Monday, April 27, 2015

Everyone's An Angel?

God is still sending messages. God has spoken to human beings through all of history, and God is still speaking today.

The law was a message from God, sent through Moses. God spoke through the prophets of old, calling the nation to live worthy lives. God sent messages through the heavenly beings called angels, whose very name means “messengers.”

And ultimately, God embodied the message in Jesus. Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the most complete expression of God’s message to the world. And after his resurrection, God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in our midst, the ongoing presence of God with us even now.

And so, considering God’s ultimate expression in Jesus, considering God’s ongoing, unmediated presence with us .... are there angels any more? If God can speak to us directly in the Holy Spirit, what use is there for angels? Do they even exist?

Now some will answer, “Yes, absolutely. I know because I have seen for myself.” Others will say, “No way. Angels are myths.”

Still others will reply, “Maybe so, maybe not. I’m not really sure. Angels haven’t been a part of my experience, so I can’t say one way or the other.”

Wherever we personally fall on that spectrum, scripture does make one thing clear to all of us: we are to treat people as if each one is an angel (Hebrews 13:1-2). How would it change the way you looked at others if you thought to yourself, “What if he has been sent by God?” or “What if she has a message for me that God need me to hear?”

God is still sending messages, and it could come from ANYONE! There are definitely “Angels All Around.”

Saturday, April 25, 2015

3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Perfectly Suited for the 21st Century Church

As an itinerant preacher, I am sent by the church to a community in order to do ministry in that community alongside a congregation for whom I provide spiritual, missional, and temporal leadership. Okay, so there are a lot of prepositional phrases in that sentence - so first take note of the basic subject and verb: I am sent. That is the heart of what it means to be itinerant in the United Methodist Church, to be sent.

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy is perfectly suited for the mission of 21st century church.

1) The itinerancy empowers prophetic ministry.
“I am sent ... by the church.” The mission of the church guides the bishop in his or her discernment process. The bishop then acts on behalf of the entire church, utilizing the authority granted her or him by the church, to deploy leaders for that mission. Once deployed, I am accountable to that very same mission, and the bishop holds me accountable to that mission through my district superintendent.

And for the church’s mission in the 21st century this accountability connection is vital. For example, sexism, racism, and any other “-ism” congregation members may harbor will not unduly influence the decision of who will lead them. For another, a preacher can say what needs to be said to proclaim the Gospel and empower world-changing discipleship, without fearing the consequences of making the congregation a bit uncomfortable when doing so. Yes, I am accountable to the congregation as well, but my “direct supervisor” is the superintendent.

2) The itinerancy allows the church to take context into account.
“I am sent … to a community in order to do ministry in that community.” The mission of the church happens outside of the building walls, and itinerant preachers are sent to share the good news in particular communities. That’s an important part of what it means to be Methodist, as our founder made abundantly clear when he said, “The world is my parish.”

In the 21st century, the “mission field” of the church is becoming more and more nebulous, and less and less reliant on the old “insider” models of ministry. We are much less concerned with bringing “them” into the church, and much more concerned with being the church “out there” in the world. As an itinerant preacher, I can be sent to where my particular skill set matches the leading edges of new mission fields most effectively, rather than hired by a congregation to be “their” pastor.

3) The itinerancy facilitates grassroots ministry.
“I am sent … alongside a congregation for whom I provide spiritual, missional, and temporal leadership.” Methodism has always been a movement led by the laity; frontier preachers were sent to new towns, and sometimes discovered that groups of Methodists had already begun meeting together long prior to the preacher’s arrival. The healthiest United Methodist congregations still follow that model for ministry today.

Which is exactly the right approach for the church in the 21st century. We live in an era in which “bottom-up” efforts are the norm, and “top-down” initiatives are regarded with suspicion. Institutions are distrusted and hierarchies are shunned. Grassroots efforts, shared on social media and spreading quickly within communities, are nimble and energized and have great power and effect. An itinerant preacher leads a congregation for a season, stepping into a flowing stream and encouraging, equipping, and cheerleading the lay-led ministry of the congregation, and then moves on to do the same elsewhere.

Of course, no church polity is perfect. I know colleagues who have not experienced the itinerancy in the way I have, and I do not want to belittle their experiences at all. This post was prompted by a post several of my friends shared online, so I’m sure there is disagreement among us as to the efficacy of the itinerant ministry in today’s UMC.

But I happen to think that the itinerancy, especially how it is lived out here in Missouri, is perfectly suited for the prophetic, contextual, lay-led ministry that comprises the identity of the United Methodist Church. I believe it is the ideal way to deploy pastoral leadership for the 21st century.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I Am Zechariah

I am fascinated by the old priest Zechariah, John’s father, who appears in the first chapter of Luke. He is one of the few in Scripture who encounters and speaks with an angel. In his case, it is the angel Gabriel.

Gabriel brought Zechariah a message, but ol’ Zack wasn’t ready to hear it. He just couldn’t believe that the message Gabriel brought him could possibly be true. And he said so!

Well, things didn’t go well for Zechariah then, which is … unfortunate. But his story raises some pretty important questions for us to consider today.

Are we ready to hear a message from God? Even if it seems kind of far-fetched? Even completely unbelievable?

And then, how do we know it really is a message from God? How do we respond typically when someone claims to have heard a message from God? Especially when the message they “heard” may be something we don’t agree with?

If someone claims that “God told them” a tornado was actually divine retribution for a sinful society, for example, why does that make us so skeptical?

To be honest, if I had been in Zechariah’s shoes that day, my reaction would have been identical to his. And then I would have been the object of Gabriel’s ire.

I suppose the answer is … faith. We know God by faith. We receive salvation by faith. We live our lives by faith. And by faith we keep our ears open, to hear any and all of the messages God may be sending to us each day.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Question 1 Edit: Change "I will be" to "I would be if I could"

It has just been pointed out to me that my family does not technically live in the city limits of Springfield. There's a little narrow strip of "not Springfield" that runs from Twin Oaks Country Club south, bordered on the east and on the west by "Springfield" proper. We live in that little narrow strip.

(I work in, shop in, and basically do everything else in the city limits. But we don't "live" there. How messed up is that?)

The good friend who alerted me to this fact wanted to give me a "heads up" before next Tuesday, so that I wouldn't blow a gasket when I went to the polls and didn't see Question 1 on my ballot.

So basically, in all the posts I've written about Question 1 ...

"Thou Shalt Fire the Lesbian"

"Three Questions for Christians"

"Red Herring"

"Resigned to Respond"

"I Wish I Didn't Have to Write This"

... you need to mentally edit every "I will be voting NO" to "I would be voting NO if I could" when you read it.

I thought I should say something online, because of how much I have already shared. In the spirit of full disclosure, I won't be voting on Question 1, because I live outside of the city limits.

However, everything else I have written stays. I would be voting NO on Question 1 for many reasons. One of them is because I am a follower of Jesus, and I try to live my life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A cornerstone of that Gospel is that every single person matters; everyone is worth something. And I want the community in which I work and shop and (almost) live to reflect that idea, with explicit language that condemns discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I would be voting NO because I believe that religious freedom does not give you the right to oppress another person.

I would be voting NO because sexual assault in a public women's room is illegal now, will be illegal on April 7, and will stay illegal after the vote no matter what the outcome.

I would be voting NO because the ordinance includes an exception for churches and religious groups, anyway.

I would be voting NO because I love my friends who happen to be gay or transgender and I don't want them to be treated any differently than any one else.

I would be voting NO because this is the United States, and we have already had this conversation, haven't we? Like, dozens and dozens of times? And we didn't learn from all those times?

I would be voting NO ... but I can't. And I'm incredibly bummed about it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Jesus Christ, Barrier Buster

Every time Jesus discovered a barrier, he removed it.

The money tables in the Temple were barriers making it more difficult for people to worship God. Jesus overturned them.

The law prevented the blind and the lame from being in the Temple at all. Jesus not only invited them in, he healed them.

A social stigma devalued children in the ancient near eastern culture. It is the children who, with palm branches in hand, proclaim him the “Son of David.”

In fact, breaking down barriers was a central part of Jesus’s entire ministry, and a core value of the Gospel message itself. It is expressed in many ways, perhaps none more eloquent than Paul’s affirmation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Easter removes the ultimate barrier - death itself.  The power of the resurrection tears the curtain of the Temple in two, removes once and for all the barrier of death, and reveals the promise of life abundant and everlasting.

Death has a power that is based in fear, uncertainty, anxiety. Death confronts us with our limitations, our finitude, our sin. These are barriers to living life as fully as God desires us to. In his resurrection, Jesus removes that final barrier, and thereby empowers us to live fully, so that all creation might flourish as God intends.

Are there barriers that need removing in the world today? What “tables” are keeping people from worship? What “law” is keeping people away from the church? What “social stigmas” are preventing outcast groups from proclaiming Christ? Where is today’s “temple curtain?”

The power of the resurrection is a force to be reckoned with. Wielding it, Christ continues to break down the barriers that confront the world. May we as the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, continue Christ’s resurrection mission in all we say, in all we do, and in everything that we are.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Thou Shalt Fire the Lesbian"

Okay, so Question 1 is a freedom of religion thing. Let’s follow that trail for a while.

If this is a freedom of religion thing, you’re going to have to claim that your religion includes in it a doctrine that says bosses should fire and landlords should evict LGBT people. Only then would the City Council’s additions to our anti-discrimination ordinance infringe upon your religious freedom.

To be clear, since we are talking about an “anti-discrimination” ordinance, the opposite of that would be “discrimination.” So in order for this to be an actual freedom of religion issue, active discrimination toward other people has to be a part of your faith.

Now, the source of doctrine for Christian people is the Bible. So what we’re looking for in the Bible is something that promotes discrimination. Maybe there’s a verse that says, “Thou shalt fire the lesbians among you,” or something like that. Maybe it says, “Thou shalt not rent an apartment to a gay man.” Or you know, some such applicable teaching.

The thing is … it just isn’t in there.

And so if it isn’t in the Bible, the primary source of religious doctrine for Christians, it had to come from some other source of authority. Maybe the doctrine came from a preacher, or a teacher, a denominational position, or some other secondary source. But it wasn’t the Bible. Maybe the preacher, teacher, or denomination is basing the doctrine on Scripture, but it is at best an interpretation.

So if Question 1 is a freedom of religion thing for you, that means you have heard from a teacher/preacher/denominational position that a part of what you are NOT to do in the practice of your religion is employ or rent to LGBT people. This is central enough to your faith that you are willing to propose a ballot initiative, sign a petition, take up valuable city resources on an election, buy a yard sign, etc. It is THAT important to you.

The thing is, all of that is still fine. You can base your religious teachings on anybody’s interpretation of any sacred text. Freedom of religion means ANY religion, and ANY version of ANY religion. Just ask a Pastafarian.

But freedom of religion has limits, and society sets those limits. Freedom of religion does not give you freedom to do harm against another person. And things like taking away someone’s job or evicting them from their home most definitely do harm. So, you can’t do it.

It’s really just that simple. It doesn’t matter if your religion gives you permission to do harm against another person. You can’t. You just can’t.

Even if commandment 73.5 of your sacred text actually is, “Thou shalt fire the lesbian.”

You just can’t.

Society places limits on freedom of religion, and one of those limits is that you can’t do harm to another person. At least that's what I believe, and that's one reason I'll be voting NO on question one.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Three Questions for Christians: The Springfield SOGI Conversation

A Christian has to answer three questions.

1) Who do you say Jesus is? He asks us this question himself (Matthew 16:15).
2) How do you want Jesus to be known in the world? His followers will be his witnesses (Acts 1:8).
3) How will your actions, words, and attitudes make Jesus known? Following Jesus means that “it is no longer [you] who live, but Christ who lives in [you]” (Galatians 2:20).

There is a group of Christians in Springfield, Missouri who, by the witness of their actions, words, and attitudes, seems to have answered these three questions this way:

1) They say Jesus is an anti-gay rights advocate.
2) They want Jesus to be known as one who denies people a job and a place to live.
3) They will make Jesus known in many ways, including by voting yes on Question 1, and hoping others do so, as well.

All due respect, but I answer these questions a bit differently.

1) I say Jesus is Lord and Savior, Teacher and Friend, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
2) I want Jesus to be known as one who saves, one who loves, one who forgives, one who reconciles.
3) I will make Jesus known in many ways, including voting no on Question 1, and hoping others do so, as well.

Of course, another possibility is that this group 1) knows Jesus as a Savior, and 2) wants Jesus to be known as one who confronts sin, so 3) they also confront sin as they see it in their community, including by voting yes on Question 1.

Actually, I can go there too. I know Jesus as a Savior and I want Jesus to be known as one who confronts sin. However, I believe that Jesus confronts sin with compassion, not condemnation. Jesus confronts sin with grace, not exclusion. Jesus confronts sin with love, not with discrimination. And I do not understand how firing or evicting someone will do anything towards convicting them of their sin, anyway. So I would still be voting no on Question 1, even if this were my primary motivation.

If you are a Christian, I hope that you will give prayerful consideration to these three questions. Who do you say that Jesus is? How do you want Jesus to be known in the world? How will your actions, words, and attitude make Jesus known?

And then decide of your own free will how you will vote on Question 1 on Tuesday, April 7. As for me, as a follower of Jesus, I will be voting no.