Monday, December 15, 2014

Love, No Matter What

This season at Campbell UMC, we have considered how our lives are illuminated by hope, peace, and joy. These ideas have taken us through three weeks of Advent, in preparation for the coming of Christ.

And this week we light the fourth candle - the candle of love, Of all the lights that shine in this holy season, the light of love shines brightest of all.

You know you love someone if the room seems brighter when they walk in.

Love connects people together. Love connects people to God. The connections of love are like wires closing a circuit, the current flows and the energy surges and (if there’s a light bulb attached) there is LIGHT!

In a similar way, when a relationship is one of love, there is energy flowing. In a loving relationship, there is light. The light of a loving relationship will illuminate the darkest places of life; the darkness of conflict and disagreement can never overcome the light of love.

Helen Keller said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”

Even if the future is uncertain, even if what lies ahead is intimidating or the path is going to be difficult to follow, having someone you love by your side always makes it better. And on the flipside, even if life is certain and comfortable and the future is clear ahead of you, if you have to go it alone it just isn’t as good.

Love illuminates our lives by connecting us together with a light that refuses to be overcome.

Therein lies my hope for the future of the church. I believe with all my heart that things will be okay if we can just manage to remember that we love one another.

And even more, if we truly practice scriptural hospitality, we are reminded that we love not just those who already love us. We are to show the same love to "strangers" (as in Hebrews 13:2 - Gk. philoxenia: love of strangers, also in Romans 12:13) as we do to family and friends.

The light has come into the world. The light is Christ. The light is love. And although we seem to forget it and tend to act like we don't believe it, no darkness of any kind will ever be able to overcome it.

Love - No matter what.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

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

I got a letter this week. It begins:

“Once again the Family of Faith in Springfield, MO is under attack.”

Whoa! Excellent attention-getter, right? “UNDER ATTACK!!!” I was hooked immediately! So I read on…

“Our City Council, on October 13, 2014, passed General Ordinance No. 6141, which prescribes exclusionary rights to individuals aligned with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement in our community.”

Yeah, I had to read it again, too. Feel free to take a moment.

As near as I can tell, “exclusionary rights” means the right to have a job and a home. So, there’s that.

And “individuals aligned with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Trans …” … yeah, that phrase. That means gay people.

So to interpret that sentence in actual words, it says the Springfield City Council passed an ordinance to ensure that gay people would have the right to hold a job and live in a home.

Still looking for the “attack.” Right? Because I sure haven’t read it yet. But maybe he’ll illuminate.

Next sentence: “Even though an overwhelming majority of Springfieldians spoke out in opposition, our Council voted 6 to 3 in favor of implementing this ordinance with its un-Biblical, anti-Christian bias and its un-Constitutional provisions.”

So now I am genuinely confused. This must be the description of the attack, but it isn’t clear who the letter writer is actually mad at.

Does he mean “un-Biblical,” like ignoring Romans 13 when it suits us? Or does he mean “un-Biblical” in just leaving off the entire chapter of Matthew 25, or any other part of the Holy Word of God that instructs us to care for those who are in need by … oh I don’t know … maybe making sure they have full access to a job and a home?

And “anti-Christian bias,” meaning that we ought to use the tenets of one particular expression of faith to measure what our government does? Like as in one of the key things the founders of our nation were attempting to avoid in setting up our amazing system of government in the first place?

Which leads to the “un-Constitutional provisions” part … is he meaning Amendment 5 that says the government cannot deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process? Or maybe he means Amendment 14 that says specifically, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Okay, enough with the snark. Let’s be clear here. This letter is from a group of people who wants Springfield, Missouri to repeal a duly passed City Council ordinance that essentially inserted sexual orientation and gender identity into all of the city’s anti-discrimination language. And this group wants pastors to encourage the people of our congregations to vote in favor of this repeal effort.

This ordinance, just to be crystal clear, includes this paragraph:

“Nothing in this article shall be taken to prohibit a religious organization, association or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society and whose purpose and character are primarily religious, from giving employment preference to members of its own religion.”

So, if gay people are not welcome in your religion, you don’t have to hire them.

And in the exceptions section of the ordinance, religious groups are quite clearly allowed to give preference to people of their own choosing for housing consideration, as well.

If you can make the case that gay people are not a part of your religion, the city of Springfield will allow your religious group to exclude them as much as you’d like.

Here’s the whole thing if you’d like to read it - click this.

In a nutshell, we have a City Council ordinance that passed with a clear majority (6-3) that seeks to ensure that discrimination is not happening in Springfield for any reason, and yet gives an exception to religious groups who want to include a particular form of discrimination in their own practices.

And still I’m wondering, where is this “attack” actually happening?

The letter tells me that “As a pastor, you are one of the leaders in the church community, which is the first line of defense against the powers of immorality and inequality in our city.” And funny thing, this is a statement with which I completely and utterly agree 100%. Ironically, that is exactly why I feel the need to write and post this response.

To be honest, I wish I could just let this go away and focus on more important things. But I am a follower of Jesus, which means I cannot allow such misrepresentations of the Gospel to simply go unchallenged. I could if it were the fringe, like Westboro. But this is pretty mainline – like First Baptist Church of Springfield. (That’s where the meeting is to be held on Thursday, December 4, to organize the repeal supporters.)

Incidentally, I also sent the following via email. I sent it to the email address I found on the Christians Uniting for Political Action website. That’s the group on whose letterhead the letter was printed:


Hello,
I'm not sure who is reading this email, but I'm sure you can forward it to the appropriate channel.

I am writing to ask respectfully that you alter your language in your communications regarding the anti-discrimination language in the Springfield City Council issue. Your letter announcing the December 4th meeting seems to assume that there is one, uniform, Christian response to this action.

In truth, our responses are varied and diverse. If you would just change a few words here and there, to indicate that "some" Christians view this as an attack, or that "some of us" are upset by this decision, instead of making it seem as though all Christians feel the same way, I would really appreciate it.

Thank you so much! Peace be with you,
Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church


Like with this post in general, I really wish I wasn’t having to deal with this. I wish I could just be focused on ministry and mission and Advent and Jesus and stuff like that. But if nobody says anything, if stuff like this goes unchallenged, it will be assumed that this point of view is THE “Christian” point of view. So I decided to go ahead and send the email, and see what happens.

At this point, I really don’t even care about changing people’s minds. I just want them to stop presenting their own personal view as if it represents all Christians everywhere. To do so grossly distorts the Gospel, which claims that God is far too big to fit into any one particular human understanding.

I’m gonna let you think what you think, even if I disagree with it. All I ask at this point is that you allow me to do the same, and stop pretending that following Jesus means agreeing about everything.


If there really is an attack going on, that’s it. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

Peace

The second Sunday of Advent asks us to think about peace.

Really? Your timing just couldn’t be worse, Second Sunday of Advent. It’s a pretty hard topic to think about just now. Violence seems to be the norm, hatred makes headlines, conflict rules the day.

Peace is not trending.

But honestly, has it ever been? Have you ever arrived, Second Sunday, and found the world to be truly at peace? Has there ever been an era in which peace was the rule of the day? We are fond of lamenting how bad the world is “these days,” and how idyllic the “good old days” were. But is that truthful?

Maybe we just remember things through the lens of sentiment, and maybe that makes it seem better than it really was. Is that how it is, Second Sunday of Advent? Are our memories selective that way?

You come around every year, Second Sunday; why are we so surprised? Shocked, even? Peace is kind of a big deal in the Bible, after all. Even Jesus himself is identified with it, him being the Prince of Peace and all. So why is it that all we can do is cluck our tongues and shake our heads?

Why can we not seem to figure out how to actually live lives of peace? We are supposed to “strive to be found by Christ at peace,” for God’s sake (2 Peter 3:14). So who’s striving?


Okay, Second Sunday of Advent … we hear you! We’ll give it a try. Who knows but if we do, that this “peace” thing might not just be the next big thing?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Twila

My siblings and I have had three grandmothers: Nanny, Nana, and Twila. Nanny was our mom’s mom; she died in 2012. Nana was our dad’s mom; she died in 1989. Twila was neither our dad’s mom nor our mom’s mom. She was our grandfather’s second wife. And she was amazing.

Actually, she was my "grandmother" longer than Nana was my grandmother. Nana was amazing, too. And so was Nanny. Three amazing women that I am so happy to have had in my life.

In 1992, three years after Nana died, my Grandfather, “Daddy Monk” Bryan married Twila Stowe, who has been my grandmother since then. 18 years with one grandmother; 22 years with another. I’m a pretty lucky guy.

Twila died this morning.

I called her daughter and she said, “Mom adored you and your family. You brought her so much joy. She was proud of you.”

Daddy Monk and Twila used to love it when I would sit down at the piano and play hymns. I would jazz them up and ad lib here and there and they would be in the kitchen cleaning up after supper or something, listening, singing along. It brought me joy to bring them joy.

But then, ever so sneakily, I would start up with the verse of “Victory in Jesus.” Before I could even get to the chorus, here Twila would come storming out of the kitchen wielding a wooden spoon or some such utensil, an expression of utter disgust on her face, often accompanied by an inarticulate growl of rage. If I had given her time, I’m not sure but she would have thumped me on the head.

However, I would just give her a grin and shift quickly to “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or some other Charles Wesley hymn.

Oo, did she ever hate “Victory in Jesus.”

Daddy Monk and Nana used to hang out with Twila and her husband, Mac. The two couples were dear friends. Monk and Mac (that would be Alonzo Monk and William McFerrin) were both bishops in the United Methodist Church. Mac died in 1988, and my grandparents (of course) stayed friends with Twila.

So when my grandmother died one year later, Monk and Twila stayed in touch. Over time their friendship deepened. When he was visiting our family he would go into the bedroom to call her and tell her goodnight. I used to do that in high school with the girls I was dating!

And then there were a few months there during which Monk and Twila AND Erin and I were engaged to be married at the same time! (Yep, both Jim’s dad and son were engaged at the same time. That must have been weird.) It was fun to share that time with them, both of us planning for weddings.

Twila was gracious. Classy. Gentle. Strong. Beautiful. Passionate. She had to be some special kind of woman, to be married to not just one but TWO United Methodist bishops in her life!

She was amazing.

We were hoping to stop in Dallas to see her tomorrow on our way to Austin for Thanksgiving. But she was ready to go. She said so. Her body was failing, and she was in pain. She let God know that she was pretty much done living this part of life, and God said, “Well okay then, come on.” And she left.

I just hope someone warns the angel choir not to sing “Victory in Jesus” any time soon, or maybe ever again!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Root Cause of Schism: "Want of Love"

Have you ever wondered what John Wesley may have thought of proposals to divide the United Methodist Church? Wonder no more:

“It is evil in itself. To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bound of peace. It is therefore contrary to all those commands of God, wherein brotherly love is enjoined: To that of St. Paul, ‘Let brotherly love continue:’ -- that of St. John, ‘My beloved children, love one another;’ -- and especially to that of our blessed Master, ‘This is my commandment, That ye love on another, as I have loved you’ Yea, ‘By this,’ saith he, ‘shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another.’” – John Wesley, Sermon 75, On Schism

Let me just repeat the phrase I highlighted above:

“The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.”

In the present case, the pretense for separation is the status and role in the church of people who are gay, specifically as it pertains to marriage and ordination. There’s no way to know, except to speculate, as to what Mr. Wesley would have believed regarding the specific questions on same-sex marriages and the ordination of people who are gay. I’m not intending to engage in such speculation at the moment.

I am intending to elevate our denomination’s conversation to a place of love and true ecclesial connection. Talk of who has permission to marry or not, talk of who might be ordained or not … all is mere pretense. The true root of our division is want of love.

For God’s sake, can we not love one another?

Furthermore, John Wesley understood schism as more than mere formal division. “[Schism] is not a separation from a church … it is a separation in a church,” he preached (emphasis mine). In that sense, the United Methodist Church has already experienced schism, and the true question is not whether to divide or not, but rather whether to unify again or not.

The question becomes one of faith: Do we as a church have sufficient faith in God to become one again? We are already divided. The schism has happened. The question really is: now what?

It seems to me that if we truly loved each other, we’d stick together, even if we fight sometimes. My kids argue with each other, but they stick together, because they love each other. Can the United Methodist Church follow the example my children are setting?

There are a bunch of plans floating around out there; we could see anything from maintenance of the status quo to outright division to some kind of compromise. All will be decided in 2016 at our next General Conference, pending an appeal to the Judicial Council, I suppose.

As we approach General Conference of 2016, maybe the United Methodist Church needs to start with confessing that the schism has already taken place. Maybe by reorienting our denomination to that reality can we ask the questions that really need to be asked:

Are we bold enough to come back together?

Are we faithful enough to trust God with the future?


Do we love one another or not?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hold Dear the Connection

An adaptive change in Methodist ecclesiology has led to three (and sort of four) technical changes in the Missouri Annual Conference.

The adaptive change in question is a shift in philosophy from a connectional attitude toward a congregational attitude. I have a couple of ideas about why this change was implemented, but those motivations are not the subject of this post. The shift itself is happening, as evidenced by the aforementioned technical changes.

The first technical change that was impacted was in our connectional support of community based service agencies. This connectional support (what the UMC calls “apportionments”) was given to a long list of groups working to alleviate injustice, poverty, homelessness, hunger, etc. all around the state. We supported them connectionally because of a philosophy that said, “We can do more together than we can alone.”

When that change happened, we were encouraged to think more congregationally. Now, individual congregations are in relationship with service groups that have particular local meaning: maybe hometown agencies, agencies that dealt with an issue of particular importance to the congregation, or agencies led by people in the congregation.

The second technical change that happened was in our resourcing of campus ministries at colleges and universities. Again, the philosophy behind maintaining on-campus facilities and appointing clergy to serve on campuses was that “we can do more together than we can alone,” in this case with regard to nurturing the Christian discipleship of students in college.

The Annual Conference decided to change the way we do campus ministry by encouraging local congregations to start college-age ministries of their own. And today there are many vibrant and vital college-age ministries based out of congregations all across our state.

The third change is ongoing, and relates to Annual Conference support for church camps and retreats. Rather than pool our resources connectionally to support staff and facilities designated for church camping and retreats, a different vision has been cast.

It is still unclear what this vision is exactly, but seems to revolve around 1) bringing the idea of camping to local congregations and 2) individual directors of camps seeking out their own facilities in which to hold them. In broad terms, a shift from connectional support of camping and retreats to a more local, congregational vision. Because this is an ongoing change, it is unclear what exactly the result will be.

The “sort of” fourth thing I want to mention is a wonderfully connectional idea called “Serve.” The idea of a “Serve Day” grew out of a vision of United Methodists all across the conference serving outside the walls of our church buildings. It was an amazing idea – thousands of people working on the same designated day to truly make a tangible impact for God’s sake in communities all across the state.

It did not take long, however, for this distinctly Methodist, “we can do more together” idea to fade away. Rather than a designated “Serve Day,” congregations are now encouraged to adopt the attitude of Serve throughout our ministries all year long. I can’t help but wonder if the idea of a Serve Day was simply too connectional to withstand the current trend toward congregationalism.

Finally I would like to add that I do not offer this as a negative criticism of the current climate, simply an observation. I am not offering one approach as “better” than another. I’m simply naming something that I’ve observed, a trend that I see taking place in the United Methodist Church.

Personally, I prefer a more connectional model of church over a more congregational one. That’s just my preference, though. I understand that the local church is where disciples are made most effectively, and so I can see the logic to the shift.

And I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way at some point, and we’ll reclaim some more of our connectional spirit again. It may look different, which I actually think will be a good thing. Our “connection” hasn’t really been “connected” for some time. We have lived in the illusion of connection for a long time now. I believe that it has become a top-heavy connection, deriving our connectional identity from conferences and agencies that exist on a far different plane from many United Methodists “in the pews.”

Perhaps a new connectionalism will emerge that connects congregations in new and innovative ways, “in the trenches,” so to speak. Maybe Methodists will connect personally with other Methodists in ministry and service in ways that nobody has thought of yet. That’s pretty exciting actually!


Right now, we’re focused pretty intently on “healthy congregations.” I get that. I appreciate that. I just hope that we don’t lose a valuable part of our identity as Methodists in the process. I'm looking forward to new and creative ways to "Hold dear the connection!"

Thursday, October 09, 2014

My One Idea - What's Yours?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … let’s just say for the sake of the story …

There was this technology that, when applied, would remove everything that a person believed, except for one single idea. All the complications and clutter of belief and dogma and doctrine and feelings and thoughts … just *poof* … gone. And only one idea would remain.

That solitary idea would be the center, the core, the pillar on which all the rest were constructed. The remaining idea would be the idea that served as the foundation of the house. It would be the heart of hearts of everything you believe to be true.

Got it? Do you see the concept? (Never mind how would it work, just play the game, okay?)

What would yours be?

What is your core idea? What is your single central belief on which all the rest are built? What’s the one idea that, if everything else were wiped away, you would hold on to with all your strength?

(Yes, just one. Again, just play the game!)

Please post your answer in the comment section, on Facebook, or on Twitter. I’m curious to read the responses.

Mine would be: Everybody matters. That would be My One Idea.

If everything else were taken away, I would cling to the idea that every single person is worth something. Not because of what they do or might do in the future, but simply because they exist. They matter because they are.

No matter your age or gender or wealth or health or race or religion or language or culture or nationality or anything else … YOU ARE IMPORTANT. For me, everything else builds upon that idea.

And that means that whenever that idea is challenged, I rise to defend it. Providing foster care, working for marriage equality, helping someone pay for a motel room, confronting racism, or just being nice to someone – it all comes back to believing that people matter. It shapes what I believe about God, who I believe Jesus is, how I identify the Holy Spirit, how I read scripture, what I think the church is about, and just about everything else.

So, I hope you’ll engage this little thought experiment with me. Here come the aliens with their belief-erasing devices! They have you in their sights! And … ZAP. All but one of your beliefs has just been eradicated.


What’s left?