Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Correction: It's WAY Worse Than That

I made a mistake in last Sunday’s sermon. (My only one of the year, of course.)

In making a point about how we are often overwhelmed by all that is “wrong” with the world, I drew an analogy from the category of “sports” - kind of “current events,” too. I mentioned the newly signed contract between one Mr. Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, which for some reason is on everyone’s minds around here these days.

Turns out my calculations were off. Way off!

Allow me to clarify.

According to the whiz-bang mathematical minds of the Campbell UMC staff, Pujols’ salary breaks down thusly:

+ $254 million over 10 years
+ $25.4 million per year
+ MINUS 45% for taxes and agent fees
+ $13,970,000 per year
+ 162 games in the regular season
+ $86,234.57 per game
+ 4 at bats per game
+ $21,558.64 per at bat

For further review:
(if only 3 at bats, he’ll earn $28,744.86 per at bat)
(if out of the lineup, he’ll earn $9,581.62 for every inning he warms the bench)

So, my figure yesterday was far, far too low.

The figure from Sunday’s sermon that IS accurate, though, is that it takes $300 per year to send a child to secondary school in Kenya, and a part of what the New Hope Initiative is trying to do is send kids from the Kibera slum in Nairobi on to get their secondary education with full scholarships, provided they pass the entrance exams.

And so, every time Albert Pujols comes to the plate next season, 71 children could receive these scholarships with the money he makes.

Seventy-one. With some spare change. Even if he strikes out.

Please understand that I am not bashing Albert Pujols personally. I’m sure he’s a very nice man. The intent is to point out just how out of whack our societal priorities are these days.

When the education of 71 kids living in one of the world’s biggest slums is equal to one single at bat of a Major League Baseball player, we have a problem. A global problem. A theological problem.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53)

So somebody tell me, how are we supposed to make sense of all this?

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Safe Season?

Have we made Christmas too safe?

That’s what I’ve been wondering this season. Has Christmas become a predictable mish-mash of traditions that have been separated from the earth-shattering power of the incarnation?I’m not bashing Christmas traditions, you realize. When it comes to Christmas traditions, I’m all in favor.

My family dives into Christmas traditions – the tree, the lights, the nativity sets, special dinner, family time – the works! So I’m not belittling these things at all.

I’m just wondering, is it all too safe? And what do I even mean by safe?

Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure. I’m just reading the words of the prophets and noticing some fairly cataclysmic language. The heavens being torn open, the mountains quaking, the nations trembling, valleys being lifted up, mountains being made low, and that kind of stuff.

Earth shattering. Powerful. Transformative.

If by “safe” we mean innocuous, secure from risk, stable … well, the only thing “stable” about Christmas was the place Jesus was born.

The birth of Jesus changed everything.

God. Became. Human.

The thought should stagger you. The first inkling of understanding as to what the incarnation truly means should feel like a bolt of lightning electrifying your soul. The sheer power of Christmas scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry, and empties the rich, as Mary sings in Luke 1.

Have we somehow hidden that behind a big inflatable lawn Santa that plays “You Better Watch Out” over and over again? Are we so blinded by the glare of strings of computer programmed LED strings that we can’t see the light of the world any more? Is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra drowning out the sound of the voice of Zion up on the mountain announcing the presence of God?

This Christmas, don’t be safe. Take a risk. Do something you’ve never done before, for the sake of Jesus. Honor the birth of Christ by continuing the mission he inaugurated.

This Christmas, change the world.

(This is my offering for this year's Advent Devotion book published by Campbell UMC. The devotion book is online again this year, and can be accessed and subscribed to by clicking right here.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

For the Sake of the Mission - Follow-up

In his comment on my last post, Bob wrote:

“I can appreciate your position, but what good is a religion that tosses aside beliefs to accomplish their mission. If we believe something is wrong it doesn't give us license to be hateful but we certainly ought not condone sinful actions.”

These are great observations. I agree that a religion’s beliefs shouldn’t be thoughtlessly tossed aside, and I agree that religions should not condone sin. I overlook neither of these things.

For me, Bob’s comment illuminates a deeper question - just what is “religion,” anyway? A set of beliefs? An institution? A set of practices? A relationship with God? Some combination thereof?

I define religion at its heart as a relationship with God. And the mission, expressed many different ways, is to offer that relationship to people. In other words, the beliefs and practices of a religion ought to nurture that relationship. The beliefs and practices are subordinate to the relationship. And so when beliefs and practices make that relationship more difficult they need reformation.

This has been the church’s pattern for generations. We have continually been trying to figure out what, exactly, we believe. And not just on “non-essentials,” either. Questions like the identity of Jesus, the nature of God, the relationship between grace and works - big, important beliefs. Each of these, and many others, have been scrutinized and discussed and reformed over the course of Christian history. In fact, the most memorable figures in the history of the church are those who have said, “Wait a minute! What are we saying here? How does this actually help people find God? Maybe we should rethink this.”

And so, if I might reword Bob’s implied question, “Should we rethink what we believe if we find that it hinders our mission of offering people a relationship with God?” I answer unequivocally, “Yes.” We always have, and I see no reason to stop now. Not without prayerful discernment, of course. Not thoughtlessly, not lightly. But certainly it is acceptable to reform.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Time for the UMC to Change: For the sake of the mission

Several people have recently asked me my opinion on the question of marrying same-sex couples, especially with the current build-up to the United Methodist General Conference next year. I have also been asked recently why I haven’t written as much about homosexuality as I used to.

My simplest answer to both is, I really don’t have anything new to add to the conversation. I have written a bunch about my beliefs on the question; a brief search of “Enter the Rainbow” would illuminate them fully.

Here’s the un-nuanced, nutshell version - first, I know that my understanding is limited and fallible, and I am not privy to the entire truth of God. Secondly, I believe that Scripture is clear about what it condemns, and it does not condemn a mutually loving and respectful relationship between two adults of the same gender. Thirdly, I have come to this belief through deep study of Scripture, earnest prayer, a lot of reading, and many hundreds of conversations and experiences with others. And fourthly, I know that there are many who do not share my belief, and many of those happen to be dear friends whom I know are faithful, loving, gracious followers of Jesus who are not hateful or homophobic or hypocritical in any way. I truly lament when some who share my belief accuse others of such hurtful things.

Lately, I have begun to be alarmed at how the United Methodist positions on same-sex marriage and ordination of people who are gay hinder the mission of the church. The official positions of our denomination on this issue create the perception that our church preaches one thing but enacts another. We’ve all read about the research done by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons that came out in 2007 in their book “unChristian.” (Here are some of their data - http://www.unchristian.com/downloads/uc_data.pdf). This study has led to others, and Adam Hamilton does a wonderful job with this topic in his book, “When Christians Get it Wrong.”

Anecdotally, all it takes is a Google search. Go to Google, type in “Christians are” and a space, and let the drop down suggestions do the rest. The first one I got just now was “hypocrites,” the second was “crazy” and the fourth one was “annoying.” (The third one was “like pumpkins,” which is that trite little piece about how God scoops out our internal junk and carves smiles on our faces. Horrifying!)

Experientially, all it takes is a dozen or so conversations with a few teens and twenty-somethings. The UMC’s position is seen as so completely out of touch with the real world as to be almost laughable. It would be laughable, in fact, if it wasn’t so sad. I’ve had dozens of conversations with dozens of people outside the church who simply consider the church to be so far removed from their lives that they would never even consider turning there for spiritual connection. And it’s not animosity; it’s simple ambivalence.

And so here am I, a pastor who is passionate about helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ who are working to make the world better for God’s sake. And I am discovering over and over again in multiple conversations with many different people who are “outside the church” that I am unable to accomplish that mission, simply because people don’t see why they need to be a part of what they see as a hypocritical organization in order to make the world a better place. They’re already doing that, thanks.

We in the church are told over and over again by so many different people that we need to stay focused on the mission above all else. Districts, conferences, denominational offices, inter-denominational groups - everyone seems to be calling the church to an intensive focus on the mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This renewed focus, they all say, is what it is going to take to save the church from its impending demise.

Well, okay then. How serious are we about that? If there a couple of phrases in the “Book of Discipline” that are proving to be a significant stumbling block to undertaking that mission, should we not remove them?

(Again, I welcome dialogue on these questions. However I invite you to respectful and grace-filled dialogue only, please. Please comment and express your perspective on matters, but please do so in a way that indicates you have read Romans 12 at least once in your life.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Regifting Encouraged

Matthew 25:14-30, a story known as “The Parable of the Talents,” is a wonderful illustration of a Wesleyan understanding of salvation. However it presents several contextual challenges to contemporary North American Christians, cultural stumbling blocks that hinder our understanding of the lessons woven into the parable.

It begins with a man entrusting (Gk. paradidomi, “to give into the hand of another”) of massive sums of money to his servants. Unbidden. Unasked. They do nothing to earn this gift. It is given into their hands with no instruction, just the act of giving.

And they are given differing amounts, “to each according to his ability.” We are tempted to make too much of these differences; the lowest amount given, “one talent,” was equal to 15 years’ salary. The point is not to quibble over the differences in the amounts given, but rather to be amazed by the abundance of the gift.

God gives abundantly to all, and to each one is given a unique life. Because the metaphor of the parable is financial, that unique, personalized giving is indicated by differing amounts of money. Our capitalistic culture has conditioned us to think first, “Five talents is more than one, so five talents is better.” I believe this to be a significant block to understanding this parable. One talent is an enormous, virtually inconceivable gift, and any servant ought to feel the significance of it.

But Servant 3 (shall we call him Dwight?), does not understand the significance of the gift he has been given, and so Dwight does nothing with it. Actually, he does something, but what he does is go and bury the gift in a hole in the ground. His action proves that the gift is not irresistible. Rather than embrace and utilize the gift, he rejects it and hides it away.

Is he (like us) obsessing over and jealous of the differing amounts given? Is he perhaps apathetic to the gift or to the giver? Is he so wrapped up in his life that he can’t be bothered to deal with this gift, even as wonderful as it is? Is he actually afraid to take a risk, thinking the master will punish him if the risk fails?

In the meantime servants 1 and 2 (shall we call them Pam and Jim?) receive the inconceivable gift entrusted to them and put it to work. As they do, they find that the gift multiplies, expands, and returns to them doubled.

Remember that they were not instructed as to what exactly to do with the gift they had been given; it was up to them to take the initiative and utilize the gift, risking it all, not clinging to it for their own security or comfort, but “putting it out there” and hoping for the best.

What motivates Pam and Jim? Why do they do what they do, in such dramatic contrast to what Dwight did? Don’t they fear the master’s punishment if their risk fails? With the enormous gift given them, they might have just called it quits, headed off to the Riviera, and lived a life of ease for the rest of their days - but they didn’t. Why not?

The master returns.

And here, we come to a telling moment. We assume that the master will now ask for the talents back, right? The text tells us he has come to “settle accounts,” so we are actually set up to assume as much.

But imagine our surprise when we do not hear the master ask for the money back, but rather gives Pam and Jim even more. That’s right, when Pam and Jim give their report to the master, he praises them, gives them more, and invites them to “enter into his joy.” He never asks for the talents they have made, let alone the principle originally entrusted.

Here’s another enormous cultural blockage. Even without reading it, the ears of our imagination actually hear the master ask the servants for the money. But he doesn’t. He gives them more.

And then it’s Dwight’s turn.

Poor Dwight.

Dwight comes up to the master and the first thing he says is, “You are a rotten master.” This is probably not the best way to start the conversation.

He continues, “You’re mean and selfish and take things that you don’t earn yourself. So here’s your stupid talent back.”

Notice that, of the three, Dwight is the only one who actually offers to give the talent back to the master, Pam and Jim just show the master what they have done with what they have been given. It’s almost as if Pam and Jim are eager to continue, and are simply giving a status report on their projects to date. Dwight, in contrast, is done with this whole endeavor and is rejecting the gift, and with it any ongoing relationship with the giver as well.

Dwight’s bitter words and his rejection of the gift have consequences. The talent, which was so freely and abundantly given, is no longer available to him. And in a stark contrast to “entering into the joy of the master,” Dwight is forcibly evicted into the mysterious “outer darkness,” a phrase used only three times in the entire New Testament and only in the Gospel of Matthew.

And so the story ends … with gnashing teeth. (Idea for new business: “Outer Darkness Orthodontics.”)

There are at least three contemporary assumptions we make about this parable that I believe hinder our understanding:
1) 5 talents is better than 1. We need to think “different” instead of “better.”
2) The master asks Pam and Jim to return the talents. He doesn’t; he gives them more. (“To those who have, more will be given.” (v. 29))
3) “The joy of the master” equals “heaven” and “the outer darkness” equals “hell.” This is not stated in the parable anywhere; in fact there is no reason not to interpret these two ideas as here-and-now realities in this world rather than somewhere in the next.

If we lay these assumptions aside, this parable may be able to teach us something new. Often, the lesson is minimized to “use it or lose it.” As in, you have been given certain skills by God, and you have to utilize those skills or they will deteriorate. But that doesn’t feel entirely right to me, since this parable is among those that are describing the return of Christ and the realization of the reign of God on earth; the “coming of the end of the age.” (Take a look at Matthew 24:1-3 to read the set-up question for this section.)

So it seems to me that this parable may be able to teach us more than that we need to practice piano at least 30 minutes a day or we won’t get any better. (Although that certainly is true, kids. Do what your teacher tells you.)

With what have we been entrusted by God? What has God given to us?

… It would be better to ask, what hasn’t been.

All that we are comes from God. Life - Love - Grace - Salvation - Truth - Justice - Shalom. Everything. And it is such an inconceivably large gift, true. But what makes it even more inconceivable is that it is given without our asking for it. God’s gift is “prevenient,” that is, it comes prior to the event of our accepting it. God offers first, before we are even aware that an offer has been made.

Discovering that this immeasurable gift is offered to us, we then either accept it or not. Accepting the gift is the moment of “justification” in a Wesleyan viewpoint; other traditions call it “getting saved.” It is a powerful moment. It happens differently for different people; sometimes in one euphoric instant, and sometimes in subtle little moments here and there over time.

And then, if we accept the gift, we may be dismayed to discover that it does not come with instructions. This is called “free will.” Remember that Dwight received the gift, too. The master gave him a gigantic gift, and he accepted it. It’s what he did next that was his downfall.

Yes, we are free to do with the gift whatever we will. Are we going to display it in a curio cabinet in the living room? Are going to store it away in the attic and only get it out when the giver comes to visit? Or will we understand that there is more to do with the gift, that we can use it day by day to live better lives? In a Wesleyan view, there certainly is more that we are to do, once we have received the gift.

This “more to do” is called “sanctification” and it is the process of salvation by which, in cooperation with God’s grace, we grow closer and closer to God, by which we become more and more Christlike, by which the pattern of discipleship becomes more and more deeply imprinted upon us. Having received the gift, we must utilize it in order that it would expand. If we do not, it will wither away and we’ll lose it.

And as we increase the gift God has given, “working out our salvation,” we await the return of the master, the completion of God’s reign, the parousia, the “end of the age,” or any other of a number of metaphors to describe that-for-which-we-wait. And when that moment arrives …. wait for it …

We discover that there is even more!

As unimaginable as God’s gift is in this age, in the next it is even more so. Can you believe that? Just pondering that idea makes my mind swirl. That’s why nobody can know exactly what “that-for-which-we-wait” looks like. In fact I’m kind of suspicious of those who claim they are privy to this knowledge. It is just too huge.

And so the parable has something to teach about using our God-given skills, certainly. It has something to do with unleashing our spiritual gifts, no doubt. But that is because the parable has to do with how we are living our lives as a whole - skills, gifts, words, actions, attitudes, thoughts, relationships, health, resources - everything.

Live life in a way that builds up, multiplies, expands. Focus outwardly. Radiate. Receiving God’s gift is just one moment, it’s what you do with the gift for the rest of your life that matters most.

What will you do with what God has given you?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Rationalization vs. Confession: Post-Bible Study Musings

“So wait, is this your belief or are you trying to say that this is what the book of James is saying?” he asked me.

And inside I smiled a little bit.

I smiled a little bit because when somebody asks me this during a Bible study that I am leading, I know it’s going well. I have said something that challenges assumptions and forces people to think critically and deeply about how scripture should inform our lives.

Of course, that’s easier to do with some scriptures than others, and it just so happens that the book of James is full of ideas that ought to challenge us. You don’t have to dig too deeply to discover a thought that shakes your foundation.

I believe that the predominant theme of the letter is the friend of God/friend of the world dichotomy. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (4:4) This “no-one-can-serve-two-masters” idea is fairly common throughout scripture, but nowhere more clearly articulated than in James, and as such it provokes some pretty deep thought.

Last night at Bible study, many of us sensed the challenge, myself included. We were confronted with the notion that we do not truly live our lives the way God wants us to. And then we realized that there are two options when confronted with this fact.

Option A, we can rationalize our lives. Or 2, we can confess our sin.

Of course our first inclination is to rationalize. We will do all sorts of interpretive gyrations with scripture in order to get its message to fit into our current lifestyle. “It’s for the safety and security and health and well-being of my family,” we frequently say.

Even that?

Abraham is James’ example (2:21). Abraham, whose friendship of God was manifest in his willingness to sacrifice his own son. Even that.

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, but my dad just died and his funeral is today.”

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, but I’d like to say goodbye to my family first.”

Luke chapter 9. Even that.

The enormous amount of wealth that families amass (my own included) in the form of savings accounts and college funds and insurance policies and investments … it’s all for the welfare of my family, right? What’s so wrong with that?

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, let me just check my 401k first.”

“You do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (4:14)

Rather than reshape God’s word so that it fits into our lives, the second option is to confess. We don’t like this option, since it requires humility, and we do not do humility very well. Option A doesn’t require humility, or submission, or transformation, so we like it! We can go on living exactly how we want to live, and feel good about it.

Or maybe we could confess.

Maybe we could truly acknowledge that we know very well what Jesus expects of us, and the way we live is nowhere close to it; it’s just too hard.

Maybe we could actually confess our need to discover who Jesus really is and pattern our lives after his and stop bickering about the minutiae of the inane.

Maybe we could confess that we are stuck in a society that pulls on us from a thousand directions at once, and we are helpless to pull ourselves out of it completely.

And maybe in confessing we could receive grace. And maybe in receiving grace we could experience transformation.

And maybe in the transformation we will discover that God will not actually ask us to sacrifice our own son, and provide for our needs anyway. Yes, maybe we will realize that if we are actually seeking first the kingdom of God, a few other things might be added unto us as well.

Maybe we will figure out that confessing opens up space in our lives for grace, and when grace begins to fill your life it is oh, so, so, very, very good! As in, unimaginably good - better than in your wildest dreams!

The book of James expresses the moral imperatives of Christianity in provocative ways. They are written “so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4) and in order that we might embody “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21).

In other words, “faith is brought to completion by works” (2:22); we live what we believe. And sometimes we don’t. And that’s okay - that’s why there’s grace. But rather than pretend our lives are just fine, maybe we need to confess that they really aren’t, and see what happens from there.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"Markers of Religious Connection?"

My mind is circling around a significant realization, and yet I can’t quite seem to grasp it. It’s like I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but if I turn to look at it full-on, it evaporates.

There are a lot of concurrent streams that seem to be converging, and they have to do with ministry, discipleship, church, and how to discern/assess/evaluate them.

Tis the season, I suppose - end of the year reports and evaluations and budgets and goal-setting and all that jazz. And I just become more and more convinced that numbers are not telling the story that we need to be telling.

Get your mind around this. The congregation I serve is going to turn in about the same number of professions of faith this year as last year - 26 last year and 25 this year so far. So, more than 50 people over two years, which is groovy. The total of new members, counting transfers, is going to be up close to 150 for these two years, 2010 and 2011.

But we will be lucky if our average worship attendance increases; right now it is less than last year so if we don’t see a bump here in the last quarter, we’ll turn in a lower figure than last year, which was itself lower than the year before.

150 new members, including 50 professions of faith, and a declining worship attendance? How do we read that? Is it good or bad?

Then there’s this (click here) the Barna research that reveals the propensity of Americans to create our own religion based on what works for us. Two trends that the research reveals …

• More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to
go to heaven.
• And more say they haven’t been to church in the past six months except
for special occasions such as weddings or funerals.

Allow me to holler an “Amen!” to that.

“The important markers of religious connection are fracturing,” says this article, paraphrasing Barna. That says it better than anything I’ve read or heard. The things that we once used to gauge a congregation’s effectiveness or an individual’s spiritual health are no longer applicable.

'The important markers of religious connection are fracturing.'

I have noticed a growing tendency to think of church as something you fit into your otherwise busy schedule. As Barna says it, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs - our clothing, our food, our education.” And that now seems to include our discipleship, too.

Worship attendance? A fractured marker.

Weekly faith formation group? Fractured marker.

Tithing? Fractured marker.

Truly selfless service? Fractured marker.

The thing is, people who DO all of those “markers of connection” can feel a real impact in their lives. Those who worship every week, participate in a small group, give generously, serve selflessly, etc. - it makes an incredible difference in their lives. Their lives are balanced, they know deep joy, there is a firm foundation for times of trouble, and they become who God wants them to be.

And so how can I, a pastor whose driving motivator is to help people become disciples of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake, convey this message? How do I say to someone who thinks life is “just fine” that there is more?

It is hard to do because, on one level, their life really is just fine - great job, nice house, a couple of cars, fancy home entertainment center, and so on. Religion becomes something to fit into all of that, not something that calls one to be radically transformed.

The important markers of religious connection are fracturing. And yet we still believe they are important, don’t we? And so we still utilize them to assess congregational effectiveness, even when it may not be applicable to do so because it really doesn’t tell a true story.

- Are there other markers that we could be using? What would they be?

- Can we rethink the traditional markers somehow? In the same way that individuals design their own faith, should the churches design our own assessment tools?

- How do we talk about transformation when everything is “just fine?”

This issue is on a lot of minds lately, and I hope this moment doesn’t go by un-seized. Bishop Pennel has a column on the UMPortal today that gives his thoughts, and I have read several others in recent days. All a part of the converging streams of thought swirling in my brain these days.

Clearly the question of congregational health/effectiveness/success is not going anywhere any time soon.

Friday, September 30, 2011

It's Playoff Time Again!

This year’s playoff salaries, according to this site

Philadelphia Phillies - $ 172,976,379
St. Louis Cardinals - $ 105,433,572
Milwaukee Brewers - $ 85,497,333
Arizona Diamondbacks - $ 53,639,833

New York Yankees - $ 202,689,028
Detroit Tigers - $ 105,700,231
Texas Rangers - $ 92,299,264
Tampa Bay Rays - $ 41,053,571

So for me, this means I will root for St. Louis and Arizona in the NL and Detroit and Tampa from the AL.

Then Arizona and Tampa in the series, with Tampa winning it all. Go Rays!

The New York Yankees’ payroll is almost five times Tampa Bay’s.

Your average salary if you’re a Tampa Bay Ray is $ 1,578,983. If you are a Yankee, it’s $ 6,756,300.

Tampa’s is the second lowest in all of baseball. The lowest? Kansas City, at $ 36,126,000.

The highest paid divisional losers this year were the Minnesota Twins (snicker), who paid out a whopping $ 112,737,000 for the pleasure of losing 99 games, second worst in baseball, and finishing dead last in the pathetic AL Central. The worst team in baseball this year was Houston, who only paid $ 70,694,000, quite a bargain by comparison.

Even the lowest playoff payroll is an obscene amount, of course. A whole lot of good could be done for a whole lot of people with just Tampa Bay’s meager 41 million. The world definitely has its priorities screwed up, no doubt about it.

Nevertheless, it is baseball, and it is the playoffs, and since my team is not in it this year (but just wait till next year!) I am participating in my annual ritual of deciding whom to root for by how big the payrolls are.

Go Rays! (Again.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fruitful Questions - Hoping for Answers!

There is a contradiction at work in the church that needs to be addressed. Simply put, the passionate call for change contradicts the use of old methods of assessment.

To be sure, there has been a shift of emphasis in our assessment, from counting “members” to counting people who are active in their discipleship. We count worshipers, people in hands-on mission, and those who participate in small groups. That’s good, and it is definitely better than counting people in the nearly meaningless category of “member.”

But we are still often times just counting heads in order to determine effectiveness (or fruitfulness), and then making decisions based on those counts. We are calling for our congregations to focus outwardly, meanwhile making all of our assessments inwardly.

It is very encouraging to hear Missouri’s Bishop Schnase and members of the cabinet here in my conference talk about making decisions that are motivated by mission, not numbers. I hope that perspective continues to filter outward throughout the conference, the United Methodist denomination, and beyond. And more importantly, I hope that I can fully embrace it.

I freely admit that I am my own worst enemy when it comes to this issue. The contradiction between a fresh approach to church and a stale assessment method is nowhere more evident than in my own heart and mind. When the room is filled to capacity on a Sunday morning for worship, I always feel better than on Sundays when it is sparse, no matter what actually happens in the service itself. Lives might be changed; insights may be gained; hearts could be strangely warmed all over the place - but if attendance was 10% less this week than last, I’m not happy.

So I suppose I may be preaching this sermon to myself most of all. So here’s what I want to change about myself:

+ I want to concentrate the vast majority of my energy on the amazing patterns of Christian discipleship that are being lived all the time through so many who call this congregation home.
- In order to do this, I will need to free up a large quantity of my energy that I currently expend obsessing over numbers that have essentially plateaued over the past year.

+ I want to self-assess my ministry by determining how the people of the congregation I serve are allowing their pattern of discipleship to shape their day to day lives.
- In order to do this, I will need to be more intentional about asking and listening, providing opportunities for people of the church to provide testimony of their faith.

+ I want to figure out how to assess the fruitfulness of this congregation by determining our impact on the community of Springfield.
- I have no idea how to do this.

Those are my own goals, and what I will be sharing with my District Superintendent in a few weeks when we meet for my annual review.

And so here are the questions...

How do my goals sound to you? I’m curious to know, do other pastors also struggle with this contradiction in your own minds?

I’m also curious to know how laity assess the effectiveness/fruitfulness of the congregations they belong to. How much of a part do the numbers play in how you feel about the congregation you're a part of?

And a related question: Noting the declining commitment to attend worship and other regular church programming on a weekly basis, how does an individual Christian disciple reflect on their own fruitfulness in the stressful mix of so many competing societal influences?
- And the follow up: And how can/should the church respond to that?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Great Spin-off Question about Serving

In response to my last post, Megan wrote:

Andy, I have a spin-off question. You mentioned not worrying about "making a mistake"- alluding to the mistake being if you gave someone the wrong kind of assistance. But what if the mistake is putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation? I have heard folks- mostly grown men- give the answer to questions like Marti's "Instead of giving cash, take them to lunch." Or as you say, give people the gift of time and attention. But if I am walking to my office in an area of town with a bad reputation, with no one around to help me, as is the case most days, and a stranger asks me for money or something else, which is also not unusual- what am I to do? Am I being un-Christlike to consider my safety and not stop by myself to "give attention" to the stranger, let alone lunch? I have no problem helping people in "safe" environments like my office- but is that enough? Is there a line somewhere between being Christ-like and helpful and placing myself at risk of a violent crime? Or do I find that line after I make the mistake? How does a young woman respond to the call to be a "Good Samaritan?"

I love spin-offs!

Your point is well-taken, Megan. I would say that it is not un-Christlike to consider your own safety. Jesus himself did so as he prayed in Gethsemane before his crucifixion. It seems to me that his personal well-being was weighing pretty heavily on his mind as he asked if it might be possible for God’s cup to be removed from his lips.

But going deeper, and a bit more “theologically speaking,” you and I are trying to be Christlike in a broken world. The world in which we live is imperfect and there are people here who will intentionally hurt others and commit violent crimes and prey on those perceived as vulnerable. In fact, it is because we live in a broken world that followers of Jesus are commanded to “be Christlike.” If the world was already as God intended it to be, well then our job would be done, and the party could really get started.

I wish there was a line like you describe; a risk-marking boundary that showed us “this far but no further.” That line would be in different places for different people, I suspect. And it would be in different places in different contexts, as well. One would tend to draw that line much closer when walking alone in a part of town with a bad reputation, for example.

But what happens if I draw that line and instead of a boundary protecting me it turns out to be a barrier that keeps another from receiving life-giving help? Of course, this is the heart of the question you raise.

I’m not intending to “proof text” here, but maybe this passage has something to say: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19b-20)

I believe that when I say that I am a disciple of Jesus, I am saying that my life is no longer my own. My life. My physical life does not belong to me any more. I have in my wallet a copy of John Wesley’s covenant prayer that says, in part, “I am no longer my own, but thine…. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.” The idea of the prayer is that we belong to God, whether that means we will prosper or suffer as a result of our actions.

So, I don’t believe that you always have to be risking your life in order to be considered Christlike. And neither do I believe that a situation being life-threatening excludes it from Christian discipleship.

I believe that, because we live in a broken world, there may very well be times when following Jesus means risking our lives. And that bothers me, because I don't know if I am really willing to do that.

PS - I have a-whole-nother response that has to do with your use of the phrase “Good Samaritan” but I believe I’ll save it for a-whole-nother day. :)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Great Question about Serving

I got this email the other day:

I enjoyed your sermon yesterday, as usual, but was curious about the [scripture] starting with [Matthew 25] verse 41 where it also says that if you do not give to the hungry and naked and do not give anything to drink, you have not done it for me. There are several more references but this has always bothered me since there are so many asking over the phone, through the mail, and even when you get out of the car in parking lots. There are those with signs saying they need food and work, all over the place.

My question I guess is are we turning away Jesus when we say no, which especially bothers me when they ask you in person. Should you give every time and do you consider your own finances and the needs of your family in these situations? I think probably there is no easy answer and also think my first responsibility is to my church and then make sure my family has their needs met, but with my family and myself needs are always met, it is just wants - so that is why this bothers me when I think about Jesus's words.

Just curious about your ideas on this and I am sure, as a pastor, you have people hitting on you for money all the time.Thanks for the help.

Much love

I replied:

Great question, Marti.

I applaud you for being bothered when you think about the words of Jesus. I think the church would be better off if more people were bothered by what Jesus has to say.

I am reading a book called "Radical" by David Platt and it is really "bothering" me - a lot! He says that "we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with." His point is that North American Christianity has minimized the radical call of Jesus. It is a symptom of what I call our "impoverished Christology."

Here's a question that I puzzle over in situations like you describe. Which is easier, to give the person 5 bucks or invite them to lunch with you? Obviously, to give them the five and then be done with them is easier, and gives us the added benefit of believing we have helped someone in need. It soothes our guilty conscience and allows us to check another act of discipleship off our to-do list for the week.

But I don't think Jesus wants his disciples to stop there. Rather than asking, "Should I give him $5 or not?" I think Jesus wants his disciples to go deeper, and struggle at a deeper level. "Should I just give him $5 or should I take him out to lunch?" And further, "What can I do in the community that will help eliminate the conditions that cause him to be begging for help in the first place?"

Okay, so back to the question at hand. "Should you give every time?" I answer, "Yes." But should you give cash every time? I don't. I always give time and attention. I listen to their story and try to understand what is happening. I try to give myself to them in some way, and many times that ends up with my giving them some cash. But not always. Sometimes it means giving them a phone number or two where more resources are available to them. Sometimes it means giving them just conversation and prayer, and a friendly smile.

How do I figure out what to give? Well, I wish I could say there was a clearly defined set of criteria I use, but there's not. It is intuitive, mostly. It is me staying open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is being face-to-face with someone and picking up a "vibe," which I hope is the "vibe" of Christ. It is much more an art and much less a science.

And I know there are times I have made mistakes, both giving someone money that was then wasted AND not giving someone money when they really truly needed it. But I do not let the fear of making mistakes influence me. If I did, I would never give anyone anything, and I am confident that is not faithful Christian discipleship.

That's a long answer, and a complicated one. But I think you knew that your question was not going to have an easy answer before you asked, didn't you? :)

Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church

Monday, August 29, 2011

A "Third Option" for the Future of the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Daddy Monk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Bully-free School Year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fearless pioneering a way of life then and now

Campbell United Methodist Church celebrates 125 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Dr. Palmore would approve.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Politics, Attention, and the Squiggly Line in Your Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 01, 2011

There is No Debt Ceiling on the Grace of God

Why discipleship giving is not like debt ceiling negotiations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Do I Know You?

Yesterday morning, I said something in the sermon that I didn't write. Luckily, I said it during first service so that I could keep it in for the next two.

I outline my sermons, but sometimes I write out specific sentences or phrases, especially what I call the "hook," or a kind of tag line that is intended for people to take home with them to remember the message.

This week's hook was, "Jesus is your friend so you can be a friend to others."

I know, kind of generic, not very catchy, pretty lame actually. But (thank you Lord) that's not what came out of my mouth.

What I said was, "No, I don't know you. But I do know Jesus. And because I know Jesus, I know you."

The set up went like this:

The Bible describes "regular old" friendship using the Greek word philia, which we usually translate "love." There's nothing at all inherently wrong with philia. Growing as a disciple of Jesus, however, requires us to move from philia to agape, divine love. Jesus said, 'There is no greater love (agape) than to lay down one's life for one's friends (philos).' (tangent: English is sometimes inadequate to convey the fuller meanings of ancient texts, so we need to take great care as we read them.)

To move from philia to agape, then, is to be willing to lay down your life for another. For whom would you lay down your life?

Here I paused and sort of scanned the room. I asked again, "For whom would you be willing to lay down your life?"

Many of us think of somebody in our family or a dear friend when confronted with that question, which is wonderful. But what Jesus asks of his followers is to lay down our lives for complete strangers, people we've never met before. After all, that's what he did. (Remember "Where is your mother? Where are your brothers, Jesus?")

The radical call of Christian friendship is to lay down our lives for complete strangers. That is an idea so counterintuitive in our fearful and distrusting world that we have a really, really hard time making any relevant sense of it.

And so I asked people to greet strangers throughout their week with as much joy and enthusiasm as they would greet a dear friend whom they had not seen in weeks. Smile at them and shake their hand and express your sincere happiness at seeing them! Act toward them as you would your very best friend.

Then, after the awkwardness passes, and they ask you, "Do I know you?" you just smile and respond, "No, I don't know you. But I know Jesus. And because I know Jesus, I know you!"

As soon as I said it, I thought it was kind of corny, and wondered where exactly it had come from. After all, that's where I had planned to say, "Remember that Jesus is your friend so you can be a friend to others." But there was also a sense of the power of that simple idea. I don't know if others in the room sensed it, but I certainly did. It was a moment in which all of us shared in a word from God, a simple truth that challenged all of us to a deeper commitment to Christ. And I do mean all of us; I felt the challenge myself.

As I've written before, the church does not have a problem with programming or facilities, lack of sufficiently catchy mission statements, or even worship style or preaching as much as it has a profoundly impoverished Christology. One of the ways that shows up is the alarming frequency with which "church people" only hang out with other "church people." Yes, friends love each other and thats just fine - but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than loving on the people you already know.

"Our church is friendly." Great. That's super. So is every church, when you ask them. Now, what else is it? There's a difference between being friendly and being a Christian friend.

So, "church people," inventory your week this week and keep track of how many interactions you have with other "church people." Then if you need to do some breaking free, do it. Put yourself in places out and about (coffee shop, grocery store, hair salon, restaurant) where you have opportunities to meet and talk with strangers who haven't yet become friends. And greet them as if they are already your very best friend you haven't seen in ages.

Then, after you freak them out a little bit, you could pay for their coffee or put your groceries down to help them carry out theirs or give them a 50% tip or bus your own table and ask them to sit down and rest while you do or ... do something that backs up your words. Something you would think of doing for your best friend. Something you would deeply desire to do for someone you love.

Then, if they ask, invite them to come to worship with you. And if that door doesn't open, try again next week! Whatever happens next, you will have made a friend for Christ's sake.

No, I don't really know you. But I do know Jesus. That makes me your friend.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"I Will Be With Your Mouth" or: Speaking for God

“I will be with your mouth.” That’s all the further God wanted to go at this point, apparently (Exodus 4). Not “I will be with you,” as had been the case other times. Nope, this time all God would promise Moses was that the divine presence would be targeted at one specific body part.

God would not be with Moses’ left pinky toe, but would be with his mouth. Ha!

Of course, Moses’ complaint had to do specifically with his mouth, as he had said that he was “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” and as such was unsuited to follow God’s call to go to Pharaoh and demand release of the Hebrew people. (btw “Speech” and “mouth” are both the same word in Hebrew - peh - a word used 5 times in Exodus 4.)

How many times have we said something along those lines? As in, “I just don’t know what to say.” Or maybe, “I would go and visit her, but I wouldn’t know what to say.” Or in another context, “I’m just not comfortable talking with people about ‘religion.’” Or said in a specific way, “I feel like if I invite someone to church, they’ll think I’m being pushy.” Or something like that.

Listen to God - “I will be with your mouth.”

Or maybe, “Just let me do the talking.”

Now, we may be tempted to misunderstand this, and think that if God is doing the talking, we don’t have to do anything. We might take our protest a step further, like Moses did. We might say, “Well if you are going to do the talking, Lord, I’ll just stay home and read a book.”

Moses’ protest continued, “Please send someone else.”
It’s not my job.
That’s why we hire church staff, isn’t it?
That’s not really my “calling.”
I don’t think that’s one of my “spiritual gifts.”

But when we do so, we may find that God’s next move makes us even more uncomfortable. Yes, God appoints Aaron to go along with Moses, but do you know how God defines that relationship? God tells Moses, “He shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.” It almost seems like God is saying to Moses, “All right, you won’t go yourself? Well, you trying being ‘God’ for someone else for a while and see how you like it.”

Moses maybe should have gone with the whole “I will be with your mouth” thing while he had the chance!

When Moses tried to shirk his obligation in realizing God’s mission, God did not remove Moses’ responsibility, but rather increased it. God told Moses, “Okay, I will still be with your mouth, and I’ll be with Aaron’s mouth, too. But now I’ll be holding you directly responsible for what words he says, as well as your own.”

So maybe we should stick with the whole “I will be with your mouth” thing, also. We talk a lot about having “filters” on our speech, a kind of governor on our words that prevents harmful, hurtful, hateful, and otherwise offensive things from coming out. When someone is under stress or not thinking clearly or somehow out of sorts, often those filters do not function well or are removed altogether. They may end up saying things that they do not intend, and never would have said without the filters in place. And filters don’t work just for the choice of words, they also work for the tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and all of those communication tools available to us.

One way to think of God is as the divine filter for our words. We need to listen very closely to what we say (and are about to say) and run it by God a few times to see if it makes it through God’s filter. And that is as true (or maybe more so) for online communication as face-to-face conversation.

God’s very precise and kind of peculiar promise is, “I will be with your mouth.” You still have to go, but I will be with your mouth. You still have to start the conversation, but I’ll let you know what to say. So go, say “hello,” and see what happens after that.

God has something really important to say, and we are the ones God wants to be saying it.

Are you saying what God wants you to be saying? And are you saying it in a way that God wants you to say it? And if you’re not sure, maybe you should just be quiet and listen for a while? I'm sure God will let you know.

Monday, June 27, 2011

What Is This Feeling? - Reflecting on "Chidren of Eden"

What is this feeling?

An exhausted exhilaration has settled within and around me today. I guess that’s the way to describe it. It feels like significance. As though something of consequence has happened (is happening?), and I was (am?) a part of it.

From Tuesday, April 5, 2011 until now has been one of the most hectic, amazing, frustrating, wonderful, tiring, energizing … the list could go on … periods of time in my life. I peg it to April 5 because that was when I got up on stage at the Lander’s Theatre and auditioned for “Children of Eden” with a song that nobody knew but me and probably wasn’t the best choice and left me feeling like I should have chosen a different one. But I got called back, then learned that I was cast as “Noah” in the show, and began rehearsing.

What was it about this particular show, this particular production of this particular show, that was so miraculous? Script, music, message, director’s vision, cast talent, amazing set, gorgeous costumes, brilliant lighting, spectacular projections … ? These things added together? Just the magic of theater?

Or was there something else happening?

It was something that the cast sensed early on, forming deep and intense connections among one-time strangers. It was something that the audience sensed every single show, many times standing and cheering even before the final blackout. It was something that “theater people” who had been a part of live theater for umpteen years even had trouble describing. When you hear a theater veteran say, "I've never been a part of anything like this," it points to something beyond the ordinary.

The show was religious. Whatever your faith, this show elicited reflection on God. That was true for the audiences as well as the crew and cast. And when you are with a show that compels theological reflection for three months, there’s a lot of opportunity for divine activity. It pulls out of you a response that for lack of a better word we call “emotional.” But this experience obviously affected more than just emotions.

When you are kneeling on stage among a phenomenal cast who have become dear friends, heads bowed during the final song, and you hear not just sniffs and sighs but actual sobs as we all weep together before joining together for one final refrain … “Children of Eden, seek for your garden, you and your children to come, someday to come home…”

Added into the mix for me personally were a whole slew of moments of significance: our kids finishing their school year, welcoming a newborn baby into our home for foster care, being elected a delegate to the United Methodist Jurisdictional Conference from Missouri, participating in this year’s amazing Vacation Bible School, helping two gifted young men begin their process toward ordination, plus the everyday significance of worship, pastoral care, staff transitions, and all that other ordinary stuff that makes pastoral ministry so extraordinary.

Which goes to say, my experience with “Children of Eden” would have been flat-out impossible for me without my incredibly amazing and infinitely supportive wife Erin, the absolute love of my life and my best of best friends in the whole world. Not to mention our two exceptional children who just so happen to love the fact that their Daddy got to be on stage for this show. And the unbelievably gifted and talented staff of Campbell UMC who covered for me during weeks of rehearsals and encouraged me during weekends of performances. Plus the wonderful people of Campbell who bought tickets by the dozens and dozens and cheered me on and were so gracious in understanding why their sort of off-the-wall pastor wanted to do this weird, wonderful thing in the first place. Thank you, every single one of you!


I stood, hand stretched upward, head up, energy given, practically hovering in the air, surrounded by 50 of my best friends doing exactly the same thing, in the forever instant of time after our final cut off and before the blackout.

I had never before so desperately wanted a moment to last forever; I had never before been so grateful for a moment to pass.

“The time has come for us to begin our journeys.
We have no map - only the ways we most wish for ourselves.”

“Funny now how Eden doesn’t seem so far.”

“I cannot bear to feel this pain … but I would not go back again.”

“If no outer force will show you your course, you’ll have to look inside.”

“The hardest part of love … the rarest part of love … and the truest part of love …
… is the letting go.”

What is this feeling?

I think it might be love.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Prophecies, Visions, and Dreams - Oh My!

Part of the Pentecost story in Acts is the prophecies, visions, and dreams that followers of Jesus are given when the Holy Spirit comes to them. It is actually Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, who makes the allusion.

The followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit empowered them to dream.

We all dream. We all envision a future for ourselves, our families, our congregations, our communities. We know what it means to desire a different future, a better future.

But how do I know the difference between a dream that comes from the Holy Spirit and a dream that comes from within myself? How can I tell if it is God or my ego creating this picture of the future in my mind?

I mean, I could have a dream of myself driving a brand new, silver, Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS Cabriolet with the top down and U2 blasting out of the speakers, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t come from God. But obviously not all of my dreams would be so easy to distinguish.

I have a different vision for the church than some do. And I actually think that having multiple congregational visions is healthy for the church as a whole. When it comes to congregational vitality, “one-size-fits-all” is not a good rule to follow. And I do not begrudge one person their dream for the future of the church, as long as it is not harmful.

What are our dreams for the church?
- Bigger congregations
- Smaller congregations but more of them
- More small groups within larger congregations
- Networks of simple churches meeting in living rooms
- New congregations emerging from within older congregations
- Younger congregations
- Multi-generational congregations
- Ginormous congregations with multiple locations
- Congregations without locations that gather as flash mobs in various public places
- The complete dissolution of the notion of a “congregation” and creation of a new connectional concept of church, networked somewhere in the cloud

There’s nothing wrong with multiple dreams within the church. I’d say the only thing wrong is no dream for the future, no vision, no motion forward.

Last night at rehearsal, an actor noted that in one particular scene different people in the chorus were making different choices about our respective reactions to the action on stage. The actor asked if the director wanted one uniform response from the chorus. She replied that no, the multiple reactions actually created interest and energy. The only thing that would be “wrong” is if there was no reaction at all.

It’s like that with vision for the church, too. The vision in one congregation is different from the vision in another congregation, and that’s okay as long as it first of all does no harm. What would not be okay is if a congregation claims no vision at all. The Pentecost story is all about the Holy Spirit sending prophecies, visions, and dreams to followers of Jesus, and I believe that the Holy Spirit continues to do so today.