Thursday, December 05, 2013

Just Pretend It Isn't There?

Scripture interprets Scripture.

But Book of Discipline apparently does not interpret Book of Discipline.

At 3:20 in this video, Rob Renfroe and Tom Lambrecht discuss how pleased they are that Frank Schaefer was not allowed to use a section of the Book of Discipline to “undermine” another section in the recent United Methodist judicial proceeding against him. (Here’s what I wrote previously about this case.)

A judicial ruling that prohibits someone from using the Book of Discipline to “undermine” itself is really all you need in order to perfectly encapsulate how screwed up our denomination is.

The fact that we have a Book of Discipline that actually could be used to undermine itself is a sign of the messiness of our processes. I for one love this mess; it is holy, and we call it “conferencing.” I think we do holy conferencing pretty well, actually. I saw it at work in the South Central Jurisdiction during our most recent meeting, with regard to Bishop Bledsoe. Messy, tense, yet filled with grace and respect. No, the mess is not where the problem lies.

The problem arises when you try to impose “by the book” thinking on a “holy conferencing” system. One is neat and tidy, either/or, cut and dried. The other is the aforementioned holy messiness that we know as the conference. We really need to make a choice here; it needs to be one or the other. How serious are we about upholding our commitment to conferencing? If it truly is a part of our Methodist identity, then why in the world would we prohibit discussion of the entire Book of Discipline in a disciplinary setting?

I do not know what specific part of the Book of Discipline Schaefer wanted to use in his defense. My facts are limited to the video I saw. But it doesn’t matter with regard to my larger question in this instance.

The Bible contradicts itself all over the place. Like women don’t speak in church but in Christ there is neither male nor female, for example. How do we followers of Jesus deal with these contradictions? We talk about them. We discuss, we think, we pray, we conference.

Yes, the Bible and the Book of Discipline are two very different things, I get that. But the principle is the same. I would never dream of ignoring parts of the Bible just because they happened to “undermine” another part. Instead I wrestle with it until it begins to make sense to me, and I do so in relationship and conversation with others.

I suppose I just find it incredibly disheartening that we can’t do the same with the Discipline, especially when that is exactly what we are supposed to do as Methodists. We’re not a “by the book” church. We are a concentric set of conferences – charge, district, annual, jurisdictional, general – built on relationships and dialogue, not hierarchy and dogma.

The message of this ruling is clear. Don’t bother looking in the Book of Discipline for anything that might contradict the “Don’t marry gay people” policy. Nothing along the lines of, oh say for example…

“Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law.” (Paragraph 162.J)

And you’re definitely not allowed to ponder how in the world we can make a claim like this and at the very same time forbid our pastors to marry same sex couples in states where it is legal. That would be “undermining,” you see, and get all messy. We just can’t have that.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nativity Scenes

Nativity scenes are those sets of figurines that depict the birth of Jesus. They come in all shapes and sizes, for indoors and out, to play with and to look at, from simple to ornate and everything in between.

My family has a small collection of nativity scenes that we unpack every year at this time. As we unpack them and set them out, we recall where and when we got each one. It seems as though each scene comes with its own story.

This year at Campbell UMC, our Advent theme is going to be “Nativity Scenes.” But we’re not just talking about the decorative figures. The “scenes” that we’ll focus on are the shared experiences, memories, and images of the season.

Nativity scenes are sometimes joyful memories. Sometimes our nativity scenes are filled with grief. Many of our nativity scenes include visits with family and friends. At times our nativity scenes are lonely and isolated.

Each of us has a collection of these “scenes” that we tend to unpack each year about this time. As we prepare our lives for the birth of Jesus, we recall holidays past, and all of the sorrow, joy, loneliness, and love that each memory brings. There is no doubt, each scene comes with its own story.

At the same time, we will create new nativity scenes this year. The experiences we share this year will become a part of the story over time. What new scenes will you add? What will this year’s memories be?

There is power in shared experience. Together our nativity scenes make up a marvelous story. It is a love story; God’s love story told to the whole world. And each “Nativity Scene” creates an important part of the storyline. My hope for this season is that the power of our shared experience will draw us closer to God, closer to one another, and into a deeper relationship with Christ in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Conversation Matters (Even in Church Trials)

Rev. Christopher Fisher had one simple job, and it was probably one of his easiest assignments. All he had to do was say, “Look, here’s the church’s law.” And, “Look, here’s what happened.” Then, “Obviously you can see that what happened here broke the church’s law.”

And then Rev. Frank Schaefer would have been convicted. In fact Rev. Schaefer doesn’t even deny breaking the law. He freely admits it, even celebrates it, as many do. It would have been Rev. Fisher’s easiest case ever.

It could have been calm, reasonable, respectful, and grace-filled. It could have been what it was designed to be: a rational, relational process of church discipline.

But, according to the Associated Press article, his closing argument completely derailed any possibility of that happening. I don’t know why he said what he said, if it came from inside his own mind, if he was instructed to say what he said, or what. I do not know Rev. Christopher Fisher at all, and so I do not know where he is coming from. I do not know his perspective. All I have is the article:

“Fisher used his closing argument to condemn homosexuality as immoral and said Schaefer had no right to break a Methodist law that bans pastors from performing same-sex marriages just because he disagreed with church teaching. He told jurors they were duty-bound to convict.
 ‘You'll give an account for that at the last day, as we all will,’ he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.

Well, that escalated quickly.

I wonder what Rev. Fisher was hoping to accomplish in his closing? Why the judgement day reference? Why the broad swipe at the morality of a particular sexual orientation? He had one simple job. One very easy job, in fact. But then he had to make it truly bizarre.

It isn’t church trials that give the UMC a bad name. It is remarks like were reported from Rev. Fisher’s closing statement. Such comments are an enormous obstacle to the mission of the church.

The denomination has processes in place for a reason. You can like those processes or not, but it’s no secret that they are there. There is one way to change those processes - the General Conference. And Rev. Schaefer has every right to break a Methodist law that he believes is unjust. He knew what the consequences of that decision were, and he did it anyway. And so it goes.

But the officially designated lawyer for the denomination seemed to make it a whole lot bigger than it actually was with his apocalyptic language and sweeping condemnation of an entire orientation. This was a case about a pastor doing the wedding of his son. That’s all it was. That was the “agenda” here. But apparently Rev. Fisher couldn’t resist the opportunity to lay down a little more oh, so unhelpful rhetoric that will do nothing but inflame emotions.

And distract the church from what we are truly supposed to be doing, namely, the mission to serve as ambassadors of grace on behalf of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.

(Caveat: Again I will repeat that I do not know the entirety of the closing statement that was referenced in the article. All that I have is what I included above. If I am overstating things, I apologize.)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Politically Bizarre

I lament that reasonable, legitimate concerns about policies of our government cannot be raised these days. The bizarre has triumphed; rationality is dead.

I have several concerns with policies and practices of our government, but I am reticent to raise them in any public venue, for fear of how they will be received. It is such a strange climate in our nation, and it is just getting stranger and stranger.

An idea has floated around here and there that the issue is “the extremes” on both ends of the spectrum. If the vast “center” would just claim our voice and speak against the extremes, the problems would be solved. “Both sides are in the wrong,” is the slogan of this view point.

I disagree. As I see it, the issue isn’t “the extremes.” The issue is “the bizarres.” (Side note: both of these would make great band names.)

“The extremes” would be the natural extension of a spectrum that runs from one “side” of the political viewpoint to the other. In this paradigm, one might be either an extreme conservative or an extreme liberal. However, to label the current governmental dysfunction as a problem with extremism does a great disservice to rational conservatives and liberals, some of whom are quite extreme in their perspective, and yet who are legitimately trying to lead a nation, or a state, or a county, or a town.

Good governance is possible, even by a group that represents a range of viewpoints. People with varying political perspectives can manage to govern, if (and only if) they do so reasonably, rationally, sensibly. And good governance can be achieved in that mix, even if some of those perspectives are on the extreme ends of the conservative-to-progressive spectrum.

No, the issue isn’t extremism. The issue is bizarreness. (Is that a word?) Public officials say truly bizarre things, and we actually listen to them. Celebrities carry more political weight than elected officials. A politician will state as fact something that is totally untrue and nobody challenges it. Or they will articulate a position that just weeks earlier they were completely opposed to, and we do nothing but nod at them.

Our short attention spans are mixed into the 24/7/365 news cycle and multiplied by technology that allows instantaneous, global connectedness. It’s just weird.

A sign of the times – there is a tumblr called “OfficialsSay the Darndest Things” that is just pages and pages of bizarre quotes uttered by politicians. To be sure, many of them are hilarious, but that’s beside the point.

You know, my mom used to tell me all the time, “If you can’t say something nice, just don’t say anything at all.” Maybe we could adapt that for today’s political discourse. “If you can’t say something that isn’t bizarre, just don’t say anything at all.” Never mind that the cameras are on, that the tweeters are drooling for a quote, that everyone’s a journalist now. Just Stop. Talking. Nonsense.

Of course, you and I need to stop listening to it, too. It’s like a pimple; if you keep picking at it, it will just get worse and worse. Probably get infected. We need to stop paying attention to politicians who say bizarre things and maybe they will wither up and go away from lack of spotlight.

Or maybe we can stop responding to them as if they are rational people with a legitimate perspective. Maybe we just need to look at them funny and say, “That’s just bizarre. You cannot possibly expect me to take you seriously,” and move on.

Honestly, I have so much that I’d like to discuss about the state of affairs in our nation. I enjoy that kind of stuff. Or I used to, anyway. Back before the bizarre.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ramblings on Astonishment and Acceptance

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel …” (Galatians 1:6, NRSV)

You know how Paul usually begins his letters? He usually says something along the lines of “I thank God every day for you in my prayers” or “I have heard of your faithfulness in Christ” or some such compliment.

Not this time. He leads with, “I am astonished!” and it doesn’t get much better from there.

I wonder how it went over …

“Hey look! We got a letter from Paul!”

“Oh sweet! The big kahuna himself! I wonder what he wants?”

“You know, probably wants to give thanks to God for our faithfulness or something. Heh heh.”

“ … ”

“What? What is it?”

“Um … you might want to sit down for this.”

Yeah, it also makes me wonder about us. Today’s church. If we got a letter from Paul, would it start with “I thank God …” or “I am astonished …” ?

I am astonished that people go hungry and homeless in your town while you build multi-million dollar buildings and package it as God’s “blessing.”

I am astonished that you rigidly define who is “in” and who is “out” based on the shallow whims of your own understanding of the ultimately unknowable love of God.

I am astonished that you allow trivial matters to cloud the greater divine purpose to which you are called.

I am astonished that you feel as though being “nice” is all that it takes to be a follower of Jesus.

I am astonished …

I betcha we say and do a lot of stuff that would astonish Paul these days. Take the whole idea of “accepting Christ into your life,” for example.

When it comes to Jesus, scripture talks about hearing and following and loving and confessing and believing. Scripture talks about being given a gift, being liberated from sin, being adopted as a child. But scripture never says, “Hey, it’s really up to you. Jesus isn’t gonna just save you without you chipping in your bit. It’s your life, after all. Feel free to invite Jesus into it, or not.”

I believe that Jesus is already “in your life” way before you accept him. In fact, Jesus is “in your life” before you are even aware of it. Such is the character of grace. To be sure, grace is resistible, but it does not rely on our accepting it in order to be at work in us.

Actually I rarely use the word “accept” when it comes to grace; I more often use the word “realize.” Grace does not require our acceptance in order to work. Upon our realization of what grace is doing, we then choose either to cooperate with it or to resist it. Continued cooperation with grace is what Methodist theology calls the process of “sanctification.”

At a recent Bible Study, we were asking the “so what” questions - the questions that lead us to practical application of the passage we had studied. One person there said, “I guess this passage teaches us that we need to be more accepting of people who have accepted Jesus into their lives.”

The passage (Galatians 3:23-4:7) hadn’t really said anything about people accepting Jesus into their lives. But so pervasive is that phrase, it has almost become the filter through which every scripture is strained.

I replied, “I think this passage does instruct us to be more accepting. But not of people who have ‘accepted Jesus.’ I think this passage instructs us to be more accepting of people whom Jesus has accepted. And there’s a pretty big distinction there.”

“Yeah,” commented another person, “That’s just about ... everybody, isn’t it?”

Yeah, pretty much.

I think Paul would be “astonished” by a lot of things that the church says and does in the guise of the gospel. Galatians was written in order to counteract some false teaching being spread around. That teaching was divisive, legalistic, and contrary to the gospel. And what’s worse, the false teaching was being offered as the gospel. It’s one thing to spread a false teaching; it’s another altogether to claim that false teaching is the gospel.

What do you think? Would Paul write your church a letter of astonishment, or one of praise and thanksgiving? Is your church living the gospel? Are you?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

I Know Who Teaches the Kids!

This week I wrote and sent the following letter to the editor of the Springfield News-Leader:

I am inspired almost every day by the people I work with. I am the pastor of Campbell United Methodist Church, and one of our most vibrant and fruitful ministries is our Small Wonders Child Development Center. Recently this ministry was featured prominently in an article focusing on unlicensed preschools (Who teaches the kids? 10/7/13).

The article’s implication that a lack of licensing results in an inferior program has compelled me to respond. Our Small Wonders teachers and staff are amazing, and their dedication to our kids is unmatched.

Colorful, creative craft projects hang on the walls of the hallways. The classrooms are filled with bright, colorful decorations, furniture, and educational tools. Kids and teachers share healthy meals together. Magnetic locks, a fingerprint scanner, and security cameras keep our kids secure, in addition to our “Safe Sanctuary” policies and procedures to keep everyone safe. Except for nap time, the kids are always actively engaged, either in learning or play, and our teachers work hard to make sure that every single kid is ready for what comes next.

The laughter and love that fills the hallways of the building are contagious. Every time I stop by for a visit, the kids call out happily, “HI, Pastor Andy!” and run up to me for high fives and knuckle bumps. When there are tears, Small Wonders teachers and staff respond with compassion and grace, and diligently work with parents to address issues that arise.

Academically, emotionally, and spiritually, kids who graduate from Small Wonders leave here ready for Kindergarten. I am happy and humbled by the amazing work that I get to witness each and every day.

Rev. Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

MLB Playoffs

I'm a bit late this year; one of these teams is already gone. However, here's my annual "Major League Baseball playoff picks based on team salaries" post. Here's my source.

LA Dodgers = $216,597,577
Boston Red Sox = $150,655,500
Detroit Tigers = $148,414,500
Saint Louis Cardinals = $115,222,086
Cincinnati Reds = $107,491,305
Atlanta Braves = $89,778,192
Pittsburgh Pirates = $79,555,000
Oakland A's = $60,664,500
Tampa Bay Rays = $57,895,272

So, by my formula, I'll be rooting for the Rays to beat the Pirates in the World Series this year.

- The total of that list is $1,026,283,932. That would open up a lot of National Parks, huh?

- The New York Yankees spent $228,835,490 to not make the playoffs.

- Of course, if the Kansas City Royals had been able to make the playoffs ... $81,491,725 ...
     (The Royals spent a third of what the Yankees spent this year.)
Yeah, I would have rooted for them.

Anyway, GO RAYS!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Matthew 19 - A Story of Control

“What do I need to do to get eternal life?” the rich man asked.

The question itself was proof that the man didn’t understand grace. And Jesus said, “Brother, you know the commandments, right?”

“Indeed I do,” replied the man, “and I follow them religiously.”

So Jesus, realizing that there was something else going on with this guy, went a bit deeper. “Let’s see what exactly is in charge of his life,” he thought. To the man he said, “Okay, my friend, here’s all you have to do now. Go and sell all your stuff and then give the money away to people who need it. Then come and follow me.”

The rich man’s jaw dropped, his eyes opened wide as he stared in stunned disbelief at Jesus. And then he just turned away and walked off, because he could think of nothing to say. Whatever it was that was in charge of his life, it sure wasn’t him. It sure wasn’t God. Truth be told, it was his wealth.

In that moment, he realized that his wealth controlled him. The thought of giving it all away immobilized him. Any power he had ever had, he had given up to his material possessions, and that idea hurt him deeply. Before his encounter with Jesus, he was living under the illusion that he was in charge of his own life. Afterwards, he understood that he still had a lot of work to do.

Before meeting Jesus, he bought into the myth that he was worth something at all because he was worth something on his balance sheet. Through his challenge to generosity, Jesus was trying to teach him that people aren’t defined by wealth, but by the unconditional love of God. It seems it was a difficult lesson for the man to learn.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Gentleness and Joy

Images of horrific, gratuitous violence and suffering permeate our world. At the same time, images of inane, “anything goes” euphoria suck our collective attention spans. It is almost as if we feel like we need to counter the negative stuff all around us with equally extreme ecstasy in order to balance it out.

There is a more excellent way.

The “church’s marching orders” listed in Galatians 5 include “gentleness” and “joy.” The two ideas intertwine quite well, for joy is not a shallow, chipper glee but rather a deep, abiding gentle satisfaction of the soul.

For example, consider sports. I am a fanatic of the Kansas City Royals. (You probably didn’t know that about me; I try to keep it a secret.) Rooting for the Royals is fun this year. It can bring a smile to my lips and a cheer to my throat. It brings me glee, but it does not bring me joy.

Playing with our two-year-old so that he gets to giggling uncontrollably with his big belly laugh, dimples on full display, eyes twinkling … now THAT brings me joy. Watching our daughter perform on stage; listening to our son describe the world he is creating in his imagination; hearing my wife sing … joy, joy, joy!

Experiencing the grace of God made known through the selfless love of others ... JOY!

The way to counteract the horrific suffering and violence that permeates the world is not via shallow, frivolous escape into silliness. Rather, the way is Christ’s way. The way is Christ. Christ who calls, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Gentless. Joy. Forward, march!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fifty Years

What happens to the power of an idea as fifty years pass by? How does it change?

As time mixes into it, does it become blurry, diffuse?

As the distance between now and then lengthens, does sentiment and emotion add a pretty border and a rosy tint?

You know how, when you have a vivid dream at night, then you wake up in the morning and it almost immediately starts to fade?

The only way to hold on is to tell someone about it. To share it. In the re-telling, the mixture becomes more concentrated, the picture becomes clear, the details sharpen.

An idea changes over time, but we get to decide how it changes. We have power to determine if the idea will flow and grow and pick up speed, or just drift into a stagnant pond of empty nostalgia.

Anyone can co-opt anyone else’s idea. Anyone can punch and twist and abuse and confuse. But some ideas are tougher than others, surprisingly so. And some ideas have champions who will not allow them to be used so poorly.

I am a champion of the idea that all human beings are worth something. As much as hatred and prejudice and war and poverty and violence have tried to knock it around, that idea has proven to be a whole hell of a lot tougher than anyone ever thought.

You matter. Whatever color or age or sexual identity, whatever country you’re from or language you speak or religion you practice or don’t, whatever the demographic, you are worth something.

Fifty years ago, that idea was proclaimed by a champion with a dream. May we never ever allow it to blur, become clouded, tinted rosy and hung up on the wall to admire.

What happens to an idea over time?

Well I guess that’s up to us, isn't it?

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Grace Embassy

I have frequently heard people say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t need the church.” It is a trendy notion these days. A video titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” was posted in January 2012; it has over 25 million views and people still leave numerous (mostly rude) comments every day.

It is illuminating that a response video titled “Why I Love Religion, And Love Jesus” has a mere 760,000 views. Clearly not quite as virally popular as the original. (Although this video also has similarly rude comments being posted daily.)

To tell you the truth, I often sympathize with the Pro-Jesus / Anti-Church point of view. Many times the one who holds such a view has been hurt, ostracized, judged, or otherwise treated quite poorly by someone in the church. This genuinely painful experience is then projected onto “the church” as a whole.

At the same time, I know that there are people who use the idea as a rationalization to perpetuate their own comfortable lives. Often the one who does so will use terms like “irrelevant” and “old-fashioned” to describe church. Following Jesus is relegated to a consumer-driven search for what works for me, what fits into my calendar, and what’s the latest fad being shared on pinterest.

In the first chapter of John, Jesus calls Andrew whose immediate response is to go and invite Simon to follow him, as well. Jesus then calls Philip, who immediately goes to Nathanael and invites him along, too. It seems to me that “the church” started forming pretty quickly after Jesus started calling. Maybe there’s something to the notion that Jesus didn’t really intend for us to try to follow him all on our own.

It is when the church forgets that we are supposed to be helping people follow Jesus and becomes something else - ANYTHING else - that we get into trouble. The church is neither a self-help group, a community action agency, a social club, nor a status symbol. And I would add, the church is not a disciple making factory, as many seem to think.

The church is the embassy of God’s grace in the world, and members of the church are Christ’s ambassadors. The church doesn’t have a mission; God has a mission. And it is for the sake of that mission that we are the church.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Be Extraordinary

The tag line for our current worship series is “Ordinary People - Extraordinary Lives.” The idea is that God calls and equips ordinary people like you and me to be extraordinary for God’s sake.

Sometimes I’m afraid the church sells itself short. We tend to let our ordinariness rule the day, and settle for “just fine” when God is really calling us to “amazing.” God operates in the cosmos of miracle and eternity and omnipotent, and much of the time we’re stuck in the muck of relevant and popular and trendy.

Imagine Mary, in all her ordinariness, called by God to give birth to the Son of the Most High, who would be great and inherit the throne of King David, ruling over a never ending kingdom … and what might have happened had her response been, “No thanks. Joseph and I are just fine here in Nazareth.”

The truth is, they were just fine. And they would have been just fine had God not called her to be the mother of Jesus. They would have remained just fine their whole lives, and even been quite comfortably content with Joseph carving and building, having a family, raising their kids.

To hear Christ’s call is to understand that there is more to life than “just fine.” To be a part of the church means you have a deep desire to be extraordinary, to connect to a power that is immense, to be a part of something that is bigger than you alone.

The paradox is, the church is extraordinary precisely in its inherent ordinariness. We are Mary, an ordinary young woman called to participate in a miracle. It is daunting. It is scary. It is humbling.

And yet it is who we are called to be. It is the church. Just us ordinary people, called to live extraordinary lives.

Monday, August 05, 2013


You might call it the call that started it all - the call of Abram. He would become known as Abraham, which means in Hebrew, “The Father of a Multitude.” In fact his story is a part of several different world religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Baha’i.

Into this one life, which was by all accounts a rather ordinary one, God spoke. God called, and Abram heard. The call was to go to the place God was sending him. God gave no further detail than that.

“Go, Abram. Pick yourself and your family up from where you are now and go to where you will be when you get there.”

God’s portion of this call would be to bless Abram, make his name great, and through him extend the blessing to all the families of the earth. God wasn't very clear on the details at this point, either.

“I will bless you, and through you, bless the world.”

It was so fuzzy. No flowcharts. No five year plan. No specific, measurable, attainable goals, much less any means for reporting them to the conference office. Just a call to go, and a promise to bless.

And you know what the most extraordinary thing is? This: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”

The call that started it all was a call to trust, to humility, to a faith that had to be at peace with uncertainty. Abram followed without knowing the details, or even the desired outcomes. He was called, and he went.

An ordinary person, an extraordinary life. The call was, “Go.” And Abram went.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reframe it with Resurrection

“Kids are leaving!”

“Change or die!”

“The church is doooomed!”

It has become quite trendy in the church to make sweeping pronouncements such as these. Consultants, coaches, superintendents, bloggers, experts of various levels of expertise, and so on - all seem to be chipping in these days about how awful the situation is, and getting worse every moment.

If you have read my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably read something I have written on this topic. I find myself a bit outside of the mainstream when it comes to questions of the church’s imminent demise. I’m not inclined to hand-wringing and navel-gazing. Instead, I find myself inclined toward resurrection.

It is from that perspective that I read the piece that made its way around the interwebs last week. It was called “Why Millenials areLeaving the Church,” written by Rachel Held Evans.

I almost always like reading what Rachel Held Evans has to say. She writes a lot, and I haven’t read everything she’s written, but what I have read I like. But I will admit that I definitely cringed when I saw the title to her recent post on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” is a title that sets the stage for another hand-wringing, navel-gazing lament.

At first, I was upset with the generalization that an entire generation of people has a rather uniform critique of religion that the church was struggling to hear and understand. Been there, heard that. At first, it was just more of the navel-gazing same. But then I realized that this was clearly not just another “Change or Die” piece written by a church insider.

“We long for Jesus,” she said. “Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we long for Jesus.”

Evans’ short (and easy to read - I hope you do) piece is a call for substance, for meaning, for theology. It is a call to rid ourselves of obsession over superficial style and moralistic sermonizing and reclaim the depth, the complexity, the challenge of truly following Jesus.

Yes! Yes, please, and more of it.

Now … Can we please not frame that in “I-told-you-so” language? Can we please not write hand-wringing headlines for pieces with such life-affirming truth? Could we please re-do the prelude to this service so that it doesn’t set such a negative tone for the proclamation of the Good News?

The church does not need to change because we are dying.

Rather, the church is changing because God is at work in the world.

The choice that faces church leadership is not whether to change or not. The choice that faces church leadership is how exactly we will cooperate with the vast and transformative changes that clearly are taking place. These changes, I believe, are no less than a great resurrection movement of the Holy Spirit.

Much of that movement seems to be taking place outside of the outdated structures of the church. It’s happening over in the garden while the disciples are sitting in a locked room, wringing our hands and worrying. However, many, many churches are responding to that new movement in exciting and creative ways, and that’s where I believe church leaders need to place our focus.

No need to wring hands, no need to lament, no need to get all worried! God is doing a powerful, wonderful, brand new thing. A healthy doctrine of resurrection will convince you of that.

Come on, church. Let’s go out to the garden with Mary and see what God’s up to these days.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Lay Down Your Life

First he told them; then he showed them.

First Jesus said to his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then he went and did it. “In case any of you were wondering what exactly I meant by that - here, I’ll show you.”

As difficult as that may be to wrap your mind around … that Jesus freely gave his own life for us … consider the fact that his radical definition of love immediately follows his command that his followers are to love one another in the same way.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” he says, “and in case you were wondering exactly how I love you - here, I’ll show you.”

Here, I’ll show you.

And then he did it. He laid his life down, quite literally. Knowing that his words would seem hollow without action to bring them to life, he chose a path that led directly, unavoidably toward his own death.

How much of the time is our decision to follow Jesus expressed in hollow and meaningless words, lacking the action to back them up?

What is Jesus asking us to do? How do I “lay down my life” for somebody else in 2013 in Springfield, Missouri? I mean, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m friendly. I hold the door open for people. I volunteer at my kids’ school. Is that it? Is that what Jesus meant?

“[Costly grace] is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. I wonder; has my discipleship cost me my very life?

Jesus said, “Here, I’ll show you.” And he went and did it. He died.

What does it mean for us, here and now, who are commanded to do the same?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

This Sermon - Justice, Hairspray, Race, and Perhaps Yoda?

My sermon is focusing on the movie "Hairspray" this week. You know, the musical with the "pleasantly plump" and incessantly chipper Tracy Turnblad who pushes her 1960s Baltimore relentlessly toward racial integration and acceptance of people's differences. Pushing boundaries, accepting one another, unconditional love ... stuff like that.

The themes for our worship services are set months in advance, and when this Sunday's worship theme was first planned, it was going to have been last Sunday, July 14. That would have meant that it would have been the day after George Zimmerman's verdict came out.

As it is, we had to switch weeks, so now it's a week and a day later. Much has been said in the intervening time. Anger. Elation. Disbelief. Calls for action. Calls for calm. Hoodies and Skittles. Smug satisfaction. Defiant hatred.

"Listening" to all of that, I'm trying to construct a sermon that centers on the scandalous action of the woman in Luke 7, who approached Jesus during a dinner party at Simon the Pharisee's place, cried all over his feet, dried him off with her hair, and then proceeded to slather anointing oil all over them, which to me makes a pretty good parallel to the actions of Tracy Turnblad, whose similarly shocking agenda included celebrating her own big body type, busting a few gender barriers, and ... what was that other thing? Oh yeah, dancing with the "negroes" on the Corny Collins television show - LIVE! "You can't stop the beat!"

There is an inevitability at the heart of the "Hairspray" plot. Full racial integration and acceptance is the assumed future, and anyone who resists it is pretty much a big square.

MLK often quoted Rev. Theodore Parker's idea that the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it must bend toward justice.

(Note to self: that would be a good quote to include in the sermon at some point.)

I believe that idea ... but ... Sometimes my faith in that notion is shaken. When I know that there are parents who have to console their children when they ask why they were not born with differently colored skin. When I know that there are parents who are absolutely terrified to allow their teenagers to walk through certain neighborhoods. When I know that store clerks follow certain kids around in their stores but not others.

When I realize that fear still rules, still dominates, still grips our world with such intensity and strength, in spite of what the angels always tell us, which is something along the lines of, "Do not be afraid."

I mean, come on, people! Did we learn nothing from Yoda? "Fear is the path to the dark side," remember?

So there's this sermon I'm trying to write.

The upbeat, happy, buoyantly hopeful beat of "Hairspray" held up against the death of a young black man whose killer faces no legal consequences for his actions.

The unconditional love of Jesus contrasting with the flawed, broken reality of this fearful world.

The cosmic bending toward justice of the universe's moral arc in tension with humanity's sinful, finite capacity.

Yep. Better get started.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Who Do I "Speak For"?

I read this line in an article in the Springfield News-Leader this morning:

“All respondents except two, Campbell United Methodist Church and Emmaus, said they speak for their congregations, not just for themselves as leaders.”

Here’s the deal. The city of Springfield is making a rather awkward attempt to engage the question of whether to add sexual orientation to the city’s anti-discrimination language. A part of their process was a survey sent via email to pastors all around town; there was a link in the email that took me to the online survey.

One of the questions on the survey asked if I as the pastor “speak for the congregation.” I thought this was a no brainer - “Of course not. The congregation I serve speaks for themselves.” But apparently out of the 56 churches surveyed, there were only two who answered this way.

So let me tell you why I answered the way I did, a way that obviously places me well outside of the mainstream.

First of all, I know for a fact that people in my congregation think all kinds of different things about homosexuality. Obviously, there is more than just one way to see things. (Less obviously, there are more than just two ways to see things.) It is a myth that there is only one faithful Christian belief set; it is likewise a myth that there are only two. Faith rarely deals in either/or. Followers of Jesus are a diverse group, to say the least.

And so how could I possibly speak for my congregation when my congregation reflects such an array of opinions? Surely our society has matured beyond the glorification of homogeneity. Campbell UMC must be one of those rare congregations that has figured out how to love one another in spite of our differences of opinion. We feel that our diversity is a strength, and a part of our core identity as a congregation.

Secondly, it is tricky to make the claim that pastors truly “speak for” congregations in any context. I may be revealing my Methodist tendencies here, but nevertheless it remains that we are not Baptist, nor AG, nor any of the other pastor-centric structured churches around us. We are Methodist, and I for one am proud to claim a distinctly Methodist identity.

That means we are governed by conference. A group of people makes decisions at every level - the Charge Conference locally, through the Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and on through the General Conference for the denomination as a whole. No single person “speaks for” a Methodist entity at any level of our governance, and that’s the way I like it. Granted that it makes for some frustrating procedures and processes sometimes, but I believe the trade-off is worth it.

Thirdly, I need to say that my saying that I do not speak for my congregation does not indicate that I am a “moral relativist,” as some might fear. I believe what I believe, and draw upon the “Wesleyan Jazz Combo” (Scripture as the lead instrument, with tradition, reason, and experience as the rhythm section) to inform my theological reflection. I’m pretty confident in my belief that the Bible is clear in what it condemns with regard to sexuality, and a mutually loving and respectful, covenant relationship between two adults who are of the same gender is never condemned anywhere in Scripture.

And with that said, I am aware that there are some who agree with me, some who wholly disagree, some who sort of disagree but aren’t sure why, some who agree partly, some who haven’t really given it much thought, and a whole host of other opinions. And knowing this, I cannot in good conscience “speak for” the entire congregation on this particular question. All I can do is articulate my own belief and engage differences of opinion with respect and grace.

One could make the case that I am in fact speaking for the congregation as I describe it. I’ll go along with that. For example, when I make the claim that Campbell has figured out how to love one another in the midst of our differences, I am in a way “speaking for” the congregation. At the same time, I fully expect that someone who knows the congregation and doesn’t agree with me would call me on it if I said something nutty.

FYI, the other congregation, “Emmaus,” whose response was that they do not “speak for” the congregation, is described on the website as “led by a group of pastors - no single person is in charge.” They hope to create an “attitude of encouragement and accountability” in their ministry. Sounds pretty cool! Like something any congregation should strive for, in fact.

So I hope you understand my reasoning behind answering the way I did on the survey. It’s not that I do not feel I am a “leader” for Campbell UMC; it’s that I would never dream of “speaking for” a group of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and doing so with grace, respect, and love.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Forgiving Yourself

Sometimes the hardest person for you to forgive … is you.

People tend to be quite gracious toward others, but incredibly hard on ourselves. Guilt, self-punishment, and second guessing one’s own actions are enormous burdens to try to carry through life. And often we can carry them around for years and years.

Why is learning how to forgive one’s self so difficult? Why does it seem to be so much easier to forgive others than ourselves? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Dr. Joretta Marshall, professor of pastoral care at the Eden Theological Seminary says, “I think people often try to forgive themselves for the wrong things. We think we ought to forgive ourselves for being human and making human mistakes. People don't have to forgive themselves for being who they are.” (

In other words, it may be hard to forgive ourselves because it is hard to separate our identity from our actions. If you do something that harms another person, and you realize it, it is your action that needs forgiveness, not your identity. Learning how to forgive the action will often help release the burden on the self, and lead to healthier actions down the road.

Forgiveness does not condone your act; quite the opposite - forgiveness acknowledges that the act was wrong. And forgiveness does not altogether eliminate the consequences of your act; those consequences likely must still be faced, and forgiveness is what empowers you to face them.

To forgive yourself, then, is actually quite a selfless move to make. You acknowledge that you were wrong, begin to atone with those you harmed, and address the consequences unencumbered with guilt or self-loathing. It may be very difficult, but ultimately it makes a world of difference.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Yes, You May Move The Table

Last Sunday morning, one of the tables in Fellowship Hall was about ten feet out of place. Before worship as I walked by, I heard the people sitting at the table talking about it. They weren’t really griping, just having a good time. “Somebody moved our table!” they moaned.

In that “hardee har har” style of Sunday morning conversation that happens so often, they were discussing the possible reasons their table may have been moved, who may have moved it, and the inconvenience caused by the mysterious shifting furniture.

I couldn’t stop myself from chiming in, “You know, you could just sit there and complain about it; or you could hush up and move it back!”

It was light hearted and all in good fun, but I’ve been thinking about it for the past couple of days, and it has become something of a metaphor. I wonder: how often do people in the church think they need someone’s explicit permission to “move the table?” And moreover, how often do people in the church sit there and complain about the fact that “the table has been moved” instead of just getting up and moving it back? Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Once I was talking with the evangelism team of one of the churches I have served. I told them that I’d like to hear some ideas from them about ways they could equip the congregation to reach out into the community. “Like what?” they asked. I suggested something simple and common, like printing business-type cards for people to hand out to others.

There was a dramatic pause. And then the response, “We can DO that?”

Yes, church. You can do that. Move the table. Print the cards. Share the love. Do the stuff the church does. You do not need explicit permission to do the stuff that you should be doing anyway.

Occasionally I have noticed Communion servers standing there in the front after their section has all been served, and I’d swear they are looking directly at that person sitting in the wheelchair waiting for the bread and juice, but they absolutely will not go serve them until someone says specifically, “Will you please go serve them?” They know the person needs to be served, and they know that it is their job to serve them, but they need it stated explicitly. They need to be given permission.

Now, I understand where that comes from, to a point. People mostly like to know what the rules are, and mostly like to follow them. People don’t like to think they are doing something “wrong.” And so we can overcompensate, and not do anything at all. And then complain about how nothing is being done.

On the other hand, it is an absolutely JOY to see people who are doing church with focus, energy, and a sense of calling. Such people do not need the pastor to give them permission to do something, because the mission of the church has already given them permission. When ecclesiology shifts from maintenance of institutional structure to the people on God’s mission, it is a thing of beauty to behold. The Holy Spirit has given them the vision and energy, and the church itself has equipped them to engage in ministry that is powerful, fruitful, and meaningful.

There’s nothing a pastor likes more than to stand up and cheer for the church being the church. If you are a pastor who is doing it right, you discover things being done by your congregation rather than having to initiate everything yourself. What I would love is for every single person in the church to know with certainty that, if it supports the mission of the church, they have permission to do it. I would much rather have to help people dial it back a bit instead of having to crank it up in the first place, you know what I mean?

Think about the guys in Luke 5 who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing. Finding the doorway blocked with a crowd of people, they carried him up onto the roof and lowered him down through the ceiling, right in the middle of the crowd.

Notice, they did not ask anyone’s permission to do so. Their “mission” was to get that guy close to Jesus, and they were going to do whatever it took to accomplish that mission, even if that meant a highly … shall we say “unconventional” approach.

I wonder, if I was their pastor, would I have cheered for those men or would I have cringed at their approach?

Standing in that crowd, craning my neck for a glimpse of Jesus, would I have thought, “What the heck are those guys doing up there? They’re probably going to get in trouble for this! I’m sure the Board of Trustees has not approved this course of action!”

Or maybe, “Crud, I wish I had thought of that! Now let’s see, how could I finagle it so that I get the credit for this idea?”

Or, if I was those guys’ pastor, would I have been able to cheer for them, encouraging their commitment to the mission, affirming their unwavering focus on their friend’s need, and highlighting them so that others in the congregation would be edified by their example?

I want to be a pastor who doesn’t have to say, “Yes, church you may ‘move the table.’” Every single time. Just go ahead! You may. A thousand times you may.

Church, you have permission to be the church, and let me tell you, it doesn’t come from me.