Friday, September 29, 2006

The United Methodist Connection – Plus or Minus?

Next year will be the 20th year I have served as a United Methodist Minister, beginning my pastoral ministry at the Lynnville-Poyner’s charge in southern Graves County, Kentucky while a senior in college.

As I reflect over this period of time, perhaps the greatest disillusionment that I have had is with the United Methodist Connection. Let me first testify that the Connection has been very good to me: because of it, I received a quality education. I have a pension that will probably allow me to retire comfortably. I am presently serving a very fine church in our annual conference. I have also been fortunate to serve as a delegate at our Jurisidictional Conference, and spoke on an issue on the floor of General Conference in 2004 as an alternate delegate.

But my concern is that there are a lot of “I’s” in the above paragraph. How is the Connection benefiting the people in our pews? And more importantly, how is the Connection benefiting the Kingdom of God and in spreading the good news of Christ?

Some say that we need to be more connectional. I do recall in my childhood and youth attending conference camps, district youth events, and districts gatherings on 5th Sunday evenings for worship together – and I recall such events with much fondness. But as I have later realized, United Methodism was already losing members even then. Was “being connectional” really helping the Church?

If we say “Connectional” in a United Methodist context, it often means:
• Pastoral Appointments
• Annual Conference
• District clergy and Council on Ministries meetings
• UMW and UMM gatherings
• Paying your apportionments

Of course, that’s grossly unfair and inaccurate… but it is the general perception out there. The question now is not just a question of public relations and teaching, but of survival: who needs each other worse, the Connection, or individual churches? My hunch is at present, the United Methodist Church needs local churches more than local churches need the United Methodist Church.

Like most organizations and organized entities, it may be that the United Methodist Church has become self-serving, rather that serving in the capacity originally intended. Our understanding of the truth, our mission, and the way we live out our faith is dictated by popular vote. The problem with that is that I’m not sure Christianity affirms democracy nor acknowledges it as the truth. This loss of authority ends up affirming mediocrity and adding to the already pervasive individualism that is running rampant in America.

We have to take leadership seriously – not based on entitlement, not based on quotas, not based on diversity or inclusivity – but based on gifts of courage, humility, willingness to live by discipline and courage to act with authority. These are the people we need to be church lay leaders, annual and general conference delegates, UMYF presidents, pastors, and bishops.

In their book Where Resident Aliens Live, Hauerwas and Willimon make this comment about seminary students, which I think could be expanded to church leadership both lay and clerical alike:

The truth of the matter is that the best and brightest are not coming to seminary today. That should not be surprising, given the loss of the church’s social power and status. Those of talent look elsewhere for success.

Yet we know that God has given us people of talent, and we as the church must call them into ministry whether they want to or not. We must say, “You have the gifts, and we need you.” That is a true call, since it’s not a matter of whether you really “want” to be in the ministry. -
from Where Resident Aliens Live, © 1996, pp. 65-66

The United Methodist Connection can do something about it – if it will. But to do so it will have to be less self-serving and more in service to Christ. That might mean resembling the government less and the Kingdom of God more. Democracy seeks to please as many as possible. Christianity seeks to proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected…a stumbling block to those looking for worldly power, but authority and wisdom to those called by God.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Déjà vu… All Over Again

“History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” - Sir John Templeton

Ever since 9/11, I have always had mixed feelings about our country’s response. The retired firefighter in me stifles a sob, the American patriot in me rises to the surface, the political cynic in me gets nauseous, and the Christian in me causes all of these other hats I wear to be in mass confusion.

But as history records, America’s experience on September 11th, 2001, isn’t the first time that a superpower was brought to its knees. On August 24th, 410, Rome was sacked by Alaric, King of the Visigoths. 40,000 troops pillaged the place. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was in the middle of all of it. Augustine was a prolific writer and formulator of Christian doctrine, and my Christian history and theology professor at Emory, Dr. Bill Mallard (an Augustinian scholar himself), once joked in class that when Rome was sacked in 410, Augustine was so shocked that he couldn’t write for two hours.

But when Augustine regained his senses, he resumed his writing. And one of the things he reflected upon was that regardless of the circumstances, Christians must never equate any government or political entity with the Kingdom of God. This is especially poignant today, in that while Islam may equate government and religious authority, Christianity does not (and has not, and should not).

So what’s our response? I think it is to remain faithful. A few years ago, I would have said, “What’s the point.” But recalling the words of C.S. Lewis after Hitler invaded Poland:

It may seem odd for us to carry on classes, to go about our academic routine in the midst of a great war. What is the use of beginning when there is so little chance of finishing? How can we study Latin, geography, algebra in a time like this? Aren't we just fiddling while Rome burns?

This impending war has taught us some important things. Life is short. The world is fragile. All of us are vulnerable, but we are here because this is our calling. Our lives are rooted not only in time, but also in eternity, and the life of learning, humbly offered to God, is its own reward. It is one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty, which we shall hereafter enjoy in heaven and which we are called to display even now amidst the brokenness all around us.
– Sermon at Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford, October 22, 1939

Even when things are broken… we stay on task. We keep the faith. We render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's... but we give to God what is God's. First.


Note: A lot of this story was inspired (and borrowed) from an article in Christianity Today entitled, “Theology for an Age of Terror,” by Timothy George

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ryder Cup - Are We Going to Get Whipped Again?

I was listening to British golf commentator Ben Wright this morning on the radio, who was discussing this year's Ryder Cup. He made a very interesting observation: Last year, the bar tab for the U.S. team was $4,000, while the bar tab for the Euro Team was over $30,000. The Euros went on to whip our backsides last year... as they have for previous years.

Maybe Americans need to lighten up a little.

He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart. - Ps. 104:13-15

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We Find a Vision… or a Vision Finds Us?

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we find the reason for the existence of the church: to reconcile the world to God. Our task, then, is to help people learn how to draw closer to God.

How do we do that? A lot of folks will tell us, “Your church needs a vision.” We might adopt a mission statement. But many churches that have broken out of stagnation and decline have found the opposite: don’t seek to discover a vision; let the vision discover you.

Churches that have broken out into new ground and faith have found that the intersection of the following factors will help a vision discover a church:

1. Passion of the church’s leadership.
If a pastor and church leaders disciple their flock, evangelism and spiritual growth will become a regular part of their lives and witness.
2. Congregational Gifts and Passions.
Ministry is pursued according to the gifts and passions God gives to church members, and the church’s atmosphere encourages and nurtures such to happen.
3. Needs of the Community.
John Wesley made it clear: the world is our parish. The book of Acts reminds us that we are to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Whatever we do in Christ’s name must include the world, and seeks to provide for the community without expecting anything in return. We have to be passionate about our community!

The implications are many: We can only choose a few areas where we excel; if we try to do everything, we will do little of it well. It also means that since none of the three above factors are consistently constant, our vision will never be constant; leadership changes, membership changes, and communities change. Rather than be static, our vision will be dynamic. God is always leading us down new paths.

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone.” – Bill Cosby

God – and his children - are the ones we ultimately serve. God’s vision for us will find us if we are willing to be found!


Most of these ideas came from Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap, by Thom S. Rainer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Cheerful Heart

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person's strength. – Proverbs 17:22 (NIV)

I have always loved the writings of Ferrol Sams, Georgia physician and writer (and Emory U. grad, I might add). He’s always written from the standpoint that all of us are searching for meaning on our lives. His book Epiphany is a compilation of three philosophical novellas that center on people experiencing revelation in their lives.

“Harmony Isn’t Easy” is my favorite novella in Epiphany, which shows how important humor is to our lives. He tells the following story that circulated around his family anytime someone had a “Melrose” kind of day:

An old farmer, the story went, arose at daybreak, dressed for the field and went to his kitchen for breakfast. There was no food on the table, no light on, and the stove was cold. He knocked on the door to his housekeeper’s room to ask explanation and was answered with the plaintive wail, “I ain’t cooked you no breakfast cause I’m too sick. I ain’t even able to get out of bed. I need for you to go get me the doctor out here and that just as quick as you can.”

The farmer sighed but went dutifully back to his room and changed from overalls into his suit in preparation for going to town.

When he went outside, he found that his old car wouldn’t crank. He sighed, and by the dint of much straining managed to roll it over a rise and down a little hill to jump-start it. He chugged on until he had to ford a creek, where he got off-center a little and the car was stuck.

He sighed, but patiently removed his shoes, rolled up his pants legs and managed with a prise-pole to free his car and go on his way.

A quarter mile down the road he had a flat tire. He folded his coat, with a sigh, changed the tire and put on the spare. A mile later he had another flat tire. He gripped the steering wheel and thought for a while. Then he removed the flat and with patience began rolling it before him toward town.

A half-mile from the car, the sky suddenly darkened. Rain began falling so heavily that the old man could barely see. Within seconds, he was soaking wet. He felt his shoes filling with water, he felt his only suit shrinking on his frame. He let the tire fall to the ground before him, raised his clenched fists to the heavens and howled at the top of his voice, “My God! Why do all these things have to happen to me?”

With that the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and a deep voice boomed down, “I don’t know, Melrose; there’s just something about you that chaps My ass!”
- Epiphany, Ferrol Sams, 1994, p. 122

Keep smiling. It's good for you.


Staff Parking

No, the pastor didn't buy a new bike; the Preschool Director did. Congratulations to Melinda Warriner - preschool director, mother of 4, grandmother of 4 (with 5 and 6 on the way), and proud owner of a 2006 Honda Shadow Aero.

You go, girl.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Faith Is a Journey - Not a Guilt Trip

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12.2

The quote “Faith Is a Journey…”can be found in a lot of places and churches, and it’s a quote I like. It takes the emphasis off of fear of God and places it in the context of God’s will.

Before you say, “that’s too easy,” be sure that knowing and conforming ourselves to God’s will isn’t easy. It means not being in charge. It means letting go and letting God. If you’re task-oriented and have a Type A personality like myself, it means letting go of a lot: control, fear, and guilt.

While I’m not putting a stamp of approval on an anything-goes mentality, I think guilt often paralyzes us into a state of fear that makes us scared to do anything good or bad for the Gospel. The “God is going to get me for that” attitude often works against boldness in the name of Jesus. Playing it safe may be a good business or financial practice, but it is the death knell of Christianity.

Will we stumble in our journey of faith? Most assuredly. But if we allow fear of failure and unworthiness to stand in the way of taking up our cross and following Christ, we won’t take the cross far nor will we be able to follow Christ for long. The grace of God picks us up and triumphs over the guilt that Evil would put in our way to stifle the Spirit.

That journey is faith, and it’s a good journey – and good news. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Greater Tuna, and a Great Time

I used to go to plays all of the time. I grew up in a small college town, and in addition to watching plays, I was often in the cast in small parts, both in the children's theatre and the college theatre. My only "starring role" was in the play M*A*S*H as Lt. Col. Henry Blake in 1982. That was the last play I ever attended.

Greater Tuna is probably one of the most produced plays in the U.S., and I knew the play by reputation: a comedy and satire (somes a little dark!) about Southern life, with two actors portraying 20 different roles. One of our Sunday Schools went to see it at the Badgett Playhouse in Grand Rivers, KY, last night, and my wife and I tagged along. A great write-up of the play locally can be read here.

We had a ball. If you're from the South, you'll laugh yourself silly. And if you're not... you'll still laugh yourself silly. If you live around the Purchase Area of Kentucky, go support this wonderful cultural opportunity.