Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Invitation to Think Aloud with Me

Over the next two months, I will be developing in stages a brochure for our church on "The First Five Years: Nurturing Your Child in the Family of Faith." The work will be input to a Spiritual Formations Workgroup. If you would be willing to interact with me on the content of this brochure and offer feedback, suggestions, and input, send me an email message (thinkingaloud@comcast.net) with your email address, and I will put you in the loop. Thanks.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Are You Doing with Grace?

Reflecting on experiences of grace from the past obviously can have a significant influence on how we understand ourselves. The danger in spiritual reflection, however, is that we will bask in grace and be untouched by its accompanying obligations. “Obligations?” you say. “Grace creates obligations?” Well, “Yes!”

Grace may be freely given, but it is not free. It always costs something. The one who extends, offers, or dispenses grace gives up something in making grace possible. Grace often sets aside fairness, justice, rights, equality, or self-interests in order to benefit another.

Some of Jesus’ most powerful teachings were directed at people who experienced grace but were unchanged by it. Matthew 18:23-35 is a classic expression of sacrificial generosity that lays an obligation upon the recipients of grace. The obligation is not to repay the cost of the grace received. The obligation is to pass on the grace to others.

So, what are you doing with grace? How is grace shaping you, changing you, growing you, improving you, transforming you? What is grace forcing you to deny? What is it inviting you to embrace? What is grace teaching you about yourself and about others? What is grace birthing within you? What is it putting to death?

Grace sets us free, but that freedom is not focused on personal rights or benefits. Instead grace frees us from self-centeredness and selfishness. With grace, living is no longer solely about us. It is about loving God and loving others—deeply, devotedly, unselfishly, sacrificially.

Spiritual reflection that only consumes grace but never passes it on is worthless. We dig deeper into ourselves—our past and our present—in search for true grace; but once we find it, we must release it to others. Like the manna in the wilderness, grace cannot be saved, stored, warehoused, or banked. We must give it away, pass it on, feed it to others, invest it in those who have not yet found it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reiterating Grace

Grace was one of the central aspects of discipleship that I emphasized early in my blogging on making disciples (see posts beginning 11/18/10). I want to come back to that subject with a new perspective as it relates to our discipleship.

In spiritual formation, three questions are central: (1) How have you experienced grace in the past? (2) How are you experiencing grace in the present? (3) How will you experience grace in the future? These questions find expression in three distinct dimensions that relate to how we live out our discipleship.

The grace we have experienced in the past is focused by spiritual reflection. While I did not initially interpret what I was doing in my earlier blogs on baseball and my life as a Little Leaguer, the underlying result on my focus on past experiences was a discovery of the grace that has been a part of each epoch in my life. My reflections focused for me the experiences of grace that came to me through my cousin, my Little League coach, my mother, the Little League team I coached, the family whose ministry needs focused my pastor-coach tensions, and the coach-teacher in high school who gave me a greater sense of my unique gifts. The grace in being chosen for a team, in dealing with rules and making errors, in not achieving my all-star dreams, in losing the big game, and so many more experiences reveal aspects of grace that are important in the way I understand and handle my past.

Grace is not just an experience of the past; it is present and future. The grace we experience in the present is focused by spiritual practices. The spiritual reflection I have just referenced is a spiritual practice. Bible study (both individual and corporate), blessings at meals, prayer, serving on church committees, volunteering for the free medical clinic, and even blogging are just a few of the spiritual practices that I am discovering can open avenues of grace in my daily life. This is a new way of thinking for me and one I will be exploring more deeply.

The entire programme outlined in my Making Disciples chart that directs attention toward faith formation is a way of discovering how we can experience grace in the future. Setting our goal on Christlikeness is a task that is undergirded by grace. We will never reach that goal, but we must continue to strive individually and together as a community of disciples for that grace and goal. The chart reminds us of God’s initiative of grace, our response to that initiative, and the ways in which the practice of loving God and neighbor beckon us toward the grace inherent in becoming disciples, servants, and a Christlike people engaged in witness, ministry, fellowship, mission, and service.

Grace in the past, grace in the present, and the invitation to grace in the future are the driving forces of being a disciple of Jesus, making disciples of ourselves and others, and becoming like our Master-Teacher-Example-Lord. Grace, grace, marvelous grace; wonderful, infinite, matchless grace—we can never have too much of it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Models for Faith Formation

Whenever we talk about faith formation, spiritual growth and development, or becoming disciples, an abstract cloud often hangs over the discussion. We are talking about life experiences that generally are concrete, but the experiences are driven or impelled by internal dimensions that are hard to conceptualize. Because of that often confusing tension, we search for tangible models that convey abstract concepts that reflect our understandings.

The idea that I had a couple of models enmeshed in my thinking about making disciples hit me rather suddenly as I was reflecting on my discussion with Steve Booth. I realized that I was using a couple of organic models for how a person achieves a full and abundant life. Both of these models are biblical in their origins but struck me as appropriate applications to “growth” toward Christlikeness. I emphasize “growth” because these are common models that relate to growth and development.

One model is that of a human body; the other is of a garden. The life in the body and the life in the garden are givens—they are inherent in the very “being” of the body and of the plants. Something in their very nature determines what they can become, but that “being” requires “becoming.” In both models we recognize that the presence of some factors promote growth and the presence of other factors can inhibit growth or actually destroy life. For optimum growth to occur, a delicate blend of nutrition and inoculation is required. Fertilizer promotes growth in the garden, and pesticides or weed-killers protect against the agents that inhibit growth, fruitfulness, and productivity. The same “feeding” and “protecting” is required for human growth and development.

Nature and the church are not very efficient. Not every seed becomes a plant, and not every plant grows to maturity and multiplies itself. Not every ovum is fertilized, and the millions of sperm almost seem like overkill in trying to fertilize one ovum. But the potential for life is ever present. Once a sperm and an ovum unite, a process is set in motion that has its own force, direction, and objective. It also has its own diversification or individualization. Stem cells produce specialized cells. Increasing complexity marks the progress. Growth becomes an interdependent exchange between the various parts. The need emerges for fundamental systems that provide guidance, control, coordination, nourishment, waste-management, and a whole lot of other complicated issues that will produce a full and abundant life.

Each of us is both a body (an individual living, active, growing, maturing organism) and a part of a larger body (a cell or a body part in the image of the church employed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12). We are both garden and gardener. The full and abundant life challenges us both at the individual and the corporate levels. For us to grow and mature into Christlikeness, we will have to take some positive actions (nourishment, practices, and fertilizer) and some defensive actions (elimination, abstention, pesticide, and weed-killer). And the reality is that no approach is very efficient. We are engaged in a life-long process, and the best fruit is yet to be.

Positive thinker that I am, the “Making Disciples” chart focuses on the nourishment side of the growth equation. We probably have sufficient emphasis in the church on what we must give up to grow. The reality is that we need both nourishment and discipline, gift and demand, grace and works if the fruits of our lives are to resemble Christlikeness.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reflection and Faith Formation

Some things are coming together for me in my striving for perspective on faith formation and spiritual development. My “Making Disciples” chart (available by email upon request) has been the product of years of personal experience, reflection, Bible study, and theological synthesis; but it has been done almost entirely in isolation from the broad group of writers, thinkers, practitioners, and theologians who have written, lectured, and taught about spiritual formation. A plethora of books have been written about spiritual reflection and practices that contribute to faith—many of which I am sure would have provided great insight for me; but I have been working primarily out of my own thinking and experience.

This “isolation” came into perspective for me when one of my former students paid an overnight visit a few weeks ago on his way to a week-long conference on spiritual formation. Steve Booth, Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, was president of the student body at Campbell University my first year on the faculty there. Because he had “saved” until his last year the course in New Testament required of all students for graduation, I had the opportunity to meet him and teach him the introductory course in New Testament Thought. Although we have had only infrequent contacts during the intervening 30+ years, we developed such a bond of mutual appreciation and respect that I count him as somewhat of a “soul mate” in the ministry.

When I had heard last year that Steve had gone to Alabama from Virginia for a week of study with the Academy for Spiritual Formation, I sent him a note. Since the highway from Richmond to Alabama passes very near our home, I told Steve that we would love to have him visit with us if he ever made that trip again. He accepted our invitation and stopped to visit with us on his way to this year’s conference. It proved to be a stimulating visit.

I shared with Steve my “Making Disciples” chart, and I believe he is the first person who really “got” what I have been trying to envision through the chart. More importantly, he was able to put my work in the context of his broad experience and perspective in the arena of spiritual formation. He openly shared ideas, resources, and experiences that stimulated my thinking in so many ways. The experience was so stimulating, in fact, that I could hardly sleep that night. So many thoughts and ideas were running through my mind that I finally got up about 2:30 in the morning and went to my study and began to write down all of the fresh perspectives that I was gaining from the interaction with Steve’s interest, experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm for spiritual formation.

I have waited to engage that experience in my blog, primarily because I had launched a new aspect of the blog on the very morning before Steven arrived for his visit. I confess that I got into my reflections about my baseball and Little League experiences without really knowing why I was going in that direction. Something within me was harking back to foundational experiences that I needed to reflect upon and assimilate. Steve’s insights gave voice to my reflective impulses and, more importantly, gave renewed perspective to my “Making Disciples” chart. I made three pages of notes that morning that were a synthesizing experience for me as my own ideas took on new clarity with Steve’s help in setting them in a larger context. I am going to work out of those notes in my next few posts. Some of this will be repositioning aspects of my blog posts that started back in November when I began to reflect on spiritual formation through the “Making Disciples” chart. When Steve sees these upcoming posts, he probably will wonder how I got from our conversations to these conclusions. The connection is in the context of a new macro view that sets our quest for Christlikeness in a fresh perspective of Christian experience, spiritual practices, and faith formation. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coaches and Pastors

I have mentioned previously the important insight I gained about myself during my sophomore year in high school. There is a story behind that discovery. My sophomore algebra teacher was Coach L., our school’s basketball coach. We had a very fine basketball team, and Coach L. led our team to the state tournament my senior year. I wasn’t on the basketball team, however; my specialty was track. Coach L. was called “Coach” by everyone, but to me he was primarily my math teacher.

A standardized test that I took my sophomore year revealed that I had a very high aptitude in mathematics, but I found that out the hard way. Even then, standardized tests were scored with a check for potential cheating. When the test scores came back, Coach L. called me and one of my friends to meet with him in the hall. He asked us directly if we had shared answers on the achievement test. My friend, who happened to sit on the row to my right and one seat behind me, immediately confessed that he had copied my answers. I had no clue. Coach L. dealt with the situation well. He commended me for my outstanding score on the test and then sent me back to the classroom. I don’t really know what he did to my friend.

Something positive happens to your self-esteem when you discover that you have a particular competency that sets you apart from others. I had considered myself pretty ordinary in all respects, but suddenly I discovered that I had something very special about me. That discovery gave me a sense of competence and achievement that I had lacked up to that point.

When I went to my 40th High School reunion a few years ago, I spotted Coach L. sitting at a table with two empty chairs to one side of him. My wife and I went to sit with him. My intention was to express my appreciation to him for what he had taught me and for the valuable sense of self-confidence he had instilled in me as one of his math students. I started re-introducing myself to him, but we were immediately interrupted by former basketball players who came up to greet him. He got up and sat back down a few times as more players came by. Finally he just got up and walked off with a group of his basketball players, leaving me with my unspoken words of appreciation. I suddenly realized that a coach develops a special relationship with his team that far surpasses the relationship he has with his regular students. He had made a distinct contribution to my life; but his perceived contributions had been made on the basketball court, not in the classroom.

What is true of coaches also can be true for pastors. I have known pastors of large congregations who focused their ministries on a select group of influential families in the church. While many in the congregation where touched by the pastors’ sermons and may have made life-changing decisions under the pastors’ ministries, the pastors often viewed the significance of their ministries as what was achieved in their close relationships with key leaders. This is not necessarily an intentional exclusiveness; it is a realistic limitation fixed by the complexity of ministry to large bodies of people. The people in whom the pastor invests time, energy, and personal ministry often are viewed as the primary criteria for measuring ministerial success.

Several years after I had left Crothersville and a five-and-a-half-year ministry there, I was invited by the current pastor (who had been one of my students at Campbell University) to return. Following the morning worship service, a young woman with two children in tow came up and excitedly greeted me. I had ministered to her and her family when a pregnancy led her to a hasty marriage to her boy friend and when her first child developed meningitis. In those days, doctor’s had to wait several days for tests to reveal whether the meningitis was bacterial or viral. Because my wife and I also had small children at that time, this young woman and her parents were reluctant for me to visit her and her baby in the hospital and possibly expose myself to meningitis that might be passed on to my children. I felt that, as a minister, I should give them all the ministry that I could, including robing and masking up and visiting in the quarantined hospital room. We all were thankful when the test results later revealed that the meningitis was the less dangerous type; but my willingness to minister in a potentially risky situation cemented a close bond with this family.

The youngest child in this family was a boy who had played on my Little League team. He and I had developed a close bond during the summer when I was his coach and our team came together so well in challenging the top team in the championship game. When this young woman and her children approached me at church that Sunday, my first thought was, “This is the sister of my former Little League player!” Because of my investment of time and energy in that baseball team, at that moment I forgot the pastoral role I had played and the ministerial bond that I had formed with this women and her family. I spent my few moments visiting with her probing for information about her brother. Only later did I sense that I had shown the same insensitivity to her that my coach-math teacher would show for me years later. I had communicated to her that my coach relationship with her brother was more significant to me than my pastoral relationship with her, her children, and her parents.

Maybe if pastors saw their roles more like coaches, they would sense a deeper bond with their parishioners as they invest time and energy in the ministries of team building, skill development, life coaching, play calling, sacrificing to advance players to the next base, overcoming obstacles, and fighting to the finish to avoid defeat. I’m afraid I made this connection too late in my ministry; but maybe others will learn that pastoring and coaching share a lot in common.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lessons from Baseball #4

The manager of my Little League team in 1955 was Jack Caddell. I have mentioned the kind and gentle manner by which my coach had handled both the age issue and the all-star issue with me. Mr. Caddell was a rotund man who owned a restaurant and was able to take off when we had practices and games. In 1960 he founded Jack’s Family Restaurants, Inc. Eventually Jack’s became a hamburger chain with franchises all over the Southeastern United States. Some of you may remember the chain’s jingle, “You’ll go back, back, back, to Jack, Jack, Jack’s, for more, more, more!”

Mr. Caddell was successful in business and in being a Little League coach. He left a lasting impression with me, more by what he was not than what he was. He took a rag-tag team and patiently guided us to improve. He didn’t harangue or berate us. He didn’t yell and scream at us. He didn’t criticize our mistakes. He seemed to be comfortable with the fact that kids make errors. He encouraged us by positive affirmation, a pat on the back, and gentle words of instruction. He taught us in practice, and then let us play the games without constant attempts to correct our mistakes. We “played” baseball without the pressure of winning at any cost. I know nothing about Mr. Caddell’s family or even if he had children of his own. I do know that he had a special gift for caring about the players on his team and investing through us in the future of our community.

I wish I had learned more from Mr. Caddell. Fifteen years later, I became a Little League coach. In February of 1970 I was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Crothersville, IN. I had just begun my doctoral program in seminary; and during the pre-dissertation stage of my doctoral studies, my summers were free from the 80-mile round-trip week-day travel back and forth to the seminary. My first summer in Crothersville, I was asked to coach a Little League team. The similarities to my Little League experience were amazing. We also had a four-team league. I knew almost none of the boys who tried out for the teams, and the experienced coaches seemed to know just who to pick for their teams. I ended up with a rag-tag bunch much like the 1955 Pels.

We started the season poorly but improved with every game we played. When the end-of-the-season playoffs came, we beat the number 2 team to get into the playoff finals with the number 1 team. The final game was an outstanding example of baseball. The score seesawed back and forth, with our team going ahead in the top of the last inning. The other team tied the score, forcing the game into extra innings. I don’t recall how many extra innings we played, but it finally came down to the last team to bat winning the game—and that was the other team. It wasn’t a Hollywood finish to the season, but I was proud of our team’s struggling from the bottom of the league standings to almost winning the championship game.

I wasn’t a Mr. Caddell-type of coach, however. I was much more verbal, shouting instructions from the bench. I don’t think I berated the players for their mistakes, but words of encouragement when you make mistakes can be misunderstood. I pushed the team to be its best. I think the players had less “fun” than I had as a Little League player, and achieving more probably meant that the players felt more pressure from me as their coach. Maybe I was trying to re-play my own Little League experience through my team, hoping that I could achieve through them the “all star” status that I missed in 1955. Maybe winning is not as important as the other lessons that baseball can teach. I confess that when I see a coach today shouting a lot from the bench, I feel a little uncomfortable. I wonder if they, like me, are over-zealous about winning and if they are trying to re-live their Little League careers through the next generation. Isn’t it amazing that we can see the faults in others that we fail to see in ourselves?

The next spring we adopted our first daughter, and I turned down the invitation to coach again; but the summer of 1970 was one that lives on in my memory. I’ll conclude my reflections on baseball with the next post, comparing my role as coach with my role as pastor of First Baptist Church in Crothersville.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lessons from Baseball #3

The Shades Valley Sun was the local newspaper for the southern suburbs of Birmingham, and it threw its support behind the new Little League program. From the beginning it published the box scores for every Little League game. My mother faithfully collected these newspaper clippings and included them in a massive scrapbook that she gave me years later.

From the beginning, the Pels struggled. We had a couple of natural athletes, but most of us were just learning the game. We quickly sank to last place in the four-team league. As the season progressed, however, so did we. At the first of the season, my batting average was around .270. By the end of the season, I was batting around .320 and had moved from eighth in the batting order to third and had the third highest batting average on the team. We reached the point where we were competitive even against the top team.

At the end of the season, the coaches chose an all-star team that would represent our Little League in the post-season tournaments that eventually led to the Little League World Series. One afternoon my coach pulled me aside and told me that I had not made the all-star team. Three of the four coaches had voted for me, but one coach had not—the coach of the team with which we had battled at the end of the season for the cellar position. My coach explained that a crucial error I had made in one of the closing games had led the coach to withhold his vote for me. It was indeed a crucial error. We were playing this coach’s team, and the final rankings were in play. The other team had loaded the bases, and the next batter hit a hard ground ball directly at me at first base. The ball took a short hop and went right through my legs and rolled all the way to the right field fence. If not for my error, it would have been an in the park grand slam. Four unearned runs were scored, and my team lost the game. I’m sure that was not the only error I made all season, but it certainly is the one I remember.

In baseball I learned that no error, mistake, or sin is without its consequences; but the occasional or once-in-a-lifetime major foul-up can really hurt you and others. Sometimes all the good you have accomplished can be wiped out by one error. Sometimes those who count on you can be let down by your mistakes or failures. Some doors of opportunity can be closed; some chances to make a greater contribution can be lost; some recognitions and honors can be missed because of a single moment of inattention, indiscretion, lapse of judgment, or just plain bad luck.

The player who won the honor of playing first base on the all-star team was one of my best friends. He played for the number one team, had been a consistently outstanding player, and had led his team to success. He certainly deserved his place on the team. In the two games of post-season play, however, he went hitless; and the all-star team did not have a back-up first baseman. Would I have made a difference if I had been available to play? We’ll never know.

Not being on an all-star team because of a crucial error doesn’t compare to those who lose a job, a marriage, or a child’s respect because of some major blunder, indiscretion, or sin. Sometimes we do genuinely stupid things without weighing the potential consequences of our actions. Teenagers are vulnerable at this point, especially in our society when so many “freedoms” offer so many opportunities to make major mistakes.

I think God will be a wise and gracious Judge whose judgments will be comprehensive rather than particular, whose weighing of the evidence will be fair, whose forgiveness and redemption will be complete. Some have said that God’s justification will be “just as if I” had never sinned; and that may be true of the consequences of sin. But sin closes doors of opportunity; it leaves scars behind; it erects hurdles around the potential for a full and abundant life. We all need grace desperately, and we will never be able to achieve the sinlessness of our ultimate goal of Christlikeness. The Book of Hebrews, however, reminds us that we have a pioneer of faith who ran the course before us. The closer we can follow in Jesus’ track and the longer we can remain on his course, the easier will be the race. Let us become part of a team of mutual encouragers who pray for, counsel with, correct, and guide each other in the race and who look to our fellow pilgrims to hold us accountable as we seek to avoid the errors that so easily beset us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lessons from Baseball #2

I was on the roster. I was a PEL! It felt great to be chosen to play on a Little League team for the first time at the age of 11. I was immediately put at second base, the position for which I had originally tried out; but I still had to earn my position there. We had more infielders on the Pels team than we had positions to play. After a few practice sessions, our season began; and I had won the role of starting second baseman.

We were only a couple games into the season when my first obstacle arose. I was 11 years old and was on the team’s roster as an 11-year-old, but my birthday was July 30. I would actually be 12 before the Little League cutoff date of August 1, so technically I was required to play as a 12-year-old. The problem was that the Pels already had a full roster of 12-year-olds; and someone was going to have to go. The coach first approached me to verify that my birthday was July 30 and to confirm that according to Little League regulations I was a 12-year-old. He kindly explained the situation to me and told me that he might have to drop me from the squad. It looked as if my Little League career was going to be a short one.

While the coach was struggling with what to do with me (maybe make me a bat boy or something), a solution suddenly appeared. Our 12-year-old first baseman announced that his father had taken a job in another city and that he was immediately moving away. He could no longer play on the team. His departure opened up a slot for another 12-year-old on the roster, and the coach both moved me into that slot and into the position as first baseman.

I learned a lesson from this early experience with baseball. Adults create rules that are designed to promote general fairness but that often end up creating problems for individuals. With the wide range of development among pre-adolescent boys, many boys face obstacles in school and in sports because of the competitive nature in both settings. I went all the way through school and sports as a “young” member of my class. I was barely six years old when I started school, but many of the best male scholars and athletes in my class had birthdays in October and November and were almost a year older than I was. That is a significant developmental difference in the pre-adolescent years. Because I had good academic and athletic skills, I was able to hold my own among my class; but I was not able to soar. I was a sophomore in high school before the results of scholastic testing helped me to realize that I had higher achievement potential than I had realized.

In spite of the rules that establish the criteria for success and failure, every individual needs to experience some kind of success and have some awareness of personal achievement in life. Because of the turbulent nature of adolescence, that communication of value, worth, achievement, and success needs to be fostered in the pre-adolescent years. Every student will not be a scholar or a star athlete, but everyone needs the opportunity to be assisted by the rules rather than becoming a victim of them.

My little league coach did not just cut me from the team when he found that the rules required him to take some action. I don’t know what would have happened if the first baseman had not moved away. Fortunately I did not have to face the humiliation of being cut from the team. Maybe I would have become a good batboy, but I somehow feel that being a 12-year-old batboy for younger boys on the team would have been equally humiliating.

Rules rarely achieve their goal of promoting fairness. Instead they define success in such a way that some soar and others sink. The emphasis that we have placed on grace as an important factor in spiritual development reminds us that grace always provides a better path to a full and abundant life than do laws, rules, and regulations. Discovering that we are children of God by grace rather than by achievement allows each of us to find our way along the path of grace and move at our own individual pace toward Christlikeness.