Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This is Church: More Newtown Reflections

I learned about the shooting in Newtown at 1:03 on Friday afternoon. I learned about it from Facebook.

It wasn’t a status or headline I read; it was a message from my friend Sharon. It asked if we could send a prayer shawl to Connecticut, and expressed her feelings of sorrow. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, so I checked some news websites and heard about the shocking story.

At 2:02 I posted an announcement on my own Facebook page that those who would be worshiping at Campbell the upcoming Sunday would pray over as many prayer shawls as we could in order to send them to Newtown United Methodist Church, asking knitters to contribute to the effort if they could. In that post I tagged Campbell United Methodist Church. 35 people liked that status; 8 shared it; several others posted similar statuses of their own.

I also sent messages via the Newtown UMC website, both to their pastor and the main office, saying that we would be gathering, praying over, and sending prayer shawls their way.

The next morning I posted another Facebook status basically repeating the idea. This time 25 people liked it and 5 shared it. I also sent a churchwide email via our iContact service with the information in it. Several colleagues saw the buzz on Facebook being generated by people of Campbell, and spread the idea to their own congregations in various ways.

Sunday morning at 6:15 I posted a message on Newtown UMC’sFacebook page to let them know we would pray for them in worship, and assuring them they were not alone. Someone in Newtown “liked” it before worship started here, so I was able to tell worshipers here that our message had been received.

On Sunday morning the prayer railing was filled with the vibrant colors of dozens of prayer shawls. Many had come from the closet in which we store them as they are finished, until they are needed. And several others were brought in that morning. Two were laid on the prayer railing incomplete, still connected to balls of yarn, knitting needles inserted through. At least one person brought a shawl and left to attend church in their own congregation. Another had to work but brought her shawl during her break. At each service, we came forward, touching the shawls, entwining our fingers in them, placing hands on the shoulders of those who were.

Monday the shawls were boxed up, then mailed by a church member who volunteered to take care of that task. They are supposed to arrive in Newtown this Friday. In both boxes is a paper copy of a letter that I wrote to the congregation of Newtown United Methodist, sending our support and prayers along with the shawls.

With the boxes shipped, I then posted a .pdf of that letter on our Wordpress newsfeed and put a link to the letter on my Facebook page, and that link has 52 likes and 5 shares.

One of those shares was by Newtown UMC, along with a note that said, “We are humbled and thankful by the witness and outpouring of love shown to us by you and countless others. Jesus smiles upon you, we are indeed certain of this, if nothing else! God bless you and yours, verily His.”


Thinking about these events, reflecting on this story, I notice two things. First, I believe it represents the church at its best. No attention-seeking sensationalist statements of trite theological cliché, just love. I do not begrudge television personalities and famous fundamentalist preachers for their statements of the past few days, but neither do I even remotely consider their remarks representative of the Gospel. Rather, a simple idea shared with a pastor and embraced by a congregation and brought to life through the love and sacrifice of so many … pure, active, gracious love for people - this is church.

And secondly, it is simply astounding how much happened in this story through online connections and social media. Clearly online social networking is not the future of the church, it is the present. If your own congregation isn’t “doing online” well, fix it. Everything that happened in the story above may have happened 20 years ago as well, but it would have taken ten times as long and been a hundred times less effective. Nothing ever will replace the face-to-face aspect of church; the doctrine of incarnation will see to that. But the connective power that is available online can no longer be ignored by congregations if they want to remain faithful to God’s mission.

Faithful, fruitful ministry. An ever-expanding pattern of discipleship. Helping one another in our time of need. Changing the world for God’s sake. This is the church, and it is beautiful.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Say Something: Our Newtown Reactions

Everyone needs to say something, or not. Please do not begrudge anyone their expression in response to the Newtown shooting. Or their non-expression, either.

Some people need to say, “I know exactly why this happened!”
Some people need to say, “Why in the world did something like this happen?”

Some people need to say, “No matter what, God is still here!”
Some people need to say, “See, this proves it. God is not here!”

Some people need to say, “I am going to start carrying a concealed handgun!”
Some people need to say, “We must immediately dismantle the NRA!”

Some people need to say, “May the soul of the shooter burn in hell for all eternity!”
Some people need to say, “We have to eliminate the social stigma that surrounds mental illness!”

Some people need to watch a funny movie.
Some people need to say nothing at all.

And so it goes.

What I’m asking is that we allow one another our time of expression without critique. Of course we see things differently. That’s okay. Just let it be what it is for now.

Don’t argue right now, while we’re all just reacting, expressing, still shocked, still bewildered. Don’t argue, bicker, pick. And don’t hate on other people for their need to express themselves.

Any and all emotional responses at this point are perfectly valid and understandable. As time inevitably moves ahead, there will be clarity … and dialogue … and action taken. But in this moment, as our stomachs are still churning and tears appear seemingly from out of nowhere, as the faces of children we know surface in our minds alongside the thought “what if it had been them,” as fear and evil and horror seem to rule the day … not in this moment.

There are questions that do not have answers. Trying to answer them may actually do more damage.

Right now, we all just need to say what we need to say. Even if that is nothing at all.

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Every Means Every

In order to be ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, I had to answer “Yes” to Bishop Schnase when he asked, “Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?” Needless to say, I answered in the affirmative.

(There were a few other things I had to do, as well, but for now let’s focus on this one.)

I think the intention of the historic question is to ask about the children “in every place you are appointed, wherever that might be.” But I tend to take it further than that, and just let it mean exactly what it says - the children “in every place.”

The children in one place are just as important as the children in another.

As I write this, a friend is preparing to come home from China with a new son. A team from Campbell is returning from a heart-wrenching visit to an orphanage in Haiti. Schools for poor children in Pakistan are being named “Malala Schools” after a fifteen year old hero. And in Springfield, Missouri my family has just received a newborn infant in order to provide foster care for a time.

Every place.

Matthew 18 includes one of my favorite Jesus quotes: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Could it be any clearer? Welcoming a child is welcoming Christ. (The Greek word translated “welcome” in the NRSV means “to take by the hand” or “to take hold of” or “to receive.”)

Children are more than ornaments to the congregation’s life, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Do we welcome them as if we were welcoming Christ? Do we take them by the hand and value them for who they are or do we try to mold them into smaller versions of ourselves?

My prayer, this week and always, is that the church embraces God’s children of all ages, in every place.

Every. Means. Every.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Diverse is Different than Divided: 2012 Election Reflection

I must say, after Tuesday’s election, most of us seem to be … just fine. Of course, there is a distinct minority of Americans which is not just fine, and within that minority there are two sub-groups: people who are ecstatic and people who are appalled.

The ecstatics are ecstatic because President Obama was re-elected and now all is right with the world.

The appalleds are appalled because President Obama was re-elected and now our nation is hopelessly doomed to oblivion.

Neither outlook is truthful, and that’s why most of us are just fine. We know we’re not great; there is a lot of work that needs to be done, so we’re not really ecstatic. We know we’re not horrible; things have been and could be a lot worse than they are, so we’re not really appalled.

And of course there are degrees of “just fine-ness,” with some of us on the pleased end of the scale and some on the disappointed end. And there is variety within the spectrum of “just fine,” depending on if you are talking local, state, or national levels.

The “just fines” voted Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, and the rest. Some of our candidates won, and some lost. Some of our ballot initiatives passed, and some didn’t. Some of our amendments amended, and some didn’t. And so it goes.

And “just fine” doesn’t equal “weak” or “ambivalent” or “disengaged,” by the way. Many of the “just fines” are energetic, passionate people who care deeply for our communities, our states, and our nation. We’re just realistic about it, and by realistic I mean this:

We understand the difference between “divided” and “diverse.”

If Tuesday’s election did nothing else, it reinforced the idea that the United States of America is a diverse nation. The “ecstatics” and the “appalleds” want to talk about how divided we are, but I don’t think that is accurate. Our nation is not divided, it is diverse, and there is a big difference.

There are times it feels divided, but the problem lies with the system, which is currently structured in such a way that the myth of the divided nation is perpetuated. One of the changes I wish for is the immediate elevation in significance of multiple alternative political parties, so that the system more accurately reflects the diversity of our nation, and provides a process by which we can choose from among a more diverse set of platforms.

Just for example, this year I was struck by the number of people with whom I communicated who expressed the core of the Libertarian Party platform. Though not a clinical survey, it seemed to me that a fiscally conservative approach that emphasizes personal freedom, including the freedom to marry whomever one chooses, was fairly common. However, neither the Democratic nor the Republican platforms fully reflected this perspective, so the people who felt that way were forced to compromise something of their values if they wanted to feel as if their vote counted for something.

We should never have to choose between feeling like our vote counts and feeling like our vote fully reflects our values. Many of the “just fines” vote for people rather than party already. Last Tuesday, I personally voted for candidates representing three different parties. I think it would be very healthy to bring more voices into the conversation, more perspectives, more philosophies from which to choose, and not automatically consider these alternative parties to be “fringe” or “extreme” or any other dismissive label, but rather legitimate perspectives that we could hear, understand, and then choose, or not.

However, all in all, I’m just fine. Our nation is just fine. So is our state and our town. My president is a Democrat, my U.S. senators are Republican and Democrat, my U.S. representative is a Republican, my governor is a Democrat, my state representative is a Republican. See, just fine. Not ecstatic, not appalling.

There is a difference between divided and diverse. Our nation is not divided, we are diverse, and I for one love it that way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

UMC Judicial Council Rules, World Keeps Spinning

And the gates of hell remain unshaken.

The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has issued a ruling that has been much anticipated by absolutely no one outside of the United Methodist hierarchy. (FYI: Basically, they overturned a change made at General Conference this year. The change had been to eliminate the idea of a “guaranteed appointment” for United Methodist pastors. The motivation for the change was to increase accountability for excellence in pastoral leadership.)

So this means that the one shred of reform that was left in place after General Conference has been itself shredded. All the work to de-tangle the hairball has been nullified, most of it at General Conference and now the remainder, by the Judicial Council.

A hairball that is tangled tends to remained tangled. It’s organizational entropy. Or something.

With that said, I am not in the least bit discouraged by this decision, any more than I was when the reform efforts all but failed at General Conference. The motivations are there, the principles are there, the mission is there. The picture has been painted in stark reality. Anybody in United Methodist leadership who cannot see the impending Weemsian wave “death tsunami” and appreciate its implications to the church hasn’t been paying attention.

(And by the way, I call dibs on the term “Weemsian Wave.”)

The allusion above to the gates of hell is from a letter John Wesley wrote to Alexander Mather in 1777. I wrote about it here. His point then, and mine today, was/is that the focus of Methodism has been diffused. Our denominational attention is focused on so many different things, many of them internal, that our energy is sapped, our mission is compromised, and our priorities are unclear at best.

In response to the ethos present in his day, John Wesley asked for “one hundred preachers,” clergy or laity, who had an intense focus on God, and they would do no less than “shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of God on earth.”

Whether or not the ordained itinerant clergy of the United Methodist Church are guaranteed an appointment is one of the navel-gazing questions that diffuses our denominational focus and takes it away from God, where it needs to be. And by the way, it is a change that I’m all in favor of trying, knowing that we either have to change intentionally and proactively or we will be changed by the circumstances around us. I’m in favor of all of those “Call to Action” changes that were first resisted, then rejected, and now reversed by the status quo.

Because in the meantime, people and communities and congregations already are changing, in spite of the hairball. Or they might be orbiting around the hairball, drawing on its gravity in order to sustain forward momentum. This is why I’m not discouraged by the Judicial Council’s decision this week. They are going to do what they are going to do, functioning in a system exactly as it is designed. You cannot blame them; they are bound by the system in which they exist.

However, congregations that innovate and change, ministries that are flexible and responsive to community needs, communities of faith who are creative and passionate, individual disciples who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God - these will be surfing on the leading edge of the Weemsian Wave, even as old systems and unchanging structures are drowning in the flood.

The change starts locally, and percolates outward from there. It must. Neither the General Conference nor the Judicial Council are change agents. The local church is. The changes that need to take place must take place at the local level and eventually the General Conference will catch up.

The gates of hell remain unshaken, and the kingdom yet awaits realization.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dividing the UMC is No Solution - Try Local Autonomy

Dividing the United Methodist denomination is a bad idea. (Click here for some background info.)

I thought we were supposed to be a mission focused church. I thought we were supposed to keep the main thing the main thing. I thought that meant an outwardly focused orientation. I thought we were followers of Jesus Christ.

Dividing our denomination does none of those things. Division does not align with our mission. Division is definitely not the “main thing.” Division is the most inwardly focused thing we could do. Division of the body of Christ is incompatible with Christian teaching.

And you know what? You know what would happen if we spend the exorbitant time and money and energy on dividing the denomination?


Nothing would happen. Nobody would care. The people who aren’t coming to United Methodist Churches now would not magically start coming to the Gay Methodist or the Straight Methodist, or whatever Silly Methodist name we would come up with, just because where there used to be one there were now two denominations. Or three, or six, or a dozen.

Nobody would care. And when I say “nobody,” I mean nobody who is supposed to be the “target demographic” for our mission. (For the record, I do not like that term, since it objectifies people in overly simplistic and rather demeaning ways.) In fact, just about everyone who’s not already heavily involved in church has stopped reading this post by now, and is on to more interesting things, I’m sure.

For the record…

…I reject the idea that the body of Christ should be divided as a way to avoid confronting the controversies.

…I reject the idea that it is possible to categorize the diversity present in our denomination into an either/or, us and them, ally and enemy paradigm.

…I reject the idea that all gay people would feel comfortable in the liberal congregations, and all conservative people would feel comfortable in the “not gay” congregations, and every possible permutation of these labels and categories.

…I reject the idea that almost 300 years of Wesleyan tradition isn’t worth as much as a disagreement about sex.

…I reject the short-sightedness that laments the amazing, exponential growth of African and Asian United Methodist churches. (This lament is offered because these regions generally don’t affirm marriage and ordination for all people.)

I reject all of it. I reject it in favor of mission: the “main thing,” an outwardly focused drive into our communities and around the world. It is a drive to share the love of God made known in Christ Jesus. It is a mission that is equipped and empowered by the living presence of God’s Holy Spirit. It is a mission known by various terms and phrases, but at the core it is quite simply to make disciples of Jesus Christ who are transforming the world for God’s sake.

As such, what makes sense to me for the immediate future of the United Methodist denomination is local autonomy with regard to the question of marriage and ordination, a General Conference shift from “shall” to “may,” if you will.

So, according the Book of Discipline, pastors currently have authority with regard to marrying couples. The pastor does not have to marry every couple that asks. A simple extension of that authority would allow individual pastors to marry same-sex couples, or not, depending on their personal convictions and their community context.

Similarly, the Annual Conference is given the authority to ordain individuals. Each Annual Conference has its own variation on that process anyway, whether in mentoring, the role of the various boards, the interaction with the DS, the candidacy process, the residency time, etc. Each Annual Conference could easily be given authority to determine whether a candidate’s sexual life is a significant enough stumbling block to prohibit their ordination.

And voila! A solution with which no one will be completely happy! Sounds like a compromise to me. Some will say it is condoning sin. Some will say it is too random. Some will say it will create a complicated mess of “safe” and “not safe” congregations and conferences. Some will say that it essentially divides the denomination, if not formally then practically. I completely understand where all these perspectives would come from.

But we cannot simply stay status quo; status quo is a steady decline toward an impending tsunami of Weemsian proportions in North American Methodism.

We cannot divide the denomination, for the reasons I stated above. And the same reasons also apply to the “civil disobedience” option in which pastors or conferences intentionally break the rules to force a confrontation. Not missional, not Christlike, not outwardly focused, etc.

The best option is local autonomy. Local autonomy represents an option that is missional, faithful, hopeful, and most importantly, grace-filled and loving. It is not the cleanest option, but we live in a messy world, don’t we?

[Note: This article has been edited from the original post. "Latin American" in the original has been replaced with "Asian." I apologize for the error on my part.]

Monday, October 08, 2012

MLB Playoffs

It has become an annual tradition for me, and I'm a bit late with it this year, but better late than never, here are the total payrolls of the eight teams currently in the Major League Baseball playoffs:

$ 197,962,289
$ 132,300,000
$ 117,620,683
$ 110,300,862
$ 82,203,616
$ 81,336,143
$ 81,428,999
$ 55,372,500

So without a team to truly root for (again), I go with the team with the lower salary in each series.

Which means currently I'm rooting for the A's to come back and beat Detroit, Baltimore to beat the damn Yankees, Washington to beat St. Louis (although I wouldn't totally hate it if the Cards won), and Cincy to beat the Giants.

It's worth noting that the top paying team has paid almost four times as much for this season as the lowest team on the list. And also worth noting that the average salary on the lowest paying team is more than 1.8 million dollars.


Here's the full list.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Poverty's Face

How about this? Here’s a new rule - you can’t say anything about a group of people unless you can call to mind somebody in that group whom you know and after calling their face to mind you think that you would be able to say what you were about to say as you look directly into their eyes.

Have you ever been to the University Plaza Hotel in Springfield, Missouri? You might have been there for an event of some kind, or a dinner, or maybe a “conference” type of deal? If you haven’t, you likely know the kind of place it is - big fancy hotel, ornate lobby, a bunch of meeting rooms, big “ballroom” for banquets and stuff like that.

I know a guy who works there whom I will call “Chris” for this article. I know Chris really well. He is not my friend by any means. However I am well acquainted with him, since I have been intimately involved with his life for over two years now.

Chris works at University Plaza Hotel; he washes dishes. Do you have a general idea of how much a banquet facility like that charges per plate? If the hotel sells three meals, that takes care of paying Chris for his entire minimum wage shift, and then some. And they could almost cover it with two. Two plates - you and the person sitting next to you - Chris’s check for the entire day.

Chris rides his bike to work, because he and his girlfriend cannot afford to keep a car. He is strong, he works hard, he never misses a shift. He is almost always tired. I cannot begin to comprehend the stress he must be under.

They had been renting a house. The plywood of the front porch slopes away from the front door. Every doorway from one room to another in the house is crooked. The foundation is cracked and crumbling. The roof is a disaster. To my great shame I confess that I would never ever live in a house like this.

Actually they don’t live there anymore; they could not afford the rent, even on such a house. So there’s a motel in north Springfield that basically changed their name from “Motel” to “Apartments” without doing much of anything else that I can tell. Now Chris and his girlfriend live there, in what’s called a “studio apartment,” but is really just a motel room with a curtain hung across the middle to divide the space if desired.

So that’s Chris. He is not lazy. He does not have an inflated sense of “entitlement,” a word that politicians have rendered almost meaningless. What Chris wants is a standard of living that would allow him to get married and raise his son, to be healthy and just be able to live a decent life.

It is Chris’s face that comes to mind whenever I hear anybody say something about “the poor.” Admittedly I do not have as much experience working in impoverished communities as some do, but nevertheless I have a lot more than some. And I always think about Chris when somebody starts in on how “all they do is scam the system” and “you know they’re just looking for a handout” and “I don’t want something I earned to be given to someone else because they should have to earn it” and so forth.

Of course there absolutely are people who choose not to work and make a career of going from charity to charity getting aid. But in all honesty my experience has been they are an extremely small percentage - like in the single digits.

I always wonder about people who so blithely write off “the poor” as just lazy good-for-nothings, or as somehow inherently dangerous, or as moochers living ungratefully off the hard work of others. In particular I wonder how much time they have spent in impoverished communities. I wonder if they've ever been inside a house that they would never dream of living in. I wonder if they've spent any time getting to know the person they deliver that pretty food basket to, or do they just drive up, drop it off, and dash away.

I wonder if they have a “Chris” whose face they call to mind when they talk about the poor.

And I wonder if they would really have said what they just said if they did.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Bishop of Digne

Let me tell you why I’m so excited, honored, and humbled to be portraying the Bishop of Digne in the current production of Les Miserables at Springfield Little Theater.

Firstly, it’s because I’m playing the Bishop of Digne in the current production of Les Miserables at Springfield Little Theater!!! I mean, come on - how cool is that? It’s flippin’ LES MIZ!!!

More specifically, though, and in no particular order…

It is a privilege to play a character who embodies unconditional love and is guided so deeply by the grace of God that he allows grace to dictate every word, every act, even every thought. The acts of welcoming Valjean, sharing a meal with him, and giving him a place to sleep are amazing in and of themselves. But when Valjean breaks that trust and steals the Bishop’s silver, and in response the Bishop not only allows him to keep it, but gives him the costly candlesticks as well, the abject selflessness and audacious grace of the act penetrate to the very heart of holiness.

It is a challenge of musical, physical, and artistic skill to funnel ninety-plus pages of description into two minutes on stage. In the novel, the Bishop of Digne is intimately described in the first section of the book, with overwhelming clarity and detail that reveals a complex and nuanced character. The burden of the actor playing the Bishop is to convey all of that in just a few simple phrases and gestures on stage. It has been quite a humbling process.

It is an honor to be on stage with Lloyd Holt for the powerful “candlesticks” moment. He is not just portraying Jean Valjean; while he is on stage he IS Jean Valjean. The energy that Lloyd radiates elevates the cast around him, myself included, and inspires us to a level of excellence that is rare in community theater settings. As our eyes lock while I am placing the silver candlesticks in his bag, his focus compels me to fully enter into that moment with a passion and depth that I would be unable to access were it happening with a different actor. There is so much that is unspoken underneath that brief moment, and you have to know that the Bishop’s love for Valjean is very much parallel to Andy Bryan’s love for Lloyd Holt.

It is exciting to be portraying a “religious” person who is not a vapid caricature of the faith. Almost every time an explicitly religious person is portrayed on stage or in film, they are shallow, judgmental, hypocritical, or in some other way characterized as “the bad guy.” Not so for the Bishop of Digne. Of him Victor Hugo wrote, “It will be perceived that he had a peculiar manner of his own of judging things: I suspect that he obtained it from the Gospel.” (Hugo, Victor (2010-12-16). Les Misérables (p. 25). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.)

I portray other characters throughout the show, including a poor beggar, a factory worker, a waiter, and … a pimp. (Yep.) I am having a great time with each, and to be a part of such an overwhelmingly talented cast and crew is undoubtedly a life highlight.

But I am captivated by this Bishop. I am hopeful that I can present him with the profound simplicity and powerful humility that he embodies. I hope that in my offering of the Bishop of Digne to the audiences at the Lander’s Theater, I can offer Christ in the fullest possible expression of what that truly means.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wishy One Day, Washy the Next?

The term “wishy-washy” has been around since the 1690s. Originally it meant “thin and watery,” and likely was just the word “washy.” So you might have said, “Wow, my tea is quite washy this afternoon,” meaning it had been “washed” with water. The “wishy” part was added for a bit of playful emphasis.

I can’t think of “wishy-washy” without thinking of good ol’ Charlie Brown. Here’s an exchange between him and Lucy from a 1965 comic strip:

Charlie Brown: Next year I'm going to be a changed person!
Lucy: That's a laugh, Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown: I mean it! I'm going to be strong and firm.
Lucy: Forget it. You'll always be wishy-washy!
Charlie Brown: Why can't I change just a little bit? I'll be wishy one day and washy the next!

In our current worship series, “No Other Life But This,” the character of King Ahasuerus (or “Elvis,” if you prefer), gives us an example of what it means to be a “wishy-washy” leader. Every single time there is a decision to be made, he makes it based on the persuasion of others. There is never a time he takes a stand boldly on his own, based on what he knows is the right thing to do.

Sometimes I think we follow Jesus like that, too. We base our own faith completely on the influence of others, rather than our own unique perspective. Of course, I am not discounting the power of community and the profound importance of connection with others. Far from it.

In a passage discussing unity in the church, Ephesians chapter 4 puts it this way: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”

Is our discipleship “wishy one day and washy the next?” And what’s the difference between “wishy-washy” (with a negative connotation) and “open-minded” (with a positive connotation)? These questions and others will frame our worship at Campbell UMC this week - see y’all in church!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Who Teaches Whom?

This morning started with “Character Education” at Cherokee Middle School. Once a month, people of the community (including 4 from Campbell UMC!) come to Cherokee to lead a half-hour character lesson in a classroom.

I have a clever and insightful group of sixth graders this year. I also have some fairly substantial mutton chop sideburns at the moment, because I am in Springfield Little Theater’s production of Les Miserables. Needless to say, mutton chop sideburns elicit a reaction from sixth graders. It was definitely an “ice-breaker.”

At the end of our lesson, a boy named Tristan asked me if I was going to keep the sideburns after the show. I told him that I would if it catches on as a fashion trend.

“NO!” he said, “If it catches on, that’s when you DON’T want to do it because then you’re just doing what everyone else is. You want to be doing your own thing.”

Yeah, there’s your character education, right there!

My second meeting of the day took me to Room 123, where I met with our three three-year-old classes from our congregation's daycare/preschool. It is “Community Helper” week for them, and I had been invited to share with the littles about what I do to help people.

I told them my name and what I do, and told them that I help people by helping them think about God and learn about God and know that God loves us and is with us all the time. I put on my robe and let them look at the symbols on my stole. I showed them a Bible and told them that we use it to learn about God and read stories about God and so forth.

I also brought a hymnal to show them, and told them that one of the things we do when we are with God is to sing. So then we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

When our time was up, I asked who remembered my name. Most of them did, which was fun. Then I asked, “And who can remember what I do to help people?”

A little girl raised her hand. When I called on her, she paused kind of shy like three-year-olds do sometimes, then she said very softly, “You help us sing.”

And I thought, “I’m good with that.”

When I was ordained, I promised to “diligently instruct the children in every place.” But even better is when the children instruct me.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

No Other Life but This

This week we begin a new series at Campbell, titled “No Other Life But This.” The phrase is Henry David Thoreau’s; the full quote is:

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.

Because Thoreau may not be everyone’s first choice on which to base a worship series, and because the quote itself is open to different interpretations, I would like to share my thoughts as to the basis for this series.

We are going to spend a few weeks with the characters in the scriptural story of Esther, and watch to see how each lives fully “in the present” and finds the “eternity in each moment.” The characters in this story are presented with choices and challenges, and we’ll spend the next few weeks reflecting on how they do (or do not) understand that “there is no other life but this.”

So when I say “there is no other life but this,” I do not mean once we die, we die, and there is nothing other than this earthly life. Far from it.

This quote makes me think about the potential contained within each and every moment of our lives. Every instant is ripe with God-imbued possibility, ready for us to realize. God does indeed offer eternal life, but not as a separate life that begins after this one. The life God offers is possible right here and right now.

This series will allow us to see how the various characters in the story of Esther realize the possibility of their moments, and hopefully give us new insight into our own moments, and how we ourselves might find our eternity in each of them.

There is no other life but this!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wanna Live Forever?

“I am the living bread … Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

These are the words of Jesus, a promise given in a metaphor in John, chapter 6. To “eat this bread” is to be in relationship with him, indicating a closeness that continues to grow over time, in the same way that any relationship matures.

In John 6, the Jesus relationship goes from “Listen to …” to “Be nourished by …” and now “Abide in ….”  If you read through the chapter closely you can see this movement, from one phase of relationship to the next.

A crowd of 5,000 gathers to hear what Jesus has to say, and they are fed. At the next level, Jesus challenges them to “rethink bread” and believe in him. There are some who resist.

For those who are left, Jesus takes it deeper. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Now it is not a matter of simply being nourished by Jesus, it is a matter of mutual “abiding” - you in him and him in you. There are more who resist; verse 66 records that “many of his disciples turned back” after he says these things.

The first dropouts were happy to be fed, but didn’t want nourishment. The next ones to leave were satisfied as long as Jesus was doing the nourishing, but were unwilling to allow him further access into their lives.

Jesus will nourish us, but he wants to do more. He wants to “abide in” us. Jesus’ desire is to abide in us with the kind of life that is so abundant, so amazing, so enormous, it can only be described as “eternal.”

Are we willing to let Jesus abide in us? Will we grant him unfettered access to every part of our lives? Or are there some nooks and crannies we’re just not that comfortable letting Jesus into? Our finances? Our politics? Our marriages?

What does it mean for Christ to abide in us, and to abide in Christ? What does it mean to live forever?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Bacon, Marriage, and Freedom of Speech

When somebody says something out loud, exercising their right to free speech, and then somebody disagrees with that person out loud, the second person is ALSO exercising their right to free speech, correct?

So, why do many conversations seem to go something like this…

1) Person A: I do not like bacon.
2) Person B: Really? Bacon is delicious.
3) Person A: Hey man! I’ve got free speech!

Line 3 is a red herring, and does absolutely nothing helpful for the conversation. People tend to call Line 2 “backlash” and “intolerance” and even “oppression” and all sorts of nonsense. And then, whereas we were once talking about the relative deliciousness of bacon, now we are all of a sudden talking about the right to speak freely.

So, line 4 should now be -

4) Person B: Yep, you sure do. So do I. So, do you want to continue talking about bacon or what?

When the conversation is magnified from bacon to same-sex marriage, the emotional investment increases, but the progress of the conversation should look just the same.

1) Person A: I think same-sex marriage is wrong.
2) Person B: Really? That’s discrimination.

Now Person A has a choice, and what they decide will either advance the conversation or shut it down. It could look like this…

3) Person A: I don’t see it as discrimination, because(insert reasoning for this position).

At that point, we are having a conversation! Hooray for us! Respect, graciousness, rationality, and all that good stuff.

However, lately it looks more like this…

3) Person A: I’m just using my right to free speech.

As if Person B wasn’t? In response to this, Person B now has a choice. They could follow the red herring. This diverts all the attention away from the question at hand and pretty much shuts down any chance of meaningful dialogue. Free speech is not the issue; same-sex marriage is.

I believe that Person B should now avoid any reference whatsoever to free speech and advance the conversation. Person B’s avoidance of the red herring may very well advance the conversation, if Person A is willing to come along.

4) Person B: I know we do. So, I think denying same-sex couples the right to be married is discrimination. So tell me why you think it isn't.

The conversation can indeed be salvaged. I still believe (though my faith is faltering) that human beings can actually have substantive and meaningful conversations with each other regarding issues about which we disagree, especially if those conversations are held in the context of a loving and respectful relationship, rather than an anonymous online forum or other public media outlet.

If you disagree with my take on this conversation, I promise you I will not characterize your response as “backlash” or “intolerance” or “oppression” and hope you don’t characterize mine as such. Those are strong words, and need to be reserved for appropriate situations. 

To be clear, I am not saying that one should never use such words, but rather that the time to use them must be limited. If what I am saying is oppressive or intolerant, by all means tell me and show me how it is so. It is not oppressive to simply disagree with somebody; it is oppressive to deny somebody their rights. And a person calling another person's opinion "oppressive" is not automatically oppressive in and of itself.

The culture of easily accessible mass communication may have altered our capacity for respectful dialogue, but I hope that we haven't lost it completely.

To tell you the truth, I don't really like bacon all that much. And ... go ...

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Hope to Transcend

Shooting at Sikh Temple in Milwaukee.
Rover landing on Mars.
Burning of a Mosque in Joplin.
Olympic track and field.

Sunday, August 5th, 2012 saw the worst and the best of humanity interwoven into one otherwise ordinary day. When you reflect on what “we” (meaning we as human beings) accomplished Sunday, it really is remarkable.

Horrific violence and inspired ingenuity. Senseless destruction and astounding achievement. Hand in hand on the same day. What a mess.

It is so good. And it is horrible. At the very same time. That’s the reality; neither that everything is awful nor that everything is peachy keen. It’s a whole lot of both.

A little boy has five loaves and two fish. And Jesus uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people. And then there are leftovers. And it’s funny, but it looks like there’s more of the leftover than there was of the original meal.

How in the world would a story like this make any sense in a world that has days like August 5th, 2012? I mean, so what? It’s such a little story, silly even. What in the world does a dusty old story like this have to say to us today?

Something about the meagerness of this life, presented in contrast with the abundance of the life that Jesus offers, maybe? Something about how Jesus can take the inadequacy of this mess and transform it into something transcendent?

I think there’s something there that makes it possible for us to have hope, and in our hopefulness seek to become the world God desires. The best and the worst, together redeemed and transformed in the presence of Christ.

Friday, July 27, 2012

This Post is Not About Chicken

First, a couple of things.

One, I really don’t care where you buy your chicken sandwiches, and I’m pretty sure that way down deep you really don’t care where I buy mine, either.

Secondly, I don’t want to write about same-sex marriage again, and so I won’t. My opinion is pretty publically documented, and if you’ve read “Enter the Rainbow” on a semi-regular basis, you know what it is. I don’t want to rehash old arguments in unhelpful ways.

So this is a post about neither chicken sandwiches nor same-sex marriage. Okay - good to go?

I’d like to write about inviting God’s judgment on our nation by shaking fists at God and claiming to know more than God does. This is what Dan Cathy said some people are doing in his comment that fanned the flames of the Great Chicken Sandwich Scandal of 2012.

Whatever you believe about gay marriage, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find people who believe they are actively opposing God in their stance. When somebody says a thing like that, they most often mean that the person they refer to is opposing them.

“You are opposing God” translates to “You are disagreeing with me” almost every time it is uttered.

The truth is, there are faithful people (who would never dream of opposing God) on all sides of these issues, and all of us are simply trying our best to live our lives the way God wants us to.

(And by the way, there are also non-religious people on all sides of these issues, and they are clearly not shaking their fists at God, since they would not think there is a God at which to shake a fist.)

Perhaps Mr. Cathy believed he was being prophetic. After all, he uttered some pretty powerful words, invoking the judgment of God on the nation. This is pretty much what all those Old Testament prophets did, too. However, it is pretty elite company up there. I mean, those dudes wrote the Bible!

Whatever may have motivated the quip, I am certain that Mr. Cathy is not shaking his fist at God when he says it. My personal disagreement aside, I believe that from his perspective, Mr. Cathy is a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ who is simply trying to live the life he believes God wants him to live, just like me.

I do not know better than God. Neither do you. Nobody does. No. Body.

When faithful people disagree about something, resorting to “You are opposing God” is a weak argument and shallow theology, bringing any meaningful dialogue to a screeching halt. And to me, it says a lot about our society that we are talking about gay marriage and chicken sandwiches before we are talking about the accusation of opposing divine will and claiming to know better than God. That seems to me to be the far more significant issue lurking under the surface, needing to be surfaced.

Disagreement does not equal faithlessness.

Monday, July 23, 2012

It Was a Holy Mess - Jurisdictional Conference Reflections

It was a holy mess.

(That’s the best I can do at 11:40 p.m. on the Friday of Jurisdictional Conference. A holy mess.)

It was a holy time; but it sure was a mess.

It was a messy time; but it was indeed holy.

And in saying that, I am not offering criticism. I left Jurisdictional Conference very proud to be United Methodist. Not because it wasn’t a mess; but rather because of the way we worked in and through the messiness together.

The primary purpose for the Jurisdictional Conference is to elect and appoint bishops. To be elected, a bishop must receive 60% of the votes. There were three bishops needed in our Jurisdiction, and ten people who were endorsed candidates. That meant we had to vote 23 times before getting our three new bishops.

In between each of these votes were opportunities to “caucus” within our Missouri delegation, as well as speak with others if we wished. Now, I’m not naïve. I know that political maneuvering happens in systems such as our beloved United Methodist Church. But it felt weird to me, even to have the word “caucus” spoken in relation to an activity of the church. I think the crux of the matter is, there were too many secrets for a group that is supposed to believe the truth will set us free.

In the course of these conversations, I learned that there was a conference who really wanted one particular candidate for their bishop. They thought he was just the right person to lead this conference in shifting their priorities and helping them think and organize missionally. I think he would have done very well and was voting for him so that he might be sent there.

Of course, I understand that it doesn’t really work that way; the assignments are made by the Episcopacy Committee after the elections. But I kept voting for him because I knew that this conference really wanted him, and I was voting on their behalf. I was trying to vote missionally rather than politically, if that makes sense.

Problem was, they were too small a delegation to have any impact on the elections. Even voting together in a bloc their collective voice was hardly more than a whisper on the floor of the conference. Stated bluntly, the bigger conferences organize efficiently and end up getting exactly what they want. Again, that’s not a criticism; that’s simply how it works.

However, the end result of the elections and assignments is actually really good. From what I know of the three new bishops and the three areas to which they have been assigned, some really good things are going to be happening in the UMC in our jurisdiction over the next few years. Cynthia Harvey, Gary Mueller, and Mike McKee are gifted leaders and creative visionaries, and the denomination is a better place with the three of them in episcopal roles.

And that smaller conference who really wanted that particular person for bishop? It turns out that they haven’t been assigned a bishop at this point (more on that later), instead they will receive two retired bishops to serve on an interim basis, leaving open the possibility that they may receive the person of their choice anyway, although the process by which that may or may not happen is in no way clear at this time.

Another thing I noticed: In between votes there were reports given from various groups within the Jurisdiction. Now, at Annual Conference these reports are times of celebration and support. At Jurisdictional Conference they felt kind of like time fillers. There were times I felt really bad for the people giving reports, because it seemed like hardly anyone in the room was truly paying attention to them, let alone celebrating and supporting.

And then there was the whole set of circumstances around the involuntary retirement of Bishop Earl Bledsoe of the North Texas Conference. (Back  story) While there are many perspectives and opinions being expressed and I encourage you to read and understand all of them, no single perspective can see the whole story. All I can offer is what I saw.

I saw a Jurisdictional Conference holding a bishop accountable for ineffective administrative leadership.

It was intense. I cannot adequately describe the emotion of the room as the process unfolded. Don House, the chair of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, and Bishop Robert Hayes, who presided over the session at which the vote was taken, handled the situation with dignity and grace, and projected a calm and solemn attitude that was appropriate to the significance of the moment.

Two members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee are from Missouri, and were involved in the lengthy hearings at that level. Rev. Cody Collier and Larry Fagan are to be highly commended for their faithfulness and diligence, and both were obviously drained by the experience, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My admiration and respect for each of these men has grown exponentially.

I do not believe this was a racist attempt to oust a black bishop in favor of a white one. Nor do I believe this is an example of the “good ol boy network” trying to shelter one of their own from further repercussions. These are two examples of opinions I have read that I simply cannot agree with. They just do not align with the way I experienced this process.

No, the delegates to the conference who are not on the committee are not privy to all of the details. Some see this as a "cover-up." I see it as entrusting a group of colleagues with work that is best left to a smaller group to do. Knowing personally and trusting deeply two of the Episcopacy Committee members and hearing their summary and recommendation is enough for me.

As a denomination, we have wondered together about accountability. There has been renewed emphasis on accountability for pastors, and parallel to that, questions about how to hold bishops accountable, also. This is what we saw at Jurisdictional Conference last week: a process by which bishops can be held accountable for ineffective administrative leadership.

It started when the North Texas Conference Episcopacy Committee expressed their desire that Bishop Bledsoe not be re-assigned to North Texas. That would be similar to a local congregation’s Church Council (or Staff/Parish Relations Committee) letting their pastor know that they would like a change in appointment. That’s when Bishop Bledsoe announced he would retire. And then he reversed course and decided to remain an active bishop. The matter then moved to the next level of our system, the Jurisdiction.

The Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy worked diligently and faithfully to study the situation and discern the best way to resolve it. They heard from multiple sources, they spent many hours with Bishop Bledsoe himself, they prayed for wisdom and guidance, and they came to a recommendation they considered to be the most gracious and just resolution. They brought that recommendation to the entire Conference, we heard from Bishop Bledsoe himself, we considered it and prayed over it, and voted to affirm their recommendation.

And that’s what happened.

As of September 1, Bishop Bledsoe will be a retired bishop. If he decides to appeal the decision to the United Methodist Judicial Council (like our denominational Supreme Court), he will remain in retired status as the process is advancing. As I mentioned before, one of our Annual Conferences is being served by two retired bishops, on an interim basis. Some news articles are reporting that he will be an active bishop as the appeal is happening; that is not my understanding of the situation.

In his remarks, Bishop Bledsoe said that there is a process in place by which a complaint against a bishop can be brought, addressed, and resolved. He implied a preference for this process rather than the one that unfolded. He has a point. That is indeed one of the processes that might have played out here. The end result of that process, if the complaint is justified, can be harsh, including the removal of clergy credentials.

The process that was followed comes from paragraph 408.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which allows a Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee to place a bishop in retired relationship by 2/3 vote if it is “in the best interests of the bishop and/or the church.” The process was fair, gracious, and just.

It was messy; it was holy.

It was messy because accountability is hard sometimes, especially when it is a beloved bishop being held accountable. It was holy because the mission of God for the church was always at the forefront of the conversation, and all that was done was done with grace and love.

So that’s what I’m going with, still - a holy mess. A messy holiness? We are in the world, and not of it. We are both already and not yet. We are sinners forgiven. We are a bunch of screwed up people trying to do the best we can to realize the reign of God on earth.

We are the church. We are the United Methodist portion of the Church, specifically. And we do things well together. It is rarely easy. It is often messy. And by the grace of God, it is holy.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Phenomenal Future is Here Today

Three episodes in the last two days that refuse to support the myth that the United Methodist Church is doomed to age slowly, wither up, and die:

1) On Sunday, we sent a youth mission team and their adult chaperones to Memphis, Tennessee for the week. It was a smallish team, and that fact itself will cause some people to say, “See, told ya,” as if merely counting heads is enough to forecast the downfall of the church. Rather, I want to describe the spirit of the group.

The entire trip is being led by volunteer leadership; the Youth Director is not even on this trip. And the group is tweeting updates and pictures @campbellyouth so that we can keep tabs on everything they’re doing. The group is excited, motivated, dedicated, and having a great experience.

It’s really hard for me to participate in denominational gloom and doom when something wonderful like this is happening.

2) I baptized a seventeen year old girl on Sunday. Her family was surrounding her, along with some other high school friends. She started coming to worship here a few months ago because one of her friends invited her. And she comes by herself; her family stays home on Sundays, although she tells me she’s “working on them.”

One teenager, reaching out to another and inviting them to come to church, and a few months later, a baptism. And from here … who knows? She is a disciple of Jesus Christ, and is worshiping every week, studying the Bible with a small group of friends at school, and volunteering her service through participating in multiple groups in the community. She is changing the world, for God’s sake!

I just can’t seem to wring my hands to much about “irrelevance” when I see things like this going on.

3) At the memorial service for his grandmother, a teenager in our congregation shared a poignant remembrance. It was sad and funny and a fitting tribute to a beautiful woman whose love and joy and care for her family was inspiring to all who knew her. He allowed me to read it on his behalf as a part of the service.

And he closed his remarks with these sentences:

“It’s hard losing someone as great as my Grandma. She fought a long and hard battle with cancer. And trust me she did not give up. She is a fighter.

And I know now that she is in a much better and more comfortable place with our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, whom she loves and trusts. And I couldn’t ask God any more than to treat my Grandma as well as she treated me.

This kid, who is as quiet and reserved as they come, had expressed the grief of the people gathered in the room in such an eloquent, powerful way, that the sanctuary was completely transformed. Each and every person there was unified by a common experience of “YES” and the Holy Spirit was profuse within and around all of us.

For some reason, it’s kind of tricky for me to be all worried about ineffective agency structures this afternoon.

I know, I know … a few anecdotes do not negate all the statistics and “big picture” trends and whatnot. I get it; I’m not naïve.

But I also believe with all my heart that renewal in the church will happen in the form of the anecdotes that I have mentioned above, not in grand denominational reconfigurations and programs and conferences and meetings and plans and schemes and all those things we seem to be trying to do.

One person at a time. Slowly. Oh so slowly. Yet inevitably. Inexhaustibly. With the certainty of hope.

I love the church. I love the United Methodist Church. I love Campbell United Methodist Church. And I refuse to participate in myth-making when it comes to the future. I can’t, because I have witnessed that “future” present in the here-and-now, and it is phenomenal!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Relationship Changes Everything

Last night in Grow Group, we ventured into some interesting territory. Someone started things off, before we’d even officially begun the session, by saying she had heard for the first time just that morning the interpretation that says David and Jonathan were romantically involved.

We took a look at the story (in 1 Samuel 18 - 2 Samuel 1), and talked about the covenant established between the two, the deep love they felt for each other, the line “surpassing the love of women” that is a focal point of this interpretation, the kiss, the exchange of clothing, and so on. This wasn’t a deep reading; I just gave the group kind of a quick scan of the pertinent passages.

When I was done, I gave my opinion of the interpretation, which is that it is definitely possible from the clues that are given, but it is not specifically stated in any way that David and Jonathan’s relationship was romantic. So basically, we know that they loved each other very much, but the Bible never directly states that it is romantic love we are talking about.

This led another participant in the group to say that is what she thinks, too, and furthermore she just can’t believe that anyone would “accuse” David of such a relationship. In this statement she revealed her belief that being gay is something you would “accuse” someone of, as if it was wrong.

I was about to respond when another participant said it for me, “I don't believe being gay is something you ‘accuse’ someone of. It’s just how you are,” she said. I smiled inside!

And knowing she may have been somewhat uncertain about offering her belief, I spoke up in support. “That’s how I feel, as well. The interpretation that David and Jonathan were gay is not an accusation, it is just an idea of what their love may have been.”

Everybody seemed to be okay at this point, and we were able to move on into our discussion. The woman who had made the statement about “accusing” David and Jonathan of gayness kind of just nodded and said, “Oh, okay,” and the woman who had brought it up initially just said, “Yeah, I thought it was interesting and I had never heard it before this morning.”

The point being, nobody got all huffy and angry and bitter about anything. It wasn’t even tense. Everybody simply said what they believed and then we moved on. It was lovely!

I know that some of you who read this will comment with your own perspective on David and Jonathan, and on the whole homosexuality question. We may very well end up with a lengthy back and forth in which we fire our beliefs at one another like flaming arrows. I suppose that kind of thing is inevitable these days, though I am hopeful that it doesn’t need to be. Somebody must choose to be the first to stop hurting others.

By sharing this story, my goal is to point out what a difference being involved face-to-face with a small group of people you know and love can make. Relationship changes everything. Questions about human sexuality are rarely addressed in healthy ways online, or in denominational conferences, or any other venue in which investment in relationship is not required.

Because the people sitting around that table last night knew each other, worshiped together, loved one another, had shared prayer together, and so on, the conversation happened with grace and respect. And we ended up having a very meaningful hour and fifteen minute conversation about grief and loss, the Grow Group topic for the week.

And the thing is, I think 99.9% of people “get” that. You know? The idea that real relationship changes everything. And there isn’t a better venue in the world for that kind of relationship to develop than in the church. Trust, friendship, love - these things develop one at a time, slowly, face to face. You cannot program them. You cannot legislate them. You cannot force them.

But you can cultivate them. You can “till the soil” that will create the conditions in which they may emerge and begin to flourish. It requires an investment of time and energy and is actually pretty hard work! That’s what was happening last night at Grow Group, and it was very good!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Neither Young Nor Old

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV).

And if I could edit the Bible (wouldn’t we all like to do THAT from time to time?), I would add “there is no longer young or old.” Though we cannot edit Scripture, it is clear to me that the idea I would insert is indeed present, if not explicitly stated.

In “earthly” terms, we talk about old people and young people all the time. The church’s latest institutional lament is how we are aging, soon to be dying off, and in desperate need of young people who will save the church.

My practical response to this lament is, That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on “young people,” and a pretty ineffective invitational strategy, anyway. “Hey there, young person! Come and be a part of this church, we are starting to panic about whether or not we will survive as an institution and we just know that you are going to be our salvation!” Um … no thanks.

My theological response to this lament is, In the Church there is no longer young or old, for all are one in Christ Jesus. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, as an old person, to surrender any evangelical capacity I might have to the younger generations. Why should I be allowed to yield my missional responsibility, just because I’m not in the designated demographic?

The church is a multi-generational body, and the truth is that all who follow Jesus, no matter what age, must faithfully pattern our lives in discipleship, including reaching out to invite others to be a part of the abundant life made known in Christ Jesus and made manifest in the church.

It is true that we old folks need the younger ones; it is equally true that the younger folks need us old fogies. This is not an either-or proposition, for “all are one in Christ Jesus.” 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What About Joy?

Over on UM Insight, my most recent blog elicited this comment from a reader:

agree that something has to be done about the way that the UMC is heading. I don't think that this is the way to do it. What if what a local church wants is to not pay apportionments and be free to discriminate? (Perhaps that is what some want now.) The question is how do we retain the ability to act and speak as a denomination and yet have a lot less "top down" governance. How do we give more authority to the local church without becoming the "rope of sand" bemoned (sic) by Whitfield? And if the real thrust of what we are doing is to give more power to the local church what does that say about the episcopacy and the superintendency? What did the study commissioned by the Council of Bishops say about the effect of apportionments on the local church? Is the general church here to serve the local church or is it the other way round? Not having been at GC I can only ask questions as someone outside looking in. All I can say is, we are better than this. Rather than scapegoating some while holding others sacred we need to continue to do the work of the Great Commission while working together on solutions.

This comment was posted by “John Wesley.” I was flattered.

I commented back to Mr. Wesley:

Mr. Wesley, While I am indeed honored that you have commented on my humble blog, allow me to ask you to go ahead and answer your own question. What if a congregation doesn't pay apportionments? What if a congregation or a pastor discriminates? (My answer - the GC responds to a congregation acting thusly in the same manner a congregation responds to a church member who is.)
But then answer mine - What if they don't? What if UM congregations are so excited by what is happening in the denomination they simply can't wait to pay 110% of their apportionment? What if UM congregations are so fired up by the ethos of grace that they begin to truly welcome all people fully?
If you'll forgive me, since I know you only by reading your sermons and a few of your journal entries, Mr. Wesley, thinking "What if something goes wrong?" is exactly the kind of thinking that is stifling our denomination.
We need to start asking, "What if everything exceeds our wildest imagination?"

Then I read an article today about withholding apportionments as a way to affect change in the denomination. The article is a litany of negativism and hopelessness that really harshes my buzz, man. And it is only one in a long list of laments written in response to the 2012 meeting of the General Conference.

The majority of responses that I have read have been either pity parties or gripe sessions or angry diatribes. We are angry, we are upset, we are afraid. And those of us who aren’t are taking an attitude that says the 2012 General Conference was a harbinger of rebirth and radical transformation; in other words, it was awful - but better things are surely coming.

Why do we United Methodists seem to be unable to ask any question other than, “What if something goes wrong?" or "What if we die?" We use terms that are designed to elicit fear and despair, and then we wonder why everybody is so afraid and gloomy. Um … duh.

We are asking, “What if something goes wrong,” and “What if our denomination splits,” and “What if we run out of money,” and “What if our structure collapses,” as if these questions have anything whatsoever to do with the way the world is being transformed in spite of us.

Yes, the world is changing, has changed, is forever different than it was a generation ago. And we’re missing it as we engage in denominational hand-wringing.

Okay, look - our General Boards are going to restructure, but now it will be because they are forced to rather than because the General Conference did so proactively. They are just going to run out of money and not be able to function as they currently do. I wish we would have been able to anticipate and preempt this, but we didn’t. Now it will happen reactively instead.

But even that’s not the point.

All of this negativity around this year’s General Conference is misplaced and not the least bit helpful. We expend so much organizational energy being anxious about the “What ifs” that our fear not only paralyzes us, it also distracts us from all of the wonderful stuff, changing stuff, transformational stuff, stuff that we can celebrate.

What we miss is the joy. What about joy? There is so much to rejoice over, and we can’t even see it because we’re so afraid.

Do we remember? We follow a Teacher who told a story once about leaving behind 99 perfectly flocked sheep in order to find one that was lost, and then rejoiced when it was found. One sheep. Call the neighbors, throw a party - Rejoice!

Have we forgotten how to rejoice?

Personally, in small groups, in congregations, and percolating upward from there, we need to remember how to rejoice. We need to stop asking, What if we die?

What we need to be asking is - What if we live?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

General Conference Could be Our "Facebook"

I feel like I used to when Mom would tell me to clean my room. I knew it had to be done but I really didn’t want to.

Okay, I’ll do a wrap-up blog on General Conference 2012, geez. (*Picture rolling eyes and stomping off to my computer with an exasperated sigh*)

See, I thought all the General Conference stuff was going to be … just fine. I didn’t think anything amazing was going to happen and nothing amazing did. It wasn’t awful; it wasn’t great. It did exactly what it is designed to do, and now it’s over. It was just fine.

I really feel bad for all of the wonderful people who worked so hard for such a long time only to have all their hard work rejected by the committee or tabled by the conference or just ignored altogether. I respect them for their work, their dedication, and faithfulness. Thank you!

Specifically …
- I think the restructure would have been a good thing, and it will be when it eventually happens, either because we choose it or we’re forced to do it because we literally can’t afford not to.

- I think the Hamilton/Slaughter amendment was brilliant, and I hope Annual Conferences will consider endorsing it this year as a way to encourage local congregations to meaningful, grace-filled, and respectful dialogue about homosexuality.

- I hope the end of the guaranteed appointment doesn’t regress us back to a day when prejudice was common enough to really need it, and I really don’t think it will with all the accountability built into the system.

- I love being in full communion across the spectrum of our Methodist cousin denominations!

- I wish we had divested from the companies that profit from Israel’s military; I understand the argument of those who want to influence things by staying invested, although I am skeptical that we actually will do so.

But really, I am more than ever before convinced that the change necessary for the United Methodist Church cannot be legislated in the current General Conference structure. We are fooling ourselves if we think it can. And GC 2012 did a lot to reinforce this idea.

AsI’ve written before, my ideal model for an Annual Conference would be as a kind of “Google” for local congregations. Well, what if the General Conference could be “Facebook” for the denomination as a whole?

Facebook is a social network that connects people, coordinates groups, promotes ideas, and pools resources. Isn’t that what General Conference at its best ought to do?

We are a global connection whose coordinated focus is to promote the mission of God in communities all around the world. Couldn’t General Conference be our Facebook? We wouldn’t have General Boards and Agencies, we would have groups and pages! We could send “friend requests” to churches all around the world through the General Conference. We could create events like Imagine No Malaria and Nothing But Nets, and contribute via our denominational PayPal accounts to make them happen.

The fundamental shift that needs to happen at the General level is from old-school, hierarchical authority to postmodern, flattened-out collaboration. If we actually believe that the most impact happens at the local congregation level, then everything we did as a broader connection would have to be geared toward equipping and empowering the church in local communities around the world.

The General Conference would stop telling local churches what they can and cannot do, and start asking local churches what they actually want to do - how they feel God is uniquely calling them to fulfill the mission – and then the Conference would work to make it happen.

I know, I know – dream on. Come to think of it, I used to daydream a lot when Mom sent me to clean my room, too!