Sunday, February 28, 2010

Healing? Prayer? Real?

If I had another life to live, I might try to master mathematics so that I could study string and super-string physics. Reading around the edges of texts from these disciplines--as if reading a foreign language--I catch glimpses of tantalizing theories. Most fascinating of these are suggestions of interface between psycho-spiritual and space/time realities. I don't even know how to describe these adequately.

This week I thought about spiritual healing and the unexplained sense of a need to pray for someone, and how these things can happen over great physical distance. For instance: Have you ever heard of the parent who wakes in the night and just knows she needs to pray for her child--only to discover later that this was the exact moment of a crisis in the child's life? Have you ever been telephoned by a friend or relative, and before the phone rang, you picked it up to call them (and there was no obvious reason for the desire to call?) Have you known of someone that has been prayed for and then healed of a disease from which they should not have recovered? My answer to all of these questions is--"Yes."

How do these things happen?

Funny, it is not hard for me to believe that I can punch some buttons on my cell phone and speak with someone on the other side of the world. I can't explain how. I believe I can tune a radio in my car and listen to any sort of music or talk from distant cities. There are messages surrounding and saturating each of us as we look at this screen, and given the right tool, we can "tune" into them.

So why is it difficult to believe that I can pray (or care about or wish) for your well-being across miles or continental borders, and for you to be impacted physically? Can we truly "reach out and touch?"

Since I was a child, I've been taught to pray. I've been taught that I can speak to God and benefit another person or situation on the other side of the planet (i.e. praying for missionaries). But this feels somehow like a real stretch. I mean, effecting you from thousands of miles away is impossible, right? Why? Why can my phone vibrate in my pocket as a result of you calling me from far away, and I consider it commonplace? Why can I send this message into the wireless atmosphere of my living room, and feel it makes sense? How do I believe the television picture in front of me is simplistic--after it has been yanked from a satellite by a tiny dish on my roof?

Sometimes I think too much. But equally true is that sometimes I think we have very little faith in all things spiritual.

If you are interested in some research about the effect of prayer and well-wishing upon those in a distant place, check out the work of Elizabeth Targ. She is a bit controversial, and certainly doesn't intend to prove anything Christian. However, she has done some research that is tantalizing. I'll post a few of them for you.

No time to edit here, so hope there aren't too many uglies in my typing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The nagging voice of temptation: A lenten story.

The glow of Sunday gatherings and joys had not yet faded late that evening. One of our newer attenders had written a response to the service on Sunday morning that her Lenten journey was very difficult, and had already produced fruits of joy. She has a background that would make you weep, and is no less a miracle witnessing to Jesus' touch than any person delivered by him in scripture stories. She text messaged me with a desperate request: "How do I respond to my [neighbor] who sent me this message?"

Her well meaning Christian friend had told her that she should not follow a Lenten fast. That her church didn't do that because it is only a tradition of men. Christ has set us free from those things, she said. She continued by saying that her church follows the Holy Spirit and his leading instead. And that they fast periodically only as he instructs them as individuals.

The hurting woman from my church (who is plagued by self-doubt and feelings of failure) was already well down the path of deciding that the blessing and gifts she was receiving via her fast were artificial. That it wasn't God blessing her. That our church was not Christian.

I asked her to tell her friend that we are trying as a church to obey a call I sensed for us as a congregation to pray and fast together. I want her to tell this sister of ours thank you for the concern, and to ask her to pray for us as we seek to become more sensitive to God's voice.

Yet in the back of my head there is an echo of a voice long ago that pursued our lord in the desert saying, "IF you are the son of God..."

How often do we in the church condemn other traditions, and belittle their attempts at following the only wise and eternal One? How often are we the voice of the devil?

And even as I condemn the judgmental ways of another, am I practicing the vice?

Lord have mercy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Must Read Article by Barbara Brown Taylor

I read an article this week which impacted me wonderfully. It also largely shaped my teaching this week. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopalian priest, and a thoughtful and thought provoking author. I recently mentioned her heart-wrenching book Leaving Church at this blog.

An excellent introduction to the season of Lent, and its purposes, this article--Settling for Less is a thought provoking challenge to truly experience Lent. I invite you to read it by clicking here.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

About The Runaway Pastor and BREAKERS

Just before The Runaway Pastor was published and released, I had been making chapters of another novel--BREAKERS--available here. Once The Runaway Pastor was released, my attention turned to its promotion. At least for the first month or so.

I'd like to share a bit about BREAKERS (BREAKERS is only a "working title." It could change at any time.) This is a project I've been toying with for about eight or nine years. I used to give myself the week between Christmas and New Years to write. And BREAKERS was one of the first things I began. This was long before I ever thought of being a "writer." I just wanted to play with some thoughts and questions that were playing in my mind. Those thoughts still rent space in my head. In fact, they are even more prominent than when I began writing them.

So, those of you who were following along with the development of BREAKERS, don't think that it has forever been put away. I've had it on a side burner, so to speak. But it is beginning to receive some time here and there as I write about walls between the church and the world, or proper boundaries between those "unequally yoked."

In the meantime, I continue to receive encouraging words and sales reports from The Runaway Pastor. Report after report are demonstrating that people are beginning to understand better the conflicts and trials often faced by pastors. I know of one small group that has passed it around until nearly everyone has read it. A recent review suggests hosting a discussion group centered around the book and support of their pastor.

Keep your reviews, comments and spreading the news via word of mouth going. I continue to hear words of encouragement from people in "the book industry" saying they believe Runaway may just take off.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Update on The Runaway Pastor

I've had several comments about my book--The Runaway Pastor--lately from emails, facebook or just conversations when I'm out and around. I want to say thank you again for all of the encouraging remarks. It is also great to hear stories of people picking up copies at their local bookstores. And if you live within a few hours of my home in Brown County, Indiana, and think a book signing might work in your area, then feel free to contact me and we'll work something out!

I'd also like to remind you that word of mouth is the best marketing tool I have for the book, especially with no budget for marketing. Here is a great new review posted yesterday on (And if you have not yet done so, your honest reviews on Amazon--or elsewhere!--would be wonderful.)

This book will make you look at your pastor differently -- with a much deeper understanding of the routine pressures they all face on a regular basis. It's amazing that more don't run away from their ministry! The story is compelling and very fast-paced. It might seem odd to say for a book about a minister, but this is a real page turner and you will want to read all the way to the end to see how it turns out. The story centers on a very successful young minister who becomes more and more disillusioned about his transformation into a CEO, rather than someone who ministers to the needs of his flock. I'm sure pastors will see a lot of themselves in the story -- but hopefully will find a better way to deal with those pressures than the protagonist. Maybe reading this book will help some pastors, and their parishioners, to take steps to alleviate the stress before it overwhelms them. The book would make a really good study and discussion starter for church-based reading groups.

Thank you again for being patient with me as I occasionally post a mention of the book. I guess that's why I started this blog in the first place!

Peace to you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Journeys and fasts and coming alive: What are you giving up for Lent this year?

I remember the first step onto the trail. It was odd--the three of us being taken from a beautiful home in the mountains, and dumped into a low-grade campsite next to a mountain lake. We "hiked" all of fifty yards before setting up our tents, and hanging our bear bags in neighboring trees. We made a campfire, had a snack and then turned in. There was a lot of hiking to do tomorrow.

The next morning we headed around the lake and up the side of a mountain. We were one hundred miles from our target destination. For the next three days, we saw no toilet, bed, shower, faucet, computer, TV, or A/C. During that time we had no cell service to receive calls or text messages. We filtered water which we drank by the gallon, and heated to prepare our coffee and dehydrated food. We washed with alcohol swabs, and slept on the ground with only a tent and sleeping bag between us and the cold nights and earth.

As we began the steep climb I wanted to quit. I knew I'd fail. I wondered if we'd be safe. I doubted myself completely. I knew it was more comfortable back home. I began to sweat and ache and stink. Why in the world was I here?

On the second evening, after a day during which we logged twenty mountain trail miles, my back ached from my pack's weight, and my feet bled from blistering. But I felt the sprouting of joy in my soul. I could do this. I was up to the rigors. I began to believe I could accomplish difficult things. My mind began to clear and my writing was alive and creative. The stuff that usually occupied me as I sought the maximum comfort in life, was nowhere in sight. I was alive...not hungry or sore or lonely or deprived!

In the years since that that hike, I have looked back on it with such longing. Those were some of the best days of my life. I long to spend time on that trail once again. Why? Because it was cushy and easy? No. Because everything that makes life easy was stripped away...and I was alive.

Lent is coming. This is your chance to fast something you heavily depend on. Something that comforts you. Something you love. Something that makes you think you are alive when you are enjoying it. Next Wednesday is the day. February 17.

What are you giving up for Lent this year?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mud-hiking into the snow

I took time before my last meetings of Thursday to do a quick hike in the hills. Mud sucked at the heels of my boots. A valley lake was blanketed in ice-turned-mush. If I hadn't watched the weather reports, I would have thought spring was beginning its thaw.

Yesterday, my day off, I made it two days in a row in the woods. The thermometer had not yet succumbed to the freezing mark. Having forgotten my trekking poles, I searched the sides of the trail until within the first mile, I'd found two downed branches--perfectly flexible and tough at the same time. My gloves soon soaked through with the snow and rain that saturated them.

I had layered well, and the rain proof outer layer worked perfectly...excepting my boots, which needed another coat of water-proofing. So I walked through a mixture of wet snow and rain, the dark sky unable to make up its mind. My toes were damp, but I decided to ignore them. The boots were warm, and my spirits were warming.

I'm beginning to think I need to be in the hills everyday, even though that is impossible. Time spent there multiplies the effectiveness of my working hours, and the pleasure of my day off. A friend once told me that our physical stress levels should match our mental ones. That makes a lot of sense, and explains why so many teach exercise as a stress reducer.

While meandering in and out of valleys and up the sides of slick hills, I sense a stillness I rarely enjoy. The world was still, and yesterday--with a storm imminent--even the skittering squirrels must have been hunkered-down. I took a couple of opportunities to stop in trail-side shelters to pause in their dryness. I found myself fighting guilt for just enjoying the view. Then I settled further into the gift of the hike and took it all in, relishing a gift that only I was opening.

When I arrived at the trail yesterday, I was in a foul mood. I should be ashamed, but must admit my self-pity. I'd forgotten my poles, the rain was steady and the snow that had already accumulated on yesterday's mud was--well, it wasn't all that inviting. But after a few gurgling streams, and allowing myself the arrival tantrum, I was able to smile--glad that you could not see me, and realizing that the ONE who did see me, still loved and embraced me in that place.

It took longer than normal to cover the distance I walked yesterday. I stood and watched rain turn to snow and snow to rain, allowing it to drip off of my hat and into my eyes. And I asked God to wash them of the selfishness that resents difficulty.

This week I've read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, by Donald Miller. And last night I started (and this afternoon should finish) Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron. Both of these are instructing me about various aspects of my very blessed life...and how I can make my story a little less selfish and a lot more meaningful to others.

Today I will read, work on my Sunday teaching, handle an administrative task or two and call on a few hurting people. And sometime this afternoon, I hope to put on my boots (that dried by the fire last night and now have a fresh coat of water proofing), and head into the much deeper snow, covering a much colder earth. I hope to listen to the places where tiny streams have not yet submitted to the freeze. I plan to sit down by the lake and see if the snow is mush on the surface, or if the water has refrozen and supports the white blanket just as the earth around it. I will revel in the snow clinging on dark branches that define the horizon in every direction. And I hope in some way the ONE who sees me and knows me, will prepare me to be a better shepherd for the people I love and spend my life with. (I have some pix from the hike if you care to see.)

Grace and peace to you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Could you do without your pastor for a few months?

This post is about your pastor's need for an occasional extended leave. Some call these sabbaticals, and some call them renewal programs. What they are not is vacation. Clergy sabbaticals or renewal programs are a commonplace practice for many denominations or local churches. However, for many people who have pastors, it seems unrealistic at best or ridiculous at worst that a pastor would even desire such a thing. It takes nerve, I know, for me to write this post and then post it. In fact, if you are reading here, but aren't reading these words, then I didn't post it! [An attempt at humor.]

One reason I am able to write this, is that the leadership of the church where I pastor has granted me permission to work with them on a sabbatical scholarship proposal. By doing so, I assume they already agree with much of what is below. However, if any of them are reading here, I believe this article could help to inform them in regards to the reasons and benefits of sabbatical or renewal.

I am reading a book entitled Clergy Renewal, (Bullock/Bruesehoff--published by The Alban Institute). There is an enlightening outline in the forward. It answers the following question: Why should a congregational lay leader want their pastor to experience a regular renewal leave? The recommendation in this book is for a three months sabbatical leave once every four years. Here is a brief synopsis of the reasons given:

1) "The very nature of being a pastor involves continual spiritual growth. Spiritual growth does not happen by accident; it takes hard, intentional work. Basically it is a lifelong process involved in big chunks of time set aside for reading, prayer, solitude and reflection....Trying to do this while working between forty-five and fifty-five hours each week is nearly impossible." [I'm sorry, but I find it laughable to suggest those are sufficient hours to accomplish what must be done to keep a job in least from my perspective. I've been told quite clearly, and found it to be true, that anything less than sixty-five--and often ten to fifteen more--hours per week will put you on the unemployment line. And these hours can't include time spent in reading, prayer, solitude or reflection. I think one reason people fail to see the rigors of a pastor's life, is they cannot understand the rigors of constant reading, prayer, solitude and reflection in their own lives. And these cannot be times spent studying for next week's lesson, training session or sermon. They must be times of being in the Presence--for the sake of that Presence alone.]

2) This item deals with the need for clergy to get away to see how other congregations are adapting to changing times.

3) "Without such renewal leave, there is a stronger chance that clergy will, over time, demonstrate the key characteristics of burnout--namely, exhaustion, cynicism, disillusionment, and self-deprecation. It has been documented that people in the helping professions tend to burn-out the fastest, in part because the constant intimate involvement with the emotional freight of other people's lives can be draining. Burned-out clergy are much more likely to leave parish ministry, or seek another call, in order to get out of a place that is wringing them dry. Should that happen, the congregation will, in turn, likely experience a twelve to eighteen month search process of another pastor. If the search committee makes the wrong choice, the congregation will end up with a pastor who is unable to bring new life to the congregation. In fact, it may cost them several years of decline--not to mention a severance package! ...Every pastoral turnover costs a congregation years of progress. Sabbatical leave helps avoid such situations." [Wow, it saddened me to see this discussion end with only the ramifications for the congregation. I can tell you from personal experience that being exhausted, cynical, disillusioned, and self-deprecating--years on end--is not a good way to live. And, when pastors leave for another local church (when they could continue on where they are if they had a leave) they are not fixing a problem, they are just masking the symptoms. Plus, their family is yanked out of yet another home town in order to feel the temporary relief of assignment change. I understand this is a list for why lay leaders would care, but most lay leaders desire to care for their pastor (and his or her family) while also caring for their congregation.]

4) "Another lethal effect of burnout is that it makes a pastor dull, hollow, and uninteresting. ...Clergy vitality is the greatest asset in building up a congregation....The paradox of congregational ministry for clergy is that they are constantly invited to overextend--there is always someone they should have called or to whom they should have given attention--but doing so can torpedo the vitality that drives their ministry. Renewal can be a powerful antidote to this kind of debilitating burnout." [Again, I'd add from the pastor's perspective that being "dull, hollow and uninteresting" is not enjoyable.]

5) "The Pastoral role generally involves long, hard hours without weekends off, or even the occasional long weekend. Pastors are rarely afforded the luxury of having two consecutive days off...every weekend involves a major output of energy on Sunday. Friday and Saturday are often consumed by sermon preparation, wedding rehearsals and weddings, and so forth. Congregations too often assume that clergy can remain vital and healthy and maintain a sound family life with only one day off per week..." [And I add here, that I was taught early on in my ministry, that a day off is a myth. That I shouldn't aspire to one. Although I have tried to make it a reality, a day off is basically impossible for a tired mind that keeps thinking of one more let's get back to the authors] "This is a crazy norm. We don't know where it comes from, but it permeates every denomination on this continent. When you add up the time off clergy miss that most lay people take for granted, it becomes clear that a three month renewal leave every four years is a reasonable proposal that helps make up for that loss."

6) This final item deals with how congregations can become overly dependent upon clergy, and sabbaticals can provide opportunity for congregations to step-up.

I hope you will consider these things. Perhaps you will want to share this post with some friends who might help you lead the way for your pastor to be given a sabbatical or renewal leave.

Please feel free to comment on this, or email me. I know this is sensitive. But in a country where pastors are leaving the ministry by more than a thousand per month, and churches are closing their doors for the last time every day...we might not want to assume anything.