Archive | January, 2013

Becoming a (healing) agent of Jesus

healing place church

My guest blogger today is Marv Hage, whose blog (healingagents.blogspot.com) is one of my favorites.

Marv is my brother-in-law, which is nice, because I didn’t have to pay for this.  Beyond the family connection, he’s also a physician.  A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Medicine, he had a private practice in obstetrics and gynecology in Ann Arbor for a number of years, and then taught on the faculty at the Duke University School of Medicine.  He is currently semi-retired and lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he is an elder at the First Presbyterian Church.  He is the author of two books, Equipping Healing Agents: Sustaining Vocation and Healing Agents: Christian Perspectives, both about the vocation of healing.

He and I talk about healing often when we’re together at family gatherings, and I wanted my readers to listen in on our conversation.

Doug:  It’s relatively easy to understand how you would think of yourself as a healer, because you’re a physician, but how is a follower of Jesus supposed to think of him or herself as a healer?

Marv: Thanks for the opportunity to be a part of your blog.  It is important for your readers to realize that you have had an important and significant influence on my thinking.

The question is more difficult than you might believe in that I do not see my vocation as “healer.”  More positively, I think more of how Jesus was the model for me to be His “healing agent.”   He has given all of us “marching orders” to act as his agents (disciples) in this world.

The second part of the question is a little easier given my first response.   What I think is hard for all of us in being “healing agents” is to clearly understand the barriers in living out that response.

Doug: I think it’s interesting that as a physician you don’t think of yourself as a “healer”!  But I want to focus on the last comment – namely, that there are “barriers to living out that response.”  I take it you mean that we are called to be healers ourselves, but that some things get in the way.  Would you identify some of those barriers and tell us why they are barriers?

Marv:  Identifying the barriers is very dependent on the practice environment.  One of the advantages in changing practice locations has been the perspective that it brings.  Starting surgical procedures with prayer is a given at mission hospitals like Tenwek in Kenya [where Marv has worked for a month at a time over the last few years] and very uncommon in the United States.  

The underlying barrier to the vocation of healing has been the dominance of the scientific/technological understanding of the practice of medicine.  There was a time that the Protestant church had a significant impact on the education for and provision of healing care.

Doug:  Interesting.  So, would you say the practice of medicine in our culture today discourages us from thinking in terms of healing?  What are we left with then?  And how can we reclaim the idea that healing can help us understand our calling?

Marv: “Yes,” but there are some important exceptions.  Specifically, nursing education continues to address the healing dimension in our culture.  So one response is to listen and learn from our colleagues in nursing.  Another example can be found in the world of literature.  “Cutting for Stone” a wonderful novel by Abraham Verghese had a tremendous impact.  

My question for you is “what do Christians believe about healing?”   My experience is that mainline Protestant churches have restricted their response or have just gone along with the scientific culture. 

Doug: A good point.  Presbyterians tend not to think in these terms.  We’re more comfortable with language about life change and the forgiveness of sins than the language of becoming whole, but Jesus clearly saw forgiveness, transformation, and healing as belonging together.  With your encouragement over the years, I have started to think more and more about my work as healing the lives of broken people.

Thanks so much for having this conversation with me.  I’m sure we’ll be having more.

Comments { 4 }

Is anyone feeling generous?

coins

Churches need money to do their work.

Most people seem to know and accept that.  However, many pastors hate to ask for money, and many church members don’t like being asked.  Which would seem to present a challenge.

Every year my church has a month-long campaign to accumulate pledges toward its annual budget.  Not all churches raise money this way, but a lot do.  The budget then is based on what people promise they will give during the coming year.

It’s not a fool-proof method.  Some people don’t or won’t pledge (studies show that 20 percent of all Christians give nothing).  Others will never bother to complete their pledge.  Still, we can usually estimate within about three or four percent of the pledge total what our annual budget will be.

I served a church early in my career that used what they called a “faith giving” system.  As far as I could tell, “faith giving” meant that we guessed every year about what our members would give and then prayed that we would receive it.  I think the faith involved was mainly that of the leadership.

But here’s the thing.  Like so much else in the church, stewardship is changing.  A recent book title echoes the old Oldsmobile commercial (“It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile”): Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate.

An older generation saw value in institutions, and so they gave money to preserve those institutions and sat on their boards and otherwise devoted themselves to them.  A younger generation by and large doesn’t have much use for institutions, but they do like to make investments in things they believe in.  And of course they like to see a return on those investments.

The speaker at a stewardship seminar I attended recently recommended that churches like mine send separate mailings, ones that appealed to different age groups and beliefs about giving.  So, one mailing, for example, might go to older members and might appeal to their love for this church.  Another mailing might go to younger members and might appeal to their desire to furnish the new youth center.  (I can’t say I like this trend.)

One thing about giving has apparently not changed.  The best givers are those with generous hearts, those who have cultivated over the years a spirit of generosity.  (Giving is apparently a learned behavior, as opposed to something that comes naturally to us.)

And yet the church continues to use language like tithe (actually a good biblical term), fair share, first fruits (another good biblical term), stewardship, and sacrificial giving.  All of this language suggests that giving is an obligation, which it may be, but obligation does nothing to stir the heart.  On the other hand, there’s no telling what a generous spirit might be willing to do.

I like to give.  I have enjoyed giving ever since I was a young boy and my father would press a quarter into my hand before the offering plate came around.  Something about dropping that quarter into the plate left me with a glow which I have not forgotten.  I knew already then  that I had done something that would make a difference.

As our stewardship month approaches, I’m tempted to hammer home the theme that my people had darn well better step up to support the work of the church (and pay my salary).  But I know that the better strategy is to cultivate a few more generous hearts.

What we need, what all churches need – more than anything else – is a few more grateful people.  And how hard can it be to feel grateful?

Comments { 7 }

An update on the blog

blog news

Doug’s Blog launched last April on my church’s website, and last fall I moved the blog to my own WordPress site with a domain name all my own (dougsblog.org) – plus a clean, crisp look I received from a blog designer in Australia, of all places.  Thanks again to Mike at Blog Designers!  (I hope you’ve noticed “my favourite blogs” along the right side of the page.  That spelling is my Aussie influence, which I haven’t wanted to change.)

Aside from the two weeks I spent in Africa last November, when I was out of Internet contact for much of the time, blog readership has grown steadily.  In fact, I’m amazed and surprised by it – and wanted to share this news with you.

WordPress, my host and the host for thousands of other blogs (the largest open-source blogging system on the Internet), supplies me with lots of statistics about you, my readers, and so I always know where my readers are coming from – and often where they go when they leave my site.  I know how much time they linger at the blog – and what other pages they open while they’re there.  It’s really an astonishing amount of information.

Here are some interesting examples:  Almost all of my readers now come from Facebook referrals.  Virtually no one clicks from the church’s weekly email newsletter called “the E-pistle” or from the church’s website.  That, plus other evidence, suggests that the majority of my readers are not my current church members.  That’s fine, though a bit surprising since I started at least in part to speak with my own congregation.  I plan to meet with the Communications Committee in the next few weeks to discuss how I can engage more church members with the blog.

The exciting news is that I now have several dozen subscribers, a list that continues to grow each week.  (You can subscribe by supplying your email address along the right side of the page.  I don’t sell the subscriber list – or do much of anything with it – so this is a good way to stay current with all of my blog posts.  When I publish a new post, you automatically receive it in email form.)

I continue to average 60-70 unique “views” per day, with the greatest number of “views” – not surprisingly – coming on the days when I actually publish a new post.  The largest day ever was the day my daughters “guest blogged” for me.  I reached 223 “views” that day, with more than a hundred in the first few hours after the post.  Currently, new posts receive 180-200 views on the day they’re posted.

That’s terrific – and very gratifying.  I enjoy doing this, am having fun with it, and I’m grateful for your support.  As always, your comments and responses are very much appreciated.  (I loved the one which showed my blog as it would appear on a billboard.)  Keep ’em coming.

Comments { 3 }

My two cents about Lance

Livestrong clip art

Lance Armstrong is not the first athlete who ever cheated.  And I’m pretty sure he won’t be the last.  To be honest about it, I don’t even feel especially let down by his behavior.  The more I learn about him, the less surprised I am by what he did.  We should have seen it coming.

I didn’t feel especially let down by all of the baseball players who used steroids to cheat – Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens – even though I’ve been a lifelong baseball fan.

Athletes act badly so often that, really, who can be surprised anymore?  What’s more surprising in the athletic world is when an athlete turns out to be decent and generous and principled.

I can’t say I’m all that surprised either when a Washington politician is caught cheating (or otherwise acting badly).  Like athletes, they act badly so often that the scandals are titillating (for a day or two) but not surprising.

I do feel a little let down when one of them is caught, however, and that’s because I want them to be better than they often are.  But I’m almost never surprised.  Bill Clinton?  We should have seen that one coming too.

I have to say that I feel quite a bit more let down when I hear that religious leaders have cheated.  Mostly, that’s because I am one.  I want people in my line of work to have the highest moral standards, and generally speaking I believe they do.

And I have done my best to live my own life with integrity, and though I’m hardly perfect – please, no email inquiries – I believe those of us who tell others how to live ought to be held to a higher standard.  I can’t say I like it, and I wish it weren’t so, but I think it’s true.

Several years ago one of my mentors confessed to “inappropriate behavior” and resigned his position.  It was a widely reported scandal.  And at the time I remember having a strange mixture of feelings.  I was let down, yes, and terribly disappointed, but the feeling was stronger than that.

Anger was in the mix, but so was fear.

I remember thinking that if he was capable of doing what he did, then most people – in similar circumstances – might be as well.  I’ve long since gotten over the anger.  And though he doesn’t need my forgiveness, I’ve forgiven him anyway.  But I still have the fear.

And that may be why I feel just a tiny bit more grace when I read about a scandal.  I know that “but for the grace of God” that scandal could involve me.

Comments { 2 }

Was it something I said?

listening-horn

After 32 years of ordained ministry I’m still surprised by the effect I sometimes have on people.

And I realize that it’s not me so much as the office to which I’m ordained.

You might think I would have become used to it by now, but that hasn’t happened.  And now I’m beginning to think my surprise will never go away.

The surprise comes when someone will say, “Remember ten years ago when you preached about …?”  Of course I’ll nod my head vigorously, but will have no clue as to what sermon the person is talking about.

That person will say, “Well, I took what you said to heart, and here’s what I did.”  And then I’ll hear a story about quitting a job or ending a relationship or moving to a new state or something.  Yikes, I’ll think, you did that because of something I said?

I preached a sermon one time – this was more than 10 years ago – about how the small decisions we make in life add up, how most of our lives are a series of small decisions, and how we’re remembered often for the cumulative effect, not for one or two really big decisions we made.  I happened to mention that pulling forward to the farthest gas pump instead of pulling up to the closest one (and making others drive around) might be an important decision to make, especially if it’s multiplied by dozens or even hundreds of times throughout our lives.  I don’t think you could find those words in the manuscript, but they occurred to me and I said them.

And guess what?  I received an email last week from someone who told me that he’s never forgotten that, that every time he pulls up to a gas pump he goes forward a bit to make things easier for the person who pulls up behind him.  But more important, he remembered the point of the sermon and said he wanted to be remembered for all of the small and seemingly insignificant decisions that add up to a lifetime of behavior.

Another time I gave the baccalaureate address at Hanover College and titled it “Called to be a loser!”  I was speaking mainly to the graduating class and telling them that we are sometimes called to lose what matters in this world in order to gain the things that have everlasting value.  It didn’t occur to me that a parent might be listening in the bleachers somewhere and taking my words to heart.

A few months ago I received an email from a man who was there that day and tracked me down at my new church and wanted to let me know how much those words affected him.  He left his job, enrolled in seminary, and is now serving a church on the other side of the country.  He was hoping we would meet again sometime.

As I mentioned, I don’t think it’s me so much as my office.  People come to church to sing and pray, yes, but mostly they come wondering if God might have a word for them.

And – surprise, surprise – sometimes they hear one.

Comments { 8 }

My blog on a billboard

image

My most recent blogpost as it would appear on a billboard – proof according to one reader that I am too wordy.

Comments { 5 }

Giving our testimonies

grace

When candidates for ordination (elder and deacon) are examined at my church, we don’t ask them questions about their theology or their understanding of church government.  Maybe we should, but we don’t.

Instead we ask them about their religious experience.  In reality, we ask them to give their testimony, to tell us how they came to faith and how God is currently visible in their lives.  We have a dinner meeting, and for more than two hours we listen to story after story about how God has changed lives.

Each year that I’ve been a part of this “examination,” I have found myself deeply moved.  The stories are often surprising.  I didn’t know, for example, that the parent of one of our deacons committed suicide when she was just 26 years old. I didn’t know that another was the son of pastor, but for many years had not been a part of the church.  I didn’t know that still another was soon going to start receiving chemotherapy and would, by next week, be without her hair.

Telling these stories was easy for some, difficult for others.  Some are clearly comfortable standing at a microphone and telling jokes and embellishing a life story.  Others read from a crinkled manuscript and struggle to finish without stammering and crying.

I like to lead by example, so by the end of the evening I was thinking that I should tell my story.  And here it is.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer or editor or somehow involved in the publishing world.  I served on the editorial staff of the college’s student newspaper, and for a couple of summers I worked at the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Co., a publisher of excellent theological books. 

While there I noticed that all of the senior editors had advanced degrees from important theological seminaries, so I decided that that’s what I should do too, if I wanted a career in publishing.  And so, I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary after graduating from college, and for two years I thoroughly enjoyed my coursework. 

However, as I approached my third and final year, I realized that I was not going to graduate without doing “field education,” which all of my classmates had already been doing each weekend, usually in nearby churches.  I had little interest in the church at that point – an understatement, to be honest – and had avoided this path.  But I had no choice.  I either had to work in a church or not graduate.

So, between my second and third years of seminary, I served as a student pastor in a church in Iowa City, Iowa, a Big Ten university town.  A few months after my arrival, the senior pastor left to accept a new call, and I was asked to be the primary preacher for the remaining eight months of my commitment, for a congregation made up mostly of university faculty and graduate students!  This was precisely what I didn’t want to do, and I ended up doing it every single Sunday for the remainder of my time there, often both morning and evening services.

The truth is, I wasn’t very good.  My performance evaluations confirm that fact.  But the church loved me anyway.  In fact, I started to see that quality everywhere in church life.  These church members knew how to love each other!  Freely, genuinely, unconditionally. 

One Sunday night, as I was preaching a sermon about the prodigal son (a bit of irony), I suddenly choked up and couldn’t go on.  What happened, I realized later, was that I finally realized the truth of what I was talking about.  In the middle of my sermon, I understood something that I had never really understood before.

Talking with my supervisor the next morning (when the pastor left, one of the church’s elders was assigned to “guide” me), he gently helped me to name what I had experienced.  And I quickly found the word.  It was grace – an overwhelming experience of unconditional love and acceptance. 

I had never felt something so good or so wonderful before.

And so, not only did I have a life-changing spiritual experience, I also had a dramatic vocational clarification.  I went back to seminary on fire!  I felt called to take my experience of a church filled with grace and try to replicate that wherever I might be called. 

And that’s been the focus of my ministry since then – God’s grace. 

Comments { 15 }

Struggles of a twenty-something Christian

young adults

Okay, since not all parents have children who go to seminary and decide to pursue a vocation in parish ministry, I decided to ask my other daughter to write another guest blog – this time from the perspective of someone who doesn’t work at a church.  I’m happy to introduce this other daughter.  Meet Elizabeth Brouwer.

Because of my dad (Pastor-Daddy or P-Diddy, as we have affectionately nicknamed him), my sister and I basically grew up at church. For youth group, play rehearsal, or just those days when Mom was working and we had to run errands with Dad, we spent a lot of time exploring all the nooks and crannies of First Presbyterian Church of Wheaton.

Now I am a mid-twenties graduate student, and my church life has changed. And my sister accurately described the struggle in her guest blog on my dad’s blog: going to church has become somewhat “difficult” and “uncool.” It’s tough to set aside an adequate amount of time to develop church community, and the apathy of my Christian peers often rubs off on me.

And I can tell that my spiritual life has subsequently become less rich.

But I have discovered inspiration to reinvigorate my church life in an unexpected place: my friends of other faiths.

Take for example my friend and classmate, Amena. She is a Muslim from Flint, Michigan, of Pakistani descent. Amena is sweet, goofy, and crazy smart. She also wears a hijab, prays five times a day without fail, and doesn’t drink alcohol.

One day, while we were talking about meeting people in new places, she told me she likes to make friends at Mosque. In her words, “It’s easy to make friends after praying next to someone.” While she does get some grief about wearing a hijab (people constantly ask her if she knows this one other person in Michigan who ALSO wears a headscarf), Amena displays her religion with a cool confidence that I don’t see in many Christians my age.  And her dedication to her faith moves me.

Next meet my Jewish college roommate and lifelong friend, Deborah. Deborah hails from the Bronx, majored in Judaic musicology, and spent a year teaching orphans in Israel.

I have learned an embarrassing amount about the Old Testament through Deborah, and she challenges me to clarify important questions about my faith. What daily rituals, such as her commitment to being kosher and keeping Shabbos, make God a regular presence in my life? How do my relationships with other Christians reflect my commitment to Christ? Her deliberately spiritual lifestyle makes me reflect on how much I’ve neglected the spiritual component of my life.

As a young-ish adult, I have struggled to define myself as a Christian. It is difficult for me to know the appropriate level of religiosity to display at work and in social situations, especially having come of age in a time when religion is so tied to other uncomfortable topics (cough, politics, cough). But I am comforted and inspired by my religious friends, even if we don’t share the same theology.

I am reminded that, despite the increasing secularism of my generation, I want God to remain the center of my life. And this relationship with God, beyond filling my life with redeeming grace and love, helps me make meaningful connections with others.

And I love him for all the surprising ways he reveals himself to me, even when I question how I want to reveal him to others.

Comments { 3 }

Stalking for Christ’s Sake

Evangelism clip art

 

All the cool, successful bloggers out there have occasional “guest bloggers,” and so (wanting to be cool and successful) I’ve invited my favorite blogger to guest blog for me.  Yes, as it turns out, she’s also my daughter, so I didn’t have to pay anything for this.  And I’m also proud to introduce her to you.  Meet Sarah Brouwer.  She’s Associate Pastor for Congregational Care at Ladue Chapel, an 1800-member Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in suburban St. Louis.  The views of guest bloggers are not necessarily the view of the totally cool and so-very-important head blogger here, but in this case I’m totally in agreement (and wish I had written it before she did).

On the rare occasion my whole family is together (immediate and extended!) we almost inevitably end up talking about church.  We’re a churchy family.  I along with two of my cousins have become pastors.  Yes, Doug’s one, too.  And my mother’s an elder, along with half my aunts and uncles (approximation here).  Oh, we are SO COOL in my family.  Except, when we’re not.

The thing is, church isn’t cool anymore.  (Was it ever?)  No one my age goes to church.  In fact, most people of most ages don’t go to church – it’s just not the thing to do.  Granted, most folks in this country believe in something, but you can get that thing in nature (apparently, but I’m more of an indoor girl myself).  My dentist told me the other day that he was leaving to go to his church next week…in the Rockies.

But I’m not here to barrage you with woes about church attendance, or lack thereof.  I want to offer a few ideas, though, on how to get your friends to church.  It’s called… wait for it… evangelism.  Yes.  If you believe that Jesus has transformed your life, you’re called to shout it from the mountaintops!  Not really, but you could!

I’ve learned a few things in my brief time in ministry.  The most important thing being relationships are KEY to evangelism.  Oh, you knew that already.

The thing is, like I said, church isn’t cool anymore.  And frankly, relationships are hard.  People spend all their time dealing with relationships elsewhere, and they’re sick of doing it come Sunday.  They deal with relationships in business, family, friends, children, colleagues, etc., and they don’t want to do more of it in a place that isn’t going to move them, change them, transform them.

So here’s our dilemma: no one’s coming to church because church isn’t cool.  But, those of us who are here, who are not cool, are called to evangelize.  Evangelism, I think, is best done in relationships with others.  But, who wants to be friends with uncool people?

Follow me?

Here’s what I think.  I think people are craving community – real, authentic, genuine community with folks who care about them, and show them what it means to live out the good news of the Gospel.  But, they don’t have time to figure us out.  They think we’re weird with our rituals and our stories and our judgmental stuff, and they can’t see past all that muckity muck to the heart of the Christian life.  People don’t and won’t know what we are all about and how wonderful it is unless we build relationships with them… and stalk them until they come to church.

But, seriously.  The most amazing ministry I’ve started at my new church in St. Louis is a young women’s book club.  We meet once a month.  Hardly any of them come to church on a regular basis, but they make it to book club (maybe for the wine and cheese but, hey, it works).  This book club, which now has almost 30 young women on the email address list, has now become like a little church.  And while I am really going to try and say this without sounding like I’m bragging, though I am, the reason they come is because of me.  I’ve worked my tail off to build relationships with them.  I take them to coffee.  I email them relentlessly.  I don’t back off.  I buy them lunch.  I follow up when they come to book club and tell them how awesome it was that they were there.  I also hold them accountable when they don’t come, though usually it’s in the form of a “we really, really missed you last night, but know you must be super busy.”  Trust me, these girls know that I am NOT COOL.  But, I know they want to be around me, and around each other.  Together, we’re different from the usual people they run into on a day-to-day basis.  They know that I care about them, and I care about them because I love Jesus, and they, in turn, are starting to know about Jesus, too, and love one another.  It’s beautiful.  It’s church.

There are some downsides to this process, though.  As an uncool person, you can tend to feel rejection easily.  I get it but, trust me, it’s not personal.  People do get busy.  They won’t come to stuff.  Deal with it.

So many church people I know often refuse to involve people on the outskirts (especially young adults) because they aren’t reliable.  Eventually they don’t try to include them in anything and write them off.  IF YOU FEEL THESE THINGS, THEN NONE OF THIS WILL WORK.  Just remember… it’s not about you.

Evangelism through relationships is hard work.  But knowing that you were responsible for pulling someone in, for showing them the beauty of being in community and finding Christ?  That’s reward enough right there.  And God will thank you, too.

I know I write more than Doug does, but hopefully you made it this far.

Here’s my benediction:

Go out, you uncool church people.  Go pursue those people on the margins.  Write them emails, Facebook them, call them, tell them you want to SEE them, and do it in Jesus’ name.  They’ll think you’re weird, but they’ll love you for it in the end.  Amen.

Comments { 4 }