Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Living in a Post-Denominational World

You’ve probably heard the word postmodern. While I could give you a definition, it probably wouldn’t do us much good because I believe we are now living in a POST postmodern world. Some call it post-millennialism or metamodernism. For sure: we have become much more intensely fragmented and individualistic as a society than ever before. It interests sociologists because they yearn to know more about (1) who we are, and (2) how we arrived here. It confounds political scientists, politicians, and political parties because the delineation of what a “Democrat” and a “Republican” is no longer easily identifiable and has no steady platform (much to the chagrin of party leaders and politicians). And, more to my context, it frustrates church and denominational leaders because denominational labels may or may not accurately describe the adherents within. While there once used to be a few “rebels” in every denominational crowd, you’d have to work awfully hard to stand out now, because we’re all over the place. 

Because they are the denominations I know the most about, consider: 

·      What is your average Southern Baptist, person-in-the-pew’s beliefs and practices? Well, it depends.

·      What are your average United Methodist beliefs and practices? Well, it depends.

·      What is your average ______________ beliefs and practices? Well… you get the idea.


That’s just in the United States. Consider a wider worldview: I’ve been to Methodist, Church of Ireland/Anglican, and Catholic churches to worship in Ireland and England. They are very different from their counterparts in other parts of the world (and I should point out that there are significant differences between Irish and English churches in each of those traditions).


It might be fair to say that we are of SIMILAR mindset where the Body of Christ is concerned. But we find some mighty differences in places far and near. Often, two United Methodist churches in the same town may find themselves at vast variances with each other in beliefs and practices.


When it comes to denominations, annual conferences, and local churches: how and where will ultimate decisions be made about how a church organizes itself, how it identifies itself, and how it lives out its faith? Like it or not: it won’t be made by clergy, lay leaders, annual or general conferences, synods, or conventions. It will be made by people in the pews. The people who attend from Sunday to Sunday. The people who put themselves and their resources into the church offerings. The people who will vote not by a show of hands or marking a ballot, but by their feet. 


They don’t care what an institution or even a local church votes to do, because we are in a post-postmodern society that values institutions less and local opinion (namely, “me”) more. You don’t like the President, Governor, or member of Congress who is elected, you can simply say, “Not my president,” “I didn’t vote for them,” or “The vote was rigged.” That’s not my conjecture, that’s the present reality.


We American Christians, particularly we Protestant ones, may have to admit something similarly about Christianity: we are living in a post-denominational time. People have more affinity to the people they know in their Sunday School classes and the small groups that they choose to belong to than their church’s doctrine and beliefs. The words conservative and liberal have started to lose their definition and power as some who claim those words to describe themselves are not the definitions we once had for them. Even the words “traditional,” “orthodox,” and “contemporary,” are not helpful or even accurate. 


Institutional, dyed-in-the-wool United Methodists – as well as those who are not – are worrying and strategizing about a schism or split in the church. However, as the world has gotten smaller by improved (and sometimes inaccurate) information, gotten more complicated and political by a pandemic and the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, the impending split means less and less to the most important people in the church: the people in the pew. Their priorities – the people in the pew’s priorities - are not the priorities of the clergy or laity in power. The sooner clergy and laity in power recognize this, the better. Our privilege doth speakest too much.


My unofficial research in this has happened in the area of the Three B’s: Bible studies, Ballgames, and Bars. Most folks love Jesus, but they are suspicious of church and church institutions. They don’t trust conferences or caucuses. The very folks who are in the midst of church conflict, those who are championing whatever cause, are the very same folks that nominal and skeptical Christians view with suspicion and distrust. Even Jesus warned us to be aware of those who practice their piety in front of others.


What would I do in the case of United Methodists? I’d suggest starting local and working our way up instead of starting at the top and working our way down. Institutional mistrust, demonizing of individuals in leadership positions, “cancel culture” and “bumper sticker culture" will not cure what ails the local church nor profoundly affect much less change the beliefs and resolve of the person in the pew. Rightly or wrongly, most local churches are affinity-based. They like each other or they wouldn’t gather together. United Methodists might be better off being a looser connection of churches, since that is the reality already. Forcing the square peg into the round hole is something that just doesn’t work in a post- postmodern society. It certainly doesn’t work in a post denominational church. 


What about the infamous “Protocol” for United Methodists? I think we ditch it in favor of a new one: if a church wants to disaffiliate with the denomination, let them go with a blessing. If there are debts to settle, let them be settled. Some local churches will find themselves at an impasse with 50/50, 60/40 votes and will have to struggle through it… like all other things in life. A “split” in the denomination is not going to fix a conflict in a local church. 


I know that pride and power won’t allow for a “looser” association of United Methodists, and post- postmodern America is quite anti-institutional at the present. While we may be able to use church and secular law to force actions upon congregations, or may be able to entice folks to leave for another denomination, no one can provoke or prevent the vote taken with church members’ feet. Much to the chagrin of those present United Methodists and future Global Methodists, some people are going to choose “none of the above.” There are more than two doors to choose from. The typical person in the pew sees us acting more like Congress than the Church. 


If history is any indicator, it is much easier to divide the church than to multiply it. Unfortunately in the United States, the division is all taking place amidst subtraction that was already present in Christianity as a whole. The causes may seem just to the fighters, but the math is very bad. If we’re to live in a post denominational church, those who are fighting the hardest for the United Methodist or Global Methodist Church will have the worst time adjusting to the new reality.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Baptismal Vows? Obviously Optional.

We live in a country now ruled by tribalism. We are not ruled by a republic, we are not ruled by any specific religious belief: we are ruled by tribalism. We are guided by individualism, which runs contrary to the spirit of a republican democracy and is the antithesis of Judeo/Christian core beliefs.

From Founding Father John Dickinson’s 1768 “The Liberty Song.”:

Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all, 
And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty's call; 
No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim, 
Or stain with dishonour America's name.

From the Old Testament:

I will be your God. - Genesis 17:7-8
You will be My people. - Exodus 4:22; 6:7
I will dwell among you. - Exodus 29:43-46

From the New Testament:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. - Romans 12:4-5

So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:24-28

But these words from the Word have been largely ignored. People have and can justify anything if it helps their cause, since Satan can quote scripture too! Racism was (is) defended. Not allowing women to vote was once justified. As I shared in Sunday’s sermon, more recent major strides in acceptance and grace have not come from the brave actions of the Church; they came from secular political expediency and the loyalty of friendship. When did the stigma of divorce become lessened? When Ronald Reagan (a former divorcée) became a candidate for president. When did AIDS research begin to be federally funded? When President Reagan’s good friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS.

What institution has treated divorcées and AIDS patients like lepers? The Church. When did change happen? When a beloved politician (and those wanting to elect him) had us confront change and acceptance. In these cases change was good. It was past due. It was ethically and morally right. The people who loved Reagan and wanted him to be president had to swallow some pride and prejudice to elect and support him.

When did my friend's white grandfather begin to soften his views on other races? When his great-grandson brought his African-American fiancé to meet him. 

Well. We're not so big without our Facebook and Twitter page, are we?

Today, we find ourselves in more factions and tribes than ever before. I don’t know an institution in America free of it. Even those who claim unity under the labels “Democrat,” “Republican,” and in my circles of “United Methodist,” and “WCA/Global Methodist Church” find themselves with warring factions from within. Democrats are not united in their support of Joe Biden anymore than Republicans find unity in being Donald Trump supporters. Many who are leaving the United Methodist Church are not leaving to go to the Global Methodist Church but becoming independent/non-denominational. Why? Many reasons, but the guiding principle is, "I want what I want." 

It's my observation that the Church prefers majoring in the minors as opposed to living out the Great Commandment and Great Commission. We value individualism more than we do unity because unity means that there IS something bigger, more important, more overriding than what “I” think. “WE” is the first word of the U.S. Constitution. The Lord’s Prayer begins, “OUR Father,” (and not "My Father."). If you’re going to be American, and you’re going to be Christian, “I” isn’t the priority. “WE” is the priority. Those aren't my words, but the words of the Constitution and the Scriptures. 

In order to embrace “WE” and “OUR,” we have to take a dose of humility. Humility that our limited intellect cannot always grasp all of the wisdom in the world and most certainly cannot grasp much at all of God’s wisdom and truth. Over the years, we’ve realized that epileptics are not possessed by a demon, because someone’s child or grandchild was an epileptic, and helped us to understand that it is a biological anomaly, not an evil spirit. We realized that divorcees are not evil or “fallen people,” because someone’s child or parent was a divorcee, and helped us realize that they were part of a fallen relationship. We are starting to realize that LGBTQ+ folks do not choose who they are, because someone’s child or parent is LGBTQ+, and helped us realize that they didn't choose to be who they are, but that they have always been that way as long as they can remember. 

Self portrait by Sarah McCracken Weekes

I’m not an epileptic. I’m not a divorcée. I don’t know what those things are like, but I’ve dealt with people who have or who have children who have, and I have learned to be compassionate - not judgmental - because of their witness to me. I do understand LGBTQ+ folks don’t choose who they are, because I have a child who is such.  She can’t explain why she is who she is, but she knows that she can’t “change” it. She also knows who and Whose she is, though the church she grew up in has been slow to say that. (When she chose to get a tattoo, it was the word "Agape," in Greek letters.) The cynic in me suspects those attitudes will probably not change dramatically until we have a president (probably a Republican one) who has a gay child. Then it will be "more acceptable."

Why do we give our politicians more power than church leaders, or more importantly, Jesus? The answer is simple: where our treasure is, that is where we will find our heart. Jesus is much too radical for us who love “I” and “ME” more than “OUR” and “WE.” Until we truly accept that, and accept our baptismal vows as having priority over any other vow, oath, or pledge that we could take, we will render more to Caesar than we will to God.



Friday, October 22, 2021

Lies, Damned Lies, and Gossip

The stress came off of me like a snake shedding its skin. I hopped on the connecting flight going from Boston to Dublin. Picked up a rental car and drove to the Dingle peninsula (Aer Lingus no longer flies into Shannon – dang!). I was a bit early to check into the cottage I was staying in so I went to a local pub for my favorite lunch there: a cup of soup (on this day potato and leek) and a slice of brown bread with ample butter. I sat at a table looking out a window at the Atlantic ocean from Tralee Bay. 

Peaceful. No television blaring with a 24-hr news channel. No phone ringing or full of emails and text messages (and no one else on their phones as I recall). I didn’t have to check a calendar, nor was I running a tourist race to see how many new things I could see. A week of study, prayer, a few contemplative hikes, and occasional visit to a pub with some live music.


A couple of days later I had morning coffee, cooked my own breakfast, sat outside and stared at the Slieve Mish mountains close by, and decided to do my studying outside. It was glorious. After a while I realized it was past lunch time and I decided I wanted another bowl of that soup and some brown bread, so I drove down the road to the same pub. 


I walked up to the door and a man was doing some work outside. “Coming for lunch?” he asked. I said that I was. “Well, I can pour you a pint, but you can’t have any lunch. I don’t have a cook today. In fact, more days than not we don’t have a cook for lunch.” 


To make small talk, I said, “Oh my. We have the same problem in the States. I guess that’s our president’s fault.” He laughed out loud, “Eh! Would that be Trump or Biden?” I told him probably both. He laughed harder. “I guess we could blame the Taoiseach, but I’d rather blame Brexit!”


And so, the old maxim, “You can run, but you can’t hide,” proved to be true. My peaceful escape from the American Gripefest didn’t last long – and I even contributed to it. Thankfully it was good natured. I had a pint and we talked about how much sport it is to talk about politics, religion, and to generally B&G. (I had to translate that for him – “bitch and gripe” - and he roared in laughter). Then I drove in search of a pub with food. I passed THREE before I found one with a cook – a good 15 kilometers on a very curvy road. Thank you, South Pole Inn in Anascaul village!


Fuel prices, natural gas prices, and power rates are going up… in the U.S., Ireland, Britain – all of Europe. There aren’t enough truck drivers… in the U.S., Ireland, and Britain, as well as Mexico, Russia, and Turkey. You can blame several sources and you might be accurate in your blame – or not. The variables are many. 

 The need for lament is valid – the Bible is full of lament. My concern is when lament turns to malice. Demonizing. Vilifying. Name-calling. Slander.


Society does it. Politicians and pundits model it for us which seems to give us license for it. It hurts in general, but it really hurts when it strikes close to us. You don’t have to be directly hit  by a lightning bolt for it to cause damage to you or your property. Lightning can travel 25 miles in a combination of above ground and below ground.  


I was eating lunch one day and someone who knew me asked me, “Sky, aren’t you from Martin (TN)?” I said that I was. “Man, I heard about that Methodist church up there. They have a lesbian pastor. I guess that liberal bishop is gonna try to push his agenda thru up there.”


I laughed, because (a) I know the pastor, and was her DS when she was graduating from seminary, and (b) if our bishop is a liberal then I’m a beach blonde with a tan. “Are you being serious?” He said he was, and that he’d heard it from people he knew. “Who?” I asked? Silence. Finally he said, “I guess that’s gossip, isn’t it preacher?” That wasn’t the exact word I was thinking, but I said, “Yes, if it’s not your story to tell, it’s gossip.”


It is true that some people have left my home church, for various reasons – just as people are coming and going from various churches and denominations, including the church I serve (we have lost some members, we have had as many new people attend or join). I hate to see any church or denomination go through strife, though they are as flawed and imperfect institutions as the people in them in this vastly polarized climate we have created and live in. The church isn’t free from what other institutions seem to need: demonizing and undermining the “other” so that “my side” looks better.


But what I hate, and what I’m fairly sure God hates, are the labels. The pigeonholing. The lies that will be told because it gives weight and credence to the narrative. I occasionally take time during church meetings to do “Mythbusters” – I just go ahead and lay out on the table the latest rumor, rumbling, gossip, or guesstimate that is out there, and let people ask as many questions as they want. Some people don’t like it (the confrontation), some laugh, many shake their heads. We like to B&G. We don’t like being confronted by the actual truth when it conflicts with our opinion or narrative. 


Jesus was heavily criticized by others. Endured constant sniping. His words and actions were taken out of context. People misrepresented (i.e., lied) about things that he did or said. Many of these people were religious people who should (and probably did) know better. 


I grow weary of it all. Of course, it’s nothing new under the sun. But it hurts the most when it comes from the church and those who proclaim Christ crucified and risen. You would think the events of Holy Week and Easter would remind us of (a) the evil we can commit against the most innocent, and (b) the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in which God – not us - has the last word. But we soon forget. And then we defend and deny. And then – we are stuck with ourselves.

Thank goodness for Jesus Christ: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2)


Galatians is one of my favorite Pauline letters. It teaches that the Spirit wants to produce in God’s people love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If our B&G sessions - or even our best critique - cannot be expressed in keeping with the Spirit, perhaps it is better left unsaid. 

For certain, God is watching and listening: to our words, our thoughts, our actions. They matter, and we will one day have to give an account for them. He must increase - we must decrease.









Wednesday, February 24, 2021

I’m Getting Older - Lament

I’m getting older. 

It’s not just a biological fact, it’s starting to show – inside and out. Those that haven’t seen me in a while say, “Your hair’s all white!” I wear contact lenses sometimes but I still need cheaters to read. My arthritis is getting worse. My bad foot has become a worse foot and I can roll my ankle stepping on a pebble.

I’m not in my twilight years, but I’m living in a twilight time, a twilight zone. I’m preaching Sunday on Paul and the promise of God that comes not by label, denomination, party affiliation, or rule-following, but only by faith. That the promise rests on grace and not the law, from the one who raised Jesus from the dead. But that’s not what I see. It’s not what I feel. 

I’m getting older.

I see people who are more worried about who our president is or was than who their neighbor is. They find the latest meme or post that says, “Yes, read this!” when it has nothing in mind but saying me and my kind are right and you are wrong. We put labels on others yet say we love everyone. We ask to be forgiven for our trespasses but want punishment for those who trespass against us. We brag about our baptism or about when we were saved, forgetting that the God who adopted us out of our unworthiness also adopted others, too: our brothers and sisters, related by blood – the blood of Christ. Does God approve of how we treat our blood-kin?

We’re addicted – alcohol, drugs, work, food. But there are worse addictions. Hate. Gossip. Undermining each other. God sees what we post on social media, hears what we say in our circle of friends, knows our hearts and minds. I’m not sure that we care. We just want to be right. We want others to be wrong. We need labels so we can know the good guys from the bad guys. We’re addicted to being divided. Even the Church seems to need to be divided. We say it’s “their” fault. “They” seem to be the cause of all our troubles. I really think “they” is a way to escape from saying WE. God forbid anything be **my** fault.

500,000 dead in my country. Some say it’s an exaggeration, even a myth. All I know is that I’ve buried my share of those 500,000: church members, relatives, a close friend or two. That it is even up for debate makes my hair even whiter, my heart more broken, makes my insides hurt as much as my outsides. We’re callous to death. We’re disrespectful to life. Life is precious. Instead of hurting for others, we invoke politics and conspiracy theories to cover up our own sadness and inflict it on others.

I’m getting older. 

Some days the arthritis and heartache is a lot. But Lord, please don’t take away my – take away OUR - ability to feel. Even when we try to take it away ourselves.


Monday, November 02, 2020

Christian: What To Do About Election Day

When I was a sports official and assigned as the “crew chief” for a game, I would always tell my partners this: “After this game, a lot of folks are going to be happy, and a lot of folks are going to be unhappy. There’s nothing we can do about that, and don’t take it personally.” The reality is, there have been many games before, and there will be many games afterwards. There will always be winners and losers.

Same with this election. There have been many elections before this one; there will be many afterwards. Regardless of what we think, this election is not “the most important election ever in the history of the United States.” That’s been said about every election. While this election may be important to you and me, it’s hubris to think that our time in history is any more important than anyone else’s.

One colleague's words, Don Sensing, former Army soldier/Pentagon staff and now UM minister, saved me a lot of re-reading the Federalist Papers to summarize how many of the Founding Fathers felt about the governing of the new nation and today' predicament:

The present election has inflamed passions throughout the country, including to the violence that the Founders warned us. Neither candidate has made much in the campaigns of their religious convictions. It is just as well. America's Founders trusted neither religion nor its lack as a qualification of a candidate. While we may hope and pray that our national leaders will be guided by the highest ideals of moral and religious convictions, our nation’s founders warned us not to count on it, either for office seekers, office holders or voters. We must seek another source of unity for our nation, not to supplant morality and religion but to complement them. - from the Sensing Online blog: "Election and Unity - a reflection on this Tuesday."


That helps answer the question, "What's a Christian to do?" regarding this election. Going to one’s faith is not a universal guide nor always helpful to how one should vote or who should win this election. Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler, a conservative, has changed his mind from the last election and has found a moral way to support the re-election of our president (you can read what he says here). John Piper, Calvinist/Baptist pastor and teacher  – also a conservative - states that he cannot in good conscience vote for either candidate and makes a moral case for his decision (read his article here). More progressive religious leaders like Jim Wallis have painfully articulated the problem that he sees with choosing the Left or the Right in politics when viewed through theological eyes: despite who the president has been, (a) family breakdown is occurring across all class and racial lines, and (b) public education remains a disaster for millions of families. Moreover, for the progressive party-line platform, a consistent ethic of life (Wallis' words) means that if you are against capital punishment on the grounds of it being a premeditated murder, that means you must reconsider the party-line stance on abortion as well. It also means that both "sides" must take poverty more seriously than they do, as poverty encourages a culture of death. (Wallis, from God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It [2005])

My advice in this election is to exercise your right to vote or not vote, and if you do vote try to vote for the candidates that closely match your personal political platform as possible. If you can’t in good conscience vote for either choice, write one in or leave it blank. The perfect candidate doesn’t exist – and never will.


Nevada, 2016 Election
Interesting statistic: the practice of leaving a ballot choice blank (sometimes called a “protest vote” or “undervote”) has increased in the past two elections. In 2012, around 0.97% of those voting left their presidential vote blank. In 2016, that figure rose to 1.4%. Getting a ballot and not voting for one or more offices is (a) legal, and (b) still exercising your right to vote. In Nevada, you have the option of choosing “None of the above.” In 2016, NOTA received 28,863 votes… which was 2.56% of the vote, and more than the margin of victory which was 27,202 votes. 

Here’s what’s clearly not acceptable or desirable for Christians: if your candidate wins, don’t gloat. If your candidate loses, don’t despair (I'll resist posting scriptural verses about such). The sun will come up tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. Some days it’s sunny. Some days it rains. Remember that it rains on the just and unjust.


As my friend Allan Bevere wrote a few years 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 - we pray that they might leave us Christians alone to do our work: to sacrifice, to not allow ourselves to be transformed by the world, and to please God. Let Caesar, the President, and whoever’s 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.

Good friends, family, and Christians will disagree about politics, and/or find frustration with politics. After the election: don't gloat, don't despair, and don't let this become a deal-breaker where family, friends, and fellow citizens are concerned. Vote with conviction. Win or lose with graciousness - but be sure your convictions and struggles are stronger with the Faith than your patriotism. Where your treasure is, is where you will find your heart.


Monday, October 19, 2020

The Biggest Shift for United Methodism

The lobbying, posturing, passionate speeches, and theological/doctrinal infighting for the past fifty years in the United Methodist Church regarding sexuality and a few other issues may have all been in vain, and may end for the same reason that World War I ended: a virus.

It’s one of those “I missed that in history class” historical facts, but the 1918 flu pandemic had a major effect on the how and when of the end of World War I. Soldiers were sick. People couldn’t get to work. Major infrastructure collapse was occurring in many countries. Some historians note that the Treaty of Versailles was rushed through: the American delegation was opposed to German reparations, but the delegation (including President Wilson) was mostly disabled by the flu when negotiations were taking place, so some things were done hastily while other things were not done at all. In short: the war was called (as the insurance companies say) on account of “an act of God.” 


We are seeing a repeat of that in the present. While thankfully less lethal than the 1918 Flu, COVID-19 is changing the landscape of everything… including the United Methodist Church. 


I’m not a futurist, but I believe that the present pandemic is speeding up what we already knew to be true about denominational/connectional churches: denominations and communions mean less and less to people, and the local church means more and more. Part of this was the reality that most discipleship and mission has always happened at the local church level. But now we are living into a reality few of us “die hard” United Methodists wanted to acknowledge: for 95% of the people who are called United Methodists and sit in the pews, what goes on in the district, annual conference, General Conference, General Agencies, etc… affects very, very little of their lives. It may mean a lot to the clergy and “professional laity," but when compared to the general membership of the UMC, these are less than a thimbleful of the people called United Methodists. 


The effect of district, conference, and General Conference activity on local churches is going to make even less of an impact than it ever has before. World travel, with its quarantines, self-isolation requirements, and country-to-country prohibitions and more-stringent visa requirements, all make having a General Conference very unlikely until a vaccine is available. Given the present American environment regarding increased reticence to even TAKING a vaccine if/when it is developed, how many countries are going to even be open to coming to the U.S., much less having US come visit their countries? I am fairly sure General Conference 2021 will not meet, and I don’t know when in the near future another world-wide gathering can and will take place.


Another reality is finances: we were warned at General Conference 2004 by Sandra Lackore, who was the then-treasurer of the General Conference Finance & Administration: “We have a structure that we can no longer afford.” Where the Episcopal Fund was concerned, every jurisdiction was advised to cut one Episcopal Area. No one did. Few general agencies made changes. Annual Conferences had to begin to cut campus ministry and camping ministries. In the years since, most conferences have decreased the numbers of districts and staff. Unlike the U.S. government, the UMC cannot print money. Our own annual conference has drastically cut its budget. Right now, the power, influence, and opportunities for Christianity are going to come primarily from a local church, not a district, conference, or General Conference.


All of this sounds tragic… until you look at things objectively and realize: the local church is moving ahead. We still have church every Sunday, whether in-person or online. We are financially in the black. During the pandemic, we’ve actually had people JOIN the church. We’re moving forward in this crazy season, seizing new opportunities and ministries.


Our present conflict may end with a whimper instead of a bang.


While I still believe Methodists are a connectional church and a connectional people, our “connection” is different in this pandemic season. And, being more local than ever before, we will look more at our local context in how we do ministry and mission. Just as there is truth in the phrase, “All politics is local,” there is also truth in the phrase, “all ministry is local.” To be sure, the world IS our parish, but it starts in our local church and branches out. Disciples are made in local churches, not districts or conferences. We can do MORE as a larger body, but we START in a local church. 


What I think this means for the future is this: If I was a person in the pew, I would base more of my understanding, witness, discipleship, and sense of belonging in a local church rather than any annual conference or general conference. We live in a world with more options, opinions, and permutations than ever before, and no two local churches are alike. If we are “waiting to see” what our annual conference or the General Conference is going to do where doctrine and matters of sexuality are concerned, we may be in for a long wait: none of us know how long we will be affected by the pandemic, and all of the issues that confront us as a denomination are not going to be solved by a mass ZOOM conference call in the Spring. I am fairly certain that our denomination will not be in a place to meet and make such decisions in the next four years. 


God can use anything – even a pandemic – to speak a word to His people. His word in this season may be one that we don’t want to hear, but nonetheless can’t argue with: wait. For sure, this season is (re)teaching us:

•          God has sovereign control over things. Our control is at best an illusion.

•          The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. We are not our own.

•          We are utterly dependent on God – and God will not be rushed.

•          The psalmists and prophets made it clear: sometimes, God slows us down to patience and silence so that we might listen.

•          We wait for our salvation – it doesn’t come on our demand.


“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” – Isaiah 40:31

Some will say, "We've waited too long." Unfortunately, God may be reminding us, "You don't know what a long time is."



Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Time for a Hard Reset Regarding Ordination

What I write is nothing new for the 3-4 folks who read what I write. But today it’s been ramped up a notch as being a class and justice issue. 


United Methodist’s theology of ordination and practice of credentialing - quite frankly – sucks.


I’m not talking about conference or district boards of ministry. I’m not talking about seminaries. I’m talking about our polity, which lacking a THEOLOGY of ordination, is all we have to go by as United Methodists. It’s not biblical, it’s not historical, and the only tradition it follows is one that we’ve largely made up in the 20thcentury.


A quick history/theology lesson about ordination: until very recently, the Western notion that ordination is something you EARNED is simply heresy. Ordination is a charism, that is, a gift from God to the Church, given by the Holy Spirit to the community of faith. In a Wesleyan ethos, ordination is neither an ontological nor functional change to the one ordained, but a pneumatological empowering of an individual. It may be for life, or it may be for a season. But to be sure, it is not EARNED or DESERVED by academic attainment or by hoop-jumping a checklist from church law. Ordination is bestowed by the community of faith.


Before we made academia the final arbiter of learning, the apprentice-in-action model served Christianity. Not seen as diametrically opposed to the academy, the apprentice model often paralleled the academy, or made use of the local academy for preparing clergy for parish work. It also served the professions of law and medicine as well. Even today, there are states in the U.S. (California, Vermont, Washington, and Virginia) where a law degree (or even a bachelor degree) is not required to take the bar exam; one can undergo a four-year apprenticeship with an approved attorney.


So the fact that “it’s always been this way” is fiction, not fact. The Rev. Homer Johns, my pastor during my elementary school years, came to our church after being a district superintendent for six years. He lead the start of the first thrift store in our city. He served on the Board of Ministry in retirement, and my toughest doctrine question came from Homer, who grilled me at length about infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. Homer didn’t have an M.Div. He had gone to course of study.


As late as the 1950’s, this was a model that the former Methodist Church used. It wasn’t until the 1956 Book of Discipline that a bachelor of divinity degree (now called a master of divinity) became the standard for someone to be admitted “on trial” and later ordained as a traveling elder. As Randy Maddox of Duke elaborated at a mid-quadrennial training for Boards of Ministry in 2014: “This growing professionalization was linked to escalated class status, and fit prudential realities of majority of Methodist congregations at the time.”


The unintended consequences of such are beginning to be realized in this liminal time for American Christianity. 


1.     We’ve created a “class/caste” system of clergy in United Methodism. There are 26 different classifications for clergy in United Methodism. Scripture gives us two (deacon and bishop/presbyter) or three (if you separate bishop and presbyter). We UM’s “license” people to serve the sacraments, but only let those “vote” at annual conference who have been ordained (think about that one for a minute – better yet, try to explain it to someone NOT United Methodist). Clergy membership and ordination are technically separate, but it reality they are not. 

2.     Even when factoring in inflation and average household incomes, a seminary education costs an individual 2.5 times more than it did 30 years ago. The only way someone can reach the minimal standard for being ordained today is (1) be independently wealthy, (2) have affluent parents or a rich uncle/aunt, or (3) be in debt for 20+ years. If you’re second career or older, you have even more obstacles in front of you. This is reprehensible behavior for the Church, and I won’t even go into the class implications of such a policy and polity.

3.     We have an elitist-within-an-elitist mentality when it comes to education. A master of divinity degree isn’t enough (even from an ATS accredited school); it has to be from a United Methodist Senate APPROVED seminary. If you don’t have one of those, you will be getting ANOTHER master of divinity degree.

4.     Unlike our AME, CME, and AME Zion friends, we did not retain the “local elder” category for clergy. We now call them “licensed local pastors.” There is absolutely no theological basis for this. It’s purely bureaucratic. Ordination has become way too closely tied to itinerancy and not the mission of the Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world. Transforming our method of credentialing clergy would be a good start. Ordination doesn’t (and shouldn’t) equal insurance and benefits.


This liminal season (literally, “threshold season”) is going to require us to be more adaptive than any we have faced in the last 100 years. Church attendance and practices are not going to return “to normal” anytime soon, and our requirements for ordination are going to assure us of few clergy for the next generation. I will quote Dr. Maddox again: In most of our settings, it is not economically or culturally prudential to rely on or require leadership in ministry that carries the expenses involved in Master’s-level education. That doesn’t mean we ditch the academy. It DOES mean we rethink how we educate, apprentice, and disciple present and future pastors. This means, at the very least:


  1. We broaden the range of persons that we ordain for ministry. 
  2. We adapt greater flexibility in educational expectations for ordination. Context matters! 
  3. We separate ordination from conference membership.
  4. We have a greater openness to bi-vocational, second career, and other models of clergy leadership. 


Conference boards of ministry need much more latitude in making these decisions on a case-by-case basis, instead of a national standard that assumes one-size-fits-all, which it clearly doesn’t.


And… we better hurry. We are going to quickly find (1) we have a church polity we can no longer afford, and (2) standards for clergy which may find us in a place with no future clergy.


Few of us like change. But I suspect none of us will want the pain that’s coming when we have to endure the consequences of staying the same.


Monday, June 08, 2020


Every generation has its crisis(es) moment(s). Throughout history, people have lamented that “it’s never been as bad as this.” I found an article that a Robert Wilson wrote in his column, “From Bob's Cluttered Desk,” that reminded me that, at times, it’s actually been worse. Consider these very Amero-centric crises (with a few of my own thrown in):

·      Our country was partially founded upon the near-genocide of one race and the enslavement of another.
·      The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was actually a coup, in that it developed documents and systems that completely threw out an existing but failing government structure.
·      In 1804, a sitting Vice-President of the United States shot and killed the nation's first Treasury Secretary. (To put that in modern day terms: it would be as if Vice-President Mike Pence shot Bush-era Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.)
·      More than 1,264,000 Americans have died fighting wars. The Civil War (1861-65) accounts for over 620,000 of those lives. 
·      The Depression.
·      Measles.
·      Smallpox.
·      Polio.
·      Two World Wars.
·      Vietnam.
·      JFK's assassination.
·      MLK's assassination.
·      Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
·      9/11.

It does not diminish the pain we are going through now:
·      Church and societal polarization over sexuality
·      The Pandemic of COVID-19
·      Watching a trusted police officer put his knee on a man’s neck until he died
·      Political and ideological tribalism being placed above kinship and friendship

When people hurt, their emotions become involved. When our emotions become involved, we lash out: sometimes with righteous indignation, other times with angst and fear.  We lament. Before you say that’s a foreign concept for us Jews or Christians, consider:

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

Now, your grandmother may have said, “Don’t be wishing hateful things on others,” but the psalmist certainly didn’t have any trouble doing it: he prayed revenge on the Babylonians, that someone might take their babies and kill them all. The psalmist wasn’t just pissed off, the psalmist was morally outraged: Jerusalem had been destroyed. They had been exiled. They lamented. 

Moral outrage isn’t new; abolitionist Frederick Douglas even wrote a speech based on Psalm 137 entitled, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" making the point that it was similar to asking the Jews “to sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land,” thus humiliating them and adding insult to injury. He lamented.

We are living in difficult times. But we have been here before. The only thing unique about it is that it’s happening to us, in our time. We lament.

My denomination was set to split at General Conference 2020, except that it didn’t because the COVID-19 pandemic came upon the world. So our angst was delayed. The pandemic meant that we could not (safely) be about our business as usual, we could not (safely) worship, so we have been forced to be creative… yet feel stifled… about how we live, work, and worship. So more angst piled upon angst delayed. Worse, during all of this we as a nation witnessed a terrible act of aggression and racism, causing more (and justified) angst. It’s even difficult to know how to react or demonstrate, as ethical questions we have never been faced with now confront us: is it ok to risk endangering the lives of others during a pandemic to demonstrate against racism? What an unholy and difficult decision for some.

Our angst keeps on piling up. After a while it is easy to pray, think, and say anything about each other, whether we know the truth or not, whether it is righteous or not. We’ll say it on social media. We’ll text or email others. We’ll say in front of some and behind the backs of others. That’s how we lament. It’s not right, but we all do it.

A year ago, I honestly thought that the local church I serve was going to be split along the lines of our denominational struggle with sexuality. I wondered how to pastor a very diverse, non-homogenous church through that struggle, knowing that I was sent here to pastor all of the church and not just some of it. That struggle was soon yesterday's news as we began a new struggle about how many worship services to have and what one – or two – services should look like where music and style are concerned. That struggle became moot when the pandemic forced us to worship online, and now our future struggle will be - at least for several months or years - how MANY worship services will it take for all of us to (safely) worship in place? Since I’m not a doctor, I have to trust those who are for guidance. 

Frustration. Angst. Lament.

Now the struggle has shifted to “where are we in the midst of this terrible time in our country and where are our pastors?” Over the weekend, the struggles have been:

·      Is our church organizing a march? (The answer was/is no, but several in our church invited others to join them in previously planned marches and demonstrations – which is ok). 
·      Why can people gather to demonstrate but we can’t worship together? (Doing either in a pandemic is risky behavior. We’re supposed to stand up for the oppressed. We’re also supposed to protect each other’s health. I don’t know a good answer to this one.)
·      Why aren’t our pastors at demonstrations? (They’ve been at some, but not all.)
·      Why are our pastors at demonstrations? (They haven’t been to all of them, but they went to stand with those who are hurting and wanting justice for all.)
·      Why do we have any racial demonstrations at all, we are all one in Christ? (Good point, I wish we could actually act as one in Christ).
·      By the way, what are we doing about the homeless and needy? Are we turning people away? (The answer is no). Are we enabling poor behavior and making it hard by not cooperating with our other Downtown agencies? (The answer is also, no. We work closely with other agencies and have each other’s backs).

These are real issues. They are real painful issues. As Eddie and I talk about these things we realize that it is difficult to balance the scriptures that tell us “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” with “What good is it if someone says they have faith but do not have works?” All of us wrestle with what is the right thing to do. Being a Downtown church is messy. Being the body of Christ amidst those from diverse backgrounds is messier, still. We lament.

Politics and taking political sides will not fix this. It is good to know what you believe, but Jesus was clear that Caesar is not our Master. God does not make cookie-cutter disciples and Christians, as our differences from each other are our gifts to each other. For every Peter there is a Paul. For every Martha there is a Mary. We need to celebrate that, not lament.

Determining the number of worship services will not fix this. A vaccine will not fix this. Splitting a denomination will not fix this. A new president or re-election of a president will not fix this. The only thing that can “fix” what ails us is the grace, peace, and love of Jesus Christ. We are still not practicing this as well as we could – hence our angst. Our only healing will come by practicing the faith.

To be clear: racism is wrong. It always has been. It always will be. God will not condone us mistreating, much less killing, a child of God made in God’s image. Our history in the United States, even in the Church, even in the Methodist Church – is tainted with the stain of racism. Have I done racist things? Yes - sometimes aware, sometimes unaware. Do I consider myself a racist today? No. Is that good enough? No. I have to move beyond just not being a racist; I have to become an anti-racist. Christ demands no less than that. We are neither male or female, we are neither black or white, but we are one in Christ Jesus. The Scriptures are clear. Long before the Pledge of Allegiance, our faith demands that we live with liberty and justice for all. It is past time that we live out both our baptismal vows and our Pledge of Allegiance.

Striving to be that, anything else we fuss or complain about ought to pale by comparison. If someone wants to march, pray for them as they make a public witness. If someone chooses not to march, assume not the worst but the best - that they may be praying and acting in secret as our Father rewards in secret. If we are doing neither, may God have mercy on our souls for our inaction.

Brothers and sisters: life is short. Be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.