Saturday, January 31, 2009

Guatemala Criminal Complaints

Click here to read a blurb about Guatemala's government filing charges against people who committed large-scale crimes against the Guatemalan people in the past.

I have mentioned Guatemala in previous posts, but never written much about it. I went to Guatemala while in seminary, way back before I was blogging. Saint Paul School of Theology offers the trip as an Immersion Class, among others. There I was confronted in a powerful way with true injustice, on a scale that I have never known before. And also, more personally than I had even known before.

Sitting and listening to widows tell stories about discovering their husbands' decapitated bodies in the ditch near their home, injustice becomes more than an abstract idea. Putting one's fingers into the bullet holes in the church girder where every man of the village was rounded up and executed by gunmen supported by the government gives human suffering a texture that is hard to truly describe. Discoverning how the United States government and corporations were supporting the Guatemalan government as it carried out these atrocities over the decades impacts a person like a ton of Chiquita bananas being dropped on one's head.

So I read a little news blurb about the Guatemalan government filing charges for these atrocities with more than the typical interest. Or rather, the typical lack thereof. I don't know whether anything will happen with the prosecution of these crimes. Part of me despairs at the immensity of the task. Part of me is skeptical of the authenticity of the prosecution. Part of me, though, is cheering on behalf of the people we met in the Land of Eternal Spring.

And part of me thinks that Bishop Gerardi would be so happy to see this day come.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Topic on Many Minds

Here's more on the topic of new communication in old churches.
The problem that I see with ... a ton of churches, including my own) is that they don’t dive in. They try to dip their toes in the water and hope they catch a fish. A fisherman gets dirty, gets wet and smells. I love to fish ... but I know that when I fish, I don’t wear my best clothes and I don’t expect to cast once and catch a bass on the first throw. You have to have patience. You have to be committed. You have to think like a fish.

My prayer, heart’s desire and encouragement/challenge to you is to WRESTLE with Bill Seaver’s quote: “Simply using the new tools with the old mindset won’t bring about the marketing change you need and want.”

Experimenting with new communication gadgets and expecting great wonderful things to happen without really changing the fundamental way you think about communication is like slapping a screen on your sanctuary wall and expecting great wonderful things without really changing the way you think about worship. It's gimmickry, shallow, and not authentic.

If you sincerely want to learn a new language for the sake of conveying the Gospel, as with learning any new language, the best way is immersion. Dive in!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Confession, Dandruff, and Tweed Sport Coats?

What is the role of confession in your relationship with God? I found a quote this week that said, “Confession is good for the soul only in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff – it is a palliative rather than a remedy,” meaning that confession soothes and comforts, but does not fix or cure.

My experience with confession has been in basically two forms, silent and corporate. When I have prayed prayers of confession, it has either been just between me and God or in the context of a unison prayer in a worship gathering. I don’t remember ever truly confessing anything personal aloud in front of another person.

That’s not to diminish the power of confession in my own spiritual life, though. I have had moments alone with God in which my soul was bared completely and I emptied myself in God’s presence, truly confessing all that I was carrying. There have also been moments in which my heart has been broken by the words of a unison prayer as I experienced the power of speaking someone else’s words aloud together with my sisters and brothers in Christ.

But when it comes to talking about my own personal sin out loud in front of other people, my experience has been rather limited. I have no confessor. I feel like I might be missing something, but I don’t know for sure. The confessor can help give voice to the confession, can listen well and clarify and shape the confession, particularly if there is a deep enough level of trust present. Absent that trust, though, I suppose a confessor might just get in the way.

Of course, another aspect of confession involves confessing to the person who has been wronged. I remember when I was a kid and Mom caught me stealing a Matchbox car from the store. She made me go back in and confess to the manager, which absolutely killed me! But I never stole anything again, let me assure you of that!

When we confess to the person who has been wronged, we are not quite so sure if we will be forgiven as when we confess to God. In that sense, confessing to God is easier in a way; we are certain of God’s grace and forgiveness but are not certain at all of someone else’s. It is “safer” to confess to God than to another person.

But does that cheapen God’s grace, and thereby lessen somehow the act of confession itself? If I know God’s just going to forgive me anyway, I might as well confess, right? “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)

I guess the important thing is to remember that confession is only one part of repentance, which itself is only one part of salvation. As such, confession can be deeply liberating. Whether speaking the truth to God alone, corporately, or to another person, confession unbottles what’s going on inside you. It is a pressure relief valve, in a way. It doesn’t take the sin away, but it gets it out there so you are free to heal. It is one part in a process.

I love the line, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin,” in Charles Wesley’s hymn. Sin is cancelled (forgiven) by God’s justifying grace but still has power over us. Over the course of the way of salvation, sin’s power is broken by God’s sanctifying grace as we strive for perfection. Asking for forgiveness means first of all saying that there is something to forgive, in other words, confession.

So I guess I like the dandruff on a tweed sport coat image. You still are going to have to brush the dandruff off your shoulder, but you don't feel as bad as you would if you were wearing a black turtleneck. When you confess, you still have the sin, but you don't feel as bad as you would if you hadn't confessed it.

You know how sometimes when you have an argument with someone, the next time you are with them there’s a kind of tension in the room? The only way to break that tension so you can be in a good relationship with them again is often to address the previous argument, or “name the elephant in the room” as they say.

It’s like that with confession, too, I think. God knows you did it; you know you did it; and to break the awkward tension between you and God might necessitate saying out loud that which both of you already know.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Barack Gets It

This article in the New York Times is worth a read.
But the idea behind [the new organization] — that the traditional ways of communicating with and motivating voters are giving way to new channels built around social networking — is also very evident in the White House’s media strategy.
If we changed this article to be about the church insteand of government, it is exactly the same idea we were trying to get across at this year's Ministers' school. The thesis statement of Ministers' School (if Ministers' School had a thesis statement) could have been a rewritten version of the quote above: "The traditional ways of communicating with and motivating disciples of Jesus are giving way to new channels built around social networking."
The undertaking will require Mr. Obama’s aides to wedge technology that worked for them in the campaign into the infrastructure of the White House, with its relatively older technology and security restrictions.
This quote could be rewritten to say, "The undertaking will require those who want to change the church to wedge technology that works for them into the infrastructure of the institutional church, with its relatively older technology and ecclesial restrictions."

The larger point being, the kind of ground-shifting changes the inaugural address talked about are also happening in the church specifically. It's not just about new technology; it is about a new way to look at the world.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts on the Role of Criticism

For some reason, probably subliminal I’m sure, criticism has been on my mind lately. It is fascinating to witness how different people respond to honest criticism. I for one do not do well with it, I know! I am such a people-pleaser that I have to work really hard to receive criticism in a helpful way. It is one of the many areas in my life where I still need to grow a lot.

I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” early this morning, like I do every year on this day. This year I got caught in the very first paragraph by the words, “Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas.” Nothing like a big serving of irony to start you day off right, huh?

How ironic is it that Dr. King, an adamant critic of the status quo, starts out his letter responding to his own critics by affirming that he gets so much criticism of his work that he rarely even responds to it? But then of course, in this case he responds and proceeds to deliver a letter that contains perhaps some of the harshest criticism he ever conveys. The critic deflects criticism by writing yet another critique. Relentless … and brilliant!

In the stories of Scripture, prophets criticized kings on a regular basis. Jesus criticized “scribes and Pharisees” unequivocally. In Christian history, criticism of the church led to reforms and renewals. The tension created in the pushback against the religious status quo can generate creative energy by which new and powerful endeavors of the Spirit are launched.

John Wesley criticized the Anglican Church of his day, calling for a spiritual renewal that eventually launched the denomination in which I now am granted “all the rights and privileges” granted to an ordained elder. Another delicious bit of irony: the denomination of which I am now a part, the United Methodist Church, is a status quo whose creation was generated with a criticism of a status quo.

I wonder how the present status quo will respond to its critics. When powerful systems are criticized, they tend to flinch. Sometimes they build bunkers. Sometimes the empire strikes back. But sometimes there can be a healthy, faithful dialogue with the critics that leads to wonderful transformative revitalization. How will the UMC respond to our modern day John Wesleys (whoever they may be), who push us for radical change and renewal?

One last batch of questions about criticism – I wonder sometimes whether it is better to criticize a system from within or as an outsider. From within the system, it seems to me that a critic is always aware of systemic repercussions in response to criticism. An outsider is in many ways more free to speak. But an insider may have the advantage of fuller knowledge of the system, and firmer footing on which to stand when offering the critique. An outsider may critic a caricature of the system, or at best be working from limited or anecdotal knowledge.

So it seems to me that systems should create safe places in which critics within the system can speak honestly without fear of reprisal. In other words, every event that takes place cannot be simply “training us to work for the company store,” as one of my colleagues succinctly puts it. If a status quo system makes room for that criticism to happen, listens to that criticism openly, and then engages in truthful dialogue with its critics, wonderful things are bound to happen.

Maybe one of the “rights and privileges” granted thereunto the ordained in the UMC system is the privilege to offer criticism. I don’t know for sure, I have never seen the official list. And of course, these are just my own thoughts and questions – I’m always open to criticism … (well, a little bit, anyway!).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ministers' School - Wrap up

Ministers' School is over for 2009, and the sky did not fall!

I'm really satisfied with how it went overall. I learned a lot. I had fun. It was flippin' scary. And it is over.

I regret that more people were not able to make the connection that I was trying to establish. I wonder if it was too vague and needed to be more explicitly stated.

For many, there seemed to be two topics that did not coincide, new communication technology and the emergent church. What didn't happen for some people was the realization of how each of these two topics are really two facets of the same jewel.

Social networking, community building, fostering relationships - all of this happens in many different ways on the internet now. And the ways it happens on the internet are a perfect microcosm of how it happens in the emergent church. People think differently about relationship than they used to. People consider different realities to be community than they used to. Words like "friend" and "accept" and "group" and "home" and even "talk to" and "go to" mean such different things now.

You can "accept" someone as your "friend" whom you have never even met face to face. You can "talk to" all the members of your "group" at once via one 140 character message. You can "go to" the "home" of a "group" to which you belong without even leaving your house. All of this translates into the ways that the emergent church is challenging the mainline to think about organization, communication, and community.

In just a small piece of the whole, for example, Tony Jones talked about how the emergent church is about relationships built not around common doctrine, but on the relationships themeselves. The point of the relationships is just to be in relationship. There is no heirarchy, but a network of relationships comprised of hubs with relatively more or less importance. That's how people think (some people anyway) and that's how people communicate (again, some people anyway).

I was hoping that people at Ministers' School would understand the whole event as an exploration of new ways to share the Gospel, that is, to be in relationship with one another. I was hoping that it would provide both some technical insight into how to communicate differently, as well as some theological dialogue about how to be church differently. The point is not to start up a facebook group, the point is to think differently about how people are in relationship with one another. Unfortunately, that connection did not happen for many.

It worked for me, though. I thought it was beautiful, the whole thing! Debra Mason gave a lot of technical information, setting up a new blog before our very eyes! Tony Jones sent his dispatches from the emergent frontier, and many in the room were nodding in resonance with them. Billy Reeder bridged the technical and the ecclesial with a glimpse at how communication is changing and what a profound difference it makes in human relationships.

Many people there will talk about the conversation between Tony Jones and Bishop Schnase that ended the event. It was frank and honest, and even tense at times. Two men who have a passion for the Gospel and yet see things very differently from one another engaged in more than an hour of back-and-forth about those differences. Watching it riled some people up, it made some people mad, and definitely sent us all home thinking. I for one am still processing many of the things that came out of the whole week, and that conversation in particular.

One of the most poignant moments for me was when Bishop Schnase talked about the opportunity that being sent to a place of ministry had given him. As opposed to simply choosing where and with whom to serve, being sent via an itinerant system compelled him to places of discomfort and challenge, through which God worked great things. I feel exactly the same way. There is something holy about yielding myself to being sent into ministry in a place I might not necessarily choose for myself. I am an itinerant preacher to the core.

So the week wasn't perfect, but I liked it. If I hadn't been so stressed out about everything, I probably would have enjoyed it more. Some people thought it was a waste of their time, and said so on their evaluation. Some people said it was a great experience, and the best Ministers' School they had experienced. And that's going to happen with any event that happens.

Finally, I want to say that I really value my friends who have sent me words of support, even though (I suspect) they did not particularly enjoy the week. That is pretty cool, and makes me get all emotional when I think about it. Because I worked hard on this, and they let me know they appreciate that. That's a true friend, you know? Facebook or otherwise.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ministers' School - Day 2 Begins

The first half-day is done, and I'm pretty happy.

I spent yesterday kind of hovering, waiting for problems to arise. As a result, I wasn't really fully here until the middle of the afternoon. But I was definitely here for Tony Jones' presentation, and he pretty much nailed it.

An hour and a half of Tony talking about the current cultural ethos is pretty cool. My only wish is that he wouldn't confine his dispatches to this nebulous group of people he calls the "emergent people." Sounds like a bad sci-fi movie. I think the dispatches he articulated last night are far more common. When he talks about emergent people as if they are different from other people somehow it makes what he has to say seem less meaningful.

Truth is, his dispatches make sense to a LOT of people, many of whom are sitting in the pews of traditional mainline places - many of whom are in ministry leadership roles in traditional mainlines places.

His dispatches were: Comfort with paradox, suspicion of "tabernacles," ambivalence toward denomination, a mosaic of world Christianity, theological acumen, organizing our church based on our theology, starting churches to save the faith, seeing no ontological difference among people (even ordained people), rejection of left/right politics, and positive witness in the community.

Makes sense to me, and I know it makes sense to a lot of people. But I'm afraid that some will be very quick to say, "OK, that's fine for those 'emergent people' but it won't play in my congregation." For whatever reason. To say this would really be a shame, of course, because they would have missed the point altogether.

Tony used the stories of St. Francis and Martin Luther to describe how the institutional church can either embrace or reject change. He said that both men stood up in front of the church in their day and said, "You are missing the point!" The church made Francis a saint, but excommunicated Luther. It felt like he was using this metaphor to implore (his word) the mainline church not to reject the people who are changing things, the current day reformers.

So all of this is making me thing about reformation and innovation again. Just to get this thought out there, and maybe comment on it later when there is more time - whether it is reformation or innovation, navel-gazing change is not the point. And even more insidious is when navel-gazing change is disguised as transformational change. Bluntly put, trying to get people to notice how cool you are is not a good model for being church.

But like I said, I'll need to think more about that and write more about that later - I've gotta go to morning worship now for Day 2 of Ministers' School.

btw - I'm Twittering now, whatever that means.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Twas the Night Before Ministers' School

I'm at Tan Tar A Resort in Osage Beach, Missouri on Monday night, waiting for Minsters' School to begin tomorrow. I'm nervous about faculty arriving safely and on time. Other than that, I'm not really worried about anything. I think this is going to be a great couple of days.

First thing tomorrow is getting the registration going, and our registrar and assistant registrar are really great and have everything under control. The we have opening worship at 1:00 and the worship team has been here tonight checking sound and set up and everything, so that should go well. Then I give some welcoming remarks as the dean of the school. Then we have a faculty presentation, then supper, then an evening faculty presentation.

That's day 1!

Several board members ate supper together tonight, and we had a really good conversation about future schools and trying to work together with the conference and what topics to cover. But mostly the conversation was about what the overall ethos of the Ministers' School should be.

As for me, I really want it to be a place to slow down and engage in thoughtful conversation with each other that doesn't necessarily involve hearing someone list off the "top ten" ways to do something. I want it to be meaty, edgy. I want Ministers' School to go deep. I want it to be challenging. I think most of the people on the board want that too. I do not want it to be a technical workshop. I want it to be a theological event.

I don't necessarily want to leave Ministers' School with answers. I want a chance to really wrestle with the questions. Am I weird? I mean, if I'm the only one who want an experience like that, I hope someone tells me. There are dozens of technical workshops all over the state, the region, and the country for that matter - all year long. I hope that Ministers' School offers something different. That's the ethos I want.

Well, we will see what 2009's School ends up being. The way we have it pictured, it is going to be a lot of social/theological/cultural reflection with maybe a few practical ideas thrown in here and there. We'll see if that becomes reality, and we'll see how people like it. It's going to be a fun couple of days, to be sure.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Communicating the Gospel - Ministers' School Next Week!

I've been thinking about Missouri Ministers' School this week, because it is coming up next week and I am the Dean of the school this year. Here's what I've been thinking:

It's all communication, isn't it?

When it comes to church, we don't have a product or service to sell to consumers. We're in communications. We have a message, and are supposed to deliver it.

The message is none other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God can communicate however God chooses to, and one of those ways is to entrust the message to the church. I'm not one to say that the church is the only way that communication happens, though I know there are those who believe so. Rather, I would say maybe that the church is the most significant way. Certainly it can be said that within the church lies the potential for being the most powerful way that message is communicated.

All of which compels the question, "Is the church communicating the Gospel as effectively as we possibly can to those who need to hear it most?"

And along with that, knowing that there are a myriad of means of communication available in the world today, we have to ask the question, "How are individual congregations collaborating with one another to ensure that the communication of the Gospel is a true multi-media event?"

Face it, no single congregation is going to be able to effectively utilize more than a few media. Unless you are a big church with big resources, you probably specialize in two or three. Like maybe Church A has a great choir and a really wonderful mission program. And Church B down the road has a wonderful Sunday morning hospitality program and a killer band. Why should Church A fret about not having a great band, when they should be able to cooperate with Church B in conveying the Gospel through that particular medium? Why should Church B start from scratch in developing a mission program, when Church A could help them out with that one?

Now, I'm not saying that individual congregations should adopt and attitude of "Oh, well" about the things they don't do particularly well. Far from it - I am a pastor serving with Bish Schnay-Z, after all, and I'm all about the 5 Practices being in balance. What I am trying to say is that churches, and especially churches within a connectional system, should understand the ministry of the whole as being a cooperative endeavor, not rugged individualism.

We have a message to share - and the "we" in that sentence is all of us who say we are followers of Christ Jesus, not just me or my congregation or my denomination. The whole body of Christ participates together in conveying the Gospel, which makes it possible to convey in a myriad of ways. The old axiom is true: We can do more together than we could ever do alone.

Whatever the medium - personal visit, worship experience, faith formation event, mission trip, service opportunity, newsletter, newspaper, bulletin, poster, pamphlet, sign, snail mail, website, email, blog, newsfeed, text message, internet social networking group, (and who knows what else) - the Gospel message just begs to be delivered. However, these various media will obviously impact the message itself. No one would ever claim that a text message could mean the same as a personal visit, for example.

Considering how the media we use may impact the message we have to share is going to be a part of next week's Missouri Ministers' School, of which I am the Dean this year. Sometimes I think that we either embrace or avoid new communications technology without taking due time to consider it's impact on the message. I hope next week will give us a little bit of that time.

The church should neither embrace nor avoid a means of communication, just because it is new. We are entrusted with the Gospel, and we ought to do all that we can (all of us together) to share that message with all God's children.

It is all about communication, after all.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Foster Fun: or, Eight is Enough!

If you have read Enter the Rainbow for any length of time, you know that we are a foster family. Here and here and here and here and here are some of the posts I've written about foster care, if you want to read a bit about our experiences.

Well, we have a BIG week this week, to say the least. Two weeks ago, we made arrangements to have two brothers living with us for one week in a "respite care" placement. Then last week, we got a call for a "traditional" placement for two more brothers. Having already said yes to the respite placement, we did not feel like we could back out on it.

And so, that means the Bryan household contains eight people this week - the four Bryans and FOUR foster kids, ages 9 and 5 and 5 and 2. Wahoo!

I'm happy to report that dinner and bedtime went well last night - six kids ate, bathed, brushed teeth, got something like pajamas on their bodies, and had a place to sleep. Wesley, our son, was extra gracious is volunteering his bunk bed for our one-week guests, in favor of an inflatable bed on Cori's bedroom floor; believe me, we have been singing his praises (and Cori's) all weekend for that. And everyone slept all night long, which was nice.

And this morning somehow we got five kids up, breakfasted, dressed, and successfully delivered to four different schools IN TIME, the 2 year old staying home with Erin. Yes, you read that correctly - 5 kids to 4 schools on time!

We'll see how the rest of this week goes. Whatever else it brings, I'm pretty sure this week is going to reaffirm our comittment to taking just two foster kids at a time! It's chaos, but it is beautiful chaos - and it is, most importantly, temporary chaos.

Thanks for your prayers!