faithfulness

The Peace that Passeth My Understanding

By Rev. Tabitha Isner

As a person of faith, I’d like to believe that I am filled with the Holy Spirit. Not in a speaking-in-tongues way, but in the sense that God’s Spirit impacts all aspects of my life, that God is present in each of my moments, helping me to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. But to be honest with you, it just isn’t true. When I am caring for a distressed friend, it’s usually true.  When I’m mentoring my “little sis,” it’s mostly true. But for the largest chunk of my time–the time I spend at work – it’s just not true. I am NOT Spirit-filled. 

Sometimes I think the problem is my job, the environment in which I work. It’s a bureaucracy, filled with excessive paperwork and excessive meetings, and it requires excessive patience to wait for anything actually to get doneSo, day after day goes by, and I rarely feel a sense of accomplishment or appreciation.  But it’s not just me, and it’s not just my workplace. We’re all frustrated. Resentful. Impatient. Defensive.

At work, I am often NOT Spirit-filled. And yet, it’s not never. When it does happenwhen a spirit of grace and peace and gentleness fills my heart and mind, when I speak to my colleagues with patience and empathy as my sisters and brothers on this journey - I find myself completely caught off guard by my own actions and words. It’s not that they feel wrong or inappropriate. Quite the opposite. They feel wonderful.  Like a cool breeze sweeping unexpectedly through a stuffy room. They feel right and obvious. Like the muscle memory of climbing into bed in the dark. Of course I am filled with the Spirit! Of course I am responding to a stressful situation with grace and peace and gentleness! It’s the most natural thing in the world.

And I’m 100% baffled about how it happened. 

The thing is, I’ve been praying for peace. I’ve been praying that the Spirit might grant me the “peace that passeth understanding,” that standard Christian notion from Phillipians 4:7.  I imagine it as the Zen calmness of one who knows her place as God’s beloved child and therefore is unruffled by the stress of deadlines and unscathed by the rough edges of inconsiderate coworkers. It’s a good prayer, I think, the kind that, if granted, would bring me closer to God and also to my neighbors. I’ve been praying it for months now and simultaneously reading books and blogs about how to make it so. But to no avail. I still don’t get it. I haven’t found an effective trick for staying in that Spirit-place throughout the day or for ordering up an injection of Spirit when the need arises. 

Sure, I have those unexpected moments when it just happens, but I want more. I want to be the expert on the peace that passeth understanding. I want to be able to do it consistently, on command. I want to be a master of Spirit-channeling. I want to control it. The Spirit. The chaos-ordering, death-defying, church-birthing, millennia-crossing Spirit of God. If I’m being honest with you, I have to admit that I don’t want the peace that passeth my understanding. I want the peace which I completely understand, and can predict – but that others are impressed by, saying, “I just don’t understand how she does it!” And having put it that way, I have a sudden clarity that I’m not going to get it.

So back to the drawing board.  No, not the drawing board. The prayer mat. It’s time to give up my self-conception as the expert designer and instead assume the position of baffled gift-receiver. It’s time to pray this prayer again, this time asking for the ability to blindly accept the Spirit’s incomprehensible gift of peace; to lean in to the fact that I can’t control when the Spirit shows up in me, I can only welcome it when it arrives. It’s time to pray for the peace that passeth right over understanding and skips straight to my heart.  I pray it comes to you too.


Tabitha Isner is a government bureaucrat by day and a church consultant when she can talk someone into it.  She confesses to a long-standing habit of practicing theology, feminism, and statistical analyses.

“Does God Keep You Up At Night?”

By Rev. Mindi

That was the slogan for the Conference on Ministry that I attended when I was a prospective student for seminary. I don’t remember paying attention to it all that much, except the fact for me was God was not keeping me up at night. I had known I was called to be a minister since I was thirteen. While I had wavered slightly in college, more from fear and less from doubt, I had always known I’d go on to seminary and sure enough, I even picked that school.

But what kept me up back then, and what keeps me up at night, are still the same things. And they’re not good things. They’re not even bad things such as war, poverty—even the Government Shutdown right now—that should cause me to feel sick to my stomach to the point of wanting to change the world. They’re the things that keep me from being a healthy person and a healthy pastor.

What keeps me up at night? Budgets. Student loans. Drama between two people. Miscommunications. Worrying about my son’s education. Thinking about how in the heck I will pay for college for my son when it is already more than twice what it was when I attended. Committee meetings turned sour. Health care. Retirement. Indigestion (probably related to some of those things).

What kept me up at night in college was the worry that I’d get through seminary and not find a church. Find I was un-call-able. Be ordained but not be able to pay off my college loans. How much debt I was leaving school with.  And while some of those things have faded away, much of it has remained.

It’s not God that keeps me up at night, but all the things that hold me back from God.  And it’s not even those things, it is the fear.

It’s a hard time to be clergy. Many of us are going to part-time positions and try to balance work and home life and all the while, we still have the same student loans to pay along with other bills, and with tuition rates going up, it’s not going to get better.

I preach about how fear is what holds us back from following God, and yet it is so hard for me to let go of my own fears. Conversations play over and over again in my mind. Bills come in and pile up by the toaster. What is it that I’m afraid of?

Failing.

Afraid of not having enough to make it through. Afraid of letting down my congregation or my family. Afraid of letting down myself (“I should have written that book by now and have paid off my debt by now!”) Afraid of not living up to some standard.

That’s not God keeping me up at night.  I don’t believe for a second God thinks I’m a failure, or thinks I don’t do enough, or thinks I’m not good enough. 

Friends, it’s high time we let go of the standards set before us.  We are going to be in debt. We are going to struggle with bills. Ministry is a tough place and budgets are tight.  But we need to know that God does not see us as failures.  Instead, I’m sure God sees new opportunities and possibilities.

I sorta wish it was God keeping me up at night, telling me that there are hungry people in my neighborhood, homeless right down the street. I wish I was kept up at night because of the war in Syria (which the news seems to have conveniently forgotten) or those who are affected directly because of the shutdown. I wish I could turn to seeing what needs to be done in the world, instead of looking only at myself.

Even then, however, I’m sure God would want us to see the possibilities and the opportunities, and not to beat ourselves up about it.  Not getting any sleep doesn’t help anyone. Even Jesus slept at the back of the boat; so perhaps we, too, need to close our eyes to the worries of ministry around us and be refreshed, dreaming of the ways God is using us now, for I believe God is using us, exactly as we are.

Where Are We Again?

This article, written by the Rev. Maggie Sebastian, originally appeared on her blog, revmother.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.

I hadn't intended on doing it.  I was tired - day four of a five-day week that was going to end in a 24 hour shift.  I wanted to be home.  It was cold and rainy; I was in Portland.  I got off of the #8 bus and looked down the street.  #N17.  Occupy the Banks.  The chants of the crowd down the street acted on me like a siren.  Toting all my junk on my shoulder, I walked towards the protest with curiosity, expectation and some fear.

With each step I saw them.  On horses, on bicycles, on motorcycles, in SUV's, on foot.  Cops in riot gear.  Cops fitted for violent response every where I turned.  I walked as far as I could.  The police stood shoulder-to-shoulder, batons in hand, zip cuffs on their belt, blocking the street.  This was real.  This wasn't some distant news report, but right in front of me.  I questioned my decision to investigate.

So many cops in riot gear.  They were everywhere.  And here I was, much like the 81-year-old man in town that had his head slammed on the ground last week,  just wanting to observe.    Was I going to get accosted as well?    The scene was chilling and more than sobering.  It was out and out frightening.  What country am I in again?

I wound up standing behind the "front line" of protesters facing the police.  The protesters chatted happily amongst themselves - not about hatred or violence - but about the Constitution and American History.  "You know nowadays, the Founding Fathers would be classified as terrorists for what they did to the tea."  "Do you know the exact wording of the First Amendment?  It goes . . ."  I understood that in part their conversation was supposed to be overheard by the police officers in front of them.  Hey, friend.  You are one of us, really.  We are all Americans.  One young fellow tried to start the chant, "You're sexy.  You're cute.  Take off your riot suit," but he couldn't quite pull it off and dissolved into giggles.

When I turned around to head back to my bus stop, I saw a young man with a homemade sign.  He was a little taller than me with wire-rimmed glasses, a long reddish beard, and a few extra pounds.  "Bookish" came to mind.  His sign had a message of social justice.  I can't remember the words exactly, but I remember thinking, "Yeah, we should actually live the Gospel.  What an idea."  I told him that I liked his sign and unexpectedly, he asked me where I worked.  "I'm a chaplain at the VA."  Then this young man's face lit up.  "I am studying to be a spiritual director."  I told him about the Chaplains Guild for Occupy Portland, and gave him a "cool to meet you."  He wasn't a "dirty hippie" that should "get a job," but a person of faith trying to make a difference.

Some people refuse to get it.  They are frightened by what they don't know, by change, by what they perceive might threaten their status quo.  Consequently, they vilify the Occupy protesters without hearing the overarching narrative:  The scales are lopsided and there is suffering.  No more. Many have suffered from our social/political policies in the last 30 years, and shame on us for just now taking to the streets.  No more.

Seems simple enough to me.

Only 43% of these protesters are 25 or under.  The other 57% are older with a good 12% eligible for an AARP card.  They are from all walks of life, beliefs, and ideologies.  And yes, there are some who are "high" or looking for confrontation.  But this hodgepodge of people understand something that most people in the pews don't grasp or refuse to grasp.  Justice happens when all of God's people are cared for, not just "me."  Capitalism is not Christianity.  Justice happens when we actually follow the lessons of the prophets and Christ and are willing to stick our necks out a bit.  Most of the protesters don't have a clue on how to fix what is wrong, but they are no longer willing to sit back and be silent.  They are boldly naming the ills - prophets in their own rights.  And much like the Biblical prophets, some are paying a heavy price for their efforts.

I hiked back up the street to wait for my bus.  I could have grabbed a bus as I walked but a line of police on horses blocked my way, so I walked all the way back to where I started.  As I stood in the rain and cold there was sudden movement.  State troopers marched up the sidewalk eerily reminding me of some bad movie about a lawless future America.  They boarded specially equipped SUV's so 10 or so rode on running boards.  The mounted police moved out.  What was going on?

I realized later that I had apparently just missed being in that place and at that moment of the pepper spraying.  Pepper spray against loud but peaceful protesters who up to this point have not broken one window.  Not in New York  Not in Chicago.  Not in Portland.  Where are we again?

Restoring Our Roots

Gandhi famously said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Those who have drifted away from Christianity often express similar sentiments to explain their irreligion. The reasons for leaving are diverse – moralistic preachers caught in sex scandals, hatred espoused by those extolling God’s Love, inaction by people claiming to care about justice – but a frustration with the hypocrisy of the Church and its members underlies each. Such justifications may be theologically suspect to Christians believing in a fallen world and the reality of sin, yet the Church ignores them at its own peril. This indictment demonstrates that the challenge facing American Christianity in general, and Mainline Protestantism specifically, has little to do with demographic trends or changing cultural tastes. It is a fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Our faith is being put to the test by a world in need but the witness offered in response lacks the vibrancy and integrity demanded by this moment. Hypocrisy and corruption within Christianity are not new phenomena. It is the world American believers inhabit that has changed. Political scandals, reality television, and economic globalization now define existence. Given the excesses of individualism, people hunger for authentic community. The uncertainty and fear created by the impersonal machinations of the global free market causes the human soul to yearn for love and hope. The triumph of money in politics and the growing wealth and income gaps heightens the demand for justice. Many have turned to the Church to meet these needs, only to find little in they way of sustenance. Mercifully, the disappointment caused by its failures can become an opportunities for transformation and renewal.

I recently relocated to Washington, DC. Many young professionals here describe the city in alarming ways: competitive, cruel, intense, cold, transient. Nobody can survive, let alone thrive, in such an environment without the support of a strong community. Friends are needed to stay rooted in principles when the temptation of unacceptable compromise arises. Colleagues offer perspective when one’s focus becomes too narrow. Social groups offer us a chance to be known and to know others. Upon my arrival, I was blessed to discover a young adult community within National City Christian Church. Through social outings, devotional studies, and random meals, I found both a support network and a spiritual home. Nothing about this fellowship is particularly flashy. The group’s success in fostering community is rooted in a few basic assumptions, which are deeply theological, though not formally articulated. Inclusiveness is paramount, with this open invitation to participation mirroring the communion invitation offered on Sunday morning. The only requirement is authenticity; pretenses are dropped so real relationships can be formed. Finally, intentional investments are made in each other, ranging from a quick text offering birthday wishes to larger interventions in moments of personal crisis. However imperfectly, this is a group striving to make God’s love real in the world.

The quest for authenticity cannot end with re-imagining our ideas of community. It must also enlarge our understanding of Christian practices, such as evangelism. Despite it’s biblical roots, many Christians have ceded this word and concept to conservatives for fear of guilt by association. This is a faithless response. Embracing alternative ideas of evangelism is imperative, while doing so with the qualification that authentic approaches to evangelism depend on specific contexts and take diverse forms. Two examples from two different congregations will suffice to prove this larger point. Many churches have excess land that is an underutilized resource but that could be transformed into an asset for evangelism and service. Recognizing this, an urban Disciples congregation has started a community garden. In doing so, it has provided a real contribution to its neighbors, while also inviting the community into the church. Similarly, a suburban Disciples congregation turned a lot adjacent to the church into a dog park that is now heavily used by local pet owners. In both instances, the congregations met a real community need (space for growing vegetables where open land is at a premium or an enclosed area where pets can safely play). The church’s actions clearly showed investment in and concern for the community in which the congregation is located. That’s a powerful statement; and it’s not surprising to know that people, whose first interaction with the church was either through planting tomatoes or walking their pets, have ended up joining the congregation. These congregations lived out their commitment to Christian service and their witness was compelling to spiritual seekers looking for authentic faith.

Finally the integrity of witness requires the Church to be political. This is an extremely controversial statement and clarification is needed. No single political party has a corner on God; and all party platforms, policy alternatives, and politicians will fall short, relative to the Divine demands for justice. Yet, the acknowledgement of this is not a justification for silence. Christian Scripture, the history of Christian theology, and the tradition of the Church all speak loudly against oppression and injustice. Fidelity to the Christian faith requires speaking up for the poor and helpless, watching out for the widow and orphan, and working toward justice. Silence on such matters is sinful and becomes an obstacle to faith for those looking for a community witnessing with integrity. The Church cannot avoid political judgments; it must speak for justice and against oppression. What must be avoided is partisanship. The Church should never become the handmaiden of any political party or ideological agenda; it should never baptize a party platform.

If my initial assertions that the numerical challenges facing much of contemporary American Christianity results from a spiritual crisis and the solution is to be found in recovering and maintaining a vibrant, faithful, and authentic witness are correct, then the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) may be uniquely positioned to renew our communal life and articulate a compelling vision of life before God.[1]The early impulses of the Movement that would later result in the formation of the Disciples of Christ were restorationist and ecumenical. For intellectually justifiable reasons the Disciples placed greater and greater emphasis on the ecumenical foundations of the Movement, while downplaying the restorationist aspects of the tradition. My thoughts here should not be misconstrued as a call to reverse this trend or deny our ecumenical principles. Rather, my claim is that fostering authentic community, cultivating practices of integrity, and formulating a faithful witness are all efforts at rediscovering the fundamentals of Christian faith. This is a challenge Disciples should welcome and the world desperately needs us to take on.


[1] I am indebted to Kristine Culp’s Vulnerability and Glory: a Theological Account. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010 for offering a robust understanding of “life before God.”

The Pain of Change

Change.  We realize in some abstract way that change is necessary.  Growth in any form requires change.  But even though we know it intellectually, change can be hard to assimilate emotionally.  So, the question is not whether change will happen, but whether the changes that come help to equip us for discipleship in the kingdom of God.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is obviously undergoing change.  In some part of our minds we know that, and that it is necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.  But change is hard.  Where do we go?  How do we get there?  Who will come along as we move forward, and who will decide to embark on a different journey?    Can we say we love people if we make them mad?  A lot of questions.  A lot of decisions to be made about how we will remain faithful to the vision that gave birth to the Disciples in the first place, and about how we will carry that legacy into the future The primary question for us as we make decisions, though, should not be about whether the changes we make will cause distress (we know that any decisions we make are potentially troubling), rather, our primary question should always be, “Are the decisions we make, the changes we propose faithful to the claims of the gospel?”  We want to be sensitive to the discomfort that people feel when change comes, while at the same time understanding that some discomfort is inevitable.  We seek not necessarily to increase people’s anxiety, but we understand that all change produces an attendant amount of disquiet.

No change is ever universally accepted.  Some people will like it.  Some people will hate it.  Therefore, in making decisions, we need a more substantive criterion for deciding how to act than whether or not change is popular.  I would suggest to you that the criteria we use to discern whether the direction in which we are headed is the right direction ought to center on whether any decision increases our commitment to discipleship.  Does a particular decision help us more faithfully live out a vision of the gospel that understands hospitality as fundamental to our identity?  Are we embracing others in the way Jesus embraced others?  Are we producing disciples capable of embodying the truth of the gospel that God seeks to be reconciled to all creation?  Do we have a vision of Christian maturity that challenges us to move beyond the easy and convenient to accept that which asks that we lay down our lives, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus down the sometimes dark and frightening road he travels?  Are we expending our resources in propping up structures and programs, the purpose of which has been lost in the press of maintaining institutions?

In agreeing to be guided by the principle of faithfulness in decision-making, we make the implicit statement that the way we judge change is by whether or not it assists us in our goal of making better Christians—not by whether it allows us to continue herding our sacred cows.  As we continue our journey during this time of transition, with our focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, we can’t help but be reminded that faithfulness is our response to a Lord who was first faithful to us—and acting faithfully is always the most loving thing to do.

At [D]mergent we’d like to help facilitate a conversation about what changes are necessary to keep the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a faithful partner in bearing witness to the gospel.  What kind of things do we do that are necessary?  What things have outlived their usefulness?  What should our priorities be?  At the heart of the conversation is the question, “What unique role does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) fulfill that would leave the landscape that much more impoverished if we weren’t here?”  Tell us what you think.

 

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn't like to talk about it . . . so don't ask.)