I am so exhausted I’m not seeing straight, but if I don’t write this out now, it won’t get written.

How to describe the day? You will have to bear with me, as I recall moments, images, and phrases.

Lectio divina to begin the morning, after my own morning prayers in my little room at Scarritt Bennett (which is, incidentally, a lovely place to stay, particularly if you don’t mind sharing a bathroom with an unknown stranger).

Taylor Burton-Edwards giving an impassioned history of discipling people in the way of Jesus, beginning with Jesus. Teaching to the many; but intense personal relationships with a few, training these few to live a radically different way of life. It took Jesus three years (and they still didn’t completely get it).

The room, all the conference participants, singing “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It started hesitant…but gained confidence and joy as we began to soak up the message and the possibilities.

“You are the light of the world! You are a city on the hill, which cannot be hidden! Do you believe this?”   we are not sure

There have been, historically, two main paths available for deeper discipleship: Preparation for priesthood (we call it seminary and ordination), or monastic communities. Taylor told us that 35% of new clergy burn out and leave the ministry, and often the church altogether, within the first five years after ordination. This can be due to the culture shock between seminary education, which leads the new pastor to expect to focus on spiritual formation, and the actual daily life of a church pastor, which is heavy on committee meetings, building and staff management, and reports full of numbers. I believe it also reflects the truth that many are ordained almost by accident. A person seeking to take serious steps in spiritual growth, one who is feeling a call, may feel that seminary – and therefore ordination – seems to be the obvious or only path. Feeling drawn to God? You must be meant to be a minister. Making alternate paths for deep spiritual growth available, such as discipleship formation, could reduce the “false positive” rate for accidental ordinands who aren’t meant to be local church pastors.

This could have been me. I could easily have ended up in seminary, and on a path to ordination, because of feeling called and drawn. But this is not my path, and it would have misdirected me from where I need to be: right here, as a lay person, actively involved in discipleship work.

People are hungry, thirsty, for the good news, for grace, for love, for community. They – we – seek community, meaning, purpose. What we can give them, and it is both simple and powerful, is modern-day versions of monastic communities. Covenant discipleship groups. Intentional communities. Committing to a rule of life, and watching over one another in love.

Message to pastors: Care for your congregations, and strengthen the things which congregations can do well. But know that deep spiritual formation is NOT one of these things. Care for the congregation – AND, build bridges between people who are hungry for more, and those groups and structures which can do the deeper discipling.

Message to lay people: This is your job! “Shepherds don’t make more sheep – SHEEP make more sheep.” We have such freedom to love and care for each other, and guide each other in faithful living.

Bright eyes, or the gift of tears, can show the working of the Spirit in someone’s soul. Watch. Notice. Make time to spend with these people, to listen, hear what is stirring within them.

Ahh, such a morning – hearing truth spoken, seeing paths illuminated. Even better: the chances to talk between sessions, the conversations between people who came alone but leave connected. Stories shared and heard. Experiences, good and bad. Mistakes made and learned from. I was stopped by an elderly gentleman, who had heard my introduction that I’m leading covenant discipleship groups. We exchanged cards at his request, and my heart skipped a beat to see who he was. He asked if I would be willing to be a resource to others who are starting this same path, and my “yes” was out of my mouth before he finished. He spoke to my heart, and I kissed him for thanks as we parted.

My heart is clear. My heart is joyful. This is where I am supposed to be. I spent most of the last year feeling fearful; I’m not afraid anymore. I’ll talk to anyone, I’ll tell you my story, I’ll listen to yours with joy. I have brothers and I have sisters who are there for me when I need them – and I do need them.

Then, oh, such an afternoon! Edgehill UMC, our gracious hosts, gave us a model of wildly inclusive church, and spent enough time to tell us not only what they do and how, but why – and friends, the why makes all the difference for the what and the how. I can only give you glimpses:

– Dog walking as a way to meet the neighbors

– Pledging to buy only from the neighborhood grocery as much as possible

– Starting ministries at the church, then “midwifing” them out into the community and finding the next ministry to start

– “We don’t want to ‘help people’. These are my sisters and my brothers. Without them, the kingdom will not come!”

– Question: Aren’t you worried about safety and crime, located in this neighborhood? Responses: Yes, our neighbors *are* worried. Yes, what would cause a person to need to steal?

– On members with physical and mental disabilities: It doesn’t feel like worship if they’re not here doing their thing, making noises, helping serve communion, rearranging the hymnals. We don’t feel right without them.

– On starting a “Free Store”: We don’t have expectations of those who come – that would be treating them like objects, there only to serve our agenda. We have a LOT of expectations of our members – to be welcoming, to be hospitable. The point of the store is not the stuff, but to build relationships. It is a means of grace for the members.

– Question: What makes Edgehill so hospitable? Response: Jesus. (And it doesn’t sound like a stock answer.)

Friends, this is an amazing journey we are on. Whether you are here or not, we are on the journey together, and we need each other as travelling companions. My greatest joy in the last two days has been to see the energy rise – to see spirits lift, imaginations catch fire, hope begin to take the place of weariness and despair.

Change begins – not when we “hit bottom” – but when we have hope for something different.

Have hope, friends. Something different is here. And it is good news indeed!

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