Monday, May 28, 2012

World War II and August, 1945

PFC William Howard McCracken
MIA, April 17, 1945
Monterumici Hill, Italy

My dad lost an older brother in World War II, Howard.  While I never met him, I nonetheless feel a void whenever I think about wars, Memorial and Veterans Days. My cousin, Linda Thomson, has done a lot of genealogical research of our family, including investigating all of the known records about how my uncle went missing near the end of the war in Italy.

I never talked to my father much about Howard, but I heard him give a United Methodist Men's devotional once about death and the need for closure - and how his family never had any closure about Howard. That was the extent of what I really knew about how he dealt with losing a brother and yet having no body to bury. Another uncle, Dewey, served in WW II as well, but remained stateside as an aircraft mechanic. My uncle Ed was the last to see Howard, taking him to a movie and then dropping him off at a train station for a late train ride to service.

As progressive as my father was about some things, he was never a pacifist. When I asked him about it once, he said, "You can't let innocent people get beaten up." And I think he's right. Which explains why he did not try to get out of being drafted when Korea came, and he served as a radio operator in the infantry. He was in Korea when the war (police action) ended... and came home. While I have never heard anyone say anything about it, I imagine his parents were thankful beyond measure.

Dad left us a lot of his writings over the years, and below is a poem he wrote about his memories about the bombs being dropped in Japan. Like most war veterans, Dad rarely talked about his experience of it. And while he was too young to have served in World War II, having lost a brother in it affected him and his family in ways I can't begin to imagine. However, this poem probably tells me more about what he thought about war than anything.

PFC Kenneth Don McCracken
Outside Communications Tent, Korea
AUGUST, 1945
By Dr. Don McCracken, as published in Songs from the North Fork

I forgot to do something yesterday.
I forgot to be thankful that I did not know that now we could destroy the world.
We have now demonstrated that [we] can destroy sizable chunks of it.
Cities lay in ruin yesterday; now the earth might lie in ruins.
The war is now over in Europe; soon it will be over in Asia.
But at what cost!
At the cost of power to destroy the earth.

I don’t want to die; I am only fifteen;
But I have seen people die; more than that, I have heard of millions dying.
Man’s inhumanity to man has been pushed to the limit;
Yet, many of us survive.

But, now the potential for destruction has magnified
When man wants to be inhumane, he can do it in mass fashion.
It might take a while for the bombs like that dropped on Hiroshima to destroy Everything;
But this is the first model, and models “improve,” don’t they?
And I fear “Improvement.”

Oh, once, a teacher talked about atomic power and the energy that held atoms together;
And what it would do if it could be unleashed,
But I thought that it was some abstract theory,
And folks say that what’s good in theory won’t work in practice.
But the folks are wrong; the theory works. I wish it didn’t.

I want to live, but it is more than that.
I want to be survived.
When other people died, others survived them; I want the same;
I will die happier if I know others still live.
For years, I have dreamed about the end of the war;
And now that it is over, my dream has changed to a nightmare.

I pray that, one day, we as a world may embrace the peace of Christ. War robs us of way too much.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Being a D.S. Doesn't Mean You've Arrived

I've written blogs here and here about being a "new" district superintendent. I don't think I can consider myself new after a year (and two months, twenty-six days, eight hours, and fifty minutes). I'm certainly not an old hand either, but I am convinced of this: being a D.S. doesn't mean you've "arrived." If anything, it tells me how ministry is a quest - and unlike a pilgrimage, one may never "arrive" in the journey of a quest, because it's destination is unknown. We have no idea where following Christ will take us.

While we Methodists don't use the term, being a D.S. is akin to being a suffragan or auxiliary bishop in the Catholic or Anglican traditions; you don't ordain or make rulings of canon/church law, but, because an episcopal area is so large it is impossible for one sole person to perform all the tasks of oversight, you perform the administrative and managerial work of the Church, and assist the bishop in the appointing and overseeing of pastors and churches.

At one time, D.S.'s were chosen based on seniority, who was "due", or where you were located on the infamous "salary sheet" that some clergy had obtained (but don't tell anyone where you got it!) that had been photocopied so many times as to be almost illegible. In a day where United Methodism is in so need of change, however, I think we are seeing a shift towards adaptive leadership, and bishops are giving new thought to who should be on a cabinet. While Bishop Will Willimon has often provoked ire among many, I think his new book Bishop is helping the UMC clarify the role of bishop and superintendent: Bishops need to be primarily leaders, D.S.'s need to be primarily managers. There is of course overlap; leadership and management are companions, and in these days in the Church, both need to be adaptive. How we used to do things has GOT to change, if we want different results. And that means the way D.S.'s are selected, necessarily, has changed. To quote Willimon:
Persons to be considered for the role of DS need not have been in their clergy careers the greatest preachers, the most learned teachers, or the most caring pastors. They must be leaders who have taken opportunities in their churches for risk-taking in order to produce change and managers who are willing to shoulder the responsibilities of supervision.
Later in the book, he raises the difficulty that few clergy have the experience of making tough decisions and making critical judgments about other people. However, in the UMC, if bishops and D.S.'s don't do this, no one else will. I suspect the best candidates for D.S. might be second-career folks who were previously in management where they evaluated others job-performance, hired and fired employees, and made decisions directly bearing on the life or death of a business. One of my colleagues on the cabinet is a former nurse who supervised other nurses and made life-or-death decisions every day. While I have been in ordained ministry longer than she has, I envy her supervisory and managerial experience. I suspect 20+ years as a college and high-school basketball and baseball official, learning good listening and game-management skills, has been as helpful as anything in dealing with pastors and congregations.

Several things keep me humble:
  • The UMC, at least in the U.S., is dying.
  • While I've been in ministry 25 years, most of the people I supervise and deal with are older than me (the median age of our denomination is between 55-59).
  • I am the shepherd of 8900 laypeople and 60-some clergy. Not as large as some districts, or even as a few UMC churches, but large enough to make my insides quake.
  • Assisting in making pastoral appointments is hard, given that the local church is (and should be) the priority, that pastors are less willing to fully itinerate, and that over the years we clergy (myself included) have not obtained the skill-sets we need for the 21st century Church.
  • I used to be one who looked at D.S.'s with disdain, being anti-authority as most younger adults usually are. Now I'm the bureaucrat who probably can't preach his way out of a wet paper bag.
  • The UMC, at least in the U.S., is dying.
The biggest humbler? Jesus Christ is Lord. And as the apostle Paul told us in 1 Timothy, the job of bishops/overseers is to take care and manage God's church. If it's dying, then I am failing.

So have I "arrived?" I can answer that one quickly and succinctly: hell no. At best, being a D.S. is a side-step, not a step up. And in a denomination that is dying, being a manager in it probably isn't the best thing to put on one's resume. 

My prayer is that I am being faithful, am always faithful, and that in making tough decisions and taking risks, I may also be the clay that God can mold and adapt for His will and purpose. 


Sunday, May 20, 2012

180 Years for Broadway UMC Today

Broadway United Methodist celebrates heritage


Sunday is an important day for all Methodists, but Broadway United Methodist Church congregants have a special reason to rejoice.

The picturesque downtown church celebrates 180 years of faith and fellowship Sunday on the annual Methodist Heritage Sunday. Much of the heritage they’ll celebrate surrounds the history of collaboration at Broadway UMC, Sara Penry said. Penry, church historian and chairwoman of anniversary activities, has been with Broadway UMC since 1951. Along with a steadfast building and growing new membership, the church will honor members who have been with the church for 50 years or longer.

Penry recalls the ecumenical efforts over the years. Come Lent and Advent, Broadway UMC members are easily spotted with other downtown churchgoers of differing denominations, she said. Many of the churches originally located downtown have moved to more suburban areas. Twice congregants voted to stay in the original location, rather than following the relocation trend, Penry said.

As the oldest church in Paducah, founded in 1832, Broadway United Methodist Church is intrinsically linked to the history of the city itself, according to Penry. In 1929, lightning hit the church, and the pastor had to hold services in the McCracken County Courthouse. The pastor sat at the judge’s bench and the choir was in the jury box, she said.

Rev. Joe Beal has been senior pastor at Broadway UCM since June 2010. He came in as associate minister in April 2009, when Northside United Methodist Church merged with the downtown location. Beal has enjoyed his time at Broadway UMC largely in part to the community service opportunities. The church also has a strong musical heritage with a choir and hand bell group that continually gives strong performances.

As the church moves closer to its bicentennial, Beal’s hope is bolstered by the growing number of young couples bringing children to services. He hopes the church can continue to honor those with long-time commitments to Broadway United Methodist Church.

Call Rebecca Feldhaus, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651.

© 2012

(Stained glass window dedicated in memory of Rodney Ritchie. Church staff say Ritchie sold his pet canary for $100 to make a contribution to the church building fund in 1895.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Observations and a Few Random Thoughts

I covenanted with a few folks that while I was at General Conference I would only blog about where I saw God and where our prayers ought to be centered - and I think I kept my word. But having a few weeks to digest it all, here are some thoughts, in no particular order of importance or significance.
  • As other bloggers have noted, we don't trust each other. When Plan UMC was presented, one delegate was so distrustful of its birthing that she asked for a "line up" so we could see their racial and gender makeup. I think that's when I knew we had quit looking at people's hearts and were looking at their outside appearance instead. The book was being judged by its cover.
  • We don't trust bishops - and want to give them less empowerment than more. Yet when you look at what effective leadership has to be empowered to do, and what little power our bishops already have, they're doomed to fail. If we really don't want these folks to lead, we might do well to think about not having bishops and save a whole lot of money, get rid of jurisdictions, etc.
  • Is this repairable, or do we need a "restart?" You can restart a local church... maybe we need to restart United Methodism! This was an option that Lyle Schaller posited in The Ice Cube Is Melting. At the next General Conference, on the first day: name the fact that we are more like an association of churches rather than a Connection, that some differences are irreconcilable, and pray and mourn over that. On the second day, vote on a proposal to dissolve the United Methodist Church that morning. If that passes, then create a new denominational structure. No restrictive rules. Keep the Articles of Religion. Avoid the firewalls that currently keep a 1970's structure in place (that wasn't working anyway) for a 21st century church. If that were to fail, my suggestion would be to adopt a "Plan I"... since it seems that we may be destined to do whatever "I" wants anyway.
  • Some liberals/progressives are as bigoted as some conservatives.
  • I officiated college and high school sports for some 28 years, but never witnessed as much venom as I saw on Twitter during GC2012, although #bishopoughstie was amusing. If young people and others who Twittered (Tweeted?) are accusing some of us older folks as intolerant, I wonder how they label themselves.
  • We are dysfunctional beyond description. I don't know if we are receptive to intervention from the Holy Spirit or not.
  • We are claiming to be a global church, but I think it has a serious American problem - we are narcissistic, self-absorbed, and arrogant. A friend of mine who isn't UM told me when he watched the streaming feed, it looked like C-SPAN.
On paper, I think we are the best Church in Christianity, and the method of Methodism is ingenious. But we have lost our method... and I think we lost it long before I was even born.

Most days I am hopeful, and I'm not tempted to despair just yet. But today, I am very sad.

Forgive us, Lord; we don't know what we're doing. But we're willing to listen. I hope.


Saturday, May 05, 2012

Real Church

I am especially thankful to my annual conference for trusting me to be a reserve delegate to General Conference. I pray I have been faithful to that task. I know that I am as frustrated as anyone about the past two weeks.

Everyone has an opinion about what happened here in Tampa/General Conference. I have my own, too. Of course, opinions are like... opinions. Everyone has one. But I think this opinion is an especially good one:
The church exists in its most robust, most consequential form in local congregations. And it is through the witness and ministry of those congregations that new Christians are called to faith, baptized and formed as disciples of Jesus...
Evangelism and witness are Christian practices that faithful Christian men and women pursue in a local community. Worship happens in congregations. And redemptive love must always be given and received from one to another. That love comes first from Christ to the church, and it can then be shared person-to-person.

All this means that ministry is an inescapably intimate reality. As necessary as certain legislation might be from the “top down,” it can only serve in a secondary capacity to the calling upon Christians in their local situations—where life happens, and where salvation is received.

So the future of the church is still largely what it has always been. We—the pastors and laity of the United Methodist Church—must repent, recommit ourselves, and so reinvigorate the life of the church in our day.
- Andrew Thompson, UM Reporter, May 5, 2012
To that, I can only say in my best Kentucky brogue: "Yup."
Almighty God,
Forgive us when we miss the "main thing."
Being and making disciples is what you call us to do, and
we are thankful that you trust us enough to that commission.
These past two weeks, we were more worried about our own "plans"
instead of yours.
Remind us that you are Our Father. And remind us it is "Thy will."
And forgive us, for we are a fallen, flawed, and self-absorbed people.
At the same time, remind us that you can redeem us even when
we are at our most screwed-up and most selfish states
of mind and soul, if we'll only confess, repent, and
do something about it.
Enable us to go home, preach the Gospel clearly, witness
our faith effectively, save the lost, all according to
YOUR plan and call to action.
In Jesus' name. Amen.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Shall We Gather?

Shall we gather? At the shoreline?
Can you hear the voice of God?
Calling follow me, follow me,
follow me to the heart of eternity
where the reign of God is unending...

We sing this every morning as plenary sessions begin - very poignant words set to moving but soothing and inviting music.

It's more than mood music - it's an invitation. I daresay that everyone in this building is a Christian, but are we willing to go deeper than where we are today? To hear the voice of God and to know it might change us, disturb us, move us, and nudge us away from our will toward His will?

To say "yes" to someone who says, "Follow me" is a bold step of trust and faith. We don't know where all following Jesus will take us. To "the heart of eternity" sounds ominous! But the journey starts somewhere.

Shall we gather? Not just at General Conference - but each day?
Almighty God,
As we awake each morning, remind us that we are "us."
You create us with unique gifts, not to keep to ourselves
but to share with each other and the world.
Remind us that the Body of Christ is a body,
and we need each other.
Grant that we may be willing to gather and follow you
wherever you may take us:
trouble, hardship, persecution, hunger, nakedness,
danger, or sword.
And remind us that you are with us - all the way.
We love you - help us to love each other,
so that we may follow you and fish for your children.
In Jesus' name. Amen.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Starting the Conversation

This morning we are going to discussing hot potatoes (you can look them up if you wish). There are strong feelings on both sides. Two of our largest church pastors are proposing an amendment to our church's stance on homosexuality. Their intent is to acknowledge hurt and division while keeping our church's stance. Some will think it is watering down what we have. Others think it doesn't go far enough. And of course, the press is showing up today in droves.

As I walked to the convention center this morning, there were a lot of "huddles" out in the hallway. Some were strategizing, and some were informing each other. I saw the Divine in that some were praying - which is, of course, where the conversation always needs to start. Always.
We talk a lot, O Lord.
We talk and twitter and blog about others,
we talk in derision of those we don't like,
we talk in fear about those we don't know.
Remind us that we can be faithful and true to you,
our beliefs, our doctrine, and our theology
without pointing out the speck in another's eye.
Remind us how the logs in our own eyes
blind us to seeing you, your truth, and your people
as the children of God that they are.
We disagree O God. Help us to disagree agreeably.
Forgive us, O Lord.
In Jesus' name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Help Us Be Faithful, O Lord - Not Liked

I have always prayed that I'm faithful in my decisions, both as a pastor/district superintendent, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I also pray I never make decisions to be liked. But I'm sure from time to time I have failed in doing so - and for that I will always need to confess and repent.

Blogger Maria Dixon is writing some very good blogs about the work of General Conference and what's going on behind the scenes. Her latest blog, The Games We Play, is, in my opinion, spot-on. She communicates very well, she looks objectively at the issues, and says hard, tough, but fair and faithful things about our thoughts and methodology in making hard decisions that help our denomination be as faithful as it can be in making disciples for Jesus Christ. She ends her article this way:
Let’s hope that those intending to play the game obstruction understand the lives they hold in their hands both inside and outside of the Church. If you are against the plan, vote no because you are against the plan. But if you know the plan is a good plan, then the only statement you make by voting against it is that your ego, your way, and your ideology are more important than the Church. If you choose this route, just own it. Don’t hide behind righteous indignation or moral superiority—just call it what it is—your move in the game of destroy the Church. - Maria Dixon, "The Games We Play"
While she is talking about more specific issues (and you might not agree with her specific opinions on the matter), her words should apply to EVERYTHING we do in the name of the Church. We must be as transparent as possible. We must be faithful as possible. We must be prayerful as possible. The question can never be, "Do I like this?" The question has to be, "Is this faithful?"

Even if it's not our idea. Even if voting for such might provoke a lot of criticism. Our task is not to be liked, but to be faithful.
Almighty God,
Give us armor this day so we can act bravely and faithfully,
willing to face tough issues head-on.
Help us replace arrogant presumption with your will,
knowing that it might come from those we might not agree with.
Remind us that to align ourselves with your greatness
often requires us to adopt humility.
As we do the work of the Kingdom today,
may we listen with our ears and our hearts,
and be faithful to what you may be saying to us today -
even through those we don't find ourselves "aligned" with.
Remind us that they are your children too - thus our brother and sister.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper

Patience is power.
Patience is not an absence of action;
rather it is "timing"
it waits on the right time to act,
for the right principles
and in the right way.

― Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
Patience does not always come easy - and at General Conference, it can be a dirty word to some. "Let's get this done already!" "Are we ever going to get done at this pace?" These and similar phrases come early and often.

I suspect patience and wisdom are sisters to each other, and both are related to how we listen to each other and to God. Today, may our patience and wisdom outweigh our need to manage and insist - knowing that God's way is far better than our own.
Almighty God,
Help us to pause this day,
To hear, reflect, and perfect how we act,
How we speak, and how we go forward to do your will.
Help us to remove the "my" and replace it with "our,"
And may we be patient with each other, and with you.
In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.