Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Getting Your Life in ORDER

I wrote this article for fellow campus ministers as they begin the new year. It is also found on the College Union website...

It’s that time of year again, when we give a little thought to our priorities, making resolutions, culling out the bad habits. It’s the time of year when tips for losing weight/getting organized/spending less/fill-in-the-blank are on every morning news show and magazine. Into this milieu of good-habit-making, I’m going to venture with my two cents. Wish me luck—that you’ll keep reading!

About two years ago in the summer (which is supposed to be the down time in campus ministry), I found myself overwhelmed, cluttered, and dreading when students would return. I had been in my current position for about two years and the initial momentum of figuring out how things work was turning into “ordinary time,” and I needed some handles to move me into leading others from running a program. I also knew that if I had any hope of having a good school year, I had better get my life in order. I needed to be organized, I wanted to keep reading, I knew I had to spend time in devotion, and yet stay energized, but not forget to relax. Sounds impossible? Well, not if you bring in some O.R.D.E.R.

At the risk of sounding like a cheesy tip in a self-help book, I present to you a strategy, an orienting framework for your day: an acronym (and I’ll do my best to convince you why you should remember this one and not submit it to the writers of The Office for another corporate mantra to mock!).

Organization is something that each of us must master at some level or another, but for some of us, organization presents a particular challenge. It comes pretty easily for me, but, even then, I must be intentional to keep things in their proper place and be able to put my hands on them when necessary. The first step in bringing order into one’s life is to organize. Spend a few minutes every day organizing—whether that is filing the papers that collect on your desk, re-shelving the books that you pulled the day before when writing that sermon, updating your to-do list at the end of the day with the next morning’s priorities, or cleaning out your inbox from the emails that are low priority but still need a response. Devoting even 15 minutes of time to organize your surroundings will also put in order your thoughts and remove just a little of the “office dread” that can creep in every now and then.

When one is busy, it’s difficult to keep up with all the magazines, blogs, e-newsletters, and mail, let alone the “must-read” recommendations from your friends and colleagues. However, reading is something that should not be eliminated simply because there doesn’t seem to be any time in the schedule. Exposure to new ideas helps to keep ideas germinating in your mind and heart. Reading isn’t the only way that God can work in the creative process. Podcasts, movies and some T.V. programs also contribute to the infusion of new ideas that God can use to spark your imagination and refocus your mind on the new tasks of God in your campus ministry. Schedule time for this continued learning whether it is a weekly part of your life or a monthly study day. It will shape your vision for your ministry.


It is a no-brainer to tell someone in ministry (which includes any Christian!) that he or she should daily spend time in devotion to God. However, often our times in prayer and bible study are absorbed by appeals for desperate situations and preparation for tonight’s small group. The rich times of devotion which drew us into ministry in the first place often fade as our schedules crowd out this time of lingering in God’s presence. Yet, as we are reminded by the prayer in Lamentations, “[God’s mercies] are new every morning; Great is your faithfulness.” We also remember from God’s provision to the Israelites in the desert that they were only able to be fed for a day on manna and quail, and if they kept too much, it would spoil (except for the Sabbath). The Lord’s Prayer even says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” If we expect to live off of past spiritual growth and neglect daily habits of devotion, we will end up like those complaining Israelites and miss the joy of God’s providing hand.

I almost titled this section “exercise,” but I want to recognize that exercise isn’t the only way to increase our energy; the food that we put into our bodies fuels the work that our bodies do. Thus, healthy eating and exercise are both ways that we energize each day. Committing to an exercise program, whether the goal is to run a road race or climb a couple of flights of stairs without being out of breath, is more than just being physically fit. Being healthy is a matter of stewardship and, ultimately, affects the work that we are able to do for God. Integrating habits of eating healthy (fresh) foods as well as consistently exercising are non-negotiable in our mostly sedentary lifestyle. The world of campus ministry often includes doughnuts, pizza, cookies, or casseroles while early mornings and late nights prevent regular exercise schedules. However, overlooking these energizing habits can lead to lives that can’t sustain the challenging and exciting work to which God has called us in campus ministry. How about working out with a student or serving healthy options at meals in the ministry? These habits model lives that take seriously being a good steward, even of our bodies.

We sometimes hear that we need to make sure and include some “me” time in our schedules. While I agree with the importance of resting, I’m not so sure that all things are equal when it comes to relaxing. I have a student who swears to me that his preferred method of relaxation is playing video games and brags that when he wants to be social, he plays Guitar Hero with a friend, as if he is experiencing “community.” I’ve recounted to him the articles I’ve read about the effects of video games on the brain (and eyes!), and suggested other, more effective ways that he can relax, but to no avail. His trigger finger is fast, but he can’t sit through an hour long meeting without playing with his phone, laptop or iPod. When I’m honest, I realize that my own “relaxation techniques,” while they don’t include gaming, may not be quite as relaxing either. I’ve found that spending two hours “vegging” on the couch doesn’t provide nearly as much rest as playing a favorite playlist and writing a letter to a friend or journaling about my day while drinking some hot tea. While TV may be passively entertaining, rest isn’t analogous to sitting still. What about you? Do you find ways to rest—truly relax—each day (not to mention observing a Sabbath)? Do you sip that cup of coffee or tea and thank God for a bit of peace, brief though it may be? Do you break the rhythms of work or family time to relax in the capable hands of God? You should. No excuses.

Organize. Read. Devote. Energize. Relax. These five daily practices contribute to a life that is able to stay afloat during the chaos of a rigorous schedule. As cheesy as it sounds, I do actually rely on this acronym when I start to feel out of balance and overextended. The order that we seek in our lives is not something that is new to our fast-paced culture. Our challenges are the challenges of many others in other times. May we be disciplined enough to integrate some order into our lives. Many others are counting on it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

To be, or not to be...emergent

This week, we hosted an event at Southwestern College that we call “Builders in Ministry Week.” It’s a three day event for current students, alumni and friends of Southwestern (whose mascot is the Moundbuilder) that allows for connection and continuing education. This year we had Tony Jones as our guest speaker. It seems that he’s fallen out of favor (or jumped the shark) with most evangelicals, probably for things like this. I will admit that I haven’t read The New Christians yet, but have read lots of other (shorter) representative writings of TJ and other Emergents and find much about which to agree! However, I have my share of things about which I do not agree, and they may be “deal breakers” to make me a true Emergent (what is that, by the way?). Here is my take on his time here at SC:

First, I found him to be really easy to just sit down and chat with (which happened for me at dinner the first night, before he spoke a word). I was really impressed with him, especially since he had back surgery a week ago yesterday. He was not even a week out and he put himself through the stress of travel. I commend his fortitude and willingness to keep a commitment!

After having him here for a couple of days, I think I can say this…I think he sort of sees his role as a gadfly—he’s trying to stir the pot and raise important questions—or perhaps he sees his role as prophetic. I’m not sure that I would characterize him as prophetic. Maybe, but for me time will tell and the jury is still out. That being said, he raised quite a few questions in our context, some of which were helpful, others, notsomuch (I’ll identify those below and you can guess which are in what category!).

Among the 10 “dispatches” about which he spoke (The New Christians is organized as a series of 20 “dispatches” from the Emergent frontier), several are particularly helpful correctives (by my standards) to the Church. 1.) Theology really matters. I appreciate the thoughtfulness by which they attempt to view all aspects of their ministry by considering the theology behind it. An example that Jones gave had to do with the fact that they don’t use microphones in their church (he’s currently a part of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis). They are demonstrating that no one voice is louder than another and a microphone symbolizes the lording of power of one person over another. Nice sentiment, but I must be too pragmatic. This is where I want to say that taking turns speaking (which they do, often) sends the same message while allowing the speaker to be heard, which he admitted only happened during the half of the time that the speaker was facing the hearer’s direction. That brings me to my second helpful corrective, 2.) Emergents will “move the pews,” taking them out of church and set up couches, for instance. He identified that Emergents will push the envelope a bit and remind us that “church” happened long before there were pews with plaques on them and some of our sacred cows can actually be sacrificed. For Solomon's Porch, they do church “in the round” and sit where they can see one another (but it does lead to that pesky problem of only being able to hear the “speaker” half the time, since they use no microphone). The corrective is helpful, but at what point must a line be drawn for pragmatism?

Several dispatches were a bit hard for me to swallow. Most notably is that Jones is pretty ready for denominations to just “go away.” He didn’t outright say that, but he indicated that through many of his points (low view of ordination—about as low as it could get, frustration with institutional churches, to name a few). Maybe this isn’t shocking to anyone else, but it was a little surprising to me about how low his view is of institutional churches (even their organization--committees, books of discipline, etc.--seemed reprehensible to him, in my view). At one point, one experienced UM pastor basically asked him if he saw anything redemptive about the UMC, and he struggled for a minute and said, “They’re renting us a great building for Solomon’s Porch…and they’ve offered to sell it to us for over a million dollars, or for free if we want to become Methodist. If they really want to be the Church, they would just let us use the building for free to do ministry.” He went on to say that he did think it was great that people who might not get to serve a good church in another denomination (ie, women and minorities), got that chance in the UMC. Score one for inclusivity! I do think that we could shore up denominations a good bit (I could think of a few things in Methodism that I would like to see cleaned up), but I’m most definitely not ready to dissolve all structures. There is a baby in that bathwater!

I have many more things that I could blog about—his understanding of power, authority, and a few things that I think he just got plain wrong—but that will have to wait for another day. Instead, I’ll just give my parting impressions…one negative and one positive.

First the negative: Mr. Jones didn’t seem quite as willing to listen as he was to talk. Maybe he’s done listening. Maybe the pain from the recent back surgery got to him. Maybe I got it wrong. However, it was difficult for anyone to do more than ask a 20 second question (with nary a follow up statement or question from the questioner) during our hour and a half long Q&A time the morning after his lecture. The conversationalist from dinner the night before had re-emerged a bit more decided than I thought Emergents were supposed to be. Hm.

And the positive: I appreciated his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit (though implicit) in the community of Christians. (His dissertation, he told us, is actually on the pneumatology of the Emergent Movement.) The dynamism of the Emergent Movement is refreshing. I’m sure that the Holy Spirit isn’t done with Tony Jones (or even me!) quite yet. Maybe we all have something left to learn.

PS For another view on Tony's time with us at Southwestern, see Steve Rankin's blog: