Thursday, December 20, 2007

Planning for the Future

One of the students here at Southwestern is putting together a devotion book based on Proverbs 31. She asked me to contribute it is:

“She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Prov. 31:16

One thing that we become very good at in life as women is crisis management. As children, we play referee in a friendship circle that is feuding. As college students, we stay afloat amidst competing homework, career, and activity requirements. As adults, we balance family, career, health and personal obligations. There is never enough time in the day in order to accomplish all that we have to do, and so we must learn to prioritize our responsibilities. The Noble Woman of Proverbs 31 knew this. She never let the important crowd out the essential.

One of the essentials that she understood was that of long-range planning. We see our busy woman not just putting her earnings up for safekeeping in a savings account, but she’s putting them to good use and investing them in a field that will bear fruit…in time. We’re led to believe that she doesn’t just make a snap decision; rather, she weighs her options, probably selecting the one with the best natural irrigation, least amount of weeds, richest soil. She thoughtfully makes a decision that she knows will pay off in the long run.

And yet, this is more than a good time-management skill. There is a character lesson in this for us. As we submit ourselves to the discipline of long-range planning, we are being formed to become patient people. Planting a field is not something that has a quick return. It takes time for the seeds to grow. It takes diligence to root out the weeds that threaten to overtake. It takes faithfulness to harvest a crop and make it usable. And that is exactly the wisdom in becoming a woman who can spend the extra time today to do something that will have a payoff long into the future.

Question for reflection:
What is something that you know is important that is in your future, but you haven’t taken the time to adequately prepare for it? As you look ahead, ask God to set your priorities and help you have the patience to do that hard work today so that it might pay off tomorrow.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Finding a Balance

It’s a precarious path we walk in helping students identify the areas that can help them to grow spiritually. There are two extremes: 1.) They are so eager to please those in authority that they set many goals for every area of their life. 2.) They fear being legalistic and so don’t set any goals, but hope for the best. The former is characterized by the student who decides that they are going to read through the Bible in a year, pray for 30 minutes daily, and be involved in 2 small groups each semester. The latter is characterized by the student who loves philosophical discussion and even hangs around for hours talking after a weekly worship time, but can’t ever make it a priority to regularly commit to involvement in a ministry. Neither thing I’ve described is bad, actually, both have very important elements. However, they represent the tension that students sometimes feel as they are learning how to follow Christ out of love, not obligation, yet fully sacrificing their agenda to follow him.

I think that there is a nice middle ground that is possible for students to set goals and make commitments, but also freely offer themselves up in service without trying to meet some “objective.” The challenge for students in this is to see that as they set goals with the intent to grow, they are being conformed to the image of Christ. There is grace for them as they strive toward the transformation of being who Christ has called them to be—they will fail from time to time, but that does not mean that they do not allow Christ to set the standard high!
For some time in working with youth and young adults, I’ve used the following exercise after speaking about ways that we can become transformed to the image of Christ. I do it about once a year to help students set goals in different areas of their lives that work toward that process:

  • Social—with friends
  • Self—character traits and physical health
  • Spiritual—prayer life, Bible Study, small group, worship, etc.
  • School—grades, classes, studying

I ask students to listen to God as they set specific goals in each of these areas that will help them to continue to develop the mind of Christ at work within them. Sometimes I’ve asked them to copy the goals and put one copy of them in a self-addressed envelope that I will then mail out to them in 3 to 6 months as a means of reminding them and holding them accountable (to a small degree) to what their desire was in following Christ. This isn’t a “magic formula” that will automatically teach students about how to submit every aspect of their life to Christ, but it can begin a journey that starts with the first step.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Training Others to Lead In the Name of Jesus

It’s a thin, small book with a non-descript cover. Just a faint green form, that you assume to be a cross, with black font on the front. The title: In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri J.M. Nouwen. The message: the three temptations of Christ can entice you as a leader, but we can resist those temptations with spiritual disciplines and learn to lead as Christ led. It’s more than just another sermon on resisting temptation. It’s more than just a model of spiritual discipline that creates a Christ-centered life. It is instruction, challenge, and encouragement that reveals the state of our human hearts and invites the reader to learn how to truly be led by Christ.

This is one of my favorite books to give as a gift and introduce to students. Often they think that it’s just a “quick read” that they can pull a nugget or two from and put in their pocket of spiritual truths. But as they read it, they find, just as I’ve found, that it challenges their core understanding of what it means to be used by God in leadership. The first chapter in and of itself challenges this post-modern generation who have been formed by church leaders who preach about “being relevant.” It challenges the reader to move “From Relevance to Prayer,” stating that, “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.” This isn’t a popular idea at all. Who wants to enter into “solidarity” with “anguish”? And who identifies this desire with leadership, anyway?

But, according to Nouwen, this is part of what it means to become a Christian leader. I’m inclined to agree with him. No, it’s not the way that we usually talk about leadership, but I believe that it’s the way that Christ would have us be leaders. Nouwen identifies that contemplative prayer is the antidote to desiring to be relevant. He says, “To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love.” He’s got it right: I can’t be used by God to influence others until I’m no longer looking to them to meet my emotional and spiritual needs. The other 2 chapters give similar challenges, moving us from “Popularity to Ministry” and from “Leading to Being Led.” It’s not full of advice that would receive “Amens!” from most of the leadership material out there. It’s no quick fix or list of tips and techniques. But, it does keep in front of us the cost that is associated with being a follower of Christ.

Over the last 5 years, I’ve used this book with probably 6 or 8 groups of students as I’ve trained them to be student leaders in their campus ministry. It’s usually the first thing that I do in training with them. I’m trying to set the precedent that until we have humbled ourselves before God and spent the time being formed, we cannot stand in front of others and ask them to follow. I’m learning this lesson every day in campus ministry and it is my prayer that my students, especially the leaders among them, learn it too.
Here’s another important article by Henri Nouwen that was originally printed in Leadership magazine in 1995. It is entitled, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.”

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Answered Prayers

Two days ago I was flipping through a book that I literally have not picked up in 10 years. It was a book about youth ministry, as I'm preparing to teach a class and I was considering using the book for the class. I found a note, scrawled on a small piece of paper from one of my college roommates, Lindsay. It was a sweet note of encouragement that she had given me, and it ended with this: "I pray that someday our prayers for our campus will be answered."

When I was in college, occasionally my friends and I would gather in various places--our dorm room, outside, the little tiny prayer chapel in the library--and we would pray for our friends, for our studies, and for our campus. To be honest, I had forgotten the little note that Lindsay had given me, but as I looked at that 10 year old note, I was reminded of several things.

First of all, God hears our prayers. Those prayers, lo those many nights ago, are being answered. I've said to anyone who will listen to me that God is doing a good thing on the campus of Southwestern College, my alma mater and now place of ministry. We struggled to get together even 30 students to worship on campus when I was a student, and now, it's not uncommon for us to have 150+ at chapel (not too shabby for our campus of 650 students). Those heartfelt prayers that our little group prayed for our campus have multiplied as there are many groups praying for the campus: prayer group on Tuesday nights, a group on Friday mornings, the Nurture Committee weekly, and the morning prayers in my own office. God is truly stirring up our campus to action--and it begins with prayer.

Secondly, I was reminded that somtimes answered prayers take time. How many prayers have I prayed that sometimes feel like they have been stifled? I've lifted prayers to God time and time again, for years even, that I'm not sure if there is any progress on them, but I'm reminded by this simple little slip of paper that God's timing is not my own, and to be patient.

Finally, I remembered how important it is to use our words. Lindsay encouraged me way back then, and her words encouraged me as I found them 10 years later. May I always be free with offering a word of encouragement.

As we enter this new month, may we remember that God is always at work, even (and should I say especially) when we don't see him. May we be faithful in prayer, and diligent in doing the part of the job that we know to do.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Worth the wait

Tonight there are supposed to be meteor showers. Well, I suppose that there are meteor showers every night, but tonight there are more that will be visible than usual. So, instead of going to bed at my usual time, I’m currently sitting on the back porch, waiting. It reminds me of another night, probably 10 years ago now. I was with some college friends and we were hanging out at someone’s home and we discovered the little coffeetable book, Life’s Little Instruction Book. We skimmed over the pages. “Whistle,” one said. “When faced with a choice between holding onto something and forgiving, just forgive. Life is too short.” “Don’t forget to take time to look at the stars.” We decided to go outside and do just that. All 5 of us laid crossways on a hammock in order to get in proper star-viewing position. We waited and hoped for a shooting star to grace us with its beauty. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we saw it! We all happened to be looking the same direction at the same time and we saw the biggest shooting star that I’ve ever seen! The moments leading up felt like nothing once we saw the star.

We learn as children to wish upon a shooting star, but what happens when you’re waiting for the stars to shoot? We are tempted to give up the wait and just go inside where our beds are comfy and waiting for us. But there’s that chance…that possibility. That potential…to see the most beautiful, and rare, sight in all of nature: the shooting star!

And so, I wait tonight. To see that thing that might, that perhaps will, that maybe won’t, be. I’m in town, with a streetlight illuminating my backyard. The crickets and cicadas are my background music, along with the occasional thump of someone’s stereo driving on the other side of my house. It’s not the best circumstances to find a shooting star, but still, I wait. Because if it happens, it will be worth it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Just Playing Nice or Moving Forward?

The fall semester starts with Freshmen Orientation next Wednesday. Classes won't start until a week from then, but at Southwestern, we take seriously that education is more than just what students learn in their classes. I had the pleasure of spending the day today with around 40 students who will serve as Orientation Leaders to the 150 new freshmen that will begin their collegiate career at Southwestern College. These students represent many others on campus, but this sample set proved to be superstars. I was impressed by their encouragement of one another in the 100 degree plus heat as they spent the day becoming a "team" on the ropes course. Why is it important that these leaders be a team? Their unity will be a model for the incoming students, and even the rest of campus as they join us here in a couple of days. We're a school full of people from various backgrounds--rural, suburban, urban--with different experiences, but somehow we get along. No, it's more than just getting along...even 2nd graders know how to "get along." We've learned, and continue to learn, that in order to truly make a difference, we must learn to truly care about one another, look out for one another, trust one another. Whether we're doing that while being suspended 20 feet above the ground at a ropes course, or in the cafeteria while speaking of our concerns for the upcoming year, true community requires it of us. Are we willing?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The air feels heavy

So it's August in Kansas. Everything is hot and humid (yes, HUMID, despite our distance from any sizable body of water), with varying shades of green, yellow and brown. The air feels heavy from the pent up heat that we didn't get in June that is now reminding us that it truly IS summer! I guess that's why, anyway.

The summer went fast. Too fast. I had great aspirations for what the summer would hold: some projects on my house, some studying I wanted to do, and some writing, too. Unfortunately, I didn't accomplish many of my goals.

I have to learn to do what I can and accept my limits. I didn't wish my time away this summer, or waste it watching stupid movies or playing spider solitare. No, I spent my precious summer days tidying up some things from last spring, preparing for the fall, and even enjoying myself with friends from all over. I had the privilege of spending some time in Florida this summer and even got to be in one of the 80,000 weddings that took place on 7-7-07! During my time in Florida, I visited one friend who serves as the young adult minister at a church and she happened to have a service project the day I was there. Shortly after that, I visited Catherine and Damon, my good friends who are doing Community Development in Gretna, Florida and while I was there, I spent 5 hours working in their community garden, picking okra, corn, tomatoes, canteloupe, and purple hull peas and then delivering it to people in their community who need it. At one point I laughed as I thought to myself that while some people go visit their friends and go to spas, restaurants, and shopping, I go plant flowers and harvest crops! You know, I think I have the better end of the deal! My manicure would have lasted only a few short days, but when you labor side-by-side with other Christians, you gain something that is certainly worth far more than a fun day out. I caught a glimpse of my friends in a new way. I also saw the ways that God can draw people together, even when they have just a scrap of time together. I feel like I truly made friends with the young adults from Forrest Park UMC in Panama City, FL, and with Miss Viola and the rest of her crew in Gretna.

My summer is almost over, and even as the air feels heavy, I sense a certain lightness approaching. There have been many challenges about the last several months for me, but the time is nearly here when the winds change and the new semester starts. I love my job working with college students. It excites me, it makes me laugh, it saddens me and it reminds me of my utter, daily dependence on God. As the winds change for this fall, I pray that the community that Christians feel when they work together would surround not just me, but the campus. The harvest that I'm most interested in is one of lives that want to serve and follow Jesus. That harvest can best be done in the context of loving Christian community. The humidity, so to speak, of relationships steeped in grace, is so thick that it just hangs in the air, allowing us frail human beings to step out in faith, grow deep roots of faith, and flower for all to see.

If I could make a weather forecast for the year, here is what it would be:
A year full of scattered showers, high humidity, but perfect for the growing season!

Through the storms that we all face this year, may we shower one another with grace, and may our roots be firmly established in the stablizing person of Christ. Yes, the air may be heavy, but the grace is holding us firm.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Significance of the Cross

I wrote several weeks ago but am delayed in getting it posted here. I don't think anyone reads this anyway, so it's no biggie! If anyone does, just pretend that you read it at the beginning of the Lenten season! :)

“I can’t understand why you Christians make such a big deal about the cross. It bothers me that your religion centers around someone’s gruesome, bloody, violent death. I don’t understand why that had to happen.” My friend posed the question to me as we discussed the upcoming Easter season. Yes, the cross is a “big deal.” It represents a tortuous and painful death sentence to the bearer of it. And upon it 2000 years ago, a man died. Not just any man, but Jesus Christ, died positioned between two thieves. My friend has a good point. I don’t understand why it had to happen either. But when I look at what Jesus’ death truly means, I am humbled and thankful.

Though there is much that is difficult to understand about why death on a cross “had to happen,” several things are clear. Jesus was a Jew. His faith, stemming back from ancient days, I would even say the ancient day, required a sacrifice in order to show God that you repented and turned away from sin. Sacrifices ritually acknowledged the holiness and sovereignty of God and sought to draw their offerers near to God, however keenly aware of sin they were. In other words, sacrifices meant that a person knew that God was perfect and worthy of the best, but also meant that the person offering the sacrifice knew that he or she was neither perfect nor worthy.

“I know I’m not perfect, but have I done something so bad that someone had to shed his blood for me? That’s what you Christians say, but it doesn’t make sense.” My friend still sought to understand the injustice of Christ dying on the cross. Why did Christ have to shed his blood for me? What is so significant about blood? Well, blood represents life. Without blood, a person will die. The offering of blood is better viewed as the offering and enabling of life, not death. Let me say that again: the offering of blood is better viewed as the offering and enabling of life, not death. When Christ offers his life for us, we are exchanging the death that we are naturally born into for the “abundant life” that relationship with him can bring. The “life” that we have apart from relationship with God appears to be life, but truly it is death. Maybe it seems that we haven’t done anything so bad that we need someone to die for us, but we must understand that God is holy. This means that he is perfect and pure and righteous. Nothing with any blemish can be in his presence. In the sacrificial system, the priests required that the animal sacrifices be flawless. No animal with any defect was considered worthy of being sacrificed to God. This tells us two things: first of all, God requires holiness, as mentioned before, but second of all, it tells us that the sacrifice that would be required must be blameless. Nothing on earth fits that bill. There was not an animal that could be sacrificed that could permanently stop the need for sacrifices. Furthermore, there was not a person who was righteous to meet that requirement of blood. Therefore, God had to use the only thing that would meet His requirement of perfection: Himself. Sending Jesus to earth in human form was the ultimate act of God’s love for humanity. It was through this that God was able to receive the perfect sacrifice. Jesus, like the animals, shed his blood, only his blood eradicated the need for further blood to be shed. Humanity was deemed worthy of the presence of God and was enabled to draw near to God through this blood.

Yes, it does seem gruesome and drastic, but the truth is that our sin, no matter how insignificant it seems is enough to disallow us from the presence of God. We cannot do anything in order to be able to bridge the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness. God had to do it for us by sending a part of himself, his son, to do what we could not do for ourselves. Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of his life paid the debt that we owed as a result of our sin. Yes, it is horrific, but that is part of the beauty of the cross. The cross becomes a beautiful sight rather than ugly. If God can redeem an instrument used for death, he can certainly redeem sinful humanity.

As we’re preparing for the time of year when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us not forget that what came before Easter morning was Good Friday. A day only called “good” because through the horrible death of Christ, we are able to be reconciled to God and redeemed from what was certain death for us as well. If that's not good, I don't know what is.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Ashlee Says: Just Say No!

They often say that in churches, 20% of the people, do 80% of the work. They also say that if you want to find someone who will do something for you, find a busy person, and they’ll surely say yes. I’m not exactly who “they” is, but I’m thinking that as a general rule, “they” are right! For many Christians, it is difficult to say no to doing good things. We are willing to deliver meals-on-wheels, we help decorate the church at Christmas time, we even help undecorate the church when the holiday season is over. Overall, we’re generally willing to lend a helping hand. What happens, then, when we’re so busy and exhausted that we can no longer do one more thing to help another person when they need us? Either we say “no” and feel guilty about it, we get sick so that it’s impossible to say “yes,” or we go ahead and do it, all the while being bitter and grumpy about always having to lend a helping hand!

There are so many great things for us to be involved with that it is easy to get overloaded with a schedule full of really good things. However, as a member of Busyaholics Anonymous, I’m the first one to say, “My name is Ashlee…and I’m addicted to being busy.” Busyness gives us worth—it makes us feel important. When we’re seen rushing off somewhere with a hop in our step, people think we are a person of purpose! Busyness also gives us a sense of belonging—it makes us feel needed. When someone else (who is probably too busy him- or herself) asks me to do something to help them out, I feel great about my own ability to contribute to the cause. Busyness also gives us purpose—it distracts us from feelings of insecurity or boredom. When we’re quiet with not a whole lot to “do,” we must really deal with who we truly are. Busyness anesthetizes us enough to not have to think about the things that really matter to us because we don’t really have time—we’ve got to be productive! Well, Justin Timberlake may be bringing sexy back, but I’m bringing back the popular anti-drug slogan of the 80’s: Just Say No!

Well, I know that it’s not quite that simple…we can’t just quit everything to solve our busyness problem. What I would suggest is that we learn to say yes to the really great things and no to the things that are only just good. How do we begin to tell the difference behind the good and the great things? Well, here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Don’t just reflexively say yes to anything, even if it is something that you really want to do. When someone asks you to do something, ask them if you can get back with them about it. Spend a little time thinking about it and look at your schedule and make sure that you actually have time to commit to something else.

2. Ask yourself, “Will I regret saying yes?” If after examining the reasons why you might regret saying yes and the answer to the question is probably, then definitely say no! If the answer to that question is probably not, then consider saying yes.

3. Consider whether or not saying “yes” to this will negatively impact your other commitments. Often adding a new commitment has unwanted influence on the things that we’re already doing. It’s like adding a piece of chocolate cake to an already full cafeteria tray, only to make your salad bowl run into your mashed potatoes and your jello to tip over onto the tray! It doesn’t ruin all of your food, it just makes it a little less desirable! Same way with taking on too many things. You just don’t have enough time and energy to keep the level of competence that you would desire, so everything gets a little sloppy.

Several years ago, I heard a tape of a sermon that talked about this very principle. The pastor was talking about an ad that he had seen in a magazine selling fine wine. The ad said something along the lines of this: We prune some of the good grapes so that you get only the best! It went on to explain that because of their pruning process, they were able to grow the finest grapes possible. There is definitely a parallel for us in our Christian lives. Of course I think about John 15:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)

We have to cut out some “good” things so that God can do the “best” work in us. That means that we may need to say no to teaching a Sunday School class for the semester so that we can be a good student and learn all that God has in store for us in our classes. It also may mean that we have to work a few hours less a week so that we are able to be a part of covenant group. It may also mean that we have to skip a service project because we need to be available to a friend who is struggling to stay above water with her life. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to how to get off of the never ending hamster-wheel of busyness. We mess up every now and then when we’re trying to figure it out. We end up with a skinned knee because we jumped off of the wheel too quickly or we unintentionally hurt another person in the process because they take it personally when we say no. However, the important part for us to learn that in saying no to something good, we’re saying yes to something great: to do the will of God, the Master Gardener, and bear much great fruit—fruit that will last!

We're having an event on campus that addresses some of this problem. Builders in Ministry week will be held on campus on Feb. 27-Mar. 1. The conference theme is “Building in Some Margin” and we’re going to be talking about some things that are related to what I’ve said above as we think about leaving space in our lives for spiritual formation, Sabbath, restoration, and prayer. Check out the website: and click on the “Building in Some Margin” logo.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Searching Souls

I’ve just finished reading a book that everyone who works with youth (and college students) should read. It’s not trendy, snazzy, or eye-catching and you would probably never pick it up in a bookstore, but it is a must-read because of the unsettling nature of its contents. It’s called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. It reports the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, one of the most extensive studies ever done about this subject. One of the findings of the report is that while a vast majority of teens aged 13-17 believe in God (84%), the number of students who actually claim that their religious faith makes a difference in their lives is less optimistic. Roughly half of teens surveyed said that their faith was either very or extremely important in shaping their daily life. However, when it came to whether or not teens felt close to God, just over a third of them said they felt very or extremely close. Another third said they felt somewhat close to God and a full third feel some level of distance from God. Even the number of students who report praying at least once daily is 38%. I’ll bet that number jumps up on test day!

While this study was focused on teenagers, it is pretty safe to say that these statistics are probably pretty similar for college students as well. At the very least, they describe our incoming freshmen each semester. These statistics probably need much further clarification, but I think it is safe to draw at least one conclusion: The overwhelming majority of teens do not report “feeling close” to God. I could speculate on why they don’t “feel close” to God, but I’ll leave that for another day. The question that I do want to think about is this: Does it matter if students feel intimacy with God? My overwhelming answer is: You bet!

Intimacy with God allows for God to teach us the things that we can’t learn individually, things like integrity, courage, conviction. The person of Jesus Christ must give us his example when we learn things like forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. Intimacy with God allows for the fruit of the Spirit to develop in our lives. Without intimacy with God, we cannot know TRUE love, peace, and joy. Sure, we can know a version of those things, but not the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice in order for the Beloved to know love. Not the kind of peace that just calms the situation, but the kind that passes all understanding and restores the damaged sides to their pre-conflict status. Not the kind of joy that experiences a sense of happiness because all seems to be right in the world for the moment, but the kind of joy that is rooted in hope for the future, regardless of present circumstances. Intimacy with God teaches us what it means to be mature in Christ.

I worry sometimes about Christians who have answers about their faith that are coherent, well-reasoned, and orthodox, but don’t have the fruit of the Spirit that can only be borne out of intimacy with God. I think the apostle Paul worried about that, too, when he said: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3). The only way to know this kind of love is by spending time with God fostering one’s relationship. I would love to ask the students that feel “distant,” or at the very least, “not very close,” to God how much time they spend fostering their relationship with him. How much time do they spend in prayer, in Christian fellowship, in Bible Study, in practicing the spiritual disciplines? I pray that the distant feelings would drive students to learning about intimacy with God. Intimacy that bears fruit that sustains us when times are tough. That builds our character to do things that require conviction. That renews our mind so that we might think like Christ thinks. Intimacy that is more than just “warm fuzzies,” but rather, provides what our searching souls are looking for.