Posted in Different Books, Different Scriptures

Promoting Relationship…

As a pastor, I am always wanting to grow in my understanding of relationships. The psychology, sociology, and neurology that go into the ways we relate to one another, ourselves, and even the ways we pursue a relationship with God are of significant value.

Presently, that means I’m reading a book called “Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections”. One of the technology books I read with our older daughters this past year talked about the importance of face to face interactions in terms of building healthy relationships. It ranked the strength of communication styles for building a deepened connection, and texting (a primary form of communication for most of us) was toward the bottom, under phone calls, video chats (another primary form under COVID), and of course the number one – face to face, in person, conversation.

With such a low amount of connecting in person during the past couple of years, it’s no wonder that the worlds of psychology, sociology, and neurology are paying attention also, and figuring out how to help people understand (and of course, I realize, capitalize on this moment for profit-making also). Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, you’ve experienced loneliness during the past couple of years, and if their research for human relationships holds similar for our relationship with God (my guess is, there are definitely connections), you might be feeling a bit disconnected from the presence of God as well.

One of the basic premises of the book, is that their research shows a fundamental part of building more meaningful connections is this element called “Attunement”. They break it down into four components: “relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness.” The book goes into exploring these components, offering ways to become more aware, research to understand & improve each area, and exercises they have found to be helpful. Of course, it’s written for all people, and not a “religious” book. You won’t find them suggesting meditation on scripture, quiet breath-prayer/prayer walks, cultivating an awareness of God’s presence, etc. But they still offer some helpful insight, which can be adapted as needed.

Of particular note neurologically, is the research on how the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system responds to stress by releasing hormones, “including cortisol (often considered the body’s main stress hormone)”. The authors note that “experiments conducted at McGill University have shown that a stress response involving cortisol release can block a person’s emotional empathy for another person.” As we look at our culture today, especially the promotion of anxiety and stress by those who profit from our attention, we can easily see one of their conclusions then: “modern human culture has brought us a variety of long-term worries and stresses, and chronic activation of our bodies’ stress systems can have negative effects on our physical health, as Sapolsky points out, and can also have negative effects on our ability to tune in and connect to each other. This continual activation of the stress systems can promote a vicious cycle as stress increases a sense of disconnection; and being isolated and disconnected, in turn, increases stress.”

As a pastor, it helps to be aware that people are coming to church, and to life in general, with a decreased ability to form or participate in relationships with empathy. It also helps me to understand that simply praying “Lord, help us all have decreased levels of cortisol.” is not a faithful response to the understanding God has given us about how we’ve been created. As the authors write, “the activity of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) can reduce the activity of the HPA system.”

So what can I do to help activate and strengthen the activity of the PNS?  Dr. Stephen W. Porges stresses the importance of the “polyvagal theory”, as his research has found that the vagus nerve (which runs from our brain stem down into the abdomen, and is a major nerve of the PNS) can be calmed purposefully in several ways (here are some examples). One of the easiest ways, as we stand in the front of our churches in a moment of prayer or worship, aware of such things – is to slow our speech, model deep breaths, and even invite our people to pay attention to their own breathing. To pause and take a deep breath not only allows us to prayerfully consider what words to say next, it is also allowing a holy pause which can allow our PNS to wash our minds with responses that reduce cortisol and raise levels of oxytocin (a “neuropeptide involved in social bonding…including feelings of trust, generosity, empathy, and understanding.”)

It also means, as I encourage people young and old to spend personal time with God – I should emphasize that such time with God will be deepened by awareness of our breathing and body. It’s not as helpful to “dip in and out” of a 5 minute devotional, forcing God to connect in the time we give Him. We will improve and deepen our moments with God by finding ways to relax, de-stress, and become more physically attuned to our own emotional state as we move into His presence.

May you take a moment to breathe slow today, finding ways to turn away from the anxieties and stresses (even legitimate ones), knowing that purposefully embracing patterns of Sabbath and physical peace allow our relationships with others, with ourselves, and even with God to flourish in new and deeper ways…

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.’ – Jesus (Matthew 11:28)

Posted in Different Moments, Uncategorized

A Statement on Ministry…

The “official” graduation ceremony for my MDIV takes place this Saturday.  I’ve already walked (across our home church stage, to receive my diploma from my wife & children), but I figured this would be a good moment to pause.  Here are a few words I wrote many months ago, toward the end of my MDIV.  These are words I want to look back on and remind myself with, and so I “file them” publicly here – in case they may serve to encourage others.  These are not profoundly unthought of, will not shock the world, or inherently transform someone’s ministry.  But for me – they are important to remember:

PERSONAL MINISTRY STATEMENT
“My life in ministry aims to join the incarnational presence of Jesus by living out the good news of the gospel invitationally in every area of my life toward the New Creation of all things – both now and yet to come.”

Based on the coursework at Wesley Seminary, the reminders and wisdom gained, the time spent in scriptural study, and conversation with others – I can say some foundational things about ministry itself. I would use the word “pastoral” ministry, but this may imply that it is only true when serving as a professional “pastor”. Instead, I would simply use the term “Ministry” itself from the Christian perspective. This implies and includes those descriptions of a pastor but does not limit an understanding to someone who is paid to carry such a title professionally. Such ministry must always be incarnational, invitational, and eschatological.
INCARNATIONAL
In Jesus we see God becoming human to literally make this fleshly world the location of His presence in a way that had never occurred. This was not simply to give us a pattern to emulate, but by his resurrection and Holy Spirit becomes something we’re empowered to participate in. Any effort for ministry must be fed by first feasting at the table set for us by Jesus in prayer, Word, and worship. By receiving New Life in Christ, we are transformed into that New Creation that proclaims Jesus as fully Lord here and now. This means we are not simply incarnational to be among the people God loves, but we are missionally incarnational – infinitely compelled by the Love of God to proclaim, live out, and share the reality of God’s New Creation reality as is arriving “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Christian ministry here will be a response to all of this in the context of bringing healing restoration and redemption to relationships between humanity, God, and creation itself.
INVITATIONAL
In Jesus we see God extending such an invitation not only during a worshipful moment in the temple but as he walked along the road. We see Jesus extending the invitation to not only hear the objective truth, but to live in the new reality of all things transformed by Christ – set free from both sin, and the death it brings about. Christian ministry contains all of the amazing “Means of Grace” talked about by John Wesley, along with the “Method-ism” he espoused but is so much more than these things. It happens as Deuteronomy 6 proclaims, “When you sit at home, and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.” Because of Jesus Christ, there is no person, no group, no location, no family, and no brokenness that is beyond the invitation of God to experience freedom and redemption in His Love. Christian ministry here is empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend that invitation in life and word.
ESCHATOLOGICAL
In Jesus, we see a life and ministry that joins the flow of God from something toward all things being made new. Even as important things happen, especially in the context of individuals and communities, it is always within the larger context of the Kingdom coming fully that these things are located. The word here is generally used for “last/final things”, but in this case, we really view the coming “completion of all things” as a New beginning that is forever located fully within the reign and rule of Christ. Christian ministry here recognizes with both hope and humility that everything we do, say, and any bit of our “being” is to be discovered and understood within those purposes and activities of God toward what will be. That is not to say our eyes are completely turned toward the “final days”, or even to a contemporary understanding, as we believe God has been speaking and revealing His final purposes actively as His Love has been transforming all things since creation itself.
CONCLUSION
There are libraries filled with books about how these things find themselves happening and “fleshed out” in the midst of individuals, families, and communities shaped by the loving presence of Jesus Christ. It involves worship services, small groups, proclamation, Bible studies, accountability, prayer, fasting, baptism, teaching, and more. Depending on the particular situation, season, and lives involved, it may take different shapes. But at the core, Christian ministry is always about joining the work and life of the Triune God who has invited us to do so in ways that transform us for the sake of all creation. We do this in fear and trembling, with excitement and joy, and mostly with a whole lot of grace – offered first on our behalf, so that we might begin to respond as He calls.

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