Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Tree Across the Alley

There is a tree just across the alley from my office window. Right now, it is kind of scraggly. The branches are bare of leaves. It is what my mom might describe as “puny,” one of her all-time favorite words. If I were to judge my tree from this distance and in this moment, I might offer a rather mundane assessment. It is a tree that is sublimely unnoticeable.
But I remember that tree last spring and summer. I remember the bright new growth. I remember the full green vitality. The birds who used that tree for a launching pad to my window bird feeder remember, too. The memory of that other time assures me in this moment that something wonderful is about to happen to the tree across the alley.
And when I walk up to that tree and look very closely, I can see the buds forming on the little twiggly branches. I can see the aspect of what will be already present in the fragile new life. When I get in really close so that I can see what’s truly going on, I know that I am just about to witness a miracle on the tree across the alley.
Over the next few weeks, the tree is going to be transformed. No longer the scraggly, puny specimen it is right now, it will bud, then blossom, then come to full, vibrant health. It won’t happen all at once, but moment by moment, inexorably, gradually. By the time I sit here again next month, writing Andy’s Articulation for May, it will seem to be a different tree altogether.

We need to be careful, don’t we, when we might be tempted to make a judgment based on a momentary glance taken from a distance. Before we do so, we need to remember – remember where we have been, the places from where we have come, the experiences we have shared. We need to remember how God has been at work not only in the moment but also through the years, through the generations, in fact, through all time and even beyond. And we need to remember that God will be at work in this world long after we’ve gone.
Before we offer that judgment, we need to look closely – look closely at the variables in the given situation, the people involved, the relationships forming. We need to be as fully engaged as possible in the situation and know as much about it as we can before we make any kind of judgment, one way or the other. I am sure that God is overlooked vastly more often than noticed in the world around us, and I would guess that most often it happens when we are not truly looking closely enough.

Jesus cautioned, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24, NRSV). If I judge the tree across the alley by “mere appearances,” it’s really not much of a tree. But if I remember and if I look closely, I can make a “right judgment,” knowing that the tree will soon come to life again.
By the way, this works with people, too!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Monday Quiz:

Guess which one is the retired United Methodist Bishop, and which one is the old goat?

(Sorry, sorry, sorry. But it was just too easy to pass up! It's a joke, people. I love you, Daddy Monk. You are my grandfather and I have nothing but respect for you. I sure hope you are chuckling right about now :) )

Friday, March 21, 2008

A New Appointment

Last post: March 12th. Wow. I am a slacker.

But in my own defense, I have had some things on my mind since then. Not an excuse, just an explanation. Ya' see...

In June of this year, the Bryan family will be moving to Springfield, Missouri, where I will be appointed to serve as pastor of Campbell United Methodist Church. The appointment has been announced both at Campbell and here in North Kansas City, so it will be made official at Annual Conference, and the last weekend of June will be our first weekend in Springfield.

When the Ozarks South District Superintendent Kendall Waller told me about Campbell UMC and the particular needs of that congregation, he gave me some time to pray and think about it, and to talk it over with my wife Erin. In this process, I discerned that God is calling me to serve as the pastor there. I said yes to this appointment because Erin and I truly believe that we are being called to Campbell.

Of course, that is not to say that we are eager to leave Northtown – far from it! We love this remarkable congregation, and the last four years together have been filled with love and joy and genuine Christian friendship. I heard someone relatively new to the congregation say recently, “I am constantly amazed at how much you all actually enjoy being together. It’s like you really like each other!” How true that is, and what a wonderful thing to be said of a congregation.

And that’s what the new pastor is going to find here – a remarkable, Christ-centered, people-focused congregation. The new pastor is going to find a congregation who understands its mission to provide a Spiritual Home in which all persons can live and grow in their relationships with God and one another. The new pastor is going to find a vital and vibrant congregation with a lot of momentum and energy, growing both spiritually and numerically, and always ready to reach out and convey the love of Christ in all they say and do.

And so we're leaving a good place - and going to a good place. Campbell UMC is a community of really great people who have been through a lot together. I have already sensed an eagerness and an energy in the people there that promises some pretty good things. God is clearly at work in the community, and we are looking forward to being there and getting to know everybody. I can see nothing but wonderfulness in the future for Campbell!

Itenerant preachers sometimes have to leave a place where things have not gone well - that can be messy. And sometimes we have to go to a place that we are sort of dreading - that can be scary. But how lucky am I, leaving one vital and vibrant congregation and going to another one!

Your prayers during this time of transition will be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Young Adults

My brother likes to say that young adults are not a field of sociological study, an observation which is especially true for people who happen to be young adults. For young adults, young adulthood is called life, and the tendency for the church to objectify young adults as a demographic to be analyzed and then "reached out to" seems a completely disconnected and sometimes even insulting endeavor.

I personally am dismayed by the almost desperate tendency to pin the "savior" lable on young adults and so-called "young adult ministries," whatever those are. It sometimes feels like church leaders think that, if we can just get enough people under 30 here, everything's going to be okay. All of the decline in membership and ministry and relevance and all that jazz will just magically go away if we can grab a hold of a few twenty-somethings and bring 'em in. My response, simply put, is that the church's approach to young adults is counterproductive. Let me 'splain:

Let's start with the premise: It seems as though there is an effort to get more young adults into the church by studying ways that the church can reach out to them. Now, do you hear that? The question on the table is how can "we" (the church) get "them" (the young adults) involved with "us" (the church again).

So, what usually happens next is that somebody who thinks they are clever says something pithy like, "The answer is to meet them where they are, not expect them to come to us." Have you heard that one before? But notice the problem with that line of thought is exactly the same problem as before - the artificial separation between "them" and "us" is still there. If "we" are metaphorically going to meet "them" where they are, young adults are still objectified and separated from the church, rather than thought of as the church themselves. This line of thinking says that young adults are a mission field, they are not part of the church.

What would happen if we started with the belief that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (i.e. Galatians 3) - and then added to that list OLD nor YOUNG? How would the church engage in ministry differently if we truly believed that and made that idea the foundation for what we do? What if, instead of "bringing them in" or even "meeting them where they are," we just let young adults (ALL adults, in fact) just be who they are and do what they do where they are, and everyone could just be okay with that.

Even my brother misses the mark sometimes. He has this big thing about bringing a rock concert experience into the church worship service. What if, instead of that, we just thought of the rock concert experience itself as worship? What if, instead of trying to find the magic program to install into our church ministry plan to attract young adults, we just gave people permission to rethink what church is all about in the first place?

Young adults, who are the church, could just do what they do, and everyone would be okay with it. Retirees, who are the church, could just do what they do, too, and everyone would be okay with that, too. Youth, who are the church, ... Children, who are the church, .... you get the idea. In fact, young adults and retirees (and youth and children for that matter) might just find themselves doing things together every now and then, and everyone would be okay with that, even.

There is no "them" and "us" - it's all us. Young adults are not the saviors of the church, they are the church, here and now, wherever they happen to be and whatever they happen to be doing.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

"Deeply Moved"

Those two words caught my attention in preparing for this week's sermon. "Deeply moved." They are in John 11, the story of Lazarus, and describe how Jesus responds to the situation. John tells us that "he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved." In fact, so profound is Jesus' emotional response that he cannot contain his own tears.

I've been pondering why this incident is recorded. Why does John share this intimate glimpse at the inner emotional life of Jesus in his gospel? I mean, this is the Messiah here! God's anointed. The light of the world come to shine in the darkness and all that. What's he doing crying?

But perhaps the question answers itself. John tells us that he wrote his version of the story down "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believeing you may have life in his name" (20:31). So John wants us to believe. That's his agenda - to move us from un-belief (maybe dis-belief?) into belief. I don't know about you, but it sure is a lot easier for me to believe in a Messiah who expresses empathy in response human grief than a Messiah who would stand stoically by, unmoved by the pain and suffering of the people he loves.

What was it that moved Jesus to tears? Perhaps is was simply grief for his friend Lazarus; perhaps compassion for the others who were crying all around him; perhaps he was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer weight of his mission and frustrated that so many people around him weren't "getting it." After all, the resurrection for which the Jewish people were longing (i.e. Daniel 12:1-2) was no longer a distant, "one of these days" event - it was here and now. "I am the resurrection," he said. Not some abstract teaching about the end of the age, but him. Not just the things he was saying and doing, but him. Embodied. Incarnate.

As Mike said last night at Bible study, "It must have been a lot of pressure to be Jesus."

And so in order to accoomplish his mission, he decided to reveal God's power through the death of Lazarus. He basically allowed Lazarus to die in order to make his point. And how far fetched would it be to think that maybe, upon seeing the grief Lazarus's death caused, he may have had a pang or two of regret? Maybe just for an instant he thought, "Oh God, I hope this is worth it."

The confluence of all of that stuff hit Jesus with a powerful impact. And because he loved deeply, he was deeply moved. And because he was deeply moved, we believe. Even in our human relationships, how much easier is it to be friends with someone who is compassionate and empathetic, as opposed to someone we percieve as cold and aloof?

The story of Jesus' relationship with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus helps me believe, because I see in Jesus' emotional response the love of God as a vital, vibrant, responsive movement to human pain. I guess I would say that this intimate glimpse of Jesus's inner life makes God more real for me, and helps me figure out what it means to love, because God first loved us.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Personal Update

I don’t think I have ever been so sick. Last week I did not come in to the church at all; I turned over the Saturday night worship service to Adam; I spent most of the time in my recliner under a blanket drinking apple juice and blowing my nose.

(By the way, thanks be to God on high for Puffs Plus.)

The nurse at the doctor’s office said that she probably could just photocopy my symptoms and change the name for the few hundred people they had seen with fever, cough, runny nose, and congestion. The worst thing was that my energy level was zero; I just couldn’t do anything. It was a major undertaking to walk across the living room. The doctor said that it probably started out as the flu and then became an upper respiratory infection. The good news is that my lungs were clear – no pneumonia.

Anyway, I’m back at it now. I’m feeling more energy than I have in two weeks, and have been able to come in to the office and get some catching up done. It’s amazing how much work piles up after just a few days out. I have a prescription of antibiotics to take care of the infection, and I’m almost through those, then a follow-up appointment at my doctor on Friday.

Here’s a funny thing: when my doctor was asking me questions to try to figure out how I had gotten sick he said, “So have you spent any time around sick people?” I just kind of smiled at him and said, “I’m a pastor. It’s kind of a part of my job.” And I was very diligent in all my hospital visits to wash my hands in every room, keep my distance from people, all that stuff. So I don’t think I got sick in the hospital; it was just a thing.

But it feels good to be back – I’ll do a “real” post later this week, most likely.