Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Oh, and one last thing before I go..." - Lectionary Thoughts for the Ascension

My question of the day is, did Jesus intend to start a church? And were he to tap us on the shoulder today, with a word of advice about how we are doing as the church in the world, what would he say? His “one last thing before I go” in the story of his ascension had nothing to do with institutionalizing his life. He did not say, “Be sure to boil everything I am, everything I taught you, and everything I ever did, down to a few basic facts. And then do everything that you can to get people all over the world to believe these few basic facts.”

No, he just said, “You will be my witnesses.” Well, first of all, and very importantly, he said that we can’t ever really know what God has in mind for the restoration of the world. Then he said that we will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Then he said, “You will be my witnesses” in your town, in your country, and all over the world. So pretty much the famous last words of Jesus were, You don’t know everything, so just tell people about me, as many people as you can. (That’s my own paraphrase, of course.)

You don’t know everything, so just stick with what you know. That’s pretty good advice, in my book. Funny how that line didn’t make the Nicene Creed. How much different would the church be today if the Council of Nicaea had been able to add one little line before they began their creed: “We don’t know everything for sure, but …”? How much more conversation can you have with another person when you both assume an attitude of humility about the limited nature of your knowledge? And why is it sometimes so hard for us to say "I don't know"?

It reminds me of the Linda Ronstadt song that says, “Don’t know much, but I know I love you. That may be all I need to know.” The song ends with the line, “That may be all there is to know.”

Witnesses are told in court to provide the information they know – testify to what they have seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. Hearsay is not allowed. Speculation is frowned upon. Witnesses are not allowed to supply personal opinion. Just tell what you know. Stick to what you know. That may be a good metaphor for providing testimony about Jesus, too. Don't stray off into your own prejudices, fears, and grudges. Just talk about Jesus.

I am not advocating the suppression of curiosity. By no means! I believe that the hunger for knowledge is a gift of God given to humanity, and good stewardship of that gift means that we ought to embrace it and put it to good use. It's funny how often learning something new illuminates just how much more there is to learn. Ironically, acknowledgement of the limited nature of our knowledge is a part of what compels us to know more and more. But we need to cultivate a healthy understanding that any amount of knowledge we accumulate over our lifetime is a mere flicker when considered alongside the vastness of God. Archimedes' "Eureka!" moment is still just a glimpse through a glass darkly.

Just before he ascended, Jesus said something like, You don’t know everything, so just stick with what you know. And the Holy Spirit will help you figure all the rest out.

I don’t know for sure if certain people are going to burn in hell or float up into heaven when they die, but I do know that God loves them. That may be all I need to know. That may be all there is to know.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Immigration Forum Follow-Up

The only thing I would have changed about last night’s immigration forum at our church was the low attendance. There were only nineteen people there. We limited publicity this time, because we were not sure of what kind of response we would get. Lesson learned – next time we will spread the word more broadly.

The presentation itself was outstanding. Suzanne Gladney of Legal Aid of Western Missouri spoke for just over an hour and took questions from the group. She spoke in both English and Spanish; about five of the attendees only spoke English and the rest were either bilingual or Spanish speakers. Her remarks were very informative and pragmatic. A sample:

- No laws can be made unless both houses of our legislature agree on them and they are signed by our president. The talk about immigration reform is just talk until it becomes law, and even then it will take months or even years for implementation.

- If you have questions about immigration laws, do not go to the Immigration Office for help; that’s not their job. Their job is to arrest you and deport you. Instead, find an honest lawyer. She then provided a list of a dozen or so lawyers who are, in her opinion, honest and who have someone in their office who speaks Spanish.

- If you are anticipating some kind of amnesty in the future, start preparing now by collecting the appropriate documentation proving how long you have been in the country.

- Almost all of the 20 – 35 immigration cases she handles per day start out as minor legal violations (parking tickets, broken taillights, not having your headlights on in the rain, etc.). The Immigration Service is not out making arrests on the street, but the police are required to make referrals. Know the laws and follow them.

- There is a difference between a notario in most Latin American countries and a notary public in the U.S. A notario has special training and legal connections; a notary public has $25 and can fill out an application form. Many notaries in the U.S. take advantage of this misunderstanding and bilk immigrants out of thousands of dollars.

- Currently, the only ways to legally immigrate to the U.S. are 1) via a family member who is a citizen or 2) through employment. There is no provision based on length of time residing here.

- One of the most “personal opinion” moments happened when Suzanne lamented the false perception that immigrating legally to this country is an easy process. “From what you read in the press, you would think it is as easy as filling out a single piece of paper,” she said. Actually it is a lengthy, expensive, and complicated process.

And this is the reality that I have been trying to confront. I am only tangentially interested in the question of what to do with people who want to be here illegally. The point I have been trying to make all along is that immigration is very, very difficult for those who want to be here legally, and this process is in need of reform. It is very easy to say, “They are criminals, and should be treated as such.” But it is not so easy to say, “They do not want to be criminals, but our system makes it nearly impossible for them to be otherwise.”

I think our forum was consistent with the United Methodist Discipline's encouragement “to continue to work with community-based organizations to provide forums for citizens to voice concerns, educate one another, and confront the problems of racism and xenophobia as obstacles to building community.” And yes, there was one man at the forum I would consider to be a smidge xenophobic. He was not vocal during the forum, but afterwards he engaged Suzanne in a quietly angry conversation. I only picked up bits and pieces, but Suzanne reported to me that his remarks would have been highly offensive to many in the room had he expressed them aloud. I was greatly impressed by how Suzanne responded to his comments calmly and with respect. (Of course, I know that not every person who is in favor of tighter immigration laws is xenophobic, of course. All I'm saying is that this man seemed to be.)

So I consider the forum we held to be a success, albeit not well attended. We will most likely have more forums like this in the future. It was highly informative, very interesting, and quite timely. As immigration reform continues to simmer on the stovetop of U.S. politics, more and more people will have big questions, and the church can and should be a safe place for those questions to be asked and answered.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Scandalous! - Lectionary Thoughts for Easter Six

In Acts 10:45, when Luke notes that the Holy Spirit was poured out “even on the Gentiles,” he is emphasizing the shocking inclusivity of the Gospel. The notion that God’s grace would be available to someone other than the chosen people was scandalous. Yet Peter taught them that it would be wrong to withhold baptism from these people whom God has so scandalously chosen to include in the circle. Later (Acts 11:18), this is confirmed when the church leaders in Jerusalem accept the reality of the Spirit’s inclusiveness.

The practical implication is, we need to be very careful about excluding others.

But Jesus excluded others, didn’t he? I remember him saying somewhere that only he was the way to get to God, right?

When Jesus said, “I am the way,” that is what he meant. Him – and only him. I have no problem whatsoever saying “Jesus is the way.” But Jesus did not meant that Andy Bryan’s way is the way to God or that Jerry Johnston’s way is the way to God or anyone else’s way other than Christ himself. How dare we try to limit who Jesus is by saying that only OUR way is the way! How dare we use Jesus as the bouncer at the door of the Divine Discothèque (idea from Donald Miller?). When we say, “You can’t come into our club because you are not doing things Jesus’ way,” we are presuming that our way and Jesus’ way are one and the same, and that is a very big presumption to make.

So as far as it depends on me, I err on the side of inclusiveness.

So, you are just saying “anything goes” – whatever anyone does or thinks or says is okay no matter what?

No. Inclusiveness does not mean “anything goes.” I have never met anyone who thinks that “anything goes.” Even people who may say “anything goes” do not think that everything goes. For me, hatred, violence, prejudice, greed, reality television, etc. most definitely do not “go.” When I see these things, I am going to speak out against them.

But my speaking out is conditional, based only on my limited, fallible, “in a glass darkly” kind of knowledge of God as revealed to me in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. All I can say is, “I believe that my way is as close to Jesus’ way as I can get at this time in this place.” I would never dream of equating my way directly with Jesus’ way objectively and for all time. How could I possibly know that? That kind of knowledge is the venue of God, not me.

There are enough stories in the Bible (Acts 10 – 11 included) in which the lead characters are scandalized by how broadly God’s grace extends, that I simply cannot try to narrow it’s scope in any way. It is always amazing, shocking, and even scandalous to witness the power of God’s grace at work. And when I see it, I can either respond like the Pharisees did with Jesus or the believers did with Peter – either refuse to acknowledge it and militantly defend my personal perspective as the only option or shake my head in amazement and accept the undeniable truth that God’s ways are mysterious and wonderful to behold.

And Gentiles are thankful, because we are the ones who have been included. Relationship with God is a covenant, and it is a relationship that was not offered to Gentiles first. It belonged to the Hebrew people long before we ever came on the scene. How important is it to understand that when Peter’s peers say, “Even on the Gentiles?” they are talking about US! It was the Jews that God chose to be in covenant with, and we have access to this relationship only through the person of Jesus. If God’s grace was not scandalously inclusive, we ourselves would be excluded from it.

John 15 reminds disciples that we were chosen by Christ, and not the other way around. It is Christ’s job to do the choosing, not ours. To try to choose on behalf of Christ is to limit the scandalously inclusive power of God. Ours is but to simply let God be God, while we do our best to be God’s children.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Britney Bails Out! OH NO!

In a sad, sad turn of events, Kabbalah has lost one of its most well-known adherents. Yes, the rumors are true - Britney Spears has left off studying the 4,000 year old discipline, and instead has said that her baby will be her religion.

Her baby will be her religion. ... ?

Two words: Role Model.

hat tip to Bill Tammeus

Saturday, May 13, 2006

It's All About the Relationship

Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading there?”
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” answered the stranger. “Would you be able to come sit beside me and take a look?”
So Philip sat down next to the stranger, and read a bit. The stranger asked for help interpreting the passage. (It was from the prophet Isaiah.) “Who is this suffering servant who did not lift a finger in his own defense?”
“It was Jesus,” said Philip. And he proceeded to tell the stranger the good news about Jesus, using the stranger’s scripture as a starting point. And what he said made the stranger so happy that he did a cannonball into a nearby pond and shouted out, “Yippee!”
(Acts 8:30-38, paraphrased by me)

Question: Why didn’t the author, Luke, tell us what Philip said when he told the stranger the “good news about Jesus”? Other places in the book of Acts, entire sermons are recorded, so you’d think that if it was important, Luke would have included it here. Did he think the reader would just assume, fill in the blank based on previous writing? The news was certainly exciting enough to cause the Ethiopian eunuch (his friends called him E.E.) to rush pell-mell into the roadside baptismal pool and ask Philip to baptize him. But what did Philip say? Why is Luke so reticent with this assumedly important bit of information?

So my question here is not about what Philip wanted E.E. to know, but what Luke wanted US to know…

Maybe, just maybe, what Philip said was less important than his act of saying it. In other words, maybe what Luke wants us to know has to do more with Philip’s brief relationship with E.E. than with what Philip said to him. We are left on our own to fill in the content of what Philip said, but Luke really wants us to know that Philip said it, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, to a person to whom he would under normal circumstances have never dreamed of speaking.

Relationship is a risk. Risk number one: Philip follows the Spirit’s lead to encounter this stranger (vv. 29-30). Risk number two: the stranger is open to receive Philip into relationship (v. 31). This is why relationship is so hard; it requires both people to be willing to take a risk. If either person had been unwilling to take this risk, there would have been no relationship.

Relationship precludes judgment. Philip did not judge E.E. for being a foreigner, a eunuch (see Deuteronomy 23:1 for a cheery Bible verse – have your V.B.S. kids memorize THAT one this summer!), a courtesan, a person of wealth. E.E. did not judge Philip for being a scruffy traveling preacher, a Galilean, or just plain nosy, coming up all in his business like that. Both characters had reason to judge the other, and both managed to lay these aside so that they could enter into the relationship.

Finally, relationship trumps teaching. What did Philip teach the stranger about Jesus? We may be able to formulate an answer of a sort: Jesus was God’s Messiah who was sent for the forgiveness of sin and the liberation of all creation; he gave himself up to be killed by the authorities of this world but rose again from the dead by the authority of heaven. Or maybe he just told a story, like Jesus did. The point is, we don’t know. Because the point is not to “formulate” anything about Jesus, isn’t it? To formulate the Gospel is to minimize it, to restrict its meaning, to try to conform it to our own terms. Oh, I’m not advocating eradication of all doctrines, creeds, and other teachings of the church, please don’t get me wrong. But when the choice is to nurture a relationship or promulgate a doctrine, the good choice is for the relationship every time.

I guess this little story from Acts for me comes down to this: Too often we Christians get hung up on the doctrine, and forget to be friends.

So, have a nice day!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Immigration Forum in North Kansas City

The United Methodist Church urges its congregations “to denounce and oppose the rise of xenophobic and racist reactions against newcomers in the United States and elsewhere, and to support any and all efforts to build bridges between people of diverse ethnicities and cultures.”

Furthermore, congregations are encouraged “to continue to work with community-based organizations to provide forums for citizens to voice concerns, educate one another, and confront the problems of racism and xenophobia as obstacles to building community.” These exhortations are from “The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church” in the section titled “Immigrants and Refugees: To Love the Sojourner” on page 685 of the 2004 edition.

These sound like pretty good ideas to me, so we are going to have a forum. Suzanne Gladney, the Managing Attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, is going to be at our church building Monday, May 22nd, at 7:00 p.m. to lead a forum covering general immigration issues. Our church is located at 2100 Howell Street in North Kansas City, Missouri. She told me that forums such as this one have the potential to draw several hundred people. Our sanctuary can hold about 200, so we are not doing an all out publicity campaign. We are spreading the word here and there, using church connections and United Methodist communication channels.

I don’t know quite what to expect with this forum. Susy Cardenas, our congregation’s Director of Hispanic Ministry, doesn’t quite know either, but she sees it as a potentially large turnout. There certainly are a whole lot of immigrants in our area, north of the river in Kansas City. If we can get the word out to enough people, I’m sure we will fill the sanctuary to overflowing. Or we may have a dozen. Who knows?

I’m also a little uncertain about the content of the forum, but Suzanne Gladney is handling that, so I’m trusting her with that part. She alerted me that many may view this as an opportunity to discuss their specific cases, but she wants to keep in very general and just provide a bunch of info that would be helpful for everyone to know. One of the things she will provide is a list of honest attorneys who will take immigration cases at a relatively low cost.

According to Suzanne, one of the complicating issues in the whole mess is the exploitation of new immigrants by immigrants who have been here for a while. These second or third generation immigrants charge new immigrants astronomical fees to “take care of” all their documents and other needs. It is not unusual for a new immigrant to be charged thousands of dollars for a transaction that would normally cost hundreds or even less. It is complicated situations like this that many people miss when they think about the immigration issue. So a list of good, honest, trustworthy lawyers seems like a very good place to start.

All in all, I am really excited about hosting this forum. It falls into the category of “Let’s Give It a Shot and See What Happens.” I’ll certainly write a post in a couple of weeks about how things turn out. We would really appreciate all of your prayers!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Thoughts on Swimming

Recently, I was accused of swimming in a stream that is not the main one. I have to say, I have never thought about that idea very much before. Though I am not entirely sure of the author’s motivation in making the comment, after a few days of reflection, I think my response is one of appreciation. This insight has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for me and my relationship with God.

See, I didn’t choose which stream to swim in, God chose it for me and said, “Hey little fishie, swim there.” All I can do is proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which God reveals to me through the presence of the Holy Spirit. All I can do is read the Bible, study the tradition, seek experiences with the living presence of Christ, and reflect on all of this using the gift of my rational mind. That’s all I can do. And when that is said and done, God says, “Look! Here is Andy Bryan’s stream. Swim and be happy, my little fishie!”

“But God,” I say, “This stream does not appear to be the Mainstream.”

“Not to worry; do not be afraid,” replies God. “It is yours. And it is a very nice stream. It’s where I want you to be for the time being.”

So, why is my stream not yours? I just don’t know – moot question. But I would like for you to show me. I want to hear about your stream, and why you swim in it. I am sure it is lovely! I know it must be, because I know that mine is. Will you let me tell you about my stream, and why I am swimming in it? Maybe after our conversation, I will decide to leap over into your stream, or you will decide to leap over into mine. Or maybe a little bit of my stream will spill over into yours and a little bit of yours will spill over into mine, and we’ll keep on swimming.

The only time I’m ever going to tell you that you may be swimming in a bad stream is if you are hurting other fishies in some way. Maybe your stream has been polluted or been dammed up or someone has built levees along the side and tried to steer its flow. I don’t know. But I do know that if your stream hurts others, this little fishie is going to say something about it. Likewise, I expect the same from you. If my stream is hurtful in some way, please let me know so that I can do something about it.

Too cheesy? Maybe a little bit. Oh, who am I kidding? This post is cheesier than Lambeau field on game day. But the metaphor gets the idea across, I think. And what’s wrong with a big fat cheesy metaphor every now and then?

God chose this stream for me; it may not be the main one, but it is mine. And I am going to swim here at least for a while longer.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Judicial Council Decision Made

Voting 5-4, the Judicial Council decided not to reconsider decisions 1031 and 1032. The UM News story is here, and includes some quotes from the concurring and dissenting opinions. I am pretty sure that I understand the reasoning for the decision, but am inclined to agree more with the four who signed the dissenting opinion than the three who signed the concurring one, of course.
My lament is not that we are a church that disagrees, it is that we are now a church that uses membership as a weapon against those with whom we happen to disagree. And so I ask, using the wisdom of Wesley, "But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we can't think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"
Wesley's answer to this was, "Without a doubt we may."
Can we answer today with such assurance?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Finally Foster Parents!

After four months of going through the process, 30 hours of in class training, certification in medication, first aid, and CPR, home visits, interviews, and references from family and others - Erin and I received word this afternoon that our paperwork has been approved by the state and we are officially licensed to be foster parents! Now all that is left is to wait for a call from a case worker and prepare to receive a child or two.
Whew! We really need your prayers.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Why 1031? (Winner: Boringest Post Ever)

If you want to read a less boring post, go check out the one I wrote earlier today. This one is not very sexy, but it is a response that I really felt like I should make.

My friend Tim Sisk asked me (twice!) why I want Judicial Council decision 1031 reconsidered. Well, based on my limited knowledge of legal jargon and a rudimentary understanding of the Book of Discipline, here is my long, boring answer. (I hope someone will help me by correcting my misunderstandings wherever you see them!)

Decision 1031 distinguishes between a judicial complaint and an administrative allegation. It says that Bishop Kammerer was acting like this was an administrative allegation, but the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry was talking like it was a judicial complaint. The decision rules that, since the board was using judicial complaint language, the case at hand was in fact “transformed” into a judicial complaint and not an administrative allegation, and therefore the Annual Conference lost jurisdiction.

A judicial complaint is some disobedience, a “chargeable offense,” meaning that the pastor disobeyed Episcopal or connectional authority, and so judicial proceedings ensue. On the other hand, an administrative allegation, like “unwillingness to perform ministerial duties,” can be handled without involvement of the judiciary at all. And so, the Judicial Council had to make ruling 1031 in order to be able to make ruling 1032. That’s what
Stephen Fife was saying in his comment a while back – without 1031, there would be no 1032. By making the ruling on 1031, the Judicial Council in effect gave themselves jurisdiction to look at making a ruling on 1032.

But in fact the JC's jurisdiction is very slim, by their own admission, since the question originally came to them as a parliamentary question, and they do not rule on parliamentary questions. But they very conveniently point out that, "However, parliamentary inquiry is clearly not the focus of the member’s inquiry." In other words, the JC was responding to what the member meant to ask, rather than what the member actually asked.

And beyond that, I disagree with 1031 because I think the matter was administrative, not judicial, and so the Judicial Council had no jurisdiction in the matter. I think the issue at hand is not disobedience to authority, but rather a minister unwilling to perform his duties. These duties were being pointed out to him by the Bishop, to be sure. But I simply cannot understand this as a judicial matter. The Judicial Council was splitting legal hairs in order to claim jurisdiction over a matter that was not theirs.

With that said, I do think the Virginia Board of Ordained Ministry set itself up for this, however. In their words, “[Johnson’s] unwillingness already threatens the authority of those who are charged to supervise him. For him to continue would only confuse and erode our understandings of connectional authority and boundary.” This language all but ensured that the Judicial Council would be able to get involved with the case. It appears as though Bishop Kammerer and the Virginia BOOM were not exactly on the same page.

So this is why I think 1031 needs to be reconsidered, as well as 1032. I hope that, where I have my understanding wrong about 1031, somebody will correct me. Now go read
something less boring!

"To Stir The Conversation Once More"

With an entry line like that, I just couldn't allow what followed to remain buried in the comments. So, in case you didn't read it in response to my last post, here is what "A" (aka Ashley for short) has to say to "stir the conversation."

Third, to stir the conversation once more... Several years ago, I read an interesting argument (from a guy named R. Scroggs I think) asserting that the Hebrew and NT scriptures addressing homosexuality were very likely condemning pedophilic homosexual acts (older males utilizing young boys for sexual gratification) instead of covenanted relationships between two consenting adults of the same gender. Further, he asserts that covenanted relationships between two consenting adults of the same gender did not exist in the same way they do today. If it is at all possible that the HB and NT scriptures were primarily addressing pedophilia instead of covenanted relationships in their historical context and not ours, how could and should the contemporary UM church (the general conference and judicial council in particular) respond?

Excellent question! Here's my answer:
1 - One possible response is to attack the interpretation for not honoring the Bible as God's infallible Word. 2 - A second would be to differ with the interpretation and offer another one, perhaps even displaying the same kind of in depth, thoughtful, faithful study, contemplation, and analysis, but coming to honestly different conclusions. 3 - A third response might be to agree with this interpretation but continue to accept the status quo in the UM church. 4 - Response number four might be to agree with this interpretation and work diligently to change the language of our denomination to reflect it. 5 - Finally, one might respond to this interpretation by blindly adopting it as the only possible way to explain things, and demonize any who hold a contrary interpretation.

My (biased) observation is that a lot of people have response number 1 and number 4, a bunch of others are at response number 3, and not too many respond with number 2. Only a very tiny number are truly at response number 5. And it is the people with a response number 2 that I value most in the dialogue, because they differ from me and are able to actually converse about things without degrading into a pointless shouting match. (Said another way: They are "foxes" rather than "hedgehogs.")

What about it, A? Others? Conversation has been stirred...