Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

GC Logo

 

Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

God’s Kiss

I walked on hallowed ground yesterday. In fact, it happens pretty much every day if I open my eyes. This Sunday’s Gospel lectionary text from John 13 is about love. Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How awesome and scary is that? Our love expressed either allows or prevents people from knowing Jesus. Yesterday I saw love.

There was a family gathering at the bedside of a loved one transitioning from earthly life to heaven. The husband of 60-something years was poignant as he stated the obvious. His beloved’s condition was deteriorating during this holy moment, but, as he put it, “She still gives good kisses.” We, the church, individually and corporately, are God’s kisses to the world.

That sounds like a mission statement of sorts for Christians, but our mission statements are usually so nice, catchy, alliterative, and wrong. Sometimes we have created them without much regard for God’s mission. I’ve done it myself. “MD4C” was one of my favorites: “Making Disciples for Jesus Christ.” It passed the tee shirt test because it was short enough to fit on one. It was long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized. It met all of the secular benchmarks of an effective mission statement, but when I think about the love I witnessed yesterday and the ways that God gets our attention in the Bible, I’m a bit ashamed of “Seek, Save, Serve” even though that’s a pretty good one. The mission statement I saw in that family yesterday was “Love” and that’s what Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35.

There’s even a website that can help you generate a mission statement. Go to the address www.netinsight.co.uk/portfolio/mission/missgen.asp, and press the “play” button and presto! As someone said to me, “Substitute ‘church’ for ‘business,’ and you’re in business. Ha! A better place to find mission statements for the church is in the Bible, but they aren’t so catchy or cute: “Die on a cross.” “Leave your home, and go somewhere I’m not going to tell you.” “Marry a Hooker.” “Go speak to people you hate.” These are all in the Bible and are tough! I daresay that they boil down to “Love,” which is tough, tender, and time-consuming. Oh, there I go with 3 “T’s.” Sorry.

In one of his sermons, Walter Burghart tells the story of a surgeon’s observations of a couple much like what I witnessed yesterday. He says, “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, somewhat clownish. A tiny twig of a facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, had been severed. She will be this way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.”

He continues, “Her young husband, at least that’s who he might be, is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, the moment is a private one. Who are they, I ask myself? He and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at each other so generously, so lovingly. The young woman speaks. ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.”

The story unfolds, “’I like it,’ he says, ‘it’s kind of cute.’ All at once I know exactly who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a God moment. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

I wonder how this world and our church might change if our mission statement was to reinforce the fact that God so loved the world that he has leaned in toward us, and has contorted himself to show love to us – even allowing himself to be twisted on a cross for us. What would it mean for us to truly live the Biblical mission statements rather than concoct our own, to be God’s kiss to the world?

Kiss Me Pic

 

GC 2016 and Peacemaking

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?

Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.

Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?

Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.

The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.

The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.

Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.

So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.

You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!

Community

 

A Fisherman’s Tale

Easter came so early this year that I feel like I missed it. We had a huge number of people in church. The music was grand. Everything went well, and immediately after the last service I changed into my camping duds, left my suit at church, and took off for the mountains to enjoy 3 days of respite and relaxation. I wanted to catch another trophy. Last May 29 at 12:15 in the afternoon using a Mossy Creek “Rebel” Teeny Weeny Crawdad, I landed a 26 inch Rainbow Trout. Funny how the specifics of that are more easily remembered than much more important things.

This last week’s trip was the earliest I had ever been on the New River near Jefferson, NC. It showed. It was cold and there wasn’t a leaf on a tree. Heavy frost and below freezing temps made my -40 degree sleeping bag a welcome place to snuggle inside my 4-season one-man I-tent. The usual fish that I catch like Redeye, Smallmouth, and Sunfish all had lock-jaw. The trout fishing, however, was the best ever.

It wasn’t a 26-incher, but I missed catching a giant Brown trout except for forgetting to put the net in the canoe. I did catch a beautiful little trout that looked like a cross between a Rainbow and a Brown, pink spots at the top and dark ones at the bottom. Gorgeous, but the fishing went from good to bad by the last day when in 6 hours only 4 fish were caught.

You’re probably wondering why in the world this fishing and camping expedition is on my mind, and there is at least one reason: most ministers need some time off after a hectic Easter! But, the main reason this is on my mind today is that I’ve been looking at the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. The Gospel for April 10 is from John 21 where the disciples encountered the Risen Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He met them doing exactly what they were doing when he called them to join His ministry. They were fishing.

There’s something comforting about going back to the familiar after a life-changing event. Maybe the disciples were just hungry, but, for whatever reason, they went back to catching fish instead of their charge to be fishers of people. Going back to the same-old, same-old is about as disappointing as the drop in attendance from Easter to the Sunday after. It’s not called “Low Sunday” for nothing.

What’s impressive in John’s account is that when they hauled in the miraculous catch of fish, he says the fish are large and they’re exactly 153 of them! Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It makes the account sound a little fishy, but at the same time it adds precisely what the Easter narrative needs after two weeks of going back to our normal schedules. The size of the fish and the specific number add authenticity, reality, Truth.

For the fisherman in me who just got off the river – cold and wet, with precious little to show for my supposed time away, it shows that Easter lasts longer than a special day. It is Good News that comes in handy when we’re doing the ordinary, the usual, and the work-a-day stuff of life. Jesus met the disciples, and meets me, and you, too, more in the natural ebb and flow of life than He does at Empty Tombs or Mountains of Transfiguration. Those don’t mean near as much if they don’t impact where you and I spend most of our time.

Maybe what I need to do today is count fish. Rather than lamenting that Spring Break is over, I can go one better by noticing the miraculous in the mundane. Instead of daydreaming about my next excursion, I can focus on the awesomeness of now. In this strange semi-down time after Easter, it will do my soul more good to ponder the exactness of 153 fish caught and how big they were. Ours isn’t a make-believe faith built on myth and fabrication. Jesus’ resurrection is real. It gives tangible hope in our ordinary lives.

So, whether you’re facing a doctor’s news, test results, hours of rehab, spring cleaning, the spreading of new mulch, or the nuts and bolts of prepping a flower bed, then know this: there is nothing more extraordinary about ordinary life than when you know Jesus is alive! I don’t have to escape to future far-off oases, or to past good old days when the Living Lord is right here and now. If I count them, I’ll guess that there’s 153 large God-moments with my name written on them, just waiting for me to haul them in. How many “fish” have you caught today?

Trout

 

Brussels and a Proper Response to Evil

In Brussels sheer evil has once more been visited upon the innocent. We must not yield to the terror of jihadists and forget that democracy most resembles God’s Kingdom of freedom and love. Democracy represents the basic human attribute of choice. Didn’t Jesus, who could have called 10,000 angels to save him, choose to die on a cross to set us free from death’s oppression? Wasn’t it Jesus who chose to say from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those Roman soldiers made a choice to follow orders and knew what they were doing. ISIS knew what it was doing and individuals chose to follow. I usually know exactly what I’m doing, too, when I choose to do something wrong.

Easter is God’s answer to our poor choices. It says that evil’s cycle of violence can end if we choose the power of love over the love of power. Jihadists want the West to become as closed minded as they are. The controlled environment that their religious totalitarianism provides is tempting in our freedom-gone-amok world, but at what cost? If God’s will is always done, why would the Lord’s Prayer include the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The answer is, “Because it isn’t!” and we’re most often the reason. We abuse freedom, but it is foundational to our unique identity as bearers of God’s image. What we need is Easter’s resurrection power to guide our choices, and use our freedom for the common good.

Freedom of choice, however, is a risky business. I daresay that the West’s unfettered embrace of freedom and extreme individualism is what incites fundamentalism that pushes societies toward coercive control. Many of us, like them, would prefer a society where we put a funnel in people’s heads and the result would look something like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” But we can’t do that without lessening freedom, one of the key ways that we reflect God.

Since God’s exists in the three distinct persons of the Trinity, yet is one indivisible God, then we must honor both diversity and unity, too. Freedom isn’t the only way that we are made in God’s image. Responsibility is another, and aren’t we grateful for responsible parents, adults, youth, children, institutions, governments, and more.

The rub for most us is in determining whether or not certain actions responsibly reflect God’s best intentions for humankind, or not. When nothing is out-of-bounds then anarchy results. When structures of common decency become so porous that nothing is either sacred or profane, the pendulum swings toward the radical fundamentalist voices that provide what seem like easy answers in a complex world.

It’s just not that simple. It would help if we made sure that the Ten Commandments weren’t “Ten Suggestions.” It takes hard work to shape civilization’s values. Jesus proved that during the first Holy Week as he stood both before Pilate and endured the cross. He wants us to make those same stands today for good, but I wonder if we have the “want to” to do it. I’m afraid that we’d rather browbeat or bomb our opponents into submission, and, all the while, I can hear Jesus say to Peter in Gethsemane, “Put away your sword, Peter. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be swords, but our faith puts boundaries on the use of power. We are not to take personal revenge or resort to vigilantism. The government is supposed to be the entity that protects and fights for common decency (Romans 13:1-5). Unfortunately, government sometimes is the perpetrator of wrong-doing. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to elect the best leaders that we can. We must ask ourselves which persons can best stand in the gap and stop the xenophobia that separates countries and foments violence.

There’s a difference between “violence” and “war.” They are not synonymous. The U.S. has only had 11 “declared” wars, but over 125 shooting conflicts/wars in our history, not counting the so-called “Indian Wars,” one against the Apaches that lasted a horrific 46 years. It seems to me that the constitutional rule of law should dictate that we be clear about responses that are lawfully sanctioned by the government. That is democracy in action. It is not a unilateral decision by one person.

Terrorism is violence. What the US has done to Native Americans has been violence. Jim Crow laws and racial profiling by police are violence. The list of abuses of power in inappropriate ways is a long one, 125 versus 11 at the least. This isn’t to say that I prefer Augustinian “Just War” theory, but I do support the notion that there are some wars that have to be fought against evil, injustice, and oppression. I come up pretty empty on that score except for World War II and the Civil War. We shouldn’t answer violence with violence, but with a reasoned response that may opt for a serious governmental action called “war,” always as a last resort when all attempts at diplomacy have failed. For democracy and the rule of law to prevail, we must rise above vengeance and enforce justice.

I admit that I’m no “Dove” when it comes down to it, but I am not a “Hawk” either. Complex issues have layers of truth and untruth. I know that I cannot sit back and let injustice and terrorism win the day, but I also cannot simplistically write off every Muslim. Sure, I sincerely believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, but it is also true that violent crusades do more harm than good. I am caught between legitimate use of force and pacifism. The international debate is how to legitimize our actions before a God who loves all people and wants us to treat one another with mutual responsibility and promote freedom. God’s Easter response to our dilemma demands a new approach. We have a lot of work to do to find that answer. We’ve tried about everything else and it hasn’t worked. God help us!

Peace dove

Clergy & Church Sneak-Peeks

United Methodist clergy sneak-peeks at their prospective new appointments have been probably been with us since our founding. We’ve just switched from horses and word of mouth, to websites and surreptitious scouting trips. My three children knew the drill. As soon as we heard, we hit the trail. We found the church, checked out the parsonage from a drive-by with everyone semi-ducking their heads. Looked at area schools, even fast-food restaurants and whether the Sonic had a playground. Churches also are tempted to go check out their new pastor ahead of time – a no-no.

As a District Superintendent for 8 years, when I handed out profiles, I told the same thing to SPRC Chairs as I did clergy: “It’s a small state and everybody knows somebody from everywhere. Call those people and find out all you can. Do not go visit their church! We’re not Baptists who judge a preacher on one sermon. Remember no church is as good as you hear it is, and no church is as bad. Start making the transition, and remember you never get a second chance in making a first impression.”

I especially told SPRC Chairs, “If you want to know what your new pastor looks like, just set up a video camera in the church and parsonage’s front yard on the day of and day after appointments are announced. Sometime during that day a car is going to slow down at both locations. Its occupants will be slinked down in the seat peering over the edge of the car window eyeballing everything that they can. Make sure the grass is cut at the church, cemetery, and parsonage and all the trash picked up. Spruce everything up because this is your first-shot at easing the anxiety of a whole family and starting off right.”

Even in this age of internet sleuthing, we still depend upon our own eye-witness judgment. Especially with young children, it is extremely important to give them a peek at their new digs. Waiting to go check things out at an Introductory Visit is too late and formal. So, churches, if you haven’t already, do your own personal drive-by of your facilities. Eye-ball what any passer-by might see. If it isn’t appealing, do something about it. This isn’t just good advice for churches that anticipate a change in clergy. It’s a good idea all the time if you want to be inviting to your neighbors.

I know that when I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic for some charge conferences, I would leave early, get to the church way ahead of time, and do a walk-around. I learned a lot about each church in the district by just looking. How a church took care of its cemetery told me quite a bit how they valued their past, and how they took care of the living.

I remember going to one church whose name and location suggested on paper that it was a peaceful place. In my walk-about around the cemetery I noticed there were multiple spellings of the same last name. That clue explained a lot about the tensions in the subsequent meeting. The bottom line of what I’m trying to get at during this strange season of already and not yet in appointment-making is that we need to clean up our own house first, and get the plank out of our own eye before we start nick-picking the speck in our prospective pastor or church.

Boy, I have seen churches and pastors really get critical over the official profiles. These are handed out to SPRC Chairs and clergy when appointments are released. Those profiles, by the way, are going to be pored over and over and over. Every word will be parsed. Every date will be perused. The length of each appointment will be judged for good or ill. Expectations about ministry will be formed from what’s been written down, so write well! Tell the truth, but don’t throw anyone under the bus. Remember what I said earlier, “No pastor or church is as good as everyone says they are, nor as bad.”

The church that your “friend” had a hard time in may be prime for new leadership, so don’t pre-judge. It might be your best appointment. Churches, please remember that the clergyperson who only stayed two years at their last appointment may be moving for the best possible reasons. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Less than stellar fruitfulness at one place doesn’t mean they won’t be remembered as your most beloved pastor 20 years from now. Timing and chemistry can make a huge difference.

God bless everyone who is taking those sneak-peek rides, and churches that are putting out feelers about their new pastor. All of us, whether we’re expecting a move or not, need to get our act together. We need to clean up our front porch, get rid of dead, faded, or unseasonal flowers in the cemetery, and put our best foot forward on our profiles, and websites. In other words, if we want to make new friends with all the people who are checking us out, we need to look at ourselves through their eyes.

Once again, be gentle with each other, especially children or youth who are being uprooted, plus spouses who will be looking for new work. This whole process is like being on a flying trapeze. You can’t reach out and grab the bar coming at you unless you let go of the one you’re holding. That goes for churches saying “Goodbye” to their current pastor, and clergy saying “So long!” to their current appointment. If you don’t let go of the trapeze bar, you end up stuck hanging in the middle with nowhere to go – a bad place to be. So get ready to let go, and grab hold of that next appointment or pastor. God has great things in store. No doubt, you’ll get what you expect!

Trapeze Pic

 

 

If You Haven’t Got a Prayer, Pray Together!

Prayer has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the whole denomination to pray for General Conference. Our congregation has had many illnesses and deaths. We had a 14 hour prayer vigil last week for a marvelous thirteen year old who had a kidney transplant. I have found myself in the last few days praying at bedsides, over the telephone, and with people in hallways of the church.

Yesterday one of our ESL teachers had a medical emergency and fell unconscious on the floor. It was time to pray. Whenever nudged, we shouldn’t just say “Let’s pray about it,” but try to do it right then and there. Saying we’ll pray is only as helpful as we do it. Praying is like rocking in a rocking chair. If you don’t rock, it’s just a chair. Saying “I’ll be praying for you” is just a nice salutation unless we actually do it!

The one quality that gives me the sense that my prayers have gone further than the ceiling is focus. By focus I’m talking about “fervor,” I guess. Fervor isn’t just excitement or desperation. Fervor is more than getting worked up about something. When Powerball got to a billion dollars there was a lot of fervent let’s-make-a-deal prayer, but that was a shallow kind of prayer that only lasted a short time. When someone does something with fervor it isn’t a passing fancy or whim. It is dedicated, serious, constant, and passionate.

But appropriate and effective fervent prayer is easier to identify than to define. It’s something you can tell, though. At least that’s my experience, but even Biblical writers had a hard time with this. For instance, the Greek adverb ἐκτενῶς (EKTENOS) or “earnestly” only occurs in Luke’s writing in the New Testament, and both times it’s about prayer! It is first found in Luke 22:44 concerning Jesus praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then it is found, again by Luke, in Acts 12:5 about Peter being imprisoned and about to be executed. The exact quote in Acts is, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” It’s interesting to me that Luke, the doctor, is the only Biblical author to use this adverb. It makes sense, though, since doctors often know the urgency of things better than the rest of us.

As I have found myself deluged by life, it is earnest prayer that gives me a sense of peace. God and I have an actual conversational dialogue rather than a one sided Tim-toned monologue. When I pray earnestly I can tell it’s working when my voices wanes and God’s gets stronger. I quit listening to myself, and listen to God.

But, the most unique lesson that I get from Acts 12:5 is that the whole church was earnestly praying for Peter. A dedicated group of Believers passionately praying about the same thing is almost too marvelous to comprehend. This corporate expression of prayer bathes a church and its ministries in God’s power. A church-wide conversation with God has to result in a rich fruitfulness. How I long for that to happen at the United Methodist General Conference 2016.

The best hymn I know to help us get “prayed up” for whatever is before us is # 492 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery. It goes like this:

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, “Behold, they pray!”

5. Prayer is the Christians’ vital breath,
the Christians’ native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

6. O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!

Amen!

 Prayer pic

Who Gets Written Off?

I’ve got a different angle on the whole transgendered bathroom discussion. There are schools and institutions that are trying to dictate where people who were born a certain way need to go to a specific bathroom. This flummoxes me. I get it that I would feel awkward if a woman and I were in the same restroom, and I imagine a woman would feel the same way if I went into a women’s restroom.

But, my mind is going in all kinds of directions about civil rights; dads or moms with their opposite gender children needing a unisex option everywhere, including the church; and my European experience of it not mattering. What about campouts, cabins at church camps, single-gender activities, or even single-gender colleges? However, my thoughts today are more practical than thinking about something that I haven’t faced yet as a pastor. My mind is not wondering about being anatomically correct in our protection of people. What do we do with folks who are just odd?

They are a tad beyond socially awkward and cause more people to leave the church than come to it. They’re not just annoying. They are just plain difficult. You want to be Christian and accepting, but you might not want to sit by them. If you give them attention, they want more. Peeling back the onion layers you often find there’s a legitimate source of their personality quirks, but they don’t get help, won’t take advice, and leave you wondering whether or not you need to look out for the majority and send them packing. This is the parable of the ninety-nine and the one in Luke 15:1-7.

Jesus said to go after the one. However, as a District Superintendent, pastor, parent, friend, or whatever, it has been my experience that it is poor stewardship to give too much time and attention to the minority of malcontented well or ill-intentioned dragons that suck the life out of a church. Doesn’t it make better sense to work with the fruitful and prune the wastrels?

It might make better sense, but it seems unloving and discriminatory. I’m conflicted because everybody is both sinner and potential saint. Aren’t we all both sinner and saint at the same time? Romans 7:14-25 certainly makes it clear that the Apostle Paul experienced the tug of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. I daresay that his spirituality and Christian commitment was far better than mine.

Like the one lost sheep, we have all been the one left out, isolated from the majority, and culled or lost from the flock. If I use the UMC’s Par. 244.3’s Book of Discipline standard for a church leader then a lot of church council seats would be empty. It says that church leaders SHALL be: “persons of genuine Christian character who love the church, are morally disciplined, are committed to the mandate of inclusiveness… are loyal to the ethical standards… set forth in the Social Principles, and are competent to administer its affairs.” This weeds out a lot of people.

This is the perennial church conundrum: how do we get along with people who have a difficult time fitting in with the norm of our context? How do we protect the ninety-nine without making the one feel like they’re unwanted? To take it up a notch, what do we do with the emotionally unstable who thankfully are under the ministry of the church, but make life tough for those who are a smidge less neurotic? Par. 4 of the UMC constitution is helpful to ponder: “… All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its [the UMC’s] worship services…” What’s left out of this list of attendees? Gender is one thing, but the thing that is primarily on my mind is “mental or emotional condition.” Was this intentionally left out of Par. 4 so that we can exclude those who are wild cards in terms of behavior? That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me, so what do you think?

Perhaps this is unanswerable, but Jesus is daring me to think outside of regular parameters and I’m feeling a little stuck. What do we do? I would love to write-off a few people, but that means I have to write myself off, too. No thanks. Are we willing to leave the ninety-nine and rejoice over the one who was lost and now is found? A good hard question.

Jesus with Sheep

Pray for UMC General Conference

The United Methodist people of South Carolina are asked to pray tomorrow Thursday, February 18, for our 2016 UMC General Conference. General Conference will be held in Portland, Oregon from May 10-20, and decisions will be made about what we hold in common as a connectional people. There’s a word that’s synonymous with “connectional,” and it’s the word “covenantal.” There are many who seem hell-bent, literally, on fracturing our denomination because they want to be connectional without being covenantal. I don’t think you can have one without the other!

We’re not a perfect church, but John Wesley, our founder, said that we should and could go on to perfection in our intentions. God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. We all have a long way to go, and the only way to make progress is through grace, to be sure, but none of our good intentions means a whit if we don’t make some hard choices about our covenant and what unity means.

Making hard choices is the Lenten message of Jesus’ decisions leading up to Holy Week, and it’s our message as we take up our Lenten disciplines. Hard choices are the very essence of General Conference. We first need to make a choice to bathe it in prayer. I am going to commit this Thursday’s prayer time to a focus on our ability in Portland, and, in every local church of every ilk and creed, to do more than get along with each other, to not only have good intentions, but to do the right thing and make peace.

Making peace is the rub, isn’t it? I can smile and glad-hand almost everyone even if I can’t abide what they think, do, or say. But to make peace – that’s hard, beyond hard. It makes me wonder. In making peace do I have to tolerate and accept that they are okay in their position? I don’t think so! Jesus didn’t make peace with the sins he confronted. He did try to make peace with the sinners though. He even said to Judas when he was about plant the kiss of betrayal on Him, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” Jesus hardly ever used the word “friend,” only twice, as a matter of fact. If Jesus can call his betrayer a friend, can we dare do less?

What I think is right might differ from what you think is right, but that shouldn’t keep us from expressing Christian love and charity toward one another. John Wesley famously said, “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The problem is that most of us have opposing lists of non-negotiable essentials, and charity is routinely trumped by angry vitriol.

Can’t we all agree to pray tomorrow for Jesus and his will to reign as we meet for General Conference, and the same to occur in whatever meeting we’re in, even if it’s one in your family’s den? In our discussions, unanimity is less my goal as is selflessness. You see, my understanding of every church fight, whether on a big stage or in a local church, boils down to selfishness – a power play about pecking order and getting what’s best for me, me, me.

Think Downton Abbey and the battle about the village hospital’s control. Cousins, Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, are on opposite ends of the argument. One might say that their issue is about principle, but there’s a whole lot of “my way or the highway” selfishness at play. In General Church meetings, conference ones, local churches, workplaces, companies, and families, the same story perpetuates itself.

My prayer for General Conference is that we can agree on the primary essential: Jesus Christ. Certainly, every other issue is important and many would say the sexuality debate is essentially about our Christology, but I hope that we can glorify God even in our differences and love each other in such a way that the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 come true for our denomination: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Wow! If we promote unity then the Scripture says that the world will know Jesus and His mission! Please join me in prayer for General Conference tomorrow and all the days leading up to May 10-20, 2016. Let’s try to remember than unity doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity. There’s room in unity for diversity. Our covenant should not ever be broken, but every covenant has clear stipulations about what the parameters are for disagreement. That will be the hard work of General Conference to decide. Most of us who are married already know about this endeavor. Ask any couple who has been married for more than a couple of hours, “Does unity mean unanimity?” Pray! Pray! Pray!

General Conference 2016 Picture