Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Two Prayers and Hopes

I am going out on faith in two areas this fall. One of them involves worship and the other involves confirmation classes.

Worship. You’re all familiar with the “Mayberry” series that was done a few years ago. Well, believe it or not, there is a “Gospel According to the Simpsons.” Is this out of my comfort zone? Sure. But in reading and preparing the material, I’m finding that it’s quite usable for worship on Sunday evenings. As we have in the past, we will begin with some informal praise singing before we dig in to study. But we will move to the Fellowship Hall for our Sunday evening worship experience. This will allow us to share more freely, have a cup of coffee or a Coke, and experience worship, study, and fellowship in a little more relaxed atmosphere. I look forward to seeing you there!

Confirmation Classes. We have a lot of church youth who have never been through a confirmation class. Because of this, I am led to believe that our study time might be the most fruitful during the scheduled time for Sunday School. Our young people will soon be getting an invitation to join us on Sunday mornings to explore the core of our Christian faith: spirituality, doctrinal stances, Scriptural teaching, discipleship formation, and other aids and aspects of our total salvation formation and experience.

I ask that you keep both of these things in your prayers. I feel that they could bear much fruit. Reidland UMC has a lot to share with the world – let’s equip ourselves to share the love of Christ that is so much a part of our lives and faith.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Armor of God?

I thought my sermon on "The Armor of God" this morning wasn't bad. But I wish I'd known about this for my children's sermon illustration. (If you're interested in ordering a pair, click here).

You've gotta smile.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 3

In trying to understand the future of the episcopacy, I’ve been trying to understand how it works in the present, outside of the obvious roles of appointing clergy and presiding over sessions of the Annual Conference. In doing so, my bubble was burst as I read one of the most disturbing paragraphs in Richey and Frank’s book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition:
The Discipline provides no theological or ecclesiological rationale for episcopacy in the UMC; does not locate UM episcopacy in the spectrum of episcopal practices in various Christian traditions; and defines few specifically mandated responsibilities of bishops. While a number of bishops have published autobiographies of been the subject of biographical studies, few have attempted their own interpretations of any theological or historical basis for their role in the Church. - Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, pp. 145-146

The authors conclude that while vigorous defenses were presented in the 19th century, today’s Church is fairly silent – perhaps because we take the role for granted. I would posit another possibility that is less optimistic: most people in the pew (and many behind the pulpit) are indifferent about the matter. How many people in the pews can name their resident bishop?

I think it’s important to know our bishop; important enough that not only our resident bishop but also our district superintendent’s name are listed in our Sunday worship bulletins as leaders. Our bishops are our shepherds.

But why haven’t we said so? In checking out Richey and Frank’s claim above, they’re right about the Discipline’s lack of rationale. I suspect Methodism has coasted for hundreds of years on a traditional/historical understanding of the episcopacy, but the law of inertia has caught up with us. For lack of theological and ecclesiological direction, the UMC has “done its own thing” where bishops are concerned. More to the point, jurisdictions within United Methodism have done their own thing. Our denomination is fractured, and the fracture is taking its toll. The UMC in the U.S. went under 8 million members this year. However, the UMC outside of the U.S. is growing.

So what do we do?

1. Get rid of the episcopacy?,
Not my vote, and it would be a feat of legislation and lobbying to enact it. However, the fact is that the Episcopal Fund is in dire straits. Only twenty-one conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionments in 2005. That’s only one-third of the whole Connection.
2. Redefine it?
If folks don’t know who their own bishop is or what a bishop does, redefining the role would be a good start. We’re currently in a tenable situation; what theological and ecclesiological rationale can we give to support continuing the episcopacy, which is becoming an unfunded liability? The Episcopal Fund is 14% of the General Conference four-year budget, or $83.5 million. Can we afford something we can’t define?
3. Elect bishops globally instead of regionally?
The Council of Bishops seems to lack cohesiveness; bishops represent the area they were elected out of, and not the global church. Before 1939, jurisdictional conferences didn’t even exist, born out of racism. Now, not only are we becoming regionally segregated, we are running the risk of being an “American-only” United Methodist Church. What does this say to our United Methodists abroad? But this too would be a feat of legislation and lobbying.
4. Enable bishops to lead.
This is my vote. Our bishops have the power to appoint pastors and preside at conferences, but they have no voice or vote in either local or general church matters. They rule over matters of church law, but their decisions are always subject to automatic appeal by the Judicial Council. Do we really empower them with leadership, or do we shackle them instead?

Maybe one question in this overrides all else: Is the UMC a connectional church, or are we an association of local churches? That might answer how we approach the future of the episcopacy in United Methodism. In fact, that might answer how we approach United Methodism as a whole.


Related blogs here, here and here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Be Still And Know

I guess I’m getting cranky in my older age, but some things bother me more than they used to. Quick movements and loud, sudden noises I’m not expecting are at the top of the list. In fact, I’m starting to see that I prefer it quiet. Loud blaring commercials on the television, obnoxious laughter from sitcoms, and game show sound effects grind my nerves. So much for my idiosyncrasies.

When I am a guest preacher, one of the things that I now ask about when leading prayer is, “Is the pianist or organist going to play while I pray?” If the answer is yes, then I’ll take it upon myself to ask him or her not to. Why? I think it distracts the conversation.

If we believe prayer is conversation with God (and I do), shouldn’t we tune in to God and tune out everything else? In fact… I’m convinced that at least half of the time (and probably more), we should be listening to God instead of talking. God has a lot to say to us if we'll listen rather than talk.

Perhaps Steven Curtis Chapman says it better (if you have Real Audio, you can hear the song here at Chapman’s website):
Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know that He is holy
Be still oh restless soul of mine
Bow before the prince of Peace
Let the noise and clamor cease

Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know that He is faithful
Consider all that He has done
Stand in awe and be amazed
And know that He will never change
Be still…Be speechless…

Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know He is our Father
Come rest your head upon His breast
Listen to the rhythm of
His unfailing heart of love
Beating for His little ones
Calling each of us to come
Be still. Be still.
- Psalm 46:10 / Zec. 2:13


Saturday, August 12, 2006

Faithfulness vs. Mediocrity

Several months ago, Bishop Will Willimon made starting new congregations in the North Alabama conference a top priority. The North Alabama Conference also proposed increasing their budget for new church starts by 50%. I’m a Bishop Willimon fan, and I applaud him for his aggressiveness and vision.

Right after that, Shane Raynor, the guru of the Methodist blogosphere, wrote about new churches being the future of the United Methodist Church (click here). Again, a well-written and visionary statement.

In my experience of the Connection of the United Methodist Church, one conference that I’ve always admired is the North Carolina conference. They’ve always been cutting edge, well established, and with Duke Divinity School close by have always had the sharpest pastors and been well steeped in Wesleyan theology and tradition. Imagine my shock when I read this statement in The News & Observer, Raleigh’s newspaper:

Don Curtis was serving on a committee devoted to launching new United Methodist churches when a single statistic stopped him cold: Half the churches started each year fail.

"It's a very expensive thing to launch a church," said Curtis, a Raleigh businessman whose Curtis Media Group owns 15 radio stations in the state. "When you fail, you've dropped a lot of money."

After talking to Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn Jr. of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, Curtis learned that church administrators were well aware of the problem and searching for solutions. With a $1 million challenge grant from Curtis, the conference came up with one: An academy to teach pastors and lay people practical skills to keep churches healthy and vibrant.
- Raleigh News & Observer, Aug 11, 2006

More of the article reveals that the population in North Carolina is growing. Somewhere along the line, there’s been a failure.

If you read the entire article (click here), I can't help but think that the Church is failing its people and its Christ. Permit me these observations:

1. Seminaries. In reality (at least in the UMC tradition), we really don’t have seminaries; we have schools of divinity. Lots of biblical, theological, and historical education – which are all essential – but very little practical education in areas of finance, conflict resolution and group dynamics, and training and enabling volunteers. In short, very little praxis. The argument is that these things aren’t the seminaries’ job. Perhaps. Whose job is it, then?

Hey… I got a great education at Emory/Candler. But I had to learn all the practical aspects of ministry on my own. Fifteen years later, I find myself a little angry that seminary (at the cost of $21,000 in 1991) didn’t prepare me to be a practice-ready clergyman when I was sent out into the parish. If I hadn’t served churches while in college and seminary, I’d have been even further behind.

2. Continuing Education. Doctors have to continually be educated in new medicines and new techniques and approaches in order to “keep up.” Members of state bars have to do the same in the legal profession. What passes for requirements in continuing education for UMC pastors, though, is a borderline joke. Greg Jones of Duke Divinity said it well: "What we've had too often in religious communities is mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness," Jones said.

3. The General Church is doing little or nothing about either. I am very glad that Mr. Curtis is putting his heart, soul (and yes, his money) into an Academy for Leadership Excellence to train pastors how to start churches. But this is a really damning statement to our General Church – why hasn’t the General Conference of our Church done this... in fact, why wasn't it done years ago? Why didn’t such a mandate come from the General Board of Ministry? Instead of spending a fortune on Igniting Ministry commercials, why didn’t we start such academies across the annual conferences?

Making disciples is supposed to be our Great Commission, as opposed to aligning ourselves with whatever caucus we like or acting like our government at General Conference in budgeting money we don’t have. And it’s really poor stewardship to invest money in new church starts that are currently experiencing a 50% failure rate.

It’s time we used the Connection to do something that will work, rather than do something mediocre. We can’t afford mediocrity anymore.


Friday, August 04, 2006

Everything That We Know, All That We Love?

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior. - Isaiah 43:1-3

That's me at a much younger age... and wearing something different from a clerical collar and suit.

I rarely watch movies or television shows about firefighters; I was a firefighter and EMS responder for over 12 years, and I either get bothered about technical inaccuracies or too caught up in the emotions. But I watched a good movie the other night; Ladder 49. A little bit about the movie:
Under the watchful eye of his mentor Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), probationary firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) matures into a seasoned veteran at a Baltimore fire station. Jack has reached a crossroads, however, as the sacrifices he's made have put him in harm's way innumerable times and significantly impacted his relationship with his wife and kids. Responding to the worst blaze in his career, he becomes trapped inside a 20-story building. And as he reflects on his life, now Assistant Chief Kennedy frantically coordinates the effort to save him.

I went into several burning buildings in my life, and I always prayed the words above from Isaiah each time. Contrary to what most people believe, firefighters are usually scared of fire – because they intimately know what it can do and how powerful it can be. I’ve never failed to be thankful that I was never seriously hurt. In all of those years I only had one close call.

Twelve years in the fire service also taught me a lot about camaraderie, teamwork, and brother/sisterhood. You put your trust into so many persons: the person on the nozzle with you, the pump operator supplying water, the rapid intervention team who will come in after you if something goes wrong, the officer in charge of the incident… the list goes on. Even weeks of training at the fire academy couldn't wholly prepare me for the real thing. I remember going into my first burning house with Jerry, a seasoned firefighter. The room next to us suddenly flashed, and I wanted to run, run, run. He put a hand on my back and said, “We’re okay. I’m not gonna let you get hurt.” And then he proceeded to teach me how to cool down a room, how to fog your nozzle stream, and how to think like the fire in order to find it and extinguish it. I learned the difference between acceptable risks and stupid risks. He helped make me a good firefighter. And I passed on the craft to others as I got older.

Most firefighter shows and movies end with a tragic death, and having officiated at three firefighter funerals myself, it’s the part I don’t want to see of the movie. The wail of bagpipes, the lineup of firefighters and engines from neighboring departments, honor guards, dress uniforms – all very impressive, and all very depressing to me.

But Ladder 49 was a little different. A funeral takes place in a large Catholic church. In his eulogy, Chief Kennedy concludes by asking the congregation to stand and give thanks for the life of the fallen firefighter. The congregation stands, and they clapped with thunderous applause. Firefighters saluted. They walked in formation behind a fire engine that served as a hearse for the coffin. It was respectful, and it was a celebration.

It begs the question: why does the fire service, law enforcement, and the military have the best funerals?

My hunch is that it has something to do with the way we approach Christian discipleship… or more accurately, how we don’t approach it. Churches often get a rap for being cold, unapproachable, or even downright unfriendly. Worse, it’s been said that the Church is one of the few institutions that shoots its wounded. While I might take exception with anyone saying these things to my face, the fact that they’re said means that the perception is there.

One of the tag lines for Ladder 49’s movie trailer is this: “Everything they know, all that they love, is what they risk every day.”

Man, that’s good. I wish someone had thought of it for the United Methodist Church before we adopted “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”

The observation has often been made that many bars have better community life than some churches. I would place public service personnel even higher than that. Why is it that the Church abdicates to other organizations the very ideals and roles that it is supposed to excel and take a lead in? And why is everyone else taking risks while the Church plays it safe?

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” I pray that one day, people will once again say that about the Church... and the Cross.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Who’s Your Daddy? And Who’s Your Momma?

I was reading Peter Cammarano’s blog page the other day (he’s a UM pastor from Texas), and he reminded his readers of that old, lovable curmudgeon of a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University’s Divinity School.

I had breakfast with Professor Hauerwas once; he is as Peter described him: a gruff and abrasive person who has a heart for the church. Hauerwas grew up blue collar and of moral and ethical parents. He’s a radical: staunchly against abortion, yet an avowed pacifist. He knows he’s in the minority… and he knows that Jesus was, too. He has passed this attitude down to his students.

He has also passed down the love and necessity of the Church. He correctly describes the most accurate image of friendship and worship in this world: the two sacraments of the church, Eucharist and Baptism. In Eucharist the church habitually longs for the return of God, and reminds themselves of hospitality, friendship and love. Baptism incorporates our life and Christ’s life as one. A quote he frequently gives is this one derived from early church fathers Origen and Cyprian, and goes something like, “You cannot have God as father unless you take the Church as your mother.”

So much for being able to worship God just fine in a deer stand or a bass boat!

Community life is so much at the heart of Christianity. Yet fostering community seems to get harder and harder. People don’t want to reach out. We’re suspicious of those we don’t know. We’re scared of new leadership, or training others to take our place. The problem with that is that the Church is always one generation away from dying. If it is of Christ, it will of course flourish. But if it is of our own making… I shudder to think about it.

The Church isn’t ours; it is God’s. Without discipleship and servanthood, church membership is nothing more than being a member of a religious country club. If God is our Father, and the Church is our Mother, it may be that we might best see ourselves as children in the family of God – children who are loved, children in need of direction, children who will grow and learn the rest of their lives, and children who will share what they have learned and experienced with others.

Do we dare sit on our hands and let down both our Father and our Mother? Should we at the very least practice hospitality so that the Kingdom might increase?