Thursday, August 6, 2009

And Now, a Word About My Sponsor...

I wanted to take a break this time from the on-going series on American conservatism and Christianity, and post something a bit more personal. Today I attended the first of two days of the 2009 Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I've been going to these events, on and off, for about ten years. This year's Summit, like those I've attended in the past, is held at a satellite location in the Kansas City metro, one of two in the immediate area. There are several hundred other folks attending at this one venue besides myself, and there are over 140 satellite locations across North America. That's a lot of people coming together for one main purpose.

Understand, at this point in my life, I'm not a church leader. In the last 13 years since becoming a Christian, I've led small groups, ministry teams, programming teams, and been involved in all sorts of church planning and activities. But I'm not a leader this year. No, this year I'm a follower, in the same way that a field must sometimes be left unplanted for a year to allow it to rest. A sabbath year, if you like. I've pulled back from leadership and allowed myself to be led by others. It's been a time of re-assessing what I want to do with the remainder of my life, of examining what I'm passionate about, and finding out more about myself.

I've gone on several contemplative retreats over the past year and a half, all of them over a weekend at a Roman Catholic monastery in the hills of northwestern Missouri, in a rural setting in the midst of twenty-first century wind turbines. I find it magical--very traditional red brick buildings on this monastery and seminary campus, looking out over farmland surmounted by 240 foot tall white masts topped by three 140 foot long turbine blades, turning in the winds that never cease in this area. Late at night, you can see the red beacons at the tops of the towers flash as the blades turn in front of them, accompanied by a "swoosh-swoosh-swoosh" sound faintly audible in the darkness.

What does all this have to do with a bunch of Christians, most of them leaders, getting together for a couple of days at sites all over the country? Simply this--I feel that I have a gift of leadership, some ability to motivate and inspire people to come alongside and work with me for Jesus the Messiah. My own understanding of what that means has grown deeper over the years, and the retreats are reflective of this. I've become much more laid back, and even at the beginning of my seventh decade, much more willing to wait on God's leadings before I dive into something. I've tried to force the issue, assuming a leadership role for which I wasn't really qualified. It did not go well; I had to withdraw when I figured out just how wrong I was for the position. I've come to the Summit this year to see if I can get some sense of what I might be able to lend myself to going forward. If nothing appears, I'm okay with that, too.

We had four different sessions today, and wound up hearing Harvey Carey from Detroit. Now this is one firebrand of a preacher. He did mention he was black, always had been, and that we would not fall asleep during his presentation. To say that is to make a great understatement. He also made sure that we knew he was a black Baptist preacher, and brother, there's another understatement. He's a powerful example of someone living the Gospel--pastor of a multi-racial church in the poorest city in the poorest state of the Union, making sure that everyone in his ZIP code is reached by the message that God loves them. He and his church have shut down eight drug houses, simply by having 100 or more men from the congregation take tents, campstoves, and sleeping bags into the area immediately in front of them, and stay there. As he put it, no one was going to be selling crack while 100 church men were camped in front of the house. He has refused to be limited by economic hard times or lack of resources. He gets things started, and depends on people, the greatest resource of all, to come along and help him do work that's bigger than any of them individually. To put it bluntly, and to give credit where credit is due, he depends on God to provide.

That can be a huge effort of faith, can't it? Do I really believe that, down deep in my heart? He wasn't content to let us get away with nodding our heads and taking notes, oh no. Harvey Carey thumped us in the chest, called us to live like we really believe the stuff we say we do, and go out and do God's work. To fight slum lords. To rid neighborhoods of drug houses. To fight poverty and abuse and neglect and injustice. To be, in the words of a term that I've heard again and again over the years, "the hope of the world."

We've got more sessions tomorrow, and then the Summit ends for this year. There are all sorts of follow-up events over the next months, and I may try to take part in some of them. The challenge has been made, though, by everyone who spoke today, and most forcefully by Harvey Carey. It's time to get out of the huddle, and get into the game. My local church is doing that. I've been fallow just about long enough. I don't know what I will be doing in six months, or a year, or even five years. I do know that I've got some real discontent of the spirit now, and I've got to see what needs to be done to make that meaningful. A nice tension, don't you think? Soul discontent, and a willingness to wait on God. I think maybe some prayer is in order here.

I'll return to my posts looking at the similarities, and more specifically the differences, between conservatism and Christianity once the Summit is over. Until then, however, I'm just left wondering and meditating on what I've been given today.

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