Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Savoring vs Freezing Special Moments in Time

Last week most of my family spent a week in Ohio visiting family.  It was like a travelling slumber party with Kim and me sleeping on the floor and in tiny beds most of the time.  But with a toddler and baby we knew they would be the ones in control of our family schedule.  It was not a problem to sacrifice sleep for this special family time.

It was the first time Jenny and I co-officiated a wedding.  Rachel is her cousin and I am her uncle who baptized her 32 years ago.  It was a great joy.

This past weekend we spent our last day at our log cabin in Willow.  Just hanging out, reminiscing and laughing.  When it was time to leave we gathered for a prayer and brief sharing.  I did not want that moment to end.  The temptation is to freeze and capture it.  I found myself looking at the faces of those I love, the beauty of God's natural creation, the projects we built.  And I looked deeply.

This was not a time to freeze frame the moment, but rather to savor it.  To simply breathe deeply a sigh of gratitude to God for this season of family life.  When Kim and I leave June 24 the hardest part will be leaving Jenny, Aaron, Isabella, Jeremy, and Ryan.  I so want to capture these moments for some future use.  But now is a time for savoring, appreciating all that God has given us.

The good news for all who following Jesus is that such moments are a foretaste of what is to come.  That such moments will not be fleeting but will be gathered together in one fantastic experience of the fullness of the kingdom of God.  We won't have to savor because we will live in those moments without separation or sadness.

God's kingdom is coming!  And it is here!  Thanks be to God!  Let us savor this!

Grace Always,

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Rustling of the Spirit

One of the lasting lessons I gleaned from my time with one of my past spiritual directors was when she told me that my job as a pastor was to notice the rustling of the Holy Spirit and then respond.  I have always appreciated this approach which is different from all my efforts to plan ahead for mission and ministry.  In the past I am confident there were times when, in my focus on a plan, I have missed a subtle rustling of the Spirit.

And why the word, rustling?  It conjures up images of an animal's slight movement in the brush, or a breeze that picks up a few fallen leaves.  These are images that require a trained eye to see and to notice.  These are not images like an explosion or loud sound or a tree falling in the woods, images that we cannot help but notice.

The story of Elijah in the cave comes to mind.  God was not in the wind, the fire, or the earthquake.  These are events that capture the eye and mind.  But God was in the still small voice.  Apparently, it is part of the nature of God to speak to us through the small things.  And small things require an attentive mind and eyes that can notice the still small voice or the slight rustling of the Spirit.

I wonder how our United Methodist Church, in all our attempts to reinvent ourselves and reverse the decline, will create space to listen to the still small voice of God?  Perhaps it is even possible that as we deal with our systemic anxiety, we could miss that rustling of the Spirit.  I want to listen and look for any message God is trying to say to us.

Grace Always,

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Resurrection Bear Story

It is Monday of Holy Week and I do not have any leadership duties at any church this week.  It's not exactly time yet but I am thinking about death and resurrection, or better, endings and beginnings.  Jesus' life ends this Friday and leads to a new beginning for all who seek it.  Do you believe?

Let me share a true story about a bear.  It was a hot summer afternoon in July and I was in the staff kitchen at St. John washing dishes when Judi and Jo Ann rushed in with the exciting news that a bear had been sighted just outside the building.  My immediate thought was, “I want to see it.”  So I walked outside peering in the direction of the bear sighting.  Later it was reported that I went out “chasing the bear.”  I did not see or chase the bear. 

Since I was told there was a bear, I wanted to see the bear.  Maybe it was on the other side of the building so I went to investigate.  On the way someone showed me a tiny digital picture of a black spot she said was a bear.  But I was unconvinced.  Cautiously, I looked outside every door and window.  There was no bear to be seen.

This incident has caused me to think about the resurrection of Christ.  We have been told that Jesus rose from the dead.  Do we simply believe it at face value?  Most of us have the same inclination I did about the bear.  We want to see it.  We want to see the evidence of the resurrection.  So we set out on a journey to find it.  Along the way we even see evidence.  Because our eyes have not literally seen the resurrection we find it hard to believe. 

I never did see the bear.  I also have never seen the resurrection of Jesus.  Because I trust Judi and Jo Ann I have to believe that there truly was a bear at church.  They would not make this up.  Well, maybe they would as a prank.  But others saw the bear also. 

It’s the same with the resurrection.  I come to trust the witness of the women and men who not only saw Jesus dead and then alive, but those who have experienced the newness of life that comes from asking Christ into their lives. It is this resurrection hope that is ours for the claiming.  May Easter bring this new hope into your lives.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Knowing When You Begin the Spiritual Slide

Are you a spiritually aware person?  Do you know right now how your soul is doing?  Is your spiritual well being connected with feeling good or experiencing positive outer circumstances?  For example, does your soul feel good when you have a really good day?  How much does your spirituality depend on outward events and feelings?

I notice that I begin to slide spiritually when I start to let my prayer life slip.  The two are intricately connected.  This makes total sense to me.  Prayer is a way of being in the world.  It is much more than a specific time, posture, or words.  It is a deep awareness and connection with God.  It is a way of going through the daily activities of my life with a knowledge that God is with me, that I am loved, and that I have a purpose no matter what happens, good or bad.

Sometimes I react poorly to a situation that reminds me that my spirit is sliding away.  A frustrating experience is not met with a peaceful, calm spirit, but with an anxious and angry one!  This Lent God seems to be helping me notice when my prayer life is not what it needs to be.  Sooner than later.  I am grateful for this growing awareness.  My goal in living the spiritual life is to lessen the surprises of my unhelpful responses.  My desire is not to forget God but to pay attention to all of the whispers of grace that come to my soul.

Grace Always,

Monday, March 31, 2014

Letting Go

About 30 years ago in Ohio Kim and I bought an antique dining set from an elderly couple who bought it new in the 1930's.  We had planned to raise our four children around this table.  But when we answered a call for mission in Alaska we could not take it with us.

And today after more than 22 years in Alaska we are preparing to move to Oregon.  Just as we found ourselves having to let go of our beloved dining table so now are we facing similar decisions.  Large handmade framed pictures of each of our kid's school photos over the course of 12 years.  Snowmachines that took me into the wintry wonderland of the Alaska back country.  Oak beds I made for our kids.  My Shopsmith woodworking tool.  We are saying goodbye to all these things.

And you know what?  Once I begin the process of letting go it becomes easier as I encounter the next thing. It is like steering a disabled car.  Once you get it rolling it becomes easy to steer it.  But it is very hard to turn the steering wheel of a car that is not moving.

As I think about how we have become attached to the ways of doing and being Church I don't want to forget the lesson of that first separation.  Some of us Christian/Church people are way too attached to a certain type of music, worship style, or view of scripture.  We need to begin the process of letting go of some preferences as we focus on our core purpose to grow Christ-followers to change the world.  Antique dining tables are not nearly as important as our mission.  Music and worship preferences do not need to be locked in stone.  How we view scripture in today's world can grow and mature.

Perhaps the key is as simple as holding that beloved thing in our hands, breathing deeply, and offering it to God.  And saying goodbye to the next thing may just be a bit easier.  All this we do for the sake of growing the kingdom of God.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Balcony View

One of the great gifts of the superintendency is the view from the balcony of this amazing conference.  It is a view that feels lonely at times because no one else sees what I see in our churches across this great land of Alaska.  But I love what I see.  Part of my job is to share with you this vision of what God is doing in and through the people called United Methodists in Alaska.

For example, I see Pastor Charlie Brower in Nome connecting with native Alaskans in new ways.  I see First, Fairbanks responding to the call to mobilize others to be the hands of Christ in an emergency.  I see Christ First and Palmer learning how to start new missional communities.  I see Chugiak filling a need in their community to help people reuse unwanted stuff.  I see Anchor Park stepping up to become an anchor church for New Day Alaska.  I see First, Anchorage awarding grants from their foundation to strengthen Alaska ministries.  I see St. John starting new small learning groups where people are formed into disciples.

I see Ascent Alaska reaching out to people who need to know the God of creation.  I see the central Kenai churches offering serious education for laity.  I see Seward moving their ministry into the heart of downtown.  I see Homer extending the hospitality of Christ in the form of a regular free community meal.  I see our Juneau churches working together as never before with a shared youth ministry.  I see Sitka UMC growing in numbers.  I see First, Ketchikan offering grace and shelter to people at the edge.

There is so much more to see from the unique view of the balcony.  I invite you to climb the stairs now and then to see what I see...that God is alive and moving in the communities served by our 29 churches!

Grace Always,

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hanging Out with Mom and Dad

I have just returned from a 7 day cruise with my parents, Bob and Louise Beckett, from South Carolina.  Kim and I thoroughly enjoyed being with them.  Being in their 80's meant they were not quick at anything except cards.  And Dad brought a cane to help with his back pain.  This came in handy when we were all able to go to the front of the line when checking in.

There were many laughable moments such as trying to enter what I thought was our room only to discover we were at the wrong end of the ship.  Or the time we were warned not to take any fruit off the ship and told about being arrested and fined.  When we disembarked there was a fruit-sniffing dog checking out everyone's bags.  Dad asked Mom about the raisins in her trail mix so she deftly walked a wide circle away from the dog.  We joked about having to bail her out of a Mexican prison for raisin smuggling!

But the best moment happened the night of our final day on board.  The four of us were sitting in the main atrium listening to a live band playing easy jazz.  During one song my Dad stood up, left his cane on his chair, and walked to Mom.  He didn't say a word but simply held out his hand.  She stood up and together they danced...the only ones to do so.  It was not a dance floor and people were watching, but they didn't care.  They just held each other and danced.

Thanks Mom and Dad for your faithful love of 64 years.  And thanks for nurturing your childlike adventurous spirit and allowing me to be part of it.

Grace Always,

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Nature of Experience

We United Methodists believe that God is revealed to us through a blend of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  God offers guidance to us through what we call the quadrilateral.  Each one serves as a check and balance to the other lest we attempt to use only one leg of this four-legged stool.

My brother who is a pastor, monastic, and theologian is convinced that one is more important than the others...experience.  I have been thinking about the nature of experience and raise these questions.
1. Who determines what an experience means?
2. Does one experience always have the same meaning, or can that meaning change over time?
3. Can we trust others who help us determine what an experience means?
4. Does our experience of God reflect who God really is?

In his book "Remove the Heart of Stone," Donal Dorr talks about two kinds of meanings of our life experiences.  Imposed meanings come to us from others, or outside influences.  When you have a depth experience someone is there to tell you what that experience means.

An example is the night I walked forward to pray at the altar of my church as a 16 year old teenager.  I don't remember the preacher's message or why I went.  What I remember is a confusing bundle of emotions that were pretty typical for a teenager.  So I had this experience of release and there were tears.  Immediately afterwards I was surrounded by people who cared about me who were also authority figures in my life...my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, my parents, and friends.  It was at that moment that they imposed a meaning on my experience.  They told me that I had been saved.  And I believed them for several decades.

Dorr talks about another type of meaning of our experiences:  Intrinsic meaning.  With this meaning there is time and space for the meaning of our experiences to bubble up from within.  One resists imposing a meaning in order to yield to the intrinsic meaning.  This type of meaning needs time for prayerful reflection.  It comes when we are ready to ponder it.

This is one of the ways a fast-paced world can subvert the process of our spiritual formation.  The world is so wired to make snap judgments on people and issues.  Labels are a simple way to make sense of our world.  But is this world genuine?

I look back on that altar experience differently now.  I do not see it as this pivotal salvation moment, but rather a part of my ongoing returning to God.  It was a way of expressing my desire to know God and let go of a bunch of unhelpful emotions.

My prayer is that God's people will give each other the holy time and space to resist imposing meaning on one another's experiences.  Let us be so present with God and each other so that God can be part of the insight into what life's experiences truly mean.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Church 3.0

Yesterday my friend and mentor, Dr. Elaine Heath, professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, shared this blog as a must read.  It is titled Church 3.0 and was written by Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, current Conference Minister for the Southwest Conference of The United Church of Christ.  Dorhauer makes a striking case for a new reformation needed in the attractional church.  Church 2.0 happened 500 years ago during the Reformation and the changes were strongly resisted by the status quo Church.  

Dorhauer, like myself, is a steward of the institutional church.  We know and love the Church.  But our love for the Church must not get in the way of our love for the gospel.  It is time for a new version of our Christian faith to give birth to new ways of re-presenting Christ to the world.  It is time for Church 3.0.

"Postmodern communities of faith aren’t investing in buildings. Millions of dollars to buy and build property is a waste of missional resources. Stained glass windows used to be necessary when illiterate peoples could not read nor remember the stories of the faith. The stunning beauty and brilliance of story was captured in these magnificent pieces of art, and the gospel was kept alive because of it. Now, it is an opulence that can’t be justified to a world where access to story is but a mouse click away. If property doesn’t directly impact mission, it is a waste."

"Postmoderns don’t want to eliminate any possible means by which the sacred can be experienced. They want to eliminate stale rituals that no longer feed the spiritually hungry."
"This is only a glimpse of what I experienced in my exploration of church 3.0. I love deeply what I see. I trust this expression of the faith to be as authentic as mine – and to ensure that people everywhere will come to know that they are loved, valued, and respected. That is all I need my church and my religion to do or be. It is enough."
I commend this blog to you.
It is why I am involved in the Academy for Missional Wisdom
God is doing a new thing and we need eyes to see!

Grace Always,

Monday, January 27, 2014

On Leaving Alaska

I have been thinking about transitions lately.  It is no wonder since I will begin my ministry as pastor of First UMC, Bend, Oregon, on July 1 of this year.  I really want to leave well.  Five years ago after my final sermon at St. John where I served for ten years a staff member said, "Thank you for not making this all about you."

I really believe that what we do in ministry in Alaska are God-breathed words and actions.  Many go unnoticed and are lost in the fog of history.  But if what we do and say is God's work it will always matter.  God's kingdom being built one act of love at a time, especially with people pushed to the edges of society.

So I want this work to continue and find myself dreaming of a transition plan that will empower and equip the new superintendent.  The Alaska Conference has much to celebrate and build upon for the future.  Here's a short list.

  • Payment of apportionments at 94% last year.  Highest ever.
  • Sale of First Samoan property with money going back into our Legacy Fund.
  • Major funding of leadership development initiatives through the Tuell Center.
  • Imagine No Malaria events in every church has us halfway to our goal of $150,000.
  • New Certified Lay Minister training to begin this spring in Kenai and beyond.
  • Several new faith communities starting with training from the Academy for Missional Wisdom.
  • Cooperative youth ministry in Juneau.
  • Outside the box appointments such as Nome.
  • Significant relationship with our two big sister conferences.
  • Advocacy on social justice issues.
I am grateful to God and everyone in the Alaska conference for this opportunity to serve here.  My work is not completed and there is much to do until summer.  What I do from now on is done with a sense of preparing for the next leader to take up the mantle and carry on.  If you have ideas that will help with this transition please let me know.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

This is a week set aside by the World Council of Churches asking Christians to pray for the unity of the body of Christ.  I respect any endeavor that seeks to eliminate the lines that separate not only Christians, but people.  We live in a world that tries to draw sharp distinctions between people.  Black and white, native and non-native, urban and rural, rich and poor.  Such distinctions lead to labels.  And when we look at people through the single lens of a label we fail to see the fullness of their humanity.

Certainly Jesus desired his followers to be united in love and mission.  But he also showed us how to look at all people with eyes of compassion to see them as whole persons.  People are more than labels.

So during this week of prayer for Christian unity let us also diminish and eliminate the lines that separate us from all people of the world.  Our union with God always comes with a mission to become one with others.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


I have one of those Sunday School perfect attendance medals the Methodist Church used to give to children back in the 50's and 60's.  I earned them all...18 years of perfect attendance.  Other kids used to salute me walking the halls of Grace Methodist in Hamilton, Ohio.
In many of those Sunday School classes faithful teachers (most of them with gray hair) would have us memorize scripture.  To this day I still memorize scripture and prayers from time to time as part of my ongoing faith development.  I want to have a reserve of God words in my head during those critical times when I need a word from God.

This month I am memorizing Thomas Merton's famous prayer.  I have used it on the phone a few times talking with potential pastors praying about coming to Alaska.  It has been deeply helpful to them.  Here is that prayer.

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
 But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. 
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. 
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
• Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani
Grace Always,