Defining Community

What does it mean to be a part of a community? I think this is a question that people in church work wrestle with on a daily basis. As we seek to reach out to a new generation, we realize that ‘community’ is increasingly important in a world where people feel more and more isolated from one another. Creating community has become a healthy obsession for churches that are looking to grow in their work and their witness. We all know that we want to create a loving community. But how do we know if people are truly invested in the communities that we are creating in our congregations? Can we tell by looking at the membership rolls? The church bank account? How about the calendar page in the newsletter? Is there an effective way to measure community?

I’ll admit, I am not sure I know the answer to that question. But today I did have a profound experience of ‘community’ while listening to something on the way to work this morning. The CD in the Daddy Wagon happened to contain actual radio footage from December 24, 1977 when the Denver Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for their first playoff win in team history. Most folks know that I am huge Denver Broncos fan who bleeds orange and blue. Nonetheless, even I was surprised at how emotional I got listening to the commentators describe one of the greatest games in Broncos history. I literally had tears in my eyes as they counted down the final seconds to victory. All this for a game that happened 36 years ago!

Why did I get so emotional? I knew the outcome. This game is part of Broncos lore and a pivotal moment in franchise history. I didn’t have any memories of the game. I wasn’t even 6 months old at the time! In fact, I couldn’t even picture most of the players, though I know them by name. Yet, there was something in the hearing the call that moved me, that lifted my spirits. The only way that I can explain it is by saying that I am a Broncos fan and that is an important part of who I am

My emotional response to that game that took place so long ago tells me that I am invested in my community, that is, being part of ‘Broncos Country’. As a member of this community I have an affinity for anyone who dressed in orange on Sunday. My heroes are John Elway, Tom Jackson, Karl Mecklenberg, Ed McCaffrey, and Champ Bailey. I thrill to stories of The Drive and The Helicopter Play (the ultimate tear jerker!). Then there is the other side of the coin. Often members of one community identify themselves in opposition to members of another community. In this case, it is lowdown, no good, dirty, rotten Oakland Raiders. We Broncos fans hate all things Raiders and consider anyone who has ever worn the Silver and Black to be terrible, terrible people. (The only way I can imagine disowning my daughter is if she married a Raiders fan…no ‘House Divided’ stuff here!) See? There is emotion here. This is community.

Now I will admit, there are a lot of times I grasp desperately at straws trying to fit in to other fan bases. I did not grow up with a strong preference for the Iowa Hawkeyes or the Iowa State Cyclones. (My parents went to the University of Northern Iowa)  Attending the University of Nebraska for one semester was enough to make me a Cornhuskers fan, but I can tell that I am definitely NOT part of that community either by location or by family affinity. I didn’t really care about baseball until I moved to Florida. After I attended a few games in Tampa, I started becoming somewhat of a Rays fan. But moving across the country has dampened my fervor. And the last time I had a rooting interest for a basketball team was when Drake went on their magical run to the post-season which lasted all of one season until everyone graduated and the team fell apart. All in all, the Broncos are my team for better or worse.

So, all this goes to show that try as I might, I can’t artificially insert myself into a given community. There is some dimension of that community that is unexplainable, something you have to experience. In many ways, it is how I feel about the Presbyterian Church. I am not a life-long Presbyterian nor do I have any particular connection to the PCUSA as an organization. I feel loyalty to my colleagues and I agree to abide by the rules. However, if the PCUSA ceased to exist tomorrow I’d move on. Still, I have a great affinity with small communities inside the denomination. For example, I feel a strong connection with my seminary classmates with whom I still keep in touch. I feel warm emotions for the congregations of which I have been a part of over years. And after attending a CREDO conference this year, I have a connection to those who have gone through that process with me. All of these are small communities under a larger umbrella. As I said, I am not so much a Presbyterian as a pastor who happens to be Presbyterian. But right now I would be no where else.

After all is said and done, I just don’t know If I can define what makes a community. You just know. No membership certificate, pledge envelope or email list defines it. You just know. There is emotion, there is feeling, there is connection. We can’t create it. We can’t explain it. It is just there. We can just do the best we can to be the loving, welcoming people that God wants us to be. And with some help from the Spirit, who knows what might happen?

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Over the next few days I get to live ‘the dream’. For me, the dream is working from home and taking care of my daughter. With the sitter on vacation and Mommy on the other side of Des Moines at work, it will be the ultimate Daddy/Daughter showdown! I have a sermon to prepare, some meetings to plan and also trying to fit in some of my regular routine on the side. Of course, my little girl has a routine of her own, so that could be interesting. Who will win out in the end?

Now I will admit to being a little bit anxious about this. I really do wish that I had what it took to be Mr. Mom. (Well, maybe not the Michael Keaton version.) There are parts of the stay at home dad thing that appeal. I love my daughter and, for that matter, I love being around my dogs. From past experience, whenever it has been just me and the ‘kids’ I have spent more time playing with the baby and trying to keep up with the dogs than getting any meaningful house-work/work-work done. This time, I want it to be different. I want to try and see if this is anything I really could do. Not because it is even possible for me to stay at home. Just because I want to know that I could if I wanted to. 

I love being a dad. If that could be my job, I would gladly take it. I might not be the most skilled and I might make a lot of messes, but I would be generally happy. Yet, in this imperfect world, I don’t get many chances to play house with the little one. I am going to treasure these next few days and pray that I do get some fulfillment from being a family man. Then I will go right back to being whatever else I need to be. 

 

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36

Today I turn 36, which is really not a birthday of note in anyone’s book. Its not 1, 16, 18, 21, 30 or 40. It is just a couple of bumpy number divisible by 6. Yet, I feel like their is some special significance for me. My 36th birthday may just be my first birthday as an adult. A lot of things have changed in the past few years. I’ve given up t-shirts for polo shirts. I mix in some opera and new age music with my usual diet of heavy metal. I drink coffee and like it. I order Canadian Bacon on things instead of, you know…regular bacon. And of course this is my first birthday as a dad. All things I would have thought slightly strange a few years ago. But now I realize that I am taking that first step to the rest of my life.

Sometimes I am my own worst critic. As I look around me I see people who have accomplished so much more than I have at this point. Heck, I even have classmates who have teens graduating from high school already! I haven’t written a book, spoke in front of large crowds or even found a good presbytery committee to serve on. Heck, up until now I don’t think even I have realized how much time there was to be wasted in 36 years. But now that the years are gone, I see all the time I (hopefully) have left to work on my accomplishments over the next 36 years. And there is plenty to do.

Being a good dad. Being a good husband. Living healthy. Writing. Reading. Listening. Preaching. These are the areas where I want to excel. I probably don’t have any more fancy degrees in me (okay, maybe one). I don’t need to buy anything. I really don’t have anywhere I want to go if I can’t my family with me. I like where things are right now. I am fine.

I guess 36 is the year of being fine. Of being okay with it. Of being content…well, better not press my luck on that one! I know I have more to do and I look forward to it. But I don’t have to be driven by my future any more. I am living yesterday’s future. I am where I am. I am 36. So Past Nathan, if you are checking in, just so you know, 36 is pretty good.

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Centering Prayer or Sleepy Time Prayer?

Today I was able to join up with my Centering Prayer group again after taking a couple of weeks off. I guess I was a little out of practice as it quickly turned to nap time. For those who don’t know, Centering Prayer is a contemplative prayer practice that involves a time of silent prayer and reflection. This is not meditation nor is it silent petition prayer. It is intended to be a time when you enable yourself to sit silently in God’s presence. This can be practiced on one’s own or can be done in a group. For the time being, I spend more of my centering prayer time in a group.

My centering prayer group is a wonderful group of women who gather weekly at a local church. They are led by Judy,  a lay woman with interest in contemplative living. Each week the number may vary- 2 people at the smallest and there have been as many of 6 of us. We share briefly about out place in life, listen to a devotional reading and then spend 20 minutes of silent time together.  I know, sounds like fun, right? I am learning to love it.

There are several reasons why  I appreciate this time each week. First of all, I enjoy being part of a group in which I am not in charge. I have no responsibilities and can set aside my pastoral role without setting aside my spiritual interests. Anything I bring to the morning I can set aside. Since this is a silent time, there is not a lot of pressure to self-disclose and it is a great time of rest. I can be “in” the group without being “of” the group, so to speak. To symbolize this time away I have even gotten in the habit of turning my phone completely off and leaving it in the car.

Another thing I enjoy is the ability to be engaged in a solitary activity with others. Now this is the tricky part! In the midst of silence, there are always little distractions. Sometimes it might be noise from outside. Sometimes it might be the person across the room. Other times it might be you! We never realize just how much noise we make, even in our own silence. My challenge is knowing when I get relaxed I have to fight off sleep. There are times I cannot help nodding off and then jolting back awake! The ladies are nice enough not to say anything, but I know that I cannot be the first person to interrupt group prayer with a snore! Still, there is something comforting about sharing silence with others and knowing they face the same struggles as you do.

Finally I will surprise myself here and say that one of the things I cherish the most about centering prayer is my failure to practice well. I know, I know. That sounds odd. But like many other pastors, I tend to be a bit of a spiritual overachiever. I am always being complemented on my prayers and my preaching. It is easy to get a big head and start to see myself as this big, spiritual person. Yet when it comes to centering prayer, I am a total failure. Sometimes I feel like I’m Chewbacca trying to be a Jedi or a Muggle trying to get admitted to Hogwarts. I just can’t get it. And that is great. God is so much bigger than I am. I can operate under the illusion that my words and thoughts can impress God, but in the end I am made small in the divine presence. Talk about getting put in my place!

So I continue on my journey. Slowly, but surely like the tortoise. I will keep at this practice until I can…? I don’t know. I guess there are no grand goals here. But that is okay. No one is testing me or tell me when I have to do something. No deadlines or progress reports. And let me tell you…I like it so much better when God is the one setting the pace!

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Rule of Life

One of the spiritual exercises I decided to try the other day involved creating a ‘Rule of Life’. While the word ‘rule’ often has negative connotations when it comes to faith (as in “follow the rules…or else suffer the eternal consequences!”), anyone who seeks to live in the light of the Spirit knows that there are things that help to motivate us in our life journey. We each have our own set of rules and guidelines for contentment. These are activities and practices that animate our spirits and give us energy. In a way, recognizing the correct boundaries of our own well-being, our own ‘Rule of Life’, helps us to navigate the waters of our faith. 

In creating my own rule for life, I tried to concentrate on the things that left me feeling the most connected to something beyond myself. The first item in my list was spending time with my daughter. Obviously spending time with another human being is connecting to something outside of yourself. However, in setting up my rule I decided that I would need to focus on ways that I could better engage with my daughter. “Spending time together” can involved play, singing or reading. But it could just as easily involve sitting on the floor texting while she plays on her own. The reality of family life is that we spend a lot of time together, but much of that time is not spent connecting. I decided that as a rule I need to spend a certain amount of time with my daughter everyday connecting to her one-on-one. No distractions. No parallel play. I know that a bit of time spend truly together is what I crave from her.

Creating a Rule of Life will hopefully help me to see how the activities of my day help to contribute to my well-being. Balance is key as well as moderation. The temptation is once again to go back to that rigid definition of the word ‘rule’. Setting realistic goals is important, however, especially in the beginning stages of the process. Something does not truly become a practice until one is able to practice. As in many other areas you have to start from the beginning to develop competency in the end. 

We’ll see where this process takes me. Right now, this Rule is mostly a matter of recognizing things I already do or that I want to do. Giving myself purpose in doing these things is intended to develop my spiritual life. As I become more adept at following through, I hope to find other areas where I can pursue growth. Until then, it is one day and one item at a time!

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The Power of the Open Mind

Something strange is going on. I don’t know what it is and I don’t when it started. But my wife first noticed the symptoms: I was voluntarily wearing flip flops. I wasn’t at the beach, I wasn’t walking to the shower and I wasn’t taking the dogs out. I was wearing flip flops out and about and had chosen them over other footwear. Definitely something strange here!

I don’t know what it was. It was just something I wanted to do. Like when I realized that my closet is full of polo shirts. Polo shirts! I spent two years living in Florida rolling up the sleeves of long sleeve button down shirts just because I hated the thought of polo shirts. Yet now I hardly every wear t-shirts! Who is this looking at me in the mirror?

Partly, I suppose it is a change of attitude. I am not quite at the Jimmy Buffet level of casual. But I have learned to take things a little bit easier. It probably has something to do with being a dad. Schedules don’t really matter much any more. Not when you are dealing with a 9 month old! And no longer do I see having a child as an obstacle to living my life. I see living my life as an obstacle to spending time with my daughter. How things change!

I wish it was as easy to change my perspectives on everything. I’m not talking casual footwear, either. It seems like I have some deep-set notions and assumptions that are in need of correction,yet often resist doing this until the last possible minute. I’d rather just not be bothered to change. Its like Disney World. I could have cared less about Disney World. Heck, I lived 2 hours from there and never went there or had a desire to go. I am sorry to say that I did a lot of complaining when I realized Jenn was going to drag me there as part of her bell group a couple years back. Why would I want to go there? Ugh. But, lo and behold, I had a great time. Scratch that. I loved it. Disney! Ever since we got home I have been mentally planning our next trip. Strange.

I wonder what other things in my life I should reevaluate. Are their opportunities I have missed? People I have ignored? Places I haven’t been? The power of the open mind.

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What is your passion?

What does it mean to be passionate about something? Just the other day I heard a great definition of passion that resonated with me. Keep in mind I am doing this from memory and I really don’t remember where I heard it, but it went something like this:

“When I get excited about something, I want to talk about it. You may remember the show ‘West Wing’…one of my favorite shows ever! I anxiously awaited the new episodes each and every week. I told others about the show and invited them to come watch with me. I talked about the plots and twists around the water cooler. I was passionate about ‘West Wing’.

Is this how I feel about church? Do I talk about it excitedly? Do I yearn to invite others to participate in church with me? Does my excitement about church crop up in my daily life? Or do I feel I like I have to apologize for church? Do I have to whip myself up in order to have passion for church? Is church constantly on my mind because I want it to be or is it something I feel like I have to be interested in?” 

There is something profound here. Can you relate to this? When it comes to your faith, what makes you most passionate? What do you want to share? How do you express your enthusiasm?

A good meditation for Monday…

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