Thursday, June 28, 2018

REPOST: Politics, Faith, and Vacuum

(Note: this is an article I wrote in February of 2017. As the sermon this week is about hope, I think this article is just as apropos today as it was last year. We have a plenteous mission field in which to immerse ourselves.)

I have had the glorious gift of retreat for the past week and a half. Six days on an island/key with two old and wonderful friends, and (so far) three days at a Trappist monastery. I have purposefully surrounded myself with creation, friendship, religious icons, solitude and silence, and prayer offices. I have purposefully avoided the news and social media banter. Time and distance has allowed for thought and reflection, and I’ve come to believe that the Church, and more specifically the United Methodist Church, is missing – and has been missing – some grand opportunities.

I’ll preface this by saying I was raised and am a social and political oddity. My father was a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans, yet wouldn’t avoid the draft for the Korean War even at the insistence of my grandfather, who had lost a son in World War II. My mother was a social liberal as well, growing up a coal miner’s daughter and whose mother’s only sources of income were social security and the Black Lung Benefits Act. Both of my parents grew up in poverty, and while social liberals they were fiscally conservative - yet very generous with their own money in their community and in helping aging parents. My father became a college professor. My brother and I are well educated as well; my brother has four degrees and I have two. We grew up in a small southern college town that hosted students of many different nationalities. Our neighbors were Cuban refugees, and their youngest son and my brother became best friends (in fact, my brother’s Spanish became nearly as good as his English). He, like my father, went into academics and is a college professor and research scientist in immunology. You could probably call both of us “educated rednecks” – my brother has a farm where he regularly hunts and fishes. I gave up both early in life and became a motorcyclist and shade tree mechanic instead, at least where hobbies are concerned.

Unlike my Midwestern parents, my brother and I became products of Southern culture. We hunted, fished, and hauled hay in the summer. At the same time, we also played baseball, tennis, and golf. At home we were surrounded with books, intellectual conversations, and political discussions, yet we also went out in the evenings and ran around with friends whose parents were white-collar and blue-collar, upper-middle class and lower-middle class, and (because of the university) of every color and nationality: white, black, Cuban, Indian, Korean, Arabian, Lebanese - and we all did things that were wholesome as well as the things that can often land young people in trouble. We both went to the same college where our father taught, and met and became friends with even more diverse folks: Japanese, Venezuelan, Iranian, African, and Russian. We were both active at the Wesley Foundation. It was a unique childhood and education.

As I reflect on where I’ve been, and where I am now, I see a lot of angst and fear. Not just in the rural area in which I serve as a district superintendent/shepherd of a few counties in far Western Kentucky, but across the world. So much anger and division around politics – and not just here in the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit campaign has caused great chasms amidst its citizenry. This spring France will have an election that has the potential to be as divisive as our own U.S. election. And immigration woes are not unique to the U.S., as the U.K., Germany, and Sweden are struggling with how to handle refugees. Some of it is logistics, for others it involves cultural biases, and for still others, fear. There are no easy answers. It becomes more complicated when you try to live in the tension of logistical and political realities versus a Christian faith that embraces the Beatitudes and Great Commandment not as suggestions, but as a way of life.

The temptation is great to pick a “side” in all this – and in the U.S. we tend to think and align ourselves in polar terms, using an either/or logic. Picking either side would make my life easier, and either side would probably win me more friends. But there is a reality that, as one who is both Christian and a pastor, I can’t escape: on any given Sunday, either in the United Methodist Church or most other churches, the folks in the pews are usually split 60/40 on political alignment, one way or the other (at least, according to a study quoted in a recent issue of Christian Century). There are of course exceptions, but it’s fair to say that God-fearing and believing people are Democrats and Republicans alike, and both attend our churches. My own denomination finds itself in the same ideological camps beyond Democrat or Republican: are you Good News/Confessing Movement/WCA or are you RMN/MFSA?  Preaching partisan politics or alignment, at least to me, just seems pointless and possibly violates the vow to do no harm. But more importantly, it’s just plain ineffective - and I believe - theologically and biblically unsound.

As my friend Allan Bevere wrote a few weeks ago, if you read Romans 12 AND 13 in context, we pray for our leaders that they might be godly people, and then - pretty much - pray that they might leave us Christians alone to do our work: sacrifice, don’t allow ourselves to be transformed by the world, please God. Let Caesar, the President, and the Prime Minister be about their work, but know as Christians that love fulfills the law and does no harm to a neighbor. We put on the robe of Jesus the Christ. That’s our task; not to be about a political party’s business, but to be about the Lord’s business.

That may mean that we willingly and sacrificially place ourselves in the middle of the fray;  in that messy middle isn’t a fence, but a cross, and a cross we are commanded to bear. Not in a martyr, “look at me” sort of way, but in a servant, sacrificial way. And it’s not to avoid being political, but in fact to EMBRACE a politic: the many, many folks for whom the Church may be saying it is doing something for, but when it comes to doing, has done damned little. I would add that I have to indict myself as well. The Church has not filled a vacuum – it has created one.

The very same people who are in “backlash” politically have seen (a) the government fail them, and (b) the Church fail them. Why or how that’s occurred, or even if their reasons are “right” or “wrong,” matters little. People are hurting. In the area I live in, I’ve watched factories and industries dry up in the 50+ years I have been alive. Hopelessness turns people to drugs and addictions. Nones and Dones either found the Church wanting, or (worse) shooting their wounded. Secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters have become idols while the primary Gospel message of love, grace, and hope has been lost.  That’s less my observation, and more the observation of the growing number of people who love God and Jesus Christ, but have come to the conclusion that the Church sucks. Some of those same people have concluded that government sucks, too. I grew up with these folks, lived with these folks, and now seek to shepherd and pastor these folks. Many of them no longer attend a church, or have never attended to begin with – and in their minds, for good reason. You can learn a lot by occasionally hanging out with people outside of the Church. Jesus did some - most - of his best work there.

Charles R. Morris, a columnist for Commonweal, wrote a great article in the January 6th issue, “Backlash: Trump’s Rise Is Part of a Pattern.” It discusses the historical and present political sways endemic to our world. One takeaway is this: things are very broken – both in government and in the Church – and those who have been ignored and hurting for a long time are now responding. In response to a perceived void, the void is being filled - for better or worse. One fact is undeniable: nature abhors a vacuum.

This could be an opportunity for the United Methodist Church - as well as any other church or communion - to shine. Instead of continuing the mostly insular argument about who’s theologically and ideologically correct, we could decide to make disciples and let God sort it all out. In short: progressive folks? Go make disciples who are progressively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Conservative folks? Go make disciples who are conservatively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Pastors? Go shepherd wherever you’re sent and love your people, even if some of them have politics you don’t like. Let your call and your love outweigh your opinions (wow, that even sounds Wesleyan!). Build bridges across the gaps. Outdo others in showing love and compassion (wow, that even sounds biblical!). And everyone: realize that as a Church, we are a minority that more and more people have less and less respect for, and even less inclination to be a part of. We are called to minister to the least, the last, and the lost – of which the number continues to grow. Our world needs hope. Our Church used to be in the hope business. Jesus still is.

There is no shortage of people who need saved from despair, pain, and hopelessness. They are rural and urban alike. But we DO have a shortage of professed Christians who are willing to ditch their own politics and partisan theology and go tell people that they are children that God loved and cherished since the day that they were born.

The reality is that there aren’t just two sides. This world and the people in it represent a multifaceted reality that needs hope, love, grace, and peace. We don’t have to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The question is: what are we willing to give up that is a stumbling block to those who are already stumbling? Are we willing to jump into the fray rather than take a side in it?

“They will know we are Christians…”


Abbey of Gethsemini
Season after the Epiphany, February 2017

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

New Staff Roles - Being Church In a Rapidly-Changing World

Beloved Jackson First UMC folks:

The Lord be with you.

I am sure the staffing changes at the church are filtering down to Sunday school classes, coffee shops, golf foursomes, and other groups across the church. With that, I am sure that there are questions about who will be doing what, why is this happening, and what does this mean? Here are some (beginning) answers:

1. Who will be doing what? It's a great question. The quick answer is: we're working on it! Our next few staff meetings, along with working with the staff-parish relations committee, are to address this questions. One of the things that we're sure of as we've worked and prayed for months about this: the Spirit is nudging us to move from being a staff-driven church to a Christ-driven church.

2. Why is this happening? We are encountering the same realities that many Christian churches are: a diminishing congregation, a more secular country, and a culture that is less friendly to the institutional church. Sundays and Wednesdays are no longer "sacred space" and school, athletic, and community events are regularly scheduled during times previously protected for church activities. We have buried a lot of saints in the past several years, and even in years we have broken "even" in the number of deaths and new members, our new members are often not able to contribute to the church financially at the level of those who passed away. From 2004-2016, our membership and worship attendance has looked like this:

During all of this time, our budget has basically remained about the same. As you can tell, we have been asking fewer people to give more... and they have. We are a remarkable, generous, and faithful church! Those who are on our Finance and Staff-Parish Relations Committees cannot in good conscience ask you to do more, and we need to be the best stewards we can where money, resources, and staffing are concerned. In January, I began to share with our staff and key leadership about these realities, and it has been something all of us have been committed to pray about. While this may seem abrupt, this has not been a hasty decision or one made from panic; we wanted to address this before it became a problem.

3. What does this mean? I have been blessed to know many of your previous pastors and the work ethic of this church - and it is clear that "working hard enough" has never been the problem. We are living, however, in a season where the church has to move from a membership-model to a discipleship-model of ministry, where we can make disciples... who in turn, can make disciples. We live in a world of wireless communications, online banking, and virtual relationships - which means we have to work harder than ever at establishing personal relationships. We are also a church that has members of varying ages and cultural backgrounds who have different experiences of worship, communications, small group activities, and church programming.

This just doesn't mean our staff will have to assume new roles because they are smaller in number; all of us as a congregation will have to assume new roles. The lines between what we became used to staff doing and what we do as church members will sometimes blur. We are all responsible for each other. All of us are now ministers, not just some of us. This is nothing new; this is what the Apostle Paul told us about being a community of faith:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all of the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us... (from Romans 12:4-6, 1 Cor. 12:4-31)
Culture Shock. This is what we are going to encounter - all of us - culture shock! If you've ever traveled outside of our country, you know what this is like: people do familiar things differently than we're used to... but they get done. Even if they speak English, it sounds different and some words have different meaning... but they communicate as effectively as we do. We start to feel odd and out of place... yet we find people who love and embrace us anyway. These next few years will be the same for us. And yet... can you imagine the first twelve disciples being asked by Jesus to "let the dead bury the dead" and "follow me, and I will teach you how to fish for people," and what they must have thought at first?!?

Reality Has Occurred. I have seen the United Methodist Church as a layperson, a preacher serving a 3-point charge, a senior pastor, a district superintendent, and as a present General Conference delegate; in short, I have seen it from the basement to the pew to the pulpit to 30,000 feet above it, and have witnessed incredible changes and shifts in 50-plus years. The history of Christianity shows similar changes and shifts in its 2000 years.

What We Have Isn't Bad! There is still a place for the traditional and sacred. There is still a need for our stories to be told, our legacies to be continued, our fellowship to grow stronger. Our music and youth programs are strong and continue to grow stronger. Our link with Methodist history is something God has used and continues to redeem. God honors and will honor these things. Alongside those things, God also refreshes and renews us:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
- Isaiah 43:19
God's Not Done with Us. In fact... God may just be getting started. We already have a great history, a wonderful building, and an awesome location to do ministry in Jackson, Tennessee. It need not, and can not, be confined to our building. We have learned a lot in these 192 years as a church, and still have much to learn. And while no one knows the future "or the day or the hour," this much we do know: God is with us. Let us not be afraid!