Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part III

As I shared Part I of this blog, these past six-plus years as a district superintendent have gone by quickly, and I've had unique opportunities and experiences to see the United Methodist Church in many different lights. I shared earlier about the local church, being a superintendent, and being a former episcopal candidate. In Part II, I shared observations about General Conference. In this blog, I'll share my observations about our denominational struggles.

Sexuality, Schism... Or Is It All About Power?

I lament over the fractioning that occurs over issues of sexuality. To be sure: Sexuality is important. People are important. Standards of leadership are important. But on the list of biblical priorities, sexuality seems to be fairly low. Taking the scriptures literally, money is mentioned more than any other topic - by leaps and bounds. It's amazing to me how some will cheer you on when you're preaching, writing, and taking action about matters sexual, being conservative or progressive, but will castigate and call you meddling and manipulative if you dare to talk to people about money and their use/misuse of it. We are - at best - guilty of inconsistency in our interpretation of scripture.

Where sexuality in the UMC is concerned, more specifically in the United States, the bottom line is this: we are in an intradenominational squabble that most folks outside of the denomination (1) don't know about, and more to the point, (2) don't care about. Even more damning, this is an issue that is, at least publicly, dominated by clergy. Our stance and our current conflict on sexuality - in general - isn't bringing people in or driving people away; if a stance mattered, the Episcopal Church and the Southern Baptist Church would be growing in the U.S. But neither are. Again, people do matter, and we are not reaching people - regardless of how they feel about sexuality. That's a failure to make disciples. That's a ROOT cause of denominational decline. Should we be concerned solely about numbers? Well, I'd say principles will get you only so far - anyone know how many Shakers are left?

Failure to make disciples, more than anything else, has us in the state we presently find ourselves, and until we take that seriously, we are going to be in trouble - and more importantly, we are going to fail at our stated mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We can't transform the world if we aren't generative enough to carry on the mission.

So forgive my pragmatism, but to let this bring us down as a denomination means that we really suck, and are just plain self-centered and individualistic... the original American sin. Is it about interpretation or biblical hermeneutic? I am dubious: we Americans and American churches are as selective about our biblical interpretation as we are about where we shop. While many will bark about lust (one of the "seven deadly sins,"), few bark about gluttony (another one of the Deadly Seven). When is the last time someone wanted to file a complaint on all the pot-luck dinner participants for eating too much, or being obese? We seem to be selective about what sins we want prosecuted and which other sins are "acceptable." There's also that little incident about Jesus turning the water into wine, AFTER the party had been well underway. What was Jesus thinking?

Progressive-minded churches can and should minister to and make progressive-minded disciples. Conservative-minded churches can and should minister to and make conservative-minded disciples. As well as everyone in between. Such has been the case throughout Christian history, and no one communion or denomination has always found unity in attitude and belief. The point is, we should be making disciples, not intradenominational war. The Reformation is turning out to be an experiment that continues to fail. Rarely will a community of faith agree on EVERYTHING.

Catholics and Southern Baptists have among them those who think women should be ordained - but they remain Catholic or Southern Baptist. United Methodists have those among them who think rebaptism is okay or infant baptism shouldn't be practiced - but they remain United Methodist. John Wesley ("The Arminian") and George Whitefield ("The Calvinist") fought like a cat and a dog: "The great day will discover why the Lord permits dear Mr. Wesley and me to be of a different way of thinking," Whitefield once said.

On the other hand, Luther wanted to ditch indulgences but keep confession, yet Lutherans ditched both. Wesley didn't intend to start a denomination, but here we are... even though we are (in my opinion) back to what Wesley tried to reform. We Christians can be a fickle and argumentative bunch.

Yet Wesley and Whitefield still managed to be rebel Anglicans together. Isn't that what we Methodists really are? Rebels? Rebels can still keep the faith and stay in love with each other - IF that outweighs the need to live in a binary existence where "we" are right and "they" are wrong. Progressives and conservatives have some atoning to do in our denomination for their behaviors. So do folks in the middle.

Unfortunately, what we DO seem to be able to do well is: schism, split, or have a Reformation... or two or three (hence Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and -gasp- even Wesley). From Wesley's sermon, On Schism:
That there might be no schism in the body. - 1 Corinthians 12:25 
1. If there be any word in the English tongue as ambiguous and indeterminate in its meaning as the word Church, it is one that is nearly allied to it, -- the word Schism. it has been the subject of innumerable disputes for several hundred years; and almost innumerable books have been written concerning it in every part of the Christian world. A very large share of these have been published in our country; particularly during the last century, and the beginning of the present: And persons of the strongest understanding, and the most consummate learning, have exhausted all their strength upon the question, both in conversation and writing. This has appeared to be more necessary than ever, since the grand separation of the Reformed from the Romish Church. This is a charge which the members of that Church never fail to bring against all that separate from her; and which, consequently, has employed the thought and pens of the most able disputants on both sides. And Those of each side have generally, when they entered into the field, been secured of victory; supposing the strength of their arguments was so great, that it was impossible for reasonable men to resist them. 
2. But it is observable, that exceeding little good has been done by all these controversies. Very few of the warmest and ablest disputants have been able to convince their opponents. After all that could be said, the Papists are Papists, and the Protestants are Protestants still. And the same success has attended those who have so vehemently disputed about separation from the Church of England. Those who separated from her were eagerly charged with schism; they as eagerly denied the charge; and scarce any were able to convince their opponents either on one side or the other. 
3. One great reason why this controversy has been so unprofitable, why so few of either side have been convinced, is this: They seldom agreed as to the meaning of the word concerning which they disputed: and if they did not fix the meaning of this, if they did not define the term before they began disputing about it, they might continue the dispute to their lives' end, without getting one step forward; without coming a jot nearer to each other than when they first set out. 
4. Yet it must be a point of considerable importance, or St. Paul would not have spoken so seriously of it. It is, therefore, highly needful that we should consider, 
I. The nature, and , 
II. The evil of it.
The wrap-up of his sermon is the most inspiring:
11. Happy is he that attains the character of a peace-maker in the Church of God. Why should not you labor after this? Be not content, not to stir up strife; but do all that in you lies, to prevent or quench the very first spark of it. Indeed it is far easier to prevent the flame from breaking out, than to quench it afterwards. However, be not afraid to attempt even this: The God of peace is on your side. He will give you acceptable words, and will send them to the heart of the hearers. Noli diffidere: Noli discedere, says a pious man: Fac quod in te est; et Deus aderit bonce tuce voluntuti: "Do not distrust Him that has all power, that has the hearts of all men in his hand. Do what in thee lies, and Good will be present, and bring thy good desires to good effect." Never be weary of well-doing. In due time thou shalt reap if thou faint not.
It may be that power in the Kingdom of God isn't being on the "correct" side, but in being a peace-maker that serves under the King who has all power. I will gladly place myself in the middle of the fray, and the Kingdom, to serve the King. To be sure: there's nothing easy about the middle.

(And no, that doesn't mean you have to go join an association, movement, or caucus).

Pax,
Sky+

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part II

As I shared Part I of this blog, these past six-plus years as a district superintendent have gone by quickly, and I've had unique opportunities and experiences to see the United Methodist Church in many different lights. I shared earlier about the local church, being a superintendent, and being a former episcopal candidate.

I'll offer an observation about General Conference:

General Conference

I've attended every General Conference since 1988 as an observer, a reserve delegate, and a delegate. At first I was inspired by the worship and the incredible people I met. Later I was moved from a spectator toward prayer and participation in things I was passionate about (particularly, worship/liturgy, ordination, and discipleship), and as a delegate became focused upon evangelism and discipleship and how our denomination is/is not facilitating such as a Connection. The last two General Conferences I was frustrated, exhausted, and at times prayed that no one from the outside world was watching. This last General Conference (2016) I'm sure it was worse than C-SPAN, in both production quality and content.

To those on the outside watching, we were petition numbers, "point of orders," people appealing for bishops to be unseated as chairpersons, and caucuses vying for power. I don't think anyone watching would have thought we United Methodists were living up to a people who used to be known for their embrace of God's grace; we looked like Congress. I fear our approval ratings are similar.

This is what we've evolved into:
¶ 501. Definition of Powers— The General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (see ¶ 16, Division Two, Section II, Article IV, The Constitution). It has no executive or administrative power.
And if you read the rest of the ¶500's of the Book of Discipline, it reads like most other statutes of state law that we find in the United States...
  • even though we are a denomination that goes beyond the United States...
  • even though we are supposed to know the difference between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God... 
  • even though that we know that the Kingdom of God should be about more than winners and losers, seeing each other less as lawbreakers and more as grace givers...
  • even though we should be treating each other like family in covenant, loving each other despite our dysfunction and disagreements...
  • even though Wesley's understanding of conferencing, and what we've allowed General Conference to become, are two completely different things.
When I think of General Conference, here is the best word I can think of to describe it: intractable.
in·trac·ta·ble [ˌin ˈtrak təb (ə)l] adjective 
1. hard to control or deal with, such as "intractable economic problems" 
synonyms: unmanageable, uncontrollable, difficult, awkward, troublesome, demanding, burdensome, such as "intractable problems" 
antonyms: manageable 
2. (of a person) difficult; stubborn. 
synonyms: stubborn, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, headstrong, willful, unbending, unyielding, uncompromising, unaccommodating, uncooperative, difficult, awkward, perverse, contrary, pigheaded, stiff-necked, such as "an intractable man"
Should things be done decently and in order? Yes.

Is covenant important? Yes.

Should we continue to make the Book of Discipline larger and larger? Please God, No. (And UM Publishing House folks: no one was fooled when the 2016 BOD "looked" smaller than its predecessor).

All of this shows our distrust of God and of each other. We are becoming the Pharisees all over again - keepers of the law without the intent of the law in mind. Covenant is larger - and a lot more enduring - than canon law. We Americans love to argue, democratize, legislate, and codify things. Living in the Realm of God means all those things go by the wayside. Sanctification demands it. Until we live and do things differently, we will continue to see through a dark glass.

I'll continue the thoughts...

Pax,
Sky+

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reflections of a (Soon to Be Former) DS, Acting DCM, and Former Episcopal Candidate, Part I

Six-plus years as a district superintendent went by quickly. In that time, I worked under three bishops, attended two General Conferences and several other UM Connectional meetings across the U.S., and many conference, district, and local church gatherings. I honestly liked 90% of what I did as a district superintendent, and I think I was fairly good at it. I was one of the first DS's to work under the mandate of being a "chief missional strategist." I was also given the permission to give that work priority as opposed to being a pastoral personnel manager and bureaucrat.

But that season has ended and I am now looking forward to being back in a local church as a pastor. Being an elder in the United Methodist Church is a great way to fulfill my calling, and a challenging way to live out my baptismal vows. These last several years will serve me well in the years ahead.

I've used the Daily Office to pray for many years, and part of that discipline has been to be intentionally silent at various times during the day to try to hear God and reflect. Sometimes I hear a divine word, sometimes it's just a needed silence from a noisy world, and sometimes I (unfortunately) allow it to become an opportunity to bitch and gripe lament instead of listen.

I think these experiences give me a good view of the current struggles the UMC has, and also allow me a unique opportunity to share with candor some reflections and observations about a few things.

The Local Church

This is where it's at. Disciples are made in local churches, in their outreach, in their small groups. Districts don't make disciples. Conferences doesn't make disciples. General agencies don't make disciples. Even the General Conference doesn't make disciples. All of these things are, at best, tools to support the local church so that they might be BETTER at making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Local churches are resilient. They are faithful. And the larger Church has let them down. After six-plus years as a superintendent, I can say that I find it a miracle that some local churches function as well as they do. They are desperately looking to be led. They are desperately looking to be "shepherd-vised" (as opposed to being "supervised"). And they want to be faithful. We clergy and the General Church have let them down. We can do better. Faithful folk gather week in and week out to worship and serve, break bread and drink wine, celebrate baptisms, marriages, and funerals. They live into the baptismal vows at church, at work, and at play. Some of them even call themselves United Methodists.

Superintendency (General and District)

The reason I was a fairly good DS is only because I recruited and helped form a good district operational team, made up of clergy AND laity. We looked at our denominational and conference mission, our values and foci, and built a ministry plan that was both actionable and malleable/adaptable. I listened and adapted as the team looked critically at churches, pastors, me, and our gifts. We developed a Generative Leadership Academy whose primary focus was to help identify the spiritual gifts of the baptized around the district churches. We built our work around covenant: covenant with God, covenant with each other, and covenant to the mission of the UMC: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It was very hard work. There were painful conversations. Yet we came away stronger, forged bonds as strong as family, and realized it was all about the mission, not ourselves. Sometimes, I lead. Sometimes, I followed their lead. We always left knowing what we had done was OUR work, not mine or anyone else's. I think that serves, and continues to serve, the district well.

I was also part of a covenant team with my area brother and sister superintendents. Bishop McAlilly operated under the same principle: all of us are stronger than one of us. I will deeply miss the depth of covenant, transparency, and unconditional love of these wonderful people.

What would I share with you as a DS? Maybe I could clear up some misconceptions:
  • The infamous "salary sheet" is really not much help in making pastoral appointments in this day and age. The best way to approach this work is thus: (1) the local church is always the priority, (2) what are the gifts that are needed at a church for a pastor to serve it well, and (3) what pastors do we have that have those gifts. After that, it's a puzzle to put together. Just as a local church sometimes wrestles with who to put in what offices and positions, so goes the work of a bishop and cabinet where churches and pastors are concerned. One thing is clear: we have to be continually supporting and developing a culture of call - for both laity and (potential) clergy.
  • Being a bishop or DS doesn't mean you've "arrived." As I've always told folks, ordination and consecration are subsets of one's baptism, and they do not subordinate your baptism. Being a bishop or D.S. is different work, but not necessarily higher or more important work. In this season, strategists are needed more than ever - and before you think such mentality stifles the Holy Spirit, consider that Jesus probably had a plan before he went to Jerusalem, and working with the disciples for three years was not just killing time. In my opinion, the district superintendent is in a unique place to affect change in our denomination... if we adhere to more of a "shepherd-vising" model rather than an imperial/managerial model. Using a salary sheet or the "paying one's dues" method of selecting superintendents hasn't served us well. Finding people who have the gifts of shepherding, teaching, gift identification, and adeptness in conflict management are crucial, and not limited to any demographic we could list.
  • SMU's Maria Dixon Hall: "Our district superintendents and our bishops are so overtaxed they don’t get a chance to know the people they’re serving with. There are not mechanisms to get to know folks. It is difficult to go into war with someone that you don’t really trust, and you don’t trust them because you don’t know them." Yes. Become a listening DS. Go to churches not just for worship and charge conferences; go to board meetings, fish fries, and homecomings. Know your people.
  • Clergy status/pedigree is largely irrelevant. There are licensed local pastors who are a lot more effective in pastoral ministry than their elder counterparts. While I value my theological education, it lacked heavily in (1) praxis, (2) spiritual formation and maturity, and (3) cultivation in leadership skills. On point three, I'll paraphrase Maria Dixon Hall when she said that while some seminary grads were theologically adept, many couldn't lead an ant to a picnic. We have to equip church leaders, lay and clergy, to be more effective leaders and disciplers.

Offering Yourself for the Episcopacy

At the encouragement of others, and after a lot of prayer, I decided to offer myself for this office in 2016. I had a lot of support. I had a lot of folks praying for me. Many sacrificed monetary gifts and gifts of their time and presence. I have no regrets. Here's what I learned:
  • Do it only if you hear God calling you to offer yourself. I've become acquaintances with enough bishops to know that it takes a toll on you, and takes a few years off your life. It's also an awesome opportunity to make a difference in the Kingdom.
  • Be aware of how your birthday falls. One criticism I heard, despite my assurances to people I would serve no more than 16 years, was my age. Because of how my birthday falls, I could have been a bishop until I was 71 1/2 years old. Seeing first-hand what the office of bishop does to people, there's no way in hell I would have served as a bishop that long; 16 years would have been plenty long for me, and I would retire and be a full-time grandfather, occasional motorcycle rider, and catch up on movies, baseball, and be a pastor of visitation for a church that needed the help. Such is very difficult to assure delegates of, however. 
  • Offering yourself for the episcopacy is all about timing; three years from now (the next episcopal election), I won't be a DS and dean of the cabinet, I won't be serving a large membership church (our conference doesn't have many of them), and I'd be kidding myself and everyone else if I tried to run again. You need to be old enough, but not too old. The window is tight. The timing is crucial.
  • It ain't cheap. Producing a video, website design, and mailings just don't happen. I went cheap on mailings (like the above post card) and had a lot of free help, and put more into video, website, and online media. You're still talking about thousands of dollars - a lot to ask people to give and sacrifice. I was humbled and blessed by those who gave so much.
  • Be aware of the math. It takes 60% of the vote to get elected, which in the SEJ means around 220 votes to get elected. I knew that my chances were, at the very best, 50/50 to get elected. I told myself if I got as many as 130 votes, I would pray about offering myself again in 4 years. The highest vote I received on a ballot was 106. I was very blessed to be endorsed by two conferences. However, both of our conferences (Memphis and Tennessee) have a small number of votes (24 to be exact) when compared to other conferences across the Southeast. Add that to the fact that the Memphis Conference has never been successful at electing a candidate, and you realize that the math is just not there. There are good things that can come out of the Memphis Conference - those who have offered themselves from our conference previously are among the greatest servants of God I know. It's not an indictment of anything or anybody; it's just simple math: other conferences want their candidates elected too, and they have more of a base vote of support. All things considered, I consider myself very fortunate to have received the support that I did, especially from the Tennessee Conference folks, who also endorsed me and could have chosen otherwise. 
  • Be aware of the emotional and spiritual toll. No one could have prepared me for the dark nights of the soul that I would endure upon being nominated and endorsed. I will admit to being nervous when my own conference endorsed me. I will admit to becoming an anxiety-ridden wreck when the Tennessee Conference endorsed me. What a responsibility if elected! What an enormous challenge! And what a burden awaiting me if elected, being a bishop in a church so strife-ridden and in conflict. It was almost to the hour a 40-day trial in the wilderness. What I learned was this: God will fill a lot of voids, and can run interference to a lot of adversity... if you will allow it. Also - be prepared not to be elected, and trust me, it hurts. If you can't handle the possibility of not being elected, don't offer yourself for election.
  • Without a doubt, the SEJ elected some awesome folks as bishops in 2016. I pray for them by name every day. Unless you've offered yourself to such an office, or worked closely with a bishop, you have no idea what they go through every day, and every night. If I ever have a problem with one of them, I'll let them know in person. You won't hear me bad mouthing any of them.
In another blog, I'll talk about General Conference, our denomination's struggles with contemporary issues, and discipleship.

Pax,
Sky+

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Politics, Faith, and Vacuum




I have had the glorious gift of retreat for the past week and a half. Six days on an island/key with two old and wonderful friends, and (so far) three days at a Trappist monastery. I have purposefully surrounded myself with creation, friendship, religious icons, solitude and silence, and prayer offices. I have purposefully avoided the news and social media banter. Time and distance has allowed for thought and reflection, and I’ve come to believe that the Church, and more specifically the United Methodist Church, is missing – and has been missing – some grand opportunities.

I’ll preface this by saying I was raised and am a social and political oddity. My father was a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans, yet wouldn’t avoid the draft for the Korean War even at the insistence of my grandfather, who had lost a son in World War II. My mother was a social liberal as well, growing up a coal miner’s daughter and whose mother’s only sources of income were social security and the Black Lung Benefits Act. Both of my parents grew up in poverty, and while social liberals they were fiscally conservative - yet very generous with their own money in their community and in helping aging parents. My father became a college professor. My brother and I are well educated as well; my brother has four degrees and I have two. We grew up in a small southern college town that hosted students of many different nationalities. Our neighbors were Cuban refugees, and their youngest son and my brother became best friends (in fact, my brother’s Spanish became nearly as good as his English). He, like my father, went into academics and is a college professor and research scientist in immunology. You could probably call both of us “educated rednecks” – my brother has a farm where he regularly hunts and fishes. I gave up both early in life and became a motorcyclist and shade tree mechanic instead, at least where hobbies are concerned.

Unlike my Midwestern parents, my brother and I became products of Southern culture. We hunted, fished, and hauled hay in the summer. At the same time, we also played baseball, tennis, and golf. At home we were surrounded with books, intellectual conversations, and political discussions, yet we also went out in the evenings and ran around with friends whose parents were white-collar and blue-collar, upper-middle class and lower-middle class, and (because of the university) of every color and nationality: white, black, Cuban, Indian, Korean, Arabian, Lebanese - and we all did things that were wholesome as well as the things that can often land young people in trouble. We both went to the same college where our father taught, and met and became friends with even more diverse folks: Japanese, Venezuelan, Iranian, African, and Russian. We were both active at the Wesley Foundation. It was a unique childhood and education.

As I reflect on where I’ve been, and where I am now, I see a lot of angst and fear. Not just in the rural area in which I serve as a district superintendent/shepherd of a few counties in far Western Kentucky, but across the world. So much anger and division around politics – and not just here in the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit campaign has caused great chasms amidst its citizenry. This spring France will have an election that has the potential to be as divisive as our own U.S. election. And immigration woes are not unique to the U.S., as the U.K., Germany, and Sweden are struggling with how to handle refugees. Some of it is logistics, for others it involves cultural biases, and for still others, fear. There are no easy answers. It becomes more complicated when you try to live in the tension of logistical and political realities versus a Christian faith that embraces the Beatitudes and Great Commandment not as suggestions, but as a way of life.

The temptation is great to pick a “side” in all this – and in the U.S. we tend to think and align ourselves in polar terms, using an either/or logic. Picking either side would make my life easier, and either side would probably win me more friends. But there is a reality that, as one who is both Christian and a pastor, I can’t escape: on any given Sunday, either in the United Methodist Church or most other churches, the folks in the pews are usually split 60/40 on political alignment, one way or the other (at least, according to a study quoted in a recent issue of Christian Century). There are of course exceptions, but it’s fair to say that God-fearing and believing people are Democrats and Republicans alike, and both attend our churches. My own denomination finds itself in the same ideological camps beyond Democrat or Republican: are you Good News/Confessing Movement/WCA or are you RMN/MFSA?  Preaching partisan politics or alignment, at least to me, just seems pointless and possibly violates the vow to do no harm. But more importantly, it’s just plain ineffective - and I believe - theologically and biblically unsound.

As my friend Allan Bevere wrote a few weeks ago, if you read Romans 12 AND 13 in context, we pray for our leaders that they might be godly people, and then - pretty much - pray that they might leave us Christians alone to do our work: sacrifice, don’t allow ourselves to be transformed by the world, please God. Let Caesar, the President, and the Prime Minister be about their work, but know as Christians that love fulfills the law and does no harm to a neighbor. We put on the robe of Jesus the Christ. That’s our task; not to be about a political party’s business, but to be about the Lord’s business.

That may mean that we willingly and sacrificially place ourselves in the middle of the fray;  in that messy middle isn’t a fence, but a cross, and a cross we are commanded to bear. Not in a martyr, “look at me” sort of way, but in a servant, sacrificial way. And it’s not to avoid being political, but in fact to EMBRACE a politic: the many, many folks for whom the Church may be saying it is doing something for, but when it comes to doing, has done damned little. I would add that I have to indict myself as well. The Church has not filled a vacuum – it has created one.

The very same people who are in “backlash” politically have seen (a) the government fail them, and (b) the Church fail them. Why or how that’s occurred, or even if their reasons are “right” or “wrong,” matters little. People are hurting. In the area I live in, I’ve watched factories and industries dry up in the 50+ years I have been alive. Hopelessness turns people to drugs and addictions. Nones and Dones either found the Church wanting, or (worse) shooting their wounded. Secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters have become idols while the primary Gospel message of love, grace, and hope has been lost.  That’s less my observation, and more the observation of the growing number of people who love God and Jesus Christ, but have come to the conclusion that the Church sucks. Some of those same people have concluded that government sucks, too. I grew up with these folks, lived with these folks, and now seek to shepherd and pastor these folks. Many of them no longer attend a church, or have never attended to begin with – and in their minds, for good reason. You can learn a lot by occasionally hanging out with people outside of the Church. Jesus did some - most - of his best work there.

Charles R. Morris, a columnist for Commonweal, wrote a great article in the January 6th issue, “Backlash: Trump’s Rise Is Part of a Pattern.” It discusses the historical and present political sways endemic to our world. One takeaway is this: things are very broken – both in government and in the Church – and those who have been ignored and hurting for a long time are now responding. In response to a perceived void, the void is being filled - for better or worse. One fact is undeniable: nature abhors a vacuum.

This could be an opportunity for the United Methodist Church - as well as any other church or communion - to shine. Instead of continuing the mostly insular argument about who’s theologically and ideologically correct, we could decide to make disciples and let God sort it all out. In short: progressive folks? Go make disciples who are progressively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Conservative folks? Go make disciples who are conservatively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Pastors? Go shepherd wherever you’re sent and love your people, even if some of them have politics you don’t like. Let your call and your love outweigh your opinions (wow, that even sounds Wesleyan!). Build bridges across the gaps. Outdo others in showing love and compassion (wow, that even sounds biblical!). And everyone: realize that as a Church, we are a minority that more and more people have less and less respect for, and even less inclination to be a part of. We are called to minister to the least, the last, and the lost – of which the number continues to grow. Our world needs hope. Our Church used to be in the hope business. Jesus still is.

There is no shortage of people who need saved from despair, pain, and hopelessness. They are rural and urban alike. But we DO have a shortage of professed Christians who are willing to ditch their own politics and partisan theology and go tell people that they are children that God loved and cherished since the day that they were born.

The reality is that there aren’t just two sides. This world and the people in it represent a multifaceted reality that needs hope, love, grace, and peace. We don’t have to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The question is: what are we willing to give up that is a stumbling block to those who are already stumbling? Are we willing to jump into the fray rather than take a side in it?

“They will know we are Christians…”

Pax,
Sky+

Abbey of Gethsemini
Season after the Epiphany, February 2017

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Politics, Faith, and Vacuum




I have had the glorious gift of retreat for the past week and a half. Six days on an island/key with two old and wonderful friends, and (so far) three days at a Trappist monastery. I have purposefully surrounded myself with creation, friendship, religious icons, solitude and silence, and prayer offices. I have purposefully avoided the news and social media banter. Time and distance has allowed for thought and reflection, and I’ve come to believe that the Church, and more specifically the United Methodist Church, is missing – and has been missing – some grand opportunities.

I’ll preface this by saying I was raised and am a social and political oddity. My father was a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans, yet wouldn’t avoid the draft for the Korean War even at the insistence of my grandfather, who had lost a son in World War II. My mother was a social liberal as well, growing up a coal miner’s daughter and whose mother’s only sources of income were social security and the Black Lung Benefits Act. Both of my parents grew up in poverty, and while social liberals they were fiscally conservative - yet very generous with their own money in their community and in helping aging parents. My father became a college professor. My brother and I are well educated as well; my brother has four degrees and I have two. We grew up in a small southern college town that hosted students of many different nationalities. Our neighbors were Cuban refugees, and their youngest son and my brother became best friends (in fact, my brother’s Spanish became nearly as good as his English). He, like my father, went into academics and is a college professor and research scientist in immunology. You could probably call both of us “educated rednecks” – my brother has a farm where he regularly hunts and fishes. I gave up both early in life and became a motorcyclist and shade tree mechanic instead, at least where hobbies are concerned.

Unlike my Midwestern parents, my brother and I became products of Southern culture. We hunted, fished, and hauled hay in the summer. At the same time, we also played baseball, tennis, and golf. At home we were surrounded with books, intellectual conversations, and political discussions, yet we also went out in the evenings and ran around with friends whose parents were white-collar and blue-collar, upper-middle class and lower-middle class, and (because of the university) of every color and nationality: white, black, Cuban, Indian, Korean, Arabian, Lebanese - and we all did things that were wholesome as well as the things that can often land young people in trouble. We both went to the same college where our father taught, and met and became friends with even more diverse folks: Japanese, Venezuelan, Iranian, African, and Russian. We were both active at the Wesley Foundation. It was a unique childhood and education.

As I reflect on where I’ve been, and where I am now, I see a lot of angst and fear. Not just in the rural area in which I serve as a district superintendent/shepherd of a few counties in far Western Kentucky, but across the world. So much anger and division around politics – and not just here in the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit campaign has caused great chasms amidst its citizenry. This spring France will have an election that has the potential to be as divisive as our own U.S. election. And immigration woes are not unique to the U.S., as the U.K., Germany, and Sweden are struggling with how to handle refugees. Some of it is logistics, for others it involves cultural biases, and for still others, fear. There are no easy answers. It becomes more complicated when you try to live in the tension of logistical and political realities versus a Christian faith that embraces the Beatitudes and Great Commandment not as suggestions, but as a way of life.

The temptation is great to pick a “side” in all this – and in the U.S. we tend to think and align ourselves in polar terms, using an either/or logic. Picking either side would make my life easier, and either side would probably win me more friends. But there is a reality that, as one who is both Christian and a pastor, I can’t escape: on any given Sunday, either in the United Methodist Church or most other churches, the folks in the pews are usually split 60/40 on political alignment, one way or the other (at least, according to a study quoted in a recent issue of Christian Century). There are of course exceptions, but it’s fair to say that God-fearing and believing people are Democrats and Republicans alike, and both attend our churches. My own denomination finds itself in the same ideological camps beyond Democrat or Republican: are you Good News/Confessing Movement/WCA or are you RMN/MFSA?  Preaching partisan politics or alignment, at least to me, just seems pointless and possibly violates the vow to do no harm. But more importantly, it’s just plain ineffective - and I believe - theologically and biblically unsound.

As my friend Allan Bevere wrote a few weeks ago, if you read Romans 12 AND 13 in context, we pray for our leaders that they might be godly people, and then - pretty much - pray that they might leave us Christians alone to do our work: sacrifice, don’t allow ourselves to be transformed by the world, please God. Let Caesar, the President, and the Prime Minister be about their work, but know as Christians that love fulfills the law and does no harm to a neighbor. We put on the robe of Jesus the Christ. That’s our task; not to be about a political party’s business, but to be about the Lord’s business.

That may mean that we willingly and sacrificially place ourselves in the middle of the fray;  in that messy middle isn’t a fence, but a cross, and a cross we are commanded to bear. Not in a martyr, “look at me” sort of way, but in a servant, sacrificial way. And it’s not to avoid being political, but in fact to EMBRACE a politic: the many, many folks for whom the Church may be saying it is doing something for, but when it comes to doing, has done damned little. I would add that I have to indict myself as well. The Church has not filled a vacuum – it has created one.

The very same people who are in “backlash” politically have seen (a) the government fail them, and (b) the Church fail them. Why or how that’s occurred, or even if their reasons are “right” or “wrong,” matters little. People are hurting. In the area I live in, I’ve watched factories and industries dry up in the 50+ years I have been alive. Hopelessness turns people to drugs and addictions. Nones and Dones either found the Church wanting, or (worse) shooting their wounded. Secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters have become idols while the primary Gospel message of love, grace, and hope has been lost.  That’s less my observation, and more the observation of the growing number of people who love God and Jesus Christ, but have come to the conclusion that the Church sucks. Some of those same people have concluded that government sucks, too. I grew up with these folks, lived with these folks, and now seek to shepherd and pastor these folks. Many of them no longer attend a church, or have never attended to begin with – and in their minds, for good reason. You can learn a lot by occasionally hanging out with people outside of the Church. Jesus did some - most - of his best work there.

Charles R. Morris, a columnist for Commonweal, wrote a great article in the January 6th issue, “Backlash: Trump’s Rise Is Part of a Pattern.” It discusses the historical and present political sways endemic to our world. One takeaway is this: things are very broken – both in government and in the Church – and those who have been ignored and hurting for a long time are now responding. In response to a perceived void, the void is being filled - for better or worse. One fact is undeniable: nature abhors a vacuum.

This could be an opportunity for the United Methodist Church - as well as any other church or communion - to shine. Instead of continuing the mostly insular argument about who’s theologically and ideologically correct, we could decide to make disciples and let God sort it all out. In short: progressive folks? Go make disciples who are progressively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Conservative folks? Go make disciples who are conservatively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Pastors? Go shepherd wherever you’re sent and love your people, even if some of them have politics you don’t like. Let your call and your love outweigh your opinions (wow, that even sounds Wesleyan!). Build bridges across the gaps. Outdo others in showing love and compassion (wow, that even sounds biblical!). And everyone: realize that as a Church, we are a minority that more and more people have less and less respect for, and even less inclination to be a part of. We are called to minister to the least, the last, and the lost – of which the number continues to grow. Our world needs hope. Our Church used to be in the hope business. Jesus still is.

There is no shortage of people who need saved from despair, pain, and hopelessness. They are rural and urban alike. But we DO have a shortage of professed Christians who are willing to ditch their own politics and partisan theology and go tell people that they are children that God loved and cherished since the day that they were born.

The reality is that there aren’t just two sides. This world and the people in it represent a multifaceted reality that needs hope, love, grace, and peace. We don’t have to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The question is: what are we willing to give up that is a stumbling block to those who are already stumbling? Are we willing to jump into the fray rather than take a side in it?

“They will know we are Christians…”

Pax,
Sky+

Abbey of Gethsemini
Season after the Epiphany, February 2017

Monday, November 07, 2016

Being Binary in a Quantum World

Since I've been alive, I've heard this phrase every four years: "This is the most important election ever." After considering 240 years of American history, I think it's safe to say this: that's a cart full of horse apples. Yet in the process, I am viewing the most heinous behavior between otherwise peaceful and loving people in this election. And while I have no scientific studies to back this up, the number of domestic and church-related interpersonal conflicts is way, way up. We are behaving badly in this election year. And in my denomination of the United Methodist Church, we are also behaving badly. I wish General Conference years didn't coincide with U.S. election years - I think it just heightens the rhetoric and toxic behavior.

It seems that we are stuck in an either/or, on/off, 0/1 model of behavior. You're either for me/us or against me/us. You're either Democrat or Republican. You're either ______ or ______.

There are fundamental problems with this. It's not Christian. It's not good science. This way of thinking is evidently not just wrong, it's toxic to us as human beings.

It's not Christian. Both scripture and Christian make it plain that we are to be in the world but not of the world. Counter-cultural. Radical. Followers of another way. Being lukewarm is the way of the world. Our "yes" is to be the yes of the way of Jesus - the True Way. It confounds worldly logic, and it won't get you elected to office. It might even lose you friends and family. Jesus was pretty clear about that.

It's not good science. We don't live in a binary creation - we live in a quantum creation. Already, scientists are working on quantum computing, where a bit of information can be a 1, a 0, or BOTH at the same time. Subatomic particles - the most basic parts of our creation - act this way.

Of course this way of thinking is threatening, because it's messy. But messy is reality: life is messy. Relationships are messy. Church is messy. I suspect that's why Jesus wore a towel instead of carrying a briefcase. Our decision-making as Christians has to be built upon a quantum model instead of a binary model, lest we be worldly Christians instead of heavenly ones.

Scientist Niels Bohr said, "If it does not boggle your mind, you understand nothing." But I think the prophets and apostles said as much long before Niels Bohr. Our best wisdom is - at best - foolishness to God. It's just not as simple as either/or.

We live in a both/and world. God, creation, and science seem to agree with that. Shouldn't we be in sync with these things, rather than our own creations? We are made in God's image, not the other way around.

Pax,
Sky+






Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I'm Going to Chicago. It's Okay if You're Not.

I read an intriguing commentary by David Brooks this morning, talking about the social divide in the United States and how it is affecting politics. I think Brooks is spot-on, and I would argue that such could apply to the United Methodist Church as well. Issues comes to the forefront that divide the Church; old coalitions fall apart and new ones emerge. It's been happening in the Christian Church since (at least) 1054. When we can't handle "the way things are," we split. A liberal estimate is that there are over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world (source: World Christian Encyclopedia). A conservative estimate is that there are 217 (Hartford Institute for Religion Research).

We Christians are clearly not of one mind. Evidently, on many things.

So much is presently being made of the Wesleyan Covenant Association - from the hashtag "#seeyouinChicago" to "stay away - they're conservatives/homophobes/bigots starting a new denomination." The UMC has had affinity groups, caucuses, and the like for a long time. People of like mind and labor need a place to be nurtured and to share burdens in a safe place. There's nothing wrong with that. I pray the WCA stays true to its stated purpose

I fear that our fear of the unknown is causing us to demonize "the other." And, unfortunately, the years of our General Conference meetings coincide with presidential election cycles in the U.S. My hunch is that the rhetoric from each feeds our fervor to act out of our fears instead of our faith. If we do have a called General Conference in a couple of years, I may lobby to change our quadrennial meetings to get off the same cycle as U.S. presidential elections.

Today, in both the media and the blogosphere, the United Methodist Church is mainly known more for its extremes rather than its reality - just like U.S. politics. Extremes make the most noise, a few key names are the best known, and our machinery works much like U.S. politics: "insiders" and lobbyists make a lot of the key decisions, dictate a lot of our direction, decides what legislation will see the light of day, and who will preside over what. The political side of the Church can be just as distasteful as American politics and can be made up of elites who use and abuse power as well as any political lobbyist or power broker. I openly confess that sin, since I'm a part of it.

I can attest first-hand about church politics - I've been there and "are" there. Between being a district superintendent and being a former episcopal candidate (who wasn't elected), I can tell you that both are humbling and enlightening. Imagine reading this about yourself from one of the "bishop voter guides" that was circulated (which, in theory, don't exist per Southeastern Jurisdiction covenant):
7. Sky McCracken (Memphis) (Discipleship #4) An Institutionalist. Orthodox. He will seek to negate controversy, quieten situations rather than resolving disobedience. Good leader as a DS, leading various discipleship training sessions himself and demonstrating a passion for his district and his work. He is participant in SLI (Spiritual Leadership Institute) a group favored by Jorge Acevedo. Very likeable personally, not a charismatic speaker. Was endorsed by TN conference also in 2012. A nice guy, but seems to lack boldness or strength in today’s context.
I ranked 7th in this particular guide. I may or may not be some or all of those things (I can be as non self-aware as the next person). There is one factual mistake: I wasn't endorsed by the TN Conference - or any other conference - four years ago. But when (a) something hits print, (b) "people are saying," and (c) so forth and so on... it becomes the Gospel to some. We so easily pigeonhole folks and make folks in the image we want and need them to be. We desperately need there to be an either/or, us/they, or good/bad. U.S. politics works like this, and, unfortunately, church politics works like this, and at times much worse. In fact, I had one gentleman, a leader in his church who is also an elected official in state government, tell me, "There's no politics like church politics." It wasn't a compliment.

The beauty of being a former episcopal candidate is that you can speak with a little more freedom afterwards. So, after a few months of thought, here goes:

Just like most of America and Congress, most United Methodists aren't really represented at the table. There is a vast middle who isn't represented. Before he was a bishop, Bill McAlilly spoke to this at General Conference 2004:
There’s another group in our denomination, some of whom are delegates here; others who are faithful United Methodists who are not represented nor identified with any coalition. We are, as Bishop Coyner wrote a few years ago, “the Methodist middle.” We are not organized and have no other agenda, save offering Christ to a hurting world. This group includes women, men, children, youth, lay, and clergy, maybe even a couple of bishops. 
 Together with those of differing viewpoints, faithfully serving United Methodist churches, we serve small, medium, large churches. We serve in agencies. We serve throughout the church. We teach Sunday school. We serve in food pantries, clothes closets. We build Habitat houses and serve worldwide through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. We have a passion for evangelism, and we seek to lift up Christ to persons who are hurting and who are lost and who need the grace of Jesus Christ. 
 However, more often than not we are silent; and perhaps that is our sin. Silent as other voices speak. Perhaps we’re gripped by fear, fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as the opposition. Fear that we are incapable of preventing our church from being pulled apart at the seams... I pray that we can find a way to hold the tension of the opposites; and I would submit to this body that if those of us in the middle can contain those on both sides of the equation, we might be able to find the unity for which we seek. Thank you. - Daily Christian Advocate, Friday, May 7, 2004.
These are the folks who aren't present when Good News, the Confessing Movement, Love Prevails, Reconciling Ministries Network, or the Wesleyan Covenant Association meets. They're often not elected to General Conference. These are the vast majority of the people called United Methodists. Most are laity. They may not be in large churches, they may not have a big name pastor, and they may not be the largest monetary contributors in the denomination, but they are the servants and disciples in and out of most of the pews in America. And they, just like the extremes, are shrinking in number because of one common denominator in our denomination: a failure to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Not members. But disciples. And, I hate to break this to the extremists out there, but if the UMC does split into two or more parts, these churches will still open their doors and have Sunday School and worship on the following Sunday.  

If the ultimate fix was to decide once and for all about same-sex marriage, and who can/can't be ordained, logic says that either the Southern Baptists or the Episcopalians should be growing like gangbusters, since both have definitively answered that question. And yet - both are still in decline.

We're not making disciples. Period. And it STILL isn't a priority to our General Conferences. The most passion I've seen at a General Conference was in May when my own bishop was accused of telegraphing how to vote on issues by one delegate and publicly shamed and asked to be removed as presider by another. In short: the most passion generated was by distrust and violence, not a shared concern that we're not making disciples or reaching the neighborhoods where our churches are located.

What do people in the middle do? Contrary to popular belief, being in the middle doesn't mean "lukewarm." Quite frankly, it takes a lot more nerve and guts to place yourself in the middle than to "pick a side," (see an older blog for an expansion on this thought). Our frantic need to pick a side in United Methodism is at best insular, and at worst idolatry. Our frantic need SHOULD be, at least in this season of our church's life: How can we make disciples? Who are we not meeting in society who desperately needs Jesus? How did we lose our Wesleyan way of being evangelical AND sacramental, and instead turn them into labels and dirty words? And how in the hell did we allow General Conference to become like a political caucus event instead of a gathering of Christians worshiping together and trying to figure out how to best proclaim the mission (and Great Commission) of the Kingdom and the UMC?

The middle is where Jesus was. Often. And ultimately, between two others on a cross. 

Do I have strong beliefs? I sure do. In full transparency, here they are:
  • Rebaptism. Don't do it. Ever. We stray, but God stays.
  • Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It happened. People in the 1st century knew enough science to know the difference between dead and alive, and such survived through great scrutiny. Believing otherwise is like believing we really didn't land on the moon. Conspiracy theories just don't carry much weight or stand the test of time.
  • Abortion. We were knit together in our mother's womb and are fearfully and wonderfully made. There are a few medical exceptions for sure, but as birth control and a premeditated act to end life? No.
  • Capital punishment. Can't subscribe to it. It's a premeditated action to end a life. Jesus made his feelings on it fairly clear. Life without parole? I can support that.
  • Holy Communion. We should do it every Sunday. It was standard church practice for 1600 years. Wesley said do it often. It's the sustaining sacrament of grace. Would you tell your child that you're only going to hug them once a month so it will be more special when it happens?
  • A lot more of the sin of gluttony happens at pot luck dinners and Emmaus Walks under the guise of "hospitality" then does when a few folks have a beer or two at a local pub or restaurant.
  • As a denomination, we have been inconsistent on biblical hermeneutics where marriage, divorce, and our views of sexuality are concerned. Of this I am sure: we baptize, ordain, and license sinners every year.
  • It shouldn't be so damned hard to become a United Methodist pastor. And local/non-itinerating pastors should be ORDAINED, not LICENSED. You license someone to fish and hunt. The Church ordains the baptized to specific tasks in the Church. Plus, ordination is a gift from and tool of the church, not a right conferred upon one's merit and education. 
  • I fully support the ordination of women. When I became a DS, we had one retired female pastor serving as an associate in the district. We have a dozen female pastors now. I can back such up with scripture (Romans 16). Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and some United Methodists obviously disagree with me, but it's clear (to me) that Phoebe was a deacon, not a deaconess. According to another letter Paul wrote, the women at one particular church had no business teaching or preaching. According to another letter, Paul didn't think ANYBODY at Galatia had any business teaching and preaching until they learned that they starting living the true Gospel, where we are one in Christ Jesus (male and female included).
  • I could go on...

I've yet to serve a church where everyone was with me 100% on the above. The district I presently serve isn't 100% on board with me on these things. The important thing is this: they don't HAVE to be with me. And, I'm fairly certain, they don't necessarily feel LED to be. I could argue every one of these things from a cogent biblical and theological rationale. But the REAL point should be: I don't create the church I pastor; I am to pastor the church AND THE COMMUNITY where I'm sent. So I listen to people who want to be rebaptized (it doesn't mean I will do it). I engage in conversation with people who don't believe in a literal resurrection. I counsel women who have been through abortions to find healing and peace. I listen to and respect people who feel differently about capital punishment. I don't act unilaterally and tell churches, "I don't care what you think, we're going to have communion every Sunday." And I know some folks show their best love thru food and hospitality. The point is: it's not about me. It's about Jesus and the Body of Christ. The churches who do some of the best work in discipleship, mission, addiction recovery, and hands-on work with the poor are all over the board when it comes to political and social beliefs and embraces. A homogenous church we are not. Nor are we called to be. Nor will we ever be.

So, at General Conferences since 1992, I've gone to MFSA luncheons. I've shared meals with RMN supporters, Good News board members, and Confessing Movement supporters. I'm going to Chicago in October to hear what happens at the Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting, and I will fellowship, worship, and pray with folks I know and don't know.

That same weekend, I'm also planning to go to Chicago Temple UMC to worship on Sunday as my brother (not by blood, but in every other sense of the word) Johnny Jeffords and Myron McCoy do a pulpit swap. My brother Johnny who serves a church that advocates for GLBTQ folks, yet observes and struggles with the current covenant of being United Methodist. My brother who helped organize my running for bishop because he believed in me instead of my preferences and stances, and pushed me on days I didn't feel like doing what needed to be done. My brother that, despite our differences - or because of our differences - I choose to share mutual struggles with as we try to lead people to Christ in a church and society that often seems against us.

All of this doesn't mean we don't need doctrinal standards, shouldn't expect higher standards for our leadership, or that we don't need denominational distinctiveness. But it also doesn't mean we don't try to seek a common sense of unity and covenant - because we should. But we Methodists have been divided for a long time. John and Charles Wesley often disagreed. So did Wesley and George Whitfield. So did Wesley and Francis Asbury. And we split into thirds during the Civil War and didn't come back together until 1939 (how'd that work for us, by the way?). And we may end up splitting again, though this time it could potentially be into thirds, fourths, or even fifths. I pray everyday that we don't.

I am about as orthodox of a Methodist as you can get, on just about all matters. And I don't mind addressing conflict and leading churches and people toward being faithful and fruitful as disciples. But if sticking a label on myself becomes a moniker that prevents me from engaging the least, the last, and the lost - I don't want it anymore than I want a millstone around my neck. I've spent enough time around the Nones and Dones to know that they don't care about the things that the UMC seems to prioritize right now. They want to know if I love them. And they're waiting to see if I'm really a follower of Jesus or a 21st century version of a Pharisee. 

If making disciples of Jesus Christ isn't our #1 concern, then we have indeed become the dead, lifeless, esoteric sect Wesley feared we could become. And, since I believe that there is a Judgment - I will one day have to answer for that. I doubt that picking a side will be enough.

I don't know the answer to our conflicts and woes, but I pray for a miracle through the Holy Spirit. I still believe in them.

Pax,
Sky+