Thursday, April 12, 2018

Inventing/Re-Inventing/ReRe-Inventing Orthodoxy: It's Like Deja Vu All Over Again

My beloved United Methodist Church finds itself at a "place" that many other Christian movements, denominations, etc., have found itself at sometime or another (or even before): where shall we draw the line? To be sure, Methodists are no strangers to this; we've split, come together, and merged before.

So has Christianity. Many, many times. As shown below, splitting off to form another church/communion/denomination/movement is nothing new. It seems like every time there was an ecumenical council, the church split. And split. And split. And then there was the Big Split of 1054. And then another REALLY Big Split of 1517 (Protestant Reformation). And then in 1532 (beginnings of the Anglican Communion). And so on. And so forth.

The church that I presently serve is an awesome, awesome church. It made the decision years ago to remain downtown rather than move to the suburbs, because we believe there is much to be done here. Our church also has much history to it: we were the host (and sponsor) of a new denomination starting - the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. That came about from a question asked during the 1866 General Conference of the M.E. Church, South: "What shall be done to promote the religious interests of our colored members?" Four years later (December 16, 1870), forty-one former slave members met in the basement of the church I serve to start the CME Church. UMC and CME folks have told me that this is something to be proud of - and I am thankful for the generosity shown by our church members so many years ago. A state historical plaque in front of our church commemorates this piece of history. 

While there are things to celebrate about that, there are also terrible things to mourn. In the background of that plaque is our beautiful church building, with a painful reminder carved in stone below the pediment:

I see it every day. It is a painful reminder of our past - and a ever-present catalyst to get things right.

In the midst of our conflicts and talks of division in our denomination, some have said, "We are better together." Others have asked, "Are we really better together?" I think the real question, given time and history, is, "Are we any better than before?" And I don't mean the last fifty years.

Mandeanism. Gnosticism. Manicheanism. Arianism. The Filioque. Subtle and profound differences in theology and ecclesiology. Secular governance vs. theocracy. Clergy celibacy. Liturgical practices. Owning slaves. Birth control. Divorce. Female clergy. We Christians have evolved (or perhaps devolved) into what we are now by schism. In all of these issues across two millennia, all "sides" have argued that their positions are the correct, faithful, true, and "only" way. Each side (and there are always more than two) will argue that to do or change anything about that (whatever "that" is) is a compromise that people cannot in good conscience make. Sincerity and conviction are present on all of these sides.

In the midst of this I believe that one word needs to be stricken from our Protestant vocabulary: orthodox. I once applied it to myself as an "Orthodox Wesleyan," but I now realize that any Protestant using the word "orthodox" is - at best - using a bastardized definition of the term. Orthodox as compared to what? Catholics? Coptics? Eastern Orthodox? Early Reformed? Lutheran?

And when it comes to the current "hot topic," sexuality, what exactly is orthodox? The apostle Paul thought that the End was near, and shared with the church at Corinth that it's probably best "for a man not to touch a woman," but conceded that marriage might be better for some people. The Eastern Church allowed their clergy to marry, while the Western Church didn't... until the Reformation, in which Protestants (at first reluctantly) permitted clergy to marry. Later, in Protestant circles, singleness was viewed with suspicion (regardless of whether you were clergy or laity). Having children was encouraged ("be fruitful and multiply"), and in Protestant and Catholic circles alike birth control was neither discussed nor upheld by doctrine or precept, seen as in contradiction with Natural Law and the procreative purpose of marriage and sexuality. 

It wasn't until 1930 when the Anglican Communion decided (after much debate) to adopt a statement on birth control, that any Protestant entity had ever considered to remove procreation as the main component of marriage and sexuality: the statement read that birth control was permissible "when there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and when there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence." After that, laws were (slowly) changed that had previously prohibited any type of contraceptive education or the sales of any contraceptives. Seventy years later,  in 2004, Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention stated that, "Evangelical couples may, at times, choose to use contraceptives in order to plan their families and enjoy the pleasures of the marital bed." Whoa!

That is a far cry from the sexual ethic that prevailed for a long time in Protestantism, and still prevails in Catholicism: marriage, and the gift of sexuality, was created for procreation. I could go into a similar discussion about divorce, too: how did we evolve to the point where divorce became permissible? How many divorces can you get until it's wrong? 

To me, the question is less about the Church getting it right about just homosexuality, and more about having a faithful ethic of marriage and sexuality, period. What's orthodox? Who's right? Did Protestants leave the Catholic Church to suit themselves, or to be faithful? Did we change from marriage and sexuality being about procreation to "enjoy the pleasures of the marital bed" to suit ourselves, or to be faithful? Did we go from disallowing divorce to allowing divorce because of tragic situations to suit ourselves, or to be faithful? I think those are questions we'd rather not delve into... or we might find that our present arguments regarding sexuality might not hold water.

I have no easy answer to the latest challenge of the Church regarding sexuality. Quite frankly I'd rather get up and fight for the cause of discipleship and the lack of it we seem to have across our denomination. But this issue is not going to go away. For some folks, this has become a "Here I stand, I can do no other" moment... in which I find some irony. Martin Luther gave us the model to challenge orthodoxy and dogma. As one learned colleague of mine said, "Luther was right on some things... and he was wrong on some things." Depending on who you ask, anyway.

What I do know is that the scriptural and theological reasons we once gave before regarding sexuality and God's creation (i.e., being single being preferable, and being married for procreative purposes) seem to no longer apply. I think it will take us a long, long time to get all of this "right." I find little comfort in knowing that it took over 300 years for the church to formulate the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, and less comfort in knowing that even they led to schisms great and small.

I do wish we could be more patient and tolerant of each other. It seems the height of hubris to think that we as a United Methodist Church can get this right within 50 years. I am sure that people were convinced they were right 173 years ago, when in May of 1845 annual conferences throughout the South sent delegates to Louisville, Kentucky, where they formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Some folks were so convinced that they even carved those words in stone...

Are we really any better than we were 150 years ago? 200 years? 500 years? 1000 years? I am thankful that God is patient with us, because we are certainly not a patient people.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Why I'm Cynical About Politics

Today is MLK, Jr. Day. This quote (which is often misquoted) is the most poignant of his quotes: "In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." (from "The Trumpet of Conscience," Steeler Lecture, Nov. 1967).

My own experience with secular politics has not been good - and I find such continually at odds with the Christian faith. If politics is truly the art of the possible, I find our present state of politics getting an "F" where such is concerned. We are not living in a time of statesmen and stateswomen; we are living in a time of tribalism and intractability. Today's policy-makers are not concerned about the totality of the people they serve; they are concerned about winning over 50.1% of them and making lobbyists happy. It's an "us versus they" mentality. This is not acceptable.

Many are upset about our president's language regarding friends around the world. Whether he ever said it or not we'll never be sure. If he said it, it's reprehensible. Lord knows I can be as earthy with my language as anyone, but I don't use it in the pulpit and I certainly wouldn't label whole nations with such. And of course all presidents use profanity... but there are some places where some things simply shouldn't be said. The late Tony Randall probably says it as well as anyone in this game show clip:

I don't know that we'll ever know what our president said last Friday. But here is what I do know: our senators, representatives, and anyone else present in that room point to the most prevalent problem: they don't have our country's best interest in mind. Just themselves or their party.

If indeed our president said what he said, why didn't our "country's best" meet afterwards and say, hey, we've got a problem here, and we've got to work together to address it? And why do we have a couple of senators from each side of the aisle who agree that one thing happened, but two other senators who (at first) said, "I don't recall," but now say, "It didn't happen?" And a cabinet member this morning who, after being pushed by a Fox News reporter, finally said, "I understand the question, it was an impassioned conversation, I don't recall that particular phrase being used. That's all I can say about that."

Really?!? It only happened last Friday...

And if our president didn't say it, then shame on those fabricating that he did. Again... how will we ever know what was said? Who do we trust? Who can we trust?

To be sure, a lot of words are being said, but the silence of what's not being said is palpable. The complicity of silence from our friends who are supposed to have our best interests at heart is not being forgotten.

Leaders need to lead: not kibbutz, lie, waffle, say "I have no recollection of that," or play partisan politics. Until you do, the number of cynics will increase and our great country will continue to suffer.

In short, senators and representatives: some of us simply do not trust you - you being the collective YOU. You're going to have to work together to get some trust back.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Need For a Label

I wrote a blog a few years ago about labeling and pigeonholing others. I made the statement that "we [United Methodists] are a people of labels. In fact, I daresay that we are a people who are desperate to label others." I didn't have anyone disagree with me, but the blog didn't make a whole lot of noise - my hunch is, because it really wasn't news to anyone. I want to lift one paragraph out because it gets to the why of labeling - whether it be ourselves or others:
Labeling others becomes convenient (and expedient) because it spares us the harder work of initiating and fostering relationships. One fear of making relationships is that we're afraid of how we will be labeled if we are seen, or even perceived, of being with the "other." Guilt by association. Maybe it's because we know what happened to Jesus when he met the woman at the well, or went out to the lepers, or fellowshipped with people. "He is a drunkard and a glutton. I bet he cavorts with tax collectors and is a womanizer, too." More labels. I'm convinced our need to label is based on fear. - Me (10/1/14)
I'm not ruling out the psychology and the way we humans may be hard-wired. I remember just enough from my psychology degree to be dangerous, but Maslow's Hierarchy  has always stuck with me. Posted here is how Maslow theorized our hierarchy of needs. While there is debate about some of the ordering, I think the basics are probably pretty accurate. 

Where does our need to label others and ourselves fit in? I think it's pretty easy: psychological needs. We need to feel safe, we need to belong, we need prestige and respect. Understanding labels, those that we place on ourselves or on others, fits into our psychological needs toward being self-fulfilled. We want to be whole. We want to matter.

We're seeing this go into full-throttle application in the United Methodist Church. We already had plenty of labels, groups, caucuses, affinity groups - but with General Conference 2019 and the work of the Commission on the Way Forward, we're finding more labels and ways to align oneself. The newest: the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Uniting Methodists. Folks that I consider good friends and brothers and sisters are in both groups, as well as folks from The Confessing Movement, Good News, Reconciling Ministries Network, Methodist Federation for Social Action... and forgive me if I'm forgetting/leaving out some. 

My problem? I have to preach Sunday and I, along with our church's worship planning team, picked the Romans text (14:1-12) as the focus for Sunday. It reads:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God." 
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
The annotation in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) reads, "14.1-23 Love Respects the Scruples of Others." I couldn't help but chuckle... and it's been sermon block ever since. I usually try to have the sermon done by Tuesday or Wednesday. $%&@ !

I'm certainly not naive about the UMC, and I know this is nothing new; we have from within our communion profound areas of disagreement. But it seems that we have a NEED to separate ourselves beyond food taboos or feast days: Tens of different caucuses and interest/affinity groups, paired with siloed General Church agencies and organizations, along with 26+ different statuses for clergy... we set ourselves UP for dissent and labeling. It seems that we thrive on it. It's quite possibly the United Methodist original sin: who do you belong to? Where are you from? Which side are you on? Approaching "the other" with suspicion is hardly Christian, and certainly not an effective evangelism or discipleship practice.

All of this contrary to the mysteries of the Christian faith and notion of Christian community. Certainly contrary to discipleship and making disciples: which "community" do we ask people to join? And do folks want to join a denomination that looks a lot like the U.S. political landscape?

Why have unity across the whole church? Paul's read of it was that the Christ, the Messiah, died and lived again to be the Lord of all. Why isn't that enough?

It might be that simple.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Let's Pray About It

I've had some folks ask me, "Well, are you be glad to be back doing 'real ministry?'" My response has been, "I never stopped." Others (mostly United Methodists) will say, "Well, you know there's nothing more 'ex-' than being an ex-District Superintendent." I guess some people think that way, but I never really saw becoming a DS as "having arrived" - to me, it's more of a ministry shift than a change in ministry hierarchy. The thing I get asked the most, both from clergy and laity alike: "How's the 'honeymoon' going?" That one's easy: I don't think there's been a "honeymoon" phase to pastoral ministry for 10+ years, and the admonition of "don't change anything for a year" is fool's advice. The urgency of the Gospel and the season we find ourselves in doesn't lend itself to honeymoons or break-in periods. We hit the ground running and build bridges while walking across them.

So... what's the most important thing to do in this season of change and urgency? Amidst strategies and visioning processes, it had all best begin with - and be bathed with - prayer. Prayer is where we have to start. Effective change without prayer will not work. As church researcher and trend analyst Thom Rainer said a few years ago, "I have never seen successful and sustaining change take place in a church without prayer. Never. Not once."

I don't mean prayer as in the trite response we sometimes give when confronted with adversity or tragedy, i.e., "Let's just pray about it." Prayer is not a list of needs and desires, but rather  communication with God. We need to stop and pray, and as with all communication we are usually better off to speak less and listen more. Our prayers can easily become one-sided conversations in which we talk so much God cannot get a word in edgewise. Praying helps us hear and know what God might be saying to us, rather than what we might want, need, think, or say.

For the past several years, Jackson First UMC has been undergoing a long-range, strategic planning process to help us envision the future. One thing that businesses, organizations, and churches are notorious for doing is failing to implement such plans. I believe the time has come for us to move from our plan toward casting a vision and implementing that plan. Already identified are the primary areas of focus for our church: Communication, Mission, Worship, and Discipleship.

How do we live into this new direction and change? Prayer. If we want to change the world and change the downtown area of Jackson, we first have to see what we need to change about ourselves! The question we need to continually ask ourselves about everything we do as a church: How does this help us make disciples of Jesus Christ?

That's not just the mission of Jackson First UMC. That's the Great Commission!


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).


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...


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.


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…”


Abbey of Gethsemini
Season after the Epiphany, February 2017