Josh and Bradley Josh and I were having lunch together a while back, before he was “Sensei” to me, and in the course of conversation Josh lit up when he started talking about students that were, as he said, “my black belts.”  At the time, I was in a leadership program that emphasized the importance of apprenticeships in the church, so my ears perked up.

      His black belts are students he’s trained.  They trained, learned, advanced, and competed under his guidance.  They imbibed the culture of the Academy—with its emphases on kindness, respect, discipline, anti-bullying, and being a black belt on and off the mat.  When they reached a certain level, then they started teaching others.  And Josh could trust them as instructors because he knew how they’d been taught.

        Our conversation about students who become teachers made me think of Jesus and his disciples.  The pattern back then was for a rabbi to select disciples who would learn from, follow, and imitate their rabbi.  Jesus’ disciples were with him in the synagogue and in the market, on the fishing boat and on the road, in their family homes and on remote hillsides.  They ate, talked, and sang together.

        Then, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus’ last words to his disciples are, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

        The Apostle Paul wasn’t there for that particular talk, but he apparently caught it’s drift somewhere along the line.  When Paul writes to his young apprentice, Timothy, he says, “And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well” (2 Tim. 2:2).  Paul identifies four generations of disciples in this one verse.  The transmission of faith heads in this direction: Paul -> Timothy -> faithful people -> others.

        This is about disciples making disciples who make disciples who make disciples who…you get the idea.

        If you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, I’m no Apostle Paul.  I’ve got nothing to teach.”  Join the club.  But then remember this old song, “If you cannot preach like Peter, / if you cannot pray like Paul, / you can tell the love of Jesus and say ‘He died for all’.”

        Passing on and forming others in the faith is essential to what we’re about.  There are some ways we try to formalize this mentor-apprentice relationship, like with confirmation mentors for our confirmands.  During baptismal services, every one of us has made a covenant to help raise children in the faith.

        Before Nathanael’s baptism, some of us were sitting around under our carport and someone asked, “What do you want him to know about God?”  In some ways that’s where this begins, not with facts and things to do, but with our living relationship with God.

        For today—at the beginning and all throughout—take moments to pause and ask, “Lord, what do you want me to learn from you today?”  Ask Jesus to help you follow his lead in the places where you work, live, and play.

Gracious God, thank you for choosing us to follow you, and thank you for being patient with us as we get tripped up from time to time.  Give us encouragement to share the gifts youve given us so others may come to know the abundant life you came to give.  Amen.

The peace of Christ be with you,

Blackbelt in Kindness

        On Black Friday, you may be in line somewhere thinking you’d sure like to know jiu-jitsu so you could hip toss the person who took the last one of the thing you came to buy.  Or maybe you’re the one in need of self-defense as other shoppers (or family members, still hungover from too much turkey and dressing) trample you down.
I recently talked with a friend who works in retail, and days before Thanksgiving he was already bracing himself for all manner of meanness, condescension, and impatience.  Black Friday is an unfortunate after-party to the day we’ve dedicated to gratitude.
One of the things I’ve learned from my time at the dojo is it’s more important to be a black belt in kindness than a black belt in jiu-jitsu.  Sensei Page speaks often about and has written a book on kindness.  The book is a 50-day challenge to change your life through small acts of kindness.  Before jiu-jitsu ever became a serious notion for me, Sensei Page had put in my hands a log for recording acts of kindness.
Part of the point is kindness requires discipline and practice.  Let’s face it, while it may be easy to show kindness to some people, for others, we’d rather lock the door than hold it for them.  Sometimes, kindness really does require discipline and intentionality.  The thing is, the more you practice kindness, the more natural it will become.  What begins as a discipline grows into a way of life.
Kindness is one of those nine fruit of the Spirit the Apostle Paul wrote about in his letter to the Christians living in Galatia (Gal. 5:22-23).  The whole list is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
These are fruit of the Spirit, not fruit of our own will power and determination.  God plants the seed and if we abide in (hang out with) him, fruit starts to grow.  The fruit of the Spirit aren’t meant to be stored up in the root cellar of your heart; they are meant for sharing.  The funny thing is, when we share the gifts of God, they seem to multiply.  How’s that for a lesson in kingdom agriculture?
Look again at Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit.  Resist the temptation to point out how other people need to be more loving, or if other people would just be more kind things would be better.  Instead prayerfully consider what fruit you need more of in your heart and life.  Before you go any further, ask God to apply some miracle-grow grace to your heart and bring more of that fruit to bear in your life…for the sake of others.
Receive the gift, and share it.  Practice peace.  Be disciplined in gentleness.  While everyone else is eating left-overs today, what if we shared from these first fruits?

Lord Jesus Christ, let the fruit of your Spirit live in me todayAmen.

The peace of Christ be with you,

Here is one of Sensei Page’s blog posts from this summer on kindness, and toward the bottom you’ll find more about his book and 50-day challenge.

Learning from the Master

        One of the reasons I enjoy taking jiu-jitsu is I get to learn from a master.  You’d be hard pressed to get Sensei Page to talk about all of his titles and championships (and he’s likely embarrassed at this very moment, and I may wind up doing push-ups for this…), but one look at his trophy case and resume and you know you’re in the presence of someone who really knows what he’s doing.  In fact, not long after we moved to Hickory, Sensei Page retired from competition after having won a National Blackbelt League World Title in 2013. 
        And I get to learn jiu-jitsu from him!
        I have spent a lot of time in classrooms—reading books and attending seminars.  There are blogs on every subject I’ve ever wanted to learn.  But there’s no book, seminar, blog, or Youtube video that can come anywhere close to what happens when a student literally sits at the feet of a master.
        This is the relationship shared between Jesus and his disciples.  They sat at his feet, followed him around, did what he did, asked questions, and tried to pattern their entire life on his life.
        Who are the masters from whom you have learned the faith?  Maybe it was a parent or grandparent; maybe a pastor or mentor.  I love the way the apostle Paul celebrates how the faith that lives in his protégé Timothy was first in Timothy’s mother Eunice and before that his grandmother Lois (2 Tim. 1:5).  Between his mother, grandmother, and Paul, Timothy is learning from masters.
        When we visited our grandparents as kids, if they had a church thing on their schedule, they didn’t duck out of it because their grandkids were in town.  They dragged us with them.  We went on youth trips because our Papa was the bus driver.  We sat in on Benevolence Committee meetings because Bomba was a member.  And we went on visitation Bomba when she would visit with Ms. Addie Mae Auten.  That was a way of learning from masters.  We got immersed in the faith.
        There is certainly something to be said about learning from books, seminars, videos, and other resources.  I have shelves full of great books on prayer, studying the Bible, etc.  Sometimes those are places where we encounter or learn from wise, spiritual guides.  But what I am learning to value more and more is a mentor who can show me the way, a master whose has practiced the art (and still is).
        Here’s something else: several times, when I’ve thanked Sensei Page for a training session, he thanks me in return and says he needs the practice too.  That’s humility.  And it’s a lifetime commitment to learning and attention to the basics. 
        Who is a person you can go to and ask, “Teach me how you pray” or “Show me how I can serve like you”?  If you don’t know who that person might be, ask God to help you identify her, or ask God to put someone like that in your life.  Exercise humility.  Be grateful and surprised by what you learn.  Then together, sit at the feet of Jesus, our Master, who can show you the way.
Father, thank you for having sent your Holy Spirit to teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus has taught us.  Help us sit at your feet, and learn to follow you, our Master.  Amen.
 The peace of Christ be with you,

P.S. If you’re looking for a good devotional resource, I highly recommend Apprenticeship with Jesusby Gary Moon.  

Best Testing

white belt        A few weeks ago, before class started Sensei Page asked us to line up according to belt ranking.  I had no idea how to do that, but I figured I was on the bottom of the totem pole and therefore should be on the far end of the line.
My white belt is so new it still has a crease from where it was folded in the middle in the packaging.  I haven’t gone for a belt testing yet, but at some point, I will.  I am not entirely sure what that’ll look like, other than there’s a set of moves I’m expected to know, and I’ll have to demonstrate that I’ve learned them with some measure of proficiency.  (This is an academy, after all.  Remember?)  If I can do them, I’ll earn stripes and eventually advance in belt rank.
We don’t have “belt tests” in the church.  We don’t graduate from one degree of discipleship to another, but that doesn’t mean discipleship is without expectation.
Retired UMC Bishop Will Willimon has told a story about a Christian undergraduate at Duke sitting next to a Muslim student, and the two start talking.  The Christian askes the Muslim what he believes, and he outlines the 5 pillars of Islam, his discipline of fasting, his schedule of prayers, etc.  The Muslim then asks the Christian what he believes, and he stammers a bit and then says, “Hey, um, look, this is my stop.  See you later.”
Other denominations have what’s called a “catechism,” a teaching or summary exposition of doctrine.  If you grew up Presbyterian, there’s a good chance you know from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Ryan Kiblinger has written a Wesleyan Catechism, using excerpts from Wesley’s writings on the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and our UMC Articles of Religion.  Back in the old days, Christians referred to The Didache, the teachings of the church.  It spelled out what it means to follow Jesus and be part of his body, the church.
When our son, Nathanael, was born a friend gave us the book Bible Basics.  It’s a counting and catechism book.  The pages teach about 1 God, 2 natures of Christ, 3 Persons of the Trinity, 4 gospels, 5 books of the Pentateuch, etc.  I’m pretty sure Nathanael is the only kid on the block whose nursery bookshelf includes a board book that talks about the 2 natures of Christ and the Pentateuch….right next to Brown Bear, Brown Bear.
It’s important to learn these things.  But simply being able to recite the Apostles’ Creed isn’t the point.  The point is knowing that the Apostles’ Creed tells God’s story of grace.  It is the story of salvation that God invites us into.
The 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, The Didache—these are important ways we can get a glimpse into both what God is like and God’s vision for our life with God and with one another.  The point isn’t just that we learn them; but that we live them, together, with God.

God of all wisdom, teach us to know that your words are sweeter than honey.  Guide us as we seek to know you better and love you more fully.  Amen.

Peace be with you,



        My hunch is there are very few situations when a pastor has been put in a choke hold by a church member and the two still remain friends afterward.  And not just that, but they swap roles and the pastor then puts the church member in a choke hold!  It’s an elite fraternity, and I’m proud to be part of it.
I don’t remember how many classes I made it before Sensei Page started to lower the guard rails and introduce me to what it feels like to approach “the beautiful sleep.”  I do remember thinking, “We didn’t cover this in seminary.”
In truth, one of the things I appreciate about jiu-jitsu is its goal to submit your partner.  A submission happens when you get the other person in some sort of hold like an arm bar or a wrist lock, and they cry uncle.  That feels better to me than having an objective of knocking someone out.  I like the idea of reducing the potential for harm and trying to contain someone who is angry.  That seems to prioritize de-escalation and also leaves open the possibility for a positive resolution that doesn’t include a black eye.
We talk about submission in the church too.  I don’t mean that God puts us in a wrist lock and says, “Come follow me.”  (Though there is that story about Jonah and the giant fish…)
The Renovare movement is helpful in writing that submission is “the discipline which frees us to let go of the burden of always needing to get our own way.”  It is a way of leaning that perhaps it is more important that we are together than that we take my route.  And perhaps it is better to be compassionate than to be right.  The freedom from getting our own way, is about freeing us up to learn Jesus’ way.
Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).  This is how we pray too.  In the Lord’s Prayer—“thy will be done”…not mine.  In the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer—“I am no longer my own but thine…”
Submission is about getting our hearts and lives in line with God’s mission.  Consider how you can enter into today—and carry with you all throughout—the intention to be free from your own way and open to God’s way.  Maybe start with the Lord’s Prayer, or the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer.  Don’t rush it; give the prayer time to take root.
A few months after we moved to Hickory, I was in the library and a pair of young women who were Catholic missionaries gave me a small hand-drawn card with a prayer on it.  It’s been on my desk ever since, and I often say this prayer as I enter the day:

That all my works may bear this seal: that I am of Jesus.  Amen.


The Academy


    Sometimes in class I’m like the dog that finally catches the car and I don’t know what to do next.  To be fair though, I’m like the dog that catches the car that slowed down to a crawl so I even had a fighting chance in the first place.
What I mean is, part of what makes Sensei Page a great teacher is that he meets us where we are and then leads us further down the road.  There have been times when we’re grappling and it’s obvious that I’m stuck, so he’ll pat the mat with his hand as a cue to help me remember the technique we learned last week or he’ll make a slow, exaggerated move in order to give me time to react.
This past week, I learned 3 new techniques during our jiu-jitsu class.  To help with remembering what comes next, Sensei Page encouraged me to get a jiu-jitsu notebook in which I can keep track of what I’m learning, take notes on techniques, and record questions for next time.  Sensei said, “This really is an academy.  It requires practice, study, and coming with questions.”
How do we imagine church as an academy for faith formation?
In our church’s Confirmation class, we expect every student to bring their Bible and Confirmation binder to class each week and to have read the assigned passage of scripture ahead of time.  It’s a class that requires practice, study, and coming with questions.
Church wide, we’ve started giving everyone a Discipleship Booklet that has a page for every Sunday in the quarter.  It lists the scripture passage we’re preaching from and leaves room for you to make notes, record questions, and keep track of insights gained from conversation or worship.
John Wesley wrote several instructions on how to read the Bible well.  I especially love his last instruction.  He says whatever insight you gain, use it immediately!
We need our Bible studying to translate into Bible doing—for our encounters with the Master to not just be about information, but transformation.  Thomas á Kempis says, “Whoever desires to understand and take delight in the words of Christ must strive to conform their whole life to him.”  Our life is the academy in which our Teacher, the Holy Spirit, meets us where we are and leads us a little bit further down the road.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Amen. (Ps. 25:4-5)

The peace of Christ be with you,


Warm ups and Worship

  I kind of expected we would warm up for jiu-jitsu the same as I do when I go to the gym: some jumping jacks, stretching the old hamstrings, arm circles…that sort of thing.  We did all of those things, and then we started “shrimping”.  You do what it sounds like: mimic a shrimp’s movement, from one end of the mat to the other, and back again.  It’s easier to show than describe, but I don’t want to risk supplying you with a video for future blackmail material.
    I thought it was the absolute silliest thing in the world.  Maybe this was a thing white belts did until they proved they could hack it.  I never asked, and just kept on shrimpin’.  Then, during one lesson, Sensei Page connected the dots.  This wasn’t just a ridiculous looking warmup named after a delicious ocean crustacean.  This was an fundamental move to escape from an opponent.  
    Jiu-Jitsu is about postures and fundamentals.  Our warm ups are building blocks for the rest of the art.  However, it’s not just the warm ups like “shrimpin'” or “windshield wipers” that have significant applications.  It’s also about learning the right postures.  After one of my first attempts at grappling, I just about lost my breakfast right there on the mat.  I hadn’t felt that kind of beat in a while.  Afterward, Sensei Page explained that one of the reasons I was so worn out was because I was so tense.  He said, especially in a difficult situation, relax, breath.  “There’s no time limit to self-defense.”
    In worship, we also practice certain postures, fundamentals, and moves.  We follow the cross into and out of worship as a sign of what we want our lives to be about: following Jesus.  We pass the peace because we know we have broken relationships that need repairing.  We say a prayer of thanksgiving after the offering because we want gratitude to be the basic posture of our lives, recognizing all of life as a gift.  We praise God through music, and learn to praise God with our lives.  We say a prayer of confession before communion because we know as much as we want to be right, we’re sometimes wrong.  And sometimes we really blow it.  Confession teaches humility, and reminds us the well of God’s mercy is deeper than we could ever imagine.  
    In jiu-jitsu, I don’t always know what’s going to get thrown at me.  But I know if I start with the right posture, I have a better chance at handling whatever comes my way.  The same is true in a life of faith if we start from a posture of humility, gratitude, and love.
What it we left worship and the rest of our day, our week, was shaped by humility or gratitude?  How would that change how you relate to the person who always has to be right, or the person who often gets it wrong?  Can we be peace-makers and mercy-givers?  What’s the warm-up you’ll carry with you throughout the week?  

God of grace, turn our hearts toward you and teach us to have your mind–of humility, mercy, peace, forgiveness, and joy.  Sustain our willing spirit with your Holy Spirit.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

The peace of Christ be with you,

Jesus and Jiu-Jitsu

Josh Wil and the Grandmasters
In an unexpected turn of events, I’ve become a regular at a Wednesday morning Jiu-Jitsu class.  A member of our congregation, Josh Page, is the head of the Hickory Academy of Martial Arts, and he is the one who got me into this.  It started with an invitation: “Hey, come down to the dojo and workout with me sometime.”  So I did.  And several months later, here I am.

I keep going back for a variety of reasons.  One of them is that, here lately, learning Ju-Jitsu has become a surprisingly significant spiritual discipline in my life.  Our Wednesday morning class has become the context where I learn not only about how to pass my grappling partner’s guard and establish the mount position, but our classes are also shaping how I think about church and a life of faith.

For the next several weeks, I will be sending out reflections on the intersections of the dojo and the church, on Jesus and Jiu-Jitsu.  My hope is these reflections help us think more deeply about our life with God and our life together with God (as the church).  As we go along, let me hear from you.  I would love to hear your responses, and hope this can be part of an ongoing conversation about learning to follow Jesus.

So I’ll start at the beginning.  Before every class begins, Sensei Page gathers the class and has us turn to the wall where there are photos of Grandmasters Helio Gracie, his brother Carlos, Helio’s son Rickson, as well as Master Pedro Sauer.  He says, “Let’s turn and pay respect to the Grand-Masters because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”  Grandmaster Helio Gracie is the one who created Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and he taught his son and grandson have kept the art alive.  As students of their art, we are indebted to them.

This is a good way to think about the saints of the Church.  Everyone knows and celebrates October 31 as Halloween, but most miss that November 1 is All Saints Day.  United Methodists don’t have a formal system of sainthood like the Roman Catholic Church, and we don’t pray to saints.  But we do recognize those folks whose lives embody the call of the gospel.  The writer of Hebrews calls them the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround, encourage, and inspire us.

When we think of saints, we probably think of folks like St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa).  We also think of other heroes of the church like John Wesley, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton.  Maybe you also think about your grandmother who taught you about prayer, a Sunday school teacher who encouraged you during a challenging time, or the person who invited you to church.  We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, people whose lives help us learn how to live for Jesus.

On All Saints Sunday (November 5) we remember those who have died in the faith.  We’ll toll a bell for those who have died in the past year.  We honor them, because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.   When we celebrate communion, what we’re celebrating is communion with God as well as communion with God’s saints on earth and in glory.  The veil between heaven and earth becomes thin and we all join in singing the same song: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory…”  We hope that our voices and lives might also point others to Jesus.

All Saints Sunday is once a year, but on every Sunday of the year we face the cross at the front of our worship spaces, and we honor Jesus because if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here.


Prayer: God, thank you for coming to be with us in Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfector of our faith, and who shows us the way to be with and live for you.  And thank you for the people in our lives who embody lives of love and faith.  Help us to live lives that honor and point to you.  Amen.



If you want to read more about The United Methodist Church and All Saints Sunday, check out this story.