Thursday, April 30, 2009

Papa Larry

It’s funny how life can realign one’s priorities, isn’t it? I haven’t written anything for my blog in over a week, which feels like an eternity. Somehow it just hasn’t been a top priority for me just lately.

See, my stepfather-in-law died last Saturday night. Just like that. Saturday during the day he was happily visiting with his family at a get-together celebrating his granddaughter’s first communion. Saturday night he was rushed to the ER. Sunday evening he was gone. Bam.

And so it goes.

“Stepfather-in-law” sounds pretty distant. But that is definitely not the case. Larry was a profoundly important part of my life and my family’s lives. He was a great guy and we were very close.

I want you to know Larry, at least a little bit. When I think about Larry, I wonder ...

How many books did he read to our kids?
How many pens did he carry around in his shirt pocket?
How many puzzles did he work - crossword, sudoku, word problems, pencil puzzles, etc?
How many horrible puns did he crack?
How many baseball games did he watch?
How many old rock and roll songs did he know?
How many "Oh bloody hells" did he mutter under his breath?
How many pictures are there of him with his hand up in front of his face?How many walks through how many different neighborhoods did he take?
How many quick trips out to the store to pick up this or that?

Larry was so good. He loved our kids unconditionally, and took such joy in playing with them, reading to them, teasing them. Our foster kids were accepted and loved without question as his own grandkids. He would do anything for anyone. We are going to miss him so much.

His grandkids called him “Papa Larry.” Cori says that she will remember the walks, just walking nowhere and talking about nothing. Wes says that he will remember the jokes, which Wes thought were funny, and that made two people (counting Larry).

I cannot adequately convey what a unique personality Larry had. He redefined the word eccentric. He was a wonderful person, with the rare combination of such deep compassion and an unbelievably bizarre sense of humor. I loved being with him, talking with him, exchanging jokes with him, talking baseball trivia or rock and roll history with him. I loved how he said some words with a bit of a British accent, but not all words. When he laughed sometimes it was completely silent but hid shoulders would shake up and down exaggeratedly.

What a tragedy. He was 57 years old and his heart was so badly damaged by the attack that the only glimmer of hope was a transplant, but there just was no way they could have gotten him stable enough to do it.

Just like that. Bam. Here – Gone.

So with all the stuff I could be blogging about – H1N1, the amendments to the United Methodist constitution, the economy, upcoming sermon topics, other churchy things, the first place Kansas City Royals, and so forth – I just can’t seem to muster the energy to focus on them long enough to come up with anything significant to say about them. They’re just not that important at the moment.

We miss you, Papa Larry.

Oh bloody hell…

Monday, April 20, 2009


Rarely have I been so grateful for the presence in my life of my wife Erin than in this past week. She has sung counterpoint to my anger and frustration, working untiringly to lighten the collective mood of our household during a pretty rough time for our extended family. I am so lucky that she is in my life. I love you so much, E.

Rarely have I been more cognizant of my love for the church than this past week. My work has been a firm foundation for me when some other stuff has felt pretty shaky. I am surrounded by incredible people who love God with such dedication and give of themselves so selflessly, it lifts me up just to witness them, to be in ministry among them, to work together on Christ's behalf with them.

When something happens in your life that challenges the fundamental assumptions of what you thought to be true, you become immediately aware of your sources of strength. Like jumping into a lake and trying to find a foothold without being able to see the bottom, you try to step on a rock that won't shift with your weight, or that is too slippery and you slide off, or that may be sharp and cut you.

What has happened has made me angry, more angry than I have ever felt before. The anger has seeped into just about every part of my life, affecting my words and thoughts and actions. I find myself unable to think rationally about "the situation," let alone offer any grace or understanding. The truth is, I don't feel gracious and I don't understand. I'm just angry.

"Clarity emerges over time," said one of my wisest friends. I know that well. Water that has been muddied will clear as the sediment settles again. And in the meantime, all you can do is try to stand on firm footing, waiting for the current to move.

And I have found my firm footing, the metaphorical rocks that I can trust not to shift or slip or cut me. And I thank God.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Cure Is Worse than the Disease, Perhaps?

If there is a problem, and you come up with a plan to solve the problem, and then you learn that your plan is actually making the problem worse, you stop. To keep up the same approach in spite of evidence that it was making things worse would not be a viable option.

So then, say the problem is declining numbers in your denomination, and the plan you come up with to solve the problem is to focus exclusively on bringing new people in, but then you realize that this plan is actually turning people off and they are leaving, thereby making the original problem even worse, then what?

Dan Dick thinks that’s what is happening in the United Methodist Church, and he has written a blog post about it. He writes, “A steadily growing segment of the dear-departed is not the less active fringe, but the faithful core. Long time, deeply committed congregational leaders are packing it in and staying home.” It is becoming a trend, he continues, “for disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disheartened lifelong members to not [just] shift [denominational] allegiances, but to leave the institutional church altogether.”

In his post, he lists five responses he has come across in his research. They represent categories of responses of “a variety of deeply committed Christians who have left ‘organized religion.’” These are my summaries of his summaries:

1) Getting new people has become more important that encouraging spiritual maturation.
2) Head counts have replaced faithful lives as the measure of success.
3) There is more concern for bringing people into the building than sending people into the world.
4) Congregational resources are more frequently used for selfish, rather than selfless reasons.
5) There is an insider vs. outsider mentality in churches that precludes truly loving one another.

Rev. Dick then outlines three potential options for how the church might react: to defensively dismiss these responses, to ignore them altogether, or to take them seriously and hold them up next to the values the church professes to hold dear, and then reforming where we should.

I have written before about my opinion that trying to grow for the sake of growth actually defeats the purpose, and I am happy to read Rev. Dick’s perspective on this issue. Though in a comment exchange on his wordpress site, it appears as though his perspective is not valued by the General Board of Discipleship. At least not enough to keep him on staff there. I wonder what it means that I resonate so well with the ideas of a person the GBOD fired? Well, Beth Quick likes him too, so at least I'm in good company.

I love the church and I love serving in the church. I lament the decline in church participation as much as anyone, I suppose. But I reject the idea that the church should attempt to counter this trend by trying to be more attractive to "new people." I do not believe that the church needs to "pander to the lowest common denominator," as Dan Dick puts it.

When the church is being the church as best it can, that kind of koinonia is inherently attractive. When a local congregation is relevant to the immediate neighborhood context, aware of and active for the cause of justice in the global millieu, continually inviting an ever-deepening relationship with God through Christ, and equipping people to serve one another in love, that congregation is going to grow. Not because its trying to grow, but because growth is the natural consequence of being a healthy church - like apples are the natural consequence of a healthy apple tree.

(Hat tip to Clayton for sharing the post with me originally.)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

I Am ... Human / Christian / Methodist / etc.

I am a baseball fan. I am a Kansas City Royals fan.

(After you are done snickering, please proceed.)

It is a metaphor, and therefore limited. This I know. However, it is possible for me to be both a baseball fan in general and a Kansas City Royals fan in particular. It is not the case that I am a baseball fan in general and I live that out by rooting for the Kansas City Royals.

And beyond that, I am a sports fan. I enjoy watching pretty much any sport, and participating in many. But again, it is not the case that I am a sports fan and I live that out as a baseball fan with my specific activity directed toward cheering for the Royals.

Okay, it is the season for baseball analogies to once more make appearances in sermons and articles all over the land. So I'm sorry for that. But this analogy is helpful for me in thinking about a couple of responses to my last post. Spencer Smith and Guy Williams each wrote complimentary ideas, in essence: My identity is in Christ and I live that out in the United Methodist denomination.

Guy wrote, "...that use of language must be reserved for the Church Universal and not for any particular expression of it." Scott wrote, "I see my identity in Christ, usually understood Wesleyan, but by no means UMC."

I understand their point. However, I do not see the question of identity as being mutually exclusive in that way. At the most basic level, I am a human being. To be semantically accurate to the fullest, we probably should limit our own personal "I AM" statements to that alone. Our "child of God"-ness is one of the few aspects of our identity that is not nurtured in life somehow or that we choose for ourselves.

And then when I say, "I am a Christian," I am not negating the previous statement in the slightest. But I am acknowledging that I am a Christian because I have chosen to be. I made that choice because of a number of factors: my family's influence, my personal experiences of Christ's grace, my desire to make the world a better place, and on and on and on.

However, when I say, "I am a Methodist," I am expressing (as truly as I know how) the way I feel about how I have chosen to live my faith. And I am negating neither of the previous affirmations in doing so. And I say I am a Methodist because of resonance. Sally's comment on the last post is beautiful. She describes a class of seminarians who realize together why they are Methodist. It resonates.

If you press and hold down the C above middle C on the piano such that it does not make a sound, then keep holding down and strike the C below middle C so that it does make a sound, the C above middle C vibrates, too, producing its own pitch. That is resonance. It is a sympathetic vibration, an otherwise passive entity responding to an external stimulus.

So, like the old Sunday School song says, "I am a C!" (Insert rim shot). I resonate Methodist. I am a Christian. And I am a human being. All three, all the time.

Flip it : All of us are human beings. A lot of us are Christian. And some of us are Methodist. Each of these statements is true without negating any of the others, also.

Although I have not written a direct response to the quesiton, "Why am I Methodist?" I wrote a post describing a "distinctly Methodist" congregation that pretty much sums up my answer, albeit from a different angle. Click here if you'd like to give it a read.

I hope the conversation about Methodist identity is one we continue for a while. I believe this conversation is critical to the health of our congregations, our denomination, and the church universal. All of which are simply means to center us on what is truly important: our reconciled relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the midst of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Why "Why I Stay" ? - A Metho-blogo-trendo?

The first page of a Google search for "why i stay methodist" turns up these hits:

Jenny Smith (picked up by UM Portal)
Guy Williams
Matt Kelley
Andy Bartel
Paul Gravely
Ashle Alley
Paul G.
Jayson Dobney
Kevin O'Neill (a Beliefnet thread)
The Thief

These are each really good posts. There may be more on this theme. If you know of any off the top of your head, let me know in the comments.

The question on my mind has been, why are there so many blog posts on the subject of staying in the United Methodist Church? Of course, given that there are a whole heck of a lot of blogs in the world, I know that this represents a pretty small sampling. But the topic seems to have been on people's minds lately, to say the least.

The question has been around for a while, too. I remember my dad talking about the question years and years ago. (He's old.) Old school social justice people have answered the "why I stay" question among themselves with some variation of "because I want to change the system from within" for a couple of decades now.

To answer a question about why you stay in a group means that there is a reason one might leave. There may be anecdotal evidence, perhaps even statistical evidence that people ARE leaving. You may have good friends who have left, or know people who have made the decision to leave for one reason or another.

I do.
+ I know people who have left because of the way the denomination treats people who are homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered.
+I know people who have left because of the way the denominational ordination process had ground them up and left them behind.
+I know people who have left because a pastor has abused his or her power in a way that is demeaning, abusive, or disrespectful.
+I know people who have left because they believe the itenerancy to be outdated and unfair.
+I know people who have left because the church down the street has a cooler band (etc.).

And so it goes.

However, the anecdotes of people leaving and the statistics that show denominational decline are describing two different phenomena. The denomination is in numerical decline not primarily because people are leaving, but rather because people aren't coming in. It is, as Bishop Schnase says a lot, not a back door problem, but a front door problem.

Granted, there is a "given that..." inferred in a "why I stay" response. Given that the denomination is in decline .... or ... Given that the denomination does not marry people who are gay ... or ... Given that the ordination process is so long ... or ... Given that there aren't any young people in the church ... why do you stay? Or something.

But I do not think there is a correlation between the denomination-wide decline in membership and the individual stories of people leaving. The denomination is in decline because people in it are dying much more quickly that people are joining. (Not to put too fine a point on it.) Children of members are not joining the churches their parents belong to, but are looking for their own places to be. People with no church relationship are finding life meaning in other places. And they don't care if the place is Methodist or not.

And so here's what I'm thinking - the "Why I Stay" trend in the Methoblogosphere is another symptom of the panic that is setting in across the denomination. It is the same panic causing the whole "young clergy will save the day" attitude. It is the same panic causing us to define effective churches merely as those whose numbers are trending dramatically upward.

We seem to feel this urge to defend our decision to stay when in fact the question hasn't really come up. Except for other United Methodists, no one really cares why people stay. I'm not saying this to disrespect my fellow bloggers, because I myself have written and talked about it from my own perspective. So I include myself when I say that talking about "why I stay" is just a sophisticated form of navel gazing.

Instead, our response should be to claim the distinctive identity of the Methodist movement. I think this is what the "why I stay" posts are trying to do, but are coming at it from the flipside. I think we're all trying to describe the feeling of resonance that we sense when we read John Wesley or attend a connectional event or receive communion around an open table. But we somehow struggle to talk about it without seeming a bit defensive.

It's shouldn't be "why I stay," but rather "why I am." (Or maybe "why we are.")

I'd like for us to write articles and have conversations and design events that help us think about "Why I am a Methodist." (I know that Bishop Willimon has a book with that title, almost 20 years old, and I'd like to see us reclaim that kind of language.) I'd much rather think about church as a description of who we are rather than of what we do.

See, "staying in the church" doesn't make sense when church is more about identity than activity. The church is not a club we join, then decide to quit, or stay in, as if having our name on a list of members is all that "being the church" is comprised of. The church is who we are, and the denomination is a particular manifestation of that identity. Our congregation, then, is a local expression of that identity.

And as I've written before, if we as the church are faithful to being the church, if the church is the herald of the gospel it is called to be, if the church is the body of Christ, if the church is the realization of the reign of God in the world, then we'll have no need to write any more "why I stay" posts.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Two Books Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I am currently reading “The Shack” and “Valis” at the same time. As a result, my mind is kind of splitting in two.

I’m not very far along in The Shack yet, but I’ve heard enough about it that I kind of see where it’s going. And I’m about halfway through Valis. So both books are incomplete, though it is interesting to anticipate how each is presenting the theme of God communicating with people, albeit in dramatically different ways.

In The Shack, God initiates an encounter by putting a note in a guy’s mailbox. In Valis, God initiates an encounter by sending a beam of pink light that is comprised of pure information directly into a guy’s mind. The Shack refers to God as “Papa;” Valis names God “Zebra.” The crisis in The Shack is the murder of a daughter; the crises in Valis involve drugs and cancer and mental illness, to name a few. So they are actually pretty good books to read together.

But the reason my mind is splitting in two has to do with the level of mental energy each book absorbs. So, if for some reason I am not fully engaged with Valis, and a sentence slips by without me, I’m lost. There is naught to do but go back and re-read it, because the writing is so thick and every word important. It is the kind of book that I have to set down every now and then in order to process the paragraph I have just read.

On the other hand, The Shack is very easy to read, since it is pulled along by the plot (at least so far). I mean, sometimes I may even doze off for a page and when I wake up I find that I’m able to just continue on, filling in the gaps as I go. I’m waiting for the juicy, “controversial” stuff to happen, which might be a bit more engaging, but so far I’m not seeing what all the buzz is about. It is a good mystery novel up to this point, to be sure, so we’ll see what happens with it.

Both of the books are great; I enjoy both ways to read. The complex, heady stuff in Valis charges me up in a very powerful way. And the catchy, surface level storyline of The Shack is fun to read, and makes me want to see what’s next. So I decide which book to take up and read based on what mood I’m in!

If I’m kind of tired and want a good story to occupy my mind, I read The Shack. If I’m clicking on all cylinders and want some intellectual stimulation, I pick up Valis.

Anyway, this post is pretty narcissistic, isn’t it? Let’s see, how to redeem it?

Oh, I know…

So how many books do you have going at the moment? Do you like to read just to occupy your mind, or do you like to read to stimulate your thinking? Or both?

What’s the best “just occupy your mind” book you’ve read? What’s the best “stimulate your thinking” book you’ve read?

There, now this post isn’t all about me!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009