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Things I am learning from mandolin lessons:

It is both exciting and frustrating to take on something new.

It is humbling, when my fingers absolutely will not hit the right frets, or my pick hand can’t keep hold of the pick, or no matter how long I practice, there’s still a hitch between the fourth and fifth notes on the scale that I can’t seem to smooth out.

I want to be good at it. I want to be better at it than I am. I want to be getting better at it, faster than I am actually getting better at it.

I have a little panic that maybe I won’t ever be good at it. Maybe it’s just not my thing, and I should stick to what I already know. This panic tempts me to quit now, even though I’ve been taking lessons less than four months.

Sometimes practice makes a huge difference. If I practice every day, I can really tell a change in how I’m able to play. Practice is really fun at these times.

Sometimes practice doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. I get stuck at a plateau and keep making the same mistakes over and over. Practice is less fun at these times.

Sometimes I use a metronome to pace myself, and practice primarily for speed. This is fun.

Sometimes I stop using a metronome for a while, and realize that while I can play a song quickly, it sounds like crap.

One week, I practiced “Solider’s Joy” every day and could play it really quickly AND fairly well. When I went to my lesson that week, my teacher wanted to hear me play “Alabama Jubilee.”

I can play more evenly and with fewer (or at least less noticeable) mistakes when my teacher plays alongside me.

If I wait for the “perfect time” to practice, when I won’t be bothering anyone else, I don’t get much practicing done. My family has to put up with listening to that hitch in the scale and the hard parts of “Alabama Jubilee” over and over. Oddly, they don’t seem to mind it as much as I expect.

Sometimes, slowing a song down, and taking it section by section, helps my hands to learn the patterns. Then I can speed it up and hear it as it should be.

Sometimes, speeding a song up – and playing it regardless of mistakes – breaks through some barrier in my mind that says “I can’t play this” – because I’m playing it anyway. Then I can slow it down and hear it as it should be.

Sometimes I’d rather write about playing the mandolin, than actually pick up the instrument and practice it.

time to practice…

Heading off to the annual Women’s Retreat tomorrow. In packing, I found the little journal I bring every year, and read what I wrote at last year’s retreat. What a journey the past year has been. I offer my last year’s journal entries as witness.

Women’s Retreat, 2011

Friday. Tonight, for the first time in years, my girls didn’t want me to leave. Instead of shooing me out the door, both girls told me they wished I were staying. I miss them and almost wish I had stayed.

I arrive tonight two days after an almost sleepless night, a night of shock and awe at a glimpse of how Jesus loved – without rules, without boundaries, at risk of his own peril – and yielding in me a sense of urgency and awareness of my own need for ministry. I promised, to two witnesses, to honor my sisters here, and to love them, transparently, without defenses.

And then I arrive to a pajama fashion show, where I am supposed to play runway model while things are read about me.

And I can’t do it. I could. I don’t want to. I didn’t. Stand in front in my jammies (sweats & fraying T-shirt)? In this body, which I am not currently willing to take out in public except it’s attached to me? I don’t think so.

Fear? No. Self-consciousness? Sure. Mostly just a very clear sense of No. Does this mean I don’t love my sisters? Surely not. But that is not who I am.

Who I am: later, smaller conversations, with Pam, Cara, Amy, Nicole; last one up talking; listening more than talking, but trying to be open. Knitting: a scarf for an Independent friend.

Being transparent and open does not have to mean being who I’m not. It does mean loving who God brings to me.

Tomorrow: the speaker, and free time. And I will sing, and then I will knit, and I will listen, and pray, and talk with women I know and don’t know, and I will wonder about being loving and about how to go deeper.

Saturday. The conversations have been outstanding. Much time today spent with Cara, Pam, Jen, and Amy. Strong, complex, interesting women, all; all carrying (and I also) some sense of anxiousness about our own shortcomings. But together…what more we could become! Together, we have such strength and skill and experience and wisdom. And potential.

The first Hope United (covenant discipleship group) gathering is Monday, at Cara’s. I pray God’s blessing, presence, and guidance for us. I am not afraid.

And we’re planning the retreat for next year. It’s off to a rich start, with a page full of ideas, and a plan.

One of my gifts, I think: to spark something, an idea, a conversation with purpose, and help it find a home.

Carrie told me tonight at supper that she thought of me as an example of a peaceful person. Would that have been true, ten years ago? No.

All that I have, is gift from God.

Early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

But as he began to sink, the other disciples, walking with him, reached out their hands and caught him, saying to him, “Take heart, it is the Lord, do not be afraid!”, and they walked with him the rest of the way to Jesus on the water.

Do I believe that God makes a path in the desert? that God brings mountains low, and exalts valleys?

Do I believe that a hostile, homicidal king can be soothed with song?

Do I believe that the smallest of shepherds can bring down a giant, with five stones from the river?

Do I believe that five loaves and two small fish can feed a multitude?

Do I believe that my friend who faces eviction can be delivered?

Do I believe that the king who rages after him, can be soothed? that song can change an empire?

Do I believe that my community will care for him?

Do I believe that God makes a path in the desert?


Lord, help my unbelief.

Dear pastors,

Members of your congregation are not just going to swim into your office asking to lead discipleship ministries. You must set out bait.

(Well, they might swim into your office. They might be there frequently, actually. It’s just that neither of you realize why yet.)

I will confess the bait I took: Study groups about the “emerging church” and other provocative topics. Movie nights, with discussion afterward. “Beer and Theology” nights at the local pub! (Go on. Try it. It’s awesome.) Facebook and Twitter conversations. Conversations over coffee, with no particular agenda. Seeing my pastor’s life, and becoming curious about his choices. And most especially, a book group – not to work through a Christian curriculum, but to read secular fiction and explore it through the eyes of faith. It worked at my imagination. It infected me.

My pastor set out a trail of breadcrumbs…and I not only followed it, but was fed along the way.

And all the time, while my soul was waking, my pastor was watching. And listening. And giving me time. He gave me my time – time to grow, time to become dissatisfied, hungry and thirsty for more; he also gave generously of his time, meeting me for coffee, for lunch, engaging in countless email dialogues on whatever I was struggling with or thinking through or celebrating. He responded always from a place of deep faith. Some of these times, I came away rejoicing. Sometimes I came away confused. Sometimes I wept. Sometimes I raged. A few times, I walked away from it all for a while.

But each time, the Spirit drew me back.

Pastors, please know: This is not something you need to make happen. That is the Spirit’s work. Your work is to trust that Spirit, and to watch for it. Watch for bright eyes. Watch for glistening unexpected tears. Watch for the person who responds. And then – reach out. Invite that person to more – to explore – to go deeper.

You are my pastor. I am your lay person. Maybe you know already who I am. Maybe not. I may not know who I am, yet. But I thank you, in advance, for watching for me, for finding me, for taking the time, for the inefficiency it will involve, for your patience.

Don’t be afraid. Reach out. Ask. Invite. Give responsibility for something large, something serious. Tell that one what is needed. Tell them it is large. Tell them it is important. Tell them you believe they can do it. They will need to hear this from you. (They may need to hear it many times.) Your lay person will not know what they can do, until you ask them to do it. It may be exciting. It may be terrifying. It will probably be both.

Jesus fed and taught the crowds – but when he called disciples, he warned them to count the cost.

This is no small thing: following Jesus.

But remember: When you are setting out this bait, these breadcrumbs,
it is not to lead your layperson into a trap. It is to lead them out the door,
into the free air.


Will I be any more coherent after a night’s sleep? We’ll see…

I am grateful for this event, this gathering.

I am grateful that it has been:

– Positive. As much challenge as the content has brought to us, calling us to change our accustomed ways and go into new places, the word is a good one. I have heard remarkably little griping or complaining, and even the little that I heard early on has lessened as the event develops. This is not a reaction against something, it is an invitation to new and joyful things. Thanks be to God!

– Prayerful. Each day has begun in prayer, and ended in worship and communion. This has felt genuine, refreshing, life-giving; the leaders and celebrants are not just going through the motions but truly believe, which invites the participants to do the same.

– Scriptural. One of the things I have begun to learn is that scripture is so much more interesting and alive (and challenging!) when it is not just a few verses plucked out, but a whole story read in context. Questions about the story can then be raised (Jesus had a house??) and can spark our imaginations, can begin to infect our lives.

– Safe. Each participant’s story and experience is welcomed and valued. I have shared my story, heard many others, helped connect people who need to hear the story another has to tell. I have challenged others – and been challenged myself, which I am grateful for because I seek to grow.

– Open to the Spirit. What a difference it makes, to truly believe God is at work! It allows us to hope. It allows for the future to become something different than the past. It gives us room to pray. It allows us to work, to strive, to step forward boldly, even when we don’t know the full outcome, because we can trust that God does. It allows us to take small steps or large ones, knowing that the results and even the plan are not ultimately in our hands, but that we have a part to play.

As a result of all of these things (and more), I have seen joy, hope, and life flow into the people here. I see us begin to think more creatively, to be ready to take steps that we previously despaired of, to want to share this joy and the stories of what we’ve heard with others.

And isn’t that the Gospel, friends?

Because we are loved, we can become open enough to love others, even strangers. Because we have experienced joy and freedom, we want to share it with others we know are still despairing and bound to the rules of the world. Because we have eaten together, prayed together, and shared our lives, we are equals, each serving in our own place and in our own way, but as a part of a large and glorious Kingdom.

Go and do likewise, friends. God is at work. Thanks be to God!

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!

Today was a long day in session, but somehow less intense than yesterday’s drive and dinner, for me anyway. Elaine Heath spoke most of the day, with a brief intro about the distinction between Extractional (attractional) church and missional church, then dove into her experiences with missional communities such as the Epworth Project (communal housing, following a Rule of Life which includes active service within the neighborhood, among many other things) and the New Day communities, which are house church/missional parachurch worshiping communities.

It’s provocative stuff. I would have paid good money to be able to peek into everyone’s brains and see what sparks were flying. I know there were some folks who didn’t get (or agree with) what she was saying at all, but there were also a bunch of people who have major wheels turning about what might be able to happen in their own settings. I am loving this chance to be in on some of those conversations!

For me, one of the high points was hearing her share the Rule of Life which the New Day leaders follow. They don’t expect all of the worshiping participants to follow the Rule of Life, but they keep very high expectations of their leadership team, including the supporting clergy, who also follow the same Rule of Life and participate in – but do not lead – a covenant group with the rest.

The Rule of Life they use is based off of the UM membership vows, but push into what those vows mean when lived out. Prayer intentionally includes a variety of methods, to spur growth and depth, and also specifically includes fasting. (Interesting.) Presence encompasses hospitality, to neighbor and to the community, including mandatory regular potluck suppers with the entire neighborhood invited! Gifts includes caring for the gifts of the earth, and an explicit rejection of consumerism. Eating together (which I believe serves both Presence and Gifts) is considered a sacred act; at the table, all are levelled; all are sisters and brothers. (What if communion were really experienced that way??) Service comes out of gratitude for the love of God, and also explicitly includes regular practice of Sabbath so that participants can truly serve out of love. Witness includes reconciliation work (racial, gender, and otherwise), as well as encompassing the language of resisting evil and injustice, as well as actively pursuing peace.

It’s heady stuff, and helpful. The lead team meets bimonthly and is accountable for all of these things. Heath says peer pressure works well for them here – no one wants to show up month after month and have to say they still have done nothing to connect with their next-door-neighbor!

And the subversive aspect is…these folks go back to their “anchor congregations”, which make a point of visibly holding up and supporting their work, and over time, Heath says “it infects the imaginations of the people sitting in the pews.” My favorite quote of the day: “When you worship with your local congregation, it is as returning missionaries, coming together to celebrate what God has done.”

She also spoke to the deliberate blurring of boundaries – claiming the promise that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” – seminary teachers, for example, are in covenant groups with their students; all are expected to be open to each other and to care for each other without regard for worldly status or “normal” boundaries.  Speaking of the story in Mark 2 about the paralyzed man being lowered to Jesus through the roof, she points out that the setting for this story is Jesus at home. Jesus had a home? According to Mark, he did…and he invited so many people into his home that it was full to overflowing, and this bloke came in through the roof. What if our homes were that open, that porous? What would it look like, to invite people into our lives to such a degree? That is the example we are given to follow. Suddenly, every building is a house of prayer, a sacred space…we’re never “off the hook.”

Her missional living communities are exciting, are inspiring, but are not likely to be the entry point for most congregations or pastors. Residential communities can work great for twenty-something seminary students. Not so much for established families in suburbia, I suspect, although my own soul has yearned for something similar for years. Tomorrow morning’s focus is on small discipleship-focused groups; I’m very much looking forward to the conversation, since that’s where our community is growing, and where my heart is.

I was given the opportunity to help serve at communion tonight, for our close-of-day worship. I was glad to be asked; I don’t get many opportunities to serve communion, and it allowed the clergy in the room to receive rather than give. It is a powerful interaction – an intersection, an incarnation. Thanks be to God!

The conversations around the edges, amongst participants, continue to be rich and fruitful. It’s a great joy to see awakenings, imaginations catching fire, to see new things becoming possible because of this event and our connections. What a blessing to be here, and be together!

I am in Nashville, at the offices of the UMC General Board of Discipleship, for this year’s Wesleyan Leadership Conference. I am glad and grateful to be here, and to finally meet in person many friends whom I have only known online. Brothers and sisters, be patient with me as I write; I love you all, and I mean no disrespect in any way.

Once again I am struck by how deeply the pastors need pastoring. There’s such a need to share the struggles, the challenges – and a deep and genuine yearning to actually be able to *live out* their call, not just tend to the business of running a church and putting worship services together. In fact they sound exactly like folks in our covenant groups – really, folks desperately in need of a covenant group.

I’m grateful once again for my odd position as laity, being outside of that particular dynamic; I can speak from a different place.

I called the pastors out, over dinner the first night. I did, God help me!  The conversation was starting to spin around how hard it is to get something Wesleyan going (like class meetings), and this was after we’d already spun the part about it needing to be lay-led. So I asked them all where their laypeople were. Again. A year ago right now, this journey hadn’t even started for me (but it was about to!). That cliff dive was in November. Good Lord, can that be right? Not even a year. I told my dear clergy friends that one year ago, I didn’t know my Wesley from my Willimon, couldn’t explain the first thing about early Methodism, and had no idea what a class meeting was or why somebody might want one. I told them that a year from now, I think they should each have *at least* one layperson either with them at this event. And, I told them that I’m more than willing to provide whatever encouragement, support, or help that I can to their layfolk, or to them, in the process.

Clergy types have the same needs we do. It’s not different. It’s not, as they say, rocket science. All God’s people gotta have folk they can be honest with, folk who will stand by them, folk who will watch over them in love and pull them back off the edge when it gets too close. If the clergy don’t have this, how can they possibly lead others to it? You can’t lead where you don’t know how to go. It’s too threatening. You might point in that direction, but there will be a hesitance that conveys “…but you really don’t want to actually GO that way.”

There’s such a hunger, a longing, and yes, such fear. Fear to be honest about the hard parts. Fear of losing the job and the livelihood. Our church cannot lead others into a life of discipleship if her leaders are bound up in this fear. We cannot model stewardship while we are caught up in worldly standards about salary and career climbing. We can’t show people the wild, life-changing Gospel if we can’t claim it and live it ourselves. It takes someone – and someone else to go with them and stand by them – to take a bold outrageous step, and do it publicly.

I swear I was one sheet of paper away from making this group at table Wednesday night start writing out a Rule of Life and covenanting to hold each other to it.

So, this is a long way of saying Thank You, again, to each of my pastors, past and present, for causing me to be here this week. And thank you also, my brothers and sisters here in Nashville, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing your honest journey with me and with each other. Our conversations strengthen the larger community as much as they strengthen and enliven each other and our own selves. Thank you all for believing that God is at work, believing it enough that it truly shapes your own lives. There’s nothing more powerful.