2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have been a morning person my whole life. In the evenings we have a family rule, “No major decisions after 9 p.m.” But in the morning, I feel almost invincible. This life pattern was enhanced last year while I was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. My best, most productive hours of the day were between 3 and 8 a.m., and then the day’s treatment would knock me flat again and keep me sleepy throughout the afternoon and evening.

This morning, my alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. Not for the same reason—something much more fun. In ten days I will be taking an early morning flight to Istanbul, for a two-week tour of New Testament sites in Turkey and Greece with a Fuller alumni group. There is a ten-hour time difference between California and Turkey, and I have learned over the years that a “cold turkey” time switch does not work for me. So beginning last week, I have been shortening my days by thirty minutes, adjusting the schedules for meds and meals gradually. By the time I leave, I will be on Istanbul time.

It’s getting tougher now, because as of today, my bedtime will be prior to Andy’s arrival home from work. I freely admit the social inconvenience of such a method. Andy is a very good sport even though he thinks I’m a little nutty. But the payoff is so completely worth it, I press on. Today, though, my eyes are a little heavy even here at the laptop.

The Apostle Paul has written a stellar letter to the church in Colossae, and now he can’t really finish the epistle without one more practical admonition to pray, to say awake, and to give thanks. He started the letter with a prayer for them and now circles back to that same theme, encouraging them to pray as he does and now especially for him.

It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s mind when he said to “be watchful” (literally, stay awake). Perhaps the embarrassing story of the three close disciples of Jesus, who fell asleep in prayer on Gethsemane, much to the Lord’s disappointment. Perhaps in his later years, Paul is having a harder time staying awake in periods of solitude and silence. Or maybe his joyful anticipation of Christ’s return is enough to keep him vigilant and on guard so as to be ready when the Lord shows up.

What I do know is that it is hard for me to stay awake through prolonged periods of prayer. So to “devote myself to prayer,” I have to turn in that direction several times a day until I have covered the bases. Paul asks that one of those bases be his needs and God’s advance preparation of people with whom Paul will later share the gospel. He is always on the lookout for opportunity, and when it crosses his path he is ready with speech “full of grace, seasoned with salt,” ready with an answer to any sort of question that might come his way. This is one very good reason to pray for one’s pastor—Paul’s need is universal.

And we really must be ready for whatever comes. The week’s news bombards us with “what if” scenarios: what if I had only eight minutes to live in a plane headed straight toward a mountain range? What if I were captured and my house burned to the ground by Muslims demanding my conversion? What if I were asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and ridiculed for holding to a traditional view of marriage? What if I got stuck on a railroad crossing as a train was approaching?

The fact is, if we are asleep at the wheel these days, there are plenty of things that can happen. Paul is clinging to the fact that prayer, alertness, and a spirit of thanksgiving are going to hold us fast in the Lord and help us acquire wisdom for the tough stands and the difficult work ahead. Where I live (San Francisco Bay Area), it is a challenge to maintain the freedom to worship and to demonstrate the Kingdom of God according to the Word of God. It’s a tough crowd, 95% unchurched, and liberalism of all kinds is status quo.

For this scenario, Paul simply asks for clarity in what he says, wisdom to navigate political/social waters, and the patience to engage in meaningful conversation with the goal in mind. We can ask for no less!

Every fiber of my Reformed body cringed during my presbytery’s worship time two weeks ago, described in yesterday’s post. Among people who should have known better, what we did together was not worship. It certainly was an experience—I’ll grant you that—but because it dwelled on ourselves and our experience of our bodies and never even acknowledged God’s presence, it was nothing like what you would call Reformed Worship.

In the note I finally received yesterday from our executive presbyter, Jeff Hutcheson acknowledged that the service was “outside the box,” but shared his own spiritual experience through it as significant and deeply personal. I am glad for him. Perhaps he is unaware of the many filters and reinterpretations he put on elements of that service in order for him to identify it as “the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” and “Jesus’ words.” And he did not, nor can he, account for the completely opposite reading I got on what was happening. His experience and my experience…is that what this conversation is about?

No, it really isn’t. The challenging question is, When does “outside the box” go beyond the scope and acceptable limits of Reformed worship? Some took this service to be a brilliantly creative expression of faith. I took it to be outside the box not of style but of orthodoxy, a far more serious problem. Am I just a grumpy old woman who has no sense of fun, who takes worship way too seriously, and can’t imagine any church music outside of a hymnal? May it never be! Here is what I am saying:

I am not opposed to creativity, in fact I have been moved and my faith deepened by thoughtful, wonderful expressions in art, music, drama, dance, as well as the spoken word. Someone very gifted and spiritually motivated designed the flowers for Pentecost at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley a few years ago. I happened to be there because it was then-pastor Mark Labberton’s last Sunday before moving on to Fuller Seminary. The flowers were huge displays of gladiolus in fiery colors, depicting pots of flame. How can I forget the “music video” prepared for a conference: the music was the hymn “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” sung (by the congregation) while images of a potter fashioning a lump of clay into a beautiful vessel reached into our souls.

I am not opposed to worship through music, but it has its place. As a life-long professional musician who first started leading music during worship when I was twelve, I have seen, heard, and done just about everything in the musical realm for worship. But singing isn’t everything, and as Augustine said in his Confessions, “I fluctuate between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness; inclined rather to approve of the usage of singing in the church; that so by the delight of the ears, the weaker minds may rise to the feeling of devotion.  Yet when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned, and then would rather not hear music” (Confessions, XXXIII, 50). In other words, Augustine says, I love to sing in church, but as soon as I love my voice more than the content of what I am singing, it’s time to stop.

I am not opposed to enthusiasm and exuberance, or even, for that matter, body movement during worship. Gosh, I like most pastors would love to see the people show some life and belie the observation of non-church folks that we are “the frozen chosen.” The Scripture is full of references to clapping, dance, procession, and zeal for the Lord. However, as my preaching professor said in critique of an enthusiastic African American preacher in our class, “I have to press you for content.” And so we must. “Content” equals words read, sung, painted, danced, preached, and prayed. They must pass the theological test of orthodoxy and go for content that is consistent with our biblical and confessional heritage.

Let us not forget a few things inherent in the Reformed tradition of worship:

  1. God was here before we came to church and is glad we finally made it. There is no need to work up a spirit that would invite Jesus to join us. He’s already here, as host, and we are the ones responding.

  2. Because God was here first, God speaks first. This is why the Ministry of the Word is such an important part of a Presbyterian service. Priority is placed not only on reading the Word but expounding upon it for understanding and for transformation. We believe not only that the Scripture is the Word of God, but that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God (2nd Helvetic, BOC 5.004). Shocking, I know, but this is why it is not something to be proud of that “we don’t preach; we let people take away what they will . . . “

  3. Worship is a dialogue, requiring us to listen and to respond to God’s Word. This is why prayer is an indispensable part of worship in the Reformed Tradition. How rude it is to go for a self-gratifying experience when the One who has already spoken is waiting for us to address him in prayer? Can you imagine how the hosts who have invited us to dinner would feel if we came in the door, ignore them, and simply revel in the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen and the marvelous experience of moving about taking this hors d’oeuvre or that book off their shelf, and then sit to eat without conversation at their table?

Yes, there are more elements to Reformed Worship, such as prayers of intercession, a commissioning to service, and an offering (see Directory for Worship, W-2.000). Your pastor did not make it up that an offering is required (and the reason is that Christians do not come to the Table empty-handed, but rather bring a sign of our gratitude for having been invited.)

So, was Presbytery’s worship even worship? No, unless you considered it worship of self, in which case it was idolatrous worship. Was Presbytery’s worship Reformed? No, because it did not address God, proclaim God’s Word, intercede for others in prayer, or commission us for service. Was the sacrament administered faithfully? I have to say, No, because it was not proclaimed or placed in a context for its proper interpretation.

How can we heal from such a debacle? How can we “unlearn” the unchristian and unreformed aspects of this gathering? How can we protect the children who were present from the spiritual error they witnessed? How can we not repeat the same mistake? And what is a person like me to do, if and when I ever choose to join in presbytery worship again . . . I do not know. But I understand why people vow never to come back to worship at presbytery meetings.

Lest one thinks that idolatrous worship was a problem only eons ago, as illustrated in yesterday’s post, even today within the PC(USA) it is possible to find events promoted as worship experiences that are anything but. A case in point: the after-dinner “worship” on the agenda of San Francisco Presbytery’s regular meeting of September 9. The “Order of Worship” handed out to us as we entered the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland consisted of the following elements: a call to worship, opening song, Scripture exploration, Communion & Community Prayer, Announcements, Closing Song, and Benediction. The experience unfolded in this manner:

Call to Worship
In the introduction to the service, the Rev. Jeff Cheifetz, a teaching elder of The Sanctuary for the Arts new worshipping community (one of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities sponsored by the denomination), welcomed the worship team: Amy Diane Shoemaker (a spiritual director and InterPlay practitioner) and primary musician Soyinka Rahim. As the African drums (played by two Caucasian TEs) began their rhythms, Ms. Shoemaker led the presbytery in a warm-up of sorts, using practices of InterPlay to “unlock the wisdom of your body.” People were encouraged to move about playfully and demonstratively, in dance steps, large arm motions, and self-hugs.

Opening Song:
“Wiggle and Grow” was led by Ms. Rahim. The words, printed in the bulletin:

Love has the power to conjure up your light
Wrong or right, good or bad, love will make it right.
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization
‘Cause we’re fragile as the baby roots that hold the earth
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization     [Copyright 2014, Soyinka Rahim]

Scripture Exploration
The theme verse was, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13), chosen because it was the theme verse of the 2014 General Assembly. Mr. Cheifetz explained that at The Sanctuary for the Arts they do not preach, but offer a verse of Scripture experientially so that the participants can take it in and use it any way they want to. In the Presbytery context, this unfolded as an invitation to accompany many repetitions of the verse with our own body movements.

Communion & Community Prayer
The next segment of the service was an invitation to participate in a variety of options, which included the sacrament of communion, more InterPlay, or writing a prayer or wish on butcher papers at stations around the Sanctuary. No prayer was offered. The words of institution were uttered in their briefest form: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup also, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24b-25). Then the drumbeat resumed and people milled about the sanctuary toward their chosen activity. Ms. Rahim repeatedly sang the lyrics, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum . . .”

I don’t recall any, though, in my emotional state, I may not have been listening by then. I think there might have been an offering.

Closing Song
A reprise of “Wiggle and Grow”]

I do not remember the content of the closing, if there was one . . .

Think about this for a few minutes, and then compare your list of objections to mine:

  • The experience was centered on “ourselves” rather than God, who was never acknowledged or addressed in prayer. It came very close to self-worship.

  • The narration referred to our energy coming from the earth, a pagan concept if I ever heard one. I expect this language from my Buddhist-inspired personal trainer, but not from a Reformed Worship leader.

  • The song we were invited to sing, “Wiggle and Grow,” made no sense and had no worship value whatsoever.

  • The Scripture exploration was nothing more than a cheap imitation of Lectio Divina lost in a self-referential wilderness.

  • The meaning and richness of communion was diminished as one option among many. There was no ministry of the Word accompanying it, no prayer of Invitation or of Thanksgiving, nor the Lord’s Prayer; and to sing “Yum, Yum, Yum” during the distribution just rendered me speechless and offended. I could not go forward for the sacrament.

The experience was far worse than a waste of time; it conveyed a false gospel. Whether it was an anomaly or an indication of things to come, I felt betrayed by my colleagues, who seem to have jettisoned anything remotely “Reformed” or even “Christian” in designing this service. If this is where “1001 New Worshipping Communities” is going, then the PC(USA) is going to lose its biblical moorings faster than even I have predicted.

I sent a letter of complaint to our executive presbyter ten days ago, and have not received a response.

So many Scriptures come to mind as I reflect on this experience, including Isaiah 55:6-9, Job 38-39 and 1 Corinthians 11:27. With tomorrow’s post, I will try to use this as a teachable moment and review the elements of Reformed Worship and why they are important to respect, enact, and use to order our community life.


I celebrated a milestone of sorts today, the last session of a pulmonary rehabilitation class I have been taking to learn how to breathe and manage my air. A group of twelve has met for a total of 36 hours over these last seven weeks, instructed by respiratory therapists, physical therapists, nutritionists, pharmacists, psychotherapists, and doctors. We have been supervised in the gym for a minimum of 1½ hours of tailor-made exercises each class day, and we marked our progress. We are now considered “educated patients” who have learned how to observe our health status and to know when to call the doctor.The experience is definitely a confidence booster, especially for the folks who are oxygen dependent and have been sedentary for fear of losing their breath.

There is a shortage of such programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, a long waiting list to get into the program, and chronic underfunding. It’s not a moneymaker for the hospital system, and yet it is one of the most important and necessary programs we have for reducing hospitalizations and maintaining good health. For all of these reasons, I have felt privileged to be a part of this group, getting to know eleven other individuals who are worse off than I am, celebrating incremental progress, and spurring one another on.

And now it is on to “maintenance,” the follow-up commitment to sustain the exercising six days a week in order to keep what we have gained. I don’t expect this to be a mental hurdle for me, since I was in much better condition than most going into it and had maintained an exercise habit in my BC days. I have a gym membership and a terrific trainer who holds me accountable and draws safe parameters for my exercise, so I am not worried.

It strikes me that this scenario is much like the attention we ought to be giving to our spiritual conditioning. Think about it: the human state without spiritual exercise is weak, vulnerable, prone to falls, and otherwise less-than-healthy. But the church—for all her flaws and underfunding—is the place where God’s people gather for mutual accountability, strengthening, and encouragement in the faith. The Holy Spirit is our instructor, using pastors and teachers and other saints to convey the realities, the temptations, and the help that will enable us to grow strong in the Lord.

The Christian Community gathers in worship to be instructed by preaching, or we meet in small groups around God’s Word. We learn about God, we become acquainted with Jesus, we begin to trust the Savior and believe his diagnosis of our condition. We learn how to share the love of Jesus Christ with one another. And then he sends us home with a set of exercises to do every day, because it is vital for our spiritual survival that we breathe properly (Genesis 2:7) and gain strength.

We need this strength to keep us from falling. We need confidence and courage for the uneven pavement of our lives. We need the breath of life for the uphill battles ahead. We need the Lord’s steady hand, held in conversational prayer, to keep us from wandering. We need periodic hearing checks, so when we must discern and know the Lord’s word on something, we recognize his voice and hear it even at a whisper. This all takes practice, and repetition, and perseverance even on the “bad air days.”

No matter how easy we think our life is at the present time, there is still one contest in each of us, regardless of our age, and that is our final assignment this side of heaven to die well and to die in the Lord. There may be other challenges before that one, but we know someday—in pain or shortness of breath—we are going to be tempted to doubt the Lord’s Word and let go of any sense of consolation or safety in Christ. I call it a contest because our opponent (you know what I am talking about) would love to see us defeated, hopeless, and dead (1 Peter 5:8f). But we know the evil one is defeated and powerless against God’s almighty hand (Hebrews 2:14f; Revelation 20:10), so part of our spiritual exercise is to be reminded daily that God is strong and good and loving us. My prayer, for the day of challenge, is that we would have enough strength left to laugh at doubt and spiritual foolishness and cling more tightly to the One who will carry us over the threshold.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen! (Jude 24)

Ministry without Power

June 6, 2014

As the church family awaits the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I have been reflecting on what it would have been like if the Spirit had not come as promised. From the testimony of the gospels and the book of Acts, we know that the disciples—waiting as instructed for “power from on high”—basically did nothing risky or bold in the interim. Unless you consider the nomination and election of a new elder to fall into that category . . . (see Acts 1:12:26).

I have two personal experiences to share that gave me an inkling of what it is like to minister without power. The first took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Pentecost Sunday, 1994. The pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Zimbabwe was called away on a family emergency the week before this holy day, and asked me to preach in his stead. I chose as my topic “The Power of Pentecost.” I climbed the staircase to the “birdcage pulpit,” and preached what was a good, solid piece of work on the Holy Spirit. But there was something wrong with the sermon; I did not feel the power of the Lord behind it. I told the pastor when he got home, and he solicited a few comments from parishioners. Their feedback affirmed my orthodox theology but acknowledged that the sermon was more treatise than testimony. Yes indeed, it is possible to preach “The Power of Pentecost” without power! I learned a big lesson that week: I need to take as much time preparing the preacher as I do the sermon.

The second story comes from the fall of 2006. It was late September and I was launching into the new “program year” at church, feeling by that time that my work there was drawing to a close. I had been applying for new pastoral positions for a few months, but nothing was materializing. It was a Saturday, and I was reading a New York Times article about women in the pastorate when God broke into my thoughts and out of the blue said, “Mary, your time at First Church is completed and I want you to move on. I am asking you to go before you have a new call in place. Trust me. And just to make sure that you do what I am requesting of you, I am withdrawing my power from your ministry.” It was so definitive and accompanied by the surety of God’s peace; I just knew I had to begin to take the steps to exit. And yes, God did withdraw his power from my work. I’m not sure the people knew this was happening, but I definitely felt it. God was calling out of me an obedience in one direction (exit) and making it clear that this was my only option. [For those with active imaginations, no, I was not being “chased out” by hostile elders; quite the contrary, things were sweet at the time.]

So what does that feel like, to be doing the Lord’s work without power? There is a sense of waiting, because one’s spirit knows that help is needed in order to have spiritual impact. There is a retreat into listening mode to hear how the Lord is redirecting one’s efforts. There is a summoning of a sense of duty to do the work faithfully without the consolations often present when power is flowing. There is a sense that one’s faith is being tested and that one’s motives are being examined (by God). And it becomes far easier to say “no” to the things that are counterproductive to God’s new plan emerging. But because ministry without power is not sustainable, a certain kind of misery also sets in, causing me for one to do a thorough “examination of conscience,” confession, and repentance. I think this is what Ignatius of Loyola had in mind for his spiritual exercises, which originally were designed to help disciples discern their vocational call.

I am happy to say that the mourning lasted only a little while, and in time the Lord rejuvenated me with his power and direction for the new life I have been leading since leaving that parish at the end of 2006.

Desiring the Lord’s power is not being selfish, it is an absolute necessity to rely on divine help to accomplish anything of lasting, eternal value. And so, in a very real sense, these days before Pentecost offer the simple reminder that we are to wait for the Lord’s power, stay in fellowship in the meantime, and with the help of fellow disciples to fully embrace the Lord’s energizing direction when it finally does come. It is not the time to barge ahead with our great ideas, our agendas, or our plans, without first asking God to confirm them by pouring out his Spirit and showing favor for those ideas, agendas, and plans that are actually his. [I am not saying that an idea that is popular is necessarily God’s will; I am saying that somehow we must sense God’s favor with an idea. I suppose this is a subject—that is, how do we detect God’s favor?—for another blog!]

We know what it feels like to force a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe. If that is what you are feeling in the pursuit of some particular plan, may I suggest it might be time to check in with God about your reading of his will, and ask for wisdom and power to proceed in the right direction for the sake of his Kingdom.

Happy Birthday to Me!

June 5, 2014

Today is my birthday, and given the bout with the Beast this past year, one worth celebrating with gusto! We are having a few friends over to share dinner and birthday cake, and if family tradition prevails, I am entitled to special treatment all day. Actually, maybe all week—we try to stretch our luck as far as we can. Last year at this time, our kids were putting on for us a joint celebration of our milestone 60th birthday. Relatives and friends came from all over and made us feel very loved, putting us at the center of attention.

Those were the BC days; who could know that within three or four months, I would be so medically challenged and that every day would be a gift? Why should I get cancer? Unfair! Right?

After all, do we not deserve a long life without trouble? Am I not a special person around whom the universe revolves, if even for a day annually? Is it not true that “God danced the day I was born” and because of God’s great love and provision I can expect special treatment the rest of my life?

Well, yes and no. The sentiments I have expressed here come dangerously close to an entitlement mentality we find so irritating in others, even as we cultivate our own little universe personally. Such an attitude affects the way people relate to other while driving, while shopping, and yes, even while doing ministry. The fact is, we would love to get our own way, be deferred to, applauded and feted every day of our lives. Eve and then Adam showed this self-centeredness, King David even used it to justify his dalliance with Bathsheba. From a biblical standpoint, an entitlement mentality gets people into really big trouble because it comes from a need that can never be satisfied, even though we try.

Take biblical Israel as a case in point. A people of such humble beginnings—the first three generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hanging on by a thread—grew into a great nation as promised by God. God loved them and protected them, ultimately bringing them into the Promised Land and establishing them not only as a tribe but a nation.

As they grew in numbers and prestige, during the golden age of monarchy led by Saul, David, and Solomon, they began to develop a mindset of greatness. The great blessing God poured out upon them was perceived differently than it was intended. God poured out his grace (undeserved favor) and commissioned them to become a blessing to the world around them (blessed to be a blessing, Genesis 12:1-3). But they hoarded the blessing in fat-cat fashion, neglecting the poor and looking down on the needy and vulnerable. The prophets continuously brought this sin of pride to their attention, but their largesse led to national disaster despite prophetic pleas and warnings:

            How the faithful city [Jerusalem]
                        has become a whore!
                        She that was full of justice,
            righteousness lodged in her—
                        but now murderers!
            Your silver has become dross,
                        your wine is mixed with water.
           Your princes are rebels
                        and companions of thieves.
            Everyone loves a bribe
                        and runs after gifts.
            They do not defend the orphan,
                        and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)

The basic spiritual problem of entitlement is putting oneself at the center of life and universe, displacing God from his throne. You understand that this displacement is only a delusion, as nothing really can take the place rightly occupied by God. God is sovereign. But we think we can pull off the great magic trick and live the self-created fantasy of a world that revolves around our desires, our preferences, our timetable, or our tastes.

But can you just imagine what kind of world we would be living in if every person thought he or she was the center of the universe? Taken to its ultimate expression of selfishness, our world would be dominated by wars, ecological calamity, and violence. Oh, what am I saying? This is the world we live in! Mercy me, do I harbor the same selfishness and entitlement that fostered all that?!

Jesus says to us, “Yes, I love you and have gone to great lengths to pour my grace into your heart. Yes, I created you uniquely and you have a special role to play in my Kingdom. But it is my Kingdom, not yours! In order for you to fully realize its benefits, you must die to yourself and follow me. If you do this, you will be amazed at the impact you can have on the world and the glory that will return to my Father!”

I don’t think I can stop my friends from singing “Happy Birthday” tonight and blessing me with their good wishes. But as a person desiring to follow Jesus, as I receive that blessing, I will be asking God to show me how I can turn it around to become a blessing to others. Rather than inflate myself with thoughts of “I deserve this,” may the Spirit of Christ within me enlarge and empower my service to others, for their sakes and not my own!

It’s an interesting thing about experience and ministry. Experience is not required to do something or to be someone useful to the Kingdom of God. There are many entry-level positions in God’s economy. But if one has had experience in ministry settings, one has some clues as to one’s gifts and calling. I remember my very first mission trip, a month-long excursion to Guatemala after its 1976 catastrophic earthquake. Based on that experience—riding a school bus from the Bay Area the entire length of Mexico into Guatemala, mixing cement and setting reinforced concrete brick, cleaning bathrooms, and speaking with the locals through an interpreter—I came to the conclusion that God was not calling me to be a foreign missionary! I had reason later in life to reevaluate that assessment, and I did participate in another mission endeavor (four months in Zimbabwe in 1994). Though that amazing venture went much better, I still believe that my primary mission field is here in 95% unchurched San Francisco Bay Area. But the experiences have been valuable for understanding myself and appreciating where I thrive.

I have been an ordained Presbyterian pastor since 1987, but for twelve years before that I was a lay specialist in music, small groups, and discipleship ministries at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (what we’d now call a mega-church). After my ordination, I served another large Presbyterian church in the East Bay, as Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries. During this time I honed God’s gifts of teaching, preaching, leadership, and administration. Also during this period, I got involved in Presbytery and was elected for the first time as a commissioner to General Assembly in 1992. Ever since then, I have been involved in organizing the work of more theologically conservative Presbyterians through national renewal organizations Presbyterians For Renewal and the Presbyterian Coalition. In 1997, I moved thirteen miles away to become the senior pastor of a medium-sized church in downtown Concord, California. Then preaching almost every week, teaching a regular Sunday school class, moderating Session, leading a staff through its various transitions, and helping people resolve conflicts, I developed another set of skills and gifts by necessity. When my time there was completed, I shifted course into academia, bearing down on full-time pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry degree, writing a dissertation, and teaching courses for Fuller’s regional campuses on “Teaching for Christian Formation,” “Teaching the Bible,” “The Missional Church and Its Leadership,” and “Preaching Practicum.” Finding another pastoral call has been an elusive goal, but since finishing my D.Min. in 2011 I have served part-time at a large Lutheran church (ELCA, with whom Presbyterians are in “full communion”) as a parish associate.

Those are the activities that appear on my resumé. Add the experiences of professional vocal performance (of the classical genre, primarily), musical theater, and record albums.

And then, there has been this six-month adventure slaying the Beast of lung cancer and the blogging that accompanied it.

I have had a lot of ministry experience, primarily working with adults. There aren’t too many ministry situations that would be out of my league at this point, but the question remains: which of these experiences might carry forward or suggest something new in the next season of my life? In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The value of any particular involvement is assessed and used by the One who is orchestrating Kingdom work. On the other hand, God is also able to start a new thing in and through me, regardless of previous practice or lack thereof. We have plenty of biblical data points to support that assertion:

Abraham, called out of Ur “to a place I will show you,” to become “father of a great nation.” We know nothing of Abraham’s background or qualifications other than God’s sovereign choice (Genesis 12).

Judges like Deborah appear out of nowhere to answer God’s call to give leadership in Israel before the nation had a king (Judges 4-5).

Prophets about whom we know precious little are hustled out of obscurity to become prominent voices of godly reason. Hosea is assigned particularly hazardous duty (The Book of Hosea).

The lowly maiden Mary was chosen precisely because of her inexperience and her humble situation (Luke 1-2).

So, while ministry experience is helpful to observe how God uses a person, it is not necessary to prove one’s worth or abilities, if in fact God is calling a person to do a particular task. In my case, though I have had lots of ministry experience, what I really have gained in the last few decades is confidence that God can make me able for whatever is needed in a particular time or season. One can also come to the conclusion, like the Apostle Paul, that the achievements and certificates of accomplishment one might gather are worth nothing ultimately, but only that one knows and loves the Savior, Jesus Christ, and is available to do his bidding (Philippians 3:8). So that kind of leaves the door open to new things, doesn’t it?

In my next post, I will gather all the observations about my SHAPE and come to some conclusions about how I will serve the Lord in this new season.

When our second daughter was born, I was blown away by how different she was from her older sister, on the first day! I guess I had held the view that “a baby is a baby,” until Darling Daughter A exhibited her own response to the world in contrast to Darling Daughter 1. It’s a good thing I could see the difference between them, because I was enabled to receive each girl on her own terms and enjoy her uniqueness. Such an appreciation releases a mom from the temptation to treat her children exactly alike, which I think was a goal my own mother had. (It didn’t help that my sister was born on my second birthday, which doomed us both to joint birthday parties and exactly the same gifts year after year!)

It has been fun to watch the girls’ personalities evolve over the years. They have many characteristics in common, probably attributed to their gene pool and common household upbringing. But their temperaments are different from each other and even their parents, all of which demonstrates the lesson for today. Two people with similar gifts but different personalities approach life and ministry from their unique vantage points. And people can change.

A person in church leadership, as an example, has many opportunities in life to undergo assessment of ministry potential, gifts, and work style. The first, for me, was when a Bible study of which I was a part decided to explore the Myers-Briggs Temperament Sorter. The polarities explored are these: Extrovert-Introvert; Sensate-iNtuitive; Thinker-Feeler; and Judgment-Perceiving. What emerged from this experience was the awareness that people are wired differently, along the lines the Apostle Paul spoke of in his letters about the Body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12, for example, Paul makes the case that every Christian is uniquely gifted, and the Body’s responsibility is to affirm that giftedness in the way it coordinates the saints for ministry. Others do not have to be just like me in order to be effective, make a contribution, or give glory to God. The fact that they aren’t is a good thing!

For many heading into ministry, the next opportunity for assessment is when one is taken under care of the presbytery in preparation for ordination. In San Francisco Presbytery, long ago (and still to this day), candidates were required to undergo a psychological assessment to check for psychosis, unhealthy motivations, or mental issues that could affect one’s handling of the pastorate. Yes, I passed, for those of you who think I am crazy. But I remember the comments from the psychologist, who pointed not only to present gifts but also to future potential and growth points. Those put me on alert for further work in the future.

As time passes and one encounters the real self in real ministry situations, other opportunities to grow and learn present themselves. It may be in the form of “executive coaching,” a Doctor of Ministry course in church leadership, or perhaps, after a crash-and-burn experience, a full course of psychotherapy. In those situations, one might take the DISC Personality Test, which measures four behaviors: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. A lot of pastors are “high-dominance” and/or “high-influence,” and I am no different, as these are the people who communicate broadly, lead groups, accept risk, and set vision.

With these tools in mind, I can report that I started out in adulthood as a Myers-Briggs ENTJ, otherwise known as the “field marshal.”  Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging. That is, energized by social interaction, naturally organized to create structure in groups, able to articulate vision, think and present rationally, and make decisions that stick. This accounts for my rise to leadership in the pastorate (getting bonked on the head by the stained-glass ceiling eventually) and in renewal organizations in the PC(USA). It’s why I am at my best in front of a white-board with colored pens in my hand working with a group. It’s why I have a continuing desire to learn and grow and become competent in new areas.

As I have gotten older and maybe wiser, my Myers-Briggs profile has changed to XNTJ, with scores in the T-F continuum closer to the middle, that is, more expressive at an emotional level than before. The X means an even score between extrovert and introvert behaviors, reflecting the quiet lifestyle I have enjoyed the past seven years, working at home alone. What has changed is my ability to work with individuals and small groups, and to be more sensitive and empathetic, even as I apply knowledge and rationality to the problems and issues that come before me. As to the benefits of introversion, I heartily recommend the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Broadway Books, 2013). I am learning to nurture the quiet side, allow time for reflection, prepare for social occasions and give time to “recovery” afterward.

I believe that Jesus was an XXXX on the Myers-Briggs. He demonstrated the perfect balance between alone-time and crowd-time, between vision-setting and practical problem-solving, between thinking and feeling, and between judgment and flexibility. So the fact that two of my scores have moved toward the middle of the scale gives me hope that God is even working to transform my personality into something he can use in new and (I hope) delightful ways.

We’re getting close now to a full SHAPE profile. My next post will review the ministry experiences that have shaped me, for good or for ill, over decades of ministry life.

As a way of discerning God’s call upon my life after sitting on the bench through a bout of lung cancer, I am continuing an assessment of my SHAPE for ministry. In my last post I listed my S—spiritual gifts. Many assessments stop there, but God provides pointers to his call in other aspects of our lives, too. Two people with the same spiritual gift(s) can express their Christian discipleship in very different ways, because of how they are wired emotionally, in their personality, or through the experiences that have shaped them and developed their abilities. The Saddleback SHAPE model takes this diversity into account by observing not just spiritual gifts but also motivation, talents, temperament, and experience.

So the next step today is to think about H—Heart for ministry and A—Abilities that have developed over the years. What follows is my own assessment, but the hope is my readers are thinking about their own SHAPE as well!

Heart for Ministry. This assessment takes a look at what moves me or calls me to action. To whom do I find myself gravitating when looking for those God wants me to serve? The answer to this question is discovered by observing the dynamics of a ministry setting that is invigorating to me. With whom do I feel most energized and to whom do I feel I have the most to offer? What gets my heart beating faster in the name of the Lord?

I have a heart for people who are

• caught on the horns of a dilemma
• seeking to apply their Christian faith as a way of life
• decision-makers trying to be faithful as they work through tough choices
• mixed up or ignorant about the basic facts related to the Christian faith and worldview
• asking questions

These folks all need empathy, certainly, but they also need information and a way of interacting with that information in order to apply it to their situation. I love working with anyone in any context who comes with that basic curiosity and need to know. They tend to be adults (rather than children), but lately I have also been getting a charge out of high school and college age students I meet at church. They may think I’m a little old to be relevant to them, but if our conversation is around faith, the Bible, or even current movies, it seems we have plenty to talk about. I get very energized when given the privilege to come alongside someone (or a group) that is making a big decision.

Abilities. To be distinguished from spiritual gifts, this category involves those natural and acquired talents and skills that have developed in one’s lifetime. So here are some of mine:

• an above-average intellect and ability to learn new things and think logically
• an expressive and practiced singing voice
• an articulate speaking voice
• home arts: cooking, sewing, and offering hospitality
• ability to organize big tasks and the people to do them
• writing
• high “emotional intelligence”
• facility with group dynamics and social interactions
• breaking down the complex into understandable points

It may seem boastful to list abilities and talents, but the Scriptures describe humility not as disparagement of one’s abilities but as willingness to let God orchestrate their use for his glory. The Apostle Paul admonished the Roman disciples “. . . . not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). Any trait can be used greatly by God, if submitted to his Lordship without strings attached. The first step in that direction is to know myself, so that I have a full grasp of what I am offering to the Lord as “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

Next post: P—Personality Type

Getting in SHAPE

May 13, 2014

This morning I will be meeting my personal trainer at the gym for the first time in over six months. Not with a little fear and trepidation, I will submit to thirty minutes of exercises, addressing each muscle group and testing my capabilities. What I know is this: I am out of shape. Cancer-drug-related weight gain has plagued me since the first of the year, my overall strength has diminished, and stamina is completely redefined by pulmonary limitations at the moment. Yes, it sounds pretty pitiful for one who used to be able to run the paces and maintain a heartbeat of 135/min. But one has to start somewhere, and today we will find out where that is and work up from there slowly but surely.

Being “in shape” is a great metaphor for the Christian life and has provided for me perhaps one of the most enduring discipleship concepts over the years. It originally came out of Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, CA), where the guiding question has been What is your SHAPE for ministry? It is this outline I would like to use to identify the type of ministry to engage me in this next phase of my life.

SHAPE stands for five areas of assessment:

S—Spiritual Gifts
H—Heart for Ministry
P—Personality Type

Spiritual Gifts. My spiritual gifts are teaching, prophecy, and leadership. Other gifts have been prominent in certain times of my life, like creative communication, especially through music, and discernment. And God has certainly worked in me—out of necessity—disciplines involving evangelism and compassion. But my primary gift is teaching: helping people to know and love the Scriptures and discover their implications for everyday life. It’s been a good day when I see folks grab hold of God’s Word and take steps to align their lives with the Living Lord revealed therein. The goal is not simply to acquire an impressive set of facts about God and his history with the human race but to gain an understanding of God’s nature, God’s actions, and God’s vision for us in such a way that we are able to trust and obey him in every area of our lives.

I also happen to believe, and wrote a doctoral dissertation on the subject, that teaching is a primary way to fulfill the Great Commission. Everybody needs good information upon which to make a decision to believe in Jesus and a commitment to follow him. The Church has drifted a bit on this score, as there are many proponents of the idea that evangelism is primarily relational and not informational, but I disagree. Particularly in an age where a much larger percentage of children are growing up in families with no exposure to the gospel, to church life, or to the Bible, we are starting with an information vacuum. How do we expect people to understand the choice for their life direction without giving them God’s Story to explain God’s Invitation? Yes, I am passionate about teaching people, even while I understand that the packaging for that gift is not limited to a classroom or a lecture, but can happen effectively in the context of relationship-building activities: Hence, my sit-downs with “my coffee ladies” at Peets and my walks around the block with neighbors on my street.

Prophecy is perhaps a misunderstood gift these days. What I mean when I use that term is the God-given ability to speak for God into a situation, public or private, in which it is important to know God’s perspective. I probably lean into the “forth-telling” aspect more than the “foretelling” aspect of prophecy, and it is this gift that fights the propensity to be critical rather than discerning. It is very hard to describe the moment, when I am talking to someone, when I simply know something about that person’s spiritual life that has not been spoken yet (that would be the gift of discernment at work) and ask God for wisdom to know what to do with that information. Usually the assignment is to help that person come to grips with the spiritual and emotional reality that is driving his or her behavior and to appreciate the power God is offering for a transformed life.

On the public side of this gift, prophecy expresses itself in my preaching of God’s Word, proclaiming “thus says the Lord” from Scripture and with a sense of urgency encouraging people to act upon it.

Leadership as a gift has found expression since the beginning of my walk with Jesus. My pastorates, for instance, have afforded the opportunity to influence people through the communication of vision shaped by a God-centered worldview, a Christ-centered focus on the Kingdom of God, and a Spirit-empowered energy to move forward. The spiritual disciplines required for the leadership gift are listening to God, staying anchored in God’s Word, having compassion on the people to be led, and thereby being a humble follower of Jesus Christ.

Next post: Heart and Experience