Building Good Boundaries

Last week I had the opportunity to spend the day learning about maintaining good personal boundaries. This is a seminar that Disciples of Christ pastors in Mid-America are required to take every three years. However, it is more than just a requirement, it is a great opportunity to think about our boundaries and how they affect our relationships in the church, and in life. So, what are boundaries? I’m glad you asked!

I define boundaries are the “rules” we put in place in our lives to empower ourselves and others to live abundantly. In many ways boundaries are like the Ten Commandments. The are the governing principles in all of our relationships. For example, one of my boundaries is that I never lend money that I wouldn’t want to give away. In college I made a small loan to a friend. The total amount escapes me now, but it was less than $100. Whatever the amount, this friend never repaid the money and our relationship was soured for quite a while. Eventually I was able to grow to the point where I could forgive him and the debt he owed. Our relationship, however, never recovered.

One thing which is important for us to keep at the forefront of our minds is the relationship between boundaries and power. Many people I have met through the years see themselves as powerless to make changes in their lives, to control the choices they make. I believe we are all more powerful than we imagine. Furthermore, I believe wholeheartedly that there are areas in our lives where we are more powerful than others. Like in the lending example, I had more power because I had more money at the time. There are many things which give us power; age, profession, race, and gender, all contribute to our power. That list is FAR from exhaustive, but you get the idea.

I like to think of how power relates to the responsibility of setting and maintaining boundaries by thinking of boating. For this example there are two kinds of boats, power boats and sailboats (which would also include canoes, kayaks, any boat without an engine..). The powerboat is able to control its speed and direction more efficiently than a canoe. Therefore it is the powerboat’s responsibility to avoid the non-powered boats it encounters. The person in the canoe may not have sufficient strength, or power, to get out of the way of the faster, more agile powerboat.

The same thing is true in our relationships; it is the responsibility for the person with more power to maintain clear boundaries. That responsibility doesn’t fall on the person, or people, with less power. This is one of the primary reasons why the Mid-America Region places such an emphasis on training our clergy in setting good boundaries. You, the congregations we serve, grant us a substantial amount of power. And you probably don’t have to think too long to remember a situation where a minister abused that power.

This is only a glimpse into the important topic of boundaries in the church. I hope to develop a brief workshop, or study session, to help guide us through this important topic. Once I have that event planned, I’ll be offering you (and others in our wider community) the opportunity to sign up and spend a few hours learning about boundaries. I look forward to thinking with you about how we strengthen our relationships through effective boundaries.

The Not-So-Rapid Response

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
James 1:19-22, NRSV

Over the past few weeks this scripture has run through my mind countless times. With the political season in full swing, I cannot count the number of heated conversations in which I’ve been involved, witnessed in social media, or overheard. I am certain of one thing; this political season is testing our resolve to be civil with one another in a way I’ve not seen before. I’ve also noticed that we, by in large, have ignored the wisdom James conveys in his epistle.

We have seemingly reversed his advised speed ratings. It seems we are slow to listen, and quick to speak our minds, often in anger. And I certainly witness too little of the meekness with which we are to welcome God’s word into our hearts. It seems that we’ve focused on “speaking the truth” as we see it, but we forget that Paul continues to say, “in love.” (Ephesians 4:15, NRSV) Furthermore, Paul continues to insist we speak truth lovingly because, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” All-too-often the “truth” I hear proclaimed is not loving, nor does it build anyone up to be like Christ.

You may have heard it said, “God gave us two hands, two ears, and one mouth for a reason.” The gist of that saying is that we are to use them in proportion to their appearance on our bodies, using our hands to serve and our ears to listen twice as often as we use our mouths to speak. I imagine we have all known people who have reversed that image as well. If I’m honest, there are days when I talk too much and listen WAY TO LITTLE! I am often reminded of the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. And, if necessary, use words.” One way of presenting the gospel is to take the time to listen to others, to slow down, take a breath, and really listen to what others have to say.

Unfortunately when we do listen it’s often to reply, not to understand. While the other person is talking, we aren’t really trying to understand their viewpoint or their motivation. Instead we are trying to find the hole in their argument, or formulating our next witty retort. Truthfully, that’s not communication. It is two people presenting their own opinions and arguments, with no intent of truly listening and no openness to the change which dialog can foster. It reminds me of Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It seems to me that we spend too much time reacting and not enough time listening, and not enough time responding.

So, on this rainy Wednesday morning, I want to challenge us to elevate our conversations to listening and response as opposed to planning and reaction. Maybe you’ve heard my “bumper sticker” phrase, objects react, people respond. What I mean is that when we react to something we hear, we are not fully engaging our humanity. When we respond, on the other hand, we are doing something that honors the image of God in which we are all created. I’m suggesting (especially during these last few weeks leading up to the elections) that we all commit to be part of the Not-So-Rapid Response Team. I’m suggesting we use our hands to serve, and our ears to listen, at least twice as often as we use our mouths to speak. I’m suggesting that we truly listen, instead of just formulating our next reaction. And, I’m suggesting that we honor the image of God in ourselves, and in one another, as we respond in grace and love, rather than reacting to our primal impulses

As we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, may God bless the world through our love for God and for one another.

 

Choice

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
RUSH – “Freewill”

I usually reserve the space above these ponderings for a scripture. However, when I heard these lyrics again a few weeks ago, I started thinking about the importance of choice and choosing. I’ve been thinking about the choices I make since and want to share some of those thoughts with you.

I want to begin by offering you a challenge: listen to yourself over the next week and see if you can find out what you really believe about choice. I’ve been doing just that recently and I’ve found some interesting things. While I believe that I have free will, that I have the power to choose my thoughts and actions, some times that belief does not get lived out in my life.

Just the other day I was talking with someone about the repairs Jennie and I have been making to, and have planned for, our house. In the course of the discussion I said, “I have to do some touch-up painting and clean up the office.” I really should do those things, but what is requiring me to make those repairs? Honestly, nothing. Jennie and I have CHOSEN to make these repairs. Hopefully they will help the house sell more easily and subsequently bring a higher price, but the repairs are mostly cosmetic.

I use the same language when I am talking about appointments on my calendar. “I can’t do that, I have to (fill in the blank.)” If I am honest with myself, I don’t HAVE to do all that many things. Most days I can rearrange my schedule to fit those things I deem to be most important. Do you “have” to go to work, or do you “choose” to go to work? You might say, “I won’t get paid if I don’t work.” True. But isn’t that a motivation to go to work, not a requirement? You could choose not to work. There are consequences to that choice, but it is a choice you could make.

There have been times in my life where making a decision is almost crippling. There are so many variables, so many positives, and often just as many negatives. At times I have felt incapable of making a decision. At those times the lyrics above play in my mind, and sometimes I even sing part of the song. If I don’t choose, I am REALLY choosing the status quo. While that may be the choice I would make anyway, it is much more empowering to choose to stay rather than have the time for that choice pass me by.

Lest you think there is no religious component to these ponderings, choice is also important in our lives of faith. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God makes covenants with the people of Israel. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Covenants are based on choices. The people could choose to follow other gods, and they did. Time and time again the people turned their back on God. They made a choice and scripture is full of stories which recount the consequences of those choices.

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Disciples that he is adapting the way he interacts with them. Although Jesus was a servant leader throughout his ministry, he tells the disciple that he is making a new covenant with them. Like all of those previous covenants Jesus’ followers have the choice whether or not they want to maintain the relationship. We choose to follow Christ. We choose to believe in God. Each and every day we make choices that either strengthen or weaken our relationships with one another and with God. I, personally, find that to be very empowering. We wake up every morning and choose God.

But what may be more astounding is that God chooses us as well. Even when Israel fell short, God chose them. Even when we fall short God chooses to restore the relationship with us. In John 15:16-17 Jesus reminds the Disciples that it was he that did the choosing. Jesus said, “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you. But remember the root command: Love one another.” When things get tough, when the world seems to be falling down around you, remember this, God chooses you

Holy Thursday

As we prepare to join in worship with members of the Marshfield United Methodist Church this evening, I find myself excited by this annual opportunity to join in worship with a larger portion of the community. I truly enjoy all of the special services throughout the year, but these times of joint worship during Holy Week are particularly special. So, I started to wonder, “Why is that?”

I think I like the special services because it is an opportunity for the holy to break into our routine. Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, is almost an oxymoron in some sense. We are accustomed to worship services on Wednesdays, think Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. And we are certainly accustomed to worship on Sunday, although Easter does have a particularly special atmosphere. But, a worship service on Thursday?

Thursday is just another day of the week, right? One day closer to Friday and the weekend. Just over the hump of Wednesday, Thursday is only rivaled in its ordinary-ness by Tuesday. (Actually Tuesday is probably even more ordinary as it doesn’t get a special worship service, ever!) So it is special that something holy breaks into the midst of our ordinary. And, I think it is particularly poignant that the reminder of the holy in the everyday is the celebration of the Last Supper.

Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal, something they had done countless times before. True, there is the tradition that this was a Passover meal which adds some significance to the event. But, Jesus would likely have celebrated many of the festivals, including Passover, with the disciples over the past few years. So, this was a fairly ordinary gathering, at least on the outside.

Little did the disciples know the importance of what they were about to experience. God’s message of salvation, of forgiveness, was about to break forth before their eyes. And what is remarkable to me is that the disciples don’t realize what is happening. They miss out on God’s presence. For them it is just like any other passover meal.

I find that comforting, or maybe the word is reassuring… Whatever the appropriate word, it helps me to know that I am not alone in missing God’s presence in the ordinary things of life. I’m not the only one who needs to be periodically awakened from a zombiesque trance and alerted to God’s transformative work in the world.

That is, for me, part of the joy of Maundy Thursday. It is a reminder of God’s loving presence in each and every day of our lives. Although I may not see it, God is working in the world to bring about wholeness and healing. Today is a good reminder to open our eyes, our ears, our minds, and our hearts so we might experience and appreciate the all-too-often unseen work of God.

Where has the week gone?

I  had all the best intentions (we know about those, right?) to post something for every day of Holy Week this year. Actually, I’m just going to refer us back to some posts about this week from last year… But, I obviously couldn’t even get that accomplished yesterday…

So, here are the first two installments of our Holy Week meditations:

Monday – “Monday Mayhem”
Tuesday – “Teaching Tuesday”

Check back tomorrow for a link to some thoughts about Wednesday, as we journey together through Holy Week!

24-Hour Prayer vigil

Saturday Morning (3/26/16) at 6am we will begin our annual 24-hour prayer vigil. Please sign up at the church, or call the church office and Jennifer will help you find a time to pray. This year, as in recent years, we are not opening the church for the vigil due to logistical concerns. So, we do want to provide you with a list of suggestions of how you might pray during your selected time. These suggestions can be found on our website. We hope you will join us for this time of intentional prayer!

Pushing Through

You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.
(1 Corinthians 9:24-25, The Message)

I was honestly surprised by the nerves I felt. It was a 5k. And a friendly one at that. I had nothing to lose, nothing to gain. We were all there to enjoy one another’s company, to get some exercise and to share in a breakfast. It was, after all, Thanksgiving.

But, there was no denying that I was nervous. As I approached the starting line less than a week ago, it had been months since I’d done any training. I was anything other than the “good athlete” of the scriptures. I hadn’t trained hard. I hadn’t trained at all. I knew I wasn’t going to win. But, I was there to run the race.

The race started and I was running next to my friend and former running partner. We were out front. It was just like the good old days. Then I looked over at her and asked, “What am I doing up here with you. This is crazy!”

The craziness didn’t last long. Less than a quarter of a mile down the road I was getting passed by everyone. Reality was setting in. Yes, this is where I belong in the race. “Settle in,” I told myself. “Find your pace. Find your rhythm.” It was then I remembered why I’d agreed to come out in the first place. It wasn’t to win. It was to be with my friends.

Paul is right. In the races we run in life there is only one winner. Only one person gets a gold medal at the Olympics. But, we all run the race. And, for me, it isn’t how we finish, but how we run during the race.

I’ve run races with my eyes solidly on the prize, doing everything I can to win. I’ve run races where I was there to help someone else achieve their goals. And I’ve run races like Thanksgiving morning, where the only “competition” was myself. Each one has a place in our lives, but I find that most days I’m running against myself. I’m usually able to steer clear of the “big” sins, but I constantly have to be aware of the smaller, inconspicuous, sins that tarnish my life. It’s those sins that no one else may see, an errant thought or selfish desire, which I battle most often. To use Paul’s analogy, it’s the training before the race where I often fall short.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “winning” recently. I’ve been asking myself what it means to win a race like the one on Thanksgiving. I’ve been asking myself what it means to win in completing my doctoral studies. I’ve been asking myself what it means to win as a church.
In every case I am finding that it isn’t about winning, as much as it is about running the race with integrity. It isn’t about being the best athlete, or writer, or pastor. There will always be someone faster, better, smarter, bigger, or stronger. It’s about running the race to win the prize that doesn’t tarnish. It’s about pushing through when things get tough. It’s about what you do when no one else is around.

It is often said that the game isn’t won on the field, or the court, but in the gym and in the weight room, when no one else is around. I, for one, am glad to be preparing for this race with you. And, I am thankful that we are running for a prize that we all have the ability to win.

It’s a Shame

Jesus said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” – John 8:7-11 NRSV

It has been all over the headlines recently and in countless pictures floating around the internet: shame. From the release of thousands of users of the Ashley Madison website, to pictures of dogs with signs hung around their necks, shaming has become an everyday occurrence in 2015. Frankly, that worries me.

There is no doubt that shame can be a powerful tool to promote change. Jennifer Jacquet suggests that the power of shame is that it can be used by the powerless against the strong. She cites the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example. She says the movement was essentially a shaming campaign against the upper echelon of society, known as the 1%. The movement sought to bring to light practices and structures that the rest of society does not view as acceptable. Shaming has also been used to promote changes in attitudes toward Native Americans and other minority groups.

Jacquet says the power of shame is that it can be used to spark transformation at any scale. Shame can be used against governments and multi-national corporations just as effectively as against the individual. However, she also notes that “just because shame can be effective doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.”Jacquet explains that shaming is best-suited for use in situations where there is no obvious route to punishment or where there is a defined impact on boarder society. She says shame “should be reserved for bad behavior that affects most or all of us.”2

Is shaming acceptable behavior for Christians? Yes, and no. In the case of pets who soil the carpet every time the doorbell rings, probably not. Animals cannot feel shame in that way, so it is not about changing behavior as much as it is sharing our misery as pet owners with others. There is also the issue of power. Personally, I have a hard time when someone with power shames someone without power. Which is why I become so frustrated when I see similar shaming pictures of children. I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to have my picture posted on the internet with a sign around my neck, telling the world what mistake I’d made.

I believe the powerful shaming the powerless is an example of bullying. And bullying is never acceptable. Whether we believe it, or not, parents have a great deal of power in relationship to children. When shame leads to fear, I question how ethical it is as a way of encouraging transformation.

Before we throw out shaming altogether, however, we should consider the scripture above. In this passage Jesus turns the tables of shame. A group of men has gathered to stone a woman caught in adultery. This is a very public and likely fatal form of shaming. When Jesus arrives on the scene, however, the situation is transformed. Instead of the powerful men shaming a powerless woman, they are the target of the shame. Simply by inviting anyone without sin to throw the first stone, Jesus defuses the situation.

I think it is important to note one more piece of the equation. In this instance, Jesus does not shame the men. He does not say that they have sinned. He does not declare them unclean. Instead he simply invites them to assess themselves before throwing stones at someone else. In my experience, this is the best way to employ shame as a tool for transformation. Instead of publicly announcing their faults, Jesus boldly invites each person to reflect on their own shortcomings. Through the power of a question Jesus not only saved the life of a woman, but he opened the opportunity for transformation in the life of each man preparing to stone her as well.

Is shaming a powerful tool? Yes. But it has been said that with great power comes great responsibility. It is my prayer that our words and our actions will bring about much-needed transformation in the world. More than that, however, I pray that we will act with the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

———-
1
Zoë Corbyn, “Jennifer Jacquet: ‘The power of shame is that it can be used by the weak against the strong’” The Guardian. Accessed August 24, 2015.http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/06/is-shame-necessary-review

2Ibid.