Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year Resolutions

In 2011, I have a few things that I am going to resolve to do.

1) When it comes to the health of my mind/body/spirit, I am going to adhere to the advice my 93 year old grandmother gave me this week. “Always remember to pray. Work hard. And take good care of your kids.” She told me this as we visited her in the nursing home, Erin and I sitting on her bed and Nanny in her chair, facing us. There were tears in her eyes (and ours), and we held each other’s hands as her simple, profound wisdom was spoken.

That advice kind of epitomizes the way Nanny lives her life, too. And her approach to living has served her well for nine decades, so I suppose we might do well to adopt it. “After all I’ve been through,” she told us, “I don’t really know how I’m still here.” And she paused. “I guess it would be better to say I don’t really know why. Why me?” And she paused again, and kind of looked off into space for a few seconds. “But,” she shrugged and smiled, “here I am, anyway.”

2) When it comes to church, I am going to enjoy the experiencables, recount the describables, and avoid obsessing over the measurables.

- There are measurables, like how many people attend worship every week or how many participate in a faith development class or how many go on a mission trip or how many professions of faith are made, and so forth.
- There are describables, like the layout of a building or the flow of a worship service or the goal of a mission project or a Bible study lesson plan, and so forth.
- And there are experiencables, aspects of a congregation that you cannot hope to measure or adequately describe, but must be felt first hand.

All are important, but they are not equivalent, and furthermore I have consistently placed a higher value on the measurables than the other two. That ends in 2011. I do not think it is even worth trying to rank them in any way; each has a distinct and inherent value. And so I resolve to simply enjoy the moments that can only be experienced to be appreciated, talk and write extensively about those moments that can and should be described, and allow the things that can be measured to be just one among several ways to describe the health of the congregation.

3) In my personal life, getting specific, I am going to
a) Take a hike in the woods once a week.
b) Audition for (at least) two shows at Springfield Little Theater.
c) Sit down at the piano to compose for (at least) three hours a week.
d) Read good books instead of watching junky television shows.

These three resolutions seem to me to be a pretty good start for the new calendar year. Flipping the calendar is kind of arbitrary, just another number on just another page of just another calendar. And so many “New Year Resolutions” tend toward the selfish end of things, intended to impact no further than our own selves.

But this date does offer a chance to reflect and renew, and resolve to become better people, and that’s not a bad thing. I hope that our resolutions this year will be more than just a financial boon for fitness clubs, programs to help you quit smoking, and the latest greatest weight loss diet plan. I hope that they will really be geared toward living better lives in community with one another, and becoming the people God wants us to become.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I Have a Superpower!

I would like to take a moment to apologize to everyone.

Isn’t it strange how we say “I would like to take a moment to…” do something as the lead-in to doing it, instead of just doing it? I mean, why not just go ahead and do it, then?

Okay. Everyone, I am so, so sorry.

Let me clarify that a little bit. I don’t mean everyone that I personally have offended or angered or injured; that list would be extensive in and of itself. No, I mean everyone. Every single person in the world. I am sorry, everyone.

Everyone who is angry or bitter or frustrated, I want you to know how sorry I am. Whatever it was that caused you to be so, I’m sure felt really rotten at the time, but ask yourself, is it really worth it? Look, I don’t know if it will do any good, but for what it’s worth, I am sorry. On behalf of whoever it was that ticked you off, allow me to apologize.

I have encountered a number of people lately seem to be just a nudge away from an outburst. Like just a little inconvenience or tiny insignificance gets elevated and escalated way out of proportion and elicits a stringent rant or some hurtful words or a generally grumpy demeanor. And after than, good things rarely happen; in fact it usually gets worse from there.

So I have decided to take all of the blame for everything. All of that negative energy you currently have directed at the government or your boss or your colleagues or your pastor or someone in your family or whoever it might be, send it my way. I apologize for everything rotten that is happening to you. Really. I’m sorry.

See, I’ve got this mysterious, mind-boggling superpower. It gives me the ability to take all that is bad and absorb it into pure goodness. It empowers me to take a hit from someone's frustration and flip it over so that it comes back as contenment. It allows me to do battle against bitterness and emerge into abiding joy. It equips me to engage rampant self-righteous indignation and transmogrify it into sweet shalom.

The superpower is called Advent. Who would dare deny the awesome power of Advent? Advent allows me, an otherwise normal, unassuming, we might even say mild-mannered person, to accomplish supernatural feats of hope and peace and joy and love. No, I cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I can smile at a stranger while I help her lug her stroller off the elevator as she struggles with her baby and the bags in her arms. And stuff like that.

And here’s the great news: this superpower is available to everyone! That’s right, you heard me. Every single person in the world can be a superhero with the power of Advent at your disposal. There are a number of ways to gain access to this power – going to worship at your church during this season, attending a kids’ Christmas program, telling the Christmas story to a group of preschoolers, volunteering at a local food pantry, giving generously to help someone in need, sitting silently in a room illuminated only by your Christmas tree lights … there are a whole bunch of ways to acquire the power of Advent.

And so, family, friends, colleagues, Christian brothers and sisters, random people reading this post for some reason, I say to you all: access the superpower of Advent! It truly is an amazing thing to behold. And if we do, before we know it, it might just change the world.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Signifying Something

This week my newsletter article said:

A large percentage of our lives are directed by signs. Street signs tell us where we are, traffic signs tell us how to act toward other drivers, and businesses use signs to lure us toward purchasing their products. Gigantic billboards alert us to nearby attractions we might want to check out and once we arrive, the “Open” sign on the door will tell us if the place is available to us or not.
A sign is a signal for something else, and as such a sign is always referring away from itself. The point of any sign is not the sign, but rather the point is to indicate the presence of another. When a baseball catcher gives the sign, the play is not over but rather has just begun; the sign is given to indicate the type of pitch that will follow.
Isaiah 7 indicates that the Lord will give a sign: a young woman who is with child, a son who will be named Immanuel. Looking back at this prophecy through what we know of history, it is simple to associate this image with the birth of Jesus. In fact, Matthew quotes this prophecy in his birth narrative.
God’s presence is “Giving the Sign” this week. And it is a much holier, much more meaningful sign than any of the myriad of signs that direct us through our days. And it is much, much more important to be guided by THIS sign, God’s sign, the young woman about to have a baby, than by any other sign we might run across.
It’s all about the presence – Giving the Sign.

...and my further speculation is:

Yes, it IS easy to recognize that the sign Isaiah mentions is a sign of the incarnation. When we already know the next chapter of the story, it is easy to see how the current chapter of the story leads in that direction.

But what if we didn't know it? What does the sign mean for people who don't already know the next chapter, or is it only valuable for people who already believe in Jesus? Or to think about it a bit differently, what was the sign for people who lived before the birth of Jesus?

This is a specific prophecy about a specific historical situation. The story is paralelled in 2 Kings 16, and has to do with the reign of Ahaz in Judah. Ahaz was not a good king, and when he perceived a threat from two rival nations, he sought an alliance with Assyria. Now, what he probably shoulda done was trust in the Lord, and Isaiah's job was to tell him that.

"Ask for a sign," said the Lord to Ahaz. "I'll show you whom to trust."

"I'd rather not," responded Ahaz, trying to sound pious. "I don't want to put you to the test." But what he was probably thinking was, "O crud! If I ask for a sign, then God will show me one, since that's just the kind of thing God would do. Then, I'd be pretty much screwed."

"You are a moron," said Isaiah. "So God's going to give you a sign anyway. And this is it:

"A young woman is going to have a baby with a deeply symbolic name: God-is-with-us. And before that baby is old enough to know right and wrong (that is to say, pretty soon) the delicacy of curds and honey will be available to him, because the foreign armies in the land will no longer be a threat.

"Oh and by the way, you want Assyria? God will give you Assyria, all right! Only its not going to be an alliance you get; it will be a conquering army that will turn your beautiful fields into thorn bushes, and only a small remnant will remain alive."

The sign of the young woman about to have a baby, then, meant something to the people in that time, and should not be voided of that meaning completely. Clearly it is a Messianic prediction, but the fact that the sign points to the birth of Jesus does not mean it cannot point to other things, too.

- A reminder of God's presence even in times of trouble.
- The assurance that trouble is fleeting, but God's presence lasts beyond it.
- An admonition to trust in God, and God alone, for help in times of trouble.

I do wonder how often God sends us signs that we fail to see. But now I wonder how often God sends us a sign that we do in fact recognize, but we misinterpret because we think we already know what it means. And maybe the sign really does mean that, but does that fact necessarily mean the sign might not signify something else, as well?

My prayer this season is to remain open to all of the possibilities contained in each and every sign that God is sending, and to avoid limiting what God is trying to say by trying to squeeze it through my own narrow perspective.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

What is the opposite of Joy?

What is the opposite of joy?

Misery? Sorrow? Grief?

Leslie Weatherhead said, “The opposite of joy is not sorrow. It is unbelief.”

I read somewhere that the opposite of joy is fear.

My cousin Matt said that the active form of joy’s opposite would be hate.

Isaiah 35:1 =
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

So, is the opposite of joy “wilderness”?

When I posted the question on Facebook Wednesday afternoon, there were 11 unique responses in 35 minutes. And the words people offered were very different – misery, sorrow, summer, despair, dissolution, sadness, loneliness, anguish, apathy, emptiness, and complacency. (I think the “summer” response was supposed to be a joke.) I also liked Ed’s response, “A week without church.”

It is fascinating that so many different words were offered by different people. That says to me that “joy” is a deep and multi-faceted idea, open to a wide range of interpretations. See, I’m thinking about the opposite of joy as a means to understanding joy itself. For example, if the opposite of joy is “sorrow” or “sadness,” are we saying joy the same as happiness? Surely not, if what we mean is the superficial feeling of momentary pleasure that we call happiness sometimes, but maybe so if we’re talking true happiness, which then begs the question, what makes happiness “true?”

“Apathy” and “complacency” are kind of in the same category; a neutral and uninspired approach to life. “Emptiness,” “loneliness,” and “dissolution” are similar. “Misery” and “despair” each have a hopeless, lethargic feeling, whereas “anguish” seems to be more active.

If none of the words my Facebook friends suggested are precisely the opposite of joy, it can certainly be said the joy does not include any of these things. None of these are ingredients in the recipe for joy. But are their opposites?

Apathy’s opposite is ardor or fervor, or maybe passion.
Complacency has a lot of meanings, but would awareness maybe be its opposite?
Emptiness, loneliness, and dissolution are opposed by fullness, relationship, and completeness.
For misery and despair we might go with delight or maybe hopefulness.
And anguish’s opposite is something like comfort or solace.

Mashing all of that together, joy might be an ardent awareness of the fullness of life that instills solace and hopeful delight.

So, how does that work for you?

Monday, December 06, 2010

At Halftime of Advent

Entering the third week of Advent, I find that I have been given an opportunity to pause and reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Never mind that the opportunity has been given to me by the cold I caught, as my body told me loud and clear, “Slow down a bit, I can’t quite keep up with you.”

Regardless of the source of this gift, I am taking the morning to just think about the phenomenal congregation called Campbell United Methodist Church, and the amazing things that I have witnessed in the last couple of weeks. Powerful worship; innovative and interactive seasonal devotions; generous alternative gift giving; beautiful and creative decorating; dedicated and diligent children, youth, and their amazing adult volunteers; hard-working singers and instrumentalists making extra preparations; dozens of disciples engaged in special mission and service in Springfield and beyond. There have been baptisms to celebrate, people becoming members of the congregation, generous gifts given to Imagine and our United Methodist apportionment, and so much quiet, behind-the-scenes servanthood that I couldn’t even begin to attempt to list it all.

All of that is layered on top of the vital, ongoing ministries of the congregation that comprise the three stairways in the pattern of discipleship – Live, Grow, and Share. In the midst of the Advent celebration, we continue in worship, faith development, fellowship, mission and service, generosity, and hospitality, walking the six practices of discipleship in their ever deepening pattern.

And all of that is just the first half of the season; the second two weeks of Advent and the twelve days that make up the season of Christmas are still ahead! I encourage you to pause and reflect every now and then, and please do not wait until you have caught a cold to do so! And take a look at the calendar of the congregation for the next few weeks, to participate in the wonder and mystery of this holy season, celebrating the active presence of God at work all around us.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

More Thoughts on Measuring Church Stuff - What About the DS?

Yesterday, Bishop Schnase wrote a post in which he gave his responses to the recent "Call to Action" report done in the UMC. In it, he observes that
Many things in ministry are measurable – attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, contributions, etc. On the other hand, much of the fruit of ministry is immeasurable and beyond our capacity to quantify and report. But this doesn’t get us off the hook and does not release us from the obligation to focus on fruit. We should use “measurables” where we can, and use “describables” where we cannot measure, and hold each other accountable for fruit. Most importantly, the recommendation [of the recent "Call to Action" report] says we must act on this information and adapt to better fulfill the mission.

I appreciate this perspective, and I added it to the mix of recent posts that pertain to this topic. Like this one and this one for example - there are TONS online right now.

Describables are subjective, and so open to interpretation. It seems to me that accountability for a subjective perception is very tricky. It requires a level of trust within a relationship that allows for complete transparency and honesty. I feel personally that Melissa and I have that kind of relationship with our District Superintendent (DS), Dwight Chapman. We trust him and he trusts us, and we know that as negative issues arise that need to be addressed, he holds us accountable respectfully and with much grace and dignity.

At the same time, I know that some of our colleagues, for whatever reason, do not feel like they have that relationship with their DS. And absent that relationship, accountability seems to fall exclusively onto the measurables, regardless of the (perceived?) describables.

How can the UMC release our Superintendents so that they can develop more of those trusting, open, and honest relationships with pastors?

How can we create a distinctive UMC ethos that allows for itinerant preachers to describe the describables to a DS, who will then in turn share them with a Bishop, in such a way that the health and vitality of local congregations continues to flourish?

And finally, is there a place for "indescribables" in assessing a congregation? As cliché as it may sound, aren't there truly some things you cannot describe, but must experience in order to fully appreciate? Aren't there some facets of congregational vitality that "you know it when you see it," and the best way to assess it is to go there and participate in it?

I have been fortunate in my ministry. I have served with Superintendents with whom I felt a good rapport and a healthy trust. But I have heard enough anecdotal evidence from colleagues to know that my story is not universal. And to be fair, if a DS has to go to 50-plus congregations in order to sample the describables, let alone experience the indescribables, that takes up an entire year of Sundays!

As usual, I am just kind of musing here. Thinking as I type, if you will. So I hope that you read it in that frame of mind, and respond accordingly. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What's Going On Here?

Here is some musing about some congregational dynamics I've seen this year. For those of you who dig this kind of stuff, I welcome your feedback. For those of you who don't, you can probably skip this post altogether - but give it a chance because I really do want to hear from people to get responses and reactions!

So far in 2010, there have been 65 new members of Campbell United Methodist Church. 26 of those have been profession of faith, meaning people who were not members of a church anywhere and so were not simply transferring their membership from one congregation to another. 13 of those 26 were in this year's confirmation class.

I am so happy to be able to share that. To me that says that 65 people felt a deep enough connection with God at Campbell UMC to want to become a part of this phenomenal community. To me it says that 26 people who had no spiritual home found one. (And when you think that some of those who transferred membership may not have been active in the congregation in which they were members, that's an even higher number.)

At the same time, this year's average worship attendance is probably going to end up being 25-30 or so lower than last year's, barring an unprecedented December turnout. Our average attendance was 535 per week last year, and may end up being somewhere just above 500 this year.

I've been puzzling over these numbers for days. I try not to focus exclusively on head counts when discerning congregational health, but this time they have kind of caught my attention, and I'm wondering what, if anything, they reveal about the congregation.

A big number of new members, a big number of people who made profession of faith, mixed with a lower average worship attendance - what does it indicate?

1) People are joining but then not coming to worship.
2) The number of people who stopped coming to worship this year is approximately 90, accounting for 60ish new folks plus 30ish lower average attendance.

There may be a few people for whom the first option is descriptive, but not very many. So in general, number one is not the case, which means something like option two must be taking place. Then the question is "Why."

People who have moved away or died this year account for some of those 90. I don't know exactly how many that is, but it is not 90. (In fact I just sent an email to our Membership Coordinator asking her for that number, so I'll know soon!) Accounting for those people, that still leaves a significant group who have simply stopped coming to worship.

Here are my thoughts so far...

Melissa and I have been serving as the pastors here for two and a half years now. Average worship attendance was 510 in 2008, then 535 in 2009. Is it as simple as "The honeymoon is over?" There is no longer any buzz about "the new pastors," which has led to the disappearance of 90ish people from worship?

We have been consistently preaching the need to be outwardly focused this year, affirming repeatedly that being the church is about more than just caring for our own needs and wants. We have been exhorting people to give, reach out, serve, take risks, be disciples. Could it be that this message has "turned off" a group of people who would rather not disrupt their own comfort levels? Or maybe have we couched this message in too harsh a tone, such that it came across as scolding rather than encouragement?

This year, we have decided that we can no longer be financially faithful if we carry a huge debt and an impending facility burden, so we launched a major capital campaign called "Imagine" to address these issues. Are people exhausted by the thought of the effort it will take to get back on top of our financial situation and would just rather not deal with it?

We have tried to affirm a distinctly Methodist identity, partly by nurturing our connectional relationships, including increasing the priority of our apportionment. Is the United Methodist apportionment too deeply misunderstood, so that this emphasis has been resented? Is it just hard to really be truly Methodist in the religious ethos created by the presence of the Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, and the heavy influence of the Southern Baptist church in this area?

There are a number of gigantic churches in Springfield that put on excellent worship services that look a lot like performances of professional rock bands with a full compliment of technical gadgets and gimmicks and draw huge numbers of people every single week. We don't do that at Campbell. We have intentionally tried to emphasize that worship is not a performance for an audience, but a participatory encounter with God. Is it because we don't advertise "face melting lasers" in our worship services that people have stopped coming?

I don't know about any of these possibilities; they represent a few areas of pondering that have been rattling around in my head as I've thought about these numbers. They are just honest speculations about possibilities with no clarity or direction. I don't know if a clear answer will ever fully emerge, either. It may just be what it is.

And so,
If you are a part of Campbell, I would love to hear your feedback to these numbers, and your thoughts about why.

If you are not a part of Campbell, I would love to hear if this experience resonates with your own in any way.

Thanks for helping me think through this stuff!