Monday, July 26, 2010

Nurturing Community, Encouraging Family

As I've shared in previous blogs, I retired from the fire service in June of 2001 after serving for several years in paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer capacities. It gave me the opportunity to meet many wonderful and devoted folks, and yesterday I attended the funeral of one of these folks, a man named Joe Drewry. Joe lost his life after a brief struggle with cancer. He was 72.

His son Tony asked me if I could participate in the funeral by presiding over the Last Alarm-Bell Ceremony - a part of the liturgy of a firefighter funeral in which we honor the life of the deceased and honor his last call to Eternal Life. I couldn't say no. The good news was that my Class A uniform that I retired in still fit. The bad news was the occasion in which to wear it.

I knew Joe by reputation before I ever met him personally. He was the father of a college classmate, and I was not disappointed when I met him in person. He lived up to what I had heard about him, and more. I've seen men who loved their community, but never one quite like Joe.

Joe was a twin, and he and his brother Jerry began their lives with a rough start; their mother died a day after giving them birth from delivery complications. Their father raised them on his own. More tragedy in his life: he buried his wife 24 years ago, and buried his older son Burt last year. All of those things could have created a very angry and bitter man.

That wasn't Joe. He was one of the most affable men I ever knew.

Joe was a Boy Scout leader. He taught hunter safety classes to children and youth. And he served the Greenfield Fire Department for 52 years, in capacities ranging from firefighter to training officer to deputy chief. He went on a fire call as late as 2009. He also wrote several grants for their fire department, one of them allowing their town to achieve a Class Four insurance rating. That is quite a feat for most municipalities, but an incredible feat for an all-volunteer department in a town of 2000 folks.

At graveside, when he was paged over the department radio and we heard the silence of him not responding, I began to weep. Not just because he wasn't answering, but because I know fewer and fewer people answer such a call to service anymore. Not just to volunteer firefighting, but to service to their communities. After the radio dispatcher gave a period of silence after calling his unit number, she responded that Deputy Chief Joe Lane Drewry was released from answering any more alarms. Her last words were overcome with emotion. It seemed to me not just the end of Joe's life and service, but a death knell to all the Joe Drewrys in the world: those who love their community and give back more than they were given. Those who loved children besides their own to pass on legacy and experience and love. Those who believe it takes sacrifice and investment for their communities to thrive and grow.

The body of Christ, the Church, is far from just an institution - it is a family. The Greek word is oikos, which means household, but even that definition doesn't do the word justice. "Family-like community" might be more accurate. It describes what the family of God should be like. It is part of God's design. It allows us to be disciples and to make disciples. We practice being the Kingdom of God so we can proclaim the Kingdom to all.

Communities are living entities, and like living entities they require nurture and care. Joe, and people like him, are the lifeblood of communities. It is so very similar to the way Christ modeled community life and sacrifice to us. It doesn't have to be drudgery - I cannot recall Joe doing much in his life that he hated. It was certainly hard work, but Joe was in the middle doing it.

I am reminded of a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together:
The...service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness... Nobody is too good for the meanest (i.e., most menial) service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God... [I]t is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. - from Life Together, reprinted 1954, p. 99
An investment in our community is an investment in the family of God. It is an extension of our discipleship. And it is a practice of our love for brother and sister. I hope folks like Joe aren't the exception, and that they become the rule. We are created to live in community, and not as individuals.

Such is the family of God. So give. Nurture. Encourage.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Nurture and Cultivate Spiritual Disciplines and Patterns of Holiness"

"Nurture and cultivate spiritual disciplines and patterns of holiness..." That's not from The Rule of St. Benedict. Nor is it from an objective of a spiritual growth retreat. It is ¶304.1 (b) of the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist's canon law, under the heading "Qualifications for Ordination."

In midst of the numerical decline of much of Protestantism, it seems that we are putting a great deal of emphasis on hospitality, worship, church programming, and communications - and we should be, because those are certainly areas that need shoring up. But when you talk to pastors about spirituality, spiritual direction, spiritual disciplines, etc., you often get a stare in return. I've even heard some say, "That's just too personal." I even heard this one once: "It's all about Jesus, preaching the Word, and getting into the Bible. That spirituality stuff is too Catholic." The smart ass in me considered quoting Scripture to this learned colleague about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but I resisted. So I simply asked him, "If it's all about Jesus (and it is!), but we can't teach people to pray and be Christologically grouded and formed, who will?" His response was classic: "Well, people should get that at home."

The problem is, I heard that EXACT same thing said when I served on an advisory committee at the seminary I graduated from - by a colleague who should have known better. I had voiced my concern that while we were giving a good theological and historical education, we were doing very little, if any, spiritual formation. To which I was told, "That's not the job of the seminary. Pastors get that on their own." I was much younger at the time and so I kept my young mouth shut. Now I wish I had opened it a little.
But do seminaries engage their students in a conversation about the gravity of choices that they will face or prepare them to make those choices? Does the larger shape of theological education draw their attention to the formative character of the questions asked and answered by its professors? Does the shape of their preparation help them to grasp the difference between a vocation that demands a certain kind of performance from them and the vocation into which they have been called, which requires them to be the kind of people who are possessed by that "basic sense" of what is being asked of them? Are their professors prepared to shape souls as well as intellects? When they graduate, do students have the sense that they have already embarked on that vocation?

As a product of, and participant in, theological education for over three decades, I am inclined to think that the answer to these and other questions is, more often than not, "no."
- Frederick W. Schmidt, "What Is Being Asked of You? Canonical Theism and Theological Education", from Canonical Theism, 2008, pp. 273-4.
Schmidt goes on to say that the blame can be place into three areas:
  • The quest for credibility from the larger academic community - which preferred historical discussions over faith and spiritual experience.
  • The adoption of the university model for graduate education - which drove professors to be more specialized in a few disciplines and led to religious vocational amnesia
  • The issues of praxis which diverted the theological task away from spiritual formation towards the importance of leadership, administrative prowness, psychological therapist, and social prophecy
In short, we're teaching pastors a lot about church administration, biblical form criticism, systematic theology (the Barth & Tillich show), social psychology (the Freud and Jung show), and philosophy of religion (the Schleiermacher and Schopenhauer show). I learned these things - and they are certainly important things.

But what about lectio divina? Patristics (the Early Church Fathers)? Prayer offices? Spiritual disciplines? Spiritual discernment? Incarnational theology? Pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit)? Sacramental theology? Discipleship and disciple-ing? Sanctification? I was very blessed by Don Saliers and Ted Hackett, mentors of mine, to develop an interest and passion for these things. But it was self-directed - it was not a mandatory part of the seminary curriculum for United Methodists (or any other Protestants), and to my knowledge it still is not. That leads me to believe we need to quit calling them "seminaries" and start calling them "schools of theology." Good information, but no anchor or undergirding of where these things fit in a life lived with Christ.

If we clergy cannot locate ourselves in our Christian quest and pilgrimage, we certainly cannot lead our churches to see where they are located in the Kingdom of God. We cannot lead with any sense of spiritual or theological authority (only that which is granted by the Book of Discipline!). We cannot tell the Christian story from a standpoint of faith - just from the standpoint as recorded by history.

Schmidt says, most importantly, those who teach present and future clergy must "remember that it is not enough to learn what it is that clergy do. They need to be in touch with what it is that clergy are meant to become. Their own relationship with God, their growth in faith, and the practice of spiritual disciplines are keys to that becoming and to the knowing that accompanies it. In turn, those same experiences are indispensable to the seminarians' own ability to make disciples of others." (p. 285)

If we pastors are mandated to "nurture and cultivate spiritual disciplines and patters of holiness" for our congregations (and we are), then we had better learn them ourselves. According to the Book of Discipline, it's not just "Catholic" - it's Methodist, too. I'm convinced it's Christian to the core.

Sounds like we better get on this. Soon.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Standard: Does It Make Disciples?

I recently read an operational assessment of the United Methodist Church - a very critical look at our denomination and its effectiveness. In reviewing some of my former blogs, a lot of what I was perceiving (and fearing) was confirmed by the assessment. Rather that gloat, I would hope we would prayerfully consider the changes we need to make to be faithful to God and His Kingdom as United Methodists.

One main observation is that there is too much "distance" between the local church, the Annual Conference, and the General Church. That is probably not a real shocker to most folks in the local church, but I suspect annual conferences and the General Church find this at best hard to believe and at worst are in denial that this is the perception. However, General Agencies and Annual Conference agencies often find themselves competing against each other (ever listen to or read Annual Conference reports?). Plus, some General Church work often alienates or sends mixed signals to local and even Annual Conference work (remember the infamous UMW study on Israel and Palestine?). This serves to confuse folks, and sometimes leaving the person in the pew to wonder, "Is anyone leading us? Is there any rhyme and reason to our denomination?" One particularly negative impression from some interviewed for the assessment even remarked, "[The agencies] 'dictate rather than serve.'" That's not good.

Another observation was one I made a few years ago, that jurisdictions are a "middle entity" that need to be discontinued. This was also mentioned in the assessment: "Our finding is that the costs (in distance and in dollars) may not be justified by the 'benefit' that is delivered by the Jurisdictional Conference structures." Basically, jurisdictions elect bishops; other than that, anything else is redundant to what General Church and Annual Conference structures do. Why not elect them at General Conference, as was the case for many years? Added to the fact that the costs are not worth the benefit, Jurisdictional conferences were birthed mainly from racism. Why keep that vestige around? I don't buy the argument that it's a matter of tradition or heritage: that seems akin to the "Heritage not Hate" stickers I occasionally see on bumpers with the Rebel Flag.

As far as effective leadership, the assessment gives the UMC a bleak future: we have no clarity of mission or responsibility (who does what?), we have lots of distrust of both the leaders and institutional church, and we cannot define competency. One interviewee was quoted to say that the Church "has a systemic allergy to authority." We probably got that honestly, starting with the earliest Methodist preachers who sometimes referred to John Wesley as "Pope John."

I think the obvious question is, "Do we want to make disciples?" And if we do, we have to throw out some of the old standby arguments we used to hold dear and challenge them, like, "Numbers don't have anything to do with ministry." As a friend of mine said, if I have three children and take them to the park, and only come back with two, my wife probably won't settle for me saying, "But honey, just think how much better we can raise these two children as opposed to three!!" And, as Jason Byassee reminds us, numbers aren't bean-counting; numbers DO matter and their upward trend is a sign of church health.

John Wesley certainly wasn't a perfect human being; his marriage was a tragedy and he could be downright boorish at times. But the Method of Methodism was genius, and proven. It involves trust in Christ, vulnerability in spirit, and willingness to be obedient and faithful.

We will have to own up to our mistakes (and I use the collective "our" because we CLAIM to be one in Christ and to be in a Connection). We will have to realize that our pensions might run out. We will have to realize that guaranteed pastoral appointments and salaries, General Church Agencies, and other entities are not realistically sustainable with current membership decline and rising costs. We will have to objectively diagnose ourselves and embrace the reality that we are dying - and do something about it rather than give into the insanity of continuing to do the same thing and expecting things to change.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE good things happening. There ARE faithful folks making disciples. And there are churches in the UMC who are growing. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and we often intellectually dismiss them! "Well, that's not Methodist what they're doing!" Unfortunately, some of these same objections could have been lodged at Wesley himself. What we call "Methodist" is often more about our likes and dislikes, rather than the Method of making disciples.

For clergy, the temptation is to coast and retire. For laity, the temptation is to go through the motions and emulate (but not build upon) what our parents and grandparents did.

Lead us not into temptation, O Lord...


Friday, July 02, 2010

Chasing Sunsets

Yesterday, I met a fellow biker for supper, and we went on a short ride. It was towards the end of the evening, and we were heading west. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen, and it reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago for a Lenten devotional booklet.

Don't forget to smell the flowers, and watch the sunsets.


Time for What Is Important
It was God who made the great lights, whose love endures forever;
the sun to rule in the day, whose love endures forever;
the moon and stars in the night, whose love endures forever. – Ps. 136:7-9
Perhaps you’ve heard someone complain, “I have so little time.” Such a complaint is self-incriminating: we all have the same twenty-four hours a day. Our days are as long (or short) as our neighbors’ days. They are as long as the days Jesus experienced.

I’ve discovered the allure of riding a motorcycle; I don’t think it’s a rebellious spirit or flirting with danger – to be safe, you have to constantly scan the road ahead and ride on constant guard, thus leaving your mind little time to dwell in worries, minutia, or self-absorption. It’s an opportunity to slow down and clear my mind of “clutteredness.”

I chase sunsets (at legal speeds). The north star that is constant and sure leads me home at night. Within my quieted mind, I find myself being reminded to thank God for daily blessings that I usually overlook because “I don’t have time to notice.”

What I have been taught is that if I am disciplined enough to observe it, I can find daily blessings in anything I do. Driving down the road, watching the crops grow and mature. Singing silly but joyful songs with our children or grandchildren. Washing clothes and realizing the cleansing and life-giving gift of water. Changing the oil on a vehicle and marveling at God’s gift of intellect that created the engine. Stopping to look at the people around us at work and realizing that they’re fellow brothers/sisters in Christ.

Our busy schedules can allow us to forget the blessings around us. But allowing ourselves to be transformed by God can strengthen us to defeat the enemy of time, and find it instead to be our ally. And perhaps, on occasion, we can take time out to marvel at a sunrise, chase a sunset, and smile back at the moon. All gifts from God.

Sky McCracken
Lent, 2005