Monday, March 19, 2012

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

I cannot lift one of my arms right now. My thighs ache each time I climb the stairs. My back has felt tighter than it ever has before. My stomach muscles feel like they should look like a washboard even though a glance of them would tell you otherwise. And, I have been paying good money for all of this pain.

2012 started with a goal to be fit and fabulous at 40. With a new decade on the horizon, I knew I wanted to do something to change my body before my 40th birthday in late June. And while I have often questioned why someone would spend so much money on personal training, I finally took the plunge. I purchased the introductory special pack at the gym, and I am convinced that it is some of the best money I have spent on myself in a long time.

It took only a few minutes for Raymond to see what parts of my body need extra work. He looked at my hips and the extra weight known as "saddle bags" and immediately said, "We are going to get working on those."

We have gotten to work, and Raymond has enabled me to discover muscles I never knew I had before. While I can lift a few hand weights, do sit-ups and push-ups on my own, Raymond has opened my eyes to all that exists at the gym. I've lifted more weight than I ever thought I could lift. I've discovered more balance than I thought I had. I've hurt in places I've never hurt before. It's been rather powerful.

And, I could have never gotten to these places on my own.

Without Raymond, I would have stuck with two cardio classes, an occasional spin class and a weight-lifting class. I would have held on to my fear of the other parts of the gym, sticking with what was safe.

I needed help. I needed someone to show me the way.

Late last year, a group of six clergywomen serving in the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference applied for a grant from Austin Seminary's College of Pastoral Leaders. Together, we created a two-year plan to help us better love God with our hearts, souls, strength and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. Some of the women are close friends of mine, others have been more casual acquaintances. And while we have only formally met twice so far, they have already helped me discover things I would have never discovered on my own.

One of the women suggested that we use the accountability questions used by the founder of our denomination, John Wesley, more than 200 years ago to begin our time together. And while the questions are old, they have quickly taken us to the heart of the matter today.

With these questions in front of us, we have all been invited to respond to the one that speaks most clearly to us at that moment.

1) What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2) What temptations have you met with?
3) How were you delivered?
4) What you have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
5) Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
6) Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
7) Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
8) Do I confidentially pass onto another what has been told me in confidence?
9) Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
10) Am I self-conscious, self-pitying or self-justifying?
11) Did the Bible live in me today?
12) Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
13) Am I enjoying prayer?
14) When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
15) Do I pray about the money I spend?
16) Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
17) Do I disobey God in anything?
18) Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
19) Am I defeated in any part of my life?
20) Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
21) How do I spend my spare time?
22) Am I proud?
23) Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
24) Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing to do about it?
25) Do I grumble or complain constantly?
26) Is Christ real to me?

The questions are not ones we typically ask others let alone ourselves. The questions cut through the blubber and get right to the muscle. The questions have the capacity to allow us to discover parts of ourselves that we have not seen or known in a long time.

Real community is an incredible gift.

Partners who are willing to hold us accountable are invaluable.

Watch out world. My body, heart and spirit are on the mind.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's Really, Really Hard

I'm in the process of preparing to meet three admitted seminary students this afternoon who are all willing to explore the possibility of being in ministry with our church during their three years of seminary. Our current intern, a first year student, has decided to do something else in his second and third years of seminary. His heart is leading him to explore ministry beyond the local church or go back to the familiar ground of youth ministry. He's an amazingly gifted person with a heart that beats with passion for God and God's people, and as he leaves, I cannot help but to wonder if I have let him in on a secret that not enough pastors tell.

The pastoral life is really, really hard.

At least once each year, I go through a phase of desperately searching the classified ads in the Christian Century because I am convinced that I cannot continue to serve in this role.

There are times when people constantly critique me - what I said on Sunday, what I did not say on Sunday, who I visited, who I did not visit, how I spend your time or how I do not spend my time. Some people even take time to critique me in the public forum known as Facebook, people I thought were on my side.

Not a Sunday goes by when my heart does not beat faster at 10:45 as I wonder if what I have prepared is good enough. While I am told often that I am a gifted public speaker, I still get scared - every Sunday morning.

While I know that there are much more important things than numbers, the tiny notebook in the back of the sanctuary can make or break my day. It is here where the usher records how many people were in worship. When people don't come, I wonder where they are. Are we not providing them with enough spiritual sustenance? Did I say something to someone to make them mad enough to not come back today? Are they looking for a new church?

Every holiday weekend I long for a normal weekend. I long to pack my bags and head to the beach or hop on a train to New York City.

Dates are not an option on Saturday nights. Bedtime arrives extra early for me on the night most people go out.

There is never enough time to do everything I feel like I need to do as there is always another hour I could spend on the sermon, always another note to write, another call to make, another person to visit.

While books lead you to believe that growing a church is easy, making disciples is the hardest thing I have ever done. Our church has fortunately grown a lot in the last few years but I am often at a loss of direction for what to do next. I give a tour of our massive building, and I get overwhelmed by all the work we could be doing and should be doing.

Being a pastor is hard - it is painfully hard work that never gets easier. And yet, there is no other job I would rather have.

I am convinced with my whole heart that being a pastor is also a joy for which none of us is truly worthy.

There have been enough tangible gifts from God in the last week to make my heart sing.

One person told me how something significant happened when he came forward for the Lord's Supper on the first Sunday of March. He could not quite describe it but he knew God was at work in that place.

I had breakfast this week with an 89-year-old woman who somehow thinks I walk on water. Spending time with "Precious" reminds me of who I can be by the grace of God. She constantly makes more of me.

I got to read the Bible with a 103-year-old this week who is still willing to pray each week for God to make him a better person.

I spent a couple of hours with two young women yesterday who are in the midst of discerning their call. Both of them are incredibly gifted, and they long to know what the future holds for them. They are willing to allow me to journey with them. Amazing.

Yesterday morning I arrived at church early when three people were cleaning up from the shower ministry. One of the volunteers is in a shelter herself and still comes each week to serve. I greeted her, shared a few moments of conversation and then heard her say, "I love you." And, I believe she meant it. And, I love her, too. She absolutely inspires me.

And on Sunday morning, some 90 or so people will gather and they will sit in their pews and look at me, trusting me to bring a morsel of grace, understanding and wisdom to them. They are willing to trust me enough to listen to what God has given to me to share with them. Preaching is quite possibly the most humbling privilege of all.

My friend, Mabel, used to always tell me that I had "the best job in Washington," before she died at the age of 101. Mabel was right. She did not tell me how hard it would be. She never told me how many boxes of Kleenex I would go through or how my heart would hurt or how many times I would doubt myself. She simply told me, "You have the best job in Washington, and we need you."

Mabel was right. And she's why I am willing to keep climbing the mountains and walking through the valleys.

I'm so grateful for the privilege of being a pastor.