Monday, August 29, 2011

A "Third Option" for the Future of the Church

Sunday I talked about how Campbell UMC might experience a vision for the future here in Springfield, Missouri. To clarify the vision, I had to speak in generalities, and generally speaking I avoid generalities. But for the sake of clarity and definition, I hope you will forgive me, if not in general then just this once!

Generally speaking, there is a perception in Springfield that there are only two options in choosing churches. The first I will call “evangelical.” Congregations of this option are perceived as large churches with relatively newer and fancier facilities. They are perceived as younger, comprised of families with school age children. The perception is that they are conservative, and focus exclusively on one’s personal relationship with Jesus and getting into heaven when one dies.

The second perceived option I will call “social justice.” It is perceived as the alternative to “evangelical.” Congregations of this option are perceived as smaller in size with older or more basic buildings. The perception is that they are comprised of older people, retirees and empty nesters. They are perceived as liberal, and focus exclusively on helping people who need help and making the earth a better place in this lifetime.

(There may be a third option beginning to take shape in Springfield, and it may be called “emerging,” but this option is still in its infancy.)

A dynamic of these two prevailing models for congregations in Springfield is that people who associate with one tend to view the other in very generalized, stereotypical ways. The atmosphere in this community is highly polarized; there seems to be a strong either/or mentality in the Ozarks that predominates the public discourse. This trickles into the church culture as well. While the truth is far more nuanced, it seems that Christians in Springfield are labeled either an evangelical or a social justice type.

The idea that you could be both is something that would seem counterintuitive to many good and faithful Christians in this community.

However, that is precisely what I see as a viable “third option” in the Ozarks, and I believe that it is rich soil that is well tilled and ready for sowing. And, as it turns out, this “third option” for Springfield is a long-held and distinctly Methodist perspective. Of course the balance of personal and social is an important part of other traditions, also. But the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, made it a keystone of the movement they began so long ago, and that continues even now.

I have witnessed a spiritual hunger in this community for church-without-agenda. “Can’t anyone just be church?” is a question posed in some form in multiple conversations I have had with people who are not a part of a congregation. And a church “just being church” takes only one agenda as their own - God’s agenda - for which another term could be God’s mission, the mysterious and transcendent Missio Dei. God’s mission is made known in Christ Jesus, who not only came to announce the mission and undertake the mission, but to embody it. The mysterious and transcendent made flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth.

As such, the body of Christ in the world today, the church takes its cue from Jesus, which means that the church must be concerned with both the personal and the social. Jesus was as concerned with forming personal relationships with disciples as he was caring for the poor of his day and subverting the oppressive Roman Empire. We must not underestimate political implications of the radical proclamation of Jesus, that the only Empire that matters is God’s. And we must never forget that he entered into personal relationships with individuals, forgave their sin, and charged them to go and sin no more.

Church is not an either/or proposition. Neither is it a watered down mixture of the two, resulting in a wimpy kind of cliquey gathering place that you are a part of because you feel “comfortable” there. Being the church is not wimpy, nor is it polarized; it is (perceptually) paradoxical in that it is 100% evangelical AND 100% social justice. It should be hard to distinguish one from the other, if it is done well. To love Jesus personally IS to love your neighbor as yourself, and if you say you love Jesus and then don’t help your neighbors when they need help, then you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do (1 John 3-4).

I’ve been contemplating John Wesley’s text “The Character of a Methodist” recently, mainly as a part of my grief process, working through my grandfather’s death. In it, Wesley writes that a Methodist “‘does good unto all men;’ unto neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies: And that in every possible kind; not only to their bodies, by ‘feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those that are sick or in prison;’ but much more does he labour to do good to their souls, as of the ability which God giveth; to awaken those that sleep in death; to bring those who are awakened to the atoning blood, that, ‘being justified by faith, they may have peace with God;’ and to provoke those who have peace with God to abound more in love and in good works.”

Notice in this remarkable sentence the balance of evangelicalism and justice. Caring for the physical needs of others is woven seamlessly together with caring for their souls. (And btw, look how cleverly he includes his “Way of Salvation” - you can see grace awakening, justifying, and sanctifying in one pithy summary sentence!) The two words “much more” indicate that the spiritual work will likely be a harder process, and require a fuller investment of discipleship to accomplish, and also that it has everlasting consequences.

And yes, I believe this is a distinctly Methodist approach, as did Mr. Wesley. Many may say, this approach isn’t really Methodist, it’s just basic Christianity. Well, Mr. Wesley also met that observation. He responded, “If any man say, ‘Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!’ thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both thou and all men knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity, -- the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.”

And it comes full circle, back to Springfield, Missouri in 2011. That is precisely my point; the common principles of Christianity have become lost in polarizing agendas, and many in this community desire a congregation where they can simply be the church, be guided by God’s agenda, and help one another become disciples of Jesus Christ who are changing the world for God’s sake.

I just so happen to think that Campbell UMC is perfectly suited to offer that “third option” in this area. Nothing would make me happier than if this congregation could be as Methodist as we could possibly be!


- Click here for the document “The Character of a Methodist.”
- Click here for my previous article titled "Hallmarks of a distinctly Methodist congregation

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Daddy Monk

My relationship with my grandfather as a member of his family is nearly indistinguishable from my relationship with him as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. That says more about him than it does about me.

Nobody loved the church more than Daddy Monk, and nobody since the Wesley brothers has been more Methodist than he was. John Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist” reads like a biography of Monk Bryan.

+ “He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy … He cannot but rejoice.”

Daddy Monk could get so tickled that he could hardly speak. It happened, for example, when he was recounting a crazy story about our old dog Runzel. He would begin the story, and pause to allow his deep chuckle time to rumble, offer a few more words, chuckle some more, pause and collect his thoughts, a wistful smile on his face. You couldn’t help but laugh along with him.

But he could also deliver a punch line with a weighty episcopal presence as he stood before a room full of people hanging on his every word, sending the crowd into gales of laughter as he stood at the lectern, the only hint that he had been joking a tilt of his head or a tiny twinkle in his eye.

And then of course, he could sit still in the midst of his family, as the frenetic activity of our post-lunch playtime took place, a happy smile on his face, humming a tuneless hymn tune somewhere deep in his chest. Always happy, but maybe never more so than when his family was gathered together.

+ “…his heart is ever lifted up to God, at all times and in all places. In this he is never hindered, much less interrupted, by any person or thing. In retirement or company, in leisure, business, or conversation, his heart is ever with the Lord. Whether he lie down or rise up, God is in all his thoughts; he walks with God continually, having the loving eye of his mind still fixed upon him, and everywhere ‘seeing Him that is invisible.’”

I used to be painfully embarrassed when Daddy Monk would insist on praying before a meal out at a restaurant. He was not subtle about it, either. We had to join hands and he made a great show of bowing his head and closing his eyes just to embarrass me further, or so I thought. And then he couldn’t just say a little grace and be done, it was always a lengthy exposition that utilized all four points of the quadrilateral and contained quotations from the prophets, gospels, and an epistle, ending with a psalm. Okay, so I exaggerate a bit.

Every morning, Daddy Monk did the Upper Room devotion with my Nana, then with Twila, and always including anyone who was a guest and joined them for breakfast. Reading the devotion’s title, the scripture passage, the devotion itself, and then the prayer was only half of the morning devotion time, though. After the Upper Room was done, he got out his hymnal and found the bookmark he had left in it the previous morning. Opening to the hymn, he would read (or invite someone else to) the hymn title and author, tune name and composer, along with the dates of both. And then we would read the hymn aloud.

+ “And he accordingly loves his neighbour as himself; he loves every man as his own soul. His heart is full of love to all mankind, to every child of ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh.’ That a man is not personally known to him, is no bar to his love…”

Daddy Monk called us every Sunday night. Late. It was usually after kids were in bed, and just about when the grown-ups were, too! Sometimes he had a topic to discuss (worship styles, sermon preparation, getting young people to church) or some happening to report (a good concert, a book study, a sermon) or maybe a question to ask (are the kids ready for school, how was your vacation, what’s the latest with your foster kids) - but no matter what we said to each other, the main thing was just to connect.

He maintained connections with an astonishing number of people. I cannot begin to tell you how many people he sent notes, cards, emails on a regular basis. People in Maryville, in Nebraska, in Columbia, in Junaluska, in Dallas - the love in his heart for people could not be contained. He loved deeply, and he loved broadly. And there were no strangers in his world, only potential friends that he had yet to talk with.

+ “…he is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. He is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written word. He thinks, speaks, and lives, according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he so walks as Christ also walked.”

See, the way Daddy Monk was when he was “being a pastor” or “being a bishop” is the same way he was when he was “being a grandfather.” I can’t separate “Bishop Bryan” from “Grandfather Bryan” because he didn’t; he was just Daddy Monk. Well, only a few really called him that, but those who didn’t only refrained from doing so out of deference to his title. He would have loved for everyone to call him Daddy Monk, I suspect.

I suppose love the church so much because I love him so much. And is the converse true as well? Do I love him because I love the church? I wonder. How much of what I do and who I am is because of his influence in my life? Would I be here, an itinerant preacher in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church currently appointed to serve as pastor of Campbell United Methodist Church in Springfield Missouri, if not for Monk Bryan? If he wasn’t my grandfather?

Daddy Monk taught me that a job is not done until the tools are cleaned and put away in their proper place.
He taught me about fresh peaches sliced on vanilla ice cream.
Daddy Monk taught me that generosity and frugality are not mutually exclusive propositions.
He taught me to enjoy Dr. Pepper.
He taught me to pat horses’ faces and say “ho there” so they won’t be startled by your approach.
Daddy Monk taught me that telling a story always makes a point better than just making a point.
He taught me to care that our highways are being destroyed by semis and our world is being destroyed by wars.
He taught me that a great hymn always says more than a systematic theology.
Daddy Monk taught me that church is family and family is church and you don’t have to be a different person in the pulpit than you are anywhere else.

He taught me more than I can write, more than I can remember, more than I ever could be. There is no one in the world I wanted to please more, no one I more wanted to be proud of me.

Yes, I will miss him. Even though it has been in the back of my mind for years and year that “this might be the last …” I wasn’t really ready for him to be gone. No, I knew he wasn’t going to live forever, but then again, I was kind of thinking that he was going to live forever.

My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee …

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Bully-free School Year?

Teachers and students and staff are heading back to school for another academic year. It can be an exciting time full of possibility and energy. But for some who are the targets of bullying, it can be a time of fear and hopelessness.

What if this school year was declared “bully-free?” How would hallways and playgrounds and locker rooms and lunchrooms be different if each and every kid felt confident enough to just be themselves without fear of being picked on, laughed at, manipulated, or minimized? Wouldn’t that be great?

This would be the time to start, you know, right at the beginning. (A very good place to start.) If the bullies in our schools were never allowed to get traction in the first place, it would go a long way toward making this a bully-free school year. Stop them before they even start.

How? Most of the time, bullies do what they do because it draws a peer group tighter to them by ostracizing another. It is a power play that feeds off of attention. Whether the peers draw closer to the bully out of fear or genuine admiration or some other factor varies. But the end result is the same; the bully has a posse, an entourage. Not necessarily “friends,” but definitely relationships that are intense and fraught with emotion. These relationships feed the bully’s self-esteem, which may or may not be low to begin with.

So there seem to be two streams by which kids could approach the elimination of bullying. First, diffuse the posse. Second, attach to the target.

Diffuse the Posse
Diffusing the posse means ignoring the bully and giving positive attention to the individuals in the bully’s crew. This may be tricky, since they are probably bully wanna-be’s themselves. Nonetheless, connecting to the people in the bully’s posse pulls them away, and denies the bully the attention they are seeking. Actually, the kids in the bully’s entourage may be secretly eager to disconnect from the bully, and (maybe subconsciously) looking for an out.

A group of kids can diffuse the posse more easily than a single kid, so a coordinated effort would work well. A bully usually has a pretty small posse, and kids who are outside the posse greatly outnumber them. If two or three kids will intentionally befriend a posse member (invite them to play, sit with them at lunch, ask them to be on the same team playing basketball or whatever), how in the world will that posse member ever be able to stay attached to the bully? The healthy pull of two or three kids in a positive direction will be stronger than the unhealthy pull of the bully. And if two or three kids do that for each posse member, pretty soon the bully is left without an entourage, and finds him- or herself to be the one ostracized, with no more attention and therefore no more power.

Attach to the Target
The second approach is to attach to the target. I know, “target” is an impersonal word that objectifies the person, but that is exactly why I chose it. The bully does not see a person, but a target. The target might be selected because they are bad at sports, or they are gay, or they do not wear fashionable clothing, or they have a quirky personality - some characteristic that places them outside of the “norm” as the bully defines it. To the bully, they are not a person at all, and that makes it easier to bully them.

“Attaching to the target” is to personalize them, affirm their identity, embrace the very characteristics the bully rejects. This approach requires kids to first of all NOTICE when other kids are targets, and then risk making themselves targets also in order to make a friend. This can be very, very difficult to do. It is much easier to coast through school not noticing the problem than to keep your eyes open to it. And also bullies can be subtle about it, wielding their manipulative influence in ways that may be very difficult to detect.

And once a kid notices that another kid is a target, it is a risk to befriend them. After all, you might become a target yourself. Again, if there is a group of kids who will make a point to work together, the risk is lessened. The key is to give attention to the kid who was the bully’s target, rather than the bully, which derails the power trip the bully might have taken.

Teachers
Notice that these two approaches involve other kids. Teachers, it seems to me, have a very limited role to play in the elimination of bullying. Any discipline they enforce in response to bullying only serves to draw more attention to the bully. When a teacher has to react to a bully, that means the bully has power over them. No amount of scolding or detention or sending off to the principal’s office is going to lessen bullying. In fact, it may encourage it by validating the behavior in the eyes of the posse. “Ooh, he IS bad. He got sent to the principal’s office!”

What a teacher can do is limit the bully’s opportunity for an audience. Figure out who the bully is, and who is in the entourage, and intentionally keep the bully separate from the entourage members. Seat the bully in the back of the room, not the front. Nobody can see them in the back but you. Remember that the bully is not just “being bad,” she or he is seeking attention. Eliminating the attention might escalate the behavior for a short time as the bully tries to figure out where the new boundary is, but if it holds consistently, ultimately the lack of attention will erode the bully’s power and eliminate the bullying.

Bully-free
I’m not na├»ve enough to think that there will be no bullying at all this year, but I am hopeful enough to think that if a few kids make a few changes, take a few risks, and start to “diffuse the bully’s posse” and “attach to the bully’s targets,” it could make a big difference. And this is the perfect time to start, right at the beginning of the year, before it really has a chance to begin.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fearless pioneering a way of life then and now

Campbell United Methodist Church celebrates 125 years

It’s hard to describe 125 years of a congregation’s history without just listing dates and describing buildings. As Campbell United Methodist Church celebrates her Quasquicentennial anniversary, I find myself wondering about the most effective way to convey the nuance of this moment.

Yes of course there have been buildings, but there's more to the story than that... I wonder what happened IN them.

I count five buildings, starting with the very first “mission” group sent out by Rev. Dr. W.B. Palmore of St. Paul Methodist Church. The group met in the 1) Frisco Opera House (I wonder if anyone made jokes about the singing during their worship times), and then in the 2) Grand Army of the Republic Hall (I wonder if anyone commented on the irony of a church in the Methodist Episcopal South church meeting in a hall used by an organization of veterans of the Union army).

3) There was a red brick building finished in 1888, where the name of this fledgling congregation changed from Palmore Chapel to Campbell Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South (which makes me wonder if anyone said, “We shoulda stuck with Palmore!” although the change happened at the request of Rev. Palmore himself, which leads me to wonder if he thought having a congregation named after him while he was still alive just would have been too weird).

4) There was another building, built in stages during the decade of the 1920s, and finally paid for by 1945, that still stands today and is in use by the Assemblies of God headquarters. The congregation spent more than 60 years in this building, through the Methodist unification of 1939 (when it became Campbell Street Methodist Church) and the renaming of the Springfield streets in 1950 (when it became Campbell Avenue Methodist Church) and the EUB/Methodist merger of 1968 (when it became Campbell Avenue United Methodist Church). This building was officially designated a “Historic Building” in 1982 (which makes me wonder how many people started to view their church as a building housing a museum instead of an active center for ministry).

5) Then there is the present building, which sits on 10 acres that used to be surrounded by pastures but now is surrounded by rapidly growing Springfield, and thanks to the bold vision of this congregation Campbell sits right in the middle of it. Moving the building to this location in 1984 was one of the most difficult, risky, and potentially disastrous changes this congregation has ever made (which makes me wonder who it was exactly who first posed the question, “Okay, but since we won’t be on Campbell Avenue anymore, what will our name be now?” and how the decision was made to just call it Campbell United Methodist Church, as it is now called).

That’s five buildings and five names over 125 years. It kind of makes sense that the congregation carries the name “Campbell.” The street that the congregation was named for was named after John and Louisa Campbell, the pioneers who founded the city of Springfield in the 1820s. Named after these fearless pioneers, this congregation has a history of fearless pioneering itself.

Having been created out of the energy of post-Civil War growth and renewal, riding a wave of development that was expedited by the expansion of the Frisco Railroad to the city, there has always been a sense of adventure at Campbell, a call to explore frontiers, and a passion to share the love of God with the community, and around the world.

How do you celebrate 125 years of a congregation? I wonder…

How many times has this congregation gathered to worship? How many weddings have there been? How many funerals? How many prayers shared? How many souls baptized? How many times has the sacrament of Holy Communion been served?

How many times have Bibles been opened in a small group from this congregation to study God’s word? How many “Aha moments” have happened? How many new insights have changed how many lives? How many new friendships have formed?

How many times have people of this congregation united to help someone in need? How many mission trips? How many hours of service have been given freely as disciples of Jesus? How many people have been invited into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in this Holy Spirit filled congregation?

If I dwell on these questions, it makes my brain hurt. It is staggering, isn’t it? How do we celebrate it? How do we honor all of that? How do we remember with sufficient respect and appropriate admiration?

And … how do we avoid the temptation of nostalgia? How do we celebrate the good ol’ days without becoming wistful and attempting to relive them? How do we make sure our history is a foundation upon which to build rather than a weight preventing us from moving on?

But I don’t think that’s going to be too much of an issue at Campbell - the whole “getting stuck in the past” thing, I mean. You see, this congregation has a knack for getting through. There have been ups, downs, and flat places as well. And the pioneers that currently belong to Campbell United Methodist Church have been through them all.

I think Dr. Palmore would approve.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Politics, Attention, and the Squiggly Line in Your Eye

I share the opinion of many, that the recent political hullaballoo was pure theatrical fabrication, an unnecessary debate about a decision that was a foregone conclusion, and does very little to actually help the country recover from our financial crisis.

My guess about the motivation for the whole thing is a bit different than those I have heard. It is related, but comes at it from a slightly different angle. I don’t think it was votes or money or power that led to it, but rather simple attention.

People act differently when they realize others are paying attention to them. A lot of the time, we do things we normally wouldn’t do and say things we normally wouldn’t say when there are people looking at and listening to us. We get nervous or excited or distracted and end up looking and/or sounding silly, stammering our way through a bit of ridiculousness that we probably could and should have left unsaid. Some call it "stage fright."

It is the same reason that silences feel awkward to us in conversations. When we feel like someone is counting on us to hold up our end of the conversation, we sense a pressure to speak. That pressure causes us to say things like, “Sure is hot lately” - “Yep, but it’s not so much the heat as the humidity” - “You got that right!” about a million times even though we already all know it’s not so much the heat as the humidity since we have spent the last two months telling one another that, but when someone else is paying attention to us we can’t just not talk, can we?

Now, multiply that scenario by one-hundred-forty-twitter-thousand and add that to a 24-hour-news-cycle and then factor it to the power of internet-million and you will then begin to sense the awkwardness Washington politicians must feel in the vacuum created by attention.

After all, they would feel like they weren’t doing their job if they didn’t talk about stuff. And sometimes, when they become aware that we are all paying attention to them, the pressure of that attention causes them to say stuff they would never dream of saying in ordinary circumstances.

The bad thing about this situation was, there really are some important conversations that need to be happening in our nation’s capital, and yet we’ve spent the last few weeks on this one. Hey I know! Maybe if we all agreed to stop paying attention to them, they’ll talk about some stuff that matters.

It would be kind of like the squiggly line in your eye; in order to truly see it you can’t look right at it. In order for our government to truly function, we need to not look at them, or listen to them, or pay any attention to them whatsoever! Sounds like a plan to me - who’s with me?

Monday, August 01, 2011

There is No Debt Ceiling on the Grace of God

Why discipleship giving is not like debt ceiling negotiations

As I write this, Washington has apparently reached some kind of agreement that will prevent the nation from defaulting on our debts. In play are two broad categories, taxes and spending; in other words, income and outgo, the same basic principles that individuals and families all around the country deal with month by month, only multiplied by 300,000,000 or so.

I think some of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear that has characterized the last few weeks in Washington has trickled into congregational giving, and I lament that. Congregations do not tax members. People do not contribute to a congregation in order to “make budget.” We operate from a completely different set of priorities.

Of course, in order to function in our society, at one level congregations have to think in terms of “income” and “outgo” as well, generating budgets that anticipate an “income” and guide the “outgo” that supports the activity of the congregation. We do so for tracking purposes, for accounting and accountability, and for ease of reporting. But the similarity ends there.

Different Priorities
We start by having faith that God will provide abundantly enough resources to accomplish exactly what God wants to accomplish. Secondly, we think of giving as an act of discipleship, done freely and without compulsion, as our response to what God does for us. And ultimately, we know that all we have comes from God in the first place, so as we offer our money we aren’t giving anything away at all, rather we are multiplying God’s resources to accomplish God’s purposes.

The priorities that shape giving in the church are supposed to be God’s priorities, and so they require constant reform and renewal. Because we are sinful people living in a broken world, we must continually re-examine ourselves to ensure we are keeping God’s priorities at the forefront. In fact, the moment we feel we have God’s priorities completely figured out is the moment we need to step back and re-assess the situation.

The national priorities are a part of this world; God’s priorities are heavenly. And often those two sets of priorities come into conflict, which can make it tricky to figure out what it means to be the church, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Better Ecclesiology
I wonder how many people see the relationship between citizen and government as parallel to the relationship between member and congregation. I pay taxes and so I get services - police, fire, schools, roads, and so forth. Doesn’t that mean I “pay” my offering and so I should get services from the church - worship, Sunday School, weddings, funerals, and so forth?

When we fail to articulate a sufficient ecclesiology, church is just one more in a long list of pleasant social gatherings. I believe this is how the church has been operating for years, and it’s high time to stop.

For example, it is time to stop using phrases like, “…give to the church.” No, we don’t ask people to give “to the church;” people are the church. The church gives to God’s mission. We must no longer separate “people” and “church,” even in our thoughts. That is just bad ecclesiology.

Because the church is the body of Christ, our challenge is also the articulation of a richer Christology. Intertwined with the issue of diminishing financial discipleship is a diluted image of Jesus that many people embrace. Jesus has become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in our lives, and we call upon him to provide testimony every now and then, when what we are supposed to be doing is laying down our entire lives (including our resources) for him so that he can live through us.

Better ecclesiology starts with different priorities
As I mentioned before, priority one for the church is acting in faith that God will accomplish God’s mission, and as such there will be sufficient resources to accomplish exactly what God has in mind. This means that individuals, families, committees, classes, ministry teams, and administrative boards all must stay attuned to God’s priorities when making decisions about giving and spending. When there seems to be a resource gap of some kind, the place to start is to ask what God wants to happen here.

Secondly, the church is comprised of disciples of Christ Jesus for whom giving is an act of surrender to Christ’s Lordship in our lives. Because Jesus gave up every bit of himself for us, we do the same for others. Our sin limits us from doing this fully, so we rely on the grace of God to help us grow in the process we know as “sanctification.” Sanctification, or growing in discipleship, means freely giving away more and more of ourselves so that Christ can live more and more fully through us. We do not do this because we are required to; we do this because we choose to.

And ultimately, the priorities of the church are shaped by the understanding that everything in our possession belongs to the Creator of the cosmos. We hold it temporarily, take care of it, build stuff out of it, but first and foremost it all belongs to God. And so there really is no such thing as giving something away, since it was never really mine to begin with. This truth is what made it possible for Jesus to teach his followers to “give them your cloak as well,” for example.

The radical implication of living by these divine priorities is that during a financial crisis (in earthly terms) is in fact the very best time to increase discipleship giving. Would there be a more powerful statement of faith in God? Would there be a profounder embodiment of the hope offered in Jesus? Would there be a more meaningful way to announce to the world that the Spirit is alive and at work in the world?

Local Implications
At Campbell UMC, giving overall is up thanks to an ongoing capital campaign we call “Imagine,” but discipleship giving specifically is down this year. (The “Imagine” campaign is designated for facility improvement and debt.)

So when it came right down to it, we were just barely able to pay the bills last month. I can’t help but wonder if that is partly due to the fear created by the political bickering in our nation. People sense the anxiety of the national system, and assume there is anxiety in all systems.

I know that congregations are decreasing activities, eliminating staff positions, cutting corners and trying to figure out creative ways to raise funds. I also know that there is a combination of factors involved with congregational health, and many of those factors are contextual. But I really wonder how much the financial issues of the nation and the world are impacting the financial decisions of Christians, specifically the offerings that are made in churches around the country and across the globe.

So when the plate goes by this week, remember that Christian discipleship has a claim on our whole lives, including the money we have in our pockets, or our bank accounts, or sewn into our mattresses, or wherever you keep it. Don’t throw that check into the plate thinking of it as your church tax, paid to ensure that services are delivered.

It isn’t a tax. It isn’t budget support. It is discipleship - a promise to give away everything you have if that’s what it takes to follow your Lord and Master, Jesus - who after all did the very same for you.

Our financial discipleship is a joyous response to the good news that there is no debt ceiling on the grace of God!