2387490727_0b46a8e9b4_zIn every organization I’ve ever been a part of, expenses have usually threatened to exceed income, at least at times. Every household I’ve ever been a part of has experienced the same thing. As I prepare for an upcoming church council retreat, I’m looking for a new perspective on the experience (or anticipation, or fear) of scarcity. I hate the way it affects my attitude and my perception of my choices. Scarcity makes me feel small and helpless. In organizations, scarcity can make people think smaller in ways that easily spiral downward: When scarcity appears to shrink possibilities, donations or investments often shrink accordingly, thereby creating more scarcity.

This downward spiral isn’t what I want for my own life or for organizations I support. I’m not looking for a magical solution of spontaneously creating more income or discovering unnecessary expenses. Instead, I’m thinking it might help to eliminate the judgment about scarcity. In other words, I suspect that the individual and collective depression I associate with scarcity is not inevitable. Perhaps it comes from scarcity carrying an assumption of failure: Income didn’t live up to projections and hopes, or expenses refused to be contained within the boundaries set for them. Thus the projections and hopes must have been misguided, or the boundaries too weak.

But what if that sense of failure were actually optional? In the extreme, under certain conditions, what if scarcity could even be seen as a kind of success? Take a congregation, for example. If expenses are exceeding income, okay, maybe there was a problem in budgeting. OR maybe it’s because the congregation’s dreams and hopes for ministry are out ahead of its abilities for now. Maybe it’s because the congregation is living on the edge of what it can actually pull off–not because they’re unrealistic, but because they’re doing their best to be faithful to a God who hangs out that very edge. Maybe the same thing could even be true in a household. The fact that you can’t yet afford the trip you want to take or the home you want to live in doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Maybe it just means you’re an excellent dreamer.

Of course there are all kinds of exceptions where this perspective wouldn’t help much. (Scarcity in which you can’t afford rent and food is different from not being able to buy your dream home or vacation.) But still, there are plenty of situations where this shift could take the sting out of budget discussions by removing the sense that “we must have done this wrong.” Instead, maybe it’s because you’re dreaming just right. If that’s true, then the work ahead changes too. The task is no longer figuring out where you went wrong; it’s simply deciding where you’ll go next. And if that’s the case, maybe Henry David Thoreau’s words can help: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Photo credit: Boston Public Library, “Laying the foundation along Boylston Street, construction of the McKim Building,” licensed by Creative Commons.

If we envision the lifelong process of growing up, forming identity, making meaning, and discovering one’s callings as a treasure hunt, then how do faith communities become a resourceful part of individuals’ treasure hunts? Perhaps a better question would turn that around: How do people find resources in faith communities as they follow their own treasure hunts?

I was intrigued to find connections to these questions in a presentation by Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson last Saturday at a New England Lutheran church event. When I first heard about the event’s focus on communication, I expected concrete advice on using social media effectively or sprucing up your church newsletter. What I got was even more interesting: Reflection on the people with whom we try to/want to/should communicate, and on the places we might connect with them.

Drescher’s work focuses on those who report “none” when asked with what religion they identify (often referred to in shorthand as “Nones”), so she could shed some light on these people with whom churches often, typically, and understandably struggle to communicate. Rather than defining Nones by what they don’t believe, however, Drescher studies their “lived religion”–what they actually do. People tend to make “eclectic choices based on practical spirituality,” she said, and this can also be true of those who do identify with a religion. I found the historical context of her description refreshing: Compared to earlier centuries, people generally live much longer, easier lives with a lot more time to think. So, the idea that a person would stick with one religion for his or her entire life just may not be realistic or practical.

As someone committed to Christian faith (though after that last sentence it is tempting to write “for now”–because who knows where the God of infinite possibility might lead me in the next 40 years?!), I felt the relief that comes from hearing someone name the elephant in the living room. Of course people make their own choices about what to believe and whether and how to practice it, based on whatever is going on in their lives at the time. However, within the church, we don’t always have good ways to talk about these “eclectic choices” when they take people beyond our own traditional boundaries. But in reality, “they”–the Nones–are actually “us”: What Drescher is learning from the Nones is in many cases also true of the “Somes” (people who do identify with faith communities), especially in those eclectic and practical choices.

Pastors of mainline denominations like mine do know this, even when we’re not sure what to do with it. We know that in the course of their lives, individuals put together their spiritual lives mainly without our help. We see people becoming involved in and leaving our churches all the time for their own personal reasons, beyond geographical moves. If we’re paying attention, we notice that they are reading books and websites we’d never suggest, participating in courses and retreats outside our tradition, and learning spiritual practices we know nothing about. (They’re also finding a lot of their resources and community online, which Keith Anderson addressed well on Saturday.) Sometimes, we church leaders might even be a little envious of their freedom to move, spiritually speaking. Or we find ways to do some of that “movement” ourselves in the books we read or classes we take.

Or we find ourselves called to radical humility when people need and want resources we cannot offer. In the days I’ve been trying to write about Saturday’s presentation, my attention has been hijacked by a haunting video I just encountered. Continue reading →

December 15, 2013 · Uncategorized · (No comments)

This is the first Advent since 2010 when I have not been pregnant. So this year I heard differently the psalm appointed for today, the third Sunday of Advent: the Magnificat, Mary’s song after she learns she is pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). In a fortunate coincidence, I was asked to guest preach at my home church today, so I had the chance to think about this text and the way that Advent invites us each year into a new relationship with the unknown.

It invites us to “give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way,” as the Native American saying goes. That way, in times of uncertainty–such as pregnancy, but not only then–thanksgiving can at least give anxiety some competition.

You can read the sermon here.

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Photo by weisserstier (Flickr/Creative Commons)

“Do whatever helps you not freak out, while things beyond your control are in the process of working themselves out.” That’s one way to understand much of the day-to-day “work” of the treasure hunt of your life. Now that the church season of Advent has begun, I realize that describes some of this season’s practices too.

While attending to the treasure hunt of our lives, noticing and acting upon clues are usually interspersed with a lot of waiting. Waiting is at the heart of the Advent season, so the convergence is not surprising. What is within our control seems so small, compared to all that is not. Once we have done what we can–make the phone call, do the research, have the conversation, take a big or small step forward–we wait to see how others, the universe, and our deepest selves will respond.

That waiting can be almost unbearable, especially when the stakes are high. Will the job possibility come through? What will the diagnosis show? Will my loved one stay sober? Will I be accepted into the program? The anxiety can overwhelm us. But it’s hard to discern well in the midst of anxiety, so it’s worth the effort to do things that help you not freak out, while things beyond your control are in the process of working themselves out.

The Advent season offers several excellent possibilities in the disciplines practiced by the church awaiting Jesus’ coming–at Christmas and again in the future.

Gather with others in the dark. This helps, in both its meanings. Find companions who know what it’s like to be “in the dark” and waiting. Or, seek out a church that offers evening services (often called vespers) during Advent. Worshiping in the dark with candles and quiet is peaceful and hopeful, and more helpful than freaking out that you haven’t received a call back from the doctor yet. Community is helpful when you’re waiting, because as the saying goes, “we’re not all crazy at the same time.” Being around others not-freaking-out can be contagious.

Sing. That’s what Christians do while they wait: They sing, they tell stories. If you don’t sing, try writing, cooking, or cleaning. Use your body if you can. Bring a little calm, order, beauty, joy, kindness, and gentleness into the world in whatever way you do that. It’s better than replaying a strained conversation with a loved one in your head yet again. Better yet, contributing beauty or joy is totally under your control.

Give thanks. If you can find things to be grateful for in the past and present, it’s easier to trust that there will be such good things in the future, too, no matter what. Plus, gratitude just feels much better than freaking out about all the things you should have said in the cover letter you just sent out. You might find you can even be grateful for whatever beyond-your-control future is coming, as in the Native American saying: “Give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way.”

This may be what the church does best during Advent: give thanks for the blessing of Jesus’ coming, knowing that the way he shows up is never quite what we expect.

Treasure_Front_Cover_WebYou know that cliche, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? Seems to be true for me. The themes of “vocation” and “discernment” and “life as a treasure hunt” have followed me into a new marriage, through another degree program, across the country, into parenthood, out of one ministry, and now into a new venture. As that new venture takes shape, I’ve been asked to make my book available again–which I’m doing right here, right now. Just in time for Christmas! (Click here for ordering information–no shipping charges and discounts for multiple copies, until December 10.)

If you missed the book when it came out in 2009, check out the first chapter and see what resources it might have for you and the people you support in their decision-making–family, friends, students, etc.

If you’ve read the book, this would be a great time to pick up another copy or two for that friend in transition or student approaching graduation, who could really use some encouragement for Christmas. Maybe your son/daughter/niece/nephew is old enough now to find the book useful. Or your mom or dad is approaching retirement and not sure what to do next. Or maybe you just loaned your copy to a friend who never returned it.

So many things have changed in my life, but the spiritual practices of looking for clues and trying to stay faithful to the treasure hunt remain constant. Right now that means offering the book and the blog again, to the larger conversation of people who are seeking their callings, encountering God, and finding themselves.

November 17, 2013 · Belonging, Discernment, Vocation · (No comments)
Photo by Wonderlane (flickr/Creative Commons)

Photo by Wonderlane (flickr/Creative Commons)

Coming back to a blog after several years away feels a bit like reopening a house that has stood vacant for a while. You clear out the cobwebs, check for vandalism, and air out the place. You start to think about doing some remodeling. Here, that means turning to a new topic: BELONGING.

Of course, the new topic is closely related to the old ones of vocation and discernment. In my own life, just about everything has changed since my last stay at this blog, thanks to a series of clues on my own treasure hunt: I got married. I left the church in Reno, Nevada, that I served happily for almost six years. I finished my Master of Business Administration degree. I moved across the country to settle in Bangor, Maine. And last March, I became a parent for the first time.

So while I’ve had a lot to write about in terms of vocation and discernment, I haven’t had much time or energy to do so. Finally, the writing I’ve been doing in my head all this time has caught up with me. With all of these changes, I’m engaged in a new experiment of belonging–belonging to a new place and region, a new extended family, a new identity. I’m belonging to church in a new way, too, since I’m not currently serving as a pastor–these days I’m sort of an “itinerant preacher,” filling in at churches when invited and having a great time doing that. Finding my place to belong in terms of sustainable work has been a bigger challenge than I had expected, but also a more educational experience than I expected.

So, as this blog gets freshened up a little over time, I’ll be writing about belonging. That was actually where my first book started, but the topic took a big turn in the process. Now, it’s time to get back to what I’d originally intended to do. And see where this new process leads.

 

October 29, 2011 · Uncategorized · (No comments)

When I first started working with college students on vocation discernment, we were guided by Three Key Questions: What gives me joy? Am I good at it? Who needs me to do it? In my work and ministry since then, I have often talked more about joys and gifts than about needs. (There are some reasons for that, but those aren’t the point here.)

Yesterday, I had the honor of presenting the address at the Founders’ Day Convocation at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California. In addition to being just a really great day in many ways, the address turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to reflect more on “what the world needs” from individuals and institutions discerning their vocation for the sake of others–the ones Martin Luther called “neighbors.”

Our text was Matthew 5:13-16: You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. You can read the address here.

This has been my longest blog-silence since I started writing several years ago, but I’ll claim this reason: I’m a grad student once again, this time studying for a Masters degree in Business Administration, with a concentration in Nonprofit Management. It’s not where I thought I’d be at this point in my vocational journey, but after the first two classes, it still seems like a good idea, so I’ll keep forging ahead.

This isn’t the first time my own vocational treasure hunt has taken an unexpected turn. And it’s not the first time the treasure hunt pointed backward at the same time it led forward. Here’s the story, at least the part of it I can see. (The treasure hunt is like an iceberg in that way: One only sees a small part of the story compared to what’s going on under the surface.) Continue reading →

3415677543_3a004d22f0_oIn worship at my congregation we try to engage all of the senses, but that’s not easy. Hearing is the easiest one to engage in traditional Lutheran worship; that’s what we tend to do best. But when we get out of that comfort zone–how do I put this?–cool things happen. Especially when the original worship plan doesn’t work.

Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, we decided to engage both eyes and hands in the experience of the Passion Story—Jesus’ suffering and death as told in Matthew 26:14-27:66. It’s a long story and difficult to just listen to all at once, but it’s central to Christian faith and central to this Holy Week leading up to Easter. Our congregation has experienced various and powerful dramas in past years as well as choral readings. But this year I wondered if our imaginations could be freed up to enter the story, and let it enter us, by a different use of the senses:

  • Hearing the story read,
  • Seeing thematic images and words on the screen (a palm branch, a garden, a rocky path), and
  • Holding a large rock in our hands as a concrete focus for our imagination.

Instead of trying to digest the story all at once, we broke it up with brief interludes from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, played live. (Many people in our congregation had recently experienced the musical when it was produced in town.) Those interludes became times to imagine the place our own rock might have in the story: underneath Jesus as he threw himself on the ground to pray at Gethsemane, for example. (You can read the script of readings and reflections here.)

Lutherans say we worship in “Word and Sacrament”—“Word” meaning both the Word of Scripture and the Word who is Christ—but people aren’t all wired to receive “words” in the same way. Some of us are much more visual than auditory, and some of us learn with our hands. (Touch regularly happens in worship through sharing the peace—handshakes or hugs—and receiving communion, which engages smell and taste too.)

But all of that is background to what I really wanted to say today, which is what I learn from such multi-sensory worship experiments. Every time you bring objects into worship, you open up Pandora’s box of what the objects will actually turn out to mean to people. In the context of corporate worship, the objects don’t always mean what you had envisioned, and people don’t always interpret your instructions the way you had envisioned, either.  Continue reading →

March 21, 2011 · Bible, Community, ministry · (No comments)

Also last year, we asked some questions about how people come to belong (to this congregation, in the Christian Church, with the Lutheran tradition, etc.) We began a brand new ministry called “Journey with Christ” (in the tradition of the catechumenate, preparing adults for baptism or affirmation of baptism), and we were also asking parallel questions in existing ministries. How do people come to belong to the Biblical story, and know/feel that it belongs to them? And, How do young people specifically—kids and teens—come to belong?

The second question was addressed in a new confirmation curriculum called re:form. Rather than being organized by what teachers want young people to know about faith and tradition, it begins with (appropriately!) questions: what young people themselves might actually want to know. Video segments that go with each session have titles such as, “Why do I have to follow Jesus, can’t I just say I believe in him?” and “Does God still create stuff today?”

Beginning with questions has made a remarkable difference in our Wednesday night confirmation gatherings. The quality of engagement and real-life discussion rivals any adult education I’ve ever been a part of. And, the challenge for us as confirmation leaders now is one that the whole church faces in every area of ministry: if we start with the questions people actually have, do we ever get around to talking about the Bible and Lutheran Christian tradition? For example, I’m used to teaching the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation—now, can I still do that (i.e. “teach them what we want them to know”) AND address their actual questions?

So far, I’m hopeful that we can. Which is good, because if I (and we) can’t identify the connection between tradition, Bible, and the real lives of people of all ages, then the church really does have a problem. As another example, in preaching I’m used to starting with Scripture and then applying it to life—but what if people’s actual questions don’t start with Scripture, but somewhere else? The dilemma reminds me of my favorite quote from German theologian Dorothee Solle: “I am often afraid that theology is answering questions that people are not asking.”

Could this be why it’s so important to pay attention to the questions, even more so than the answers? How would ministry change if we not only asked good questions, but also listened better to the questions that surround us in our various communities, families, nation, and world—among people of all ages? And wondered together what the Bible and Lutheran Christian tradition might contribute to the conversation, through individuals and through the ministries of a congregation?