Monday, June 4, 2007

Following the Spirit's Leading

After a hard week reevaluating our budget, and revising our expense categories to correspond to current income...I was a bit down and out last Sunday. As I prepared to leave on vacation I prayed to God for guidance and reassurance. I didn't hear anything back. I spent a sleepless night wondering what was going to happen. Where will our journey take us? Are there things that we should be doing? What can we do better? Will we survive?

The questions kept nagging in my mind. The next morning I fired up the computer and received this emailed article. I was amazed how I sensed God speaking these comforting words directly to me...just when I needed to hear them. I thought I would pass it on for your encouragement as well.

Following the Spirit's Leading
by Gary Shockley

Sometimes, without our prompting, life will alter our pace for us. The birth of a child, a promotion at work, sickness, marriage, divorce, the death of someone we love—these things make us stop in our tracks. All forward motion ceases for a time. We would be wise in these moments to rest for a while and simply survey the landscape, find the horizon again, get a sense of where we are, and seek God’s presence.

Several years ago one of these painful experiences shattered my straight-course, driven life. My mother had been battling cancer for nearly two years, and suddenly the days, weeks, and months of slow physical deterioration quickly accelerated. My father called to tell me she had been admitted to the hospital for double pneumonia. I knew my mother was close to death. I made the trip from my home to the hospital in record time and arrived to find my mother in the critical care unit.

Five days after I arrived at the hospital to see her, my mom died. As painful as it was, my mother’s death became the catalyst for some intense work in my life. In my drivenness I had lapsed into a kind of automatic pilot. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I kept an unhealthy pace. I got up early, worked way too late, and, to the neglect of my own well-being and that of my family, kept this unhealthy pace going. I had allowed ministry to become my life. It was predictable and controllable, and it gave me a sense of meaning and importance. What’s not to love? Well, how about the feelings of loneliness, isolation, and shallowness it brought me?

After my mother died I stood still long enough to realize that—like a sailing ship without a rudder—I was being pulled by a strong current, a depression I could not steer my way out of. Sailing into what had become uncharted waters for me, I was losing sight of land. I needed someone to help me navigate this journey. I decided to seek help through counseling. Talking with my therapist once a week was like ducking behind an island to get out of the wind and find the stability I needed. In this time dedicated to me, I learned new things about myself, about life, about God. I learned some new ways to live again: to find a healthier pace, to embrace the journey from heartache to hope.

Although I still get caught at times in my need to succeed, still try to rush things along rather than wait on the Spirit’s leading, I am trying to learn something at once both simple and incredibly difficult: the destination is not a place but a person—a person who loves me very much and more than anything wants to be with me along the journey of life. I am much more open these days to the idea that God isn’t all that interested in getting me somewhere. God is just interested in getting me!

One of my favorite journey stories from the Bible is the Israelites’ expedition from Egypt to the promised land. Some of God’s best work, I think. A trip that easily could have been made in less than 40 days had they followed a straight line took 40 years. Their travel log must have resembled the kind of scribbled picture a two-year-old would draw. You have probably heard someone explain their meanderings in this way: “More important than getting the Israelites out of Egypt was getting Egypt out of the Israelites.” Or “The Israelites were lost because Moses wouldn’t stop and ask for directions.” I think their time spent wandering through the wilderness had more to do with God needing to spend quality time with the people (and the people with God) so they could experience God’s faithfulness over and over again.

God wanted them to trust him today. That’s why God provided manna on a daily basis. Consider the definition of manna—“What is it?” They had to trust God to know that this nameless, unidentifiable, perishable whatchamacallit would be enough for now. They were to gather up only what they could consume that day. If they tried to keep some of it overnight, it spoiled. Tomorrow God would provide—again. They couldn’t make it happen—no matter how much they might be driven by hunger. They just had to meander around, collecting manna as it randomly fell from the sky.

But these ancient wanderers were a hardheaded bunch. How else can you explain them witnessing with their own eyes the 10 plagues, the parting of the sea (twice), bread from heaven, water from rocks, quail blown in by the wind, and countless kingdoms obliterated by the awesome power of God—only to whine, beg, and plead to go back to Egypt, back to a life of slavery, back to what was a familiar, linear, predictable way of life?

Maybe God needed 40 years to nurture a new generation of followers who might just “get” him and be willing to follow. Maybe what God wanted most from them, and now us, is a willingness to put one foot in front of the other, step after step, alongside him, no matter the pace or how the path might twist and turn. Maybe God wanted them to grasp a greater purpose for their lives—to be people who would give witness to this unique and awesome God.

Are we eager to get through whatever task or challenge we face in life as quickly as possible, moving steadily from point A to point B to point C, ever closer toward whatever goal we have in mind? The Israelites’ experience reminds us: the spiritual journey doesn’t work that way. In the faith journey, we are not so much racing toward a physical finish line as meandering toward becoming all that God has in mind for us to be. Like the Israelites, our ability to discern and follow God’s leading has far less to do with time in a chronological sense and much more to do with direction.

Steven R. Covey, professor of business management and organization behavior, writes in his best-selling book "First Things First" about how fixated our culture is on the clock. The clock represents our busyness—commitments at work, appointments, tasks, and schedules. The clock symbolizes how we spend our lives. The compass, on the other hand, represents the personal vision, core values, and principles that shape and guide our lives. Covey suggests that we ought to rely more on the compass than the clock, because the compass has more to do with the direction we intend to follow on our journey.

The Old Testament book of Jeremiah finds the people of Israel exiled in Babylon and restless for home. Their growing impatience made them susceptible to the false hope and promises propagated by some prophets who foretold an early release from captivity. These false promises fixated them on the clock. Like little children sitting in the back of the car on a long trip, they kept asking over and over again, “Hey, God, are we there yet?” Caught up in the clock, they lost sight of the compass. So God sent Jeremiah with the message, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). No timetable. No drivenness.

God’s plan for the people was simple. Maybe that’s why they missed it. Look at the next verses: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me” (vv. 12–14). In other words, “When praying, listening, and looking for me become the focus of your lives, you will find me,” says the Lord. “I am your future and your hope!”

The spiritual journey rarely unfolds in a straight line. We go forward and backward, left and right. We make progress, and we fall behind. Sometimes we feel like we are simply standing still. The questions we need to ask ourselves are not, how far have we come? (How long have we been on the road?) How much farther is it? (Or, when will we get there?) Those are clock questions. Rather, we need to ask, am I pointing myself in what I sense through the Spirit to be the right direction? Am I continually orienting myself toward God? Those are compass questions.

Adapted from The Meandering Way: Leading by Following the Spirit, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Go to for full article.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

There's no discovery without DISCO!

Do the hustle! Freak Out! Get down on it! If you remember any of these song lyrics then you are probably a child of disco. I was talking to a member of the congregation a few days ago, another “Baby Boomer” like me, about the kind of music we grew up with. She commented on the 70s being her favorite genre, because it took her back to the good times in high school. Even though I attended high school in the late 70s, I was never allowed to listen to that kind of music. It was considered “sinful”. But once I joined the military after graduation I got my fill of 80s music, and I loved it! Disco was an amazing time in my own evolution as a person. It was truly a time of discovery for me. The energy and motion of the dance floor truly made you forget your troubles and get happy!

But it was really hard to dance those crazy dances! I mean, you really had to be coordinated! I watch the kids today and wonder how they are able to play Dance, Dance, Revolution so successfully. I thought I could dance, but when it comes to that kind of dancing, I have two left feet! It was the same with disco…I’m great at free style, but it was really hard for me to learn the moves of John Travolta. But it really didn’t matter whether I got the dance steps right or not on the dance floor. It was like being in a completely different place mentally and spiritually.

Our spiritual journey is like that sometimes too. We occasionally experience the true nature of God to the fullest, and feel the joy that comes from knowing everything is going to be all right. We sometimes feel like we’ve gotten all the steps right, and are moving in synchronicity with the One who guides us through each step of our life. And even if we mess up the steps occasionally, we are assured that the dance is still beautiful, and precious in God’s sight. And we always have the chance to get back on the right foot…back into the DISCOvery of it all.

Our growth as a church has been slow in process these past few years. Yet I have a peace within me that all will be well. Even as the leadership team meets to decrease our budget to match our income, I feel that God is in control. I will most likely be going part-time as your pastor in order to decrease our expenses, and I am giving up my pension for the time being as well. We will have to eliminate several positions, scale back on our expenditures, and most likely simplify our worship experience and outreach programs. But that is okay with me. I am even at peace with it, because I know that I’ve given everything I have to this church. I’ve discovered that no matter what happens in our lives, it’s learning from the experience that determines success. Failure is just a matter of not understanding the learning in the experience.

Success is a process. It takes a goal + purpose + activity to realize it. The goal is something tangible that you want to accomplish. It is an objective that is usually physical in nature or an accomplishment to acquire. The next factor for success is having a purpose for that goal, which is knowing why you want what you want. So often we have goals but we really don’t know why we have them. The third factor for success is activity; doing what it is you do to get what you want.

My goal for Journey Church is to be a light of God’s love and grace to everyone in our community. That means shining the light on the intolerance, homophobia, exclusivity and judgmentalism that pervades our society, and countering it with acceptance, embrace, inclusion and forgiveness. My purpose for this is to be more Christ-like in everything that I do so that I will know the mind of Christ. The activity is teaching what I know and believe to be true about God and myself.

I anticipate a wonderful journey of DISCOvery over the next year. No matter how long we have on this earth to accomplish our ministry together, it will be the most amazing, loving, transformative time we will ever live. And in that living will we discover the boundless grace that exists for us and for the world. I hope you will dance with me! The dance floor is always open, and God is our dance instructor!

Blessings on your journey of DISCOvery!
Pastor Brice

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Squawk like a goose! Pentecost is coming!

Did you know that I speak Russian? It’s a language I learned while in the military during my training as a Cryptolinguistic Translator. That’s a fancy term for spy! During the cold war in the 1980’s I intercepted Russian aircraft communications and translated them to discern the activities of the Soviet Air Force in East Germany. What a ride that was! I always enjoyed learning foreign languages, and would travel Europe speaking French, Russian and German. Many were surprised that a country boy from Ohio could communicate with such a diverse group of people. I loved meeting new people during my travel—and just the attempt I made to speak with them in their own language opened doors for new friendships and experiences.

May 27th is the Sunday we celebrate Pentecost this year, and is always a time when I reflect deeply about the significant events in my life. I grew up Pentecostal. My father was a pastor and evangelist in the Assemblies of God church. And I remember the camp meetings of my childhood where my Dad used to preach. My experiences in the Pentecostal church, although oppressive at times, did introduce me to the excitement and enthusiasm of the Pentecost experience. Yet I am amazed how in the mainline church we are comfortable with Pentecost as a noun. But when you make the word an adjective—Pentecostal, we become nervous. And maybe it should make us nervous. Celtic Christians chose the wild goose as a symbol representing the Holy Spirit. A wild goose is one noisy, bothersome bird. I like this image of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose because it jars us out of our complacency of doing church in familiar and traditional ways.

Years later I was jarred out of my complacency when I left my Pentecostal tradition and started seeking a theology that embraced me as a gay Christian. That search brought me to United Theological Seminary in Dayton, where my time was filled with periods of constructing a new theology while at the same time reclaiming the traditions of my youth. I seriously studied the history of the church and shared my own experiences of exclusion and charted new experiences of embrace. I looked anew at the ancient writings of my faith and discovered layers of learning that emerged once I scratched through its surface teachings and dug deep into its wisdom. I devoured the secrets of an emerging Christian community in my New Testament studies, and was transformed by the care for others as pastor. My embedded theology was questioned and crushed, twisted and turned, prodded and poked as I constantly reinterpreted the symbols of my faith for new contexts. And it’s these new contexts that continue to draw me back to the story of Pentecost—that amazing moment when the Holy Spirit, the wild goose that she is—gave birth to a church of many different languages and cultures.

A part of me wishes that I could have been a part of the church when America was split over the issue of slavery. The Bible was clearly on the side of the slave owner – but the Spirit would not let us stop where the Bible left off. A part of me wishes that I could have been around for the debate about ordaining women where the Bible makes terrible commentary supporting a male dominated faith, but thank God the church remained open to the Spirit and we can now celebrate the ministry of women– something that would not have happened 150 years ago. And I am interested in how we came to have a different understanding and acceptance about divorce, and the reality of broken marriages and the work of God in those very broken places. But I am especially glad to be here during a time when we see the church working through the struggle of embracing the gay and lesbian community as an equal part and voice within our midst. I’m glad to see and experience the tension of the Spirit doing her work again of breaking us out of our homogeneous places and pushing the gate even wider to fully include another part of our community that has been marginalized. The Spirit is forcing us to speak even more languages and to open our gates even wider than we have ever thought before.

I risk coming out as a gay minister every day—wondering if I will be accepted or rejected. But I am committed to being an authentic Christian—one that is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus. And I can not be attached to how others receive me—only that I share my identity with a sense of wholeness and desire for relationship. Now my idea of the gospel may lean more toward embrace than exclusion—but that’s how I experience God. And that’s how I hope you experience Journey Church.
We are hosting our first membership class on Saturday, May 19th from 10am to 3pm. This will be a very different experience for those of you who have grown up in the church. The theme of the class is “Passport to your Journey” and will be significantly different from what you might expect from a new members class. We will engage our lives together as a Christian community by looking deeply into our own souls to discern what you are here to do in your life and what you can learn from each other. In addition to a short course on UCC History and Polity and the vision of Journey Church, you will be encouraged to look at where you are on your spiritual journey. You will be asked to make a commitment to our work together and also to your own journey of faith. It will be an exciting time together—and it includes lunch! The cost will be $30 per person to pay for your learning materials and for our presenters.

The Pentecost moment means that we often must translate the words of our ancient texts into new contexts and experiences. And like my experience while living in Europe, we have to speak a language that others understand—and once trust in the relationship is established can we then talk about God in new ways of understanding. So listen to the call of the Spirit—that noisy bothersome Spirit that calls us out of complacency and into radical inclusivity. I challenge you, this season of Pentecost—to experience what it means to be Pentecostal. And by that, I mean a church of many different experiences of God, speaking the good news of God’s love and embrace for all humanity—in our own languages.

Invite someone to church this month—seek to speak their language—and then share this inclusive vision of God’s kingdom—God’s reign on earth. Amen!

Pastor Brice

Friday, March 30, 2007

Easter Cancelled. Pastor's not ready!

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for...the evidence of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1

Sometimes don’t you just want to skip all the hype of Easter? It can be really stressful orchestrating all the events and activities of Holy Week. Yet for me the past nine months of our journey toward opening our new coffeehouse and concert ministry has been a daily dose of angst and anxiety. Just ask Amy Miller, director of Common Grounds, how we handled the stress. We’ve joked that it’s been similar to birthing a baby…only without the belly or the baby shower!

We’ve come quite a long way since last July when we first began swinging Krista’s sledgehammer against the old and rotting pegboard lining the interior of 35 East Main Street. Sometimes it’s hard to belief that we made it through those days of grime, dust and soot. And now that we’ve finally launched our coffeehouse and concert ministry the concerns and challenges of starting something so grand still cloud my mind. There still exists anxiety about what we’ve taken on as a small worshiping congregation.

The issues at hand are very practical and important to address as we consider the amount of resources available to direct these emerging ministries and address the security issues we must face in light of opening a “public” venue. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about those questions but find myself also thinking about the spiritual issues facing us in the same way. As much as these questions need to be addressed on a practical level...they also need to addressed on a spiritual level.

During the past two years I've lived between fear and faith. Although I had faith in the vision that God gave me to launch a ministry like Common Grounds, I didn't always believe that vision was going to happen. I had "seeing" faith...only believing when I could see it happen. The challenges we faced during the first year of our ministry together turned my faith into fear. I feared that my vision for ministry was not in alignment with the vision of our church. The two seemed incompatible.

I remember talking to realtors when we first decided to sell our old building. I was told that it was only worth $250,000...and that's all we could get. But I knew we could get more...and I had faith that we would. The next offer was $500,000. That was the top offer we would ever get...came the words from land developers that were attracted to us because of Wal-Mart being in our backyard. They were like sharks in the water, circling and waiting for the kill! I thought we could get more...but my faith had waned a bit since nothing better had come along yet. So we began talking to one of the sharks who almost convinced me that $500,000 was all we could get. But the day we were going to sign a contract with them, another developer called me and said they would give us $600,000. I put the contract on hold, asked God to forgive me for doubting him, and countered the new buyer with an offer for $675,000. They accepted. And with that our vision began to slowly materialize. And it did happen! God brought people to our church who took that vision to the next step. But somehow that unbelief and fear still exists!

So I have to ask myself again...what really exists behind my fear? Do I have faith that God can do the impossible? In the nine months since then we've spent much of that money on renovation, equipment and church expenses for our new building and ministry. I know that God supplied those extra funds so that we could build the vision that God gave us for ministry. But it is so easy to begin living in fear again that the remaining money will run out, and we won't be able to pay for what we've created. Once again, fear creeps in and robs us of our faith. The value in raising these questions is that they help cause us to face spiritual issues as we have faith that God can do what God said God would do? To bless us, and multiply our efforts if what we do is for the kingdom of God? Matthew 6:33 says it all, "Seek first the kingdom of heaven, and everything else will be given to you." Do we really believe that?

I guess the question "Are we ready?" represents my own journey to Easter. Am I ready for God's kingdom to come to earth? Am I ready for Jesus to be resurrected in my heart? Does God wait for me to believe it...or should I have faith in what God is going to do and help make it happen? I am really not preaching here about 'not' asking questions...rather I want to take these opportunities to address our fears in order to grow our faith. Questions are valid and important...and need to be addressed. We have to act on our vision and expect God will bring the resources into our church that will assist in creating that vision; a community where God's realm rules. If we build God's kingdom, then they will come. As above, so below…thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

For the longest time the vision of Common Grounds coffeehouse and concert ministry existed only in my mind. In the past two years it has grown tremendously, and has manifested into an amazing place ready to receive those that God is calling to us. That happened not just because of me, but because others joined us because they also caught the vision. Imagine what we can create when all of us share that vision...and really believe in it. The question "Are we ready?" forces us to consider our faith. Because God’s kingdom will come…whether we are ready or not. Jesus was raised from the dead whether the disciples were ready or not. God was ready...and that's all that mattered. Easter is coming. Are you ready?

Please continue to bring your questions and fears to the table...and allow me to face them with you on a spiritual level. That’s the value of traveling together. For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I'm ready!

Blessings on your journey of faith!
Pastor Brice