When We Need Help To Hear

Listen: Praying In A Noisy World by Bishop Reuben Job

Listen: Praying In A Noisy World by Bishop Reuben Job

Not just as a pastor, but as a Christian, one of my top priorities must be intentionally nurturing my soul, looking after my inner life with God. After all, the tumultuous world around me depends on me being the best witness I can to the grace and justice of God first in every circumstance. While there is a variety of spiritual habits through which I can care for my soul, none is more important than the rhythm of daily prayer. It affects every part of my day--every relationship, every task for work, every challenge, etc. If you've ever tried to build a consistent rhythm of prayer into your life, you'll know what I mean when I say that it changes everything. The trouble with a consistent prayer life, however, is that many of us--including me--need help. I need help in learning to hear God speak.

My recent rhythms in daily prayer have been centered around the Wesley Covenant Prayer, a great tool for emptying myself of my own concerns so that I can focus instead on God's concerns for the day. But I've just picked up (again) another tool that helps structure my prayer time in such a way that the results are always powerful and effective. Bishop Reuben Job's book, Listen: Praying In A Noisy World, was first given to me by a spiritual director who--wisely, I might add--sensed that I was in a place in my walk with Christ where I needed to stop talking so much and start listening more. I tried the book. It worked. So every now and again, when I sense that I need to listen more and speak less, I pick it up. Just this morning, I sat on the rug in my office and began to work through the first week's exercise: sitting in silence. After meditating on Psalm 27 and sitting in silence, I reached a clarity on God's love for me and for the world that I haven't sensed in days, maybe even weeks now.

If you desire to have a more consistent prayer life, but you find it's hard to get started, I suggest trying Bishop Job's little book. Even if you're a seasoned saint, there's no shame at all in admitting that we need help learning to hear God's voice. 

God Created...and still Creates

The Bible begins with one of the most beautiful things ever written about God: "In the beginning, God created..." God created light where there was no light. God created form where there was no form. God created us where there was no us. 

One of the reasons I think this is one of the most beautiful parts of the Bible is because it reminds me that our story as a people always begins with God doing something creative, with God breathing life into dirt. And God still does this! This same God continues to call into existence new communities of people who learn to follow in the ways of Jesus and experience deep, life-altering change. We at The Oaks UMC are very thankful that the Holy Spirit of God is stirring to do this creative work in us that only God can do...again and again!

During the past week, we reached a true milestone in the life of this new church. For the past several months, we have seen God moving and working in people--after all, this is the true meaning of the Church, the people who are changed by an encounter with Jesus and who then go out and change the world around them. We have resisted the description of the Church as a physical location, as brick and mortar, as wood and steel. And we will continue to emphasize the true nature of the Church as being the ones who gather to worship God and experience the grace that comes through living in Christ. That said, it is a good thing for these people to have a space for gathering, for worship, for showing the community the love of God. It is a good thing for these people to have a place where they can gather for the purpose of being sent. 

On Monday, April 11, 2016, The Oaks UMC closed on a new property for these purposes. The future--but also now present--home of The Oaks United Methodist Church is located at 2911 Inspiration Dr in Hudson Oaks, TX. We are very grateful that we have seen this part of the vision come to fruition.

Now, although we have closed on the property, this journey is just beginning. In the coming weeks and months, we will have a lot of paperwork to do, a lot of official processes to navigate--and we are glad for it--so we ask for your prayers during this season. And we will also begin soon to look at how best to improve the existing structures to maximize their effectiveness in serving as stations for carrying out our purpose: to continue to grow as Changed People Who Change The World. 

God's creative work is not done in this world, folks. It's been ongoing since the beginning, and it continues even now.

Why do I observe Lent?

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, although I guess there were opportunities. After all, half of my extended family were Roman Catholic, and I remember plenty of Friday night family dinners at Grandpa’s Catfish House during the season. And every now and then we went to the little Methodist church in Gravel Ridge, AR, with my cousin, Bubba Dickens. I liked that place. The Methodists gave you a real piece of bread during communion instead of one of those little church chiclets that tasted like paper. So while I wasn’t a participant, to say that I was unaware of Lent wouldn’t be the whole truth.

 

But it wasn’t until my grown-up days that I discovered the richness and depth of these 40 days leading up to Easter. Some time around the beginning of seminary—2005 or so—I began observing this season in the life of the Church. It was a time when a lot of things changed for me, and I found the intense focus of the season helped to calm my spirit, helped to recenter my vision on God during a time of tumult (i.e., during early adulthood when one is faced with figuring out life and one’s place in the world). These days, I look forward to Lent because it is always a time of intense refocusing on God’s purpose for my life, and of learning again and again that I only find my true self in Christ when I learn to partake in suffering and loss.

 

During Lent, I am often reminded of a famous story about Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha, who carried two slips of paper at all times, one in each pocket. On one was written the phrase from Genesis 18.27: “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other was written a line from the Babylonian Talmud: “The world was created for me.” It is said that on good days, the rabbi would focus on the paper that reminded him of his humble origins. On particularly bad days, he would read the more uplifting message about everything being made for him. As a follower of Jesus, this always points me toward thinking about my baptism. As I walk through Lent remembering what Christ has done for the world, even for me, Paul’s words from Romans 6 ring loud and clear. In my baptism I have died with Christ. Because my Lord and Savior first modeled this pattern and bids me to follow him, I, too, experience humility and the suffering of both life and death. But at the same time, there is resurrection. There is new life. There is hope. I have found that during Lent, more than any other time of the year, I am able to focus and walk in this tension of being caught between the reality of pain and suffering and death on the one hand, and the promise that Christ will see me through on the other. 

 

In the end, I celebrate Lent because this season confronts me with my own human limitations and need for God’s grace. The ashen cross I receive on my forehead every year to mark the beginning of the journey puts the stark reality of human frailty and death—even my own frailty and death—front and center. But when I receive this symbol I am also filled with holy awe. Yes, I have limits. Yes, I will return to the dust. No, I’m not perfect by any means. But every year, without fail, that little gray smudge I bear on a Wednesday points me to the rich beauty and power of the new life I live in Christ. 

Depression. My Story and My Way Back.

2016 marks a 10-year anniversary for me. For a period spanning from 2006 to 2007, I experienced a months-long bout with severe clinical depression. My life as I had known it broke into pieces. I didn’t know how to cope with the simplest of tasks. My physical health was adversely affected. My grades in seminary suffered. And, to be honest, the bottom fell out of my spiritual life. I remember lying in bed and thinking that I simply didn’t care if God existed, or if I existed. And this was coming from a lifelong Christian! But it’s where I was. I couldn’t change that then, and I certainly can’t jump in a time machine today and go back to change myself in those moments. The truth is…even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.

I wouldn’t go back to change those moments because that part of my journey eventually led to a process of healing and restoration in which I experienced a resurgence of hope, of faith, and, for lack of a better way of saying it, of getting my life back. Sure, the road back from that dark night of my soul was long. It certainly wasn’t easy, neither for me nor for those around me—just ask my incredibly gracious and patient wife, Amber, when you get a chance. 

One thing I wish were different, though, is how difficult it was to talk about depression in the Church at the time. (Granted, a decade has passed, and I think churches in 2016 generally have a better handle on healthy conversations about depression—and mental health in general.) My life was centered around the Church, around the Body of Christ, around this place where I prayed, where I attended worship, where I told people to have hope and that everything would be ok. But my depression was keeping me from believing these things myself. And I wish I could say that the Church helped. But it really didn’t. At least, not at first. 

Instead, I found the first steps on my path back to a new normal—not to mention a more organic, rich spiritual life—in the office of a seminary professor named Dr. Sprinkle and in conversations with (and interventions from…) my wife and a friend named Paul, who is doing an excellent job pastoring First Christian Church in Lubbock, TX—you should visit if you’re ever out there! Those initial conversations led me to see my doctor. Then I saw a therapist. Then I saw another doctor. And you know what? With the right mix of seeing a counselor, finding the right medication, eating right, and even exercising, I started to get better. It was slow at first. But my recovery picked up speed and momentum as time passed.

And guess what else experienced quite a revival. That’s right. My newfound sense of self worth and overall health led to a revival in my spiritual life that has been picking up steam ever since. This resurgence of my awareness of God’s grace began when Amber and I found a little United Methodist church plant called Light of the World UMC. I don’t think those people knew it at the time, but they embraced us and showed us God’s love at a very crucial time. Because of them, I began to feel like God cared for me again—not think, feel, like REALLY feel. Unbeknownst to me, those steps back into community (and communion) with God’s family were also steps back toward answering a call. Now, in 2016, I’m a pastor of a United Methodist church plant, and I get the joy and privilege of talking to people about God’s love for them in Christ. Talk about going full circle.

As a pastor who has felt the loneliness and pain of severe depression, I want you to know that if you are facing this struggle, you are not alone. It might not feel like it right now, but there is a way toward healing, toward restoration, toward finding yourself again. For me, the worst part was feeling like I wasn’t even “me” anymore. It felt like the essence of who God created me to be was buried far away from the light of day. But Christ worked through people in my life—doctors, therapists, professors, friends, my wife, a new church family—to recreate me. That hope is still alive. And my prayer is that you find it. 

If you need help finding hope in a dark time, talk to someone. Talk to your family doctor. Talk to a pastor. If you need a pastor’s phone number, mine is 469-955-7784. Talk to a therapist. Just talk to someone. The first step on your new journey is simply reaching out. If you’re reading this, and you need help, my prayer is that God would grant you the grace and strength to make it through this time so that you can experience new life on the other side of this struggle.

If you’re reading this as someone who is not suffering in this way, but you know someone who is, don’t give up on that person. Reach out with love and care and support. Your family member or friend might not be in a place where s/he even knows how to receive that, but don’t give up on them. I didn't know how to receive that from people, but those mentioned above didn’t give up on me, and that saved my life. My prayer for you is that God would work through you to shine light and hope and peace into his/her life.

If you need some more info on depression, either for yourself or someone close to you, check out this page from the National Institute of Mental Health. 

Now may you be aware that God is present, that God loves and cares for you, and that the greatest love the universe has ever known is already yours. 

Finding The Sacred

I have this really vivid memory from my 1990s youth group days. It goes like this: I felt guilty about listening to “secular” music, so I got rid of most of my CDs, keeping only the “Christian” ones—meaning that they were recorded by artists who were explicitly Christian and produced by Christian record companies. Goodbye, Metallica’s Black Album. Goodbye, Gin Blossoms. Goodbye, Shaquille O’Neal’s debut rap album “SHAQ Diesel”—don’t judge. Some of the CDs I had left were actually really great! I still have some of them, and I go back and listen to them every now and then. There were some great Christian bands in the 90s: Satellite Soul, Grammatrain, “Jesus Freak” era DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, etc. But when 34-year-old me looks back, I realize that I might have been selling some artists short on their spirituality, and maybe even getting in the way of the Holy Spirit potentially speaking into my life through one of those “secular” songs. 

My faith journey since those days has been marked by deep change and transformation as I have matured in my faith in Christ. Nowadays, I cherish every chance I get to see God present and at work not just in the Church, but in the “secular” world around me—I no longer need those scare quotes around the word secular, by the way. After all, it’s this world that God loves so much, as we read in John 3.16. It’s in this world in which I live everyday that I get the joy and privilege of seeing people awaken to the presence and grace of God. Sometimes, that happens through one of those secular songs.

In what follows, I list out songs that have deeply affected my faith journey, songs through which God has worked in powerful ways in my life. Now, these are songs from my journey, and the list bears my bias. I’m sure there are many more out there that would fit. But here’s my top 5: 

 

5. U2, “Yahweh” and “40”

I know what you’re saying: “Those are two different songs.” Yes, they are. But they fit nicely on my list as one entry, so just roll with it. “Yahweh” isn’t much of a surprise on this list—the title of the song is one of God’s names from the Hebrew scriptures. Even though the surprise factor is pretty low, there’s no way I can make this list without it. And if you’ve never listened to “40,” crack your Bible open to Psalm 40 while you listen. It’s not just a clever numeric title.

 

4. Matchbox 20, “Bent"

Besides inspiring my favorite haircut ever, Rob Thomas has also voiced what has been one of the most powerful prayers I have prayed in my life. During a period of depression in 2006, a close friend shared this song with me and suggested I pray the lyrics. I had heard it a thousand times on the radio, but the thought of this song being a prayer had not crossed my mind—I mean, it’s a dude singing to a girl, right? Well, for me, it turned out to be exactly what I needed to say to God in a time when I had no idea how to voice what I was feeling. As a prayer, it was raw, it was honest, and it came from the deepest place of my heart. In many ways, it still does. 

 

3. Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism"

While listening to this song, my mind always goes to two places: (1) God’s creative act of making all that has been, is, and will be; and (2) my need to be close to God, even though I can’t get there by myself. 

 

2. Coldplay, “Fix You"

By rule, this one has to be on the list because it rocks the church organ pretty hard through most of the song. Besides that, it also always strikes my heart in a very deep, profound way.

 

1. Leon Bridges, “River"

All of the other songs on this list come from my past. The truth is that I have little children these days, and I don’t listen to as much music as I did in the early 2000s. This one, however, is really recent. Every time this song rolls through my shuffle, I cannot help but think of the love, grace, and care God has shown me through my baptism.

 

Don’t see a song on this list that has made a deep impression on your spiritual journey? Let me know what it is in the comments! I’d love to share in that experience with you. 

Small Gifts?

A pastor whom I met in California last month shared recently on Facebook the story of a homeless man who gave an offering of $0.18 to Mosaic Church, which is working to open a newly updated worship space in an urban context in the US South. 

On a related note, this past Saturday I listened to a golf talk show on a local DFW sports radio station. They said nothing profound that would help cure my slice, but the guys on the show brought up the subject of young amateur golfers who transition to pro status. Often, these young athletes need financial backing to overcome the obstacles (read: costs) that arise with such a move. They told the story of a golfer from a small town in Wisconsin whose wife used GoFundMe.com to raise the thousands of dollars necessary to make the jump. In just two days, the couple raised $24,000+. What's remarkable about this is that it took over 200 individual gifts to reach this amount. (That's an average of two hundred $120 gifts, but the gifts listed on the website include many $10, $20, $50 gifts.)

These two stories will not leave my thoughts alone, and I am wondering this week, "What can we learn about small gifts that make a big difference?"

One of the most profound teachable moments in the Gospel of Mark occurs in 12.41-44. From his seat across the way, Jesus is watching the crowd as they give money to the Temple treasury. Nothing particularly exciting happens until Jesus notices a poor widow, who gives two copper coins with the approximate worth of a penny. Seeing the opportunity to convey to others the beauty and truth at work in this woman, Jesus calls his disciples over and says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."  

So, why would a homeless man invest $0.18 in a local church? Why would over 200 people give toward a budding young golfer? Why would an impoverished widow give everything she had to the Jerusalem Temple? I wish I knew the answers. But behind each question lies a unique story of inspiration and hope, and I couldn't begin to capture those with my best guesses. Perhaps, however, there's a bit of a common thread we can pull on for a minute.

Mosaic Church in Little Rock, AR, has had an incredible impact on its surrounding neighborhood; in fact, through their efforts of missional engagement and economic uplifting, their neighborhood has seen many real, tangible benefits. People are coming to know Christ. Thousands of hungry people are being fed. Crime rates have dropped 10% in the immediate area of the church. Over 300 people are receiving free legal assistance through the church's efforts. And those are just some of the ways Mosaic is seeing God's kingdom come to earth.

Sammy Schmitz shares what is probably a fairly common story with most of us. A devoted husband and father, Sammy works hard to provide for his family. They're behind on medical bills, and his wife, a nurse, picks up extra shifts to help provide for the family. Sammy had a dream of taking his father to the watch The Master's--yeah, that Master's--and now, because Sammy holds a USGA U.S. Mid-Amateur title, he gets a shot to PLAY in The Master's! It's an inspiring story, one which tugs at the heart strings of middle America. You see, Sammy is one of us, the many who struggle through life to make ends meet, let alone see our dreams come true. Medical bills are tough to pay, even when both partners in a relationship contribute. And how many of us know the pain of missing time with our kids because we picked up that extra shift? [As I write this, I'm thinking about those nights when I get home late from work to find my two little ones already asleep.] And yet Sammy has that rare chance we sometimes get to see a dream become a reality.

I think one of the lessons here is simply this: When we experience something that changes our world for the better, when something happens that shines a ray of hope into a dark situation, we are likely to feel compelled to give toward that person/cause so we can share in some beautiful new reality. For a poor widow in the first century Roman province of Judea, the Temple stood as a physical representation of the promise that God made to her people long ago. It was this God who called Abram from the wilderness and promised to fashion a people through him. This people found themselves enslaved in Egypt, and the God of their forefather Abraham saw their suffering. God acted to deliver the people, to bring them into a new land where they could dwell with their God. The building which this widow likely saw every day stood as a symbol of the hope of her people, the hope that God will see our suffering and deliver us. Long ago, invading forces had colonized her people. The actors in the story changed through the years--Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and now Romans--but the occupation remained almost constant. Even though things were complicated--those in charge at the Temple were likely in cahoots with the Roman occupiers--the Temple itself stood as a reminder of the hope of generations past. Why would this woman give everything she had to this dream of her ancestors? I'm taking a bit of license in speaking about her intentions here, but imagine the sense of hope this Temple represented in comparison to the abject poverty she experienced (no money, malnutrition, virtually no possibility of upward mobility). The Temple stood for something. The Temple reminded her of the God who once delivered her people, and who, surely, would again. When the poor widow looked at the world around her, she saw pain and suffering; however, she also saw the possibility that God could work through her small gift to bring about great restoration and a chance at a new life, a better life, for her people. And that, to her, was worth more than life itself.

Who has made a difference in your life? What gives you hope? Where do you see light shining into the darkness? If you can answer these questions, then chances are those are the things most worthy of your gifts. And I don't just mean money. Maybe those people or causes also deserve your time, your presence, your prayers, and your witness that the God of all grace is still in the business of giving us hope.

You see, being generous isn't about how much we already have, or even about how much we stand to gain. True generosity is about taking the risk to believe in the impossible, to speak life where there has only been death. It's about investing in someone or something beyond ourselves so that the gift of life may flourish.

Now may the God of all grace empower you to be truly generous with your life. And may you find a way in the coming days to show someone how much both you and God love them and believe in them. And if you think your gift is too small to make a difference, may you remember the powerful witness of a man whose life was so changed that he couldn't help but give what he had, even if it was only $0.18. 

Pastor Jon

Learning from Failure

It's a beautiful rainy Friday morning in Parker County, Texas. My typical routine for mornings like these is something like this: drop off my son with his babysitter, and then go sit at the local coffee shop to catch up on work. Often, my time at the coffee shop includes conversations with some of the most interesting people I've ever met. At the top of this list is a guy named Don. Don is in his early-80s, and this guy has lived quite a life. Many of the coffee shop regulars know Don well, and we all enjoy listening to his memoirs over a cup of coffee.

This morning, Don and I talked about many things. But the topic that stuck out the most was the subject of failure. In his wisdom, Don told me that people have to learn from their mistakes, because we all fail at some point or another. The example he used was baseball great Ted Williams. Don recounted one of the most successful seasons of Ted's career. In 1941, Williams batted an astonishing .406! To this day, Ted Williams is regarded as one of the best ever to suit up and stand in the batter's box. I mean, who hits .400+?!? But there's an obvious truth staring us in the face here. As great as Ted Williams was at hitting a baseball, at the peak of his ability he had a success rate of just under 41%. Now, I never pride myself on my math skills--I was a religion major, after all--but I think that comes out to about a 59% rate of failure. (Caveat: I recognize there might be more nuance to interpreting the BA stat, like walks, or sacrifice plays that advanced another player, which is a whole other blog post, but I think we still need to consider this ratio of hits to at-bats.) 

When was the last time you failed at something? When was the last time you let someone down? If you have experienced the sour pain and downright embarrassment of failure, don't worry. You're in good company. Holy Scripture itself is full of stories about folks who had some pretty major failures along the way: Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul just to name a few! God's grace is there for us when we succeed, and certainly when we fail. I know, you're probably thinking right now of that one person you know who seems to succeed at everything s/he tries, who seems to win every contest or game. But let me burst that bubble: despite appearances, NOBODY succeeds at everything without experiencing some kind of failure along the way. That's just life. And if we're all honest with ourselves, we can point out better than anyone else where we have failed along the path to where we are now, even if we have tried to hide these experiences from others.

The truth is, life is full of moments when you have to risk something to reach somewhere new. And with any risk comes the possibility of failure. The most helpful question is not, "Will I fail?" Instead, ask yourself, "What have I learned from my past failures? What am I learning from my current failures? And how can I stay open to critique in the future so as to keep learning from the mistakes I haven't even made yet?"

Don told me that Ted Williams had exceptional eyesight. It was said that Ted could focus on the seams of the baseball as it made its way from the pitcher's hand to the plate. This ability, combined with excellent hand-eye coordination and a high level of athleticism, helped Ted Williams excel, to be sure. But what really set him apart was his uncanny ability to study a pitcher who got the best of him. Even when he struck out, Williams had his eyes on the seams of the ball. He wanted to know exactly how the pitcher was working the ball. Ted knew that he couldn't get a hit every time, but he also knew that paying close attention to how he could improve when he struck out would help him the next time through the order. That is what helped him hit .400+ in a game where a .300 average is considered a mark of greatness.

Hear this: We all fail sometimes. But in the midst of our failure, may we look to God, who extends the grace and mercy we need to see that our failures do not have the final word. Even in the midst of failure, God offers us hope.

But also hear this: Don't let this be just about you and your failures. There are people around you who have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience failure--and some in profound ways. How are you going to respond? There's no pat answer here. But please be mindful that God might be using you to help someone learn from failure, to help someone experience restoration and grace. It might be helpful to remember that we don't become overnight the finished product of God's grace at work in us--and neither do the people around us.

May you find encouragement, peace, hope, faith, and mostly love on your journey of learning from your mistakes.

Pastor Jon Reeves 

P.S., One more important lesson from Ted's story is this: You can't hit .400+ if you don't swing the bat every now and then. I pray that a fear of failure will not freeze you in your tracks. If God is leading you to try something new, give it a try. You never know what might happen...