Saturday, April 02, 2016

Transforming VUCA to Building the Kingdom -- Pastor Musings -- April, 2016

I was in the Army for over twenty years.  Building acronyms was part of what the Army did. Instead of saying someone was “absent without leave” we said they were AWOL, most often pronounced “A-Wall.”  Old timers might spell it out “A-double u-oh-el.” 

VUCA is an acronym. On the negative side it means: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. On the positive side it can be transformed into vision, understanding, clarity, and agility (with adaptability understood and an excellent option or alternative). We live in a world framed by VUCA, but which one?
There is a strong biblical and theological reason for hope. Hope helps us to see the opportunities. Turning VUCA around from negative to positive meaning is accomplished through these principles:
  • Volatility yields to Vision
  • Uncertainty yields to Understanding
  • Complexity yields to Clarity
  • Ambiguity yields to Agility [& Adaptability]
The 2008-18 Map of Future Forces Affecting the Episcopal Church suggested that to bring about this VUCA turnaround, faith in the future would call for:
  • Vision that gives you meaning, with intent that articulates a meaningful future – beyond the polarities of the present.
  • Understanding the grace of all people, with a sense of empathy that grows with the differences all around us.
  • Clarity of discernment and communication, in the fog of disbelief and the conditions of the VUCA world, clarity of discernment leads to faith. For some, discernment means discovering God’s will for your life or discerning your own calling. Clarity of communication means stating clearly to others what you think is going on and what needs to be done. Clarity is required to create an effective strategy for change. Clarity is needed so that others can understand your strategic intent for the church.
  • Agility in the practice of faith, since predetermined action is brittle in a VUCA world riddled with surprises, an agent of change must be…practiced, agile [and adaptable.] You need to prototype your way to success and fail in constructive ways.
Between each of those words is space. I invite us to see that faith lives in that space. It is the same space as between judging too soon and deciding too late. Our task is to move outward into God’s world in ever increasing concentric circles.  Vision, understanding, clarity, and agility are all key elements of how we move out in those concentric circles from Hilltop as we build God’s Kingdom. But I know this: allowing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and [excessive] ambiguity to define us will lead us to getting stuck.
Following a period of testing and refinement in the wilderness Joshua (in verses 24: 15 of  the Hebrew Bible book bearing his name) would say:  “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

There is a whole lot of vision, understanding, clarity and agility in that.  And serving the Lord can be about building the Kingdom. I vote we see the future in terms of Joshua. 

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Are We Still Afraid? -- March, 2016 -- Pastor Musings

Mark 16:8 (NIV) Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

In the oldest versions the Gospel of Mark ends here. Think about it: The oldest gospel ended with the Greek word that points to our fears?
We are familiar with this Greek word—phobos. It is the root of the English word phobia. A phobia is more than simple fear; a phobia is an extreme or irrational fear.  Some fear is is in fact, quite healthy, and anything but extreme or irrational. I wonder if we, like the women at the empty tomb, are still afraid. If so, what are we afraid of? And are those fears healthy or perhaps extreme or irrational. 
Frank Herbert in his novel Dune addresses the idea of fear. He sees fear as the “mind-killer.” Fear brings “total obliteration,” and he says we must “face” our fears. Herbert is speaking as a keen observer of the human condition. His insight is valuable. Irrational fear does in fact kill our minds, numbing us to possibilities. It is also important to face our fears. 

What drove the fears of the women at the empty tomb? They had wondered who would roll away the stone, and instead, they are told to go and tell Jesus disciples “and Peter” that Jesus has gone on “ahead” just as “he had told you.”  Were they afraid because the stone had been rolled away? That doesn’t seem likely. I wonder if it was the imperative to go and tell others what Jesus had said, both to those who knew him, and Peter, the one who had denied him. But most important, tell them what? He was alive and risen. It was all true. Did they feel inadequate to the occasion? I wrestled with that for years. Who me? I am sure I thought:  “Surely you are kidding. I am not adequate to that task.” 

Marianne Williamson writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us...and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” What if she is right?  What if our fear is not one of inadequacy, but rather one of potential power just waiting to be unleashed? In all honesty, part of my love for Bonhoeffer is that he seemed, through his Christian walk, to find a way to give me permission to allow my own inner light to shine. I think the early church grew because they had seen this beautiful, wonderful light and wanted others, whether slave or free, man or woman, Greek or Gentile, to experience this light. 

Fear needs to be named, and in naming it we gain power over it and can marshal the resources to defeat it. Nelson Mandela writes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

The recent survey done by Hilltop to examine our readiness to parent the birth of a new church suggested we were close to ready. But it also suggested that we still had some fears that needed to be named and conquered. Trust me: fear can be healthy. I think we should channel our fears on this new start in healthy ways, first by naming them, and then so ordering our spiritual lives so that we are strengthened by them.
Loss of friends and financial readiness appear to be two of the named fears.
I think our great-great-grandparents would sadly shake their heads over those fears. Many of our ancestors left St. Joseph, Missouri in Conestoga wagons. expecting to never again see the friends and relatives they left behind. Our friends  now will set out on an epic adventure, but they are not really going very far.  We can still bowl on Tuesday nights with them. 
More distant ancestors left Bristol, England in the 1700s who were “all in.” No McDonald’s. No Chipotles. No Starbucks.  No break down lane to fix the canvas rigging if something went horribly awry.  But they were “all in.” Financially we are actually only “in” for about 20 cents on each new church investment dollar. Others stand behind us. We are incurring risk, but others are confident we can do this. If others believe in us, why should we be afraid? 

I hope that when the good news story of Hilltop is told, the last words said about us are not those that point to our fears.  Sharing the good news of God’s Grace manifest through Jesus Christ is a story worth taking some risk to tell. Go. Tell

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Financial State of Hilltop -- Pastor Musings -- February, 2016

Annually, in January, various officials report to their constituents on “The State of” something. The President reports on “The State of the Union.” Governor Herbert reports on “The State of the State.” I imagine the various Mayors report on The State of Sandy or Draper or West Jordan or Lehi. I want to take some of your time to report on “The Financial State of Hilltop.” 

The Financial State of Hilltop is excellent. In fact, the overall state is probably the best it has been since I arrived in July, 2012.

The decision to move to one service, made in April, 2012 caused a few families to leave Hilltop. It took us time to ascertain the exact impact of those departures. This was due in part to the strict confidentiality over by-name giving which is a historical value of Hilltop. We are continuing to work on protecting givers confidentiality, while having a numerical feedback to inform your financial leaders of what is happening. This is better now, and we continue to work on it. It is by nature, imprecise without a dialogue element.

This is my fourth shot at budget development since I have been here, and we have done it a little differently every time. I think Tim Strickland and the Stewardship Committee laid out an excellent strategy for the church, and key leaders stepped up and carried the narrative of where we were trying to go quite well. The five brochures created around people, building, worship, programs and missions are in the fellowship hall and are strategically accurate about goals and vision.

Hope and reality led to modifications from our draft budget. We laid out a strategy for a $550,000 budget which would have been a $100,000 increase in spending over 2015. Our 2016 budget will be $505,000 in projected income and spending. We are going to split the difference:  this is a little over $50,000 increase in both income and spending.

A bold element of the budget is that the revenue from the cell towers is not going into annual spending but is being provided directly to the trustees for use with building sustainment. In short, that money will not be used to pay salaries, fund ministries, or pay for utilities. Rather, it will be used to replace and refurbish the building. This step is long overdue and necessary. We hope to withdraw most of the income from the Hilltop Christian School in 2017 for the same reason. We would maintain some cash flow from HCS in order to deal with utilities but, we hope that portion that is “rent” can be spent on capital items, i.e. heaters, air conditioners, carpeting, etc.

Our cash reserves and designated accounts are earmarked to assist the budget with nearly $20,000 of income support. In addition, the Rocky Mountain Conference has been sent a grant request for $30,000 for 2016 to pay a portion of the Minister of Evangelism’s salary. If the income does not materialize, then an expense that is directly related to that income will not be started.

Our forecast for congregational giving is up nearly $40,000. Most of that increase, $35,000, is due to increased pledges. It has been our experience that pledged numbers are generally met. We will keep a close eye on the totality of congregational giving and report to you regularly on how that totality of congregational giving is going.

We plan to spend $505,000 on the building, our people, our programs and activity beyond the local church.

We will meet about 75% of our obligation to the regional and national church. We aspire to increase our funding to RMC to 100% in the future as we have for many years in the past. Like the staff at the conference, your staff is very lean. Only three of us are currently even close to full-time. We will, if the conference grant is approved, go to four in July. I hope we can increase compensation and benefits for all of the staff in 2017. Replacing some of them at current compensation levels would be challenging if not impossible.

Again, the Financial State of Hilltop is excellent. As I indicated earlier, the overall state is arguably the best it has been since I arrived in July, 2012. There are many ministries and community events active in our building. These include our support for Family Promise, multiple levels of Scouting, Alcoholics Anonymous and community music groups. Further, we are engaged outside the building in many ways through the Salt Lake Rescue Mission and our Gospel Choir, just to name a few. Many of these are made possible by extra-mile stewardship, and others are made possible through the gift of time and talent. We have been very generous with time, talent, and treasure this past year. We look forward to another year of growth here.

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Living Like Christ -- Pastor Musings -- January, 2016

The standard for Living Like Christ is laid out in 1 John 2:6 (NRSV): “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” To be sure here, the “him” in that is Jesus. My first reaction to reading that is, impossible. I cannot walk just as Jesus walked, so why even try? 

The problem is looking at the issue of Living Like Christ from the wrong start point. I am leaving God out of the equation. Matthew 19:26 (NRSV) says, “But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’” Mathematically I wonder if it might be stated something like: If G (God) is greater than zero, P (Possibilities) are infinite. Stated as a mathematical equation it is:  If G>0, then P = ∞.

The key is keeping God and the infinite possibilities rendered by God present in the narrative of our lives.

Twelve step programs are grounded in the idea we cannot accomplish the hard work of self-awareness of where we need to improve without help from ‘a higher power.’ I find that concept of ‘a higher power’ resident in us from 1 John 4:4 (NRSV): “Little children, you are from God…the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” A piece of God is inside each of us, and it allows us to make impossible work, possible.

Let’s be clear, this walking like Jesus thing isn’t going to happen in a nanosecond, or an instant. It is a slow, deliberate, methodical, diligent, road to holiness. It is our growth as disciples. Even if it surpasses all human understanding, because God is with us on this walk, we can get there from here. 

Borrowing an idea from The Velveteen Rabbit, God’s love of us, if we really let it rub off on us, makes us real.

Following my January 3rd Sermon, Charlie Bonsall spoke to me about how the idea of gradual, steady movement towards God, a step at a time, a day at a time, helped him in his life. Yes. I spoke on Christmas Eve about how so often we, incorrectly, think God expects us to move from imperfection to perfection in an instant, a nanosecond. No, no, no. It is gradual and requires diligent, hard work. Charlie and I spoke after the Sunday service about how so many think they know what the church is all about from limited exposure or second hand reports. However, when those same souls get involved in a regular walk with Christ, they see they acquire a new and different interpretation of the church and the good it does in so many ways.

Paul in Philippians 4: 7 (NRSV) suggests: ‘God’s peace surpasses all human understanding.’ So we come full circle to “why try?” We try because the biblical invitation is to do the hard work of walking as Jesus walked. We try because we quest for our lives to be made complete, to be made whole. In Hebrew, God’s peace is about wholeness, completeness. There is in each of us a spiritual hunger that needs to be fed. Jesus is living water, living bread, that nourishes that hunger.
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Simple Gifts -- December, 2015 Pastor Musings

One of my favorite American composers is Aaron Copland. Several of Copland’s more famous pieces involve settings of Joseph Brackett’s dance tune Simple Gifts. Copland uses it without words in the ballet Appalachian Spring but also arranges it for voices.  Brackett’s poetry is elegant in its simplicity: 
Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

Because it is a dance tune we might think that “to turn” means dancing. Maybe. But is it possible that Brackett isn’t driving at the idea of delightfully turning our lives around so that everything comes out right. Brackett was highly religious, and his point could have been deeper, more complex, and spiritual beyond the simple message. To turn, in the Hebrew Bible, is to change the direction of our lives. Wouldn’t it be logical that if we “turn” we come around to what is “right?”  So, what is right? 

Red-letter words in Matthew 6: 33 (KJV) say for us to “…seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” There is simplicity to that. 
I write this article standing on the eve of Advent. By the time they are published, we will have celebrated our first Advent Service. It is so easy at this time of year with all the tugs and pulls of the world, of family, of church needs, of work demands, to forget the simple message of Advent: preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ in our world. This great displacement of God coming to walk among us in human form is so simple that we try to make complex. The simple is that God loves us, enough to take on human, vulnerable, form. Some may want to take that simple message and make it complex, but the simplicity is John 3:16 “for God so loved the world.” Luther suggested that was  “the gospel in a sentence.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." Most of the time Holmes is right, but on this maybe not. 

Advent is simple: Prepare ourselves for the coming of God into the world; and one way to prepare is by seeking first what it means to live in eager anticipation and readiness of that already-but-not-yet kingdom of God.  But in seeking first, we are required to turn from the world’s ways and thoughts and refocus ourselves on ‘bowing and bending’ our will to God’s. We want to make it complex. But at the end of the day, it is really a pretty simple question: are we ready to seek first God’s kingdom, rather than the world’s? 
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Happiness Doubled by Wonder -- November, 2015 Musings

Psalm 118:24:  (New Revised Standard Version) “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), English writer, journalist and Christian apologist.

When I step out before you on Sundays during worship, I offer Psalm 118, verse 24. I have been doing this since November, 2003 when I was first asked to lead worship every Sunday. My theology is that our worship of praise to God includes our gratitude for God’s loving kindness.

November is thus for me an anniversary of being in servant leadership in the church. I like that the anniversary comes in a month when we have so many occasions to show our gratitude. Let’s look at some of these.
  • All Saints Sunday is November 1 and is an opportunity for us to show gratitude and appreciation for those who have gone on before us. I see this as saying thank you to those who have served and shaped us by serving the church.
  • This year Dedication Sunday will be celebrated at Hilltop on November 8. We will be asked to make our personal dedication to ‘The Church’ in the form of pledges of time, talent, and treasure. I would hope that all of us can show our gratitude and appreciation for Hilltop by committing anew to support her in her ministry of Grace. This year we follow quite quickly with a chance on November 10 to celebrate our progress during our annual business meeting.
  • November 11th is a day of remembrance for those who have served our country. By serving the nation, they have served us.
  • Then we have Thanksgiving Day. This originally had religious origins but it has become more secularized. I routinely encourage all to rekindle the attitude of gratitude at Thanksgiving that started off as a thanksgiving to God. Marilyn and I will get to see children and grandchildren as well as my brother and a future new sister-in-law. It will be packed, intense, and grand.
The Chesterton quote above speaks to us. It is so easy for us to be self-absorbed and see the world only through our eyes. We are, after all, at the center of every experience we have, right?  How might we allow that doubling of happiness by our own wonder?  For me it centers in the Psalm 118, verse 24 to ‘rejoice and be glad in the day the Lord has given us.’ 

I am mindful that all of us struggle with dark forces, some more frequently and darker than others, but know this:  all of us struggle. But we have within us the capacity to turn darkness into light. That capacity is sparked by the piece of God that is in each of us that is in no one else, and the process of us learning how to allow that inner light to be turned on, or left dark is ours. I vote daily to ‘rejoice and be glad in the day the Lord has given us.’  I pray you do as well.

Selah, Pastor Dennis