Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sabbath at General Conference - Breathe Deep

Yesterday was a difficult day for General Conference folks. Feelings of frustration, defeat, anger, sorrow - the emotions that discourage us and demotivate us and demoralize us and de-whatever else us. Times like these remind us that prayer is ever more important and necessary - the prayer of listening and discernment. My friend Ken Carter said it well: we have to be vigilant about the realities of process, protest, and power - and frame every day with prayer.

I'm reminded of a song I heard Ed Kilbourne and Chris Hughes sing many years ago, written by Terry Taylor. We all need to sit, and breathe deep:
CHORUS: Breathe deep, breathe deep the breath of God
Breathe deep, breathe deep the breath of God

Politicians, morticians, Philistines, homophobes
Skinheads, Deadheads, tax evaders, street kids
Alcoholics, workaholics, wise guys, dim wits
Blue collars, white collars, warmongers, peaceniks

Suicidals, rock idols, shut-ins, dropouts
Friendless, homeless, penniless, depressed
Presidents, residents, foreigners, and aliens
Dissidents, feminists, xenophobes, and chauvinists (CHORUS)

Evolutionists, creationists, perverts, slum lords
Dead beats, athletes, Protestants, and Catholics
Housewives, neophytes, pro-choice, pro-life
Misogynists, monogamists, philanthropists, blacks and whites (CHORUS)

Po-lice, obese, lawyers, governments
Sex offenders, tax collectors, war vets, rejects
Atheists, scientists, racists, sadists
Biographers, photographers, artists and pornographers (CHORUS)

Gays and lesbians, demagogues and thespians
The disabled, preachers, doctors and teachers
Meat eaters, wife beaters, judges and juries
Long hairs, no hairs, everybody everywhere! (CHORUS)
- ©1992 Brainstorm Artists, Terry Taylor
May that be our prayer today - and everyday: Breathe deep - breathe deep the breath of God.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dog Tired and Weary

I have been sitting outside committee rooms for the past two days, and occasionally I walk into one to listen in on conversations and committee work. For the most part everyone is very gracious, even after long hours, but occasionally we get a little testy. I know that when I get tired, I am prone to being on edge and making hasty decisions. So today's prayer is a simple one:

O Gracious Father:
We your children are weary today.
Our bodies are tired, our eyes are cloudy,
our tempers are shorter, and smiles are difficult.
Give us strength to do the work ahead,
and give us grace to do it grace-fully.
We love you.
Remind us to be loving, as we are loved.
In Jesus' name. Amen.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Legacy and Relationships

Throughout my life, I have been intentional about making relationships with those older than me. My parents grew up in Kansas, and growing up I only saw relatives once or twice a year, so I had a lot of surrogate uncles, aunts, and grandparents in Tennessee to help raise me. I am indebted to all of them.

I have attended 6 General Conferences, and served as a reserve delegate at two of them. Over the years I have met a lot of wonderful people, and I know many of you know these folks better than me:
  • Hoyt Hickman, a former General Board of Discipleship worship resource director, is an Order of St. Luke brother and sponsored me for life vows in the Order. I can't begin to tell you how many people he introduced me to at General Conferences over the years.
  • Yesterday David Reed introduced me to Nan Self - the first General Secretary of COSROW and a living legend - and today we enjoyed wonderful conversation around a table as I heard wonderful stories and testimonies of her ministry.
  • I saw Maxie Dunnam at a break, and we had a wonderful conversation. Maxie encouraged me when I was ordained and joined the Memphis Conference, and still encourages me today. Any of you who know Maxie know what it is like to be "Maxied" - that smile, hug, and his kind words are always a blessing.
  • And I was blessed to share lunch with Tom Albin from the Upper Room. When Tom prays, you've been in conversation with the Lord.
If you know any of these folks, you know they differ in theology and practice of ministry. You also know how much they love the Lord. I can't begin to tell you how much I have grown in faith and had my call to discipleship shaped by these and other wonderful souls. Such are the blessings of our very diverse but wonderful church, and they are hopeful signs for the future of our church.

But I'm also benefitting from relationships with younger people. I mentored Ben Stilwell-Hernandez as a candidate for ministry many years ago - a young man who overcame a hearing disability, did VIM work in Puerto Rico, learned Spanish, and ended up going to seminary there. He now pastors a multi-ethnic congregation in Florida. I told one too many stories about "young Ben" and he paid me a backhanded compliment that I thoroughly deserved: "Sky was the first pastor I ever heard say the words '%@$#' and '&!£.'" After everyone at the lunch table broke up (during which I said a quick prayer of repentance), he clarified, "He was real, and I needed real." And I was most honored. Ben, and other young pastors like him, are also hopeful signs for the future of our church.

I wrote a blog about four years ago (click here) that talked about legacy and how we stand on the shoulders of giants, and I am thinking about the Methodist leaders who have helped us get this far. Yet their ability to lead us came from their willingness to be led by Jesus and be real -and being thus led sometimes took them down difficult paths for the sake of the Kingdom. Their legacy inspires us - and also nudges us to do the same. Our prayer is the only check-and-balance we have to be sure that we are doing God's will rather than our own, and be willing to go wherever God directs us.

Almighty God:
When we pray, we sometimes talk too much.
We want to tell you what we want,
we want to ask you for this and that,
we want you to act in such-and-such situation.
We monopolize the conversation and don't let you get a word in edgewise.
Forgive us, O Lord.
Remind us that by your design you gave us two ears to hear and only one mouth to speak.
Help us to know that to pray is to listen:
to you,
to others,
to ourselves,
And that by doing so, we find your will for us.
In Jesus' name. Amen.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?... Or Kansas City?

I have been present for most of the plenary sessions and a few of the legislative ones (I am a first reserve delegate). I have also tried to keep myself abreast of all the Facebook and Twitter feeds. I must say... there is a lot of hostility and fear out there.

Adam Hamilton got up and spoke eloquently and pointedly about the state of our denomination and current trends. While actuaries are hard to argue with, some of us can still place our heads in the sand and argue semantics, stances, and make horrible generalizations about those we don't really know that well. Adam got hammered tonight by many - and in the end, I was very sad. I don't think Adam is Jesus (and I don't think Adam thinks he is, either). But because he is a "megachurch pastor", some seem to equate that with being the anti-Christ.

Is this how we speak of fellow Christians? Fellow Methodists? Whatever happened to, "Whoever is not against us is for us?" Whether you agree with him or not... he poured his heart out. Those that disagree could simply say, "I disagree." But much of what I witnessed and read on Twitter feeds and Facebook postings were less than civil. They certainly were not our best.

So I pray that we might be tolerant - even with those whom we do not agree. I do not think God is pleased with our snide remarks and snarky posts. Is this our best for the Lord? Have we become those in the Temple that Jesus had to drive out?

Almighty God,
Forgive us when we can't agree to disagree agreeably.
Forgive us our pride and our arrogant presumption.
When we want to label the other side "bad", remind us that
the log in our own eye blinds us to our own iniquities.
Help us to see our brothers and sisters as blood kin,
related by the blood of Jesus.
Before we cast our votes and opinions, help us to weigh them
by your love, wisdom, and grace,
and by doing so we may know what is right and faithful.
We pray in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.


One Shoe Over the Line... or The Shoe Is On the Other Foot

Very early this morning David and I went to the Nashville airport. I checked one suitcase, and it weighed 1 pound too much to be stowed without a $50 surcharge. So I did what any sane person would do: I took out a packed shoe and put it into my carry-on. My suitcase went to the magical weight of 49 pounds. All is good. A minor hiccup at best.

The first day of General Conference is in many ways enchanting; old acquaintances renewed, new acquaintances made - and David and I were very intentional about embracing opportunities to meet new folks (difficult for an introvert like me). That included people who were not like me: not just black folks or folks from the Pacific Northwest, but people who spoke different languages and come from radically different cultures. The language of Jesus certainly binds us together, but our differences made for some very humorous and challenging conversations.

This evening, one of the reports about future General Conferences was the possibility of having a General Conference outside the United States (possibly 12 years from now). It got me to thinking - what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if *I* were a delegate in another country? What if *I* were the one who needed a translator? Traveling abroad is disorienting (at least to me) - and I bet it is to others as well.

What it has enforced in me is a need not just to adjust so that those from other countries might understand me better, but to adjust so that those who are from my OWN country - those who don't know the language of Jesus - might understand better, too. We have never lived in an age where the tools of communication were as available as they are now. But without relationships, and the willingness to foster them, the tools are just gadgets.

Fostering relationships, especially with cultures radically different than our own, will force us to deal with differences that might challenge our notions about inclusivity and justice - and we American United Methodists might have to face the fact that we might not be as truly inclusive as we claim to be. The task for us is this: can we value our differences? Can we yield to love and grace? Can we sacrifice our comfort and wishes? The truth is, our worth and value comes from being God's children, not by what others might think or say. I suspect we may have to learn to quit trying to force everyone else to agree with us (or me). We might also find our differences really aren't as big as we think they are.

Perfect love casts out fear. Maybe a good way to open a General Conference would be to spend two days in spiritual renewal, growth, and direction - together, not apart. Without being clear about the direction God is leading us, we might take any path to get to anywhere, instead of where God is leading us to be.

Almighty God:
Your agape love is far beyond what we can comprehend.
You love us when we are lovable and unlovable.
When we are busy making distinctions in others, you call all of us "beloved."
As we approach the work of your Kingdom this day,
  may we be less about using rules and be more willing to live under your rule.
May our fears of the unknown be replaced with the willingness to embrace change:
  Change of hearts,
  Change of will,
  Change of order,
  Change of souls.
We know we are far from perfect, but that you are far from being finished with us, too.
Replace our need to be right with our need to be faithful,
  and find us faithful, O God.
In Jesus' name. Amen.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Journey to General Conference

From the movie "The Way Back"
In some ways, journeying is not the ordeal it once was. I am making the 830-mile trek from Paducah, Kentucky, to Tampa, Florida, for the next two days. Tonight a fellow delegate, David Reed, and I drove to Nashville, and early in the morning we'll board a plane to Tampa. It's a relatively easy journey.

But as recent as 100 years ago, such a journey would be an ordeal and a half. I imagine the bulk of the trip would have been by train, and at the (then) average of 20 mph, it would have been a long trip - a trip marked by days, not hours. But such a trip would not have been all misery: a lot of meals shared, opportunities to view vast countrysides and towns, and conversations with those known and unknown would have led to good times and great memories. By contrast, today we can travel relatively quickly and in near obscurity: I once flew armed with an advanced boarding pass and an iPhone with my earbuds plugged in, and I didn't have to speak to a soul from the time I parked my car until the time I called for a hotel shuttle to pick me up at the airport.

I fear that we have adopted a similar manner of faith in today's church: for the remnant of us who are still followers of Christ, we are doing an extremely poor job of making disciples of Christ. In short, we are keeping our earbuds on, listening to our own song, following our itinerary as we see fit, and making it about me and Jesus. All my Southern Baptist friends in high school always told me growing up, "You gotta have a personal relationship with Jesus." I think they were 1/2 right. Unfortunately, such narcissism has helped us get into the shape we're in now... and Southern Baptists are losing members now, just like us Methodists.

We Christians have, for the most part, become very "surface" when it comes to faith, and as a result have virtually nothing to give when it comes to one-on-one relationships and faith sharing. This has become evident in the last two weeks with two faith encounters; one with an old friend and one with a new friend I made today.

My old friend was a former colleague that I worked with in a local church; after nearly 40 years in ministry, he told his story; not the story we preachers often edit to tell others and be "preachable," but the WHOLE story. It was inspiring. It was painful. It was intimate. It made him extremely vulnerable. It was full of confession and repentance. It also shared the good news of forgiveness and redemption. I left feeling awed, inspired, and convicted that we Christians have GOT to learn how to tell our stories.

Tonight, as David and I journeyed to Nashville, we stopped at the home of someone he had wanted me to meet for a long time.  My new friend's experiences, particularly in men's ministries, are deep and wide, and have furthered his own convictions about our need as discipleship to grow in the areas of telling our faith stories and showing the world, in ways simple and difficult, how much God loves us.

We who claim Christ as Savior are all on a great journey, a quest if you will, and where it will take us only God knows. There are no guarantees of being spared hardship or peril. But like any journey, there are wonderful opportunities along the way: those we meet on the way, the sharing of meals and conversation, the adventure of it all.

What if we were to come to General Conference not as delegates and observers with preconceived notions and mandates, but as fellow travelers on a journey of faith - seeking to make relationships with one another, practicing faith-sharing, and making ourselves vulnerable? Daring to risk intimacy with fellow Christians? Having the audacity to confess and repent of our sins?

I would encourage us to embrace these opportunities on our journey these next two weeks. Pray about hearing and knowing those around us. Dare to think about how we might tell others our own faith story. Be intentional about your actions matching what we would want to tell the world about Jesus Christ.

There is much to do at General Conference, and I have written often about structure, discipleship, order, and hosts of other things. But the main thing is, it's all about Jesus: crucified and resurrected. If what we do isn't about lifting that up and spreading that good news, it's all for naught.

Almighty God: 
During these next two weeks, help us practice and live our faith. 
Remove our need to politicize and caucus. 
Help us to renew old friendships and foster new ones - even those we disagree with the most. 
If we are given responsibility to vote or to lead, remind us that it is you who empowers us 
   and you that we serve.
If we are observing, help us pray for the truth rather than root for "our side." 
May our conferencing be Holy Conferencing instead of Unholy Maneuvering. 
And may our will be congruent to yours. 
In Jesus' name. Amen. 


Monday, April 02, 2012

Revisiting an Old Blog in Light of Call to Action

I wrote the blog below almost six years ago, partly in retrospect to being a jurisdictional delegate in years past, and I quoted Russ Richey and Tom Frank quite a bit in the years since then in my posts about bishops (click here to read more of them).

This past Sunday I met with two churches in the district I serve about right sizing in light of their pastor moving and some challenges regarding resources. I have their permission to "brag" on them about this - and it's a story worth telling.

It started out as a typical meeting between DS and PPR committees, with questions such as: what are you looking for in a new pastor, what kind of remuneration package can we set, what are your challenges, what preferences do you have - you get the idea. Finally, one member asked, "Look - we need to cut to the chase. Do we need to stay open? Do we need to close? Does the conference have a plan? What is the denomination doing?" He met my questions with much better questions. I (stupidly) said,"Well, we need to work together and find a good solution." That was met with, "Preacher, do you think any church would vote to close itself? If we need to close, you're our leader and you're gonna have to tell us." That provoked a lively discussion: are our leaders leading? These folks were saying, "No." And so I am leading them in finding a solution. These two churches are working wonderfully together; not to keep the churches open, but to actively make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. They are trusting me to lead them through this, and to make the final call. Part of me shakes to have that much responsibility. The other part reminds me that I am a vessel, a shepherd, a servant doing the will of the Master. I have to get over the false self of fear, and move on to discerning and living the truth. Some won't like it. Some will. Either of those things, however, are irrelevant, as this isn't an election: it's Kingdom work.

This conversation always gets me into trouble! The way we're supposed to "run" the church isn't according to a democracy: we're part of a Kingdom! And in our United Methodist tradition, we have bishops. Sort of (see the below discussion on episkopé and episkopoi).

I'm convinced that we Americans aren't very good at "take thou authority" because we see it as pushy, arrogant, or autocratic - the antithesis of one person/one vote. As a result, we have watered down leadership to the point where it is at best generic: it won't offend anyone, because nothing will be said or done. In trying to do no harm, I suspect we have caused great harm through our neglect of local churches and in the basics of our faith: making disciples.

I've heard every argument in the world for and against regarding the Call to Action for United Methodism. What I find ironic is that after lots of critique (and much of it merited) and complaints about our bishops NOT leading, they (and others) dared to cast a vision in an effort to help us go forward... and some folks are dead-set on sending it down in flames. I am sure some dismiss it BECAUSE it comes from the Council. Some say it is theologically weak, yet many of the arguments I've heard sound more like political rhetoric than honest critique (I guess it's the season we're in!). Some say it wasn't spiritually formed... which suggests that those who helped design it weren't (?). And some say there needs to be more strategy fleshed out, but I find myself wondering if ANY plan, super-documented and full of action plans, would have a prayer for these simple reasons: it's a change. We don't trust others. It's an unknown.

And so I repost an old blog so that we might support our present bishops and support those who might be elected bishops in the months to come. I am certainly prejudiced as a superintendent, being a representative of the office of bishop. But I also love the United Methodist Church, and believe she is of God. In praying for our leaders, let us pray about leadership itself, and how we might embody it!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I say Part 0.5… because this should have preceded my May 26th blog entry.

It strikes me as problematic that The Book of Discipline talks a lot about the praxis of the episcopacy yet says ZERO about the theological foundations of episcopacy. Worse, there are been virtually NO discussions in any medium regarding the ecclesiology of bishops. All of this became painfully obvious to me when I was a jurisdictional delegate in 2004.

Electing six bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction in 2004 was no easy task…as the record number of ballots to elect six certainly testified! My take on it was that we live in a Church and world so desperately crying out for leadership that we want to make the right decision. So, it appeared to me, we elected folks based (1) on “pedigree,” and (2) by racial and gender makeup. While we desperately need good leadership in a denomination living in such interesting times, I think we continue to expect a lot of our bishops without empowering them to the task.

Scholar Raymond E. Brown wrote about the distinction between episkopé and episkopoi. Episkopé has to do with oversight and function in the Church. Episkopoi is the actual office/person of a bishop. We say that our bishops have “general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church,” (¶45, Book of Discipline). But in actuality, if you read the Discipline and see how General Agencies and the General Conference works, most of the oversight (and certainly agents of change) occurs there rather than by the bishops. Unlike Catholicism, the General Conference - not the episcopacy - is the magisterium in United Methodism. And if you’ve ever been to General Conference, you realize quickly that caucuses and lobbies often help influence and carry the vote. In short, the UMC is a democratic body… hopefully led by the Spirit, but democratic nonetheless. Our episkopé, it seems, is the General Conference and General Agencies. The episkopoi that we elect are relegated to be administrative heads and executive officers.

Is it fair, then, to expect them to be agents of change when we don’t even give them a vote? Make no mistake, the power to appoint pastors is no small thing, but even when a bishop ordains ministerial candidates, they have absolutely no say about who they ordain: that’s the conference Board of Ministry’s job. The list goes on and on. Should we really be nominating and electing our best leaders and prophets, or elect our best administrators and organizers instead? We’ve elected some really talented folks, but I think the episcopal office as present in the UMC stifles the very gifts that got them nominated and elected in the first place.

It’s really not surprising in United Methodism that we don’t give bishops more authority; the UMC is mostly an American church, and America loves its individualism and democracy. America also likes to have someone “in charge” to blame. Is it possible that we set bishops up just as we do CEO’s of corporations? If we're doing well and succeeding, great: we’ll keep paying you and giving you your status. But if things are going wrong, it’s your fault – and we can point our collective finger at you and blame you; after all, you’re our leader. We may not give you enough authority and power to do anything, but hey, that’s why you get the big bucks.

To quote one excellent source: “Bishops have no program and propose no legislation. They do not appoint heads of administrative agencies and have limited powers of nomination. They have few sanctions at their disposal, and certainly no right to fire the people they work with. [They have no] legislative or judicial authority.” (Richey and Frank, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, p. 96).

Why in the heck would you want this job? Do elected bishops know what’s in front of them before they are consecrated? And do we as a Church have any idea what we’re doing (or not doing) when we lay hands on someone and consecrate them to the office?

It’s possible that we’ve given our bishops an impossible task. We live in a time when the Church is crying out for leadership… but are we giving our bishops the tools to do it?

Sometime, I’ll post another blog with some strategies and proposals.


We should all be indebted to Russell Richey and Thomas Frank for their book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition – Perspectives and Proposals. I hope the Church appreciates and ponders their gift to us, and hope that Dean Richey and Tom will forgive me if I confused my own thoughts with theirs and didn’t footnote properly (yes, I’m still scared of my former seminary professors).