Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas, folks

Blessings to you this Christmas--and on earth, peace to all whom God favors.

I preached our 11pm service yesterday--the church was packed all day, and the midnight service was no exception. Preaching Christmas Eve is tough. You can't really tell stories, which is how I usually preach, so I felt like every priest you have ever seen in a movie: you know, "Now, let us all remember the joys of Christmas," etc.

As folks walked out at the end of the service, instead of "Good sermon," which is what I usually get, I got lots of, "Well, you got us to midnight," which is either a compliment or damning with faint praise.

Here's something I've posted before, but which I think about fresh every Christmas. Merry Christmas, folks. It is a joy being in conversation with you.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On what the Bible is, and is not

I am an AJ Jacobs fan. I have not read The Year of Living Biblically--I have been waiting to be gifted it, ahem--but I did read The Know It All, and found it to be both fascinating and hilarious, which are two words you will not find in this particular review. I like AJ Jacobs because he takes his subjects seriously, in that he treats them fairly and engages them fully, but not so seriously that he cannot see how ridiculous it is for him to stone an elderly adulterer in a park with a pebble.

Here is his TED talk about the Bible, and while I do not agree with everything he says (obviously, as he is agnostic), I do agree with the basic framework he uses to talk about how we should understand the Bible: that is to say, seriously, but not literally.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On illness and rest

I have, on many occasions, been known to bemoan those pastors who go and go and go and refuse to rest until they get sick. Having spent the last week two shades from miserable, I may have lost my cred on this issue.

To my credit, I think my nephew got me sick. We babysat last Friday for him and his sister, and coughing on me turned into something of a game. But I was so tired--and am so tired--that it is really no surprise that I ended up sick, no surprise that I had to quarantine myself for a couple of days just to rest enough to spend some time in the office. You go and go and go, and your immune system loses juice, and before you know it you have to get sick just so you can get some rest. It is pitiful.

And now, a week after first getting sick, I'm still tired, still worn out by noon. At this point I am just trying to get to Christmas. Thankfully, things are slow this week--I just need a Christmas eve sermon, and I am good. After Christmas, we'll sleep for a week, which is what I need.

It has been adjustment, to say the least, as I figure out the particular patterns of being a pastor. This is not to say that I feel overworked--truly, I am pretty good about cutting things off and saying it is time to go home. But I continue to be surprised that even as I am careful about taking care of myself, I still get worn down sometimes. In short, you cannot remove the stress from pastoral work; you can only manage it.

Maybe that sounds painfully obvious, but it has been a revelation to me. As someone who is good at dealing with stress--really!--I still get stressed, still occasionally lose sleep, still get worn down and sick and tired. Self-care is about more than just avoiding stress. It is about recognizing stress, getting appropriate rest, and not being consumed entirely by the rigors of the job.

So here’s to a restful Christmas and an inspired new year. Don’t look for me at midnight on the 31st; I will probably be asleep.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

On radio silence

My apologies for not blogging this last week and a half. I am on the tail end of a nasty cold, and I have barely been able to think straight enough to dress myself, let alone make some sort of sustained argument.

Thankfully I am on the mend. I'll be back very soon.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Trust

It is clear to me that just about nobody trusts the church anymore. A study flagged by Michael Jinkins shows that, in a survey which asked "Whom do you typically trust to provide accurate information about important issues in society?", religious authorities ranked dead last. Last!

Part of me is thankful for this lack of trust; it seems that those "religious authorities" who have the most public forums are the most bombastic and opportunistic among us. If the issue is, who do you trust to incessantly talk about issues of abortion, gay marriage, and Koran burning?, then I'm glad people are getting their information elsewhere. These are important issues, each in its own way, but there are other issues in the life of faith. Religious leaders who incessantly harp on these issues ought not be trusted, in my opinion; the Gospel is bigger than gay marriage, after all.

And while I am often glad that church iconoclasts are ignored, not everybody in the church is bombastic and self-serving. Maybe this is a revelation to you, but there are some goodhearted folks in the church who have some important things to say! If nobody is listening to the church (for whatever reason), and I represent the church (which I do), then nobody is listening to me. I do not believe I am the most insightful representative of the church, but I occasionally have some valid things to say, and so do most clergy I know. Otherwise, why would we waste the breath?

I have entered a field few people trust. Nothing I have done, to this point, has led to that mistrust, but I must deal with it nonetheless. I am starting in a hole, and while I suppose I knew this in some ways, it is interesting to see how this lack of trust plays out. In many ways, I am a great test case--I do not have the history with a congregation that an older minister might have, so the trust I do solicit exists solely because of my office.

I am not looking for folks to take what I have to say at face value, all the time. But when the church is viewed with a skeptical eye all the time, and when the sermon begins with a congregation predisposed not to believe what is being said, then we're in trouble.

The challenge is that we have to create a culture of trust in the church: not so that everything the church says is taken at face value, but so that the church regains spiritual authority. Those clergy who take their call seriously—and who care about the call more than they care about the spotlight—have work to do.

So the question I face is this: how do I relate to an institution (and as a steward of that institution) if nobody believes what I have to say? It is as Kierkegaard says: “There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and this is something which the one cannot directly communicate to the other.”

How do we communicate that which cannot be directly communicated, and in a way that helps people trust? What is the way through?

(PS This is my first post that is referenced on Methoblog. I'm grateful to those faithful bloggers who run the shop over there, both for listing this blog and for being a window to the greater Methodist conversation. You have my thanks.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Social Justice and the Gospel

I have spent much of the weekend reading about how the church is dealing/should deal/cannot deal/must embrace/must run from issues of social justice. Everybody's got something to say about social justice, especially after the whole Glenn Beck tempest, and the arguments seem to fall this way:

Progressives embrace social justice at the expense of speaking of salvation and eternal life.

Conservatives embrace salvation and eternal life at the expense of speaking of social justice.

Or, you can make the formulation a little more crudely, but I think this is a fair description of the traditional arguments:
Evangelicals or Conservatives care only about salvation of souls and the world hereafter. Liberals or Progressives only care about issues here and now, such as social justice.
So, the argument goes, each group cares about one or the other. And even those good folks who are trying to make some sense of God's call to social justice in the midst of this crazy political environment basically counter this argument by saying, "This is not a fair description," or:
Evangelicals/Conservatives care as much about life in this world as Liberals/Progressives care about eternal life. But very often, obstacles such as varying perspectives, differing emphases and vocabulary, and disagreements regarding strategies to solve issues such as social justice come into play.
The apparent issue, then, is that both groups care about both spheres of concern, just in different ways and with different "emphases." This, I think, is the standard way of finding middle ground. Conservatives do too care about social justice! Liberals do too care about eternal life!

While I am thankful for those who are trying to find that middle ground--it seems harder and harder every passing day--the way through this issue is less about granting that the other side does care and more about realizing that at the end of the day, the church ought not draw bright lines between concerns of eternal life and concerns of social justice, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between saving souls and saving lives. If we are to understand religion as a holistic enterprise, with no part separate from the others, drawing such a distinction just does not make any sense.

Just as we celebrate the diversity of witnesses in the Bible, we are called to live as one people, under one God. And to divide our concerns into the here-and-now vs. the yet-to-come is to needlessly cut God in half, to miss the fullness of God's revealed self for the sake of making the life of faith easier, making the challenge of God less challenging.

The issue is this: since when did we remove the service of others, in the name of social justice, from our understanding of what it means to follow and worship God? As we throw around arguments about how social justice fits into the Gospel, it is increasingly apparent to me that all the Christians must have gotten together and decided that--while they may disagree with the importance of social justice--at least working for justice and worshiping God are two very different things. They must have had a conference and decided this. Now, why they decided this, I do not know. I was evidently not invited to this gathering.

I jest, but the sentiment is quite serious: presupposed in the arguments about liberal vs. conservative churches, social justice vs. salvation, program churches vs. worship centers is the notion that justice and service are quite different than worship and concerns of eternal life.

My concern is that when we separate salvation and social concerns, we do neither justice. And implied in this separation--implied in any separation!--is that you can have one without the other: like you can have peanut butter and jelly, or you can have just peanut butter or just jelly.

I am fairly certain that if you asked the early Christians how they understood the need for salvation and the need for social justice, they would not even understand the question. Acts is clear: bound up in the Christian community was the notion of the common purse, of taking care of physical needs, of looking after those who needed looking after.

This is a nuanced point, I realize, and the church does not always do nuance so well! But it is a vital point for the church, especially the United Methodist Church, which uses John Wesley's language of "works of piety" and "works of mercy" to separate what I suppose you can call concerns of salvation and concerns of social justice. Even Wesley, it seems, separated these two spheres!

But even as he separated these two areas of spiritual concern, he did note that they were areas of spiritual concern! And rather than being guiding principles, "works of piety" and "works of mercy" were subtitles for what he called "Means of Grace," or:
outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.
God works within works of mercy just like God works within acts of piety, and I have to believe that you can't master one without the other.

In our quest to have "authentic worship," to talk about Christ's redeeming power over sin, we have forgotten, I think, that the Imago Dei--the image of God--is not just in me, but in everyone I meet. When I meet someone for the first time, I am seeing a picture of God as much as I am seeing anything else.

If you want to get scriptural about it--and I do--you need only look at Jesus's command to look after one another, for in that service you will serve God.

You simply cannot separate salvation and social justice. Christ was as concerned about the saving of the human race on earth as he was the saving of humans from sin. In fact, the way that Christ most powerfully said that we serve him is by serving others.

With such a clear scriptural command, I just don't understand why we are still making this distinction. There is no such. When the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said that "faith without works is dead," he was not saying that faith and works were two co-equal parts of what it means to be a Christian. He was saying that social justice is a fundamental part of following Christ, and you can no more separate social justice from faith than you can pull your heart from your body.

Faith without works is dead. Not difficult, not wrong-headed, not painful. Dead.

I think it's pretty clear, right?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On the Rebel Jesus

This song continues to be a gift to me. I hope it is to you. Blessings this season.


Monday, November 29, 2010

On What Could Be

(Forgive me for posting a sermon text. I try to post something longer each week, in addition to a couple of smaller pieces. But charge conference is tonight and I am tied up in meetings all week. Here is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, preached yesterday. I heard the DS say today, at a district meeting, that we ought to be more positive about our economic circumstances. Having slogged through this particular sermon yesterday, the point is well taken.)

Text: Isaiah 2:1-5
Title: What Could Be

I was here two years ago and it is a real pleasure to be back, especially on this first Sunday of Advent. Advent is sort of a strange season—we are waiting for something that has already come, expecting a child that was born two thousand years ago. Advent is a distinctively different kind of season—it is a church season, which means that like a lot of other things in the church, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we do it anyway.

But I love the Advent season. There is something about waiting for Christmas that reminds me of waiting for the birth of a child, that sense of anticipation, those preparations, and Advent helps make Christmas mean more to me than ripping open presents and eating half a honey banked ham and passing out on the couch. You need that sense of expectation, I think, to make the day worth it, and in some ways we need it now more than ever. I don’t have to tell you. These are uneasy days, and the days have been uneasy for some time. When I preached here last, things had just turned south, and we were in it, but I think we all figured that this time, like most periods of down times, this time it would quickly pass. We would batten down the hatches and weather the storm, and then we’d go on like we always had.

But this time has been different, of course. It is hard to have hope when all around you seems to be falling away, and you wonder whether your next step is going to fall on solid ground or on a trap door where you find yourself in a hole with a tiger. These are uneasy days.

So, I don’t know about you, but I have been especially looking forward to Advent this year, because even if things are tough, at least I get the small piece of chocolate every day when I open the little door in my Advent calendar. When times are tough, you hold on to any little piece of happiness, any little piece of hope you can get your hands on, but lately I almost feel as if I don’t want to have hope. Now, I know that is a strange thing to say, but I almost really do feel like I don’t want to have hope, because I worry that I will just end up disappointed. Every time I feel like the world is getting ready to come out of this nonsense, we dive back in, and there’s always something to keep you disappointed, if that is what you are looking for. There’s always a new piece of economic news to disappoint you, or more awful sales figures at work, or another exhausted, hopeless look at the end of the day from your spouse. There just does not seem to be much to hope for—we are in so deep that you almost want to give up. And the worst part—the worst part—is that we seem to have lost control of the situation. So much of this is out of our control—I will venture to guess that there are no Wall Street bankers or members of Congress in the room—so much is out of our control that you wonder if we will ever feel like we’re walking on solid ground.

So let the record show that times are rough, but before you give up on me let me tell you that the kind of period we find ourselves in today is quite similar to the situation that the Israelites found themselves in, in this chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Their fate seemed to shift with the wind. One day, Egypt dominated them, and the next it was Assyria, or Babylon, or someplace else, but it didn’t really matter who it was. It felt like nobody was in charge, and because things changed so quickly, there really wasn’t anybody in charge, at least for long. It felt like nobody was in charge, least of all God, and when you start to feel like even God is not in charge, it is easy to lose sight of God’s vision for the world, because there are always, it seems, more pressing concerns, more immediate problems.

I say that you start to lose sight of God’s vision for the world, because in a lot of ways, that’s what hope is: hanging on to God’s vision for the world, trusting that God is still God. That’s what hope is, I think: believing that God is still God.

The Israelites had lost sight of God, and started to trust only in themselves, and this happens more than you might think. A nation loses its way, and of course you start to blame God, because if God is in charge and things are bad, then the natural extension is that God made things bad. Or you lose a job or a loved one, and if God is in charge, and you lost something, it must have been God who took it from you, and who wants to trust a God who does something like that? Oh, nobody really believes that, you might think, but how many times have you heard someone at a funeral say, “I guess God must have wanted another angel?”

These kinds of formulations work just fine, if you assume that God really does control everything, really does everything independent of human actions—if we are just pawns in some divine game of chess between God and the devil. It sounds ridiculous, but until something truly awful happens, it is of course much easier to think this way: to think that you are successful because God wanted you to be successful, blessed financially because God wanted you to be blessed, that all you are and all you have are who you are and what you have because God wanted it to be that way. And while I do not deny that God works in our lives, it is only a short skip and a jump from this kind of understanding of God to creating God in our own image instead of the other way around. It is just a short hop to a belief system where everything we do is justified just because it happened, and God would not have let it happen if God did not want it to happen that way.

Do you hear what I am saying? We self-justify and then stamp God’s name on it, like a knock-off pair of sunglasses or a purse with a designer label sewn into it, because self-justifying and attributing our actions to God’s will is easier than asking hard questions about what God’s true vision is for the world, and how we as God’s people fit into that vision.

I know these are hard questions. They are so hard we don’t even really ask them, in the church or otherwise. Oh, you hear all the time about God’s vision for your life. You can’t turn on the television without seeing some TV preacher with beautiful teeth telling you about God’s vision for your life. If you listen to those preachers, God’s vision for your life is for you to have gobs of money and nice cars and seventeen homes.

Even if you reject this sort of thinking that says that if you are faithful, you will be wealthy, you probably have asked yourself about what God’s vision is for your life. I think it is a perfectly reasonable question. Finding God’s vision for your life is important, I think, but it is not terribly hard to do, because it is easy to see your own role in finding God’s vision for your life. If you are like me, you have no problem thinking about yourself. I am something of an expert at thinking about myself. I pretty much do it all the time.

Asking questions about God’s vision for your life is perfectly reasonable I think, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that the prophet Isaiah could not care less about God’s vision for your life. Israel was full of people who asked about God’s vision for their lives, but what they did not do was ask about God’s vision for the world. Isaiah is talking about God’s vision for the world, and your place in it.

God’s vision for the world is really something quite different from God’s vision for your life, because thinking about God’s vision for the world require going outside of yourself: thinking about what God’s vision is—not just for you, not just for this time, but for the entire world, for the entirety of time. God’s vision for the world is bigger than any lifetime, bigger than any one person or one nation. But just because God’s vision is bigger than any one person does not mean that we as God’s people have no role in God’s vision. The world is not a cosmic chess game in which the pieces have no control over their own movements. God does not demand that we move three spaces forward and two over, and then it is the devil’s turn. That is now how this all works. The world is an active, moving place in which God is at work, yes, but the primary way that God works is through God’s people, so God’s vision for the world is less about things happening to us than it is about us making things happen.

And in the midst of all of this the prophet Isaiah gives us a pretty clear picture of God’s vision for the world: and oh, what a vision it is. Instruments of war bent into instruments of food production. Peace among all nations. Food for everyone. The study of war falls away and gives way to the worship of God. These words have so inspired the world that they are engraved on the United Nations building, and displayed outside the World Court, and celebrated on countless other monuments to peace, all over the world. With such beautiful language, and so many people claiming to take it seriously, you’d think we’d be closer to a world full of peace. I guess the reason is that these words, like so many others in the Bible, are chalked up to impossible idealism and ignored as beautiful but outdated relics of an earlier time.

It is idealistic, for sure. But it is also God’s vision. If you decide that life is too hard for God’s vision, too hard to work towards this ultimate goal of beating swords into plowshares and bending spears into pruning hooks, I suppose that is fine, but don’t try to fool yourself by pretending that you are putting your trust in God, or that you are seeking God’s vision. God’s vision is that there is war no more, and maybe that’s a politically incorrect thing to say, but it is in the Bible, so I feel pretty comfortable saying it. You can’t properly have hope, you can’t properly put your trust fully in God our Creator, without working to bring about that vision.

Look, I know we are not there yet. I may be an idealist but I am no fool. We are not there yet. I do not believe will get there before Christmas. But even though the work is hard, and heartbreaking, and just because I may not see the ultimate results of my hard work, God calls us to the work anyway. Just as we wait in Advent for that which has been and is not yet, we wait and work towards God’s original intention for the world—that which was in mind when God said, “Let there be light:” that all may live in peace with one another, that there is enough for everyone, and that we may study war no more.

So I invite you to ask yourself two questions this Advent. First, what is God’s vision for the world? This is the easy question, because the answers are in the book, and it is an open book test, after all. What is God’s vision for the world? It is here, in Isaiah, and it is all throughout the rest of the book, too, so you should not have too hard a time answering. Here’s a hint: it may just involve all the peoples of the world shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and that national shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn no more. This may just be God’s vision for the world. Isaiah seemed to think so.

The second question is much more difficult, but it is just as important: what am I doing to bring about God’s vision for the world? Not so much what is God’s vision for my life, but what am I doing to bring about God’s vision for the world?
Figure out how to answer those two questions, and I suspect that life will feel less out of control, because you will find yourself working towards God’s plan. It is hard, because God’s vision requires something of all of us, but I believe that if you take God seriously, you will find yourself among a great communion of saints, many who have gone before and many who are with us now, who are assisting God in bringing about a world without hunger and without war. I do not know what your part in this effort looks like. That is between you and God. But I suspect that God has a role for you, no matter who you are, no matter how old, how skilled, how skeptical that this vision will work.

This is difficult work, but God promises that it is indeed possible. And I know no better symbol of God’s promise that this vision is possible than a child, born in a barn, who would grow up to show us a new way. May we take him seriously this season, may we follow his example: now, and always.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On the Trinity

We Christians neglect our Trinitarian heritage. While I am not certain as to why we do not dwell more on the three-fold nature of God, I suspect that one reason for our (small-u) unitarianism is that trying to make sense of the Trinity will give you a mild case of vertigo.

It is much easier to think of God as one-in-one. I also have a theory that people don’t like thinking about God as three-in-one because it makes us feel too much like polytheists.

I happen to like this notion of Trinity, though—and that is a good thing, considering that I have pledged to uphold this doctrine. I like the idea that God is fundamentally relational—that just as God relates to God’s self, God relates to us. There are relationships within the trinity: Creator and Christ, Christ and Sprit, Creator and Spirit. On days when I feel isolated, I take comfort in this relational understanding of God.

There is another reason, though, that I find the Trinity to be a particularly powerful notion. Let me back up a bit and explain.

I think a lot about cohesiveness. I firmly believe, for instance, that one’s beliefs should stand up in all aspects of one’s life. That is not to say that I don’t believe in shades of gray. I do, but I also believe in integrity: that notion that you do what is right, even if the consequences are nasty.

You just cannot go through life split in so many directions. Divide your loyalties, and you’ll split right in two: just ask Ananias and Sapphira. And much of modern psychology is built upon the principles of wholeness and cohesion. You can’t live a proper life when your beliefs are stacked up against one another. It is just not healthy.

So I think a lot about cohesiveness, especially as it relates to the Christian life, and that is why I am thinking about the Trinity today, about three persons of God who represent vital parts of what it means to live in Christ. I think of the Trinity both in its historic formulation of Father-Son-Spirit, and in its theological formulation of Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

First, the Creator. Without the creator, there is nothing, as there is no One to create. Creation, of course, was not a one-time event. We are constantly created and recreated in the image of God. Were God not constantly creating and recreating, there is no need for redemption or sustaining; there would be nothing to redeem or sustain.

Second, the Redeemer. Without the redeemer, God the Creator and God the Sustainer would be creating and sustaining such a horrid bunch of self-loathing and self-destructive people that I wonder if the whole exercise would even be worth it. This is not to say that there is no goodness within humanity; Wesley taught that sin “is a malignant disease, not an obliteration of the image of God.” The fact of sin, and the fact of broken relationship, means that there must be a force, greater than ourselves, which takes that which was created and saves it, restores it to community and frees it from the bondage of selfish obsession. Without the Redeemer, we are but a wandering pack of self-reliant nomads, unable to settle down because we are unable to see our place in the great matrix of human life. In the connection that exists between humans, and between humans and the Divine, God the Redeemer shows us a better way.

Third, the Sustainer. Without the sustainer, God the Creator and God the Redeemer would create and redeem humanity, but that moment of redemption would be the last moment humanity would properly reflect the Imago Dei. As M. Scott Peck began The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult,” and a difficult life without a sustaining God is a hopeless place. Without hope, the Imago Dei breaks down, because God is One who continually calls us to greater things. God’s promise to be with us, even to the end of the age, means that God’s presence in the human life does not end with redemption. God sustains us, calls us to greater love and care, and lives with us. This last point cannot be oversold: God lives with us, actually.

These kinds of thought experiments are helpful only to a certain degree, of course. God is all three of these things, so to imagine God as only one or two of these things is difficult, if not impossible. But thinking theologically helps me see a fuller picture of God, and to work towards unity in my own beliefs and understandings. I cannot help, for instance, see a link between the way I’ve described the Trinity and the United Methodist understanding of Grace as coming before us, justifying us, and sanctifying us.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Deeper Still

In the tears you gave to me
I found a river to an ocean
A concrete sky and a stone cold sea
That came to where the emptiness cracked open

And all my fears came crashing through
And met the fire of my sorrow
But I found my strength in forgiving you
I never even dreamed how far my heart could go

To give my life beyond each death
From this deeper well of trust
To know that when there's nothing left
You will always have what you gave to love

In this life, the love you give becomes the only lasting treasure
And what you lose will be what you win
A well that echoes down too deep to measure

A silver coin rings down that well
You could never spend too much, a diamond echoes deeper still
And you'll always have what you gave to love,
You will always have what you gave to love

David Wilcox, "Deeper Still"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Merton on Grace

What is "grace?" It is God's own life, shared with us. God's life is Love. Deus caritas est. By grace we are able to share in the infinitely selfless love of [God] Who is such pure actuality that [God] needs nothing and therefore cannot conceivably exploit anything for selfish ends. Indeed, outside of [God] there is nothing, and whatever exists exists by [God's] free gift of its being, so that one of the notions that is absolutely contradictory to the perfection of God is selfishness. It is metaphysically impossible for God to be selfish, because the existence of everything that is depends on [God's] gift, depends upon [God's] unselfishness.
When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal And when God's infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.
The soul of [human], left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.
So the natural goodness of [human], [the human] capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Monday, November 15, 2010

On what the UMC does right

There has been a good deal of talk lately at the denominational level of the United Methodist Church about what is wrong with the UMC. We've been issued the Call to Action report, which among other things, comes from a place of "crisis," a word that is used in the report some fifteen times. Crisis, crisis, crisis. We have to move now, or the whole blasted thing might just fall in on itself.

You get the picture. Everybody wants to get a word in about what is wrong with the United Methodist Church. There has been a report, and before you know it, it's a voting year in Annual Conference, and then General Conference. Before you know it, the election cycle in the UMC is just as long as in American politics, which is to say it never ends. And the rhetoric is negative, just awfully negative, and it's no wonder we all think we're in dire straits. We've been using the word "crisis" so much that we are starting to believe it!

I do not deny that there are issues the UMC needs to deal with. As a young clergyperson, I certainly am sympathetic to the church's need to reach young people, both to grow the committed laity and to grow the clergy. Having worked for a jurisdictional agency for three years before my current appointment, I am also familiar with concerns surrounding church structure. There is some fine tuning to be done.

But God forbid we talk about what is right with the church. I'm not one to pretend that life is all rainbows and cupcakes, but I think there is probably a legitimate case to be made for looking at what the church is doing right, and using that as a starting place, rather than looking at what the church is doing wrong, and beginning there.

Actually, in some ways, that was the stated modus operandi of the Call to Action report, inasmuch as the group was seeking to measure "vitality" of churches. But even as the group is looking at markers of vitality, the reports reads as if the vitality markers are just something against which to measure the rest of the church.

And in all the conversation about church reform, and about General Conference, and about "reaching the lost" and "being relevant" and whatever else the buzzword is this week, we focus on what we are doing wrong--or, perhaps to be more specific, what we are not doing well enough.

I'm all for these conversations, because you can't really be properly self-reflective without thinking about what you could be doing better. But as put together a comprehensive plan for survival, I can't help but think that this look under the hood of the UMC is not so much a look at the UMC as it is a coveting of what other denominations and faith traditions are doing well.

We have been in this place before. The last part of the 20th century saw the UMC co-opting other traditions' church-growth models, and we are now coming to see that while those models may have worked for us for a time, they have not left us in such a great place as a denomination. Even nondenominational churches are beginning to see that having beat the church growth drum for so long, they are worse for the wear.

These models often have pulled at the connection, exposing places where the thread is ripped and holes have formed. I have heard the words "creeping congregationalism" used to describe the path we are on, specifically as we look to the Call to Action report. I would not take it that far, but I think the basic sentiment is fair. As churches go off on their own, and neglect the connection, the connection gets weaker.

Perhaps weakening the connection is fine with some folks. Too much bureaucracy, too much heavy-handedness, too much control over the life of the local church: I've heard all these arguments, just within the last week. But, I mean, my God, we're United Methodist. Let's be United Methodist. This is not to say that the Spirit is not moving in other denominations, in other traditions, and it is not to say that great things aren't being done outside the UMC.

If there is one thing I've learned about ministry--really, it's been drilled into my head by those concerned with clergy self-care--it is that God does not expect us to be all things to all people. So why are we trying to do that with the denomination? The UMC obviously wants to reach as many folks as it can, as, you know, I'm pretty on board with the whole business of making disciples for the transformation of the world. The message is good. But why are we looking at all these things we COULD be instead of looking at what we ARE?

This is why I am thinking about the connection today. The church to which I am appointed, Johns Creek UMC in metro Atlanta, held an event yesterday with Stop Hunger Now, an anti-hunger organization. 50,000 meals got packaged, and ten other churches in the Atlanta-Roswell District participated. Ten! All we had to do was make an announcement at the district set-up meeting, put an ad in the district newsletter, and talk to ministers who are already my friends. And we had ten churches come participate, sending money and volunteers--we almost had too much of both!

Connectionalism, of course, is such a low priority in other organizations and denominations that it is not an actual word; my spell check does not recognize it, and I can't find it in the dictionary. But when we tend to the connection--because it does need tending--it is life giving. Eleven churches in total yesterday packaged meals for 50,000 kids.

The hard news is that we need each other. The good news is that we already have each other, if we will tend to those relationships. A marriage does not work, after all, unless both parties put in work to keep the relationship strong. A connection of churches (which we are!) does not work unless we put an effort into working together. In that working together, I am pretty sure that we will find that those connections are what is--quite literally--holding us together as a denomination.

I think that is a fine place to start.

Or, you know, we can serve the same warmed-over report, year after year, and talk about what a crisis we are in.

Look, I get it. The church has got to change--and it is hard to change the church, because the church is a fundamentally conservative institution. We are conserving tradition and practice. But if we are always in crisis, what is the point of existing at all? So many things get served to me during the day under the banner of "this is a crisis and must be dealt with immediately" that I am starting to believe that unless life and limb is under immediate attack, calling something a crisis does it more harm than good.

But there are good things happening in the UMC. Great things, even. And it tends to be that the best things that are happening in the United Methodist Church happen when churches work together, celebrate that connection as more than just lip service, and understand that we are all in this boat together.

Of course, plenty of more experienced folks have weighed in, and the Bishops seem to like the report. We will see what comes of it. Maybe I'm just naive.

But, you know, out of the mouth of babes . . .

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On the spirit of mind

I seek the renewal of the spirit of my mind.

There is a spirit of mind without which it is impossible to discern truth. It is this set of mind that makes possible the experience of truth and distinguishes it from the experience of error. It is this spirit that recognizes or senses the false, the dishonest, the bogus thing. It is this attitude that determines the use to which facts are put.

The spirit of mind works in our behavior, in what we do, in what we say, whether our acts are strictly moral in character, or whether they have to do with the manner in which we deal with each other or the traffic of the market place or aught else. This spirit of mind is the factor upon which the integrity of performance rests.

Constantly, I must seek the renewal of the spirit of my mind, lest I become insensitive, dulled, unresponsive to the creative movement of the spirit of God with which life is instinct. True, the spirit of my mind is a gift from God but it must be ever held before Him for testing, for squaring.

Here in the quietness I seek the renewal of the spirit of my mind that I may be a living, vital instrument in His hands, this day!

I seek the renewal of the spirit of my mind.

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On art

We had the chance, last weekend, to see the Atlanta production of Ovo, one of the more recent Cirque du Soleil shows. I think we saw one of the first productions of the show in Atlanta, but you wouldn't know it from the performances and professionalism of the cast. I was so impressed with the incredible physical abilities of the cast that it actually, at first, almost made the show hard to watch. You worry about whether someone is going to fall, because what that person is doing looks so physically impossible that you just KNOW they are showing off for the crowd and they are going to fall.

And then they don't, and you move on to the next anxiety-ridden performance.

Only, there is something so beautiful about a Cirque performance that it was not long before I got over those anxieties and soon found myself so wrapped up in the show that I was not even really focusing on one performer. There is so much happening on stage--so much color, so much movement--that it can be hard to focus. But it was not long before I could feel my view broaden, quite literally, and I started to take in the entire show, from my seat in the fifth or sixth row.

And it was art. The show was art. It was not a collection of feats of strength, or a colorful group of people, or some kind of freak show. It was art, in the sense that art is that which bypasses your brain entirely and knocks on the door to your heart. This is not to say that art cannot be cerebral--it certainly can--but even cerebral art knocks on the door to your heart, only to climb the brain stem back into your head, like a trapeze artist climbing a rope ladder.

It was art. And I do not know if I actually felt as if I was above myself, but that is how I remember it, because that is what art does. It pulls me out of myself, which is good, because it can be stifling in here.

I joke, but what it definitely did make me think is that I need more art in my life. If I am going to try to move beyond drowning in a sea of details, then I need art to throw me a life raft. After all, we are speaking to that which is at the human core, and to that which is at the heart of God, and to that which is both at the human core and at the heart of God.

There are no finite words that can adequately describe either the human core or the heart of God, because at the very center of being there is that which is beyond words, what Schleiermacher described as "absolute dependence," an ineffable understanding that we are in unity with God and the world. Schleiermacher was talking about religious experience, which is as much art as it is anything else, if you ask me.

It can be hard to feel that absolute dependence when I'm filling out expense reports and coordinating volunteers and making phone calls. But these are merely brush strokes in the great canvas, the place where the core of human existence intersects with the heart of God.

* * *

There is a painting I love. It is called "Les raboteurs de parquet," or "The Floor Scrapers."

It was painted by Gustave Caillebotte, who is best known for a different painting, if he is known as a painter at all. Mostly, he was a collector and patron of the arts. The Floor Scrapers is not a particularly well-known painting, though it does hang in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

And yet, something about that painting speaks to my heart. I don't know what it is--it is certainly a strange painting to have speak to my heart, but it does. I will always remember coming up upon the painting at the Orsay, and how I felt just starting at it, the movement depicted, the ordinariness of it against the shine of the sun on the varnished floor. When we went to Paris for a week after we graduated from seminary, I made a beeline straight for this painting and just stared, allowed my heart to remember what it felt like to find it for the first time.

I have a poster of The Floor Scrapers that I look at from time to time, and--though it is not the same thing as seeing the original--the poster reminds me of what it feels like to stand in front of a canvas so large you have to wonder how it fit through the door, and to just stare, until the details fall away and the brushstrokes meld and I suddenly find myself standing at the edge of the infinite silence.

That's what art is, I think. And ministry, without art, is dead.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On grief.

If prayer is the attempt to understand God, then grieving is the deepest form of prayer, rising from the body and soul and mind, asking God and really and truly wanting to know, no matter what the answer: Whoa re you? Why did you create a world with pain? Why is life this way? What are you? Because you are not what I thought you were.
Grieving, at its deepest level, is to acknowledge that creation can be cruel and that people suffer. To look at this truth, to allow yourself to feel it, you are forced to consider the nature of this world and this existence. You ask how this can be and who set this up and why this happens. To grieve is to ask God the hardest questions. To grieve is to ask who God really is. It’s to change your perspective on all other human beings and their relationships to one another and to you and your place in this world. To grieve is to start over, to be re-created.

Kerry Egan in Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm a minister.

My wife, Stacey, and I have a game we like to play at parties. We will get into a conversation with someone we don't know, as normal, and we will wait until the conversation begins to run its course. Once we're ready to get out of the conversation, we direct the line of discussion towards work, and the person we're talking to will inevitably ask us what we do.

"We're ministers," we say, and then we see how long it takes the conversation to completely shut down. On average, it is less than a minute.

Oh, the person will stammer, say something about how they usually go to church, and if it is Saturday night, and they've already talked about their plans to stay out late and sleep in the next morning, they'll say something like, "Well, I usually go on Sunday evening" which, of course, is neither true nor a particularly good lie. I would prefer something along the lines of, "Well, I would go to church, but I think it is stupid." Or "Why on earth would you want to be a minister?" Or "Church? Like the chicken place?"

Inevitably, the person with whom we're talking says, "Oh, that's cool," and the conversation just ends. Nobody knows how to engage after that. And there's no turning back from that kind of roadblock. You can't talk about last week's Mad Men when you've thrown that kind of news on somebody. A minister? At a party? . . . I think I will go talk to someone else.

When I first started telling people what I do, I was really surprised by the response I got. I mean, this is my reality. Ministry is normal to me because it is the life I live. My wife lives it, too, so it is not unusual for us to talk about theological minutiae at the dinner table, or about who is driving us crazy this week, or about our hopes for the future in ministry. Ministry is what I do, and a minister is who I am (in the strongest sense of "am"). I do not look in the mirror and think anything other than "I need a haircut."

But for others, particularly those who are not active in the church, meeting a minister must be like meeting a martian. Meeting a young minister must be like meeting a giant martian, and meeting a young minister at a party must be like, well, you understand.

I suppose part of the surprise is because of my age. I am twenty-seven, and while historically ministers started out much younger than me, the average clergyperson these days is pushing ninety.

I kid, I kid. But you get the picture. Not only are there fewer young clergy, but my generation does not seem to get church. Especially because many of my friends are single and without children, they do not see a need for church. That is fine, I suppose. I mean, I am a fan of church, at least when it is done well. But I understand the apprehension. There have been days when church did not sound so great to me, either.

I understand the hesitation with church, but I wonder if even more than the shock at my profession in general, and my age in particular, it seems shocking to people that they would go to a party and end up talking to a minister. Ministers just do not go to parties, you understand.

Actually, this is probably fair. You tend not to see many ministers at parties. I suppose we are busy with church potlucks and Bible studies and such.

I worry that clergy are an insular bunch. Actually, I know they are an insular bunch, and I worry about what that does both to clergy and to everybody else.

Some of my closest friends are clergy, and for good reason. We share struggles, we understand unique pressures, and we have similar interests. Plus, those of us who are young United Methodist clergy will be colleagues for the next 30 to 40 years. We might as well get along.

Being friends with clergy, though, is not enough. There are plenty of great, non-clergy (and non-church!) folk who make perfectly good friends, I am here to tell you. Miss out on those folks, and you are missing out on some good people.

Now, I am not someone who thinks it is all that great when pastors go hang out in bars "to meet the regular people." That is a little overdone, and I am a little tired of hearing the same old "well, Jesus hung out with sinners" line. When you've labeled them sinners like that, you've already created enough of a barrier that jumping over it is probably out of the question.

I do think, though, that pastors should be intentional--there's that word again--about not limiting themselves to church life. Not only is it not productive to hang out with church people all the time, in terms of my own faith development, but I am pretty sure it is not healthy to conflate my professional life with each and every one of my personal relationships.

That does not mean I am not always a minister. I am. Mine is not a 9-5 calling, and I am Rev. Rushing when I am in the shower and when I am on vacation and when I am at a party, just as much as I am Rev. Rushing when I am wearing a robe or visiting the hospital. But always being a minister does not mean I am only allowed to hang out with people who feel the need for church. Most people, you ought not be shocked to learn, do not feel the need for church. I am missing out on a lot of fine folks if I limit my friends to church people. And I am not doing myself justice if all I do is church-related.

So I will keep going to parties, and I am not going to choose all my friends with a church-attendance litmus test in my back pocket. I hope my clergy friends do the same. It is good, I think, to be in an environment when I am just another somebody in the room. It reminds me that while the call of God is good, it does not make me so special. I need to hear that sometimes.

Plus, if more clergy would bridge those divides, and these kinds of relationships were more commonplace, it would make conversations at parties a little less awkward. So there's that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the Pastor's 24 project

My old friend Thomas has some tough words for the Pastor's 24 project. Read them here. He sees the project as the result of some of our worst impulses as clergy, pastors "worrying if our congregations think we are spending enough time 'doing' ministry." He goes on:
We should be about the business of being in ministry with other and with God as the guide. So we create lists in order to prove what he have done. We want concrete measurements of numbers and figures. Instead, we should be planting seeds and fertilizing growth. Those have intangible results from day to day, but over time, it bears much fruit.

I don't think you can argue too much with the notion that pastors--and, well, people in general--often seek validation for their actions at the expense of actually doing what is right. Moving past validation, I think, is part of what separates great clergy from marginal clergy. Figure that one out, and the rest is cream cheese.

But the Pastor's 24 project, as I understand it, looks nothing like the project Thomas is describing. Thomas says that "the main reason given here" is to "show that pastors do more than Sunday things." To summarize his argument--I think I am being fair here--Thomas is saying that the whole enterprise is about seeking validation. United Methodist ministry, he says, should be its own validation. We are sent, and in that sending, we are inherently "given value in that placement."

Thomas seems to see the project as our--and let's make it personal, since I am participating--my need to show the congregation that I do, in fact, work all day. As he said, I think that myth has been debunked. I have no worries about whether the congregation things I work enough. Nor do I have concerns about my value as a pastor. I am humbled with the charge I have been given, and I find worth in both the work and in my relationship with God and people. I do not need validation from the Twitterverse.

I think Thomas is misreading the question behind the project. The question is, "What do you do all day?" The question is not, "Why do you only work one hour a week, you lazy so-and-so?" The difference is in the tone.

There is an aura about ministry. Having not grown up in the church, I can testify to the mystery. Clergy are such public figures--there are perhaps few figures so public, other than politicians--that there is of course some palace intrigue as it relates to what we do during the countless hours we spend in private or doing duties other than presiding in worship. The purpose of the project, as I understand it, is to shed some light on those duties: not for validation's sake, but in order to demystify, and because we clergy often toil alone. As Jeremy says in his announcement of the project, "I wonder what great diversity there might be in a pastor’s daily life." I am excited about today because I get to take a brief look into the ministry lives of those people who are public figures, but who spend most of their time in private.

I would say only one more thing. Saying something "gets it wrong" seems to be pretty common these days: see here and here. But I would hope that those who question the project (and I know that it is not just my good friend Thomas) approach it with the same validated humility with which they call for being in ministry. I want to see the project play out before deeming it a misguided venture.

So I am an eager participant. Follow me at @herevrush, or--better yet--search for the hashtag #pastors24.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pastor's 24

Tomorrow is the Pastor's 24 hour Twitter project, during which various clergy across the US (and maybe the world?) are tweeting every single ministry-related thing they do for a twenty-four hour period.

This is a pretty fascinating notion to me for two reasons.

One, you know the classic question: what do you do all day? I thought this question was passe, until I was asked it twice last week. Hopefully it was less about my work performance than wanting to know how people in ministry fill their time!

Two, I think that the aims of the Pastor's 24 project mirror the aims of this blog quite well: that is, to celebrate the details of ministry while keeping an eye on the Big Picture. There is no better way to do that, I don't think, than to lay out the details as they are.

So I am playing. You can find me on twitter at @herevrush. Wednesdays are pretty crazy around here, so it should be an interesting day.

The project starts, I guess, at midnight, during which time I hope to be asleep. Once I'm up and going, I'll be posting every ministry-related thing I do. I am actually really interested to read through my tweets at the end of the day. You plan out a day, and things just come up. I have not had a good way, in the past, of keeping track of those things. I am curious just how much "ad-hoc-ing" I do during the day.

Check out more information about the project at Hacking Christianity.

You can follow along on my twitter page--or, better yet, follow all those who are participating by searching the hashtag #pastors24 on Twitter.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On Birmingham-Southern College . . .

. . . in which Bishop Willimon BRINGS IT.

On preaching

Gordon Atkinson, who has been better known as Real Live Preacher, recently gave up RLP and preaching altogether. Here are some thoughts that mirror my own about the preaching task:

I loved preaching. I loved the way it stretched me emotionally, spiritually, biblically, and creatively. I loved the high calling of colliding with the scriptures during the week and sharing the results of that collision with my brothers and sisters on Sunday mornings. It was challenging and meaningful to me. But it was also dangerous.

Check out the whole thing. As someone who is energized by the preaching process--beginning to end--I should say that I don't share his particular concerns about the power of the "dark side" of preaching. I hear the concerns, and I recognize they are valid. But I lose him when he says, "if I'm preaching, I will not be fully engaged with worship." For me, preaching in worship is the most faithful, most worshipful witness I can offer.

That is not to say I don't experience periods of doubt, or of not "feeling it." But then again, is it not the role of the communion of saints to surround me when I find it difficult to worship, holding me up and worshiping alongside me until I am able to "feel it" once again?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On discipline

Well, I shouldn't just leave it there--with those lyrics and the picture from last weekend. It was lovely, of course. We got to relax, and eat--my goodness, did we eat--and play with my niece and nephew, which I don't get to do enough of. And I got caught up on some reading I have been meaning to do. I've had this book for a few years now, and I just got around to reading it last week. It is chock full of great stuff, by the way.

It is funny. I love to read, and I find great peace and pleasure in it, but I have found myself so busy lately--with the stock ticker in my brain running so fast with things to do and people to call and emails to return--that it is hard for me to do any reading unless I am on vacation and purposefully resting. I can decompress enough in those situations to focus on a book for hours at a time, and I find myself reading faster, not getting lost in the prose, paying attention and engaging the material as I read.

This is the dilemma I have: the more I have to do--the more I need to focus--the less I am able. I realize that it is impossible to do everything well, but I also know that as I said in a sermon a few weeks ago (preaching to myself I suppose) if I am in a thousand different places, I might as well be nowhere. So this conversation is not about being good at everything. I am not sure how to label the issue, but words like "balance" and "discipline" come to mind.

Balance is important because I have to be able to rest enough and work enough so that enough gets done, and I do not burn out. Balance is also important because there are so many demands on my time that I can not possibly give all of them the attention they deserve. Balance means I am intentional about what gets my time, and that I continue to tinker with what I am given so that I am always trying to be the most faithful steward of my time I can be.

Discipline is a word that also comes to mind, and I suppose that as I am United Methodist, it is no surprise that discipline is an important word for me. Besides the fact that the Book of Discipline is our (as one pastor has said) "rules of engagement," Wesley talked about discipline so much that his people were called Methood-ists.

I have been thinking about discipline for the last few months, as it relates to the way in which I function as a minister--and how I function in my relationships. Forgive my half-formed thoughts, as I am still working on this, but I am more and more seeing the need for good discipline in my life.

Take sleep for instance. It has become my custom to stay up reasonably late, either trying to read or getting caught up on a TV show I have not yet seen. Once I finally fall asleep, I stay asleep until I absolutely have to get up. I do like to sleep, so my morning is spent hurriedly getting ready for work.

I am thinking about sleep, because I know there is a more disciplined way to function. About a year ago, as I was trying to finish a writing project (which still remains almost done ), I spent a couple of months getting up early, and that was holy time for me. When no one else is awake, when it is still dark outside and there is nothing to do but drink coffee, pet the dogs, pray and read and write--that is my time. I was productive, and at peace, and this was well and good until I decided, for whatever reason, that it was time to go back to the old sleep pattern. My morning time was spent asleep. This is not a new struggle for me. During Lent a few years ago, I decided to wake up quite early each morning for a time of prayer and meditation. I lasted about three or four weeks before I could not make myself get up each morning. The spirit was willing, I think, but nonetheless . . .

But the issue of disciple is bigger than sleep. I have been thinking, too, about clergy health, and how can I not? We talk about it so often, and I have been known to roll my eyes about yet another discussion about maintaining clergy health. Rest is only part of it. I am convinced that if I do not remain physically healthy, there is absolutely no way I can be a faithful disciple, doing the things that need to be done, let alone a faithful minister of the Gospel. I am in fine health now, and yet I find myself often so tired that it becomes a struggle to even engage a book at the end of the day. If I were in worse health, I know that there is no way I could survive in ministry. Discipline demands that I am intentional about exercising, intentional about what I eat, intentional about resting and dealing with stress and maintaining my relationships.

Come to think of it, maybe "intentionality" is a good word for maintaining sanity in ministry. If I am intentional about how I go about my day, about maintaining balance and discipline, then at least I will not be a passive observer of my own life.

Perhaps this is a bridge to far, but I am also wondering if this kind of radical intentionality is a "required" part of what it means to be a Christian. If we can agree that being a Christian requires a relationship with God, and that having a relationship means that both parties give to it, then I cannot be in right relationship with God if I am just letting things happen to me, surviving minute to minute until the next tsunami hits. That is not relationship; that is letting life happen to you. For me to be in relationship with God, I must be intentional about giving to that relationship, on my own accord, on my own initiative. Otherwise, I am just riding the wave until my days are done. You ought not be surprised when I tell you that riding the wave is not why I got into ministry.

If I am going to be about the business of transforming the world--rather than just hopping along for the ride--then God demands discipline.

This is not to conflate who I am with what I do. I am a deep believer that you should be who you are, recognizing that you are a child of God as you are. But all the same, if I am to be my best self for God--if I am to be the most authentic disciple I can be, with the rest of the mess stripped away--then I must be disciplined.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Satisfied Mind

How many times have you heard someone say
"If I had his money, I could do things my way?"
Little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.

Once I was winning in fortune and fame
Everything that I dreamed for to get a start in life's game
Suddenly it happened, I lost every dime
But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind

Money can't buy back your youth when you're old
Or a friend when you're lonely, or a love that's grown cold
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind

When my life is ended, my time has run out
My trials and my loved ones, I'll leave them no doubt
But one thing's for certain, when it comes my time
I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind
("Satisfied Mind"-Rhodes & Hayes)

Thursday, October 21, 2010


One of my traits about which I am most proud is that I know my limits. I tend not to over-extend myself, and I know when it is time for me to rest. When that happens, I pull myself away for a little while, scrape a few things off my plate for the time being, and take some time to recover.

I am a few days past that point. It has been a very busy few weeks, and I have a busy few weeks coming up. I am so happy with how the process of building a mission program at the church is going, but there is more work to be done, and I am just tired.

So it is time to rest. Stacey and I are off this morning to see her dad and step mom for a couple of days. They have rented a lake house in Cordele, GA, and we are off to sit and visit and fish and rest, which are four of my favorite things to do.

It is a welcome rest, believe me. There was a time in my early twenties when being around family was anything but restful, but I am reaching the point where I cherish that time with family, which is good because it seems as if we have a lot of family time coming up. More on this later.

I am just getting used to the rhythms of ministry, of the time to work and the time to rest. It will take me a couple of years to get my sea legs, and then a lifetime to master. In the meantime, I am understanding more and more why we harp on sabbath and clergy health so much. It is possible--even likely--for a minister to work herself, literally, to death. There is so much to be done, and while I have never been one to believe that I--and I alone--hold the key to the world's problems, I nevertheless find myself saying things like, "just one more phone call" or "let me just send this last email" or "I just need to go visit these people one more time," instead of acknowledging my limitations and taking a breather.

A minister I know recently told her husband: "You are not indispensable." This is good advice. And so, not being indispensable, I am off to the lake.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Barth on Integrity

It is as the persons they are that preachers are called to this task, as these specific people with their own characteristics and histories. It is as the persons they are that they have been selected and called. This is what is meant by originality. Pastors are not to adopt a role. They are not to slip into the clothing of biblical characters. That would be the worst kind of comedy. They are not to be Luthers, churchmen, prophets, visionaries, or the like. They are simply to be themselves, and to expound the text as such. Preaching is the responsible word of a person of our own time. Having heard myself, I am called upon to pass on what I have heard. Even as ministers, it matters that these persons be what they are. They must not put on a character or a robe. They do not have to play a role. It is you who have been commissioned, you, just as you are, not as minister, as pastor or theologian, not under any concealment or cover, but you yourself have simply to discharge this commission.

On Mentors

Later this morning, Stacey and I are off to Candler to attend the seminary's Distinguished Alumni Banquet. This year there are three recipients: Gilbert L. Schroerlucke (for service to community), Herschel Sheets (for service to Candler), and Bishop Bob Morgan (for service to church).

As it tends to be, all three of these men are old. I just don't know how else to say it. A lifetime of service is what usually garners such an award, so naturally the people who receive such an award have had long ministries. Bob Morgan is the youngest of the bunch, and he graduated from Candler in 1958. I think he just turned 78.

So while I am not ordinarily one to go out of my way to celebrate old white men--though I do hope to be one some day--Bishop Morgan was a mentor to me, and so I am excited to be present today.

The Bish, as we all called him, retired from sixteen years of active episcopal service to a life of teaching at Birmingham-Southern College (my alma mater), as the Bishop-in-Residence. I was among the group that traveled with Bish and his wife, Martha, to Greece and Italy in 2004 for one of his "Footsteps of Paul" trips. I also worked in BSC's Church Relations office my senior year, and my office was two doors down from his. You would have never known that this sweet man had been the President of the World Council of Bishops of the UMC by the way he took time to speak with me.

I am not someone who can point to a whole host of mentors in my life. I did not grow up in the church, so in ministry, there are only two or three people I can say really took the time to mentor me. And chief among them is Bishop Morgan. I know for a fact he secured my scholarship to Candler--and I needed all the help I could get. And he encouraged me throughout the ministry process, checking in every now and again to make sure I was keeping up with my responsibilities.

All of us who worked with the Bish have a favorite Bishop Morgan story--I have so many--but my favorite involves an exam we had in his Parables of Jesus class. The test was as you would expect: some multiple choice, some short answer, a couple of essays, and a map.

Now, I hate filling in maps. I hate it. I have never been any good at geography. Maybe my spatial reasoning is just not up to snuff. I don't know. But I have never been any good at maps. I avoided taking geography in high school and college because I knew I was no good at it, and I avoided taking classes where I knew I would have to mark up maps.

Or, at least, I'd thought I had successfully avoided taking those classes, because here I sat in Bishop Morgan's Parables class, staring at a map that I could hardly make heads or tails of. We were to mark the major cities in Jesus's life, and draw the boundaries of his ministry, or some such thing. And, for the life of me, I just could not get it right. I put the cities down that I could remember, and tried to place them on the map, and started marking the boundaries as best I could.

Maybe I looked confused. I would not doubt it. But Bishop Morgan got up from the table at the front of the class, walked to the back row, past the 40 or so other students in the classroom, and proceeded to actually give me the answers to the map. In the middle of his exam. I could almost hear the ears of the people sitting around me perk up as he started quietly pointing to places on the map and telling me what to write.

You'd better believe that I remembered the appropriate places from then on. You do not have the professor give you the answers in the middle of the exam and proceed to forget them. So if the point was to learn the map, well, I did. And if it required the Bish to actually give me the answers, so be it.

This is the kind of man Bishop Morgan is: willing to work with nobody college students, mentor them and encourage their gifts, and give them the answers in the middle of the test if necessary.

That kind of life is unnecessary, of course, at least in the eyes of most folks. Here we have a bishop, who does not need to do anything but retire and have a happy life. And yet, seeing the need in the church--and seeing the need in the students with whom he works--he continues to mentor.

I am excited to celebrate him today. I just hope that some of that caring spirit has rubbed off on me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Losing the Big Picture

I am new to this ministry thing, so bear with me.

I suppose an introduction is in order. I was commissioned a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church at the annual conference session of the North Georgia Annual Conference in June. That commission, for the uninitiated, means I am a Rev., but I am not done with the ordination process in the UMC. It is a long road, and I have come far, but there are miles to go before I sleep.

I am serving as an associate at a large United Methodist church in north Fulton County, GA, in a suburb of Atlanta called Johns Creek. My wife, who is also a minister (and who was commissioned with me this past June) is also serving as an associate at the same church. It makes dinner conversation interesting, and I do love having a partner in crime.

My portfolio includes several groups, but my main task is mission and outreach, which at Johns Creek UMC means building a mission trip program and getting folks fired up about mission. I do have a little background in this; I worked for three years at United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, the short-term, mission-sending agency of the UMC, and I wrote the manual that is used to train mission team leaders in United Methodist churches in the southeast. So this charge is nothing new.

What is new, though, and what I am finding to be my biggest struggle in ministry, is the fact that my day usually consists of eight thousand very specific tasks, many administrative, and it tends to be that you could probably divide my day up into five and ten minute increments, with a staff meeting or two thrown in for good measure.

There are days when I feel as if I am drowning in details, and details are important. I have seen those ministers who ignore details, who walk, bumbling, into a church and knock over the altar candles and the altar guild--and just about everybody else, to boot--because they ignore the details of ministry. So for as much as I am doing my best to hold on to the big picture, I also want to make sure I do not lose sight of the details--God works within the details, too.

But It is hard to hold on to the big picture when you do something new every five minutes, and in ministry, the big picture is actually the Big Picture, so you can't just ignore it and move on. I suppose that in some ways, the Big Picture is something like the floor: you go along not noticing it until it is gone, and then you've really got nowhere to go.

So this is my attempt to both be reflective about being a millennial in ministry (I am twenty-seven) and to hang on to the Big Picture.

I find myself in the church at an interesting time. The United Methodist Church in the United States is losing members, even as it is growing in Africa. There are those who claim wayward theology as the reason for decline, and while I believe theology is vital to knowing who we are as people of faith, I am not ready to blame this loss of members on the church's theological stances.

The church is graying, as well. The median age of United Methodist Elders stands at 55, the highest in history. Half of elders are between 55 and 72. While the number of young clergy has grown marginally in the last ten years, we remain a very small percentage of the overall United Methodist clergy. And the church's demographics mirror those of the clergy.

It is an interesting time to be a young clergy person, but--if you will pardon the cliche--I am convinced we stand at a crossroad as a church. God is doing something new, and I am excited to see what that looks like.

There are exciting things happening in the church, and I am determined not to so drown in the details that I miss what God is doing. This is my attempt to keep an eye on that Big Picture.