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.