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Pope Francis and the three legged Elephant

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A leader who inherits an institution will always have this elephant in the room: REFORM-ME-NOT. Pope Francis, as well as the bishops of the United Methodist Church, will always have this elephant in the room. And the elephant stands on three legs: outdated ideas, outdated methods and just plain ole human nature (pride).

When a leader possesses internal self-leadership, connects with the people he/she is to lead and functions from a world/future view shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the elephant in the room shrinks because creative strategies emerge…as if sent from heaven!

Currently, Pope Francis is taking on the elephant in the room: the Vatican bank.

The Vatican Bank: A BIG three legged elephant

In 2012 Vatican letters were leaked to the press by the Pope’s personal butler (then Pope Benedict). The public discovered corrupt purchasing practices. Archbishop Carol Maria Vigano confirmed the pubic charge by denouncing the signing of inflated contracts with chosen companies. The Archbishop shaved down one contract that purchased a Christmas Nativity scene for St. Peter’s Square. The discount totaled $ 340, 000.

But that amount was too little, too late. The present Pope was silent and the resulting vacuum left the Catholic Church’s credibility limping in the public/world’s eyes.

Heaven Sent Strategies

Publically, Pope Francis is not showing his cards…at least not verbally. Understanding that actions speak louder than words, he has chosen new leadership for the Vatican Bank. His man in charge is Australian Cardinal George Pell. Pell has long been a critic of accounting transparency.

Pope Francis speaks, again by action, in revealing how he will oversee Cardinal Pell. Pell will work with a 15-member leadership group, made up of 8 world geographical territories (I am assuming they are clergy) and 7 LAY EXPERTS from various economic backgrounds. The Vatican made a statement to the world charging this group with this task: “{to create} a more formal commitment to adopting accounting standards and generally accepted financial management and reporting practices, as well as enhanced internal controls, transparency and governance.” This reflects the largest overhaul since Pope John Paul.

These changes are to be expected. Why? This Pope refuses red shoes and a papal palace! It only makes sense that he would reform finances to serve the poor. My argument is this: Reform of the Vatican Bank does not come from a leadership book that Pope Francis read in seminary (or a much needed popularity uptick on the world stage). The much needed reform of the Vatican Bank comes from the inner conviction of Pope Francis. He believes that in order for the church to be Christ’s bride on earth, she much serve the poor, work with the poor and be among the poor. Pope Francis knows who is he, what he believes and why God gave him the Papacy. Reform is necessary to do this – serve the poor!

The Three Legged Elephant for the United Methodist Church

The elephant in the room for the UMC can best be summed up by the outstanding article written by Robert Schnase in this past issue of The Circuit Rider. Bishop Schanse names the outdated systematic way of doing ministry by drawing a triangle. This triangle chases the money flow in an example of a church wanting to build a parsonage for missionaries in Africa.  The money begins with the congregation, and then travels up the triangle through four more committees. Sitting at the top of the triangle is the General Board of Global Missions. From the top of the triangle, the money now must roll down through four additional committees, then reaching the congregation in Africa. Months later and money removed to pay for administrative costs along the journey, the parsonage is built.

This does not square in our postmodern culture. First and foremost, the upcoming generations of leaders want to be hands-on in missions and have a deep desire for immediate results. Secondly, we are blessed by technology. Our young leaders can be hand-on and immediate by just using the cell phone in their back pocket.

Bishop Schnase flattens the triangle showing how direct, personal and immediate communication (made possible by Skype, Facebook and Smartphones!) meets the needs, not only of the African congregation but also the American congregation without waiting months or paying for administrative costs.

Red Tape, or more directly, outdated methods are the toe to the foot that the elephant in the room dances on when UMC leadership meet. This is not news.

Currently, congregations are doing exactly what Bishop Schnase has outlined. They are abandoning the 1950 United Methodist method of red tape triangulation and using technology to get things done. Most churches quietly pay their apportionments to keep their pastor in good standing. (Apportionments keep the red tape triangle up and running.) However the tipping point is coming. Churches will begin to catch on and the red tape triangle will first be challenged, and then defunded by the churches.

What Pope Francis Teaches the United Methodist Church

In the stride of Pope Francis, what if UMC leadership decided to get ahead of the curve? The challenge is to lead the UMC into an era that is friendly (even accommodating and empowering) to churches doing ministry with immediate results that are fueled by technology. This type of change can only come from the top down.

Top down leadership must politely defund, shrink and collapse the unnecessary red tape triangles. (dramatic pause.) However, if balanced with ways to make direct ministry more doable for churches (as if linking arms and partnering with lay people), the change will be welcomed.

Just as Pope Francis has given power to a cardinal who is well educated about the Vatican Bank and up front about the changes to be made, surely we could empower one or more such visionaries. Also, Pope Francis is ever mindful of the problems with career clergymen of his institution. Often they cannot see beyond the confines of the clergy box. Pope Francis makes use of lay people with pertaining skill sets and differing world views and experiences.  This links clergy and lay together, lessening class-ism and values the unique lay perspective.

I would like to see a General Conference with a step by step plan to lessen the red tape, makes use of valuable lay people and creates a plan to empower churches to make use of the tools out there to do ministry at home and around the world directly and immediately. Just the boost of energy from this overhaul would give the UMC the shot in the arm needed for  further reform.  The plan comes with marks along the road for success.

For example:

  1. Dollars and cents – educate the lay people of how much money will be saved and how it will be funneled back to them (or just left in THEIR offering plates)
  2. Challenge churches on how to use this money. (Put new carpet in our rarely used “parlor” or fund a Habitat house?)
  3. Provide meaningful training on ministry in the technical age we find ourselves (Help especially smaller churches to not be overwhelmed.)
  4. (as red tape shrinks and committees, boards and agencies cease) Communicate what the committee/board/agency did and how that ministry can be done on the local level (Churches, it’s up to you to change the world!)
  5. Highlight churches that are using the funds for ministry, outreach, mission (Make PR about the people, not the institution)

The end game is to empower lay people and the churches they represent to be the hands and feet of Christ in this postmodern, technological world. The good press wouldn’t hurt either.

Leadership Lesson #3 Major decisions that affect the institution begin with the convictions of the leader.

 

Pope Francis lesson #2 Leadership is not a technical skill

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This is a sad, sad story.  Once upon a time, when I was a pastor in a United Methodist Church (which is part of a regional district) far, far away, I was summonsed to make myself present at a district event. (This means that other pastors in that geographical location would make up the audience.)  It was mandatory.  Being a good foot solider, I cleared my day to make room for this well plugged happening.  Due to the gravity of the event, it would have been considered rude to read a book during the proceedings.  Therefore, I set about the business of people watching.  This is what I saw.

Seated up front and middle isle was the head pastor of the largest church in our district.  He had reached the upper echelon of our gathering by maintaining a reputation of administrative talents.  He dutifully sat with his eyes fixed on the speaker, arms crossed and head slightly cocked to the side.  Sitting in the pew behind and diagonal to this head pastor was another young pastor, fresh from seminary.  I noticed that the young pastor mimicked every body movement of the older, head pastor.  He shook his head when the older guy did, crossed his arms and turned his head the same way.  When it came time for questions and feedback, the young pastor asked follow up questions or comments only on the coat tails of this head pastor’s questions or comments.  Poser?  Possibly.

If leadership is defined by being schooled in the latest leadership models, attending workshops on the gritty “how-to” or owning an extensive electronic library of leadership books, this guy is not a poser.  He is working hard to get somewhere.  And he is following the path of those who have gone before and making alliances with those elders. However the question does loom:  why?

Only 36% of employees believe their leaders act with honesty and integrity. – FrankinCovey

When posing “why?” to the picture I just painted, an uneasy feeling comes over you, doesn’t it?  Author Chris Lowney claims that we are all victims of the “leadership industry” in which workshops and books are seen as the pillars of good leadership (Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads).  If so then why do we distrust our leadership?

2.  The example Pope Francis sets teaches us that leadership is not a technical skill.  It is a soul skill that embodies trust.

Leadership begins with self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-love.  For Christians these spiritual modes are amplified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When a leader trusts in themselves (their emotions, decisions, actions, intentions) as well as having a great deal of trust in God, they are prepared to be present among the people, radiating their spiritual experiences.  Also, the leader who is well invested in the emotional journey of their spirit is able to give him/herself to the people by being truly present.  This means we preach, teach, lead, service and listen with depth and authentic concern.  The essential elements of making decisions on behalf of other people are self- trust, God-trust and followers that trust and share with their leader.   Some call this pastoral leadership.

Pope Francis has demonstrated that he has this kind of trust in God. He didn’t seek his office! “Obviously he’s not a self-promoter,” Mr. Lowney said of the first South American and first Jesuit priest to become pope. “He didn’t fish around to have his name known in clerical circles. He went back to Buenos Aires and worked with poor people.” (Chris Lowney in an interview for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette)  Pope Francis trusted his inner emotions and desires.  He returned home to be who he was/is – God’s co-worker.

What does Pope Francis teach the United Methodist Church?

Reanalyze how we mentor leaders.

I propose the mentoring process not focus solely on the mentee’s ability to uphold “the system”.  Rather the goal of the relationship is to be one of safety and trust.  Spiritual conversations about emotions, relationships and theology are to be capitalized and central.  Mentors are required to report on “progress”.  I suggest they be selective so that the mentee can feel that confidentiality is honored.  Furthermore, I suggest that the reporting process be verbal with mentor and mentee in a room with third person.  The third person fills out the paperwork.  This gives the mentor accountability and an opportunity to build trust.  The mentee can decide from the outcome whether or not to continue in the process with his/her mentor.

If we want leaders like Pope Francis, we must create a safe place for them to fail.  If they feel safe, they will learn about themselves, as well as the situation.  If they do not feel safe, we are just teaching them how to “cover their tracks”.

Add a self-care component to all District and Conference continuing education events.

Conference and district events are laden with leadership model teachings.  I suggest we dial that back…dramatically.  Let our gatherings reflect a #1 priority – soul care for the leader.  This application is made to clergy and lay.  Conversations about emotions, intentions, and self-care create an environment that welcomes leaders to set aside their worries and focus on themselves.  The interactions that will be produced will unify those in leadership as sharing a common spiritual journey.  If done well, I predict that Pope Francis-like leaders will emerge.  And those that are burnt out or do not have the skill set for pastoral/lay leadership will step aside on their own accord without hurt feelings. Instead, they feel cared for and valued by their colleagues. 

If we want Pope Francis-like leaders, we must create a culture that honors the basis of his leadership style – soul care.  Continuing Education is not about the head, it’s about the heart.

Give power to only those who practice these spiritual understandings.                           

Seek out those who do not run for office. Mentor them in the way of self-care.  Build a relationship of trust.  Empower them to affect others, radiating God’s love (not fill a job description).

Why I want a copy of the papal conclave’s playbook

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Pope Francis offers the world something that is in short supply these days:  unity.  This past week, the Pontiff completed his first year of leading the oldest Christian community, the Catholic Church.  And I have noticed that no matter the company of conversation I choose to keep (conservative or liberal), the person across the table speaks fondly of Pope Francis.  This is a rarity.  I am part of a Christian denomination deeply divided and poorly organized.  Most of my conversations about the church, politics or religion in general are problem solving oriented (So many problems!).  Yet when it comes to Pope Francis, the conversational tone is more observant. 

So I have observed this new Pope.  Here are the lessons I think he teaches us in his first year:

1.      A component to spiritual maturity is being comfortable in your own skin.

Sitting across the table, cradling a hot tea, was a best liberal friend.  She shared with me how touched she was that Pope Francis had placed his head in the lap of a homeless man.  Then she followed up the praise with a wish.  She hoped that Pope Francis was indeed everything that these images relayed.  Her shoulders sunk as she reflected.

I understand the concern.  With Photoshop, the insatiable thirst for celebrity gossip and the Internet in general, we have been made weary.  Not all seen, read or heard can be truly trusted.  But my friend, whose theology has been shaped by personal tragedy and theological education, had a deeper concern.  She hoped that Pope Francis was not faking self-leadership (an internal process).  I am convinced he is the real deal.

St. Ignatius 1491-1556

Pope Francis exhibits a deep knowledge and acceptance of himself that allows him to offer authenticity beyond any other leader currently on the national stage.  I believe this is possible because Pope Francis first leads himself, meaning his emotions, his thoughts and his actions.  He is comfortable with world leaders as well as homeless men and curious children because (I believe) he sees a part of himself in each.  This type of self-leadership comes from the communal and personal philosophy of St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits.

“The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.” – Ignatius Loyola

Pope Francis is a Jesuit.  This stream of thought and practice in the Catholic Church follows the example of St. Ignatius.  The major tenant of spiritual renewal for the Jesuit focuses on the heart, over intellect.  It assumes that we do not always understand our actions and reflection upon them in the light of our accompanying emotions reveal great internal knowledge.  This knowledge gives us insight into God’s hand in our internal world as well as the external world. The other component to this spirituality is faith in action. St. Ignatius left his followers with writings on imaginative prayer, spiritual reflection, self-scrutiny and generous service to others.  Pope Francis exemplifies these teachings in a very public way.

The new Pontiff refuses “special treatment” like red slippers or a papal palace.  I can assume he is a nightmare to those in charge of his safety.  This Pope finds himself in and among the people by eye to eye contact, physical touching and serving in person and on spot.  Is this all an act?

The evidence suggest no.  Pope Francis is who he has always been:  a priest with a track record of humility and servant focused, hands-on work among the people he was sent to serve.  Knowing what I know about the spiritual life and the Jesuit way, I believe Pope Francis’ Jesuit spirituality has made him aware of his shortcomings and taught him how to allow Christ to love him anyway.  That is the key principle behind his hunger to be among “the people”.  He wants to convey this life changing love.

Pope Francis gifts us with a component of spiritual maturity that is essential for religious leadership today.  We are hungry for authentic leaders who first embrace themselves and allow Christ to love them.  They openly claim shortcomings and approach success with humility.  These leaders operate from their spiritual journey of healing, rather than a need to prove something.

 Pope Francis teaches the United Methodist Church

 First things first, my hat goes off not to Pope Francis.  I am impressed with the papal conclave (the gathering of cardinal who chose Pope Francis).  Can we get a copy of their play book, please?  This papal conclave’s actions speak directly to those who choose leaders for our churches.  Here is the take-away:

  1. a.     For those serving in our churches at whatever capacity, seek out spiritual maturity in your own life.  Consider a study on the Jesuit way.
  2. b.     For those serving in our pulpits, (follow step a then) preach, teach and lead people into spiritual maturity, choosing those on this path to be church leaders.  Order worship so that times of reflection are employed, use language of forgiveness, not judgment, speak in terms of process not behavior modification models, teach with times of conversation about emotions…refocus on the internal life.
  3. c.    For district superintendents and bishops, (follow step a, and step b then) reorganize everything in your sphere of influence to reflect this pursuit.  Begin meetings with spiritual reflection readings and silent reflection times, invite clergy to round table discussion on emotions and the internal spiritual life, and work at being comfortable with listening to clergy struggles.
  4. d.     For those who are chosen to elect leadership for our church at the Jurisdictional conference level, (follow step a then) sift through bishop candidates by determining who is authentic and who is running for the office with less than authentic intentions.  Push for talk back session with the candidates and ask questions about internal self-leadership.  Study the CV each candidate presents. 

One last thought:  Chris Lowney wrote a book on Pope Francis called Pope Francis:  Why He Leads the Way He Leads.  From Chapter 5, we find this quote:  “Be comfortable in your own skin.  Know who you are, the good and the bad.  And find the courage not just to be yourself, but to be the best version of yourself.  These are the foundations of self-leadership, and all leadership starts with self-leadership because you can’t lead the rest of us if you can’t lead yourself.”

Look forward to the next post about more lesson from this Pope….

Grieving Moses

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I watched my daughter carefully assemble her Legos packets she received this past Christmas.  Legos have really changed over the years.  When I was a kid, most sets were pretty uniform.   With the old school interlocking pieces of the same sizes and colors, Lego artists were limited only by the boundaries of their imagination. Now each set comes with directions and specialty pieces, each unique to the grand design.   I suppose you could mix all the sets together, creating an original.  But I’ve been advised that it’s not recommended.  My neighbor just told me of a Millennium Falcon set that had over 1000 pieces.  Each piece has its own meticulous place according to the directions.  I miss the good ‘ole days.

I’ve been a little slow these days, sitting, observing, and thinking.  As many of you know my canine companion of almost 14 years succumbed to brain cancer a couple of weeks ago.  While watching my daughter’s Lego labor, I felt I was in the midst of similar work.

  Grief work reminds me of Leggos.  It slows us down and the details become important. 

I feel as if I am gathering all the little parts to build something special.  Those tiny parts are all the memories of Moses.  I want to think about every little wrinkle in his nose when he “dog smiled” or how his ears perked when he heard the rustling of a cellophane bag.  I want to relive the story of the time he attempted to out maneuver a rabbit and left my husband and me in stitches from raucous laughter.  These memories are like Lego parts and I’m gathering them, sorting them, putting them in order for my creation.  The final product is the precious story of our life together. 

I don’t know how long it will take me to gathers all these details.  It is slow, sad endeavor.  But my goal is to spread these memories out like a long labored quilt, carefully stitched together.  I want to look over my work and lift my head to the heavens to say “Thank you”.  The spiritual work of gathering these memories will enable me to choose gratitude. Many of you have called or written to give comfort and you have shared your stories of companions long gone.  Your words help me collect my parts for the grand design.  My goal is to arrive at that precious place where memories stir up happiness not sadness.

So now we are on the hunt for Moses pictures.  I’m going to choose a few for collage, to be framed with his obituary.  It will be a snapshot of our life together. But most of all a reminder to be grateful for the time we had together, the lessons learned and the love shared.

Smothering Blanket Statements top 10 list

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Lately, I’ve noticed my writing has revolved around responding to sermon statements I hate to hear.  When said out loud they sound pretty shallow.  When considered with depth they just sound futile.  Perhaps I should create a top 10 list?  Any suggestions out there? Just send them in!  But for now here’s # 10 of “Blanket Sermon Statements Sure to Smother the Mind“.

#10- any blanket statement that solely places the decline of Christianity’s influence in American culture on the shoulders of postmodernism, abundance and/or technology.

Geographical Management

(also a good sermon starter for January 26)

If Mama Aint Happy...well, you knowI remember my first lesson in “geographical management”.  Simply put, Mom was mad at Dad, so I stayed out of Mom’s way.  I was about three.  I successfully repeated that well learned tenet throughout my life.  When trouble is brewing, go the opposite direction.  Sounds simple enough.  The end game included plausible deniability and avoiding guilt by association.

Jesus never really caught that childhood lesson.  He ends his 33 year career as a carpenter and begins his ministry in a hotspot:  Galilee.  Any wise preacher would have avoided letting roots grow in this town.  Galilee was ruled by tetrarch Herod (named after the King Herod that chased the Holy Family at Jesus’ birth).  Like his namesake, tetrarch Herod overreached his power by arresting, imprisoning and beheading John the Baptist who lived and preached in Judea, not Galilee.  In addition to that staggering fact, Galilee was an ancient dumping ground of cultures.  Whenever Rome had a disturbance in the country, they geographically dispersed the ethic group by sending a portion of them to Galilee.  The hodgepodge of cultures and language greatly reduced the possibility of a united uprising.  Perhaps that is why tetrarch Herod had the time and energy to seek out John the Baptist, who criticized his marriage to his brother’s wife.  Of all the places available, Jesus sets up shop in Galilee.

Jesus leans into the discomfort of Galilee and being green.  He is a young man from a no-name town and no-name family preaching good news to a group of oppressed misfits with little to no support.  If ever there was a time for tetrarch Herod to squash him, it was now; before the crowd gathered to listen, before the healings, before the miracles.  For the adult Jesus, this is vulnerability.  And for most of us this is what we avoid (sometimes at all costs).  Would we ever follow Jesus by taking such great risks and feeling vulnerable?  Imagine sharing a new idea at work (in front of everyone), holding a family member accountable for bad behavior, or purposely including an awkward person in a group activity.  Yes, things could go horribly wrong and your nerves will probably be on edge the whole time, but welcome to the world of human vulnerability. Success is not guaranteed.  If anything failure will be your guide.  However, let your strength come from knowing that Jesus walked the same emotional path as he trudged through the streets of Galilee for the first time (these people could reject me!), when he heard his cousin, John the Baptist, had been arrested (is Herod coming after me too?)and when he invited the first disciples to follow him (will they accept?).

The vulnerability of Jesus (from conception to the cross) explains to us why Christianity is growing in third world countries.  For example The United Methodist Church actually grew by 25% between 1999-2009, and remains on an increasing growth pace worldwide, just not in the US or some parts of Europe.  Many preachers have blamed the decline of Christianity on our country’s loose morals and/or our economic luxuries.  My explanation is rooted in the vulnerability.  Christianity best serves those who are vulnerable.  Those in third world countries have unstable governments who cannot provide safety, food security is always an issue and some sovereignties persecute Christians by violent means.  These situations illustrate vulnerability.  If I were in these situations, I would take great comfort, strength and peace following a Jesus who endured and ultimately overcame.  While we do not share the level of vulnerability our third world Christian brothers and sisters experience, we can follow Jesus by leaning into the vulnerability that lies outside our front doors of our churches as well as those near and dear to our hearts.

Church and postmodern cultureLeaning into the discomfort of  being vulnerable is defined by risk taking for individual Christians as well as faith communities.  We will fail (as well as succeed) but we will learn.  And those lessons will lead to future success, personally and collectively.  As far as our postmodern culture, American abundance and technology (often blamed for Christianity’s American decline) I encourage postmodern people to express gratitude for what we have and make use of the resources God has seen fit to send our way.  Gratitude and vulnerability is the path, not guilt trips and shame fests.  The path Jesus sets in one of risk taking vulnerability.  Do we dare follow?

The Thanksgiving Sermon; a new approach

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My pastor friend and I were discussing the woes of the annual “Thanksgiving Sermon”.  He told me that he didn’t want to preach a sermon that reduced gratitude to a behavior modification for Christians to implement.  “After all, it’s an emotion,” he said, “and sometimes we just don’t feel grateful.”

I agree.  However, it is much more.  Gratitude is the foundation for a joyous life.  To think that joy begets gratitude puts the proverbial cart before the horse.  Rather a joyful life is built upon an active practice of gratitude.   Gratitude, as an action, requires a slower pace that enables reflection or “taking stock”.  Gratitude forces us to be present with ourselves, mindful of the joy that has seeped in. Practicing gratitude reminds us of the best parts of being connected with other humans, nature and a Creator.

That is a different concept than gratitude as a feeling.  But gratitude can be a feeling.  Take for example my friend, who was in a car accident.  She was not hurt, but her car was totaled.  When she was interviewed by the police and saw the video, they explained how two inches to the left of the impact would have landed her in the hospital for a lengthy stay.  Tears welled up.  She was overcome with gratitude.  Most of our lives are not filled with these dramatic near miss moments.  Rather, we meander through life from one event to the next.  Do we sit around and wait for a moment of potential tragedy so we can feel grateful?  (You know the answer to that one.)

Gratitude is not only an emotion; it can be a practice, a very powerful life changing practice.  Brene Brown’s research in her book Gifts of Imperfection reveals that 100% of people that consider themselves “joyful” practice gratitude.  She tells story after story from those she interviewed who keep a gratitude journal or prayer time.  Some people gathered with friends and family for a meal and shared events of the day, highlighting grateful moments.  Whatever the practice, the story always ended the same, the event was analyzed with a positive lens and joy resulted.

Click Here for a 31/2 minutes video with Dr. Brown on Gratitude!

I always think of my grandfather’s recliner.  Being so small, I would sit and sink (and sometimes, nap).  I was surrounded by comfort and warmth.  Gratitude is like Pop’s chair.  I sit, I recall the things, people, situations I am grateful for and I am comforted and warmed. I realized that things are not as bad or mundane as they seem.  I slow down and stew in the juice of the present, seeing how God is at work in ways, otherwise, I would have missed.  I become curious as to what God is up to with me and my loved ones.  Most congregants don’t have Pop’s chair (real or internal).

This theme permeates the Old Testament.  Moses, working as God’s hand, brings the Hebrew slaves from Egypt to a new land and the message from God is clear:  remember (isn’t that what Passover is all about?).  God wanted them to remember from where they had come, what they had witnessed in the desert and to whom they belonged.  This remembering is an act of gratitude.  Unfortunately, the ancient Jewish people wanted more political control, more land and more of everything.  (Sound familiar?)

Brene Brown said it best, “We’re a nation hungry for more joy: Because we’re starving from a lack of gratitude.”  Congregants have come to church to gleam something – I suggest we offer Brene Brown’s connection between gratitude and joy.  This missing insight may set this upcoming holiday into a live changing event.

The HEART of Vital Signs

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A serious understanding of the New Testament must encompass a grasp of a Jewish religious sect called the Pharisees.  Even a light reader of the New Testament quickly discovers that Jesus is often plagued by the group.  Jesus’ radical ideas of freedom, human worth and dignity cause conflict with standard religious groups of the day as well as government authorities.  When it came to opposing Jesus, the Pharisees usually lead the charge.

The Pharisees were a necessary group.  The Jewish people were no longer self-governed and the Pharisees offered much needed guidance and interpretation of God’s Law.  Long before Jesus’ time, the Jews had suffered a great military defeat that resulted in an exile to Babylon and the destruction of the First Temple.  When the Persians defeated Babylon 70 years later, King Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return and rebuild the Temple.  The Jewish people regained culture and worship. However, they did not regain the right to govern themselves.  A foreign rule oversaw every aspect of their lives, including the rebuilding of the Temple.  This brought into question the Temple’s authenticity.  Aside from this problem, the Jews brought with them two practices that evolved during the exile:  the house of prayer and the house of study.  The house of prayer was a place for morning, afternoon and evening prayer.  The house of study was a place to explore the Torah.  The Second Temple evolved into a place for liturgical practice only.  The priestly class supervised the Second Temple.  And who oversaw the study of the Torah and became experts in the law?  You guessed it, our friends the Pharisees. 

But who could blame someone for taking the Holy Writ under serious study and attempting to apply the deep wisdom to modern human life?  (Isn’t that equivalent to attending seminary?)  Pharisees guided the common Jewish people in the “how to” of living out the promises of God.  They duplicated their work by functioning as a political party, advocating the preservation of Jewish thought and culture in a world dominated by Roman practices (the political authority of Jesus’ day).  Yet they sought peace with the Roman occupiers by discouraging any military force by the Jewish people.  Pharisees examined every aspect of Jewish life under the fine microscope of the Torah, constantly searching for more ways to please God.  Being a Pharisee wasn’t a bad deal, as a matter the Pharisaical way of life sounds like a blue print for the Christian faithful.  So why does Jesus have such harsh words for the Pharisees? 

The bottom line was lack of compassion.  The Pharisees truly believed that if all of Israel would adhere to their interpretation of the Torah (live right) then God would respond by sending the Messiah, who would establish God’s Kingdom on earth.  Naturally, the Pharisees believed that they had it right.  Instead of offering encouragement to those not quite on board, they offered judgment and harsh treatment.  This attitude is the root of Jesus’ disgust.  In addition, they assume that God’s blessings are to be earned.

“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?”
―  Mother Teresa

The United Methodist Church has rolled out its version of “right living” for churches called Vital Signs.  The check off list resembles God’s Kingdom on paper.  However, it does not address underlying attitudes, like compassion toward the least of these (children, elderly, immigrants, mentally challenged, for example).  Churches of any theological slant that adopt this attitude as a basis for ACTIVELY offering Christ will be the ones that thrive in this increasing multi-religious world.  The Pharisees had it right on paper but, according to Jesus, truly getting it right takes heart.

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