Where Spirit-and-Truth worship occurs, mission and our fulfillment inevitably follow.
Where Spirit-and-Truth worship occurs, mission and our fulfillment inevitably follow.
Some of you have been on Pilgrimage here from the beginning, and so you remember the days of the Online Spiritual Formation Groups (OSFGroups). Back in those days (five whole years ago), we experimented with group platforms while simultaneously exploring focused spiritual themes and their intersection with the Bible, each of us on our own time in writing in a private space. These groups served their purpose relatively well, but the problem with “on our own time” is that eventually all of us (including me) ran out of time, or thought we did, and so regardless of how many weeks and exploration lasted, we usually all petered out about halfway through.
Now that, thanks to a global pandemic, video-conferencing has become both indispensable and also not so weird and intimidating for most people, it seems time to revive–and revise–the groups. Enter The Listening Post, the Pilgrimage’s latest informal Bible study. Unlike the previous OSFGroups, this group meets live over zoom twice a month, and there is no set start or end date–which means you can join anytime and there’s no formal commitment.
“Listening Post” has military, spy-craft connotations, which is not what we’re going for here. We’re trying to support each other, not take each other down. But also, let’s be honest. We do live in polarized times, and not much real listening of any kind goes on in our current cultural climate. Lots of talking. Lots of yelling. And any silence comes from canceling and blocking. True listening can be scary: We might hear things we don’t want to hear. We might feel like our silence implies we are agreeing with things we strongly oppose. We might even find, possibly to our own discomfort, that the other human being we thought was the devil is actually human…and maybe even likable. When it comes to “listening” to the Bible, we might discover we’re similarly disconcerted. What if it doesn’t say what we thought it said? What if it says what we don’t want it to say? What if our ideas about God change?
A small Listening group has already started meeting once a month. At the moment, we’re listening imaginatively to short readings of the story of Moses in Exodus via lectio divina. We’ve been talking about identity and calling and will continue to follow this storyline for a while until we collectively discern together that it’s time for a break or time to explore something else. Anyone 18 and up is welcome to join this group at any time, and, while it isn’t a traditional Bible study (there are many other organizations who offer excellent ones), since it isn’t a structured course either, it doesn’t cost anything to join. You don’t need to be a Christian or have prior knowledge of the Bible–but it’s also great if you are or you do.
Yes, the Pilgrimage is a Jesus-focused, Bible-engaging ministry, but as long as you get that (and also that the primary language here is English, due to my own limitations at present–although translators would be amazing!), literally the only other prerequisites to being part of this group are a willingness (including on the part of me, the facilitator) to practice radical listening and respect, to ask curious questions of each other and the passages we’re reading, and to be open to the idea that God might just show up among us and have something special to say…to you.
The Listening Post meets on Zoom on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, from 10:30 a.m. to noon. (This means the next one’s tomorrow, if you’re reading this day-of-posting.) If you want to learn to listen and be listened to, send us a message. Let’s hear about what you’re looking for and see if this group is the right fit for you.
Once (a very long, seven-year “once”) I worked at a church as a Christian Education Director. My primary (but certainly not only) responsibility being to oversee the Youth Group, teaching them and providing them with educational and ideally also socially beneficial activities throughout the year. These events have mostly kind of blurred together in my memory at this point, but I do have a recollection of one lock-in (sleepover at the church) where all the teens were more expressively bored than usual. The occasion of the lock-in was a fundraising, bread-baking venture for the youth group mission trip later in the year. While the bread was baking, the adult volunteers and I had planned an assortment of other, smaller activities for the teens, from Bible study to silly games. But the kids that night were having none of it. “Miss Jenn,” they moaned (I was neither a spiritual director nor a pastor at the time), “We’re so bored.“
Finally I had had enough. “Look, you guys,” I said. “If you’re bored, that’s your own fault. Miss Jean and Dave and I have all given up our weekend for you, we’re here, and we’ve set up these activities. You have been to this event before. You know what it is–you didn’t have to come to it. At some point, whether you’re having fun or not is up to you and what you put into this.” Poor kids. The current culture had not informed them of such realities. But they took it to heart and the evening got much more fun for everyone after that.
I was reminded of this some years later, when teaching Stepping into the Story. During one particular season of that course, the majority of the group were participating on scholarship. Even though these courses have a tuition associated with them, at the Pilgrimage we recognize (because we have experienced it ourselves) that sometimes God invites us into a deeper relationship with Him through our courses which cost money–in a season when we have no money. It’s important to us that if people are genuinely sensing that call, that they be enabled to accept the invitation. It’s also important that our instructors be paid. Sometimes the gap is covered by kind donations from others. This is one reason we have Pilgrimage Outfitters.
I had reached out to the Outfitters for donations to cover the students’ course costs, and people had joyfully come through. About a third of the way through the course, though, I realized that the level of engagement of each member of the class was directly proportionate to the amount of money they had invested in it. The person who had paid the entire cost of the course was fully engaged. Those who had had most or all of the cost covered by someone else appeared, I suddenly realized, to be waiting–just like those teens years ago–for me to make it “fun” for them. We had a conversation about it (it may or may not have been as forthright as the one with the teens–I did remind them that other people had provided out of their own pockets for them to be here), and the remainder of the course was fully participatory and simply beautiful.
Neither Stepping into the Story nor the other two Pilgrimage spiritual development classes are simply Bible studies. (There is a Pilgrimage Bible study, too, that meets twice a month at no charge, about which I will tell you in a week or two, but you can message me with questions if you get impatient.) The classes are full-fledged, college-level courses taught by people trained in the fields of Bible and/or spiritual formation and direction. As such, the associated tuition is very reasonable compared to what it might be to take something similar at a Bible college, seminary, or even some other personal development organizations. Compensating trained professionals should ensure that the instructors bring their best to the course…and also, it turns out, ensures that participants bring their best to the course.
Jesus famously said not to store up treasure on earth but to store it up in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I think this is frequently interpreted and taught to mean, at its most simplistic, Be more spiritual and less material. Or, Stop treasuring money and possessions and just care about your Immortal Soul! I suppose there is something of that in what Jesus was saying, although frequently those interpretations slide off either side of the fundamentalist/progressive wedge into something weird, unhelpful and maybe even harmful. Plus, if you think about it, the fact that Jesus was God-as-matter and didn’t usually seem to divide things up into “spiritual/physical” categories seems like plausible grounds to reassess that interpretation.
I’m utterly convinced that Jesus Himself longs to be our treasure in the way we are His. But I also have lately been wondering if in context and intent, His teaching about treasure in heaven was more about how and in what we invest our earthly treasure–our physical resources–including our money. He knew that people value money–and what’s more, that we demonstrate what we value by where we put our money. And where we don’t put our money. This is why there are, for example, such things as boycotts.
In our current economic system in particular, while we may lament that sports figures make more money that teachers, there are still enough people who are willing to buy high priced season tickets, or even just one ticket to a game as a treat, that sports figures still make more money than teachers. This isn’t really intended to be a critique of professional sports. My point is, people show where their hearts are by where they put their monetary treasure.
There is a long and sordid history of professional religious people who have swindled their devout flock, been financially unethical, greedy, stingy, and immoral. It’s not something that can or should be ignored or swept away. But in my experience, unless a person has actually been financially defrauded in that way and lived to see the situation more clearly, if they bring up religious charlatans as a reason that no clergy person or Bible teacher or spiritual director should be paid for what they do, it is because that person’s heart is somewhere else, and that is where their money is going instead. It’s okay. It can go there. I don’t think Jesus was actually stating anything that unusual there. He was making a statement of fact–and urging us to put our hearts and our treasure in a place that’s eternally sustainable.
Because when your heart is for the Kingdom of God and He points you to a ministry or a program where the Kingdom of God appears to be growing (this one or another one!), your treasure will follow–whether you pay for a course for yourself, or become a sponsor of the ministry to help someone else. And when you invest your treasure in the Kingdom, your heart will follow, too.
Is it possible that this story is showing us that Jesus–that God Himself–has longings deeper than His incarnate physical needs, too?
Some time around the beginning of COVID, a new person started following this blog. I checked out the person’s own website and found that he seemed to be an intelligent man who loves the Bible, yet who also has had some struggles with The Church. This is typically the type of person that the Pilgrimage serves best, and so I reached out with a welcome email, thanking him for the follow and inviting him to check out some of what we offer here, including the spiritual development courses.
Approximately three months later, no longer expecting any sort of reply, I got one. It said,
I checked out your suggested page. Noticed you wanted some funds for the study. Thanks but no thanks. You should consider doing ministry as a ministry, instead of as a profession.
This begs a question regarding “professions”–shouldn’t all professions be ministry, for a Christian? Also, what does “ministry as ministry” mean? The Bible doesn’t talk in those terms. The original followers of Jesus and the earliest Christians immediately after them didn’t seem to have a concept of a secular/sacred divide. You simply did whatever your work was, as a Christian. As for being paid for it–well, the economy of the day wasn’t structured in quite the same way as ours is, and the earliest church was somewhat communal, so it seems a little tricky to make definitive statements about what was and wasn’t worth compensation at the time, and what specifically one was to do with such compensation in any given situation.
The Bible does tell us about the apostle Paul making tents as a source of income during (at least some) of his missionary sojourns, which might indicate that people engaging in more full-time expressions of what people today would call “ministry” should have an additional work as the source of income enabling to do said ministry. But then again, it also tells us about the apostle Peter and others receiving financial support from the churches they served. (Paul, who actually advocates for the compensation of “clergy” in multiple places, is the one who mentions this; though he contrasts his approach with it, he indicates that the way these other Christian leaders were supported was a perfectly legitimate expectation because “a worker is worthy of his [or her] wages.” Jesus Himself lived (and therefore ministered) off of donations (and a coin found in a fish), for crying out loud.
All Christians are called to minister, whatever we are doing. It’s just that some of us have been given a skill set which is really only suitable for preaching, teaching, and/or “shepherding,” and we’re not that great at anything else. Or maybe that’s just me. All I can tell you is that if I couldn’t “do ministry as a profession,” I’d be living on a park bench right now, and to be honest, most ministry isn’t even that lucrative–so that if I were still single, I might still be living on that bench at this point.
Frankly, though, it has taken me all five years of the Pilgrimage’s existence so far to accept the fact that it takes money to run this thing, and that it’s okay. At the end of 2019, I got a job as a part-time TSA agent–partly because of employee benefits and partly because I was feeling embarrassed that I wasn’t yet a “bivocational” pastor, and this seemed like a good way to become one. But the TSA wouldn’t allow me Sundays (kind of important for a pastor), so I quit after five weeks, and now the airport I would have worked at is not even operational because of COVID.
I wonder about that five-week blip sometimes. I can see a few reasons why I may have been directed down that path, only so far and no farther. One of the reasons, I’ve recently begun to suspect, is that, while some pastors and others in ministry genuinely are called to bivocational work, and while others (although I don’t know any of these and feel like maybe they only exist on TV) abuse the generosity of their “flock” and are really only in “ministry” for the fame and fortune, some of us would get sucked into a pride vortex if we could say that we could support our own selves and not “burden” anybody else that way–and I needed to try it for myself and discover that’s not how I’m called to do it. Jesus and I have been having it out about money for a long time now, and while I still hate asking for money and even talking about it, and I’d rather not need it at all and I know I need to be both wise and generous with it myself, I’m beginning to believe Him when He says that in my case, at least, the way to keep it from becoming my master is to humble myself, get uncomfortable, accept it–and talk about it.
Which is why there’s going to be another money post after this one.
God is the only one worthy of our worship… Worship benefits us because it is in our nature to worship. It is why we exist. The most true-to-ourselves, human thing we can do is worship. But, because that’s true, we are liable to worship anything.
True worship? False worship? What difference does it make?
If you read the post I wrote the day after January 6, 2021 (that would have been January 7, 2021), you may have caught me when I said, For better or for worse…I am a White Jesus-lover who, until yesterday, was not ready to relinquish the term evangelical to those who are bent on twisting it beyond recognition.
I’m pretty sure I have at least one post in me regarding labels, and another one regarding grief around the Current State of Affairs in the Less and Less United States of America, but neither of those are this one. I just want to point out that when it comes to ditching the label Evangelical, I’m late to the party. Part of that is because I’m stubborn, and in my case although I hold my theological convictions much differently as I push fifty than I did in my thirties or even early forties, I feel like it was more that the label’s meaning changed than that mine did.
But the fact is, lots of people have been jettisoning the term evangelical for a good long time now, whether they moved or it did. Some are throwing out baby Jesus with the bathwater, but a lot more, it seems to me, are struggling to find Him and hang onto Him in a sea of really grimy suds which are at least obscuring and confusing, and at worst deadly toxic. The time is coming and is probably now here when there must be a day of reckoning for the sins of Empire in the Church which include but are not limited to racism and in this particular iteration, specifically White supremacy.
But I’d just like to throw out the possibility that historically Church colludes with Empire most when a robust sense of spiritual formation–of engaging with the triune God with openness to transformation by the Spirit into the likeness of Jesus Christ–is missing, ignored, or unheard of. Which, in turn I suspect, happens when power and expediency become more important that Christ Himself. I believe there are always pockets of real spiritual formation happening in all streams of the Church (otherwise the Church would never have survived this long), but it is by nature not grandiose, not flashy, not expedient. It’s not surprising so many people stare blankly when they hear the term, since the process itself is so quiet, gradual, and unassuming–sort of like a mustard seed growing, or yeast rising, or…taking a walk.
So I’d like to invite you to take The Walk with me. I’m 100% certain Jesus has already invited you to take the real Walk with Him. The one I’m inviting you to is more of a reflection on that one, I guess–an 8-week real-time zoom course intended to provide some spiritual formation context for what might actually be happening, and where we might go next, if we’re feeling spiritually adrift or homeless. Many of us are. Many of us also feel a deep loss of community right now. It can be helpful to join a few other companions on the journey, at least for this particular bend in the road. The next round of The Walk starts on April 21. It’s not too late to join us on the road. May we find Jesus there and discover He’s been with us all along. He is the Way, after all. And He is our true Home.
When God is so worthy, He humbles Himself to ask you for something…
Today in Adventures in Glitchy Technology, the livestream cut out about halfway through the sermon and even though the beginning and the end were recorded, the middle third was lost. I tried to “re-preach” that part and insert it, but if there are some “idea breaks,” that, in this case, is why. Pray for us!
(Seriously. Pray for us. None of the stuff that happens every single week is anything we can ever plan for. Our tech team shows up an hour early to make sure last week’s issue doesn’t happen again…and then something else does.)
About halfway through last year, I preached a sermon on apocalypse. (Maybe, but not necessarily, about The Apocalypse.) Apocalypse means unveiling or revelation. Yes, I did play off the fact that last year was 2020, because why would any pastor miss an opportunity like that? Many pastors these days are guilty of many things, and puns are quite literally the least of them.
Yesterday was Epiphany. It means roughly the same thing. Merriam-Webster defines epiphany thus:
3a(1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking. (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.
I think if we take into account the literal definitions of each of those words, most of us can agree that 2020 was apocalyptic and yesterday was epiphanic. But I’m not sure any of what’s been revealed in either case have been cause for delight.
This morning I spent some time praying with one group of Christians and then immediately after that I spent an equal amount of time talking and reflecting with another set of Christians, and everyone agreed that what happened yesterday (an attempted coup in the Capitol) was a travesty, but the perspective in each party regarding why or how it was those things was very different. Also, one of the groups was more astonished at what had been revealed about the United States through the events, than the other.
There’s a story in the Old Testament about Moses’ successor Joshua, on the verge of bringing the People into Canaan. Just before Jericho, a random guy with a sword shows up and Joshua asks him if he’s on the side of the Israelites or the side of the Canaanites. The sword-guy says, “Nope!” And then he tells Joshua that “as the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
When I was a kid I used to think this was some weird kind of joke because obviously the Israelites were God’s chosen people so they must have been the army of the Lord and maybe this guy (an angel apparently) was just trying to let Joshua know that he was the real commander, not Joshua. Maybe Joshua thought so, too, because he’s like, “Sweet! Okay, what’s the message?” Maybe he was startled that it wasn’t to storm into Jericho and take no prisoners. Instead this commander angel simply says, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” God was going to give the land to the Israelites, but it was already holy, on God’s terms, not theirs, and this required humility and recognition of God’s authority before they could go in and do anything.
Joshua did take off his sandals; apparently he got the message. It took me a little longer, but now I know that the “army of the Lord” is a supernatural army, not a human one, and I suspect that the point of this encounter (and why we get to read about it) is to remind all those who consider ourselves to be God’s people that this status as God’s children is only given by God’s mercy and grace, and on God’s terms, not ours.
In other words, it wasn’t and isn’t and never will be about having God on our (whomever “our” is) side, but daily seeking to be on His. The only way to do this is to humble ourselves (like the angel said–“Take off your sandals”), repent of our power-grabbing self-centeredness, and ask Him to help us, as my friend the Rev Dr Kwesi Kamau said to me this morning, “see things God’s way.”
If you’re reading this, please don’t agree with me and then assume “the other side” is the one that really needs to hear it. For better or for worse, and regardless of whether race is simply a social construct or not, I am a White Jesus-lover who, until yesterday, was not ready to relinquish the term evangelical to those who are bent on twisting it beyond recognition. And so, while I believe my call as a pastor is a call to speak to all people, and while it’s possible Christians of other demographics may need to hear something like the above, too, I am primarily speaking right this second to other White “Evangelicals.” Let’s stop pretending, assuming, or demanding that God is by default on our side and humble ourselves, take off our shoes, to get on His side. This ground is holy. I’m pretty sure it was before we got here.