Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year's Resolutions, Ecclesial Edition

New Year’s Resolution for 2001: I will read at least 20 good books this year.
…for 2002: I will read at least 10 books this year.

…for 2003: I will read 5 books sometime before I die.
…for 2004: I will finish The Pelican Brief.
…for 2005: I will try and finish the comics section this year.

It is January 2006, and time to make some resolutions again. Sure, it’s arbitrary. In 46 B.C.E. Julius Caesar established the date as a part of the Julian calendar. Sure, it doesn’t make any sense to start a year in the middle of winter. Beginning of spring would make a lot more sense; that’s when the ancient Babylonians celebrated. And by the way, the ancient Babylonians also began the practice of making a new year’s resolution. Their most common one was to return borrowed farm equipment.

But in spite of all that, there’s no reason not to engage in this annual ritual of self-improvement; it’s always a good idea to try to be better people than we are. In fact, I’ve come up with some resolutions I would like to make on behalf of the church.

- This year, the church will be less about membership than about discipleship.
- This year, Christian unity will be more about the mystery of God’s grace than about the uniformity of human belief.
- This year, the church will be more concerned about how we are growing spiritually than numerically.
- This year, the church will practice radical hospitality, passionate worship, relevant faith formation, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity.

How’re those? Admittedly, these are a little more difficult that cutting back on between-meal snacks. But I think they are at least equally as important. So let’s use this totally arbitrary, middle of the winter, just-another-excuse-to-throw-a-party occasion to try to be a better church than we are. With God’s help, the year 2006 may just be our best year ever, on our way to living in the perfect love of God. Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Birthday Party for Jesus

The Sunday School time on Christmas morning at my remarkable congregation will feature a “Birthday Party for Jesus,” complete with songs, gifts, and birthday cake. When my four-year-old son, Wesley, heard this news, he was quite overjoyed. It blew his mind to think that we would get the rare opportunity to learn about Jesus on his actual birthday! This was a pleasure that was almost too wonderful for him to comprehend.
After several minutes of giggling with delight at the notion, he said, “Yeah, and I’m going to hurry up and eat all the birthday cake before Jesus can get any.”
Now, at first that remark is worth a chuckle. It’s one of those “kids say the darndest things” moments. But listen underneath his words and hear the faith of a child being expressed. Wesley really expects Jesus to show up on Sunday morning to attend his birthday party. He knows with certainty that Jesus will be there and will, in fact, be expecting birthday cake. In his childlike innocence, Wesley has articulated the doctrine of incarnation more succinctly than any theology text book ever could.
What would happen if we all went to church on Sunday morning and really expected Jesus to show up?

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Prophetic Exhaustion

Advent observation: It is easier to preach “baby Jesus” than to preach “John the Baptist.”

This year, I have intentionally gone a little “prophetic” for my Advent sermon series. There haven’t been many fluffy sheep and warm, cozy stables. No “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” I have shied away from the stale “remember the reason for the season” messages that do nothing but reinforce rampant consumerism, only now you have a divinely sanctioned reason for it.

No, this year I preached justice. This year I preached faithfulness. This year I preached counter-culture. I named oppression for what it is and got fairly specific: death penalty, racism, homelessness, affluence and poverty, war. I didn’t exactly deliver John’s “brood of vipers” line, but I am hopeful that my four Advent sermons were at least challenging enough to, if not compel people to repent, at least lead them to consider it as an option. I tried to be a little bit of John the Baptist, minus the camel hair and locusts, of course.

But it was hard work. All four weekends left me pretty much wrung out exhausted. Knowing that what I was going to say would upset some people, then going ahead and saying it anyway, then standing in the back of the room to smile and shake people’s hands as they left the service was an exhausting series of events. It is so much easier just to say things that make people feel all snug and sparkly. An old friend, Kurt, told me once that a choral concert I had conducted left him feeling “as though he had been dipped in Christmas.” That’s easy to do. Requires neither valley lifting nor mountain lowering.

But we can’t let our faith get stuck at the level of a nativity set. (Especially one of those big lit-up plastic ones in some families’ front yards.) It is hard work, but we have got to go deep into our own hearts and confront that which separates us from God, name it, drag it up to the surface into the light so that we can once more become the people God desires us to become. And sometimes that process requires the impetus of a prophetic voice in the wilderness, even an exhausted one.

(Pictured: "St. John the Baptist" - Caravaggio c. 1604; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; click here.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Merry Xidays!

A lot of people have asked me what I make of this whole alleged anti-Christmas movement in our society. You know, the retail employees being forbidden to say “Merry Christmas,” the president sending out holiday (means "holy day" ... hmm?) cards rather than Christmas cards, rampant uninhibited heretical denial of the doctrine of the virgin birth, and stuff like that. I understand that some people are very upset by the whole thing, and have made it their personal crusade to spread Christmas cheer with all the vim and vigor they can muster. Cool.

(Aside: There’s nothing like someone wishing you “Merry Christmas” with a chip on their shoulder. There’s no feeling quite like the feeling of knowing that the well-wisher on the other side of the greeting has a militant agenda – “You WILL have a Merry Christmas, so there, you wanna make something of it?”)

Everybody needs something about which to bitch. That’s number seven in my list of axioms for ministry. It means that people are much happier when they have something tangible they can complain about. Ironically, being mad makes them happy. The current hubbub about the de-Christmasification of our culture is the latest on that list. It gives people a good, healthy sense of moral outrage, and a definitive place they can direct it. Sadly, it appears to be a reversal of a formerly en vogue complaint that is now woefully out of fashion.

See, we used to say, “Isn’t it terrible how all the stores have commercialized Christmas? It cheapens and demeans the birth of Jesus to see the holy event used to make a profit.” But now we seem to be saying, “Isn’t it terrible how all the stores have de-emphasized Christmas? It dishonors the Christ child to avoid using his birth to make money, while respecting the beliefs of non-Christian customers.” (Because, you know, respecting other people’s beliefs is not at all a Christian thing – we are all about the imposition of what we think all over your heathen self, and making a lot of money in the process.) And here’s another interesting thing: I saw an add in today’s paper for a “Christmas Party” that was being thrown at a strip club. Whoa! Theologize on that one for a while! You wanna talk about commercialization?

Indignantly, the overwhelmingly huge Christian majority who has a place of worship on every corner of every city and town across the continent, seasonally appropriate music to listen to on the radio since before Thanksgiving, and holiday-correct decorations to purchase in any given store for weeks now (not to mention the strip club parties), is trying to claim we are being oppressed. To paraphrase my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “O, us of little faith!”

In Matthew 8, the big faith of a Roman Centurion facilitates Jesus’s healing of his servant, whereas his disciples cower in fear as a storm threatens their little boat. This prompts J.C.’s “little faith” rebuke. Seems that today’s disciples are engaged in a similar response to the anti-Christmas storm threat we perceive. “Storm’s a-coming! Jesus, bail us out here!” To which Jesus shakes his head in frustration, sighs a deep sigh, and watches the Charlie Brown Christmas special on T.V., muttering about his disappointing disciples all the while.

So as for me, I will not lament the fact that stores seem to be removing Jesus from their marketing campaigns or the president is removing Jesus from the cards he will be sending to people of many different faiths. I happen to think the church should be insisting on just such a removal (not to mention the strip club parties) and calling for the return of Christmas to the venue of the body of Christ. I long for the good old days when Christians didn’t get so easily mixed up between their local church and their local Wal-Mart.

Ho, Ho, Ho,
Andy B.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Generosity to Spare

Pictured at right is the sight that greeted me as I arrived at church a couple of days ago. It is what it appears to be: a spare tire with a Christmas card taped to it.

The euphoric family sledding down the front of the card is saying, “May you and your family share a world of joy this Christmas.” Pictured are presumably a mom, a dad, their two kids, and grandfather tucked in the midst of them.
That’s three grown adults and two mid-sized children careening straight at the reader on an out of control toboggan to which mom is holding on with only one oven-mitted hand. I’m not sure where grandpa is holding on.

On the card was written this message with black marker: “Dear First United Methodist. Here is something for your next garage sale. See you soon!” And it is signed. The tire itself appears to be a typical, temporary spare tire. In fact, stamped on the side of the tire are the words, “Temporary use only.”

It is definitely one of the most … unique … Christmas gifts I have ever received on behalf of the church. The sight of it leaning there against the door was quite the surreal experience, and I’ll bet will be a singular occurrence over the course of my ministry, however many years I am at it.

The more I think about it, though, the more touching it is. The giver evidently saw the spare tire sitting there (wherever “there” happened to be), and thought, “You know, that Methodist Church has a garage sale every now and then, and I reckon they ought to be able to sell this here perfectly good spare tire for a few bucks. I think I’ll load it up in my trunk and bring it on down. And while I’m at it, why don’t I turn it into a nice Christmas gift?”

After all, this is the season of gift giving, and it is a rare kind of extravagant generosity that would cause a person to look at a dirty spare tire and think of the church. And so I am happy to accept this gift out of the generosity of this kind heart. I suspect that the widow’s two coins were considered an odd gift, as well.

The church will receive more valuable gifts this Christmas, but none more sincere.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

This Busy Advent Business

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I had a thing. You know, I was “busy.”

How many times have you heard someone mention their busy-ness in the past few days or weeks? I personally have spoken those words more than a few times, in various tones of voice.

There is the too-tired-to-move, “Oh, I’m so busy…”

There is the there-is-no-way-in-heck-I-will-ever-get-this-done, “Arrgh, I’m so busy!”

And then the ever popular my-Advent-has-got-to-be-so-much-more-hectic-than-your-Advent-so-get-out-of-my-way-you-pathetic-slacker, “Sorry, I’m just so BUSY!”

This is the time of year that clergy and other church staff smile at each other and say, “It’s that time of year, isn’t it?” then we chuckle and go right ahead with whatever insane busy-ness we were up to before pausing those few moments to comment on the insanity itself. The season of Advent just seems to fill up with business (and busy-ness) that we can’t avoid, … and maybe we shouldn’t.

Remember that bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming: Look busy!”?

Is there some kind of a spiritual discipline in ordering the busy seasons of one’s life? All of this burst of activity in preparation for the birth of God’s Messiah – maybe, like all things, it’s okay in moderation. After all, this is a pretty significant birth for which we are preparing, isn’t it? Our activity is driven by no less that Christ’s new entrance into our lives, something for which we have quite a bit of preparing to do. Our “to do list” is long, and we had better get busy: open up, get into receiving mode, spruce up our lives a little bit (or maybe even a lot).

This is not to say that we are to participate in a kind of holiday style works righteousness. The things we do do not earn our salvation. All of this Advent activity is voluntary. We choose to vacuum the living room when guests come over; it is not required. Similarly, we choose to engage in Advent business when the Guest is coming over, though it is not required. And some Christians would do well to recall that faith without works is dead. Or said another way, The grace of God does not imply passivity on the part of the receptors.

I am tired tonight, and a lot of my weariness is due to the preparations that are a part of this Advent season, and a part of ministry in general. But it is, as my mom sometimes says, a “good tired.” It is a tired resulting from Advent activity in preparation for Christmas. It is a tired with a sense of accomplishment behind it. I’m not going nuts; I know when to slow down and when to take Sabbath rest. It's all about balancing activity and rest - the both/and - the yin/yang.

Yeah, sure I’m busy. But - Jesus is coming! So let's get busy!

Friday, December 02, 2005

The B.F.F. of I.D. - The Saga Continues

More on University of Kansas Religious Studies Department Head Paul Mirecki's Intelligent Design course: as of yesterday, it has been withdrawn.

Well, now we know why K.U.'s mascot is a chicken!
(Just kidding! It's a joke, relax!)

Professor Mirecki himself requested that the course be pulled. In the K.C. Star, he is quoted as saying, "Students with a serious interest in this important subject matter would not be well served by the learning environment my e-mails and the public distribution of them have created. ... It was not my intent when I wrote the e-mails, but I understand now that these words have offended many on this campus and beyond, and for that I take full responsibility." So he is pulling the class, which already had 25 students enrolled, by the way.

Is he chickening out? (shrug) Maybe. But the chairman of the faculty senate was quick to say that while controversial issues are not avoided at K.U., they should be addressed in an "appropriate, respectful manner ... Making fun of individuals is not part of the way we as a faculty want to conduct ourselves." So it is not WHAT Mirecki was saying, but HOW he was saying it that led to the current bru-ha-ha. And that's what Tim Sisk was saying in his comment on my last post. (Nice call, Tim!)

So many issues to dwell upon ... so many questions I could focus on here ... let's see ... Oh! I've got one!

In the mix of all this crud, Wichita Representative Brenda Landwehr said this: "It's hard to teach religion if you don't believe it." Go ahead and read that statement again, because it is an important topic. Can you teach religion at a public university without "believing in" the religion you are teaching? Could I as a Christian teach a class about Islam, Buddhism, Judiasm, etc.? Could a Muslim teach about Christianity? Could an agnostic teach religion? Could an athiest?

Ironically, Rep. Landwehr was trying to ensure that professors at K.U. are not guilty of religious intolerance when she offered this quote. She wants professorial bias eliminated on the one hand, but on the other seems to want only believers teaching about the religions they believe. See the disconnect? If she really wants unbiased, seems to me that an agnostic would be the perfect person to teach about religions at a public university, so long as they were equally skeptical of every faith!

We also need to carefully distinguish between teaching about religion and teaching religion. I teach Christianity in confirmation class. A college prof teaches about Christianity in a university class. The distinction is that teaching Christianity attempts to instill belief whereas teaching about Christianity attempts to impart knowledge. One is for churches, one is for schools. Let's keep it that way, okay?

And in another story in today's paper, it seems that "'Intelligent design' advocates plan to introduce proposals in Missouri next legislative session." CRAP! Now we won't be able to make this thing all about "as big as you think" Kansas! Get ready Missouri, the anti-intellectual kettle of ultra-conservate Kansas is leaking, and it is heading our way!

Bok-bok Jayhawk!

(Joke, relax!)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Big Fat Face of Intelligent Design

“The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology.’”
- Professor Paul Mirecki
Chairperson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Kansas

“I have assured the provost of the university that I will teach the course … as a serious academic subject and in a manner that respects all points of view.”
- Professor Mirecki, in his subsequent apology for the remarks above

“…it is especially appropriate that intelligent design and creationism be treated as academic subjects in a university-level religious studies class.”
- David Shulenburger
Provost, University of Kansas

Just the latest from the state of Kansas, sports fans! (A reminder: I live in Missouri.) Kansas’s new slogan is, “As big as you think.” And if this is an example of how big they think, it must be a very small state, indeed. ;) The story in the Kansas City Star this morning was accompanied by a kick-butt column by Mike Hendricks, who gets the award for the quip of the day:
“But as everyone knows, spite is never an accepted rationale for offering a college course, except those math courses that English majors are required to take.” Nice one!

As far as I can tell, at first Mirecki wanted to teach ID as a “special topic in religion” in the realm of mythology out of spite, in order to make a political statement and make a jab, er…I mean “slap” at religious fundamentalists in his state. Specifically, a “slap in their big fat face.” (Sidebar: Who says things like “big fat face” and they’re not in junior high school?) But now that his email got into the public discourse, he is back-tracking as fast as possible.

Now he and the provost are rushing to claim that intelligent design is actually a serious academic subject, something it most definitely is not. It is an article of faith, and a weak one, at that. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t intelligent design based on being UNable to explain what you see? As in, “Golly, that amoeba is complicated; I’ll never be able to explain that; someone smarter than me must have designed it; I know – let’s call it an ‘intelligent designer.’” Then we decide if this intelligent designer exists and who s/he is based on our faith experience. That’s pretty much it, isn’t it?

And aren’t academic subjects, on the other hand, based on being ABLE to explain what you see? As in, “Golly, that amoeba is complicated; let’s figure out a way we might be able to explain how it works.” Then you look at it closely and over time, learning more and more about it by observing it. What is “academic” about shrugging your shoulders and saying, “I dunno” when confronted by life’s most difficult questions?

And think about it, what is even “faithful” about such an approach? Should we really, created in the image of God as we are, think that anything too complex for our minds to grasp is an unexplainable phenomenon that only God can know? Another option might be to put our God-given intellectual capacity to good use by diving deeply into the questions of life, death, and the natural world. Quoting someone famous whose name I can't remember, “I can’t believe that God designed a human being with a mind we’re not supposed to use.”

Contemplating the idea that God created the world is a serious academic endeavor; and at the same time it is a rigorous discipline of faith. But Intelligent Design Theory seems to me to reduce the holy power of the Creator of the cosmos to a watered down, “children’s sermon” answer to a profound and challenging question. Intelligent Design is bad theology, because it minimizes the human capacity for curiosity and neglects the profound drive to discover meaning in the midst of the milieu of life.

Clearly, there are things about life that are outside of Darwin’s realm – like sunsets, Mozart, or being ticklish. And also, there are things about life Intelligent Design cannot explain – think of the appendix, racism, or phlegm. I guess I’m trying to say that life is complicated, and neither science nor religion can answer all of our questions. So why do we waste so much energy and time trying to keep them separate?

Anyone who tries ought to be slapped in their big fat face!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Why Advent

I find myself coming at Advent differently than I ever have before. I have always thought about it as four weeks of "getting ready for Christmas." Advent was decorating, shopping, partying, going to concerts and pageants, and so forth - always a means toward the end of Christmas Day. Now I am wondering just how faithful that is.

Firstly, thinking about Advent that way reduces it to the same level as going to the mall to sit on Santa's lap. It is just one more thing to do between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th. We go shopping; we look at the lights; we do Advent stuff at church; we bake cookies; we go over to the Jones's for egg nog, etc. Lighting that funny horizontal wreath in front of the sanctuary is just something else on the pre-Christmas to-do list.

Secondly, that approach to Advent presumes the absence of Christ, at least temporarily. If we spend these four weeks getting ready for Jesus to arrive, it begs the question, "Where is he now?" Does he sort of slip away just after Christ the King Sunday and show up again at the Christmas Eve service? How do we explain theologically our treatment of this holy season every single year? And are we supposed to, on December the 26th, stop preparing for Jesus to come into our lives? After all, he has arrived now. What next?

And finally, thinking of Advent as mere Christmas prep time does not allow followers of Christ to enter into the spiritual disciplines appropriate to the season, as is frequently done during Lent. You never hear the question, "What are you giving up for Advent?" floating around church hallways. This should be a time of deep spiritual reflection and prayer, purposeful study of the scriptures, and renewed dedication to do what is pleasing in God's sight, "to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."

So this Advent, I am doing more than just get ready for Christmas. I am going to ask myself (and by extension taking my congregation along with me), "What do I expect of God?" Four weeks of Advent, so four expectations: STRENGTH, COMFORT, JUSTICE, and FAITHFULNESS. I intend to dwell here for a while. Each one of these areas is going to be a sermon. (If you would like, you can read transcriptions of my sermons on the website of my remarkable congreation, though we are just a wee bit behind in posting them.) I am calling the series "Unseasonable Expectations."

Furthermore, I think Christians ought to pretty much just live in Advent mode all year round. I mean, are we not supposed to be expecting Christ to show up all the time? The incarnation means that God is always coming, and always present - all at the same time! I like to say that "eternity" not only has no end, it also has no beginning. Saying that God is eternal means that God has always been, is fully now, and is evermore just about to arrive. And that is what Advent is.

Well, that and the four weeks of getting ready for Christmas, too!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Happy Holiday

My family and I have been away for Thanksgiving, and just got back last night. We traveled up to Chicago to be with my wife's family for the holiday. It was a fine time, and a memorable one.

- We tried the Holiday Pack from Jones Soda, which features carbonated beverages flavored like Brussels Sprout with Prosciutto, Cranberry Sauce, Turkey & Gravy, Wild Herb Stuffing, and Pumpkin Pie. It was all my brother-in-law Nathan's idea, and let me tell you - it was nasty! There is no way anyone should ever be tempted to taste this swill. Okay, maybe the Cranberry Sauce was pretty tasty. As for the rest, I have decided I prefer Thanksgiving dinner in solid form.

- We had a wonderful meal (after the after-taste of Jones Soda was gone) with everything you could possibly think of for Thanksgiving dinner. Erin's mom Diane went above and beyond with the preparations. Delicious and plentiful!

- We had a fantastic time of conversation and connection with family, gathered from the four corners of our lives for a few moments of love and gratitude. Got to play with my beautiful neice Halle, my wonderful nephew Reid, and my adorable new baby nephew Ryan. How fun was that!

- We swam in the hotel pool. It was below freezing outside. There was a hot tub. :)

- Erin, her brother Micah, his wife Laura, and I saw the fourth Harry Potter movie. A real treat for the eyes with GREAT special effects! Music was not so good. Story line moves right along, but a lot of depth that you get from reading the book was glossed over or omitted. Though the whole "coming of age" theme is done very nicely. Loads of teenager angst throughout.

- Finally and most importantly, this holiday I was reminded again about why my wife and children are the most important people in the world. I was reminded that "the greatest thing we'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return." I was reminded that being a family is the most wonderful, frustrating, rewarding, upsetting, joyous, painful, and satisfying thing to be in the whole wide world.

Thank you God, for the chance to be a family.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Landmark of Sorts

Hey, I just noticed that my little counter thingy at the bottom of my web page just rolled over 10,000. Huh. What do you know? I think I'll throw a party :)

Here's the Link ...

... to the blog I referred to last week. The article did not list the address for Frank Santoro's journey through cancer. Click here to read some remarkable stuff. And thanks for the link, Rev.

You Know, Y'all May Be Right

Two things about my previous post about which I have had time to reflect with the help of my wife, mother, and assorted other commenters.

1) I should never have introduced the heavily weighted words "liberal" and "conservative" into the discussion. Truthfully, it was just kind of my introduction to the post, and wasn't the primary theme. I should have just started by saying, "I don't get it." And then just told the story.

2) I need to be sensitive about blogging too personally when it comes to members of my remarkable congregation. I was really just trying to convey my utter beffudlement, not to pass any kind of judgement. Though I take full credit for the emotions and opinions expressed in this blog as my own personal feelings and thoughts, I also know that I must take care.

So I am sorry that I did not heed my own advice and avoid the nasty labels I used, and I am sorry if anyone is in any way offended by my befuddlement. I love the bazaar ladies! They are fantastic women, faithful disciples of Jesus, pillars of the church, and so forth. I wrote that post in a fit of frustration, and it usually doesn't work out so pretty good when I do that. My fault, everyone! Can I get a little grace?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Can't Figure This One Out: A Bizaare Bazaar

I am liberal. Granted.

I find it difficult to agree with more conservative perspectives. Granted. But I usually understand conservative perspectives, even when I do not agree with them. But try as I might, I just don't get this one.

There is a group in my congregation who has over $5,000.oo to spend. They make money at an annual craft bazaar that they then use to purchase something for the church. This year, they are purchasing ... are you ready for this? ... a pre-lit artificial Christmas tree. Cost = $30.00.

Let me repeat the figures, just to make sure you are with me. They have over $5,000.00 in their bank account and they are deciding to spend $30 of it to buy an artificial Christmas tree. (Incidentally, the tree is designated to be used to display ornaments in next year's craft bazaar. Nice, huh?)

The church building currently has four bathrooms in need of tile, one bathroom that needs stall dividers, the main lobby area needs new carpet, the office needs a new copy machine, the library sure could use a new set of Bible commentaries, two classrooms are in need of new furniture, it would be great to have some new artwork on the lobby walls, we would like to have three more computers networked, yada yada and yada. ...

They bought a Christmas tree (for themselves). They have $5,000.00 in the bank. I don't get it. Surely this isn't typical financial conservatism, is it? There must be something else going on. They made the crafts in order to make the money so that it could be spent on something for the church, didn't they? They said they didn't make any other purchases because they didn't know the exact cost of some of the things we need, and so they didn't want to give any of their money toward them. (The commentary set, of which the exact cost was known, was voted down in a secret ballot vote and no explanation was offered.) Why not say that they would like to give $500.00 toward the cost of the bathroom tile, for example? Then if that doesn't cover it, they could decide to spend a little more, perhaps?

Let's talk a little stewardship, here. Let's talk a little extravagant generosity. These people would ask God for a receipt after offering the first fruits of all they possess.

"Uh, yes, Jesus, quick question - how much exactly will my discipleship cost? I want to know for sure before I decide if I'm going to make that kind of commitment or not. After all, its my life and I can decide to do with it as I please." And while that is certainly true, there is something intrinsically radical about being grasped by the presence of the living Christ that precludes any notion of careful deliberation. There is nothing conservative about discipleship.

Sigh. I know, I know. We are going to be just fine without the bazaar women's $5,000.00. They will spend it when they are damn good and ready to spend it, I am sure. I'm sure I'm just going overboard as usual. But sitting there in the "meeting" at which they made their decisions was one of the most bizaare experiences I have had recently. It really was a bizaare bazaar.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Enter the Rainbow Makes News - With TYPO

Hey! Imagine my surprise when I saw my picture on the front page of the Missouri Conference Review this week! (A picture that features my big, round old glasses and my hair at a very awkward length, I might add.) Enter the Rainbow was featured in an article about blogging that was in the newspaper of the Missouri Annual Conference. You can read a .pdf version of the paper by clicking here.

AND BE SURE TO NOTE THE TYPOGRAPHICAL ERROR IN THE WORST POSSIBLE PLACE - THE ADDRESS OF MY BLOG!!!!! Apparently the article wants us to Enter the Reainbow, rather than the Rainbow. Problem with typos in website addresses is, your computer can't just read past the mistake and go ahead and take you to the correct website. It pretty much just looks agog at you and says "Duh ... I never heard of that one before. Here, let's go to this pretty error page, instead!"

The article also talks about the blogs of my friend Becky, a probationary elder from Sedalia now living in England named Sarah Hamilton, and Susan Cox-Johnson, one of Missouri's District Superintendents. There is also a very wonderful article Frank Santoro, who blogged about his journey through cancer.

This is weird, all this new attention paid to the blogosphere - there was recently a feature article about Shane Raynor in the national edition of the United Methodist Review, now at our conference level there is a front page story about blogging. It makes me wonder about what having the attention of the old school print media does to (or for) blogs.

Perhaps newspaper attention will begin to make the blogosphere more "mainstream." Then I've gotta ask, "Is that a good thing?" Maybe bloggers are happier with that cutting edge status. On the other hand, having articles about blogs in newspapers is likely to boost the number of readers that we get. OF COURSE, THAT WOULD BE TRUE ONLY IF THE PAPER GETS THE BLOG ADDRESS CORRECT IN THE ARTICLE. But more readers mean more comments - and bloggers do love comments!

One thing is sure, as blogging has grown and changed over this brief time span, a true sense of community has formed, and continues to form. It is a community unlike anything I have ever experienced before. And as I have always said, though it will never replace a face to face conversation over a cup of coffee, blogging really does enhance the way we communicate with one another.

So here I am, blogging about a newspaper article about blogging. I can only hope that the next edition of the Missouri Conference Review prints an address correction in big, bold, print right on the banner headline of the front page! ;)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Adventure People, Where Are You?

Do you remember these? I sure do! Fisher Price "Adventure People." I had hours upon hours of creative, non-violent, screenless fun as a kid playing with these sets. I recently found a website that has pictures of all of them. Click here to reminisce.

Am I guilty of a 34 year old's nostalgia? Am I remebering these toys with rose-colored glasses on? I don't think there is anything even remotely as fun, imagination-engaging, and accessible as these wonderful playsets in today's toy market. With a four-year-old and a seven-year-old and Christmas approaching, I am more familiar with today's toy market than I once was. It is not a pretty sight.

With the Adventure People, there were no silly characters. No mind-numbing screens. No attention span shortening computer images. Just people having whatever adventures I decided they would have today.

My safari family, Jim, Mom, Jenny, and Johnny, interacted very nicely with my Star Wars figures, yet they were inherently special to me. They weren't meaningful because they were connected to a movie, a video game, or a Madison Avenue marketing scheme. I just loved the toy itself.

If there is ANYTHING remotely like it on store shelves today, please guide me to it. I have some Christmas shopping to do.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Pat Robertson, Again

Pat Robertson has taken one more step toward making the Church an irrelevant joke. Click here if you want to sigh too deeply for words.

Do people actually still listen to this guy?

You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Church

You know those signs at the front of the roller coaster line? The ones that have a cartoon character holding out his arm and if you can walk under the arm you cannot ride the ride? I remember once my daughter scraped the underside of the sign and was not allowed on the ride. Literally, had she been wearing a different pair of shoes, she would have made it! But the standard was rigid. For good reason, too. Her safety was at stake.

We get into trouble, however, when we attempt to apply such rigid standards to other situations. Take public schools, for instance. The governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, wants to make a blanket requirement that 65% of the money in each school district is spent in the classroom. Sounds okay as an idea, huh? But then I read that some really excellent school districts are not close to that level. I remember reading that Liberty school district spends about 58% of its money in the classroom, and it is one of the best in the state. To require Liberty to raise their in classroom spending to 65% would require the reduction of some of the other wonderful things they are currently funding - things like arts, sports, or professional clubs, perhaps.

Or take church membership, as another example. There are many who want to put really high standards on becoming a member of a church. For example, you must attend a certain percentage of worship services, or give a certain percentage of your income, or serve in a certain number of outreach opportunities per year, or confess particular sins, etc. These, among other things, are some of the standards that some churches require in order for someone to be a full member. If you cannot agree to meet the standards, you cannot be a member of the church. And I certainly agree that supporting your church with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service, as well as confessing your sin before God, are desirable activities for church members.

But do we go too far? When we assign rigid standards to becoming a church member, what have we done to the meaning of membership? Have we not changed church into something to which we belong rather than something that we are?

If you start a club, you can set your own standards for membership - high sign, secret handshake, whatever. Problem is, church is not a club. People do not "belong to" the church; people ARE the church. Just like that old Sunday School song says - "We are the church together." Church membership is not like joining a club, not a status symbol, not an item on one's resume, not access to a set of privileges denied to non-members. To set rigid standards on church membership is to demean the church by making it just one more club among many.

"High standard" churches tend to have a lot of people in them, however. Surely this fact would tend to lead us toward imposition of such rigid expectations for membership. Yes, if you are using numerical growth as your only assessment tool for "success." It is difficult to measure faithfulness, however. And to say that large membership churches are the only ones that are being faithful is just not truthful, and a gross oversimplification of reality. An incarnate relationship that invokes the presence of Christ requires only 2 or 3 to gather in his name.

The "mystic, sweet communion" that is the Church of Jesus Christ is so much more than artificially imposed standards can reflect. Anywhere, anytime, any group gathers in the name of Christ Jesus, there is the church. To say anything else, it seems to me, is shoddy ecclesiology. Let's take down the "You Must Be This Tall..." signs at our church doorways and start being the church again!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

What Could Be Better...

... than a four-year-old boy in the middle of a room full of building blocks?

Monday, November 07, 2005

More of the Gospel According to Cori

I know that my daughter must be a mystic. I'm pretty sure she has some kind of special connection to the Divine, anyway. Cori is seven years old and has a way of saying things that brings God to the surface more readily that almost anyone else I know.

Her latest, "No one is different than everybody."

Here is the context: Cori noticed that I had scratched out the United Methodist slogan, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors," from my car's bumper sticker and written, "It's the thought that counts" instead. (Say what you will about my own little act of passive/aggressive protest, it's not the point of this post!) Cori then asked my wife Erin why I had done this.

Erin replied, "Because Daddy was sad and angry about a United Methodist pastor in Virginia not letting someone be a member of the church because he was different." Erin chose her words carefully for Cori's seven-year-old ears.

The idea made Cori mad. She has been righteously indignant in the past, and it truly is a sight to behold. This time, she uttered the astonishingly liberative truth: "No one is different than everybody." Knowing this and living one's life shaped by this notion make it very difficult to discriminate. One has a hard time prejudging someone else when starting from this place. I cannot look at a person different from me and make comparative assessment of them using myself as the standard, because, as Cori says, no one is different from everybody.

Fundamentally, all of us are just people trying to live our lives as best we can. In that sense, everyone is like everyone else, although I am not trying to promote "sameness" as a desirable trait. Far from it! I celebrate the diversity of God's creation whenever possible. And it is important to note that "sameness" and "unity" are not synonyms. The church can and should and occasionally does exhibit deep and profound unity in the midst of its wondrous and vibrant diversity.

The yin/yang of diversity and unity is an important affirmation of God's creative power. Preudice is when we tip the balance too far toward unity using our own perspective as the standard of measurement. The miracle of life is that each of us is uniquely valued by God while at the same time living as just one among many in common humanity with one another.

Thanks to Cori for helping me understand this anew. No one is different than everybody yet each of us can know God personally. And that's the Gospel according to Cori.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Council of Bishops - Folks Like Us

Our denomination's Council of Bishops has written this letter to the church. You can read the whole thing by clicking here. In the letter, they write, "While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier." And they quote our Social Principles, saying, "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends." Of course, they are responding to this week's Judicial Council decision regarding Rev. Ed Johnson of South Hill UMC in Virginia.

There is a lot of blog chatter about this letter: some bloggers have criticized it; some have supported it; some have just posted it and let it be.

Thing is, my grandfather is a bishop. Monk Bryan, retired from the Nebraska conference and living now in Dallas and in Lake Junaluska, is my grandfather. When I read a letter from the bishops of my church, I am reading a letter from Daddy Monk. The man who loves nothing more than saddling a horse for a ride through the mountains. The man who has a fondness for peaches and vanilla ice cream. The man who taught me that a job is not done until the tools are cleaned and put away. The man who loves to hear me play hymns on the old piano in his living room. The man who loves the church of Jesus Christ more than anyone I have ever known.

Life is not a series of issues to be argued over until someone wins and someone loses. Life is people connecting to people, valuing one another, growing closer to God and neighbor, getting to know the faces of strangers. Sure, the Council of Bishops is a group of the most powerful, respected leaders of our denomination. But it is also Daddy Monk. And Fritz. And Ann. And Robert. And ...

Just a bunch of folks like us.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

... Okay, but how do you FEEL?

Erin read my post from yesterday and said, "I'm disappointed in your blog today."
Now, Erin has used a lot of words to describe her reaction to my blog, but "disappointed" was a new one. I therefore asked her to explain.

She said, "That blog entry does not really reflect your true feelings. I saw you yesterday, I talked with you, I know how you feel about these decisions, and you just didn't show it in that blog."

As usual, Erin was right. My entry yesterday was a pathetic attempt at levity, which I was using as a defense mechanism to mask my emotional reaction. Jackie Thomas, my CPE instructor, would not be very happy with me, either. She was always pushing me to express my emotional responses, trying to dig into the shallow facade of "I-have-it-all-together-ness" that I always try to project. And yesterday, I definitely did not have it all together.

To use a trite cliche, my heart is broken. Yesterday, I was convicted of my sin - namely, thinking of homosexuality as an issue that we can somehow discuss and dialogue in order to resolve or not. It is not just an issue that we can get tired of talking about and let drop somewhere. I know now that it is not an issue among issues. It defies comparison to other issues - i.e. slavery, idolatry, hot buttered corn on the cob. It is much more.

The United Methodist Judicial Council decisions of yesterday represent systemic devaluing of people based on arbitrary criteria set by the powerful.

Here it is again:
...systemic devaluing of people based on arbitrary criteria set by the powerful.

I spent a lot of time wrestling with God to come up with that sentence, and I will defend every single word in it.

The term that is likely to cause the most stir is "arbitrary criteria," so I'll just go ahead and take that one on now. "It is not arbitrary, it is the Bible, and if you disagree with me, you are denying the authority of the Bible," is how the argument goes. We have heard it many times before. The problem is, in the "pick and choose" method of naming sins, there is no pattern. There is no discernable method by which the "practice" of same gender sexual contact has been elevated above any of the others on the S list - lawsuits, divorce, not selling all your possessions and giving the money to the poor, etc.
And furthermore, while the Bible is clearly talking about same gender sexual contact, it is most often talking about elevating one's desire for sex above one's desire for God. Either that or child abuse, gang rape, or other "shameful and degrading" sex acts. It is simply not referring to two grown people who are in love with each other expressing their love sexually. Reading every single word of the authoritative Hebrew and Greek texts very closely and delving deeply into the meaning of every line of the text has convinced me of that.

So yes, I am sticking with "arbitrary criteria," and I will until someone convinces me of my error. The United Methodist Judicial Council decisions of yesterday represent systemic devaluing of people based on arbitrary criteria set by the powerful.

I am sorry that I did not emote yesterday. I was trying to put up that mask of levity and I-have-it-all-together-ness. Sometimes I wish I had some of my brother's raw, in your face emotive capacity. But just a little bit. (He scares me sometimes ;) But now I can say, my heart is broken about these decisions. I know that I am not alone, either. And for those of you reading this whose hearts with mine have been smacked around for way to long, please help me. Please help me discern a fitting way to speak the truth in love so that God's will might be done on earth, as it is in heaven. I don't know what's next. So please help me to know. Please God.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I Have An Idea!

It is too late for this year, but I have a great costume idea for next halloween. I am going to go as a homosexual United Methodist, since the prospect of the existence of such a creature seems to be so terrifying for people. I bet I get lots of candy!

Seriously, what is so scary? I have real, honest questions about the "threat" to the institution of marriage allegedly posed by gay couples. Can anyone tell me how my relationship with Erin is threatened because of gay marriages?

And thinking about ordination and membership in the church: Can anyone tell me what greater threat to the body of Christ is posed by people who are gay than say, by people who enter into lawsuits, or maybe by women speaking in church, or perhaps by people who do not sell all their possessions and give them to the poor? All of these issues are specifically addressed in the New Testament, aren't they?

The Judicial Council decisions about Beth Stroud and Ed Johnson (click their names to read the stories) are further evidence of how far from the core Christian values of love and grace our denomination has come. It is a really hard time to be Methodist.

Only by the grace of God will we be able to discern if the Via Media will eventually become reality. In the meantime, we will have to deal with the fear and with the oppression and injustice that result.

For whatever it's worth, I'm sorry.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Can We Talk? - Part 3: A Via Media

Some people are so tired of talking about homosexuality, they are just ready to stop talking and divide the church. Group all the people who think one way over here; group all the people who think another way over there; now let’s just be two separate churches. A similar thing happened in 1844 in the Methodist church, except the issue at that time was slavery. It took almost 100 years for the two branches to be grafted back together. However, the people who wrote the schism proposal at that time wrote it with foresight, burning no bridges and leaving the pathway open for reuniting at some point in the future. Some think this is the way we should go now.

Some other people want to continue to bash one another over the head over the issue of homosexuality, wielding their various ideologies as weapons with which to seek and destroy those who disagree. Locked and loaded, they head off to Annual, Jurisdictional, and General Conferences bristling and ready for battle. The early church used to have big councils at which the loser of the debate was burned, along with all his writings. Weren’t those proud moments in our Christian heritage? Yet it sometimes seems the church hasn’t come far from those … umm … less gentle days, especially when one witnesses the rhetoric in the air around recent conferences and other denominational events.

You know, I believe with all my heart that there is a third group of people out there. This caucus is not vocal, not very well organized, and has for the most part been silently frustrated at the carryings on of the other two groups. Let’s call this group the Via Media Caucus. They do not want to divide the church, and at the same time they want to be able to honestly disagree in Christian friendship. At the last United Methodist General Conference, the unofficial Via Media group almost got the Book of Discipline changed to read, “Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching” instead of the inflammatory, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Here’s the amazing thing: There are people who believe all kinds of different things about the issue in all three of these groups. There are some people in favor of ordination and marriage for homosexual people who want to stop talking and split the church, some who want to keep battling, and some who want to find the middle way. And there are people against ordination/marriage of homosexual people in each group, as well. This is why this particular issue is so astonishingly complicated. There is no “us” and “them.”

The good news is, when there is no “us” and “them” – it’s all us! Everything we do starts with the commonality of the gift of life that has been graciously given by God, the gift of salvation that has been offered to us through Christ, and the gift of God’s reign on earth that is promised by the power of the Holy Spirit. In order to continue to be faithful to the church God is calling us to be, we must start the conversation from this common understanding.

The people who back up their beliefs with, “Because the Bible says so, that’s why,” have got to understand that this reasoning is meaningless without acknowledging the particular context through which their beliefs were formed. The people who try to say, “All perspectives are of equal value,” have got to understand that this simply is not the case, and to stubbornly hold to such a view is an example of the very same rigid ideological thinking they are trying to argue against. Both of these lines of thought throw up roadblocks to any helpful conversation. The Via Media, beginning around our commonality, may just be the only way any more conversation will happen.

These past three blog posts, I have not been trying to persuade anyone as to the sinfulness or not of homosexuality. I have just been trying to answer the question, “Can we talk?” I think the answer is “Yes,” but only if we are willing to first acknowledge our common humanity, open ourselves before God in worship and confession, and go beyond the senseless, mind-numbing diatribe that some people are trying to pass off as conversation these days. We may not be able to ever persuade our conversation partner to our perspective, but the conversation itself can be holy as we gather around God’s table together.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Can We Talk: Part 2 - Connie and Id

Yesterday I began a reflective series on the difficulties of dialogue. Today’s post builds on yesterday’s, so if you haven’t read that one, you might want to pause and read it first.

In an attempt at concision, I am going to name our contextualizer “Connie” and our ideologue “Id.” Okay? Yesterday I posited that Connie and Id have trouble talking with one another, because they end up trying to have two separate conversations at once. Connie wants to start with context; Id wants to start with immutable truth. Their conversations never lead anywhere productive, because they are not starting from common ground. It is as if the Kansas City Chiefs were trying to play the Kansas City Royals in a game, but each in their own respective sports. Doesn’t work.

In order to talk together, Connie and Id each need to give up something. It will not be easy for them to do this, but for the sake of living together in peace without bashing each other’s brains in, it needs to be done. It will call each of them to self-examination and penance, relying on the grace of God all the way along.

Put simply, Connie needs to confess that contextualization is his own ideology; Id needs to confess that she came to her ideology via her context.

Connie is a consensus-builder, and tries really hard to respect everybody’s point of view, because he believes each person is entitled to believe his or her own thing based on individual life context. But Connie goes overboard every so often and thus can’t really disagree with anyone, because he has to say that the other perspective is just as valid as his own. This is the built in weakness to his position. He practices an ideology of acceptance that inflates the importance of not only contrary ideas, but also trivial, even silly ideas to equal footing with more helpful ideas. If Connie sticks unthinkingly to this ideology, conversation falters and eventually gets altogether stuck.

Id is an apologetic*,
and tries really hard to defend her perspective, because not only her perspective is at stake, but the immutable truth itself. But Id is a bit naïve if she really thinks that her access to immutable truth has not been mediated via her own life. She came to embrace her ideology thanks to the influence of family, friends, and teachers; music, books, and movies; race, class, and gender; etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. When Id comes into contact with another, different ideology, she is quick to write it off as false, using the circular reasoning that, since it is not the same as hers and hers is based on the truth, the other ideology therefore must not be. If Id refuses to acknowledge that her ideology is contextually formed, conversation falters and eventually gets altogether stuck.

(Believe me, I can see all of the flaws in the previous two paragraphs. Please feel free to point them out in the comments if you want to. But I have written these two paragraphs this way intentionally to make my larger point.)

And so, in order for their conversation to proceed, Connie must come out of the closet as a self-avowed practicing ideologue and Id must admit that she has a life in the midst of which her ideology was formed.

“That will never happen,” says cynic me. It goes against everything they are to make such confessions. It is not in their DNA. (Or, if you’d rather): It is not how God made them. (Theological excursus: maybe it is how God made them, but after the Fall, they are no longer able to be that way. But we will save that for another time.)

Ah! But here is our common playing field, isn’t it? It ought to be hard to confess our sin! It ought to be the hardest thing we do as children of grace. Still, it seems to me that one of the few things Connie and Id can agree to say in unison is, “God, I am not perfect. Forgive me.” It seems to me that one of the few things Connie and Id can do together is bow in prayer before God to ask for grace. I think therefore, that their dialogue must be preceded by liturgy.

I even have a suggestion. How about a Psalm?

Psalm 51:14-19
Save me from bloodguilt, O God,

the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;

you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;

build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then there will be righteous sacrifices,

whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

In part 3 (which should be up tomorrow or Friday), I hope to get a little bit specific with regard to the ongoing impasse in the conversation about homosexuality. Stay tuned…

*Serving as or containing a formal justification or defense. (

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Can We Talk? – Part 1: Ideology and Context

I have a thought.
Let’s dispense with the terms “liberal” and “conservative” for a while. They are too divisive, too inflammatory to be helpful. I want to lay those terms aside for the time being, just box them up and put them on the shelf out in the garage so I can reflect for a minute without them getting in the way. Instead of “liberal” and “conservative,” I would like to think about the dichotomy of “ideological” and “contextual.”

Some people put a pretty heavy emphasis on an ideology when they are making decisions about right and wrong, while others put a pretty heavy emphasis on context when making similar decisions. An ideologue will use a deontological approach to living that relies on rules, laws, and universal truths. A contextualizer will use a teleological approach to living that focuses on goals, visions, and particular circumstances.

I have observed that contextualizers and ideologues have a very tough time speaking to each other. See, an ideologue has a plank in his platform that says that his perspective is based on immutable truth. Conversation is therefore a matter of explaining and extolling that immutable truth so that others will see it, too. A contextualizer, on the other hand, has a plank in her platform that says her perspective and all other perspectives are based on variable contexts. Conversation is therefore a matter of trying to understand the contexts of the various conversation partners to discern among the different perspectives.

This works out just great if the contextualizer and the ideologue happen to agree about the issue. The problem comes when they disagree. Take … oh, let’s say … homosexuality, for example.

The ideologue may say, “Homosexuality is a sin. The Bible says it is.”
The contextualizer might reply, “Homosexuality is not a sin. The way I understand the context in which the Bible was written, I understand that what is really being condemned is idolatry. But let me hear more about your perspective.”
“The Bible is God’s Word,” says the ideologue, “It is therefore inerrant and is the ultimate authority in life. Are you denying the inerrant authority of God’s Word?”
“No, I’m not. The Bible is the authority of my life, also. What I am saying is that, when I dig deeply into these scriptures, I discover that the presenting issue was God’s people putting the things of this world ahead of God. I don’t believe it really has anything whatsoever to do with two adults in a mutually supportive, loving relationship, be they of opposite gender or not.”
“There is no sense in denying the words on the page. Homosexual relations are not natural, not how God created us to be. You can tell that with a simple biological assessment; the parts just don’t fit together right. That’s why the Bible condemns same sex relationships as sinful.”

And so on, and so on. I tried in this little excerpt to be true to each of these perspectives. If I have messed up somewhere, let me know. But I want to notice a few things about this little blurb of conversation, which I think is representative.

- This conversation will have no reconciliation, because the two people are not having the same conversation. One is ideological, whereas one is contextual.
- The ideologue does not address the contextualizer’s argument, but rather goes straight to the immutability of the source behind his own argument.
- The contextualizer doesn’t really address the ideologue’s notion of inerrancy.
- It is a part of the contextualizer’s way to try to understand the ideologue, but the attempt is not reciprocated.
- Consistency is important to the ideologue, so he speaks in absolutes.
- Perspective is important to the contextualizer, so he speaks with “I” statements.

It seems that we are stuck. And, to an extent, we are. If we keep trying to have conversations like this, we will be. But perhaps we can find a way to rearrange the conversation so that something more productive will emerge. Stay tuned … part 2 tomorrow.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Open Pulpit Update

For the past several months, we have been trying a new program here at my remarkable congregation, called the "Open Pulpit." It is a program for people with a calling to preach, but not a lot of opportunity. Two or three Saturday nights a month, we have a guest preacher for our "Come-as-you-are Worship Service." (I preach the other two Saturday nights.) The guest preacher signs up for a certain night, prepares a 12 - 15 minute sermon, helps plan the service, delivers the sermon at the service, then we sit down afterwards and I give a little feedback.

So far, we have heard from an associate pastor serving on a church staff, a seminary student, a lay member of our own congregation, the manager of a local Ronald McDonald House, and a college student who is on track toward ordination. We have two people signed up for November and two for January, though none have yet signed up in December. I anticipate that lay speakers, retired clergy, youth and many others would find the opportunity fulfilling.

And let me tell you about my personal reaction - I LOVE IT! Hearing the diversity of preaching styles and theological perspectives is - well that's MY THING, isn't it? And I have a chance to sit and listen, soaking up the word of God for my own spiritual health. It is nice for a preacher to hear a sermon every now and then. It is good for worship leaders to worship.

People in the congregation have responded favorably, also. Many people make an extra effort to greet the guest preachers following the service and thank them for their message. And several have made a point to stop me in order to say how much they like hearing all the different preachers. However, I must say that a couple of the members have expressed to me their disappointment when they learn that it is not me preaching on a given Saturday. But when they say such things, I calmly inform them that one who comes to church because of whom is delivering the sermon is coming to church for the wrong reason, then I smile impishly and take a drink of coffee.

All in all, after three months the Open Pulpit program has been a rousing success. Who'd-a-thunk it? It is nurturing the calling to preach in many people; it opens the congregation to a diversity of preaching perspectives; and it gives me the opportunity to participate in a relatively stress-free worship service a couple of times a month. It's definitely a win-win-win situation!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Troop Withdrawal Supported by GBCS

The United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has issued a statement urging the U.S. government "to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of its troops" from Iraq. If you want, you can click here to read the statement in its entirety. The statement also calls for support of the "Homeward Bound Act" in the House (H.J. Res. 55), cooperation with UN in rebuilding Iraq, and prayer for "just, equitable peace" for the people of Iraq.

Now, technically the General Boards of our denomination do not "speak for the church." Only General Conference can officially do that. But their words should carry a lot of weight with United Methodists. The GBCS upholds the Social Principles of the UMC, which say, "We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ," and are quite strong in condemning war and the "militarization" of society. Our denominational principles are pretty wishy-washy regarding some issues - but not so with war. I am glad to say that the stance of the Methodist church is staunchly opposed to war.

John Wesley called war an "Inhuman Folly." He wrote, "What must mankind be, before such a thing as war could ever be known or thought of upon earth? How shocking, how inconceivable a want must there have been of common understanding, as well as common humanity, before any two Governors, or any two nations in the universe, could once think of such a method of decision!" I am drawn to Wesley's emphasis on reason here. He seems to say, "Just think about it! It doesn't make any sense at all!"

I like this current GBCS statement, and the Homeward Bound Act. They don't say, "Get them all out immediately," which would lead to unimaginable disaster. They just ask for a plan. A workable plan to withdraw peacefully and turn the country back over to its own people. I think the GBCS has articulated a healthy alternative to both immediate withdrawal and indeterminate occupation.

It's time. I am going to write Sam Graves tomorrow and ask him to support the Homeward Bound Act. I hope that you do the same (except you should probably write your own Representative; Sam Graves is mine). It's time for this war to be over. It's time for our government to have a specific, attainable, measurable plan, the goal of which is withdrawal of "coalition" troops from Iraq and autonomy for that nation's people. It's time for peace.

P.S. The website told me that I have to tell you that the Cross and Flame is a registered trademark and the use is supervised by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church. Permission to use the Cross and Flame must be obtained from the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church - Legal Department, 1000 17th Avenue South Nashville, TN 37212.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Church in Ministry

In the middle of the afternoon, it hit me. It felt like a ton of bricks, but not violently all at once. More like someone lowering a ton of bricks onto my shoulders very slowly, over the course of let's say five or six minutes. But by the end of that time period, there was little doubt that I had been hit with the metaphorical 2,000 pound load.

See I am in the practice of putting names into my palm pilot, names of people hospitalized, sick, having surgery, going through tough family issues, etc. Basically people who I feel like I need to check up on, keep in touch with, pray for, and visit. My Sony Clie handheld device has a "Memo" feature that I use for this purpose. I can also write notes about each person to remind me of what exactly is going on with each one.

This afternoon when I turned it on and opened up my memo list, I was confronted with no less that twenty-eight names. Twenty-eight! How in the world did we accumulate twenty-eight souls on the pastoral care list? Quickly scanning the list, I identified two people for whom the crisis had passed, and I removed them. But that did little to relieve the weight of bricks on my shoulders. There is no way I could give adequate care to twenty-six different people.

See, here's me: If I could, I would personally visit each one of them. I would spend an hour or two in deep, meaningful conversation with each one about God's presence in the midst of suffering, the joy of having a spiritual home filled with good Christian friends to support you, and the precious gift of life that God so graciously gives all of us. If I could, I would be the pastor about whom they would later say, "And wouldn't you know, Andy came and visited me every single day while I was sick. What a nice person he is!"

But I can't. I can't be with all twenty-six of the people on my list. The physics of time and space make that literally impossible. And I would make myself sick trying. So what is a people pleasing pastor to do?

Here's what happened: When I stopped to think about it, I realized that almost every one of the people on my list has been visited by multiple people in the church already. I know this because they report to me: "I visited with Mary today" or "I sent Ray a card this week" or "I'm bringing Theda a meal this week, she doesn't like the food at her new place." And every time one of those people came to report to me, I affirmed them and thanked them for their compassion. So, I was in effect providing pastoral support for the people who were providing pastoral care for the ones on my list, which is a pretty good thing for a pastor to be able to do, I think.

As I thought about it, the ton of bricks gradually lightened. I called five of the people on my list, and we had some delightful conversations over the phone. And I came home for the day feeling like I had done some good stuff, and once more thanking God for being pastor of such a remarkable congregation. A congregation where that line in the bulletin that reads, "Ministers: All people of the church," really means something!

(By the way, there are pictures of our congregation's Pumpkin Patch over at the newsletter blog: click here to see them.)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

What Can You Say? Part 3 – “Those who … speak the truth from their heart”

“O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.”
(Psalm 15, NRSV)

To start part 3, I’d like to go back to the instigating case from part 1 of this trilogy. Bill Bennett makes a blatantly racist remark, to which people react. Leonard Pitts says, “That is racist.” Andy Bryan says, “That is racist.” When Leonard Pitts says it, it sounds somehow different than when I do. Yes, I know that he is a nationally syndicated columnist who could out-write me with one hand tied behind his computer and I’m just a Midwestern Methodist preacher with internet access. But his reaction sounds different for other reasons, also.

I think it is because he is speaking the truth from his heart, whereas I am speaking the truth without benefit of that resource. I do not have access to Leonard Pitts’ heart. His naming of the racism draws upon the pain and brokenness of his own heart, his own life experience, his own encounter with injustice. And that resource adds depth and power to his testimony.

I, too, am speaking from the heart, but my heart is just not as full as his. My heart has not been broken as often and as personally as his. My heart feels the pain of racism only empathetically. Empathy is an important resource, to be sure. But it doesn’t hold a candle to experience.

Preparing for an immersion trip to Guatemala while a seminary student, my class read books like I, Rigoberta Menchu, and Guatemala: Never Again and The Certainty of Spring by poet Julia Esquivel. The purpose of this exercise was to prepare us for the experience, give a little background of the Guatemalan story, and foster the beginnings of an understanding of the horrifically violent situation in the impoverished, exploited country. I soon learned that reading a book that tells a story about the massacre of an entire village is not the same as sitting in a small house hearing a woman tell the same story from first-hand experience with tears running down her face, the smell of corn tortillas cooking, the sounds of children playing outside, an eternally Spring breeze wafting through the open doors. So when I speak against the injustice that has been a part of Guatemalan life for the past four decades, I can do so with someone’s face in my memory. I speak from a heart that is a little bit fuller, a little bit more broken than it would be had I merely an academic knowledge of the situation.

SO: (and here I am going to attempt to be constructive. Ready?)
The difference is RELATIONSHIP. The best thing I can do with my unrequested, undeserved power and privilege is to be in relationship with those who do not have such. Pick the cliché – get outside of your comfort zone, expand your horizons, think outside of your box, even “enter the rainbow” – whatever you feel better with. The point is (and here I begin preaching to myself, as well) to enter into relationship with people radically other than you, and recognize the inherent worth of all human beings as children of God no matter what their station in life. Sit down with someone, have a meal, talk, be honest, look someone in the eye, shake their hand warmly, smile, laugh, cry, share stories. Especially seek relationship with the powerless, the oppressed, the prisoner, the sick, the outcast, acknowledging (confessing?) all the while the privilege that makes it even possible for you to do so in the first place.

Then, drawing upon the newly discovered resource of relationship, speak the truth from your heart! A heart that is now a little bit fuller, a little bit deeper. Tell the stories you now know. Speak without slander, evil, or reproach. Speak with integrity, respect, and honesty. Speak for God’s justice to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Speak out because your heart is so full that to not speak would cause it to burst. Speak the truth from your heart with the love of God as your guide, and you shall never be moved.

Grace and Peace,
Andy B.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What Can You Say? Part II: The Luke Skywalker Analogy

Yesterday I wrote the first episode of what I hope will be a trilogy of thoughts about the topic of advocating for justice. Thanks for your comments yesterday; I hope today’s thoughts will generate some more. Here is my reflection question of the day:

Do I need a reason to speak out other than justice in the generic sense?
For example:
On the one hand: Why do I want to advocate for marriage and ordination for all people regardless of sexual orientation? Because I believe sexuality is a gift from God, and God’s justice (as articulated in the scriptures and revealed over time to generations upon generations of witnesses) seems to me to demand that all persons be valued as individuals with integrity and sacred worth.
On the other hand: Why does my conversation partner down the street want to advocate for a position contrary to mine? Because he believes same-sex practices are sinful, and God’s justice (as articulated in the scriptures and revealed over time to generations upon generations of witnesses) seems to him to demand that sinners repent of their sin in order to receive forgiveness and live in wholeness as the body of Christ.

I’m not trying to get hung up on homosexuality as an issue, but simply to use it as a case study. I am not gay, yet feel called by God to speak out for justice for those who are. I have no stake in the discussion personally, other than to affirm and advocate for justice. But my conversation partner is not anti-justice, for goodness’ sake! In fact, justice is a big part of his faith. So if justice is all I have, it just comes down to my version of justice versus his, and the conversation goes nowhere. Both of our opinions are informed and reasonable. But nothing gets changed, and we are stuck with the status quo.

But if I had a personal stake in the issue (i.e. if I were gay), things would be different. The justice would be more than just “as articulated in the scriptures and revealed over time to generations upon generations of witnesses,” it would be justice as it impacts my life directly. I know that injustice in one part of the body is injustice for all, but I am talking about a tangible, concrete manifestation of the injustice. (Likewise if I were poor or homeless or physically challenged etc.) My voice would carry more credibility, more authority, maybe more legitimacy.

Use my privilege to advance the cause of justice, you say. Use my unearned and undeserved power, granted to me simply because of the circumstances of my birth, to fight for justice and peace throughout the land, you say. (I have a friend who calls me “Action Figure Andy” in reference to my justice-fighting tendencies.) Yes, I hear all of that, and rest assured that I will continue to do so. That is a choice I am making in response to who God is calling me to become. I am definitely not trying to avoid the obligations of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, namely fighting for God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven. I’m just trying to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling!

Here’s an analogy that may be helpful, may be not. My hero is Luke Skywalker, the reluctant Jedi. Remember him? He becomes a Jedi knight, fighting for the cause of peace and justice throughout the galaxy, only after his own family is killed by the empire. And he is most impassioned about the quest when Han, Leia, and Chewie are in danger. There is energy in Luke’s fight because he has a personal stake in its outcome; his friends, his family, and even his own personal identity are on the line.

All my life, I have been lucky enough to experience injustice only through the lives of others. I’m not proud of that; I’m not “blessed” by that; it just is. But the Galactic Empire never burned down my uncle’s farm on Tatooine. My personal identity is not at stake in this fight. Yet I fight. I fight.

Tomorrow I am planning to write a “Part 3” to this reflection. After two rather deconstructionist posts, hopefully I’ll have some things tomorrow that9 will be more constructive. In the meantime, thank you for the fantastic comments on yesterday’s post, and I hope to see some more on this one.

May The Force Be With You,
Andy B.