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things I saw on retreat:

Cara, full of joy

forty-three women, hungry for fellowship and to share their stories

forty-three women, in shadow and backlit by streaming sunshine, watching me while I search for words about fasting. The darkness on their faces was both comforting and disorienting.

water in the snowy woods. On one side of the path, a pond, bounded and stagnant: frozen and still. On the other side, a running river; warmer and moving, because it comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. Me, standing in the middle and thinking about faith.

bright eyes…from a woman of another congregation, who came to the weekend praying for purpose, and caught fire from conversation about covenant groups.

bright eyes of women in our own community, newly drawn to the idea of a covenant group, a weekly mini-retreat – not only commiting to participate, but thinking of friends they want to invite along as well.

tears, in worship. Which I have come to regard as a sign of the Spirit’s presence, thanks be to God.

 

things I learned on retreat:

forty-three women can keep an hour of silence. They might be a little anxious about it ahead of time, but grateful for it when it happens.

fasting feels like an unfamiliar concept, but with a little exploration, we recognize how overstuffed our lives are, and how much we need to experience emptiness.

reading scripture feels like something we “should” do, but many people don’t have any idea how to even begin.

hearing scripture read aloud, opened many more ears and made it feel more alive.

planning a retreat can be as much of a means of grace as attending one.

 

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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.

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.

No longer winter in my garden. Lots of things are growing now. Daffodils, tulips, windflowers, scilla. The winter aconite has shown its sunny face and fallen back asleep. My Virginia bluebells, dearest to my heart, are in full bloom. Even the autumn-blooming asters and echinacia have sent up foliage, to soak up sunlight and feed the roots and start their long-term plans.

Also, I have dandelions, and ragweed, and garlic mustard, and thousands of tiny maple tree seedlings. These things are growing just as rapidly and lushly. The ground is warm, the rain falls, the sun shines, and all the seeds sprout and seek to grow strong and bear fruit and replicate themselves.

My garden is meant to be a place set apart. That which grows in my garden is meant to be beautiful, to serve a purpose. If the garlic mustard grows, it will crowd out everything else. It will drop seeds, some of which will grow right away, others of which could lie dormant for years waiting an opportunity to grow. Letting one garlic mustard plant grow could mean losing the entire garden. If the maple seedlings, tiny now, are allowed to grow, they will demand all of the space and water and nutrients from the soil. They will shade the garden and grow so tall and wide that they will split the walkways, crowd the house, and the garden will be unrecognizable. And each of these will drop countless more seeds, intending to grow even more maple trees or garlic mustard plants.

I’ve heard it said that the best fertilizer for the garden is the gardener’s footprint. That is, all of my best hopes and desires and intent for my garden will mean nothing, if I don’t spend time walking in it, watching it carefully, learning to recognize the differences between my returning perennials and the invasive weed and tree seedlings.

I have to get the root of the weeds. If I pull too quickly, or when the ground is hard and dry, I’ll only strip the leaves, but the root will remain. The garden might look prettier for a while, but nothing has really changed underneath. Sometimes, pulling the leaves off but leaving the root, means that the roots continue to grow deeper and broader into the dirt. I can’t always tell this from the sprouting leaves, but if I do get it pulled, I can tell that this is a weed I’ve tried and failed to eradicate before.

The best way – the only way I know – to keep my garden as a place set apart, a place for beauty and purpose, is to spend time there, watching, looking closely, keeping the ground watered and easy to work, learning the plants which grow there, and pulling the weeds. They’re so much easier to pull when they’re small. Some of the big ones, the ones I ignored or neglected or didn’t spot soon enough, get deeply enough rooted that it takes a shovel to get them out – and that also digs up the flowers which grow around them.

And so I’m going to my covenant discipleship group today.

One year ago, I participated in a Lenten study centering around the idea of “calling.” The essence of the study was that we all are called, each of us, to some participation in God’s purpose. Calling is not just for clergy, for the ordained, for those who go to seminary and receive blessings and ordination services and robes and stoles. Each of us is called.

As a part of that study – and in recognition that God calls us not because we are perfect but because we are God’s – we each took a blank sheet of paper, and wrote on it our faults. Not our skills, which we might be tempted to think of first as that which God might use. But our faults. I wrote my faults, in faith that God works through our weaknesses and imperfections to give voice to God’s greater grace and strength.

I wrote my faults. I wrote: I talk too quickly. Opinionated. Proud. Social moth (drawn to the brightest lights, the hottest burning fire, in any circle of people). Distractable. Undisciplined. Impatient.

Over the past year, I would have added more to the list of my faults: Fearful. Too much in need of praise and reassurance. Spotlight hog. And in November, I mentally added several more specific faults and shortcomings: Ignorant of my faith history. Unpracticed and unable to speak about my beliefs and traditions. Lacking a sense of my own journey and purpose. Biblically only semi-literate (at best).  Most damning: Never been to seminary. Untrained, unprepared, anxious, nauseous, painfully self-conscious, terrified.

I named these as my faults and shortcomings, because in November my pastor asked me to jump off a cliff. In all fairness, he didn’t know it was a cliff. It probably didn’t look big or threatening to him at all. I knew what it was, though; it was an endless fall, a fiery furnace, the lion’s den. My pastor asked me to join a conversation about discipleship, and to lead a discipleship-focused ministry.

I barely knew how to articulate any difference between “discipleship” and “being a good church member”. I showed up every Sunday, sang in the choir, did my share of church work and went to study groups. Wasn’t that the point? Wasn’t I doing all the right things? …And yet. When I heard others speak of the greater mission of the church, the transformation of the world, I could feel something deep within me respond. Sometimes, that something squirmed in discomfort. Sometimes it leapt for joy. Always it reminded me that I was missing something – a deeper path. Discipleship. An intentional, disciplined (disciplined? me? did you see my list of faults?) living out of the faith that I could at that time only barely speak of.

A deep breath. Sleepless nights. Prayer and reading, and hard workouts to burn off the nervousness, and long walks to clear my head of the circling swirling fears. Deciding to claim and cling to God’s promise not to leave me alone – and yes, I will jump off that cliff, I will walk into that fire, I will grab hold of that snake’s tail, with God’s help and my pastor’s support, I will begin and I will lead a discipleship group.

It started with one conversation, over coffee with a friend. Then a second conversation, on a walk with two friends. I’m going to start this. I don’t know what it will be like. Will you join me? Yes, saying yes, out of trust and out of friendship, and I believe out of their own shared sense of something deep within calling them to more. Weekly, we meet now. First one group, now a second, meeting before we had a full plan, trusting that we would learn along the way and that it was better to start than to put it off until we were “ready”.

We meet, weekly, in homes so we can have privacy. We open and close with prayer, taking turns in who leads. Our covenant follows Wesley’s General Rules: Do good, Do no harm, and participate in the means of grace – prayer, scripture study, worship, communion, and fasting. The questions which guide our conversations are variations on a core theme: Where have you encountered God this week? How do you feel God may be calling or pushing you in the week to come? With what are you struggling? In what ways are you living out our covenant? How is it with your soul? If the conversation stalls or falters, we look more deeply into our covenant: what does it mean to do good? What harm might we be doing, without being aware? What good is being left undone? Which parts of Jesus’ instructions to us are we failing to live out? I am regularly inspired and humbled by my covenant partners; each one has their own journey and their own challenges; each one brings something unique to the conversation. As the facilitator, I seek always two types of balance: a balance between sharing my own journey and keeping the focus on the group as a whole, and a balance between personal growth and missional focus for the conversation. I believe God calls us to look outside ourselves, beyond ourselves – thus, our covenant groups are not support groups. Our goal is not to feel better about ourselves, but rather to more closely follow Jesus – to follow him into the world, to the side of the poor and the sick and the lonely and the lost, to forgiveness and mercy and service and selflessness. To follow him to joy, not because we cast our cares aside but because we share each other’s cares.

We might talk about parenting, or our jobs – but not as we might chat with our social friends; we talk from a perspective of faith. We talk about forgiving those who have hurt us. We talk about strained relationships, and issues of justice. We talk about composting and recycling and what we spend money on and what we eat (or don’t eat). We experiment with fasting…and surprise ourselves with what we learn. We learn to experience worship as worship, not as Sunday Morning Social and Choir Hour. We aim for a closer relationship with scripture and a more regular prayer life…in a variety of ways. We ask each other to hold us accountable for certain things we struggle with. Sometimes we take small steps. And sometimes we take bold steps – like exploring prison ministry. Not because we want to or know how, but because Jesus told us to visit the imprisoned, and we can see that this is one big area where our larger church falls short. And always we strive to make it more than just talk, to ask and encourage and nudge each other so that it is our lives and our community which are transformed, not just our words for one hour each week.

In a congregation, especially a large congregation such as the one we share, it is tempting to say “the church should do something” – clothe the naked, care for the children, feed the hungry, visit the sick. And it may be true, but for “the church” to do a thing involves meetings, committees, budget, and often dissension from those who think “the church” should be doing something else instead. As disciples of Jesus, once we see ourselves that way, we are free to act on the needs we see, to respond to the hurts we encounter, to reach out to the lost and the estranged and the lonely without having to drag an institution behind us. As part of a discipleship group, we can remind each other to keep our eyes and hearts open, and encourage and support each other to take the first frightening steps in new directions. With a covenant to strengthen us, we grow in faithfulness.

Some things that our participants have done, that we likely would not otherwise have done: Brought food to shut-in neighbors. Offered to help shovel snow after a blizzard. Trained to volunteer at a community homeless shelter. Written letters to prisoners. Prayed for bosses who fired us. Ordered food for strangers protesting for justice in another state. Chosen to eat differently, more sustainably. Listened more carefully to someone who is hurting. Developed a practice of reading the Bible, nightly, with a young son. Talked and wrote about our faith with less hesitation, with friends and on our blogs and Facebook.

Our groups are young, in months and in maturity. They are small – eight members, one leader. We have much room for growth. But we are here, we are learning, and we are growing in faithfulness. I envision a time when our numbers will increase, when others see what we are about and join us, and each member now becomes a future leader. I envision other groups, gatherings of people who are not sure of their faith, wary of the church, not ready to enter a covenant, but who crave a place to talk and explore and learn; I believe our covenant participants will be gracious and nurturing mentors for these wandering souls. I give thanks now for my weaknesses, for my faults, for my never having been to seminary, for my impatience and my impulsiveness; God is using these very flaws to give shape to my leadership. And I give thanks for my pastor who asked me to jump, and for my covenant partners who took the leap with me.

We are all called. We can all grow in discipleship. Who will go with you on your journey?

Prerequisites: None required. Strongly recommended: Reading and familiarity with William Willimon’s This We Believe, in preparation and readiness to lead discussion on Wesleyan faith and practice for Lenten study, beginning this Monday evening. Also, reading and understanding of John Wesley’s article The Character of a Methodist, as provided by Carol in preparation for same. Also, knowledge and familiarity with Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, and readiness to interpret Wesleyan faith and practice in its context. Also, prayer. Preferably without ceasing.

Assignment: Using all of the above sources, as well as personal experience, reason, tradition, and church teaching both local and institutional, integrate Christian practice into daily life. Be prepared to discuss whether there is a contradiction between (1) Wesley’s insistence that the distinguishing marks of a Methodist in no way include opinions of any sort, nor peculiar words or phrases, actions, customs, or usages, and (2) the existence and content of Willimon’s book describing the distinguishing marks of a Methodist. Keep in mind the examples, both positive and negative, from the lives of Christians you encounter, and that you are also an example to your fellow students. Be prepared to be challenged on this point, as well as on all other points.

Required elements in this assignment include loving God; loving neighbor; the active practice of doing good in any and all ways; the avoidance of doing harm in any and all ways; and the cultivation and regular maintenance of practices enabling faithful living: prayer, worship, communion (as available), searching the scriptures, and fasting (please include research on a variety of practices, along with your references).

Due: Daily. In-person examinations weekly, on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and most Saturdays. Formation of study groups is highly encouraged and may in fact be necessary for successful navigation of this course.

Extra credit: Demonstrate, with and without discussion, whether Christian practice is in fact integrated into daily life, or the converse.

Please be advised: Likely outcomes of participating in this course include not only intellectual challenge and growth, but more notably joy, deepened love, heightened frustration levels, anger, strengthened community, intense need for forgiveness and to forgive, confusion, differences of opinion and potential for heated discussion, weeping, grief, peacefulness, torment, sense of mission, life disruption, misunderstanding, being used (by others in ways you will not enjoy), being used (for good), feelings and actual experience of not fitting in with the rest of the world, unexpected travel, spending and being spent, and participation in the Kingdom of God on earth. Also, a lasting discomfort with owning more than two silver spoons.