Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hope sounds like breathing

"Love" may be the greatest of all the words I know, but I think "hope" may be the biggest.

Hope is an overused word these days, of course. "I hope it will not rain on Saturday." We put the word on political posters: not because we are certain of what it means, but because we are not certain, because with such a big word stamped on a poster for all to see, everyone can pour into "hope" whatever it is they are looking for. Any smaller word would evoke something specific, and so we put in the biggest word we have and let people interpret it how they want. Our biggest word turns into a word that means so many things, it might as well mean nothing.

But that is just the cynic in me talking, and I am reminded that it is the very thing about which I am talking that is the answer to my cynicism. I hang on to hope, tight-fisted, in an earnest attempt to move beyond, to see beyond, to wrestle with the fact that though the world seems to stop at the horizon, there is always something just over the ridge.

I say that hope is the biggest word I know because of its power, but also because I am not quite sure what it means.

Oh, I know its definition. I can define hope. I can even put it in a sentence! But I am not exactly sure what all hope means, because every time I try to contain it, hope shows me that it is quite bigger than I imagined, larger than my preconceived notions. Hope is not one thing, after all. It is not simply wanting, nor is it simply looking forward to. Hope is bigger than these ideas, more complex than want and more nuanced than desire. And yet, want and expectation and desire are all bound up in "hope."

I wish I knew a clearer way to say this, but this, to me, is the promise of hope. Like all of the great words, the only definition that is adequate is the one which has no basis in language, the one that cannot be spoken as easily as it can be lived, as it can be made manifest in the son of God.

In his book the Irresistable Revolution, Shane Claiborne quotes Indian activist Arundhati Roy.

"Another world is not only possible," she says, "she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

What is hope? I cannot tell you what hope is. But I can tell you what hope sounds like. It sounds like breathing.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Advent begins today, as we prepare for Christmas and the great gift on which we rest our hopes.

In this season, I want to offer an . . . alternative Advent song. You know, just so that you've got something to sing along with O Come O Come Emmanuel.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

In which the Kindom of God breaks through

I don't do a lot of writing on this blog about what is happening at the church I serve, Johns Creek UMC in suburban Atlanta. I try to use the blog to explore bigger ecclesial and theological issues, but all ecclesiology and theology is done in context, so I thought I would share some news about what is happening at JCUMC. Last Sunday, November 6, the church broke ground on a new sanctuary. The clergy and congregation are VERY excited. This event was a long time coming.

In conjunction with the groundbreaking, the church was blessed to work with Mission Guatemala in opening a feeding center in the community of Pacaman. Thanks to this feeding center, 60+ previously malnourished kids will get a nutritious meal every day. Take a look at this great article from the Mission Guatemala website.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Ministry of Possibility

I am becoming increasingly convicted that the Church's primary mode of doing ministry is out of step for the times. I'm not talking about the United Methodist Church. I'm talking about the Church.

Now, before you give up on what will surely be some church-structure or worship-war diatribe, let me say that I like the structure of the church. I like traditional worship. I like the witness we offer.

But our primary mode of doing ministry may just not fit anymore, in a culture that no longer accepts filters. There was a time, I am told, in which the minister's job was to filter information. The minister was, in essence, the designated reader, and all the training that the minister had went into what she or (primarily) he had to say on Sunday morning. The minister served as the filter, such that the minister went to the Bible and brought out whatever the Bible had to say for that particular group of people on that particular day.

And this mode of ministry--and of preaching--is fine, but it seems to me that the modern mind functions differently in the day of information overload. Annie Dillard calls it "the mind's muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash," such that it "cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness." What I fear we are doing as ministers is trying to filter--to dam--in a world that is not used to damming. Everything we present, then, because it has been filtered, is sold as very important.

It is no surprise that we sell this stuff as very important. After all, it is very important. It is the most important thing there is.

But the "stuff" (the Bible, Christian religion, the path of discipleship) is not what we are selling, exactly. You cannot give a sermon on the whole Bible. You cannot sing the entire hymnbook in one service.

Instead, what we are selling each week is filtered and concentrated and very important, and minds that have lost their willingness to have someone filter their information behave one of two ways.

1. They look back at the stack of things already piled on top of their backpacks, figure out how high to hurl this one, and throw it on top, and then they carry it around with them until next week when they hurl something new on top of that. Or

2. They become overwhelmed, and they topple, crushed under the weight of all the very important things we have given them.

There are times I wonder if we are simply filling people's already-overfilled backpacks instead of offering them an encounter with the living God.

This is not to say that programs are not important. Programs are simply vehicles through which we offer the love of God to one another, structures through which we mirror grace. But at some point, in our offerings of specific opportunities, are we missing the opportunity to simply be the church? In our filtering and distilling and boiling down, are we offering people a sickeningly-sweet syrup instead of the wine that fills the cup of salvation?

Dillard says that the answer to this dilemma--the way to deal with the muddy river of the mind--is to allow it "to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights."

What if church were about offering possibilities? In a world that seems static--in which I feel frustrated and incapable as much as I feel anything else--what if what the church had to offer was the possibility of God's grace, of God's transformation? What if we raised the sights and showed that, truly, nothing is impossible with God?

There is a danger, of course, in raising the sights. We can so spiritualize the Gospel that it begins to mean nothing other than accepting or rejecting and then waiting to die. There are churches who have fallen into this trap, turning the Bible into something wholly spiritual and ethereal and neglecting the bloody, dirty consequences of a life spent following God. This is scary business. We dare not touch the Ark. We would rather leave God in the sky.

But danger is no reason to shy away from that which God is offering! Neither is danger a reason to boil something down until its sharpness of taste is gone.

Of course, in preaching, it is much easier to see a piece of scripture as something to be simmered down to its essence. I am starting to think that the church's job is not so much to simmer the scripture down to its essence but to find the spot in the heart of God where that scripture is seeded, and offer that seed of possibility. Planting that seed means that the results are out of our control, but then again, they never really were in our control.

This is the model of the church I am thinking about these days: a church that raises the sights, that looks beyond simple application.

I am thinking about a church that sees as its mission offering the possibility of an encounter with the living God.

I am thinking about a church that offers things, yes, but also a church that understands, at its core, that the very important things we have to offer pale in comparison to the Very Important Thing that lies at the source of all we do. If we recognize that Source, if we shine a light on its holy possibilities, we might just end up with disciples AND a transformed world.

(Image by Flikr user Herkie, Creative Commons license)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two E.O. Wilson quotes I am chewing on this morning . . .

. . . both with implications, I think, for the church.
"Group selection brings about virtue, and — this is an oversimplification, but— individual selection, which is competing with it, creates sin. That, in a nutshell, is an explanation of the human condition. Our quarrelsomeness, our intense concentration on groups and on rivalries, down to the last junior-soccer-league game, the whole thing falls into place, in my opinion. Theories of kin selection didn’t do the job at all, but now I think we are close to making sense out of what human beings do and why they can’t settle down."
"Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed, but in competition between groups, groups of altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Be who you are.

I am a provisional member of the North Georgia Conference. For those folks who aren't in the United Methodist world, that means that I have miles to go before I sleep in terms of making it to ordination. This is a provisional time, a time of learning and growing and determining fruit for ministry. As it is, I am actually appreciative of this time. I am allowed to test and learn and discuss in an environment that is especially conducive to growth (that is, surrounded by folks in the same boat, at the same point in their ministries).

I am serious. This time is good. I hope you can get enough of a sense of my temperament in this blog to know that I have no problem pointing out when I have a problem with something. And perhaps this time is too long (we have a three-year process in North Georgia, whereas many other conferences have gone to a two-year system), but I really do find it to be useful. Test, try, do, pray, discuss: all in a safe environment.

That said, I have thought long and hard about whether even blogging during this time of provisional membership is worth it. The more public writing I do, the more there is with which to indict me, I suppose the thinking goes. I have been advised to keep my head down, to know my place, to keep my mouth shut.

And while I understand the importance of, well, not outgrowing my britches, I also know that "keep your head down" is probably great advice for war but terrible advice for ministry.

It's not that I want to start a revolution or anything. I am not intending to strike up the band and parade into the conference office wearing a sandwich board declaring something-or-other. I am not advocating an Occupy Methodism movement. But I wonder where this "keep your head down" advice comes from, and what its effects are.

Is that really the point of the provisional process? To keep my mouth shut and my head down? Of course it is not, at least as it is intended. But there seems to be such a fear of the Board of Ordained Ministry that folks decide to spend three years toiling in quiet, keeping silent about any problems--especially as they are unique to young or new clergy. I just want to get through the Board, we say. I just want to pass.

Because provisional members are so consumed with simply passing--that is, not simply consumed with bearing fruit in ministry or serving God faithfully--we are perhaps doing in ministry what we are doing in public education: teaching to the test. I know of one seminary that regularly hands out answers to the Board of Ordained Ministry questions and then asks students--as the final paper in several classes--to rephrase the answers in their own words.

If the point of the provisional process is to help provisional members demonstrate fruit in ministry--but what we are actually doing is teaching provisional members to keep their heads down--how can we possibly be surprised when the church loses its former relevance? We are learning to shut up rather than to speak out!

This may be a good strategy for making it through the Board, but it is a terrible strategy for building up the Church. The problem is that for new ministers--and especially those of us who are young--these first years in ministry are very formational. I suspect I'll carry the things I've learned here at Johns Creek UMC with me throughout my ministry. I bet I will catch myself saying things like, "Well, at Johns Creek, we . . ."

This is a formational time, and if I am taught to keep quiet during this time, I may well carry that lesson with me, and rather than speaking truth, I may just keep my mouth shut to avoid rocking the boat.

So, here is my plan. I will think and pray before I speak, but not because the Board is coming up. I will think before I speak because words matter and are important.

I will sometimes censor myself, but not because the Board is coming up. I will censor myself, because I am called to be a part of the church, and part of what it means to be the church is to recognize that the wisdom of the whole is greater than the wisdom of the individual. This does not mean I will keep quiet. It simply means that I will be respectful of the fact that I am but a small part of the church.

I will listen to others and do my best to grow, to allow the Holy Spirit to work within me and teach me the ways of God. I will think and talk about ministry in terms of how God is working in my current appointment, and how God is working in the UMC (and the Church) as a whole. I will take what I am experiencing in my first years of ministry and seek to place it in a greater context.

And I will keep communicating, keep praying, keep blogging, because this is now I process and learn and grow and respond to God's call. I will do all that I can to be who I am.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The 2am Mystic

I fear that I am a failed mystic.

I have been listening to the Howard Thurman audio collection, and while I find myself quibbling with some of Thurman's theology, I delight in hearing the spoken words of a man who has loaded up his things and taken the perilous journey to the center of the heart--and who has returned, alive, to report back on how the journey to his own heart ended with the shocking discovery that within his heart was a long hallway with doors, including a door that leads directly to my heart.

On days when I feel as if I have eight million details of ministry with which to wrestle, Thurman calls me back into myself, so that I may discover that God has been there all along. This is not a selfish quest for God-in-self, but a profoundly humble one, such that I am called to recognize that I have caked layers of nonsense upon my heart in order to shield myself from the frightful glory of God's presence. It is as if I do not want anyone to see my face aglow, as if I would be embarrassed by such a clear statement of God, and so I do whatever I can to contain that which is within me.

Each time I try to pack up my things and go on that journey, I find myself taking some frivolous detour, and it is not long before I end up right where I started.

And this is why I find Thurman so profoundly helpful. Just as a missionary comes to the church to share with the congregation what God is doing in the Dominican Republic, or Russia, or Uganda, Thurman tells me what is happening in my own heart, at the level that connects all people to one another, and all people with God, during the moment in which God says, "You are all my children." In all of this, I am reminded that in Christ, God shared human flesh and being.

I want to go to that place, to that point of myself that is so basic that it is nothing but being, for I suspect that it is at this level that God most powerfully speaks to us. I also suspect that it is at this level that one can most clearly see the Imago Dei, the image of God. I want to go there, to spend some time in being, to share in that being with God and with the great cloud of witnesses.

Then the phone rings, or the email comes through, or I remember something in the middle of the night that I have neglected, and I find myself on a detour back to where I started. Being will have to wait for another day.

But sometimes, something slowly bubbles up from deep within me, and I remember whose I am and how I am connected to God.

I woke up this past weekend at 2 or 3 in the morning remembering an email I forgot to return. It was nothing important, but then again, it rarely is important when I wake suddenly in the middle of the night, remembering something or other. But at 2am, even the most trivial thing seems life-and-career threatening, and so I worried about it, for a time, until I noticed what Gordon Atkinson calls "the mysterious sound of footsteps crunching in the snow," the "body language of the soul."

It was, of course, the sound of my own heart, my temple pulsing against the fabric on my pillowcase, but it surprised me, that morning at 2am, as if I had forgotten I had a heart at all, as if I'd been thinking of myself as a heartless container full of "What's next?" rather than a child of God.

It will surprise you that way, the heart, for even in times that seem devoid of spirit, that seem to be all details and no Great Being: even in those times, the heart is at work. What is more, it is sometimes in retrospect that I can see the Great Being actually within those details, guiding and connecting and moving towards wholeness.

Perhaps retrospect is my greatest lens, as I reflect on those moments that seem so mundane as to be nearly Godless, or at least, not worth God's time. Perhaps I am only fit to see God in those details, because I am not yet ready to fully face God, to have God set my face aglow.

I do not know the reason.

I do know that despite my seemingly constant preoccupation with the crisis of the moment, God keeps working. In the midst of everything else--everything else--it sometimes takes the beating of my own heart to remind me that the spirit of God is at hand.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

United Methodist Theology

I would draw your attention to an extremely well-written and thorough critique of the presence of Beth Moore studies in United Methodist churches. Jeremy Smith seems to have hit a nerve, judging by the reaction to his post. I know I resonated with much of what he has written on the subject.

I am less concerned about the substance of his critique of Beth Moore's theology (though it is well-taken) than I am about what I consider to be the underlying problem: there is just not much accessible theology coming from United Methodist theologians.

Think about it, those of you well-versed in this stuff. How much curriculum is out there by actual United Methodists? Who is putting this stuff out? If I told you not to include authors named "Adam," how long would your list be?

I was asked, during my Board of Ordained Ministry interview for provisional status, which theologians occupied the honored space on my bookshelf. I had no trouble with this question; I have many such spiritual guides. Then, I got this question: which United Methodist theologians were important to me?

I had to think on this one. I do have United Methodist theologians who are in my spiritual corner. I've read Willimon, of course, and Randy Maddox, and Scott Jones, and Ted Runyon. I have a great respect for Tex Sample. And I've read the standard United Methodist seminary curriculum. Thomas Frank. Russ Richey. Albert Outler. Ted Campbell. Lovell Weems. But what strikes me as holding this list together is that rather than being United Methodist theologians, most of these men (and they are all men) are actually experts in United Methodism. They are experts in some subfield of United Methodism. Tom Frank is, if you can call him this, a polity-ician.

Where is the general theology? Who are the great United Methodist theologians, leading us into the 21st century?

Perhaps the problem is not so much that there are no capable United Methodists interested in doing theology. I know plenty of intelligent United Methodist folks who are doing theology in the pulpit and in the pew. They just are leaving the theology in the sanctuary, which is a great place for theology but which can also be a prison if that theology is not allowed outside the stained glass windows.

"But people don't care about theology," you might say. I've heard this argument again and again. People just want the pastor to show up when they are in the hospital, or to call when an aunt dies, or to know the names of their children. People don't care about theology.

While I am sympathetic to this argument, you need only walk into a Christian bookstore to see this argument decimated.

You will not walk in a Christian bookstore and find it full of nerdy intellectuals. Walk into a Christian bookstore, and you will find it full of hungry people.

So the problem is less about not having enough capable United Methodists, nor about the death of intellectualism. The problem is that we are not feeding people, and that problem is WAY bigger than the others.

I suppose this shift in focus mirrors the general public in some ways. There seems to be, these days, a disdain of anything one might call "intellectual." And the very notions of questioning God, of testing hypotheses and using imagination to help expand our understanding: these notions are frequently described as "unorthodox," "pagan," and "divorced from Biblical truth." It is as if the Bible gives a very clear, direct, systematic, soup-to-nuts description of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and anything humans might do to better understand this Holy Being is against the very notion of what it means to be faithful.

In some ways, of course, all theology is folly. But this does not mean that it is not important work! The Bible, while sufficient, is not a simple primer on God. It is a collection of narratives in which God is made known, and we are called to play a part in that narrative! We do not simply understand God and move on with our lives. We take what we have received in the Bible and become a part of God's story. We have a role to play.

We can choose to stubbornly refuse to engage God in this way. We can choose to view God as something to be understood rather than Someone to be engaged. But when we--and I'm talking to the church leaders here--when we model such a simplistic understanding of the scripture, and when we choose a path that sounds nice but does not go about the fundamental work of feeding people from the fallow fields of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, then we ought not be surprised when people devour the tepid "theology" of the grocery store check out lanes--and of a growing part of our Christian bookstores (even Cokesbury is now selling Beth Moore). And, since we have helped them find nothing else to eat, once they have devoured these books, so processed, so full of empty calories, we ought not be surprised when the church lacks the energy to get up and do much of anything.

The Church--UMC and otherwise--is at a critical point. This is where we are. We can offer food, or we can let "Christian" businesses profit off of our laziness. In some ways, whatever happens, we will get what we deserve.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Prayer for World Communion Sunday

God our neighbor and our Redeemer,
You stand above us, calling us to you,
and you stand among us, calling us to one another
in your name.
Show us, once again,
that within each person
is the Imago Dei,
the Image of God,
and that you call all people
your children.
As we come to your table today,
let this occasion of World Communion Sunday
be a reminder unto us
that the church is not ours
but yours,
that the earth is not ours
but yours,
that the table is not ours
but yours,
and that the invitation to come
is not dependent on how we understand another's worth or status or place,
but that the invitation belongs to you,
and you extend it to all people.
Help us to be nourished by this meal
so that we may work to ensure
that not one of your children goes hungry ever again.
For though we may quibble about matters of theology large and small,
we know that in your kingdom,
all deserve food, and peace, and love,
for all of us carry an image of you.
We pray these things in the name of the one who called the disciples to this table,
and who calls us still.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I now interrupt your regularly scheduled life to bring you this mission trip

I have been in Frakes, KY all week at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist agency of the Red Bird missionary conference. It has been such a blessing to be in such a beautiful place, working with folks who clearly need help. I have some reflecting to do, but I look forward to telling the story here soon. In the meantime, forgive the lack of a post this week. I have been busy!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anything goes? Really?

Maybe I'm just naive, but I keep hearing the same allegation spoken again and again, and it sounds something like this: the United Methodist Church is in decline because we are preaching "anything goes."

Let me bracket the issue of the United Methodist Church being in decline. I'm not going to argue that one. We've got to do better on getting folks in our doors, we've got to do better at baptism, we've got to do better at evangelism. This is all good. I'd like to have a church to serve in twenty years, after all.

But "anything goes?" Really? Have you ever actually heard a United Methodist pastor preach "anything goes?" Do we have a cadre of spiritually blase ministers out there, preaching "Whatever" and "Do what you want" and "What you think and believe and do don't matter?"

"Dearly beloved, we gather here for some reason or another, not that it matters, to join these two in holy marriage, which doesn't even really mean much. I'm just here for the honorarium."

"In the beginning was the Word, which you can interpret however you want. I choose to think that the Word was not so much a Word as a symbol, like the artist formerly known as Prince."

"Do unto others whatever you feel like, really."

"Keep these commandments, when you can."

Are these sermons being preached? Of course not. Find one such sermon, send it to me, and I'll eat my words. They simply do not exist. You would be hard-pressed to find one mininster who has preached one sermon that boils down to "anything goes."

This does not mean we do not have some deep-seated theological differences, not that that is a bad thing. We disagree on many issues, but ours is a big tent denomination, for better or worse. The United Methodist witness is born out of these disagreements, tempered against different opinions and dulled a bit, perhaps, in community. We move slowly, but we are a Church. We're carrying two thousand years worth of luggage. Slow movement is warranted.

To say that "anything goes" is to deny the strongly-held beliefs held by those with whom we disagree. I may hear a sermon with which I disagree, but I'll bet I will hear a passionate defense of the point, using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Deep-seated theological differences are not the same thing as "anything goes," and I am starting to believe more and more that blaming "anything goes" is a convenient way to keep from looking at our actual house, figuring out what is actually going on, and addressing our actual issues.

But maybe I am wrong. Find me one "anything goes" sermon and I'll recant. I just don't think they exist.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

God and everybody

I am co-facilitating a Disciple 1 class with my wife on Wednesday nights, and it is always such a delight to watch people engage the Bible in a new way. I do not know how much the class gets from my facilitating, but I always get so much from their learning.

Last night, as we studied the flood narrative in Genesis, I asked them a question straight out of the leader's guide: what does this passage tell us about the relationship between God and us? I think it is a clear enough question, even if the answer takes some investigating. And it is a fair question. The Bible tells us all kinds of things about how we relate to God.

One of the members of the class asked me this question: "Is this about the relationship between God and me? Or God and everybody?"

I had to think for a minute, and I think I gave some garbled reply about trying to see if there were different answers to the different questions, or some such nonsense. But the question stuck with me, and at the end of class, I came back to the issue. Disciple, after all, is an exercise in communal Bible study.

For that matter, so is the church. We come to the church and participate in it because none of us has a corner on Truth. This communal endeavor--the work of tempering the "me" against the "us"--is the best argument I have against the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. Of course you have your own truth. So do I. To simply embrace my own truth is to to simply embrace myself. I'm all for self-care and self-regard, but it is not such a far leap from embracing my own truth to worshipping myself.

It is in community that my beliefs are tested, or confirmed, or sharpened, or blunted. It is in community that I can be reminded that I am not so important, or that my experience of God is not the only experience of God.

In fact, community is WAY harder than having my own truth. It is not easy being told that I am wrong; it is even harder facing the fact that I may actually, in fact, BE wrong. I get frustrated with worship songs that are all about me, all about my experience. I am not surprised those songs are popular; it is much easier to have it just be, as the song says, me and God.

But the tempering process of community is important. This process ensures that the church is one, that we are in relationship with others and in relationship with God.

It is maddening, this business of being the church, but it is a holy madness. After all, what a miserable life it would be, just me and my truth.

(image (c) David Hayward,

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How God Acts

Shane Claiborne, who is usually one of my spiritual guides, posted a cute story the other day in which a child asked him whether God sent Hurricane Irene. The gist is this: No, Virginia, God does not cause hurricanes.

And while the basic sentiment is important--God does not cause disasters--there is more to be said. God does not cause disasters, but what does God do? We often talk about God's action in terms of what God does not do, but speaking about what God is not only takes you so far. I am very sensitive to the notion that God stands above language, and thus ascribing qualities to God is dangerous business; in some ways, the more we describe God in human terms, the more we get away from who God actually is.

I also believe that we must be very, very careful about talking about what God does, because it is not such a far leap to start assuming that God is in control of everything, or to ascribing characteristics to God that are more about our understanding of the world than of God's understanding of the world. As the writer Anne Lamott says, you can be sure you've created God in your own image when God starts hating all the same people that you do.

So a spirit of humility is called for in all of this, but a spirit of humility is called for in most things. Such concerns should not keep us from speaking about how God acts

I do not care to pen a lengthy excursus on the myriad ways in which God works in the world. There are far more ways that God works than I am able to list, and besides, any such list is by its definition inadequate to describe God.

What I do want to do, though, is affirm the historically Christian notion that God works through people. As Claiborne says, it is God who saves the world, not humans, but to stop there is to do a great disservice to God's call to faithfulness, not to mention Wesley's call to acts of mercy.

So let me bracket the issue of God's saving act and simply assume that God's action in the world is understood. God is at work in the world. God is interested in saving the world. This is well and good.

But to stop the conversation after this, to say only "God does not send hurricanes" is to miss an essential part of the equation: that is, the end result. It is good to say that God does not send hurricanes, but hurricanes exist, so what should we do about it? How do humans react in the face of something like a hurricane? Ignore this part of the equation, and you'll find yourself only looking up--not out, but only up--and it will not be long before you trip on your shoelaces.

I have a hard time understanding why, in the doing of theology, we are only concerned with that which comes "down" from God? Why is a simple "no" sufficient to end the conversation about God sending hurricanes? Why are we only concerned about what God does?

I must admit that when I hear these kinds of answers, I cannot help but feel that we focus on what God does so that we do not have to worry about what we are doing.

We worry about whether God creates hurricanes so that we can get away with living as we always have, pretending that there is nothing to be done about problems here and now.

If the focus is on how God acts--and this is an important question, do not get me wrong--but if the entire focus is on how God acts, then there is no room to evaluate how we act, to think about the ways in which God works through us. After all, God working through us does not take the pressure off. It is not as if God, when needing to use me for some divine purpose, pushes a button, turns off my brain and puts me on autopilot, until the purpose is finished. I have initiative, and a brain, and emotions of my own, and until I am receptive to God's calling for my life--until I make a conscious decision to live as if God's purpose of Love might just be made manifest in me--I am not fully participating in God's plan for the world.

For as much as we talk about free will--for as much as we talk about the ways in which we are responsible for ourselves--we neglect the part about how free will requires something of us beyond simply agreeing to "accept" Christ. Even the language of acceptance means more than simply saying the words. Accepting Christ means accepting our great role in creation, accepting that God's love works through us when we serve, accepting that there is work to be done.

The answer to "Does God send hurricanes?" is much more than "No." The answer is even much more than "God came to save the world," though this part is vital.

The answer to "Does God send hurricanes?" is this: "God came to save the world, and while God does not send hurricanes, God does send us. Let us go."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On imagination and theology

A conversation with our youth pastor today has me thinking about how we deal with theology in the church. We seem to think of theology as a science, or as legal testimony, as I suppose there is something to that kind of understanding. We want to understand God, and so we describe God as we see God, and we report on our experience of God. But there is a difference between religious testimony--which tells a story--and legal testimony--which must stand up to strict scruitny and requires precise speech.

But theology is not science. Theology is art. Theology is a way of speaking, and it does do some reporting, and some interpreting, but it is unlike any other form of speech in that it proves nothing. In fact, the more specific theology gets, the further away from God we find ourselves.

Theology is painting, not photograph. And yet we get so bent out of shape when we talk about God that we do not even let ourselves imagine. Before long, God is some concrete being we've carved and put on display. We argue back and forth--and get downright angry--over descriptions that are, in the final analysis, not worth arguing about because they do not actually amount to much. We latch on to an understanding of God that fits with our experience, and we assume that everyone has the same experience--even if we do not assume so explicitly, the assumption is inherant in our passionate defenses--and if we hear an argument that does not match with our own understanding, it is as if we are chewing on aluminum foil. You feel a shock deep within you, and nothing else matters. It becomes time to fight.

But imagination is the cornerstone of good theology! The God who imagined the world is the God who calls us to love with all our mind. When did we get the idea that to imaginatively engage the Divine is a bad idea?

Friday, August 26, 2011

The work of rest

In recent months, I have taken to gardening. Let me simply note that this is a remarkable development. I was born with no green thumb. I did not grow up in a gardening family. My grandmother always kept a garden, but she did not subject her grandchildren to the laborious work of tilling the soil, planting seeds, watering religiously, pulling weeds, or the other work involved in keeping up a garden. I was not offered this tradition as some are given a family heirloom. There is no sociological reason I have taken to gardening.

But I am beginning to wonder if there is a biological reason, because I am finding that gardening offers me more comfort than nearly anything else I do. There is just something about starting seeds: something about ensuring they have the right soil and the right temperature and the right amount of water, planting them and watching the plants as they grow, produce, and ultimately die. When I began this project, I thought that perhaps my interest in gardening was a control issue. In the life of ministry, there is much out of my control. I suppose my job is to--forgive me--lay seeds and hope they will one day sprout. I thought that my gardening interest was then about control, because so much of ministry is beyond my control.

Then the plants started to grow, or rather, some of them started to grow, and I learned that while I could control some elements of growth, most were beyond my control. I could not control the rain, though I could water the plants accordingly. I could not control disease or bugs, though I could keep an eye out for them. I could not control how much fruit each plant put out, though I could plant them in such a way that they were given the best chance to produce.

I am realizing, as I write this, that I have become a plant parent.

What is most striking to me about the work of gardening, though, is that it is indeed work. It is much easier to go to the store and buy tomatoes and carrots than it is to begin them from seed, water them and care for them and hope that they produce. I am constantly checking on the next season's seedlings, looking at the weather forecast, puttering around the garden, picking fruit, pulling bugs off of plants, pulling weeds, thinking about what to plant next.

There are times I get too busy to work in the garden. Last week I had a meeting every single night, and I was out of town all weekend at the church's annual men's retreat. Sometimes, there is just no time to work in the garden. And when I come back from those times, as I did Thursday afternoon, it is quite clear I have neglected my responsibilities. Weeds are everywhere, vines are growing out of the raised beds and into the gravel, fruit begins to rot on the vine. Want to know how busy I have been at the church? Just come walk through my garden. If it is so overgrown that there is no room to walk, you can bet I've been neglecting my holy duty to rest.

It takes work to rest. This sounds strange, of course, but it is true. It takes work to slow down, to admit that I am tired, to find activities that nourish my soul. And even the rest itself is work, because it takes work to allow myself a few moments of not thinking about all the things I need to be doing at the church. It takes work to rest, and if I neglect that work, the garden becomes overgrown, unworkable, and it bears fruit that has rotten by the time I get to it.

So, if you will excuse me, I have some vines to wrangle.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Rev. Twitter

As the school year gets underway, and as things pick up at the church, I am finding out something quite interesting about myself. It happened this time last year, too, and so this is not just about starting a new position. What I am learning is this: when things get hectic at the church, I have trouble making myself read.

Perhaps this sounds strange. Let me say that this is not a physiological response. I can read (and obviously, write) and I do: the newspaper, the news, the blogs I follow. But when church life gets so crazy that I am forced to do one thing, and then another, and then another, and then look up and its time to go home . . . well, it does something to my brain. I start to think in thirty second increments, rather than in longer thoughts. I can give you three sentences on any topic you like, but don't ask me for sustained thoughts. I just don't know that I can offer them to you at present.

This constant changing-of-the-subject may be a survival mechanism for large church ministry, but it absolutely wrecks my reading life. I cannot read for more than a few minutes before I lose focus, feeling as if I need to move on to the next thing, as if I am missing doing something very important. I get so wound up during the day that when it is time to come home and settle in with a book, I lose focus.

It is as if I am turning into Twitter. I can give you 140 characters, but that's about it.

This mindset, of course, is not only unsustainable: it is ridiculous. People are not three sentences long; at best I can scratch the surface of thousands of people, like an evangelist who promises life-saving medicine in exchange for professions of faith. "Yes," is, of course, the answer to that question, and then you go on your way as if nothing happened other than receiving the medicine.

I can give you three sentences, but it is much harder for me, when this mindset hits, to go any deeper than that. When I am constantly on the go, thinking in short bursts, one after another, I am not much good to everybody and even less good to any one person.

Now, this is not to say I don't find the ministry life-giving. On the contrary, nearly every day in minstry confirms my calling.I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. I am genuinely happy, in a way that I did not know I could be. But I am having trouble making myself settle down, relax, and read. At best, I can plop in front of the television, and good grief, I'd rather be working.

What strategies do you use to "turn off?" I am happy to take time for self-care, but if I am not "turned off" during those times, what good are they?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Some fascinating reads

I am off to Glisson this afternoon for the church's annual men's retreat. I leave you with some summer reading:

John Meuneir stands Tillich next to Wesley and draws some conclusions. I don't always agree with Meuneir, but he is nothing if not thorough.

James Howell bemoans clergy evaluation time and wonders if there might just be another way.

Keith Anderson does some incisive thinking about what social media is (and can be) for the church.

And, finally, here is a Facebook exchange I find absolutely fascinating. It is incredibly rare these days to see ANY kind of dialog between conservatives and liberals in the church. I know this can be a false dichotomy sometimes, but even then, we refused to talk to one another about real theological differences. I don't know that the tone of this discussion is terribly helpful, but I do find it fascinating.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The longer I am in ministry--and, in the grand scheme, it has been about five minutes--the more I am certain that in the American church, the greatest threat the church faces is a general lack of integrity.

Now, you should know that I erased the previous sentence five or six times before I felt as if I got it right: before I was willing to finally commit to the language of "a lack of integrity." I am very cautious about speaking in such bold language, especially because everybody these days has an elevator speech about what the biggest threat to the church is. Perhaps the church is most threatened by relativism, or a lack of scriptural literacy, or by money, or by politics. I have heard it all. So I approach this matter with fear and trembling, knowing that everybody knows what the biggest threat facing the church is, and it's always something different.

I've thought long and hard about this. I am convinced a lack of integrity is the biggest threat to the American church. Now, before you dismiss this conversation as some high-minded hoopla about a "lack of character" or a "lack of respect," I'd better define the term involved, because when I talk about lack of integrity I am thinking of more than one definition of the word.

The first definition of integrity, of course, involves sticking to your principles, even in difficult times. This is very important, of course, and I see so many folks who just give up on their principles when times get though. There is a difference between having integrity, though, and in being obstinate. Having integrity does not mean you are not allowed to change. It just means that you cannot forfeit what you believe when it becomes easy to do so. Change is difficult, while betraying integrity is always the easier path. Integrity is about being true to who you are.

But there is another definition of integrity that matters for the church, and that is this: the state of being whole: as in the integrity of the ship, the bridge, the union. Whenever I hear conversations about integrity, I never hear about this dimension of integrity, but we forget about this dimension of integrity at our own peril. We are called to have a holistic worldview, a holistic theology, and we are called to reconcile that which we see against that which we believe.

The problem with encountering things that do not match up with what you believe, of course, is that you are faced with a dilemma. You have three options: 1. ignore that which you see, 2. change that which you believe, or 3. compartmentalize, such that you make exceptions for that which you see but are unwilling to question that which you believe. While I have seen many who have fallen victim to number 1, it is number 3 that I think offers the biggest challenge to the church.

I see this issue most often as it relates to mission and the church’s involvement in the world. I believe that a church's engagement in mission—done well—can be the magic bullet as it relates to solving problems of giving, involvement, and ecclesiology. When we are involved in mission, taking time to reflect on our experiences and talk about that which we are seeing, we cannot walk away unchanged. But what a simple mission trip cannot do is make people have integrity, such that even if they are changed—even if they do see poverty as they have never seen it before (that is to say, even if they have smelled poverty as they have never before), even if they talk about fixing the need, doing continued work, that change does not spread towards other areas of their life.

We compartmentalize. We allow the Spirit of God into one small portion of our lives, and I suppose this makes sense. If we were to, you know, actually allow the Spirit of God to fill our whole beings, then we lose control of who we are. If I just let God into my earlobe, I can deal with that. My earlobe does not drive my body. If it gets too inflamed I can just cut it off, and it will be painful, but it is survivable. But if I allow God into my entire life, into my body and my home and even my savings account, then I am in danger of losing control.

We compartmentalize, because it is easier. The only problem with compartmentalizing is that it is not sustainable. You either lose that part of you which has been changed, or you split right in two (just ask these two folks).

To have integrity, then, is not only speak in such a way that people can believe you. Having integrity means being who you are in all areas of your life. Accept ambiguity—I do not mean to suggest that everything must be cut and dry—but do not lock your God in a cell. Do not allow yourself to be changed only a little bit. You might as well not bother.

If you do allow yourself to be changed--if you do recognize, for instance, that what you see in one country may actually have implications for your own—you may just find yourself in the presence of God. There are worse things.

Or, you can just miss that opportunity. That is also an option, if it is what you prefer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Church work

I spent today in an all-day staff meeting.

Wait. You need to read that sentence in a sinister voice, imaging haunting music in the background. Let me try again.

I spent today in an all-day staff meeting.

It was our annual knock-down, drag-out plow-through-the-next-year-and-a-half staff meeting, and so my Monday was spent around a conference room table, planning and talking. Maybe I've oversold it with this business about the haunting music. It was an all-day meeting, but I have had worse all-day meetings. I mean, the day wasn't all cupcakes and unicorns, but it was not torture, either.

It was work, is what it was. It was not terrible work, but it was work: the kind of work that leaves you cross-eyed and stiff, but the kind of work that is necessary for ministry to get done. You have to do the work--the office work, the paperwork, the guesswork, and the teamwork--or else nothing gets done. You can't just go play all day, every day. You have to do the work.

And it's funny, because one thing we ministers like to talk about is that professional pastoral ministry, being a pastor, is actually not a profession at all. You do not go to work, be a pastor, and then come home. If you are a pastor, YOU ARE A PASTOR. You don't easily change professions when you are a pastor, because being a pastor is who you are. It is a calling, of course: something to set against a profession, not in and of itsemf a profession.

I feel fine about this kind of highmindedness until the 14th and 29th of the month, at which time I look expectantly towards the next day's paycheck.

It is a twice-monthly ritual that reminds me that for everything else it is--and it is a lot of things, for sure--being a pastor involves actual work, actual toil. It is (mostly) not physical work, though there are connections to those who work with their hands. As a farmer plows the fields, I plow through emails. As a carpenter builds, sands, and finishes a table, I craft the occasional sermon. As a doctor, as a cook, as a baker, as a fieldhand . . .

In ministry, we spend lots of time talking about what it means to "be" something: be righteous, be faithful, be careful, be incarnational. I suspect all of this "be" talk has its root in the setting of ministry against other forms of work. We live in a society, you are aware, that often values work more than family, time at the office against time at rest. In a time when 12-hour days are the norm, there is something to be said for a prophetic "be."

But even if ministry is not a profession, per se, there is a "doing" of ministry that is very important. Perhaps in our reticence to be a part of the hyper-working culture, we have focused so much on the "be" that we lose the "do." I do not imagine this has always been the case. You know, of course, which word preceeds "work ethic." I will leave the general theology of work to the esteemed theologian Kyle Tau, but I do know a little something about "good" works.

The church has always, in one form or another, valued good work. Before the Protestant Reformation, the Church--having read the book of James, I would imagine--valued good work as a part of the salvation story. Once the Reformation took hold, the Protestant Church--having read the letters of Paul, I would imagine--saw a shift in the understanding of work, such that good work moved from something necessary for salvation to something that results from salvation. It a classic over-reach (the church always seems to over-reach), we've lost this work because we worry it takes away from the gift of grace, as if, you know, actually responding to grace does grace an injustice.

I am actually not all that interested in the conversation about "good work(s)," at least not for the sake of this discussion. Let's take it as a given that in response to God's grace, we are called to what John Wesley called "acts of mercy."

I am concerned with the work of ministry, which I suppose I hope is good work, but when I am signing expense forms and filing emails and spending Monday around a meeting table, it can be hard to see. It is hard for me to see filling out a check request for as an act of mercy.

But it is, right? The work if ministry is good work, and it is necessary! You can't just "be" a minister. You have to "do" ministry. And of course the works flow from the being. You "do" because you "are." If all you do is "be" then you are no minister at all! You are a guru, perhaps, a sage, and there is a role for the sage in society.

There is just no more room for the sage in the Church.

There are already plenty of sages in the pulpit, and it is killing the church.

This is not to absolve the "doing" minister of taking time to "be." Even those uf os who "do" must have sufficient "sitting-like-a-dope-in-your-chair time" (as the writer Grace Paley calls it) in order that we might connect with God, rest our brains, and become open to new ideas.

Ministry requires doing and being, it requires of us that we take stock of who we are and then respond accordingly: not because we are worried that grace is insufficient, but because we take seriously the gift of grace. Hard work does not undermine grace; hard work gives testament to grace's power.

I am fortunate to serve in a place that takes work seriously (as evidenced by the day-long staff meeting!), but I knowthat there are some ministers who simply preach good sermons and then feel as if their work is done. Talk is cheap, of course. Even well-crafted talk is cheap. Please understand that this is coming from someone who sees preaching as a foundational part of his call. But preaching is an insufficient response to grace. I am reminded of the various Facebook campaigns which encourage users to copy and paste a short advocacy statement as their Facebook status. While I often appreciate the sentiment, I am left to wonder what good it does. If you merely speak something, and then do not live it out--if you talk about the problems of the world but do not do something concrete to help God's people--then why speak it at all?

For if the actuality of my life show what my priorities are, what does it say about how I understand God and the world if I do nothing, preferring to simply be?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Art of Ministry

The New York Post recently ran a fascinating report about the New York Public Library's phone-a-librarian service. Apparently, there are librarians on call twenty-four hours a day to field all manner of questions from all manner of people. As an associate pastor whose on-call day is Thursday, I am given hope for humanity knowing that just as one may call upon a pastor or a physician in case of an emergency, one may call upon a librarian at three in the morning in case of a dispute about the rules of croquet.

One librarian interviewed in the report spoke about an instance in which the producers of the television series Mad Men called to ask about whether a taxi in 1964 would have had a lit "Off Duty" sign on its roof. The show is set in the 1960’s, and its producers are famously fanatical about staying true to period details. They call the librarians a lot.

Mad Men, of course, is a critically acclaimed, lucrative program, and as such, the producers could have gotten by with whatever old-looking taxi the prop department had on hand. The studio could have saved a little money instead of creating an entirely new prop, and only one or two people out of the millions who watch that show would have noticed. Maybe nobody would notice: I have seen the episode in question and the particulars of Don Draper’s taxi certainly had no bearing on the plot of the show. But because they take their work seriously, the producers of Mad Men go to great lengths to ensure that the taxi cabs on the show are just as they were in 1964. They go to these lengths because they see their show as art.

Ministry is an art, too, or at least it is supposed to be. We pastors like to talk about the “art of ministry” as if it were a craft to be set beside painting and composing, as if the sanctuary were a museum built to house genuine (if transitory) works of art.

The problem is not so much that we do not view ministry as art. The problem, it seems to me, is that as ministers, we do not take the art of ministry as seriously as the producers of Mad Men take the art of television.

I am in my second year of pastoral ministry. As I look out over the years of ministry ahead of me, I find myself spending a lot of time asking “what if” questions. This is a time of great change for the Church, after all-- Phyllis Tickle calls this time a great “rummage sale”--and I am finding that the Church I expected to enter is not the one to which I have been given. Much is in flux, and while uncertainty can be scary, it is the ability to freely ask the “what if” questions that I find most liberating about my first year in ministry.

What if we served the church in such a way that we truly saw ministry as art: as messy, difficult, life-wrenching art? How could we ever even dream of ripping off a sermon, or of getting bogged down in minutiae, or of stretching some warmed-over church growth strategy to fit a situation completely unlike the megachurch from whence it came?

What if we took the art of ministry seriously, remembering that the composition is not a self-portrait but a representation of that most Ultimate subject?

Comparing the ministry to a television show is, of course, unfair. When there is a problem off set, the cameraman can simply shut off the camera, while the minister must put down her sermon and speed to the hospital, doing her best to avoid red lights, small animals, and the police. But the distractions are not so much an excuse to turn in sloppy work as they are yet another opportunity to practice the art of ministry, to bear witness, to create in the hope that God is pleased.

Ministry is art, after all, and not just for the professional minister. One is in ministry because one wants to honor God, and within that honoring lies the artist's hope: that every breath in the making of art is art itself, that striving for excellence is not about furthering one's career or looking like a martyr, but about being an artist, about living art, about doing as much justice to the love of God as can be done by human hands. As a painter paints a scene, knowing that there are within that painting differences between the actual scene and its representation on canvas, so too the minister goes about her business, practicing that which we appropriately call the art of ministry, knowing that she can neither do full justice to the love of God nor replicate it exactly. What she can do, however, is use what she has. She can strive to live and practice ministry in such a way that the God to whom she bears witness can be seen in the art of her life. She can live in such a way that the Imago Dei that infests her being spills out onto those she loves and cares for and serves.

Perhaps it is this spilling that is the aim of all art. Perhaps art aims to make us all spill out, and to examine the resulting puddles for signs of that which makes us human and, I would add, signs of that Who makes us human.

I stand at the beginning of my ministry, working within an institution already left for dead by so many for so long, yet I cannot help but be hopeful, for I know that the God who created humanity in God’s own image is creating still. I may have no skill at painting, nor composing, nor sculpting, but I am in ministry, and I know that this same God expects me create anyway, to be an artist in a world—and in a Church--in desperate need of art.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Some quick thoughts on Call to Action

The Connectional Table has voted to endorse the recommendations of the Call to Action report, a series of proposals designed to restructure the United Methodist Church, reverse declining trends in the US, and help focus the UMC into an outcome-based denomination (I think these are fair and accurate descriptions of the report).

You can see a PDF of their recommendations here, and a blog post from the head of the Connectional Table summarizing their actions here.

I will say, as these conversations have played out, I have been far less appalled than I thought I would be. As I have written before, I have been concerned that the language of crisis would give cover to those who want to make huge changes to the way the United Methodist Church functions, such that what Jeremy Smith has called "creeping congregationalism" were allowed to take place. I have little tolerance for the language of crisis, because it seems that whenever we talk about "crisis," we figure that we should make changes and evaluate later, rather than moving slowly and deliberately.

Sure, there are issues that need to be addressed. I don't think you can deny that, but there are always issues that need to be addressed. The General Conference meets every four years for a reason; the world changes, the church changes, perhaps even God changes. We need to be able to change the way we understand the church, so we meet every four years to do so.

So when I read the relatively measured steps of the Connectional Table's recommendations, I breathe a sigh of relief. I do have some issues with this analysis, though, and I do have concerns that I hope will be addressed in the actual legislation before General Conference.

1. As the General Conference looks at weakening the language of "guaranteed appointment," or eliminating the language altogether, how can the annual conference implement structure that holistically evaluate clergy effectiveness (that is, protecting clergy from, God forbid, a Bishop with ulterior motives) without creating another Methodist logistical nightmare? There are, of course, already in the Book of Discipline guidelines for dealing with ineffective clergy, but my understanding is that the guidelines are so difficult to implement and complicated that they are almost never used. Put another way, as someone new to ministry, I want to be encouraged to be effective, and I want to be dealt with if I am showing ineffectiveness, but I don't want to be kicked out of the ministry for ideological or political reasons.

2. How can the General Conference realign the General Agencies, necessarily reducing staff, without putting too much of the work of these Agencies on the local church and its pastor? As someone who has worked for a jurisdictional agency, as well as someone who serves the local church in addition to some conference responsibilities, I am particularly sensitive to the workload associated with carrying out the mission of the larger Church. Local churches, pastors, and laity ought to have a role in promoting the mission of the Church, but there are benefits to a connectional system. The UMC needs full-time staff devoted to these matters. Pastors simply do not have time to carry out their duties in the local church and spend a large segment of their time driving denominational (or conference-wide) goals.

3. As the denomination looks to evaluate how we allocate apportionments, what happens NEXT General Conference once we have spent the $60 million proposed to help restructure the church? I have seen the church, time and again, simply eliminate these resources when it comes time to put together another budget, rather than reallocate them to the mission of the UMC. Also, as we look to income-based apportionment giving, will we bring in far less money than the current system? What does that do to our mission?

4. Finally, as has been admitted by the head of the Connectional Table, where is the theological basis for any of these recommendations? To quote Mary Brook Casad's own analysis of the Table's actions:

I've heard the challenge of showing the theological underpinnings to these recommendations. I would like to thank each person who is making the effort to raise these important questions. While the Connectional Table, in collaboration with the Council of Bishops, has set the process in motion, it will take all of us in faithful conversation to discern where the Spirit of God is leading us.
I commend the transparency of the Connectional Table in all of this, but I note that what you will not find in that analysis is any kind of answer about why the language of the Call to Action report--and the work of the Connectional Table--includes nothing theological, nothing scriptural, nothing noting that the Church is any different than a big business looking to maximize its earnings. Again, I don't mean to shoot down these recommendations, nor the good work of the Connectional Table, but when you say something like "I've heard the challenge of showing the theological underpinnings to these recommendations" and then don't actually show the theological underpinnings, I begin to wonder if there are, in fact, theological underpinnings.

This is an interesting time for the UMC, and an interesting time to be a young minister. I would hope these questions help to clarify the implications of such sweeping changes.

(In the original post, I neglected to link to today's post from the aforementioned--and quite reasonable--Jeremy Smith. Obviously it was his thoughts that got me thinking today. Go read them.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Viva la Guatemala!

Just a heads up: I leave Saturday with a group of twelve other bold folks from Johns Creek UMC to head to Panajachel, Guatemala to visit Rev. Tom Heaton and his incredible ministry, Mission Guatemala. This is the first trip I've led in over a year, and as someone who worked for the short-term mission agency of the UMC, I'm not us being stateside for so long!

While I am away, you can be a part of our adventure by following along on our team blog: I hope you'll be in prayer for us as we go.

One more plug: if you are interested in this sort of thing and are part of the North Georgia Conference, Stacey and I are leading a team to Uganda in early March of 2012 through the conference's Bridges initiative. We'd love to have you go with us. If you want to know more, drop me a line.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On social media

There has been quite a stink lately about the Kentucky Conference's social media policy, and while I do not care to dive too deep into the crevasse of Board of Ordained Ministry policy, I do think it is WAY past time for those of us who are pastors to figure out how to use social media.

I have taken the tack, so far, of wait-and-see. I have never been one to post intensely personal things on Facebook (or on this blog, for that matter), but I also have kept my Facebook privacy settings pretty strict. I don't limit what folks can see once I friend them, but I also have made it so that I can't be searched for. This strategy has worked, so far, in my capacity as part of a multi-staff congregation; people are not that interested in the online life of an associate pastor. Besides, I really don't care to rock the boat too much as an associate. I want to be myself, of course, but I honestly also don't want to do anything to distract from the senior pastor's vision for the church.

I don't have anything online I am ashamed of, short of the haircut displayed in several high school photos in which I have been tagged. I do not have photos of myself doing kegstands with bikini models or whatever. I'm pretty boring. You'd be hard-pressed to point to a place on Facebook where I've violated the social principles (though, I should note, this is not a challenge!).

Still, there's the issue of integrity. I want to be who I am, and I want who I am in real life to match up with who I am online. I think those members of my generation--especially in the clergy, though not exclusively so--are sort of at a crossroads with this social media business.

Those who are older than me did not grow up with the internet. They did not get into Facebook when it was The Facebook (and only open to colleges and universities). Many of them entered (and continue to enter!) the world of social media with a wary eye and a general feeling of inevitability. There does not seem to be a problem, with some of these folks, about how to handle social media, but then again social media is not so much "social" for many of these folks as it is, well, an assigned parking place on the internet.

Those who are younger than me have grown up with a Facebook page to which their parents had access. They instinctively know how to operate online, or at least they are good at hiding those things which they do not want their parents to see. I suspect that as they come into the professional world--and as those who are called enter the ministry--they will face many of the questions my generation is now facing. For now, though, they seem to operate online quite well, devoid of much professional responsibility.

But those of us in the middle--I'd say four or five good years worth of Facebook users--entered the social media world thinking it was one thing and are now being told it is something else entirely. The problem is not so much the changing nature of social media. The nature of technology is that it changes.

The problem is that those changes mean I have to reconfigure how I am socially oriented, and if this sounds like an exaggeration, let me just say that I grew up with the internet, quite literally. My first AOL handle was DRush11, reflective of my age at the time. Those of us who are now young professionals, especially young adults navigating the clergy universe, have been taught to be social online in a certain way. Now that my role has changed, now that I am living into my calling, I have to fundamentally reorient my social self. This is difficult, and I suspect this is also why so many United Methodist young adults are reacting so viscerally to new policies on social media.

So cut us a little slack. We are figuring this stuff out--and from a much different place than those who are writing the policies. As people of integrity (and most of us are!) we recognize the issues. We just need a little time to make the adjustments.

As for me, I'm still deciding on how to use Facebook. If we're talking integrity, hiding behind privacy controls does not seem to me to be much better than lying about who I am on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The prison of the short-term

We are held prisoner by the short-term nature of decision-making. Health care costs are skyrocketing because, in the moment of crisis, please, doctor, do whatever you can to stabilize great-great grandma. I do not mean to deny empathy to those at the end of their lives, but at what point to we tack on an extra two months to someone's life at the expense of providing basic healthcare to the uninsured? Surely there is a way to ensure basic health care for all people, rather than viewing health through the lens of crisis: somebody get the crash cart, do whatever you can, keep trying.

And, in war, we spend three hundred thousand dollars to produce one Humvee, when that money could provide a hot meal for over a million children, perhaps negating the need for the armored vehicle in the first place, with the added benefit of, you know, feeding a million children. In the heat of the moment we allow military spending and healthcare innovation to be its own end, but standing at the precipice of the future, surveying the whole world and God's call to faithfulness, these things cannot be their own end. Perhaps they are a means to an end, but they cannot be their own end.

All of this makes me wonder how God views history. I think I know, but it must be interesting to watch us scurry about.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On a new project

I'm working on a new project this Lent that I am excited to announce here shortly. It has been a season of health issues for us, but thankfully we're coming out of that, and it is time for something new. I look forward to letting you into the know!

In the meantime, blessings on your Lent, my friends!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On a brief absence

Just checking in after a rough month. I've been so busy I have had little time to write, and when I have time, I have felt little inclination. I have thought, several times, I should write something on the blog . . . but not once have I come up with anything to write about. I just haven't had the heart.

But we've moving past some health issues and the busy January season, so I hope to check in here more often. My apologies for the gap. Peace.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A small thought for the morning

I just cannot get past the notion that the fact that Martin Luther King was a clergyperson was integral to his mission and historical persona. There is power in that robe, in the calling and the ordination, and we forget just what drove Dr. King at our own risk. King was a Christian pastor, who preached and lived out of Christian scriptures. His message of reconciliation and justice was a deeply Biblical one.

Incidentally, I am pretty sure he read the same Bible as the rest of us.

Lest this read as some call to repentance for the Christian church, let me simply say that it is.

Dr. King on Avoiding Tension

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On what the church is, part 2

In part 1 of this thrilling series, I talked about how the church lives out its call as the body of Christ. In this post, I want to talk about what the church needs to do in order to change--and how it must evaluate whether change is worth it. In my next (and I suspect final) post on this issue, I'll talk about the fundamental issue of what the body of Christ is in the first place, and how our human structures and bureaucracies can bear witness to this scriptural understanding of the church.

I should introduce this notion two ways. First, the reason I am thinking about this particular issue is that I recently read Adam Hamilton's Leading Beyond the Walls. I will say that this kind of "Look what I did" book usually does not appeal to me, but I just really enjoyed this book, and reading Hamilton's discussions of why he does what he does was really eye-opening to me as I think about what the church is and could be, even if I did not always agree with his rationale and actions.

Second, I must admit my general unease at the talk about fundamentally changing what the church does and how it operates. I am one who immediately turns off when someone talks about having a "relevant" church with a "relevant" pastor and "relevant" ministries. We have spent so much time bending church structures and functions in the name of relevancy that the minute the church launches these ministries, they are no longer relevant. In the name of reaching out to people outside of church culture, we have created a whole new church culture. If you have seen churches in which Hawaiian shirts are common, or with rock concert-like lighting, or with holographic presentations of the preacher, or with awesome video, etc.--then you know what I am talking about.

I also serve a very traditional church, and I'm happy for that. If I were creating the perfect church for me (congregation of one), we'd have high liturgy, traditional hymnody, exquisite vestments, smells and bells, the whole nine yards. I am at a church that values traditional, high-church liturgy, and I find myself more uplifted by worship--even while leading it--than I expected, or than some pastors I know. Johns Creek UMC does worship awfully well. I am a traditionalist at heart.

And yet I find myself wrestling with tradition as I come to terms with what it means for the church to be the body of Christ, because while I am a traditionalist, I fully recognize that some of the church's traditions have less to do with being the body of Christ than they do with preserving whatever it is the church has become.

This is not to say we should get rid of tradition. I value tradition as part of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and I believe it has much to teach us about who God is and how God works. I likewise believe that church tradition need not always have Biblical foundation for it to be a valuable, viable, faithful witness to Christ. We discount two thousand years of Christian tradition at our own peril. Those pastors who want to start entirely fresh, who want to forget who has gone before, are the picture of hubris, believing that their vision for the church is greater than all others.

I do not believe we should get rid of tradition. But, as Phyllis Tickle has said, about every five hundred years or so, we go through another period of enlightenment when we look at who we are and reevaluate how the church functions as the body of Christ, because it is very well likely the case that we have some fine tuning to do.

So we have some sorting to do. Tickle calls it a "rummage sale," which is cute, I suppose, but does not do justice to just how difficult it is to figure out what to hold onto and what to toss. Thankfully, this responsibility does not fall on one individual, church, or denomination; the process of reinvention takes place over many years. But we as church leaders of all stripes must wrestle with this issue, of what to keep and what to get rid of.

In some ways, we've already begun. Many churches, for instance, have tossed that traditional hymnody in favor of "contemporary" music. There is much to celebrate in this shift towards finding a way to meet people where they are, and I have no beef with electric guitars in worship. But the theology! The theology in much of what I have heard described as contemporary music is just awful, just terrible, totally devoid of any thoughtful, reasoned reflection on how Christ works in the world, or how we are to respond to Christ's love. It is all about me: me, me, me.

I don't mean to harp on contemporary music. Much of it is good, and there is some good theology within it (and some good music!). I use contemporary music as an example of the implications of tossing out a vital part of the church's witness, without much thought about the implications. Throw out traditional hymnody, even with good intentions, and a great theological witness is lost.

Is it worth losing that witness? I'd say no; obviously, many folks would disagree with me. But we can't pretend that nothing is lost. As we strive to figure out how to faithfully be the body of Christ, we have to be careful. We are, if you will excuse the pneumatological pun, playing with fire, after all. There are consequences to our changes.

But as long as we pay attention to the consequences, and recognize they are there, change is important, as we do what we can to be the most faithful body of Christ we can be. As we--the church--have learned more about how God works in the world, and especially of how Christ fits into our lives, we have two thousand years worth of witnesses to whom we can listen. As we have listen, and as we pick up insights, we also pick up some baggage: the gum on the bottom of the shoe. The problem is not that the gum is on the shoe; the problem is that we think the gum is part of the shoe, and so we hang onto it.

There is baggage we can leave behind, certainly, and there are changes that need to be made. The question I am wrestling with today is this: how can the church wrestle with its fundamental mission of being the body of Christ, reinventing itself without losing much of what gives it its power? How can we be disciples who are faithful to God's continuing call without tossing out the baby with the bathwater?

Let me close with a final example that I think illustrates my inner conflict.

I have always felt that preaching was a central part of my calling as a pastor. I love to preach, have a gift for it, am energized by the whole sermon process. I enjoy reading about preaching, thinking about how stories impact our identity as humans and Christians, and wrestling with the Biblical text in a way that leads to faithful exegesis. I love to preach, and I am a good preacher.

But something Adam Hamilton talks about in his book has me rethinking the whole preaching act--maybe not in my current context, but in the context of my entire ministry. Adam Hamilton talks about his process of selecting sermon materials, and about his delivery style, and he argues that the state of Biblical and theological illiteracy being what it is, any pastor worth her salt should preach thematically and in a teaching style. Most folks don't know the language of the Bible, or the themes, and so rather than telling stories that either bring about an experience of Christ in the sermon, or which point to some moral truth, Adam Hamilton talks about teaching during his sermons in a way that helps people learn.

My struggle is this: my style works for me. It is natural, I have good response to it, and it fits the model, I think, of mainline preaching. I work hard at crafting sermons, and because this is a gift for me, I usually feel good about what I craft. Part of the reason I use a storytelling style is that these are the kinds of sermons that most appeal to me as a listener. I could listen to Fred Craddock preach all day, and feel the whole time that part of what he has done with his stories is call upon Christ to be present in the room with us. I love this kind of preaching.

But what if another style is more effective? What if a teaching style--which I do not find as natural--is what people need? What if teaching sermons lead to more change within people, more making disciples and more transforming the world? Then wouldn't I be crazy to continue preaching the way that I currently preach?

And yet, if I change the way I preach, something will be lost. Is it worth it?

Friday, January 7, 2011

On what the church is, part 1

I almost titled this post, "On what the church is, and could be," but I'll go ahead and give away the punchline: the church is the body of Christ. It should work to be the body of Christ, whatever that looks like, and it should seek to be nothing else.

Of course, it is not quite so easy. There are two specific issues the church has got to deal with, if it is to truly be the body of Christ. The first issue is that the church needs to figure out what that means--being the body of Christ. The second issue is that the church need to figure out how to live in the world as the body of Christ without losing its essential character.

In this post, I'm going to be dealing with the second issue--that of how the church can live in the world as the body of Christ, and nothing else. In a few days, I'll take up the bigger issue--just what being the body of Christ means for the church--but in this first installment let's explore how the church lives out its call.

I have been thinking a lot about vision statements lately, and my provisional ministry group is supposed to talk next month about visioning: how a church does it, what the process looks like, etc. I am thinking about visioning in light of two different arguments I've been hearing about the process of visioning for a church.

The first argument goes something like this: the vision is everything. If it does not fit in the vision, it is not done. The church's vision, for reaching the lost or transforming the world or whatever it is, informs all that the church does. The pastor--and leaders of the church--must take great time to discern God's vision for the church, and painstakingly ensure that the vision is implemented. You can find the vision on the church's website, you will find it on signs in the church, you may even read it as a congregation. The vision is everything, and if the congregation is not moving towards that vision, then the church is being unfaithful to its calling.

The second argument is that a church having a vision fundamentally warps that which God has called us to be. A body does not have a vision--it simply is. Once you add a vision to a church family, it ceases to be a family and begins to be a purpose group.

I must admit that if I had to choose one stark reality or the other, I am on the side of vision. I find that writing things down is helpful--this practice helps us all get on the same page and keeps us from scheming. So much harm is done in the church because of folks scheming to bend things their way, and a stated vision helps focus us. If there is one thing I know about churchpeople, it is that we are not a very focused bunch.

I am also sympathetic, however, to the idea that the church is not only a group of people who do; it is a group of people who are. It is true: once we steer people towards a goal, and push them to work towards it, we necessarily lose some of the emphasis of being and begin to focus on doing.

I was reminded, in an interview I read from Bishop Willimon (hat tip), that Jesus's message to us is "follow me." As much as I worry about what happens when the church becomes a group of doers, Jesus's message is a "do" message just as much as it is a "be" message. Yes, Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, but I also want to follow Christ, which may be something else entirely.

Following Christ means that the church is called to live in the world with a message of redemption, but also with an agenda of action.

And this call to action, of course, has profound implications for the first question above--about what it means to be the body of Christ. There is a certain model for church (and, I'd say, a certain model for mainline church in the United States), and I have a deep and abiding love for it. But if God is doing a new thing, how can the church reevaluate and retool in light of its, well, vision of being the Body of Christ?

I look forward to exploring that issue next. I have some thoughts that are surprising me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On wedded bliss

We got married on Epiphany, four years ago. What a day--and what a great four years.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

On music

"Albert Blackwell's The Sacred in Music makes a compelling case for the "sacramentality" of music itself. Tracing two distinctive Christian sacramental traditions, he draws on both the central theological claim of the Incarnation and the contemplative tradition linking music to silence. Music is sacramental in that it contains the mystery of the inexpressible depth of reality, yet makes it audible and palpable to human sense. Both of these dimensions, he claims, mirror the very idea of the self-incarnation of the invisible God in the physical world of time and space, perceived by human senses. Thus music in its depth dimension bears the sacred mystery of God, who is transcendent spirit, made flesh."
Don Saliers' Music and Theology, Abingdon 2007, p16

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On time

"Another year has passed," as they say, and it is only natural to think about time: what it is, how we live with it, how it affects our lives.

I think it is fair to say that 2010 was the first year I realized that I was getting older, in any substantive sense. Oh, we all notice getting older as children, but we tend to see this getting older retrospectively, in terms of where we have been and how we have grown. Each year is a year to grow into something more, when we are children, but this realization that our shoes do not fit anymore and that next year we'll be learning multiplication is a far different realization than understanding that we are growing older, because growing older is quite different than moving up a year in school.

I realized I was getting older in 2010, in my 27th year, as I have laughed at Stacey's comments about my hair turning gray, and as I have watched my forehead grow, and as laugh lines appear around my eyes. I do not mean to sound overly grand; I am only twenty-seven, after all. But even as a young adult I can begin to see how aging affects life, for this is the first time in my life when I have really experienced aging. I have also seen dear friends and family members wrestle with the aging process. Some have refused to believe aging exists, which I suppose is understandable. Others have embraced aging as a sad, if inevitable, fact of life. Still others rejoice in aging, even as it throws the mind and the joints for a loop.

Maybe I am just thinking especially lately about my ankle, which has been smarting for the last few weeks, or my back, which seems to stiffen every now and again. But I have this sense that I am getting older: not in terms of growth, though there is of course some spiritual and emotional and mental growth--but in terms of age, in terms of finitude, in terms of living in time.

And I think this is what I mean when I say that 2010 was the first year I realized I was getting older. Perhaps a better way to say it is that 2010 was the first year in which I understood time to be something that went before me and goes after me, rather than some infinite expanse full of possibility.

Coming to this realization is part of being an adult. At some point, you must choose for yourself which path you will take. The choices you have are not entirely your own; I am not so naive as to believe that I am master of my own destiny. There are others (and an Other) involved in this process. But at some point, paths emerge, and you choose. This is in some ways a liberating choice, because it enables you to put on clothes you were born to wear, and they feel good. They feel awfully good.

Still, there is implied in this choice unchosen roads, and while I do not mean to suggest that all choices are permanent, it is the case that an unchosen road necessarily ceases to be a viable option, and it dies: sometimes a quiet death, fading into the ether, and sometimes a violent one, thrashing until the very end.

Once those choices die, there is grief. Grief is only natural, and I have to believe that God honors that grief as the natural extension of a life lived passionately and deliberately. I could have chosen road A, but I did not, and now it is gone, forever. Grieving is natural.

I do not mean to suggest that I spent 2010 drowning in grief. Though it was a difficult year for us in many ways, there were many life-giving moments and people, and I leave 2010 behind feeling more full than when it started. But I do not want to ignore what happens when we choose a path. This is not to say the path will not change--there are always forks in the path, down which we can travel, for whatever reason--but a choice implies other roads not taken. A choice without alternatives is not a choice, after all.

I suppose I am thinking especially about time because in addition to the lines around my eyes--I noticed them in the mirror tonight, as a matter of fact--2010 was the year I began in full-time ministry, the first time I put on the robe in an official capacity, the first time I had to tell people at parties that I am a minister. This is a strange business, the clergy, and I find myself loving what I do and who I am and what God has called me to more each day, even as I find myself rolling my eyes and wondering what on earth I have gotten myself into.

As I experience this passing of time, I am also beginning to understand what it means to "live into" something. I have heard the phrase over and over--in seminary, it was a buzzword akin only to "in the tension"--but I am beginning to really get what living into something means, especially as it relates to living into the life I have been given.

I am not someone who believes God has planned out my entire life in advance; besides wondering about the theological and scriptural basis for such an argument, it just does not sound like much fun. So living into my life is less about finding out God's plan and more about discovering what it means to live, as a person, in time, with God, and with the people who share my journey.

Maybe this all sounds a little "out there." I am ok with that. Living into my life requires me to understand that having made peace with God as it relates to my calling, I am also called to make peace with time, and with the roads I did not choose.

I am called to understand that what goes before me goes after me, too. Time is not merely something to catch: some limitless goal which, having been caught, calls me forward again. Time goes before me, too, and will go on long after I am gone. Time, being God's medium, is the canvas in which I live--in which we all live--and just as it goes before me and goes after me, it goes before everybody else and after everybody else, too.

Even as I make choices that necessarily narrow my life's focus, it is not as if there is a life waiting at the end of each road which must die; though there is grief in this life decision-making process, there is no finite time that dies with each choice. God's time is such that rather than losing each prospective person at the end of each path, I am gaining the person I continue to become, the life I continue to live into.

This is a liberating thought to me: that time is God's medium, that time is not only the number of days until my next birthday, but rather it is forever, in both directions, and that while God does not have my entire life planned out for me, God promises to go along with me as I stumble along the way. And not only does God promise to go along with me, but God promises that fellow travelers will share the journey. With these folks' help, no heartache is unbearable, and no joy worth keeping under wraps. Come to think of it, that's not a bad hope for the kingdom. You know, as Wesley said, "Heaven opened in the soul."

At the beginning of 2011, as I stumble, this is enough for me: that God is with us, and that you stumble alongside me.

I hope it is enough for you. Here's to a good year.