Saturday, December 26, 2009

Our Love, Our Hope, Ourselves

I dearly love what I do as an ordained minister, and believe I am called and convicted to it. Indeed, I don't really know what else I would do on this earth.

At the same time, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there is a part of me that yearns to be a worshiper instead of a presider. On this one day, I would rather sing hymns than lead them, I would rather hear the Word proclaimed than be the one proclaiming it, I would rather be receiving Christ at the Eucharist as a communicant rather than as presider. My love of Christ and my love of music overwhelms me on this day. I just want to sit in the pew and worship.

I know that's not reality, because my love of the Church outweighs my own selfishness. So for many years I have listened to the international broadcast of Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge - my opportunity to "sit in the pew" and simply worship. This year, schedule and work didn't allow me to listen to it. So, arriving home after our 11 PM Christmas Eve service, I watched several clips from previous years' worship services at King's College. Hearing the scripture readings and the carols sung remind me of the joy of Christmas, why I am Christian, and why I love Christ so.

This carol, "The Shepherd's Carol," is new... and brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart every time I hear it. Sung from the standpoint of the shepherds to Mary, it captures serenity, humility, wonderment, and the implications of Christ's birth to the world. It is a anonymous poem that gifted British composer Bob Chilcott set to choral setting in 2000. No organ, no piano, no instruments whatsoever - and none needed. (Turn up the volume or get headphones to catch the richness of the voices and harmony)

May we offer to Jesus our love, our hope, and ourselves.


We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves
We give to your son.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas and Never Being Alone

Christmas can admittedly be a lonely time for many. While it is a time for families and friends to get together and celebrate, it can also be a painful reminder of the loss of loved ones. My parents’ anniversary was on December 24th, the same day that my grandmother died. I love Christmas, but I miss my mother and grandmother.

I have “inflicted” the writings of Henri Nouwen on you many times. Allow me once again to inflict you, this time with some of his words about Christmas:
God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us.

The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.

Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him - whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend - be our companion.

- Henri Nouwen, Gracias
Merry Christmas, and God bless us – everyone.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mark Tooley: See 4(b)

Pronunciation: \ˈjərk\
Function: noun
Etymology: probably alteration of yerk
Date: 1575
1 : a single quick motion of short duration
2 a : jolting, bouncing, or thrusting motions b : a tendency to produce spasmodic motions
3 a : an involuntary spasmodic muscular movement due to reflex action b plural : involuntary twitchings due to nervous excitement
4 a : an annoyingly stupid or foolish person b : an unlikable person; especially : one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded
5 : the pushing of a weight from shoulder height to a position overhead in weight lifting

Sometimes, people can give church renewal a bad name.

Since Mark wrote me a letter and addressed it "Dear Sky," I don't have any problems being a bit casual with my remarks. And since I cannot abide "liberals" or "conservatives" who take things out of context, here is his letter in its entirety:

September 18, 2009

Church Officials Start to Acknowledge
Persecution of Christians by Radical Islam

Dear Sky,

Would you believe that liberal church officials are actually starting to speak out about radical Islam and persecution of Christians?

Yes, it’s quite amazing, and good news certainly. The recent ravaging of two Pakistani Christian communities, resulting in scores of burned homes and 7 dead Christians, has sparked distress. A bishop from The Church of Pakistan also recently visited offices in New York for the National Council of Churches, the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, and the Episcopal Church, igniting statements of concern from all.

statement by United Methodist West Ohio Bishop Bruce Ough, as president of Global Ministries, was especially good. Encourage him with a supportive email, thanking him.

And here’s
my article, quoting Bishop Ough and others.

This Pakistani bishop especially expressed alarm about his country’s Blasphemy Law, which makes illegal any criticism of Muhammad or the Koran. Angry Islamist mobs exploit the law to create rumors about Christians and then to attack them. Theocratic laws forbidding criticism of Islam are common throughout Muslim majority countries and are often aimed like a knife against vulnerable Christians and other religious minorities.

But typically, left-leaning church officials say nothing about persecution of Christians by Islamists. They prefer to think of Christianity, and the West, especially the U.S., as the persecutor, and Muslims everywhere as only victims. Liberal church officials often prefer apologizing for the Crusades of 1,000 years ago rather than recognizing today’s injustices. The outrages in Pakistan seem to have aroused some new concern. Let’s pray the Holy Spirit will water and grow this concern for persecuted Christians!

Of course, most of the Religious Left will remain silent about persecution of Christians, whether by Islamist or Marxist regimes. The Religious Left prefers its usual political themes, such as attacking capitalism as a cosmic threat to Planet Earth. A group of Presbyterian and Congregationalist theologians from around the world recently convened to issue their denunciation of free markets as the supposed tormentor of the poor.
Here’s my article.

Which has sustained more poverty in the world? Free markets and protection of private property, or state control and corruption of markets? Tens of millions of previously poor people in the Global South, especially in India and China, have escaped centuries of poverty and experienced relief thanks to the former. But the Religious Left prefers its own ideology, to reality and traditional Christian thought. Unfortunately, at least if you are a Mainline Protestant, the Religious is often funded by your donations to your local church!

Please continue to pray for our churches, for the persecuted church globally, for our country, and for IRD’s ministry of church reform. Your contribution allows IRD to report and to speak about what is happening in our churches. Your gift of $25 will help us continue. Please easily donate here.

With appreciation,

Mark Tooley
IRD President

It is a weird letter that at best congratulates leadership in a backhanded way while still labeling them and getting in the Talking Head-Like-Jab that seems to be so obligatory these days.

Rude: "Would you believe that liberal church officials are actually starting to speak out about radical Islam and persecution of Christians? Yes, it’s quite amazing, and good news certainly."

Small minded (and broad generalization): "But typically, left-leaning church officials say nothing about persecution of Christians by Islamists. They prefer to think of Christianity, and the West, especially the U.S., as the persecutor, and Muslims everywhere as only victims. Liberal church officials often prefer apologizing for the Crusades of 1,000 years ago rather than recognizing today’s injustices." What a liberal use of generalization, and right out of the Liberal's handbook at that!! Take Stephen King's advice about words like "typically": use adverbs sparingly. (A sense of humor helps too).

Sarcastic: "Of course, most of the Religious Left will remain silent about persecution of Christians, whether by Islamist or Marxist regimes. The Religious Left prefers its usual political themes, such as attacking capitalism as a cosmic threat to Planet Earth." Good grief, give that tired old jab of hyberbole a rest.

Pretty close to a lie: "But the Religious Left prefers its own ideology, to reality and traditional Christian thought. Unfortunately, at least if you are a Mainline Protestant, the Religious is often funded by your donations to your local church!" Just about anyone could refute several parts of that. Better learn some qualifiers, Mark, like "some" or even "most." The problem with generalizations is the same problem when you assume; it definitely makes an "ass" of "u" and "me," Plus, there's a comma splice in there too.

I tried being a liberal - and found it weak on doctrine and continuity of faith. I tried being a conservative - and found the same thing. This power struggle between Left and Right is becoming a game the United Methodist Church cannot afford to play anymore. More to the point: the people in the pews are getting tired of it, and are no longer impressed. We need less liberals and conservatives and more radicals, in the radicalness of Jesus.

Here's a generalization I'll make after attending four General Conferences, one of them as a delegate:

The Left: Lacks a lot on tradition and theological consistency. Bad technology geeks. Great meals and hospitality.
The Right: Holds (selectively) to tradition and theology. Great technology geeks. Bad food, and lacking in hospitality.

If you want to do the cause justice, Mark - encourage good behavior and validate it, rather than mock it. Your tactics have their place and work well for politics and rhetoric and CIA-type deception and propaganda... but I suspect they are suspect when it comes to the Kingdom of God. The ends never justify the means.

In short, Mark, if you want to make a difference, be kind. Be charitable. Don't be a clanging cymbal. Love is never rude or boastful. That goes for all you liberal lefties out there, too... as well as my own self; I know that I can be a jerk too.

God forgive me. And God forgive all of us for making His Kingdom an ideological playground.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Dividing By Zero

You know, division in the United Methodist Church is, in essence, almost like dividing by zero. In mathematical terms, it is an expression that has no meaning. In practical terms, it cripples us. About 12 years ago, a divide by zero error on board the naval cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-48) computers brought down all the machines on the network, and their propulsion system failed. It stalled out over a weekend while in port.

My Labor Day was pretty quiet until I got a phone call from an old friend regarding something he had read about the United Methodist Church. I told him what our denomination's stance was on the issue and said he must have misread the article. So then I looked it up... and I owed my friend an apology.

For a long time, my denomination has been in a power struggle: left versus right. Or, to use dirty (and now meaningless) words: "Liberal" and "Conservative." Church liberals now want to be called "progressives." I am sure the church conservatives will be thinking up a new label for themselves before too long to keep up.

Every General Conference, we "fight" over homosexuality. And every General Conference, we keep things basically the same (the vote margin is getting maybe a little larger). But neither side ever wants to let it go. More importantly, neither side seems to CARE that while trying to win this argument, the church is hemorrhaging - numerically, spiritually, and financially. In essence, whether intended or not, regardless of what side we stand, we have made homosexuality a juggernaut and idol. Our love for or against the argument has gone from concern to ridiculous. As if we can blame the hemorrhaging of the UMC on homosexuality!

This article has been posted by the General Board of Church and Society. It is entitled "Sex and the Church: Adolescent Sexuality," and while there were certainly some good points in it, there were some that were indefensible. A great point was this:
Parenting style can make a big difference in teenagers’ sexual decisions. In homes where parents talk to their teens about their sexuality values and have regular discussions about sexuality, their children are more likely to delay having sexual intercourse.
And then there is this quote:
More than 15 years ago, I developed a framework for a moral sexual relationship. I believe, based on my more than 30 years as a sexuality educator and now as a minister, that a moral, ethical sexual relationship — whether one is married or single, 16 or 35 or 80, gay, bisexual or straight — is defined by five criteria: It is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected, if any type of intercourse occurs.
So if the General Boards don't like what the denomination decides about itself, it'll just stick our noses in what they think is right and rub it in until we get it right? As a pastor who vowed to uphold the Discipline, how can I teach one thing about United Methodism and then have an official agency of the church teach something at variance with it?

Of course, the other side is no better. While not an official agency of the United Methodist Church, one poster of a bulletin board gives the article this moniker: "GBCS - Sex, Church and Rock and Roll." Like a lot of titles this gentleman gives his news articles about the UMC, it's at best a half-truth and more like gossip (I mean, where was the Rock and Roll!?).

If we were to make a movie, I think the Confessing Movement could be played by Fox News and our Boards and Agencies could be played by CNN. Ugh.

Of course, I'm probably contributing to the cause by giving both of these sides any press at all. When faithfulness and honesty won't work, there's always slander, talking heads, and sensationalism. Ever watch or listen to the news? We certainly get our attitudes and strategies to deceive honestly! We can be good at bullying people and try to slam them into submission. It strikes me as odd sometimes that some of those who push inclusivity the hardest seem to be the ones who are the least tolerant of those different from them.

Why does the American Church LOVE to mirror U.S. politics? Why do we pick one side, hate the other - when neither side holds a monopoly on truth nor is free from sin (and picks and chooses their whipping boy sins at that)? It would make a whole lot more sense to be on the Lord's side. But that's just not politically correct - for either side.

Jesus wasn't liberal or conservative: he was radical. That means he *issed just about everyone off around him because he did what God wanted Him to do, not what society or any group expected. I heard a judge once say that when she made a decision of law in court that didn't make either lawyer happy, she knew she'd made the right decision.

Conservatives often (not always) seem to be lacking in grace. Liberals often (not always) seem to be lacking in accountability. Both understand covenant in THEIR terms, but not necessarily in God's terms. Life in the Body of Christ can be wonderful. But it is often messy. I know that my house doesn't clean itself.

From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. - Luke 12:52-53
Jesus didn't come to make us happy or justify "our side." He came to set us free. Why fight it?


Monday, August 31, 2009

Do We Need to Reconsider Seminary-Trained Clergy?

I learned the other day that a candidate for the ordained ministry in another annual conference was deferred ordination not because he didn't measure up to doctrinal or psychological issues or didn't have the gifts for preaching or teaching; he had too much educational debt (for those of you not United Methodist, ordination candidates are asked, "Are you presently in debt as to embarrass you in your ministry?").

After doing some checking, I discovered that the average student gets out of undergraduate school at a public university with about $21k of debt, a 108% increase from 10 years ago (God only knows what the average debt is from a private school). In looking around at United Methodist related seminaries (the encouraged education of UM clergy), the average seminary debt (3 years of graduate school) is presently running around $30k. That's really not that bad, considering a year's tuition and at Duke Divinity runs $21,640, a year at Emory runs $15,500, a year at Asbury $14,400, and a year at Garrett-Evangelical $15,600 (I didn't include yearly living expenses, which estimates run $11k to $18k a year).

So let's say an ordination candidate gets the minimum education required and comes out of undergraduate and graduate school with "average" educational debt. That will be $51k. The problem is that the minimum salary for seminary graduates ranges from $25k (Rio Grand) to $47k (Western New York). In other words, the debt load (at least from a financial institution's viewpoint) is unacceptable given the income of the individual.

My education has served me well: I have diplomas from the University of Tennessee and Emory University hanging on the wall of my office. My educational debt? $0. I got 1/2 of my undergraduate tuition covered since my father was UT faculty, and I was able to work to pay the other half. I received a fellowship for seminary that paid my tuition and served as a student pastor for a place to live and living expenses. My situation was not - and is not - the norm, I fear.

Are we pricing ourselves out of ministry? One blogger suggests so ("Can We Afford Seminary?"). And more to the point, does the M.Div really serve the Church well? Has it contributed to the life of the Church or exacerbated clericalism? Do we see the role of clergy as "keepers of the faith" or do we see clergy leadership and preaching as part of what the Church does as a whole body?

I am convinced that God doesn't need our M.Div degrees, but I am equally convinced that God does not need our ignorance either. However, we might be better served going back of the very traditional model of local seminaries and apprenticeships as opposed to a professional degree. For one, it's much, much cheaper. For another, the last 50-70 years when M.Div's have become the norm have not seen a marked increase in the number of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. - in fact, we have gotten smaller.

Perhaps we would be served much better by a work-study type of program, night classes, online study, and the like. Some say this is dumbing down - but the reality is, especially in the United Methodist Church where the "average" church is less than 150 folks, that we probably need fewer M.Div graduates and more folks who are spiritually formed and called. It certainly worked for 1900 years.

The other alternatives are not viable ones: higher clergy salaries are not realistic. Raising church apportionments to cover the total costs of seminary graduates is unrealistic as well. And as a seminary education necessarily takes place in a private university, private education is not cheap. I am just wondering how long this present model will work: we can't require folks to get an education to be qualified and then tell them they are carrying too much educational debt so we won't ordain them.

I think are kidding ourselves if we think this problem will simply go away. If I were 44 years old with a family and felt the call to preach, I don't think I could do it in the United Methodist Church: I couldn't afford it unless a rich uncle paid my way... and I am fairly sure I don't have any rich uncles.

Perhaps a model the General Board of Ministry should consider is a localized seminary option (it worked in the Early Church for a long long time). Maybe we've bought into American consumerism too much and just tried to "buy" what we need instead of doing the hard work ourselves.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009


[from Newsletter 8-26-09]

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-changes, Oh, look out you rock n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-changes, Pretty soon now you’re gonna get a little older
Time may change me, But I cant trace time
- David Bowie, 1971

No one likes to face the strain of getting older. The first time I heard this song I was in the fourth or fifth grade. Now that I’m realizing that there may be fewer days ahead than there are behind, I understand the song better. David Bowie knew 38 years ago that even “rock n rollers” were going to get older and face the strain of change and getting older.

We all witnessed changes in our sanctuary furniture the past three weeks. I heard people say they liked the new changes. I heard people say that they didn’t. Folks were mad I changed things. Folks were mad that I changed them back. Some didn’t like the way the choir looked. Many liked a central pulpit. Others want a split chancel (pulpit/lectern) with a central table.

The reality is I can make historical, theological, and liturgical cases for each configuration. The split chancel and central altar-table comes from the Roman Catholic tradition (although the pulpit is supposed to be stage right and the lectern stage left – ours are opposite of that). A central or single pulpit (called an ambo) comes from the Protestant tradition. To have the chancel (“stage”) as elevated as we have it at RUMC is really more from the evangelical/free tradition than liturgical tradition. Our choir sits in the very front of the church, which is also from the evangelical/free tradition. If we were following traditional church architecture, the choir should either be split in half facing each other (with the altar/table in the very front of the church) or should be in the balcony.

We obviously are a mixture of all of these – which is neither right nor wrong. It has served us well for many years. My purpose is moving some of the things around was to look at the possibilities for the future. Change is inevitable, and if we want to continue to make disciples for Jesus Christ, we have to be sure we are ready for the everchanging world to communicate the Gospel as clearly and effectively as we can.

One of the things the last Council on Ministries meeting did was to make a recommendation for a new wor-ship chairperson, and empowering the worship committee to explore how we might commission a new worship service to reach out to the younger adults and unchurched of our area. This worship service will no doubt look differently than the two present services that we have. It might result in having a third service. It will take a lot of study and prayer to discern what will work best for us. However, we have a finite amount of space, and a new worship service will necessarily mean flexibility in our present space to accommodate musicians, different modes of preaching and communicating the Word, and other aspects that we have not even considered yet.

Is this different? Yes. Will it mean changes? Yes. Will all of us like them? No. Being the traditionalist that I am, I am quite sure I will not like them either. But I don’t think God cares what we like and what we don’t: he asks us that if we love Him, we will feed his sheep.

Are we willing to make changes to feed the sheep and make disciples? That is something we will have to pray about.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Church: Ditch “Liberal” and “Conservative.” Let the Politicians Have Them

No one knows what these words mean anymore – we choose one and if people are not like us, then they must be the other and they are bad.

Be forewarned. This is a rant.

Take worship. I think we ought to celebrate Eucharist weekly or actually follow the order of worship as proscribed in the Hymnal and Book of Worship, and when I advocate it, someone envariably tells me, “Some professor espoused that liberal stuff in seminary.” When I point out that our liturgy basically follows the same form as the liturgy of Justin Martyr (ca 155 A.D.), I get a blank stare. And if I am feeling particularly impish, I might even start singing, “Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” So really, to NOT worship in this manner is quite liberal, since the Church basically worshiped this way for nearly 1700 years.

And if I get the, “Well, it certainly isn’t Methodist,” I will quickly quote John Wesley from his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion:
Let every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God, and consult the good of his own soul, by communicating every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord's day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint's day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament. What opinion they had of any who turned his back upon it, we may learn from that ancient canon: "If any believer join in the prayers of the faithful, and go away without receiving the Lord's Supper, let him be excommunicated, as bringing confusion into the church of God."
Receiving communion regularly (i.e., weekly or more) has always been the norm in Christianity. To receive it once a month is quite a liberal notion, historically and theologically!

It’s funny that the folks crying “liberal” in church the most are actually the ones who are the most liberal (in the real sense of the word, anyway). So that’s why these words really aren’t that helpful, much less accurate. The words have been bastardized and politicized into labels.

It also makes Christian orthodoxy more difficult to explain. In United Methodism, we have a Book of Discipline that continues to grow larger and larger and also continues to be ignored more and more. To overgeneralize: “Liberals” often don’t follow the covenant of what the UMC says about homosexuality. “Conservatives” often don’t follow the liturgy and worship resources that all ordained ministers vowed to accept. Neither takes the phrase to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” very seriously – we pick and choose what we follow and what we won’t. Our covenant is qualified, not bonafide.

It seems that neither liberals nor conservatives like the Creeds – liberals don’t want to say “born of the Virgin Mary” and conservatives don’t want to say “Catholic Church.” Liberals want to wake us up with United Methodism at Risk in condescending tone and Mark Tooley leads the conservatives with Taking Back the United Methodist Church in a Christian’s-Guide-to-Voting kind of way. The only differences in the books are in ideology; their tones are the same and, in my opinion, unacceptable. So are the results: zilch. In fact, less than zilch – despite the effort, money, and diatribe of both sides, the UMC is still losing members, infrastructure, and witness.

As a pastor for 22 years, my read about people in the pews is this: the fights of the conservatives and the liberals, at least in United Methodism, is a fight that the extremes created to “take control.” It was not the fight of the average Joe and Jane. But they do have a dog in the hunt: while the extremes are fighting over homosexuality and political bent, people in the pews are starving, being abused from neglect, and dying of thirst. The shepherds, both clergy and lay leaders of our denomination, are fighting amongst themselves and allowing the flock to wither. Spiritual maturity has been co-opted by power plays and renewal groups in order that the correct “side” might prevail and finally be in charge. I wonder if there will be a flock left to shepherd when the smoke clears.

We don’t need “conservatives” and “liberals” - and Christ certainly doesn't. We don’t need folks fighting for power. We need radicals in the image of Christ who are willing to yield rather than control. I’m tired of the fighting over homosexuality (for it or against it) under the guise of family values when we haven’t even mastered the basics of living in community yet much less in making disciples; it’s akin to holding an A.A. meeting in a pub. I’m weary over fighting about equality and diversity and tolerance and the value of each human being and what they hold dear, yet we can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer because it might offend someone. We have become so generic in our language in our attempts to be “inclusive” and in the process have rendered ourselves impotent to make change and foster relationships with God our Father and His children (and yes, I said Father rather than some generic and modalistic Creator – I’d rather risk offending someone than risk calling God nothing).

As I’ve said before, Methodism has done a 360° instead of a 180°. We're right back where Wesley started, I think. The Method is great, and I think we tried to improve it instead of follow it. It may be that making things simple makes faith easier to embrace and follow and live, thus giving it strength and power and propheticness.

At a small group study at our church, the question was asked, “How does God redeem all Creation?” One great answer came from a wise older woman, “That’s all on us.” It's such a good statement: it is on us: We either surrender to God or we don’t. We either seek a relationship with Christ AND our brothers and sisters or remain self-serving and individualistic. If we DO seek a relationship with God, we need to be ready to embrace the costs – and the rewards. The question is: are we willing to risk enough to love God as God loves us?

That’s pretty radical, isn’t it?


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Vacation Bible School - Night One

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." - Matthew 19:14
We are doing Group Magazine's "Crocodile Dock" as our VBS material this year - and it has been a hit! We had 65 children for our first evening together, and we are excited.

Just like our FaithWeaver Friends during the school year, VBS takes a host of volunteers to make it happen and work. Our sanctuary has been transformed into a dock in the bayou, and the art work and creativity present remind me how gifted we are as a church.

I've posted a few pics from yesterday (courtesy of Andrea Underwood - click on any to enlarge them). How blessed we are, and how blessed to be a blessing.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stuff that Ought to Matter

There has been some good and challenging stuff written lately regarding Methodism. Some topics include:
  1. The Methodist Church in Britain is going to bar members of racist political parties from becoming full members of the Church. It doesn't mean that they cannot attend church, but does emphasize that racism is denial of the Gospel.
  2. Ted Campbell of SMU/Perkins School of Theology has written a commentary, "Seven things I hate about UMC."
  3. Shane Raynor, one of the "gurus" of the Methoblogosphere, has written a blog entitled, "How to Get a New Pastor Without Going to the Bishop." He makes the bold observation that some pastors may not be among the converted (which I do not doubt).
1. The news from our Methodist siblings across the pond comes in light of our own denomination wrestling with a (poorly worded) amendment that would have mandated membership for anyone seeking it. There is always the danger that in the quest to be inclusive, we instead become generic - and generic is nothing. It stands for nothing, and stands against nothing. Most certainly, the Gospel bends toward justice, and what could be more injust that rubber stamping church membership in a Christian Church. That doesn't mean that we exclude folks from coming, but we do have standards for those who confess and profess Christ.

2. Ted Campbell always challenges us with boldness and bluntness. Perhaps his best "in our face" has to do with the way we do conference in most of our annual conferences. He says this:
If we’re not really going to confer about anything, there’s no point in holding a conference. We can approve committee reports by e-mail. And no, I do not intend to read them...

What’s the cost/benefit ratio for holding these conferences every year, especially where people must sleep in hotels, eat meals in restaurants and drive 150 miles each way? Is this helping us? Would the life of local congregations come to a grinding halt if we didn’t hold the annual conference every year? What are we accomplishing?
Amen and bravo. What if we actually conferenced at annual conference, in the manner of the means of grace Wesley saw conferencing? What if we instructed folks on how to do evangelism and how to make disciples (which is our Great Commission... and currently, we stink at it). I say we do business at conference by a consent calendar, submit reports in writing to whomever wants to read them, do whatever voting we have to have, and then do something that benefits the kingdom instead of ourselves! Annual conference is so clergy and "professional lay person" driven regarding salaries, pension, and insurance that it makes me ashamed how self-absorbed we clergy are and how clergy-focused and clergy-driven we are, and how pitiful we are at being Christ- and Kingdom-driven. We are currently servants all right... servants of ourselves.

3. And what can be said about clergy who aren't converted, much less spiritual leaders? There is no doubt we suffer from spiritual malnutrition, but our clergy may be contributing to the hunger instead of feeding us. If that's true, our bishops and superintendents need to address that, and address it quickly. Wesley certainly gives us the guide and model for that.

Good stuff - worth pondering, praying, cussing, and discussing about.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Play Like a Girl

That phrase doesn't mean what it used to. In fact, I've never ever said that in my life (I know better). I grew up in Martin, Tennessee, and playing like a girl meant that you were pretty good.

I was at a doctor's office early this morning in Paducah, and heard on local television that Nadine Gearin died - and I am in mourning.

Nadine was (I think) the first women's basketball coach at UT Martin, coaching from 1969-74. In 1971, her team went to the first national basketball tournament (at that time, it was called the Division of Girls and Women's Sports). On that team was a young woman and basketball standout from Cheatham County High School, Trish Head. You might know her now as Pat (Head) Summitt.

I don't know how widespread Nadine's death will be in the sports world; if it is not, it will be a crime against women's athletics. Nadine and Bettye Giles (who was the athletic director at UT Martin for many years) are the ones who helped Pat get her first - and only - coaching job at the University of Tennessee. Nadine was once quoted to say that she coached basically so that the women at the school would have an opportunity to play basketball. But I know better than that. (the above picture, from left to right: Bettye Giles, Pat Summitt, Nadine Gearin, as pictured in UT Martin's Campus Scene, Summer/Fall 2003 - an article well worth reading.)

I was a little kid when our women at UT Martin went to the national tournament. But I remember the hoopla, and I remember when Pat was selected to be on the USA Olympic team. All of that rubbed off on a lot of us. My high school girls' team always did well in post-season play, and Martin Westview has won several state tournaments. I once made the mistake of playing in a choose-up basketball game at the end of a girls basketball practice (I have the worst shot in the history of humankind). I was guarding Lyn Franklin, and she was posted up on the low post. I was determined that if she got the ball I was going to block her shot. She got the ball, and the next thing I knew I was sweeping dust across the lane. She threw a hip on me that sent me scattering. She learned that, I am sure, from Julia (White) Brundige, who was Lyn's middle school coach... who played basketball with Pat and squad at UT Martin. Coached by Nadine Gearin. Coincidence? I think not.

I really didn't know Nadine until I was an adult. When I was about to graduate from college, the records office called me and told me I was short 3 hours of physical education. So I signed up for a basketball class - and the professor's name next to the class schedule was "N. Gearin." I was going to get to have the coach for class.

She agreed that I had the worst basketball shot she'd ever seen. And she just didn't throw out basketballs and send us playing. We had written tests. We set up offenses and defenses. Went over the basics of screening, posting, running and breaking the press - all the fundamentals. Nadine knew I had started officiating basketball and she gave me some great advice: "McCracken, learn and study what the coaches are learning in coaching clinics. Know how the offenses are executed. You should know that coaches are always looking for a leg-up when it comes to the officials - don't get suckered by their charm." That's advice that has served me well.

I later got to know her when I moved back to Martin after seminary. I think the second time I saw her at a restaurant or at Walmart and called her "coach," she told me, "Sky, call me Nadine."

I am thinking about how much Coach Summitt has done for women's athletics in the United States. Girls/women's softball is big, big, big. Volleyball is slowly gaining respect as a high school and intercollegiate sport. And of course, women's college basketball is now televised regularly. Nadine Gearin, Bettye Giles, and UT Martin were a foundational and pivotal part of that.

I hope and pray that sports historians will take note of the passing of Coach Nadine Gearin. "Playing like a girl" has become a compliment because of her legacy.