Pastoral thoughts and musings
Senior Pastor, First Methodist • Downtown Jackson
Jackson, Tennessee USA
Monday, November 07, 2016
Being Binary in a Quantum World
It seems that we are stuck in an either/or, on/off, 0/1 model of behavior. You're either for me/us or against me/us. You're either Democrat or Republican. You're either ______ or ______.
There are fundamental problems with this. It's not Christian. It's not good science. This way of thinking is evidently not just wrong, it's toxic to us as human beings.
It's not Christian. Both scripture and Christian make it plain that we are to be in the world but not of the world. Counter-cultural. Radical. Followers of another way. Being lukewarm is the way of the world. Our "yes" is to be the yes of the way of Jesus - the True Way. It confounds worldly logic, and it won't get you elected to office. It might even lose you friends and family. Jesus was pretty clear about that.
It's not good science. We don't live in a binary creation - we live in a quantum creation. Already, scientists are working on quantum computing, where a bit of information can be a 1, a 0, or BOTH at the same time. Subatomic particles - the most basic parts of our creation - act this way.
Of course this way of thinking is threatening, because it's messy. But messy is reality: life is messy. Relationships are messy. Church is messy. I suspect that's why Jesus wore a towel instead of carrying a briefcase. Our decision-making as Christians has to be built upon a quantum model instead of a binary model, lest we be worldly Christians instead of heavenly ones.
Scientist Niels Bohr said, "If it does not boggle your mind, you understand nothing." But I think the prophets and apostles said as much long before Niels Bohr. Our best wisdom is - at best - foolishness to God. It's just not as simple as either/or.
We live in a both/and world. God, creation, and science seem to agree with that. Shouldn't we be in sync with these things, rather than our own creations? We are made in God's image, not the other way around.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
I'm Going to Chicago. It's Okay if You're Not.
I read an intriguing commentary by David Brooks this morning, talking about the social divide in the United States and how it is affecting politics. I think Brooks is spot-on, and I would argue that such could apply to the United Methodist Church as well. Issues comes to the forefront that divide the Church; old coalitions fall apart and new ones emerge. It's been happening in the Christian Church since (at least) 1054. When we can't handle "the way things are," we split. A liberal estimate is that there are over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world (source: World Christian Encyclopedia). A conservative estimate is that there are 217 (Hartford Institute for Religion Research).
We Christians are clearly not of one mind. Evidently, on many things.
So much is presently being made of the Wesleyan Covenant Association - from the hashtag "#seeyouinChicago" to "stay away - they're conservatives/homophobes/bigots starting a new denomination." The UMC has had affinity groups, caucuses, and the like for a long time. People of like mind and labor need a place to be nurtured and to share burdens in a safe place. There's nothing wrong with that. I pray the WCA stays true to its stated purpose.
I fear that our fear of the unknown is causing us to demonize "the other." And, unfortunately, the years of our General Conference meetings coincide with presidential election cycles in the U.S. My hunch is that the rhetoric from each feeds our fervor to act out of our fears instead of our faith. If we do have a called General Conference in a couple of years, I may lobby to change our quadrennial meetings to get off the same cycle as U.S. presidential elections.
Today, in both the media and the blogosphere, the United Methodist Church is mainly known more for its extremes rather than its reality - just like U.S. politics. Extremes make the most noise, a few key names are the best known, and our machinery works much like U.S. politics: "insiders" and lobbyists make a lot of the key decisions, dictate a lot of our direction, decides what legislation will see the light of day, and who will preside over what. The political side of the Church can be just as distasteful as American politics and can be made up of elites who use and abuse power as well as any political lobbyist or power broker. I openly confess that sin, since I'm a part of it.
I can attest first-hand about church politics - I've been there and "are" there. Between being a district superintendent and being a former episcopal candidate (who wasn't elected), I can tell you that both are humbling and enlightening. Imagine reading this about yourself from one of the "bishop voter guides" that was circulated (which, in theory, don't exist per Southeastern Jurisdiction covenant):
7. Sky McCracken (Memphis) (Discipleship #4) An Institutionalist. Orthodox. He will seek to negate controversy, quieten situations rather than resolving disobedience. Good leader as a DS, leading various discipleship training sessions himself and demonstrating a passion for his district and his work. He is participant in SLI (Spiritual Leadership Institute) a group favored by Jorge Acevedo. Very likeable personally, not a charismatic speaker. Was endorsed by TN conference also in 2012. A nice guy, but seems to lack boldness or strength in today’s context.
I ranked 7th in this particular guide. I may or may not be some or all of those things (I can be as non self-aware as the next person). There is one factual mistake: I wasn't endorsed by the TN Conference - or any other conference - four years ago. But when (a) something hits print, (b) "people are saying," and (c) so forth and so on... it becomes the Gospel to some. We so easily pigeonhole folks and make folks in the image we want and need them to be. We desperately need there to be an either/or, us/they, or good/bad. U.S. politics works like this, and, unfortunately, church politics works like this, and at times much worse. In fact, I had one gentleman, a leader in his church who is also an elected official in state government, tell me, "There's no politics like church politics." It wasn't a compliment.
The beauty of being a former episcopal candidate is that you can speak with a little more freedom afterwards. So, after a few months of thought, here goes:
Just like most of America and Congress, most United Methodists aren't really represented at the table. There is a vast middle who isn't represented. Before he was a bishop, Bill McAlilly spoke to this at General Conference 2004:
There’s another group in our denomination, some of whom are delegates here; others who are faithful United Methodists who are not represented nor identified with any coalition. We are, as Bishop Coyner wrote a few years ago, “the Methodist middle.” We are not organized and have no other agenda, save offering Christ to a hurting world. This group includes women, men, children, youth, lay, and clergy, maybe even a couple of bishops.
Together with those of differing viewpoints, faithfully serving United Methodist churches, we serve small, medium, large churches. We serve in agencies. We serve throughout the church. We teach Sunday school. We serve in food pantries, clothes closets. We build Habitat houses and serve worldwide through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. We have a passion for evangelism, and we seek to lift up Christ to persons who are hurting and who are lost and who need the grace of Jesus Christ.
However, more often than not we are silent; and perhaps that is our sin. Silent as other voices speak. Perhaps we’re gripped by fear, fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as the opposition. Fear that we are incapable of preventing our church from being pulled apart at the seams... I pray that we can find a way to hold the tension of the opposites; and I would submit to this body that if those of us in the middle can contain those on both sides of the equation, we might be able to find the unity for which we seek. Thank you. - Daily Christian Advocate, Friday, May 7, 2004.
These are the folks who aren't present when Good News, the Confessing Movement, Love Prevails, Reconciling Ministries Network, or the Wesleyan Covenant Association meets. They're often not elected to General Conference. These are the vast majority of the people called United Methodists. Most are laity. They may not be in large churches, they may not have a big name pastor, and they may not be the largest monetary contributors in the denomination, but they are the servants and disciples in and out of most of the pews in America. And they, just like the extremes, are shrinking in number because of one common denominator in our denomination: a failure to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Not members. But disciples. And, I hate to break this to the extremists out there, but if the UMC does split into two or more parts, these churches will still open their doors and have Sunday School and worship on the following Sunday.
If the ultimate fix was to decide once and for all about same-sex marriage, and who can/can't be ordained, logic says that either the Southern Baptists or the Episcopalians should be growing like gangbusters, since both have definitively answered that question. And yet - both are still in decline.
We're not making disciples. Period. And it STILL isn't a priority to our General Conferences. The most passion I've seen at a General Conference was in May when my own bishop was accused of telegraphing how to vote on issues by one delegate and publicly shamed and asked to be removed as presider by another. In short: the most passion generated was by distrust and violence, not a shared concern that we're not making disciples or reaching the neighborhoods where our churches are located.
What do people in the middle do? Contrary to popular belief, being in the middle doesn't mean "lukewarm." Quite frankly, it takes a lot more nerve and guts to place yourself in the middle than to "pick a side," (see an older blog for an expansion on this thought). Our frantic need to pick a side in United Methodism is at best insular, and at worst idolatry. Our frantic need SHOULD be, at least in this season of our church's life: How can we make disciples? Who are we not meeting in society who desperately needs Jesus? How did we lose our Wesleyan way of being evangelical AND sacramental, and instead turn them into labels and dirty words? And how in the hell did we allow General Conference to become like a political caucus event instead of a gathering of Christians worshiping together and trying to figure out how to best proclaim the mission (and Great Commission) of the Kingdom and the UMC?
The middle is where Jesus was. Often. And ultimately, between two others on a cross.
Do I have strong beliefs? I sure do. In full transparency, here they are:
- Rebaptism. Don't do it. Ever. We stray, but God stays.
- Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It happened. People in the 1st century knew enough science to know the difference between dead and alive, and such survived through great scrutiny. Believing otherwise is like believing we really didn't land on the moon. Conspiracy theories just don't carry much weight or stand the test of time.
- Abortion. We were knit together in our mother's womb and are fearfully and wonderfully made. There are a few medical exceptions for sure, but as birth control and a premeditated act to end life? No.
- Capital punishment. Can't subscribe to it. It's a premeditated action to end a life. Jesus made his feelings on it fairly clear. Life without parole? I can support that.
- Holy Communion. We should do it every Sunday. It was standard church practice for 1600 years. Wesley said do it often. It's the sustaining sacrament of grace. Would you tell your child that you're only going to hug them once a month so it will be more special when it happens?
- A lot more of the sin of gluttony happens at pot luck dinners and Emmaus Walks under the guise of "hospitality" then does when a few folks have a beer or two at a local pub or restaurant.
- As a denomination, we have been inconsistent on biblical hermeneutics where marriage, divorce, and our views of sexuality are concerned. Of this I am sure: we baptize, ordain, and license sinners every year.
- It shouldn't be so damned hard to become a United Methodist pastor. And local/non-itinerating pastors should be ORDAINED, not LICENSED. You license someone to fish and hunt. The Church ordains the baptized to specific tasks in the Church. Plus, ordination is a gift from and tool of the church, not a right conferred upon one's merit and education.
- I fully support the ordination of women. When I became a DS, we had one retired female pastor serving as an associate in the district. We have a dozen female pastors now. I can back such up with scripture (Romans 16). Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and some United Methodists obviously disagree with me, but it's clear (to me) that Phoebe was a deacon, not a deaconess. According to another letter Paul wrote, the women at one particular church had no business teaching or preaching. According to another letter, Paul didn't think ANYBODY at Galatia had any business teaching and preaching until they learned that they starting living the true Gospel, where we are one in Christ Jesus (male and female included).
- I could go on...
I've yet to serve a church where everyone was with me 100% on the above. The district I presently serve isn't 100% on board with me on these things. The important thing is this: they don't HAVE to be with me. And, I'm fairly certain, they don't necessarily feel LED to be. I could argue every one of these things from a cogent biblical and theological rationale. But the REAL point should be: I don't create the church I pastor; I am to pastor the church AND THE COMMUNITY where I'm sent. So I listen to people who want to be rebaptized (it doesn't mean I will do it). I engage in conversation with people who don't believe in a literal resurrection. I counsel women who have been through abortions to find healing and peace. I listen to and respect people who feel differently about capital punishment. I don't act unilaterally and tell churches, "I don't care what you think, we're going to have communion every Sunday." And I know some folks show their best love thru food and hospitality. The point is: it's not about me. It's about Jesus and the Body of Christ. The churches who do some of the best work in discipleship, mission, addiction recovery, and hands-on work with the poor are all over the board when it comes to political and social beliefs and embraces. A homogenous church we are not. Nor are we called to be. Nor will we ever be.
So, at General Conferences since 1992, I've gone to MFSA luncheons. I've shared meals with RMN supporters, Good News board members, and Confessing Movement supporters. I'm going to Chicago in October to hear what happens at the Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting, and I will fellowship, worship, and pray with folks I know and don't know.
That same weekend, I'm also planning to go to Chicago Temple UMC to worship on Sunday as my brother (not by blood, but in every other sense of the word) Johnny Jeffords and Myron McCoy do a pulpit swap. My brother Johnny who serves a church that advocates for GLBTQ folks, yet observes and struggles with the current covenant of being United Methodist. My brother who helped organize my running for bishop because he believed in me instead of my preferences and stances, and pushed me on days I didn't feel like doing what needed to be done. My brother that, despite our differences - or because of our differences - I choose to share mutual struggles with as we try to lead people to Christ in a church and society that often seems against us.
All of this doesn't mean we don't need doctrinal standards, shouldn't expect higher standards for our leadership, or that we don't need denominational distinctiveness. But it also doesn't mean we don't try to seek a common sense of unity and covenant - because we should. But we Methodists have been divided for a long time. John and Charles Wesley often disagreed. So did Wesley and George Whitfield. So did Wesley and Francis Asbury. And we split into thirds during the Civil War and didn't come back together until 1939 (how'd that work for us, by the way?). And we may end up splitting again, though this time it could potentially be into thirds, fourths, or even fifths. I pray everyday that we don't.
I am about as orthodox of a Methodist as you can get, on just about all matters. And I don't mind addressing conflict and leading churches and people toward being faithful and fruitful as disciples. But if sticking a label on myself becomes a moniker that prevents me from engaging the least, the last, and the lost - I don't want it anymore than I want a millstone around my neck. I've spent enough time around the Nones and Dones to know that they don't care about the things that the UMC seems to prioritize right now. They want to know if I love them. And they're waiting to see if I'm really a follower of Jesus or a 21st century version of a Pharisee.
If making disciples of Jesus Christ isn't our #1 concern, then we have indeed become the dead, lifeless, esoteric sect Wesley feared we could become. And, since I believe that there is a Judgment - I will one day have to answer for that. I doubt that picking a side will be enough.
I don't know the answer to our conflicts and woes, but I pray for a miracle through the Holy Spirit. I still believe in them.
Thursday, August 25, 2016
Being Orthodox in a Rogue Church
Rogue /rōg/ - to act on one's own, usually against expectation or instruction.I posted an old article a few days ago on my Facebook page. I started out by daring someone else to do it, and then realized, "McCracken, you aren't running for bishop anymore. You post it." And I did. And I watched the reactions. Mercy, the people called Methodists are a divided bunch.
The beginnings of Methodism could be described as rogue: An Anglican priest holding clandestine "Holy Club" meetings, preaching out in the open fields, banned from Anglican pulpits, and ordaining preachers when no bishop would do it... with no authority other than his belief that elders/presbyters and bishops were of the same order. And while we quote Wesley ad nauseam, the fact remains that John Wesley died an Anglican priest. He never intended to start a new denomination.
So when we talk about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we Methodists have to be careful. It doesn't mean that these words don't have meaning for today's Methodists, and indeed Wesley was so very clear in the first part of the quote (which we often omit) from The Heart of a Methodist: "But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, [Methodists] think and let think."
And therein lies the root of the problem. Which root?
As some Anglicans tried to take the best from many traditions by taking the via media - which, contrary to popular belief, isn't sitting on the fence but intentionally placing one in the middle of the Catholicism and the Reformed church - Early Methodists tried to take the best of Anglicanism, balancing the sacramental and the evangelical, the Word and deed, and taking them to the least and the lost. Today's United Methodism - and more accurately, United Methodism in the United States - has created a chasm of ideology that has little to do with any of the things that Methodism was birthed from (or, for that matter, any other faith tradition in the above diagram). Worse, we have lost our innovative edge as Anglican evangelists and become once again that which Wesley tried to renew. "Making disciples for the transformation of the world" is our Great Commission and our mission as a denomination, yet such received little - if any - debate or consideration, much less passion or fervor, at General Conference. We more resembled American politics and an FFA (Future Farmers of America) mock meeting where we tried to trip up the presider with parliamentary procedure than a denomination that has as its main mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
As I have written before (here, here, here, and here) Wesley tried to do an 180° to reform Anglicanism, but what we have ended up doing is a 360° - and are right back where we started. A rogue denomination has become status quo. General Conference with its consent calendars, committee filibustering, and parliamentary bullying and maneuvering is not the place to make substantive change that a hurting world needs. That change will have to start from the ground up - loving people up, witnessing to the prevenient grace of God, discipling people in Jesus' name, raising leaders (lay and clergy) for the Church and the Kingdom, and doing so in local churches AND missional communities (which may not look like traditional churches). It is clear that we are being led away (indeed, have led ourselves away) from our missional mandate towards majoring in the minors.
We do not like to talk WITH people; we want to talk AT people. We seem to want NOT to foster relationships, but instead pigeonhole people by what group they align with, where they are from, and how they feel about "the issue." If General Conference was indicative of the Church, an outsider would rightly label us as Idol Worshipers. Thankfully, most of the UMC (I dare say 85%) does not consider General Conference and its issues as much of an indicator of the Church and reality. And - thankfully! - most of the major media outlets didn't give us much press. Unfortunately, that also proves how uninteresting and, more damning, inconsequential we are becoming as an agent of transformation for God's world.
Stephen Long wrote an excellent essay, "The Grace of Doing Nothing - Again: A Defense of the UM Bishops' Call for Silence." He says so well what I have believed in our denomination's struggles with sexuality: we have not had the candid critical and theological conversations we need to have on the subject, and we have lacked a consistent ethic. We have talked past these issues, and past other people, but not with them. As Long says, "Our deliberations lack theological direction." To handle these things faithfully, we will have to do these things.
In the meantime, we lose ground with those who are hungry for a Church that DOES something. A Church that MEANS something. A Church that embodies CHRIST. A Church that majors in the majors instead of the minors. The Great Commandment and Great Commission are plain and are our priorities. Is there evidence we are living such?
Yes - there is. I could list hundreds of awesome things that local churches do every day. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Making relationships and ministering to the least, the last, and the lost. Making disciples and leaders.
But in UM circles, it all gets buried beneath that which has become idolatrous - namely, "the issue." And, after spending a year among the unchurched in a Third Place/Fresh Expressions-like community, I can say that those outside of the Church are as divided as those inside the Church on "the issue." But for them, it's a minor. And they see the Church as just another political body that either counts you "in" or "out."
I hate pigeonholing people. I even hate being pigeonholed even more. But that's the moniker we're starting to be given - we're just another "interest group." And as many can testify, once you get a nickname, it's hard to be rid of it.
I'm still hopeful. I think the people called Methodists have a theology and practice that is best suited to change the world, one person, one neighborhood at a time. To do so we'll have to let go of minors and embrace majors. And I'm bound and determined to do it. I want to fulfill the mission in the district, churches, and neighborhoods around me.
We can change the world - in Jesus' name.
Friday, July 29, 2016
Purchase District - Five Year Check-Up
Purchase (formerly Paducah) District on March 1, 2011. It was a weird time to start such work; my father had just died, I was already visiting SPRC committees anticipating moves, my first official act as a DS was to attend a cabinet meeting, and our district was hosting Annual Conference in three months. There was no "honeymoon." But there was a huge blessing. Bishop Dick Wills gave me this permission: "Don't be a personnel manager. Be a spiritual leader for your district." Bishops Chamness and McAlilly continued to support that mindset. Because of that, I can honestly say that I love my work.
Things to Celebrate
This district has a unique connectional nature to it that has allowed some things to be birthed much easier than if it had been otherwise. Paul Douglass, who had been the DS here from 1989-95, left copious notes in files and archives that lead me to believe he was a pivotal leader in this district being "connected." Vestiges of his legacy were still present when I became superintendent, which made my job much easier. Some things that have been birthed in the last five years:
1. Spiritual Leadership, Inc. It began as a book-reading group who wanted to go deeper. At the advice of friends from across the Southeast, we invited Craig Robertson of SLI (Spiritual Leadership, Inc.) to come meet with us for a day. What he said excited and intrigued us. A few months later, with the blessing of Bishop Chamness, a dozen lay and clergy folks from our district sacrificed time and money and began an incubator project. That blossomed into a district operations team. When our Area (Memphis and Tennessee Conferences) adopted an Area Mission Statement, we aligned our district work with it: to help resource and provide lay and clergy leadership for local churches so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ in our neighborhoods. This has helped us bear fruit!
2. Generative Leadership Academy (GLA). This was one of our first dreams and envisionings that came out of the SLI process. We realized that if we as a district were going to grow our churches in ways measurable and immeasurable, we needed something simple, foundational, formative, from a Wesleyan perspective, that could help make disciples and leaders - as well as could identify spiritual giftedness from within the laity and clergy of our district We also knew that our clergy desperately needed formed and transformed partners in ministry. The fruits born from this include:
- Slowed decline of overall church membership and attendance across the district. In an area declining in both population and economy, we considered this a win!
- Increased numbers of people interested and trained as Certified Lay Ministers and Lay Servants
- A culture of call emerging, resulting in several laity answering a vocational call to ministry in both lay and clergy capacities. One such person served as a lay pastor for a year at a church typically served by an elder, had the most professions of faith after a year of any church in the district, and their lay pastor was awarded the Denman Award for her work. She is now a full-time licensed local pastor that continues to serve that church.
- Several churches, because of the witness of GLA clergy and lay graduates, are now contracting incubator projects with SLI with the purpose of growing their churches and diving deeper into mission and discipleship. One church is contracting with Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) to confront their stagnation and reassessing their call and witness to their community.
- A District Laity team was formed, based on spiritual giftedness identified at GLA. They recently completed a year-long SLI incubator project and now meet regularly with intention and a ministry action plan.
- The district was broken down into geographic clusters with lay and clergy leadership to replicate the work done by SLI and the District Operations team.
These are in no way laurels to rest upon, but beginnings that continue to need nurture and innovation. Deep change is difficult and slow!
3. Mission Blitz. This also birthed from SLI and the District Operational Team. One year we asked churches at their charge conference: "If your church closed tomorrow, would anyone from the local community notice?" That was a hard question for some churches to answer. So we set apart a day in the fall each year for churches/clusters to pick a local need/mission and spend a day out in their neighborhoods doing it. It ranged from barn raisings to jail visitation. The fruit: some local churches began to see needs in their own neighborhoods and starting making adjustments to their mission, operations, and budgets to reflect their neighborhood needs.
4. What We Can Do Better. Are we done? No - and this is just a beginning. Making disciples is our Great Commission, but it is also hard work after generations of not doing it well. There are also things that our district needs to do better:
- The Purchase District doesn't have one ethnic local church. Not one. We have ethnic persons present in our local churches, but we are missing a huge group of people that not only need the Church, but we need them. The good news is that I don't know anyone who would be opposed to such. The challenge is to resource doing it.
- We need to develop continued strategy that (a) helps declining churches objectively assess themselves and then become proactive about their next steps, (b) identify locations where a new church start could take place, and (c) continue to imagine what some missional communities could look like, being the church but not having/needing a church building.
- Increase our partnership with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly with Dayshore Camp. There were three locations in the Purchase District where Dayshore took place this summer - and all of them were a huge success. Young lives were changed - and we need to partner and help resource that the best that we can. While this was a new concept for some, it falls within the innovation we need to embrace; new wineskins for new wine.
- We can't settle for just slowing the decline - we have to continue and try to reverse the decline. We've made great first steps, but we have to continue. There is no shortage of unchurched folks in the Purchase Area - we have to continue to challenge our present mindsets and practices and embrace the opportunities and needed change.
A final thought: a lot of energy and fear is being directed toward our denominational struggles and disagreements. The real truth is that - important as it certainly is - finalizing a stance on matters of sexuality is not going to gain us one disciple; if that were the case, either the Episcopal Church or the Southern Baptist Church would be growing... and both are losing members just like the UMC. If we're going to grow - conservative, progressive, orthodox, and any other adjective you want to label a local church - we have to get discipleship right. If we get discipleship right - we get everything else right. If we don't, our doctrine and discipline won't mean a thing.
The Great Commandment is to love. The Great Commission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. They both should get top priority - and that's where our passion needs to be.
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
REPOST: Erosion of Trust, or Erosion of Faith?
Confession: I spent about five years of my ministry angry - namely, the years 2004-2009.
I wasn't angry about being mistreated as a pastor, or upset that my salary wasn't as high as I thought it should be, or that I was "passed over" and someone else got a church that I might have wanted. I was angry that the two generations of church leadership before me allowed United Methodism to get into this shape.
Over the years, I have helped put together conference journals, served the Connection at the General and Jurisdictional level, and represented my religious order at the General Board. What I witnessed, in ways financial and administrative, was that our UMC was hemorrhaging - and had been - for a long time. We have experienced a net loss of millions in membership in my lifetime, and it made me angry that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren might not have a United Methodist Church to attend; not because it was God's will, but because we failed to lead and make disciples. It made me angry that a lot more was going to be required of me than my predecessors if I were going to be faithful to my baptismal and ordination vows. It made me angry that I might not have a pension to live on in my last days. Anger threatened to consume me.
And it was wrong. I was wrong.
It took every prayer discipline I had to regain focus and perspective, and I realized that my anger was my own sin of wanting someone or something to blame rather than to do something about it, and that the reasons for church decline were far more intricate and complicated than could be attributed to any one cause. I allowed my own prejudices and need to blame erode my faith, and that was the true failure - with no one to blame but myself. I had experienced not an erosion of trust, but an erosion of faith.
Getting to the point of admission and doing something about it was freeing, it was empowering - it was literally my salvation. It changed the way I approached and carried out ministry. Instead of a career, ordained ministry became the way I best lived out my baptismal vows instead of a career (hey, clergy and lay alike, we're ALL called first by our baptism, not our ordination). I stopped comparing myself to other pastors and their appointments (a/k/a "Steeple Envy") and the unholy game of competition. It was time to fish or cut bait: either I start trusting God and the UMC (which I said at my ordination was the best way to express Christianity), or I hang up my stole and turn in my credentials. By God's grace, I started trusting God again. But like God's grace, trust in God is something we either accept or don't - that's on us.
In this season of the UMC, our trust in God is called upon more than ever. We are a communion not based on loose association, but by connection and covenant. Yet trust is severely lacking in the UMC; we've showed the world that in many ways, but we did so especially at General Conference 2012. Our trust was so lacking that one delegate wanted members of a committee/commission to stand so she could see if they were "diverse enough." And now that we are living into this difficult season in the UMC, our propensity to avoid the unknown, to shun the different, and to suspect the worse is making us paranoid and ineffectual. Manifestations of this culture of distrust have led us to public displays of distrust:
- Our bishops meet in a closed meeting to discuss accountability - instead of praying for them, we criticize them and say they are being non-democratic.
- Bishops and cabinets vow to make pastoral appointment-making missionally-driven instead of entitlement-driven - but critics say that they are being unfair and ageist.
- Clergy are encouraged to be vulnerable and transparent in their leadership - but are distrustful of laity because of past betrayals and recriminations.
- Laity are asked to sacrifice their time and money for the Church - but become distrustful of clergy who seem to be more concerned in maintaining their benefits and guaranteed appointments than sacrificial Kingdom work.
The root of all these things is not truth - it is fear. Fear that the bishops might be "scheming." Fear that another pastor might get a better appointment than me that I feel that I deserve. Fear that what we say in truth will be used against us in hate. Fear that someone has it better than I do.
To embrace Christ fully, however, means to embrace that perfect love casts out fear. It means that our own wants and comforts are outweighed by the needs of the Kingdom and our sacrifices for it. It is not martyrdom - it's a glad and willing obedience. It means that nothing is sacred but the mission. Once I understood that, it became easier to trust. Our brothers and sisters may let us down, but God is always faithful and trustworthy.
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When I was asked to be a district superintendent on March 1, 2011 (an AWFUL time to start this position!), I said yes. I knew in this season of the Church it would be difficult work. But I also knew that it was my opportunity to turn my former distrust into joyful obedience, and my despair about the Church into an opportunity to make a difference in the life of the conference and community of faith that raised me and nurtured me.
There is a letter that I keep at my desk that reminds me of my task and that there are no earthly "guarantees" ahead of me - indeed, I suspect there are tougher days ahead then there are behind for the United Methodist Church, as well as all Christians. But in casting out fear, the shackles are removed to work for the Gospel hope and future - and I don't think God is done with us yet. I believe that the best is yet to come.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. There is no Christian alternative: we have to love like we've never been hurt, trust like we've never been betrayed. If we don't, we will simply choose to divide ourselves - and thus seal our fate as a denomination.
I think God expects greater things of us - and I think they're coming. The Lord will take us there, and only by faith can we follow.
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