Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Conversation Matters

A couple of linksies:

First - John from Locusts and Honey has come out of the closet as not opposed to gay marriage. I would commend his post to anyone as a very clear and well-reasoned position of someone who believes that sex between people of the same gender is a sin, but sees no justification for banning marriage. Click here.

Second - one of my favorite bloggers, Shane Raynor, is blogging again. Click here. Shane was one of the first bloggers in the Methodist blog world, and he went away for a bit. I know that he has been back at it for a while, but I just now learned about it. When Shane was writing on his first blog, it was not unusual for him to get 75 comments on any given post. He is the king!

John and Shane are great examples of two people whose ideas I often disagree with, but who have over time become valuable conversation partners for me. It's that odd kind of blog relationship in which I have never actually been face to face with either of them, but have spent so much time reading their thoughts over the last few years, and being able to exchange ideas respectfully with others, no agenda attached, is one of the most beautiful parts of the blogoshpere, I think.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Young Clergy - "Don't Try So Hard"

It has been more than a week since I wrote last – a lot has happened in that week. Last Tuesday and Wednesday I was in Columbia, MO for a conversation among the conference’s younger clergy, Bishop Schnase, and a few of the conference staff (more on that below). Then Thursday and Friday my family drove to Wisconsin for a family funeral. Saturday was a day of rest and Sabbath for us. Then Sunday happened, with all of its activity and hubbub. So I haven’t had much time to sit and write, though I do have a lot of stuff in my noodle that needs to get written down.


I think the Bishop’s conversation with young clergy was really good. I’m pretty sure I was the oldest young clergy there at age 37, and I’m not really sure where the cap is on that category, but I felt like we had a lot of time to talk about a lot of things the conference is dealing with – and not just as token young people, but as conversation partners with the Bishop. The people there were either commissioned or ordained, and they were all Caucasian, and they were almost all men – so there definitely were some people left out of the conversation.

We talked about a LOT of stuff – youth ministry, church camp, blogging, Facebook, worship, apportionments, church planting, training events, Annual Conference. And I had to leave before the group got together to come up with a letter or statement or something for the Bishop to take to the Conference Council meeting the following day. That was the final thing the group did on Wednesday afternoon.


My favorite moment of the two days was the “Don’t try so hard” moment. Bishop Schnase was asking about blogging and how often and what content and should he post pictures and what about Facebook and should he have a profile and … someone said, “Just don’t try so hard.” But I completely understand where he is coming from. Everything he says and does has the extra weight of being said and/or done by a Bishop.

I think I actually saw a light bulb above his head, though, when he realized that being real about who you are and not worrying so much about that extra Episcopal weight is one of the most important values shared by people of younger generations. Authority is carried a lot differently by people in their 20s and 30s than their parents and grandparents.

For example, the Board of Ordained Ministry pushed me on my ideas about pastoral authority back when I was up for my ordination interview. I think the root cause of that point of disagreement was a generational conflict in what “authority” is. I was thinking of authority as an aspect of community and of relationship, something that is earned via trust and respect. That was rubbing up against an idea of authority as an aspect of position and rank, something that is given to an individual through a hierarchical system like the church.

Similarly, I think that Bishop Schnase’s “Don’t try so hard” moment came as he realized that his authority with the people in that room came not because the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church had elected him Bishop, but because we all like him and trust him and respect him for who he is. So if you have an idea and you want to post it to your blog, post it! If you see a cool thing and you want to share it, take a picture with your fancy new iPhone and share it!

It is better to be authentically who you are than to be overly concerned about what someone else thinks your role should be. That’s what “don’t try so hard” means to me.


My favorite personal moment from the two days was when I offered the suggestion that we needn’t worry so much about high schoolers leaving the church when they go off to college. In fact, I think we should encourage it! We should let them go, and figure out how to be the church for them wherever they land.

There is a lot of anxiety about young people leaving the church – but what better time of life to be going away, cutting the ties of childhood, figuring out who you are going to be in your adult life than the years right after high school? Maybe we should concentrate more on equipping them to be faithful disciples than to be good church members, then when they decide to leave the church, they’ll be more secure in their identity and therefore more likely to one day return.

I do not think that my suggestion was very well received – at least there wasn’t really any further conversation about it.


And my favorite all-around moment of the two days was simply being together with young people in ministry. There is just a different vibe in the room. We hung out, shared some things, disagreed about stuff, laughed a lot, talked about our passions, shared personal stories about families and friends, envisioned ministry as it could/should be, and just generally had a good time together. We got our picture taken by a big fake moose. We went to Jazz for supper and made jokes about Coonass. We reflected on the possible meanings of a bumper sticker claiming, “My Other Car is Made of Meat.”

One informal conversation pondered the viability of a Fantasy Church League where we could choose various ministries from various congregations and accumulate points on a weekly basis, like Fantasy Football except with Church! We’re already tracking attendance, baptism, and mission numbers online, Fantasy Church can’t be too far away.

The future of the United Methodist Church is bright, I think because younger people seem to know better how to get along with one another as colleagues and friends. I hope we never lose that. Somebody smack me if I do. Like this:

Still my favorite.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Earn - Save - Give

I was clicking around Barack Obama's transition website this morning, and found the place where it asks people to share visions for the future of the country. Here's what I contributed:
When it came to money, John Wesley taught early Methodists to "Earn all you can; Save all you can; Give all you can." When I think about the future of the United States of America, I see a place where that basic principle is the norm.
We need a robust capitalist economy that allows everyone to earn all they can, a healthy investment system allows for saving all we can, and an ethos of generosity across the nation in which giving to others is a joy, not an obligation.

Giving is on my mind, because tomorrow it is the topic of my sermon. I am going to try to deconstruct some old ideas about giving to the church and start reshaping generosity so that we think of giving more as an act of discipleship rather than an obligation to support a budget. Giving is a joy, a privilege, and act of grace (2 Corinthians 8-9), and "if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable." (8:12)

Eagerness = prothumia. That can mean zeal, spirit, eagerness, inclination, or readiness of mind, according to the Blue Letter Bible site.

Prothumia has been in short supply in recent memory, but it's making a comeback! So much good happens when there is a sense of eagerness, an attitude of expectancy, a feeling that something wonderful is just about to happen. It filters out into everything else, and begins to build upon itself, creating an exponential increase in the positive feelings all over the place.

Finally, all that we earn, all that we spend, all that we save, and all that we give, everything belongs to God. We just receive it as caretakers. When it comes to money, the question "Will this be pleasing to God?" is the true "bottom line."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Identity versus Activity?

I’m reading Paul Borden’s “Direct Hit.”

At the same time, I am reading Phyllis Tickle’s “The Great Emergence.”

As a result, my brain is splitting in two.

As much power, depth, and theological complexity as there is from Phyllis Tickle, there is that much over-simplification, repetition, and business jargon from Paul Borden. I get the idea that Borden took a book on how to run a business and changed a few words around to make it sound more like a church book. I get the idea that Tickle is sharing wisdom about the identity of the Church that may very well have global implications.

I think the reason I have so much trouble with Borden, who I know is a very popular author and speaker in church leadership right now, is that his main thing is to take a single verse of Scripture – Matthew 28:19 – and turn it into the church’s business plan. For him, “make disciples” is the ecclesial equivalent of “sell as much as you can of product X.” Everything else that he writes comes from that premise. At least that’s how I see it.

Businesses sell as much as they can of product X in order to make a profit; churches make disciples in order to change our communities and our world. But can we really say that Christian discipleship is just a means to an end like that? I have always thought of discipleship as an individual’s identity upon accepting Christ into their life, not as a set of activities we do in order to attain a goal.

I understand that people like the idea of boiling life down to a series of action items we undertake in order to advance toward an objective (or hit a bull’s eye, if you prefer). The only problem with that is life itself; it happens to be a lot messier than that. Skubalon happens. And when we are exclusively task-oriented, spending all of our time talking about what the church does, we flounder when we find that we can’t do it.

It would be much better to talk about who the church is, to understand our identity as fully as we can. That way, when the messiness of normal life intrudes upon us, we can weather it and even flourish, secure in our identity as the church. When we define a church by what it does, we set it up for decline and eventual death, because there will be times when it cannot do what we have decided it should be doing.

Businesses define themselves by what they do. Starbucks sells coffee. Everything Starbucks does is geared toward selling coffee. If the coffee crop failed one year and there was no coffee available to sell (a horrifying thought, I know), the very identity of Starbucks would vanish. There is no way Starbucks can be faithful to being Starbucks minus the ability to sell coffee.

If churches define themselves by what they do, their identity is at risk when that activity is no longer possible, for whatever reason. So for example if a church is defined by worshiping a certain way, the identity of the church is threatened when it is no longer feasible to worship that way. Or if a church is defined by a particular mission focus, when that mission focus becomes impossible the very identity of the church is at risk.

If, on the other hand, a church would spend as much time praying and thinking together about identity as we tend to do now about activity, a new worship style or a different mission focus would be a very natural thing. Change in the church would be much easier to facilitate as a result, because activities would be almost interchangeable, and no threat at all to the core identity of the church.

Borden is all about change, and I like that. But he is clear about neither what we are changing from nor what he thinks we should change into. And I think that’s because all he has to base his thoughts on is that one-verse business plan – to make disciples. Making disciples very important for the church; it is what happens when a church is clear about its identity. But making disciples is not the church’s identity in and of itself.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

What the tree is is a fig tree. What the tree does is bear figs. The fig tree does not have to attend seminars on how to bear figs. New figs are the natural consequence of being a fig tree.

I simply think the church is overly anxious about what the church does and is not asking enough questions about who the church is. And ironically, if we were more certain about who the church is, a lot of the anxiety about what the church does would go away.

And even more ironically, if we were more certain about who the church is, that would be attractive to more and more people who may want to become a part of it, thus helping with the initial cause of all this anxiety in the first place!

P.S. This is one of my favorite topics, apparently.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Charge Conference, the annual meeting of the congregation, has come and gone. We prayed together, we sang together, we heard from Church Council chair, I gave the ten reasons that “everything is going to be okay,” and our District Superintendent received our reports and offered a few thoughts of his own. Then we prayed again, sang again, and we were done.


What a very Methodist thing to do, “Conference.” That’s one noun that I am happy to make into a verb! It is so good to sit down with a group of friends, look into one another’s eyes, and ask “How are you doing?” Not in the beer commercial way – “Howyadoin?” and not really expecting a response, but genuinely asking about how things are.

How are we doing? I know that we can overanalyze things, but “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates said. It is good to stop and take a very close look at things every so often. Not too often, so that the over-examined life becomes no life at all, but often enough that we stay fully aware of the moment, fully grounded in reality. Envisioning the future is much easier to do when one has a realistic picture of the present.

Charge Conference is a congregation’s opportunity to ask, “How are we doing?” And it just so happened that this year’s Charge Conference corresponded with two other events that answered the question pretty effectively – a Volunteer Appreciation Gala and a Ministry Fair. The energy, the people, the excitement, the displays of discipleship – all were wonderful and all said, “We’re doing pretty good, actually!”

Some churches schedule Charge Conferences as if they are penalties to be paid for being a part of the United Methodist Connection. That’s too bad, really. They miss a beautiful opportunity to do something distinctly Methodist. To Conference together to pray, examine, and support one another in Christian love and encouragement is a wonderful practice. It happens at the levels of denomination, jurisdiction, annual, district, charge, class, and even personal.

Who do you conference with? Who looks you in the eye and asks you “how are you doing?” and really means it? And who do you have the privilege of asking the same?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Did

I feel odd. Nothing has changed and yet nothing will ever be the same.

I can’t think of any other word than ‘unbelievable.’ This is unbelievable.

I feel like I can tell my children they can be president if they want to and mean it this time more than ever.

I feel like the words, “the content of his character” mean something today that they never have before.

I can’t stop singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” in my mind. “The music of a people who will not be slaves again…”

My cousin in Spain says that international opinion about the United States has changed literally overnight.

I don’t ever remember being inspired by a losing candidate’s concession speech before last night – McCain was wonderful.

I actually heard the announcement from John Stewart on his live show just before 10:00 central time.

That’s right, I learned that our nation had made history from The Daily Show. Perfect!

Barack Obama said that his victory alone is not the change we seek, but only the chance to make that change. I happen to believe that his victory is a symptom of the change that is already happening.

This morning, everything has changed. I am just amazed by what we are witnesses to. We live in a country that actually had to amend its constitution to affirm that black people were worth more than three-fifths of a person, and now a man of mixed race is going to be the president.

Unbelievable. That’s all I’ve got – unbelievable.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Yes, I Saw Barack, Too!

Happy Election Day Eve, everybody!

First of all, I'd just like to say congratulations to "saggy" for posting all those comments on the last post from the PHONE! Amazing! Your thumbs must be buff!

Secondly, I was mistaken in the last post when I implied that the U.S. was fighting in the second World War at the time of Roosevelt's speech. World War II was being fought, but the U.S. did not officially join it until after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941. Roosevelt's speech was in January 1941.

Thirdly, Yes, I did go to see Barack Obama on Saturday night here in Springfield at a rally held at JFK Stadium, a High School football field. So now I have seen Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Barack Obama live - either the first woman ever elected to be Vice President or the first African-American ever elected President. I can say that I've been a part of history, and that's pretty cool, no matter whose little box you check tomorrow!

I arrived in the area and parked my car on a side street, then hiked a mile to the end of the unbelievably long line. There was a lot less political conversation in this line, I noticed. But that may have been just the people I was standing by. We walked by only a handful of protesters, but they were very nasty ones - a sign that said "Hitler drew big crowds, too" and one that said "Obama doesn't just want change, he wants all your money." We were called "morons" by one particularly angry guy. I am so grateful that the handful of really mean people there are most definitely not representative of McCain supporters in general.

The rally was an impressive sight - the estimates I read were 30,000 people. I stood at about the 20 yard line and the stage was set up in the opposite end zone. Because I'm tall, I had a clear view of Claire McCaskill, who introduced Michelle Obama, who introduced Barack Obama. Jay Nixon was also present, but he didn't speak.

After a little glitch with the sound system, McCaskill started her part by saying, "I'm confused. Somebody told me there weren't any Democrats in Southwest Missouri." Well, of course that got a huge reaction, and set the tone for the rest of the rally. There was a lot of cheering and it was generally an upbeat mood all around.

Obama gave a pretty standard stump speech, and there wasn't anything particularly new or different than normal, with one exception. He made a big deal about Dick Cheney saying he would "be delighted" to have McCain as president. Obama thanked Cheney for his endorsement, in fact, and said that it was proof that McCain would just do the same things that the current administration is doing.

But other than that, it was the standard Obama speech, using lines that he has been using for the past few days now on issues of economy, war, education, health care, energy, the environment. (Though he did get in a pretty good zinger when he said that "99.9% of all plumbers make less than $250,000 a year.") He seemed energetic and his voice was strong, though I can't imagine how exhausted he must be - how all of them must be actually! What a gruelling process this is. Is this really the best way to do this?

Two moments of the rally were most profound for me. The first was when he looked out at the crowd and said he wanted to take a quick poll. He guessed that there were about 40,000 people present and he asked everyone in the crowd making less that $250,000 a year to raise our hands. Well obviously, everyone raised their hands - at least everyone I could see. Then he said, "Those of you with your hands up, your taxes are not going to go up." And then he proceeded to give the info on his tax increase affecting only 5% of the country, and so forth. I'm sure you've heard those details before. (btw - Greene County had a median income of $41,162.)

The second moment was when he was contrasting one of his positions with McCain's position, and the crowd started booing. He kind of cut us off, saying, "You don't need to boo, just go vote." I had read about him saying that before, but to experience it made an impact on me. The crowd did not boo any more after that. By way of comparison and for what it's worth, Governor Palin did not stop the crowd at her rally from booing.

I have decided for whom I am going to vote tomorrow, and I hope that you have too. I hope that if you are planning to vote for a different person than I am, we can still be friends. I hope that if you are voting for the same person I am, we can still be friends, too! I hope that the United States will join together in support of whatever leaders are elected tomorrow, and work together to ensure that our national future is prosperous, safe, and free.

But I have got to say, along with the apostle Paul, that my biggest hope is that we who are Christian affirm the belief that "our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:20). That means that whatever tomorrow's election results are, our primary allegiance is to God. Whoever we elect tomorrow to lead us in earthly, temporal matters, our leader in all matters is Christ.

I'd like to close with a prayer that I'll be praying tomorrow.

God of all that is,
we thank you for this day of opportunity.
Every day is a day of opportunity,
because you give it to us.
Our nation is electing leaders today, and the process so far
has been gruelling
and tedious
and sometimes bitter
and even angry.
Forgive us, we pray.
Forgive us for relying on ourselves instead of you.
Forgive us for prioritizing earthly concerns ahead of you.
Forgive us the animosity we have at times felt
against our brothers and our sisters - your beloved children of this world.
Please send your spirit to be with those we elect
and those whom we do not elect,
to give guidance, to encourage,
to give peace, to comfort.
Whatever leaders we choose this day,
remind us again and again of your presence
over us, within us, around us, underneath us.
And through us, Holy God,
we pray that your love and grace
would be made known
throughout all of your wonderful creation.
In the name of Christ Jesus - Amen.