Saturday, February 25, 2006

For another perspective on confession...

...Click here and read what my friend John has to say.

The Grammar of Confession, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about pronoun selection when confessing one’s sins. I gave my rationale for using first person pronouns rather than second or third. Confessions should be “I” statements, not “you” statements. But what is the distinction between first person singular and first person plural? When should I confess “my” sins, and when should I confess “our” sins?

When I was a choir director in my previous life (before seminary), there was an ongoing debate in the choir about corporate prayers of confession. During worship, the prayer often had a line that went something like, “We have not been an obedient church, we have not done your will, we have broken your law, etc.” One bass in particular was upset every time we prayed this prayer because, as he put it, “I never did any of that stuff!”

One of the altos would inevitably chime in, “I’m not upset by that; I get upset because, when we confess together, I never get a chance to confess my own sins, only our group sins.”

And then a soprano would say something amusing like, “Well, I never sin so I don’t have anything to say, anyway” and then the whole choir would think that was just so funny and all start laughing and I would work to get everyone refocused on the actual choir rehearsal. (We were nothing if not predictable.)

The question at hand is this: When to say “I’m sorry” and when to say “we’re sorry”? Maybe the answer has something to do with the specificity of the sin. If I say, “We have failed to be an obedient church,” that is different from saying, “We have gone down to the gambling boat and blown $500 at the poker table.” The general confession leaves room for individuals to supply their own specifics; the more particular confession may very well exclude some people. But then what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? If one member of the body gambles, is it not proper to say that “we” as the body of Christ have sinned? Of course that is true to a certain extent. When one part of the body hurts, the entire body suffers. So, on the other hand, it is right and good to be specific in our corporate confession, even if certain individuals do not feel the confession applies specifically to them.

But a bigger problem arises when the sin I am confessing on behalf of the group is not perceived to be a sin at all by some individuals in the group. More so than just feeling the confession doesn’t apply, they believe that the confession need not be confessed at all. (This is the core of the conflict over homosexuality: one group believes it to be a sin, another group believes it is not.) In such cases, a body comprised of a diverse group of individuals would do well to dwell in the abundance of God’s grace and allow space for each person to confess before God by couching corporate prayers in more general language.

Err on the side of grace, I say. Rather than haggle together over what is or is not a sin, perhaps we can come to an understanding that all sin is at its core some version of idolatry – that commandment number one is, “There is one God and only one.” And the good news is that, whenever we forget that, God’s grace is there to remind us again and again. Every prayer of confession is therefore some variation of, "Oops, sorry. We forgot that you were God."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Considering the Grammar of Confession

The Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD) is all upset again (still) – this time about a confessional letter, read at a World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly. The letter asks God for forgiveness for the United States’ policies on war, the environment, and poverty.

In an email press release, IRD president Alan Wisdom complained, “This penitence is false. These church leaders are not confessing their own sins; they are trying to confess the sins of George W. Bush, who never asked them to perform that service for him. Nor did the members of their own churches ask them to make this kind of statement on their behalf. This letter is a blatant political abuse of the sacred Christian rite of confession.” Later, he said, “Of course, confession of sin is a duty for all Christians, but it is our own sins that we should confess – not the sins for which we wish to fault our political opponents.” (Emphasis mine.)

So, the IRD is upset because someone is trying to confess other people’s sins on their behalf. Or are they actually upset because the alleged sins being confessed are not something they consider to be a sin? Either way, the IRD has no trouble at all calling some behavior sin, even when it is not their own. Granted, I have never heard the IRD offer to actually confess another person’s sin on their behalf, but they have no problems whatsoever in naming other people’s sins for them.

So the theological questions at hand are these:

“Who has the right to name and then to confess sins, the sinner or another person?”
“What is the role of corporate confession of sin, and in what context should it be used?”
“Do we all have to agree that an act is sinful in order for it to be sinful, especially the sinner involved? Or is it enough for just a percentage of people to name something is a sin for it to be one?”

These big questions can be simplified into this one:

“What pronoun should be used in confession, ‘I,’ ‘we,’ ‘you,’ or ‘they’”?

I tend to stick pretty much with the first person and not so much with the second and third. When I use a first person pronoun, I am actually confessing. Using second or third person seems more like condemning. The WCC letter mentioned above uses all first person pronouns, and is as such a proper confession, whether the IRD likes it or not.

Later, I’ll write a little bit about issues that arise in using singular pronouns versus plural. (Don’t you just love grammar? :)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Pastoral Care - What a Week!

Wow. I didn't realize until today how long it had been since I last posted. It has been a remarkable week. For me, the theme of the past week has been pastoral care. It is interesting that days can pass, even a week or more, when no one at all comes in to talk. Then a week like last week, and I have three or four pastoral issues per day.

Pastoral care is true "in the trenches" ministry. And it can get messy. There is such pain, such sadness in the world. The despair of loneliness is sometimes too deep to climb out of. The hopeless feeling of alienation can paralyze. The pain of grief can cut more sharply than any knife. In the midst of all that, people come to the pastor for help.

I had been an Associate Pastor for one week when a young woman came into my office with suicidal thoughts, needing someone to talk with. As if ten days of "School for Licensing of Local Pastors" had prepared me for that! Yeah, I was licensed. Sure, I was the Associate Pastor of the congregation. But the only thing that gave me any sort of credibility to provide care for her was the authority and trust she herself invested in me. That, and the grace of God.

In the five and a half years since that first pastoral care conversation, I believe I have grown and learned a lot about what it means to be called "pastor." And I have to say, the prospect of providing pastoral care no longer terrifies me quite as much as it once did! Four years of
seminary, studying with Dr. Jeanne Hoeft, taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education with Rev. Jackie Thomas, and a lot of good "on-the-job training" have given me a set of care-giving tools I am learning to use with confidence. But still, a week like last week really exhausts me, even while providing a satisfying sense of fulfillment. It is, as mom always said, "A good kind of tired."

I am so thankful that I have a caring and supportive
church with an active and healthy Stephen Ministry. I am thankful to be a part of a loving, honest, and mutually accountable covenant group. I am so thankful that the church has dedicated, talented, and passionate staff that I can rely on when there is a rough week or two. And I am indescribably thankful for the care and support of my family, without whom I cannot imagine how I would possibly maintain my emotional balance.

All things considered, I am pretty happy to call myself a pastor. At least this week ... ;)

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Federal Budget is Just a Bunch of Oreo Cookies

This little video clip makes so much sense to me that it is either a stroke of genius or a gross over-simplification. Click here to see for yourself.

The Institue of Religion and Democracy - Just a TAD Hypocrital

According to an email press release I got yesterday, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) is opposed to legislation dealing with global warming. And just listen to their reasoning (You’re gonna love this!):

"It would be unwise for evangelical churches to repeat the mistakes of liberal-led mainline denominations by adopting specific assessments - usually the most alarmist assessments - of the environmental situation and then lending their blessing to particular policy prescriptions - often statist and costly prescriptions. Churches should be reluctant to attach the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to contemporary political agendas that lack a clear scriptural mandate and consensus among the faithful."

So says IRD interim president, the ironically named Alan Wisdom.

Furthermore, apparently the IRD has determined that the science of global warming is a little fuzzy. They don’t see global warming as a “consensus issue,” because of the ongoing debate as to its “causes and origins.” And since we don’t know for sure, the church shouldn’t take a stand one way or another. To do so would be to “politicize” the Gospel, which IRD thinks is a bad thing.

Now, any of you who have read Enter the Rainbow for any length of time know where I am going with this - straight at the heart of IRD’s hypocrisy. For this little exercise, global warming will be the issue on the one hand and homosexual rights will be the issue on the other hand. Okay, ready? Let’s play.

- On the one hand, we should not adopt specific alarmist assessments of the environmental situation. On the other hand, IRD’s assessment is that gay marriage is such a dangerous threat to straight marriage that it must be immediately banned.

- On the one hand, we should avoid blessing particular policies, especially “statist” (what in the world?) and expensive ones. On the other hand, IRD is actively campaigning to amend state constitutions all over our nation to limit the rights of homosexual people, and spending a lot of money in the process.

- On the one hand, we should hesitate to associate the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a political agenda regarding the environment. On the other hand, IRD has built its entire anti-homosexual political agenda around the notion that the Gospel of Jesus Christ condemns same-sex relationships.

- On the one hand, a stance against global warming lacks a clear scriptural mandate. On the other hand, a smattering of tangential Bible verses will suffice to support the vehement anti-homosexual ideology.

- On the one hand, the church needs to refrain from taking a stand on the environmental issue until the science behind it is worked out. On the other hand, IRD takes its unambiguous anti-gay stance in spite of the fact that science cannot now and will never be able to fully explain the intricacies of sexual attraction.

Mmmm … I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning! It may be that I am comparing apples with oranges here, but that is not the larger point of my argument. I think the IRD blew it on this one. If they were to apply the same reasoning they are using for their global warming position to the issue of homosexual rights, then they would be forced to take a non-stand on that issue, also. But their stand on homosexual rights is crystal clear. (Hint: they are not favorable). I sure hope somebody with more clout than me calls them on this.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Okay, Okay - So I Was Tagged

Every now and then a blogger "tags" another blogger. I have been tagged by both Adam Caldwell and Adam Mustoe, which means I have to answer the questions that they put to me. And I have to admit, though I went into it with my shoulders shrugged in exasperation, I had a pretty good time actually answering the questions. So here, Adams, are my responses. Enjoy, everyone!

Four jobs I've had in my life:
Grocery Sacker
Choir Director

Four Movies I could watch repeatedly (and have):
Any of Star Wars I-VI
Life is Beautiful
Bruce Almighty
The Pianist

Four Places I have lived:
Kirksville, MO
Galesburg, IL
Warrensburg, MO
Kansas City, MO

Four TV shows I love to watch:
A College Basketball game
A Professional Football game
The Daily Show
Home Movies

Four Places I have been on Vacation:
Glacier National Park
Yellowstone National Park
The Black Hills, SD
Orlando, FL

Four Websites I visit daily:

Four Favorite Restaurant Foods:
Barbecue Veggie Sandwich from Planet Sub
A Fish Burger from Ruby Tuesday
Alfredo Pizza from Kelso’s
A Chocolate Shake from Hardee’s

Four Places I'd Rather Be Right Now:
Anywhere with my wife and kids
On a trail

Drinking coffee on a balcony/veranda somewhere overlooking the mountains

Four People I'm tagging:
(I am refraining from tagging anyone else, since I believe that human beings are all given the gift of free will and make our own choices, so far be it from me to force anyone to do anything they do not want to. However, should anyone feel called to participate in this little game, feel free to use the comment feature of my blog to do so. Thank you for your support.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

I Am Wesleyan, Hear Me Roar!

We are not perfect yet, but we're getting better every day!

I'm in the middle of teaching an adult Sunday School class studying the doctrine of Christian Perfection, a distinctly Wesleyan idea. We are using the resource A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley's 'A Plain Account of Christian Perfection' and are just over half way through.

In this resource, Steve Manskar has "translated" the 18th century Wesley-ese into more contemporary language which we have found very easy to understand. Marjorie Suchocki has written a very helpful, insightful, and relevant theological reflection on the text. The study guide provided in the text has not been particularly helpful, but occasionally provided us some ideas for how to proceed.

It has been very good to be so Wesleyan for these past few weeks. I am remembering all over again just what attracted me to his theology in the first place. The "Way of Salvation," the strength afforded God's grace in Christ Jesus, having the image of God stamped a fresh on your heart, the emphasis on the process of the Christian life and the hope that we can and will be better people than we find ourselves presently to be - Yahoo! This is good stuff.

With that said, I cringe when I hear people say that we need to "get back to Wesley," or some such sentiment. That is the wrong metaphor, and not at all Wesleyan in and of itself. Granted, Wesley was influenced by the early church, but he did not want Methodists to simply live like they did "way back when." And so he probably would shudder at the thought that present day Methodists were trying to regress into an 18th century mindset and theology.

Rather, I hope that we energetically and creatively bring Wesley into the 21st century. Let's talk about a postmodern Wesleyanism that would include spiritual disciplines, an openness to the working of grace, the idea of salvation as a process/journey, etc. ... but translated into a language that 21st century people can hear and understand. In fact, I think that is what Manskar was trying to do with A Perfect Love.

We cannot spread scriptural holiness through0ut the land by simply replicating everything John and Charles did more than 200 years ago. But there is too much to learn from what they did and who they were to simply ignore them. We are Methodists; let's learn what that means, embrace it, and take the next step together toward perfection in love.

More Wesleyan thoughts to come soon ...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Ministry OF Young Adults: Workshop Recap

The past four days have been in the category of “insanely busy” for me. I can barely even begin to convey the amount of activity that I have experienced. Curse this sunny weather, what I need is a couple of snow days! You know, sixteen inches of snow on top of an inch of ice with temperatures in the low teens – stuck at home, darn it, and no possible way to get out to do anything.

Anyway, enough with the “Oh, I’m so busy” schtick …

One of the things occupying my time these last few days was our district’s Lay Leadership Training event, at which I was leading a workshop titled “The Ministry of Young Adults.” (See my two previous posts for some more info.) Overall the workshop went really well, I thought. There were twelve people in my workshop (over 200 attended the event), representing five different churches.

The first thing we tried to do was get past thinking of young adults as objects, rather than subjects. We talked about the dangers of using terms like ministry “to” young adults or “for” young adults or even “with” young adults, since this thinking artificially separates young adults from the church and makes the church the primary actor and the young adult the passive recipient. Instead we thought about ministry “of” young adults, which is a mindset that affirms that young adults themselves are the church and not a separate animal, and that we have inherent gifts and graces for ministry.

Using a set of four case studies, we tried to expand our idea of what “church” is. We tried to avoid any gimmicky, “Easy button” style ministry. It was good to see that most people have abandoned thinking, “If we could only get the right curriculum, we would have young adults here” or “If we only had a guitar player…” or “If we could just get a big screen in our sanctuary…” etc. etc. Making the church vital for young adults involves a shift in thinking, not the addition of a new program.

Here are some other insights of the workshop:

- Most people think of young adults as younger versions of themselves, when in reality young adults are a diverse group: different ethnically, racially, socio-economically, children or not, married or not, in school or working or not, etc. So when a church seeks to enhance the ministry of young adults, it is a much broader endeavor than most churches are envisioning.

- Young adults respond to authentic relationships more than fancy programs. If a church has passion and energy, if a church “keeps it real,” if a church allows people to participate together in something they can take home with them with some relevance to their lives, then the struggle to engage in young adult ministry will not be such a struggle.

- It is not a matter so much of getting more young adults into the church. It is a matter of re-thinking what church is such that young adults know that they are the church, wherever they happen to be.

- Saying, “We have always done it that way, so we are not changing,” is not faithful to the commandment to love your neighbor, since reaching out to new neighbors may involve changing things. Saying, “We have to change or we are going to die,” is not faithful to the commandment to love God, since it is focused purely on self-preservation and maintaining the bare minimum, rather than participating in the abundant life to which God calls us. Rather than either of these, we need to think of this call as, “Change as an act of faith.” In other words, we must change, but not in order to preserve the church. Rather, we must change because God is calling us to do so.

Although there was more we discussed, these are the most fundamental things we talked about for that hour and a half last Sunday. I hope that some good happened, some seeds were planted. I know that I really got a lot out of it, and learned a bunch from the people there. I just want the church to be a place where all people, young and old, feel like they can encounter the living presence of God and form meaning for their lives.

According to our Conference definition, I have but one more year to be a “young adult.” After that, I’m not sure exactly what I will be; I guess I’ll have to grow up or something. ;)