Monday, April 30, 2012

To Z and G, From Daddy Andy

I went to look at the ducks without you guys this morning.

It’s raining. I don’t see any. You would have gotten bored really fast, anyway.

We used to come here every two weeks on Monday mornings, to spend some time together before I would take you to school. To be honest with you, it was more about keeping you buckled in than actually looking at ducks, but I’m pretty sure you never realized that. Maybe you did, though, you are very smart.

One time when we were here, during the time you were potty training, Z, you suddenly had to go potty. I drove the car over to the building, parked, went around and got baby G out, went around again and got you out (see, I couldn’t have gotten you out before getting G out because you would have made a run for it), then holding G in one arm and your hand in the other, we somehow made it into the bathroom. I helped you get all situated, using my one free hand and trying not to drop your brother with the other. Then … you didn’t go.

I see a bird. It’s not a duck, but it’s walking in the water right next to the shore. See it? It would have held your attention for a few seconds. Maybe.

Then you would have shouted at it to get it to fly away.

Or maybe reached over to take G’s sock off. Or hit him, even.

G loves you, Z. He loves you as purely as any person has ever loved another. We can see it in his face when he looks at you. You need him, to connect with, to attach, to love. He needs you, too. He’s your baby brother, and most of the time baby brothers get taken care of by their big sisters. But he needs to be protected from his sometimes.

It’s not your fault. It’s just that your love is out of whack. Your attachments don’t connect like other people’s. You will be gentle and sweet one second, tenderly stroking G’s head and cooing “It’s okay” to him, and the very next second something makes you push him over, or poke him in the eye, or dig your fingers into his head, or hit him.

You did that to us a lot, too. And it was really, really hard for us when you did.

One time you showed your worker your pretty picture you had colored at school. When she told you how pretty it was and what a good job you did, you tore it up.

It’s raining pretty hard now. I wonder if sitting and listening to the rain, watching it splash in the lake, if that would hold your attention for a few more tenuous moments.

We called you Pinball sometimes, Z, because you bounced from naughty thing to naughty thing so quickly. Grab the cell phone - touch the TV - run with the juice - back to the cell phone again. You were very frustrating. You made us very angry a lot of the time. Because we loved you, you see. We didn’t want to be angry, and we’re pretty sure you didn’t want to make us angry, it’s just that you couldn’t really figure out how not to. And we could never figure out how to make it so that you didn’t always try to. We did our best, but I guess we kind of failed you on that one.

We called you Pinball, also because you could barely stand up sometimes. Your balance, or your legs, your hips maybe - nobody could really figure out what was going on with that, even the big shots at Children’s Mercy. So you had casts for a while to try to bend your legs into shape, then braces. We called them your “boots” and they had Disney princesses on them, so you would think they were fun. You didn’t. You really liked to take them off and be barefoot.

Actually, you really liked to take all your clothes off and put different ones on - flannel pajamas in the backyard on an 80 degree day was not uncommon. Or a nightgown for a shirt and leggings for pants, with a fleece sweater over the top for good measure.

“Daddy may I fwing me on de fwing,” you said. When I gave you a “thumbs up,” you would put your pointer finger up and it made me smile.

Z, you lived with us for 21 months. And we loved you for every single moment of that time. We loved you anyway.

Our longest one.

Our hardest one.

Our wild one.

Not you G. You lived with us your whole life, all 11 months of it. As rough as your sister was, that’s how sweet you were. You were even sweet there in the NICU where you spent the first few days of your life. We came to see you there, we held you, we rocked you, we sang to you. We loved you from the very start. You were a giant compared to the other babies there!

We were scared of having a newborn baby again, a little bit. But you made it so easy. You slept, you ate, you pooped, you slept again. Easy.

Once you learned how to smile, G, it’s like you never stopped. You smiled with your whole body - your face beamed, your eyes danced, your head shook, your hands waved. Every time you smiled, everyone with you smiled too.

You loved to shake your head back and forth, mouth open, saying “ahh” in a silly voice, and get people to laugh at you. You even liked doing this for the other babies in your daycare class. Class clown already. And you can clap, too, which was also fun because everybody said “YEA” whenever you did it.

Sometimes Z would come up to you and get up in your face and say, “It’s bl-bl-bl time!” (I don’t know how to spell the sound she was making, flicking her tongue in and out of her mouth.) You don’t know the term “unconditional love” yet, but you know exactly what it means, because it’s how you love your sister. When she was in the room, your eyes tracked her every move.

You had a bunch of expressions, G. And the one that completely killed us was your “saddest face ever” expression. It was the lower lip out, mouth curled down, eyes filling with tears expression that just absolutely melted us down into blubbering lumps. It was like what an artist would draw to create a caricature of a sad baby face. You owned it!

And listen - you learned stuff at you own pace, G. You are not on anyone else’s timeframe, and don’t ever think you have to be. You were going to sit up when you were ready to, and not any sooner than that. We would prop you up on your hands and knees and rock you back and forth to try to teach you about how to crawl, and you would collapse in a heap.

But you did it. You figured it out. And now you are a crawler.

And you will, too. You will figure it out. It will be by your own time frame and in your own way, but you’ll figure it all out.

Hey, there’s a goose. It’s just swimming by, right there. See it? That’s right, the goose says, “haw haw.”

It’s weird without you guys. It’s quieter. I hate it. I love it. It’s weird.

We really miss being so angry at you, Z.

We really miss you wiping your snotty drool all over our clothes, G.

That’s right. It’s wonderful. It’s awful.

It’s love.

Your Daddy S gave me a hug when I dropped you off. He told me thank you for taking such good care of you. Your Mommy C did too, and she said that she wants us to stay in touch, so that we can still be a part of your lives somehow. That would be nice.

The rain stopped. Still no ducks. It’s time to go.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Homosexuality, Honestly?

In the conversation about homosexuality in the church, nothing new has been said in years. I have heard and read and understand the positions of those who speak from all of the various perspectives in the issues. And honestly it has become so boring that I hardly pay attention any more.

The General Conference has an opportunity to speak the truth, as it does every four years. And the truth is that there is a lack of consensus in the United Methodist Church with regard to the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching. That’s the truth. And that’s what the General Conference should say.

Because here’s the deal - we have got to stop arguing about this. The inter-denominational argument is hindering the mission of the church, and making it increasingly difficult to make disciples of Jesus Christ. It is ugly; it is bitter; it is hateful. And it has to stop.

We have shamefully proof-texted the question until you’d think all that we knew of scripture were those little snippets that we hurl relentlessly at one another to prove our point.

We have accused one another of not loving God or of not loving neighbor with such ferocity as we willfully ignore the inherent irony of our words.

We obsess over this one issue with a kind of ghastly fascination that is in no way appealing or attractive or missional or faithful to who we are supposed to be as the Church.

We must stop; and we must tell the truth. And then, we have to be okay with the ambiguity of the truth. This is not a simple issue. There are multiple distinct positions on the question, and there is simply no consensus in the United Methodist denomination, and the General Conference should say that out loud.

Of course, I understand how unpopular my perspective is. There will be, “But it’s a sin and we should say it’s a sin” and there will be, “But the status quo is unjust and so we have to change it.” These responses will come from the either/or people on all sides of the question.

But this is not an either/or question, and so it shouldn’t have an either/or answer. The question for General Conference is not “Is homosexuality a sin” - the question is “What should the United Methodist denomination say about it.” It would not be truthful to say, “The UMC thinks homosexuality is a sin.” It would not be truthful to say, “The UMC thinks homosexuality is not a sin.”

The honest thing to say, the missional thing to say, the faithful thing to say is just the truth. Some of us think it is, some of us don’t; some think it’s a choice, some do not; some of us are legitimately homophobic, most are not; some think it is a sin but that doesn’t mean we should exclude, some do; and on and on and on. There is no consensus, and we needn’t pretend there is.

Now, can we please focus on the business of helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ who are changing the world, for God’s sake?

(Full disclosure: My personal belief, which is no secret, is that being gay is not a sin. I do not believe the Bible ever describes a mutually loving and respectful covenant relationship between two people of the same gender. Such a relationship is neither affirmed nor condemned anywhere in Scripture. I am hopeful that the United Methodist Church will be fully inclusive. However, I am not intending to write today about my personal theology, but rather what position I feel the General Conference should take.)

This post is also up at Ministry Matters - CLICK HERE TO SEE!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Describe Your Fruitfulness

One of the sources of the anxiety that many are feeling in reaction to the “Call to Action” recommendations is the lack of clarity as to what comprises effective pastoral performance. It is unclear how exactly the indicators that assess effectiveness will be applied, and even what those indicators will exactly be.

From the Call to Action website:
1. Performance of Clergy
• Adopt updated performance qualities and vital indicators for clergy.
• Bishops lead in requiring that assessments are used consistently in every annual conference on an annual basis.
• Focus training and continuing education efforts to enhance performance of new and experienced clergy in relevant competencies based on assessments.
• Appointments should be made based on proven performance and potential for achieving the desired outcome.

I love the ideas of updating the definition of pastoral effectiveness and training pastors in “relevant competencies,” but am wary of the second point in this list, specifically the requirement of “…assessments that are used consistently in every annual conference.” I find it inconsistent with the idea of training pastors on “relevant competencies” to apply denomination-wide standards for pastoral effectiveness. What is a “relevant competency” in one place may not be in another.

In fact, I am wary even of assessments that are used consistently across an Annual Conference, or even an assessment that is the same for one congregation as the one just across town. Each community is unique, and each congregation responds in unique ways to impact the communities in which we serve.

This highlights the importance of conceptualizing the practices of a congregation as a framework upon which the local church can create ministry unique to the context. As Bishop Schnase writes in his worship chapter, “Passionate Worship is contextual, an expression of the unique culture of a congregation. Communities have their own distinct patterns, voice, and language for loving God authentically.” (Five Practices, p. 42) This idea can be applied to each practice of ministry.

To be sure, there is a framework, and it includes worship, study, fellowship, hospitality, service, and generosity (or whichever words you have attached to those practices in your context), but upon that framework, each congregation is relatively free.

And so it becomes critical to describe your fruitfulness. Individual congregations must make it a priority to share stories of ministry success regularly, and with as many audiences as possible.

Share and celebrate within the congregation, to the district office, through the conference communication channels, and most importantly, in the community itself. Any given pastor should be constantly ready with a dozen or so stories to tell about something amazing that has happened in and through the congregation.

Congregational vitality is about so much more than counting; if it were just about the numbers, Bishop Schnase’s book would have been a pamphlet. But describing fruitfulness is harder than measuring it. It requires purposeful and regular communication, and we must confess that we often get so involved with doing the good stuff that we don’t remember to describe it to others.

Too often, we settle for counting the easiest things to count (worship attendance, offering, small group participants, etc.) and call that “fruitfulness.” A pastor thinks that all he or she needs to do is count stuff and ka-pow - you are “effective” (or not).

It’s easy to count; it’s harder to describe. But it is absolutely vital to do so. Describing your fruitfulness generates excitement and energy that bubbles up and becomes even more fruitful ministry, which you then describe and use the energy generated to launch another … and so on.

I do not lament the lack of a clear, uniform definition of pastoral effectiveness from the “Call to Action;” I’m actually glad there isn’t one. Yes, there’s a framework, a starting point - and we’ll take it from there. And then describe our fruitfulness for anyone who will listen!

- This article has also been posted on Ministry Matters - click this - Thank you!

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

More "Third Option" Thoughts

There were two different Christian opinion pieces in the Springfield News-Leader today. (Here's one - Here's one). Reading the two pieces side-by-side reinforces the perception that there are only two options when it comes to following Jesus.

Crassly put, it feels like you’re either an evangelical or a progressive, and there’s an unspoken pressure to “declare yourself” on or the other. However, this is a false dichotomy. There is a third way - a “still more excellent way,” if you prefer.

Easter is not either a past sacrificial event or a metaphor for a better life now. I find neither of those theologies inherently compelling on their own. Both approaches void Easter of its power, intensity, and urgency - though in different ways.

If we minimize Easter to a single historical event, we imply that one must believe that single historical event is all there is to it. If you believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, then you are good to go. It negates the living presence of Jesus in our midst right here and now, and denies the efficacy of grace apart from human activation.

If on the other hand we minimize Easter to a metaphor that helps us through life’s difficult times, we imply that the Christian faith is no more than a glorified self-help group. If someone treats you poorly, it’s okay because God overcomes death itself so surely you can overcome your issue. It negates the transformative power of God to act with cosmic and eternal implication, not only 2,000 years ago but also in the present day.

I cannot believe that the mystery of the resurrection is a simple either/or proposition. It’s more than just a past event; it’s more than just a life metaphor; in truth it’s more than we could ever possibly describe. However, I am working on a sermon for Sunday that I hope will at least partially begin to describe it!

In the meantime, I really hope we can somehow stop ourselves from thinking in “either/or” terms. Not all Christians are conservative, not all liberals are atheists. "Social justice" and "evangelical" are not opposites, and it’s high time we stop pretending that they are.