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Birthday Cake Communion and a 7 Year Old Liturgist

red velvet communionA few weeks ago it was a red velvet cake, today it was a giant chocolate chip cookie. When The Gathering, um…gathers… for worship, there is ALWAYS food involved. If someone is having a birthday, there’s cake; maybe left over, or it might be made especially for the occasion.

And so recently we stumbled across what is rapidly becoming one of my new favorite traditions. Seeing the red velvet birthday cake near where we were preparing the communion elements, someone jokingly asked, “Are we having birthday cake for communion?”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Yes. Yes we are.”

To help our children understand the meaning of the Eucharist, we have a slightly modified way of describing the bread and cup. We talk about the bread as Jesus’ body that GIVES life – as food does. And we talk about the cup as Jesus’ blood that SAVES life – just like it does in the hospital. Communion is our practice of proclaiming to one another, and recommitting to the One who gives us life and saves our life.

And the purpose of a birthday cake is to celebrate a life given and kept safe through another year. So today it was time to celebrate Rachel’s birthday. I lifted the giant chocolate chip cookie, breaking it in front of the community and proclaiming the familiar words, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

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Then the birthday girl, in celebration of the gift of life, shared the gift of life with others. She broke off bite sized chunks, handing them to each person in turn saying, “This is Jesus body which gives life.” After everyone else was served, I got to break off a piece for Rachel – and her cake, celebrating God’s gift of life to her became Jesus’ body….celebrating God’s gift of life to her.

The symbolism was incredible.

So I asked Conner (9) and Micah (7) what they thought about our practice of birthday cake communion.

Conner: “The cake is, well, for one thing, its yummy. And two it celebrates people’s life and you know, this is Jesus’ body that gives life. Its important for us to do this together because Jesus loves us and we love Jesus.

Me: So why do you think we involve everybody in communion and not just the adults?

Conner: Its better to have all of us take communion instead of just the grown ups because everyone should be able to share Jesus with each other. Jesus loves kids too, not just adults that have been baptized, so we should all celebrate Jesus together.

Me: Micah, what do you think?

Micah: Its really good, especially when there’s cake… Its important to let kids take communion too because it helps us keep it in our minds when someone asks us why people take communion…we’ll just know the answer right away. The juice is the blood of Jesus and the bread is the body of Jesus. Jesus’ blood saves life and Jesus’ body gives life. That’s why we do it. 

The decision to incorporate our children fully into the life of the community has meant that our worship gatherings are hectic…sometimes stressfully so. Conner and Micah are two of the liturgists and worship leaders in our community. We typically use the Common Prayer liturgy in our gatherings and its often Micah or Conner who lead that time. They find people to read the scriptures, they lead us in the Lord’s prayer, they lead the responsive readings…and often they’ll lead a song or two (and so will several other people…including their little brother and the other 4-5 year olds).

The impact has been phenomenal. An intergenerational community that is truly an intergenerational COMMUNITY. My role, as “the minister,” has shifted to be one voice among many. I will often capitalize on teaching moments as they arise – for instance when we’re reading a passage from the Old Testament, I’ll follow up with some comments about the cultural setting or that particular story’s role in the larger narrative. And the others are quick to interject their own reflections on the readings or a prayer. Our times of prayer become an opportunity to lament, rejoice and wonder together. Each of us are able to share stories of God at work and frustrations for the areas in which God seems painfully absent. And it is absolutely normal for a child to respond with uncanny wisdom to a presented problem, or ask a probing question in response to a shared story.

We take time to pause and help the kids understand that the colon in the scripture reference separates the chapter from the verses; the dash tells us to read from one part through to the next and a semi-colon tells us to jump to the next passage. And these simple teaching moments have often provided unintended insight for adults as well.

And as Micah said, all this keeps our faith in our minds so that whenever someone asks, we’re ready to answer right away…even if we’re 7 years old.

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Every Monday Matters

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As we begin this new year, many of us are making resolutions. And here, on January 7, my guess is that many of us have already broken those resolutions. There are any number of reasons why we’ve already given up – lack of discipline, lack of motivation, abundance of distractions and temptations. However, there is a simple component which, when missing, makes room for all these other roadblocks…and, when present, levels the field tremendously.

So very often, for whatever reason, we make our resolutions in isolation rather than in community. We may tell others what we “want” to do and hope that the accountability will keep us on track. But the kicker is, we don’t really expect to do well…and the prospect of having to tell others we didn’t follow through simply isn’t that much of a motivator.

There’s a reason “strength in numbers” is a saying we all know. Whether we’re talking new year’s resolutions, a Rule of Life, or walking through the woods at night, stuff just works out better when there is someone(s) else along for the journey.

The accountability structure, where we tell others what we’re going to do so that they can later check-up on our progress, tries to distill the benefit of community for use in our hyper-individual society…without having to actually do things together. It is better than nothing, but pales in comparison to actual shared experience. Accountability is often based on fear – fear of looking like a failure, fear of breaking faith, fear of mutually agreed upon consequences. And that can be effective. To a certain degree.

But the actual shared experience is different. It isn’t about avoiding, it is about embracing. Avoiding fear and consequences becomes embracing hope and adventure.

To be sure, in situations where shared experience isn’t possible, we’re certainly better off having others who can at least encourage us in word, if not deed. In coaching, my primary task is to help the client determine their goals, form a plan with concrete action steps, and then evaluate the effectiveness after the fact. It isn’t my job to make people feel guilty when they don’t follow through. It IS my job to help them understand why they didn’t and address the barriers. Often what we determine is that, for whatever reason, they just aren’t going to complete this task on their own. “Should” and “ought” are pointless when combined with “but don’t.” In that case there are a couple logical responses.

The first is the goal isn’t really that important. Perhaps in this case, what they “should” do is stop stressing about it and move on. Of course, we often resist this option. But here’s the deal – if we aren’t going to complete this task, the consequences will be the same whether it remains on our “to do” list or not. So we have to ask, how important is this task? Is the stress of an incomplete task greater than the actual consequence of not completing?

Many times the stuff we’re stressing over isn’t that important. Letting it go can open the door to more effectiveness in other areas – and often we’ll find ourselves circling back to this issue down the road.

But when the goal is important, and we realize we are not going to get it done on our own, then it makes sense to find someone to work with us. Maybe its asking a spouse, sibling, coworker, neighbor or group of friends to join us. Or it could mean hiring an assistant, consultant or contractor.

I didn’t make any individual resolutions this year. I’m not very good with them and I decided to pass on the personal guilt trip this time around the sun. However, Rachel came across this book, Every Monday Matters. The book is part of a growing movement of people choosing to reclaim the least desirable day of the week as a time for shared experience and positive change. Check out the introductory video below.

So yesterday The Gathering decided that we would take up this challenge together as families. We won’t all do the activities together as a large group – the basic unit of “we” in this shared experience is the household. However, we’ll discuss our activities as a community, encourage one another and from time-to-time orchestrate larger joint efforts.

I encourage you and your family to join us. You can order a print copy of the book HERE or download the Kindle version HERE. Check out the EMM facebook page and website for updates.

If you’d like to join The Gathering in participating and discussing, just use the “contact us” form in the right hand column and put Every Monday Matters in the comments section. We’ll send out reminders each Monday and provide opportunities to dialog about experiences and team up for group activities. We’d love to have you join us.

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.

Affirmation of Discernment

A lot has happened since I started working on my Bare Minimum series of posts. I haven’t forgotten about that, I’ll come back to it very soon. However, after a couple weeks of vacillating between dazed and frantically busy, I need to post some thoughts about a huge development in our lives.

I’m needing help processing a particular feeling. I’ve heard of it before, I’ve even known people who claim to have dealt with it, but the very concept has always been absolutely foreign to my life experience. So, I’ll need some coaching from those more accustomed to this (for me) uncharted experience of being rendered “speechless.” Who’d have thought such a thing was even possible?

Of the spiritual disciplines I’ve sought to cultivate in my life, perhaps none has been more transformative (particularly to the way I make decisions) than the practice of spiritual discernment. Sure, I grew up in a tradition and in a family that valued praying about matters, big and small, to ensure that we were submitting to the will of God in our lives. And sometimes, not always, this got translated into a low view of planning and thinking ahead. After all, “our planning just gives God something to laugh about.”

This wasn’t always the mentality, but it certainly cropped up – usually when someone was tired of thinking, didn’t know what to do or was frustrated by rapidly changing circumstances and unpredictable developments.

Several years ago, as I began digging more deeply into the classic spiritual disciplines, someone commented on the “lost art of discernment.” The comment was made that “the only planning which is a pointless, human endeavor is that which is pointless, human planning.”

What if, instead, we viewed the process of planning as an act of prayer and discernment. To spend time with God in silence, listening deeply. To listen, meditate on scripture, bring what you feel you’ve heard back to a discerning community and “compare notes.” And then to allow our decisions, plans, etc to grow from this intentional process of listening, rather than praying over what we’ve decided…could be cool right?

Actually, as I already suggested, its been transformational. Ridiculously so. So what do you do when you’ve submitted something to prayer and discernment repeatedly, and in community with others, consistently hearing the same thing…only to have outside factors block the path over and again? What do you do when your heart, your prayers, and your praying community all agree, but other issues seem to be demanding a different conclusion?

Well, I don’t know what you do, but apparently I begin to lose confidence in whether I have ever actually been led by God at all. It isn’t an “all at once” kind of deflation, but a gradual, life-draining, slow-acting toxin which little by little even erodes one’s basic convictions about their relationship with God…I must not be walking too close if my messages are getting this crossed.

For quite some time people have been telling me I’m nuts. They’re right, of course. However I’ve always felt they had reached the correct conclusion on wrong evidence.

When I left a well paying, relatively stable (shocking in its own right, given the history) preaching position in order to pursue church planting, some said the decision was inspirational – others said it was nuts.

When we chose to do so in 2008, on the verge of a national economic melt-down, most people said we were nuts – a few said it was inspirational…but even some of them seemed to wonder if at least the timing was nuts.

When we decided that our efforts in church planting would focus on the slow, non-salary producing connection to cynical de-churched folks and the suburban poor, people rightly asked how we’d pay the bills. My response that God had called us into this and wouldn’t leave us stranded received a nearly unanimous “you’re nuts” even from those who thought it was inspirational.

When I accepted that the bi-vocational approach was necessary some believed I was starting to see the light. But when we realized that my skill set and training don’t exactly translate into many “secular” career opportunities – and certainly few that would allow us to continue church planting, even I began to think I was nuts.

When bi-vocational became multi-vocational (sometimes as many as 6 different part-time and full-time jobs simultaneously) I started thinking that “Nuts” should be printed on my business card.

Throughout this time we continued to pray and discern with others. Perhaps relocating to a new area for church planting would provide other opportunities – both for support and employment. But over and again the closest thing to an answer I felt I was receiving (and having confirmed by others) was “I’ve called you to this, do it faithfully.” It didn’t seem to matter that I was increasingly convinced that I had no idea how to do it.

I tried working in sales for both a roofing company and a security company. It was not good. I prayed with a few people as we put new roofs on their house – that was great. I had some very significant conversations about the Way of Jesus with a couple contractors. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t a good salesman…which sort of defeated the purpose.

I tried taking my experiences and education and translating them into an organization – Missional Monks – which could provide the financial support we needed. I still think that is a good idea, but it became very apparent that I would need one or both of the following to grow Missional Monks into something financially sustainable: time and money. I had neither.

According to our budget and conversations with some of our financial supporters in church planting (without whose partnership we could not have held on this long) we expected that our situation would no longer be sustainable after August/September of 2011.

But then another possibility arose. Last year I helped to launch The Academy for Missional Wisdom – one of three ministries operated by the Missional Wisdom Foundation (MWF). I was able to integrate my work with the Academy with the completion of my D.Min. project and dissertation – which I believe improved my efforts in both.

We began conversations about the possibility of a full-time position with the MWF around the beginning of 2012. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the timing was going to be a little late. We began praying that if this was the path forward that God would not only provide for our needs in the meantime but would also give us the courage to push through.

September came and went and somehow there was still enough money in the bank to pay the bills. Seriously, Rachel is fantastic with budgets and stretching a dollar but she said plainly, “I don’t understand, there shouldn’t be anything left in there.”

In November we learned that there were some IRS bureaucracy log-jams impeding the MWF’s progress toward getting the grants necessary to fund a full-time director. The job was still a possibility, but things were looking shaky on the early 2012 timeline.

Meanwhile, even those who’d been our strongest supporters began asking subtle questions like, “So…what’s plan B?” I insisted that I wasn’t interested in plan B until I had clear evidence that God wanted me to abandon plan A…and I’m pretty sure I heard “you’re nuts” in the subtext of my friends’ replies.

Others asked, “At what point do you decide that all of this is the answer to your prayers for discernment? Maybe the answer just isn’t what you want to hear.”

That one rocked me a bit. For the first time I began wondering if my friends were right in their conclusion of my mental state.

After more prayer we decided that if the paperwork for the MWF didn’t come through in time for the grant deadlines then we would begin pursuing the dreaded plan B…we just had to figure out what that was.

I’ve worked a lot of jobs these past several years and I’ve learned a few things about myself in the process. It’s not just that I’m trained to equip disciples and teach others about God, I’ve been called to do so. I know that because I’ve tried doing a lot of other things, and this is the only stuff that makes sense…and it is what I want to spend all of my working hours devoted to. This isn’t about not wanting “a real job” or only wanting to do what is pleasant – if you think differently, I’d be happy to compare time-sheets and job lists.

A line from the movie Gladiator has always resonated with me, “Sometimes I do what I want to do, the rest of the time I do what I must do.” I will do whatever I must do in order to continue doing what God has called me to do.

But if a sustainable bi-vocational situation wasn’t possible – and working a crazy assortment of random jobs was no longer sufficient, what would I do in order to continue doing what God has called me to do?

We determined that if plan B became necessary then I would once again pursue a position as a minister with an established congregation. We would pray that God would direct us to church that was seeking to equip the congregation for missional life in their community. Perhaps I would even be able to find a situation where we could work to equip and support the planting of new churches and the formation of missional-micro communities from within the congregation.

It shouldn’t be the case, but so often serving in leadership for a church is not very conducive to connecting with people who aren’t Christians. There is so much “stuff” that gets in the way of the very thing you feel called to be doing. I know its fun, and more than a little humorous, to make jokes about preachers getting paid to play golf all week. There are probably a few for whom this is accurate, but I don’t know many personally…and I know a lot of preachers. It is a rewarding job, but it is frustrating, exhausting work that comes with an oversized target as part of the compensation package.

If you’ve never served as a full-time minister or an elder for an established congregation, stop reading this, go find one and give them a hug. I’ll finish the rest of this post tomorrow, after you’ve had a chance to do so…

Seriously, at least send them an email…

Ups & Downs… and the Development of an Interesting Resume

Talk about a whirlwind of emotions. On Wednesday, February 29, Rachel and I drove over to SMU to meet with my doctoral committee. After a pleasant two-hour chat they greeted me as “doctor” and declared I had passed both the project and presentation with highest honors. That was obviously a high point for me.

Thursday was pretty awesome too. I spent several hours printing two copies of the dissertation on some pretty expensive paper and then immediately drove it over to SMU so that it would be submitted and completely finished.

Then Friday rolled around and the honeymoon was over. I received word that it seems unlikely for a full time job with The Academy to be available soon. This job was our last best hope at providing sustainable income for our continued church planting work in Burleson. We’ve officially gotten to the point that we aren’t bringing in enough money each month to cover our expenses and I just don’t have the energy to get a 6th job.

We knew this was a possibility, but it was one we have hoped and prayed against fervently.

So, now what?

We considered attempting another round of fundraising in hopes that we could get Missional Monks established in the next couple years. But honestly, after four years of raising and receiving support, we’ve pretty much exhausted our resources. After a great deal of consideration and prayer we have decided that I will once again seek to find a paid ministry position with an established congregation.

We are incredibly saddened at the thought of leaving Burleson and The Gathering. We had truly hoped to raise our kids “here, among the people whose troubles are already evident to us” as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says. But we also feel compelled to feed those children – and I would like to live long enough to see them grow up.

There is still a possibility that an opportunity will arise with The Academy before we accept a job somewhere else. If that happens, we will obviously stay right here and continue in the ministry opportunities God has already given us. But if we take a position somewhere else, we will do so without reservation or potential exit strategies. My personality tempts me to continuously look ahead for the next thing and I have committed to cultivating a spiritual discipline of stability…which is one reason I’ve been willing to work 5 and 6 part-time jobs at a time over the last couple years. If we go, we’re going with full conviction and commitment to cultivating life with God and others in that place for as long as we’re able.

With all that said, I do feel strongly that God has prepared me, through experience and education, to bring a unique contribution, service and leadership to the church. So we are searching for a congregation which desires to cultivate missional life and leadership in community. We don’t know where in the US this search will take us or how long it will take to get there, but we are dedicated to finding a community of faith that will embrace our family and co-labor with us for years to come.

We would appreciate your prayers in this time…as well as any “heads up” about potential churches looking for a minister.

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