections rolling around in my head, but they wouldn’t surface. Dan Bouchelle wrote a post recently on the danger of journaling and writing for us wordy types. I think he is absolutely correct. I needed to be silent before God in thanksgiving and praise before trying to share this story.

My role has expanded considerably within the MWF and I’m already tackling some new challenges – not the least of which being the very enjoyable task of getting to know the students and leaders who participate, serve and lead in the Epworth Houses and New Day communities. One of the aspects of my job which I anticipate bringing me great joy is coming alongside to support and encourage these folks. Their holistic approach to life, faith and ministry is inspirational and, let’s face it, somewhat nuts.

I can appreciate that.

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No Doubt or Know Doubt: part II

 

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Rachel is still fond of saying that,“without doubt it isnt faith, its fact.” And before you think that makes faith less valuable or true, remember that one of the very fundamental fallacies of modern/enlightenment thought is that empirically verifiable fact is the only thing which is right or true. Translation – for the last five hundred years weve heard that only things which can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard can be proven or trusted. The whole world, including the non-religious, are waking up from the stupor brought on by this thinking and in a loud voice are calling out for something more. We must stop expending so much energy labeling the New Age, Eastern mysticism and spiritualist movements as something evil and recognize that the world is tired of waiting for Christians to tell them what they need to hear.

There is something real and deep and true beyond the world that the senses currently detect. And sadly, Christians are often too busy attacking spirituality which fails to match our own to be able to say, “Yes! Your impulses are good! Let us journey together.” Having a commitment to the Lordship of Christ does not mean that we must attack and destroy or ridicule and ignore anyone with another commitment.

Unfortunately when we have engaged in this conversation it has often been with a Platonic and Cartesian dualism than from Biblical spirituality. The Platonic way of viewing the universe says that not only are the senses not where all truth resides, but the senses cannot be trusted AT ALL. For Plato everything we see and experience is merely a “shadow” of that which is Real. So we have developed this belief that matter and physicality are not real and are essentially evil. And this is something which the Bible does not affirm.

The certainty of the Enlightenment was based on science and human progress – and we, along with much of the world, say, “Not so much.” Much of the Christian community of last few hundred years jumped on the progress bandwagon. However, what spirituality we experienced has often gone to the other extreme and placed all our eggs in a disembodied spiritual existence. And to this, the Bible says, “Not so much.”

What does all this have to do with doubt and certainty?

When our existence involves both the seen and unseen, physical and spiritual (though I utterly disdain that distinction), faith and reason…it is more difficult to develop and defend rigid systems with black and white boundaries. There are variables. There is mystery.

That doesnt mean that there is no truth or that we should not hold convictions. It does suggest that we should hold our convictions with humility. It does suggest that we can, in good conscience and good faith, admit struggles and doubt; we can have a sense of solidarity with the skeptical seeker. It does mean that we can question assumptions, and challenge beliefs.

I wonder what that looks like? It can look like secular humanism. It can look like individual  cafeteria-style spirituality. It can look like a lot of things which have already been shown to be ineffective. 

However, if part of the process of challenging is giving serious consideration to how Christians and Jews throughout history have been formed; if part of the process is remaining connected to community – even in the midst of differing perspectives; if part of the process is listening to the voices (present and past) who with faith in God have asked similar questions…this process can healthy and life affirming.

Is Dr. Beck right when he suggests that injecting doubt into our churches will probably kill them? My guess is that typically it would be pretty difficult to accomplish without viciously pulling the rug out from under folks. And yet we who are engaging in the ministry of planting new churches are often doing precisely this at some level. At least some of us are saying to those we encounter, “Ive got a lot of questions and doubts too, and my goal is not to eliminate your doubt. I want to invite you into community with other people who are wrestling and also to introduce you to Jesus, the One who is more interested is healing your wounds (and sending you to heal others) than giving you a list of answers (and sending you to convince others).”

Make no mistake, left unchecked, doubt can be crippling. And yet, when a community of disciples is willing to openly and honestly deal with their doubt; to struggle with difficult issues instead of hiding behind platitudes, such a community is poised to experience faith that is never touched by those who refuse to fully engage.

No Doubt or Know Doubt

 

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A large part of college education is to take a group of people who feel that they know everything (college freshmen) and get them to the point where they feel that they don’t know anything. That takes a lot of work in the classroom. The goal is to instill a curious bent to the student’s intellectual character. To get them to see each new experience (ideological and interpersonal) as an opportunity for learning. 

Higher education is good at this. But I wonder how good the church is at this process. Churches, it seems to me, move in the opposite direction: They try to instill certainty. A similar thing happens in political affiliation. You don’t see circumspection when Democrats and Republicans square off. I think this is why we live with the rule to never discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. The “feeling of knowing” infuses those discussions, making them very intense but also very unproductive.

So I wonder, can a church survive if it actually tried to undermine the “feeling of knowing” the way higher education does? Probably not. But I think some persons can make this shift. As a consequence, these person seed the church with question-raisers. The presence of these people infuse the faith community with flexibility and curiosity which prevents ossification and stagnation. A healthy church would be a mix of those who feel they know along with people who feel they don’t know. The real trick is getting these people to get along with each other and to mutually affirm the gifts each brings to the communal setting.

What a great thought from one of my former professors, Dr. Richard Beck. His blog, Experimental Theology is quite challenging for several reasons. First of all, those who think that the content of my blog is too heavy and serious should not even click on his link (though his sarcasm and humor ensure that even his scholarly work is often light-hearted and enjoyable for nerds like me). However the real challenge of Experimental Theology is that Beck is quite comfortable living into the role he suggests in the extended quote above. Challenging not only assumptions but assumptions which entire systems of thought are often built upon.

While I will not cover this topic in any way like Dr. Beck and his very well researched article, I would like to talk a little about the usefulness of doubt and willingness to question assumptions. And since this post is over a thousand words, I’ll post the rest tomorrow.

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