Resurrection Dust

In seminary a bunch of us students would unwind by playing the board game “Risk!”  The game is all about world domination, and the winner is the one who conquers everyone else. There was this one guy who would always quote Jesus’ words, as he perennially went down to defeat, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” I can hear him even now. The rest of us thought that it was just a game, not a theological exercise.

I’m afraid that’s the attitude many people have about their faith. Life is a game to win or lose, and one tries to fit God in wherever one can. Like Peter admonishing Jesus about the absurdity that the Son of Man must die, many of us think it’s better to gain the whole world than carry a cross. Carrying a cross seems like losing, game over. So, we are convinced that it is a hard journey to carry a cross. Jesus says that without this self-sacrifice we are doomed. Jesus is the only One who conquers everyone and everything else!

We have to let him “conquer” us so that we give up our wants and wishes and accept God’s will. If we don’t, everything is lost. We need to move from being WAM people and become WAY people. “What About Me?” people are always looking out for themselves while WAY people consistently ask, “What About You?” It is even better if the “You” in question is God. WAY people are selfless, not selfish. The way of the cross is about what’s right and pleases God. It’s the ultimate choice to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost.

Christians have been called people of The Way before. It takes faith in action. Lent is our season to drill down and discover our faith’s bedrock. It’s a time to ask ourselves what we really believe, whom we really follow, and will we carry a cross. The song by Matt Redman, “Jesus, it’s all about you,” sings and sounds well enough, but is so hard to do in our self-absorbed world. It is usually the poor who get this truth before anyone else. They depend on the power of resurrection to be real. Actually everybody I know depends on this truth if they’re honest enough.  All of us need an Easter faith. So, Lent and Easter come at a perfect time. We want winter to be over and warmer weather to arrive.

I’ve been nursing an amaryllis since Christmas a year ago. Trying to get it to re-bloom after more than a year has taken more effort than I imagined. I’ve followed all the rules about letting the leaves absorb sun throughout last summer. Finally the time came for me to stop watering so that the leaves would die before last fall arrived. I cut the old fronds away, then stored it in the fridge. I was careful to keep any apples away because their proximity causes sterilization.

Finally I pulled it out 8 weeks before Christmas and expected it to be a holiday delight. I repotted, watered, and put it in as much sun as I could. It turned an ugly rotten brown. I figured I had overwatered it and firmly felt underneath it several times to see it was soggy and too far gone. It felt okay, so now, three months late, it finally started sending out green shoots. I went from being in Dr. Seuss’ “waiting place” in Oh, The Places You’ll Go to Resurrection time, and I’m looking forward to the blooms!

Has this been a “waiting place” of a winter for you? If so, there’s hope! Pollen has begun to fall and cover our cars in our temperate Southern climate. My daughter, Narcie, calls pollen “Resurrection Dust.” It wreaks havoc on sinuses, but it’s a wonderful sign that no matter how long the winter, or how hard the journey, or how heavy the cross, there’s a resurrection coming. Spring is on its way to scatter away the last vestiges of winter’s chill. “Resurrection Dust” sprinkled over our lives gives us renewed hope.

This makes me hear echoes of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise” – “In the bulb there is a flower…, a spring that waits to be…, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” My amaryllis was done for, but now it’s alive! God’s “Resurrection Dust” is a sign! If nature recognizes this pendulum that swings from death to life, why don’t we? Look out at the yellow pollen and be grateful. Easter’s coming!

The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

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Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic

 

Curing Optic Rectosis

I don’t feel too great today physically or emotionally. It’s cold and rainy, but at least it’s not icy or snowing. Nevertheless, I just feel more than a little bit yucky. Some of it is because I’m a bit uneasy about a few things: Narcie’s next MRI is upon us, another young clergyperson’s cancer has come back with a vengeance, one of our fine associate pastors has declared that he wants to move, we have some folks in the hospital that are going through tough times, and there are others with issues, too. I fly out tomorrow for a meeting in Washington, D.C. where I am the point person on legislative matters for the General Commission on Religion and Race. I am also waiting to hear from a dear soul who I hope will help with our 2014 taxes. Ours are going to be more complicated this year and it scares me. I guess all of this has put me into a funk of sorts. I’m tired of winter!

I doubt most of you have heard of optic rectosis, but I imagine that most of you have had it. Before you think you have some new malady, it’s really not a disease per se. It’s an attitude, outlook, and perspective. Its meaning is “looking at life through your backside; i.e. a messy outlook on life.” It doesn’t seem very Christian but Jesus did have his moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where he agonized over his impending death and “sweat great drops of blood.” The Greek word for what happened is “Agonizomai.” Jesus agonized. We agonize, and ours pale in comparison not only to Jesus but to most other people. I look around and there are plenty of folks who have more legitimate reasons to be upset.

Laughing off our troubles has been attempted by some of the world’s best comics. It sometimes works for me. Sometimes it just makes me feel worse. I was reading about a guy who woke up one morning in a puddle of water in his king-size water bed. In order to fix the leak he decided to wrestle the mattress outside and fill it with extra water so he could more easily locate the leak. Anyway, the waterbed mattress was impossible to control once he got it outside. It started wiggling and jiggling on the hilly terrain and waddled down the slope right into some pretty sturdy bushes. Now he had holes poked all through it. Disgusted he threw out the whole water bed frame and moved a standard bed into his room. The next morning he woke to find a puddle of water in the middle of the new bed. The upstairs bathroom had a leaky drain. Have you ever thought that you fixed one problem and ended up with more? Sometimes what we think ails us is only symptomatic of something we least suspect.

What is really the cause of my malaise this morning? What is the real culprit? I just got a phone call about a member’s tenuous hold on life. It feels like every which way I turn that there’s another shoe about to drop. I am about to get in the car and make rounds at several hospitals. The life of a minister can be a heavy load. One thing I know that I can count on is that Jesus has already agonized about every situation and more. He went through the pain of crucifixion and defeated death. There is no problem or situation that He can’t handle. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the balm and medicine for all of our dilemmas.

I watched my mother and father take their last breaths. I have probably seen a couple of thousand people cross from this life to the next. For most of them it was a necessary and anticipated transition. They were loved enough by their families that no one wanted them to suffer any more and the only place they would be well again would be in heaven, but the loving cords that bind us are broken and life will never be the same. That reality is so painful, though I know and believe in the Communion of Saints, that there is a mystical comingling of our loved ones who have died in the faith with those of us who are left. This doesn’t diminish the painful reality of death, but it helps. It is our Christian hope that sustains us and helps us to move beyond the shadows and embrace life once again.

Whatever your burden is today, however your eyesight and perspective are overshadowed by a litany of worries, then know this, Jesus is with us all and will see us through. I heard this song this morning and it helped. It’s David Crowder’s “Come as You Are.” Jesus knows our every sorrow and bids us to give him all our burdens. Amen.

Perspective and Opportunity in United Methodist Appointment-Making

“Boy, do I have an opportunity for you!” are words that most United Methodist clergy have heard or will hear during their ministry. Within the next 6 weeks this phrase will be used a lot! The difficulty is that one person’s definition of “opportunity” may not match someone else’s. It is a statement usually said by district superintendents who are on the front-line of making appointments. They are at the point of the triangle between churches and clergy, matchmakers who have on-site knowledge of their churches and ministers. This knowledge is shared with the bishop’s whole cabinet, and through shared discernment, matches are made.

In the UMC system defining an “opportunity” is always a matter of perspective. It takes conferencing about the perspective of the local church and its perception of desired leadership needs; the perspective of the clergy and where they are in their ministry or the importance of family considerations; and the perspective of the bishop and cabinet who are scanning the needs of the whole annual conference and doing their very best to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Connectionalism and working together is part and parcel of United Methodism. Therefore, appointments are made by the whole cabinet, though the Bishop alone is given constitutional authority (Par. 54, 2012 Book of Discipline) to do so after “consultation with the district superintendents.” Consultation includes local churches and clergy, too, and that appears in the form of church and clergy profiles. Therefore, everyone takes a hand, not least God, in our system of clergy deployment. Staff-Parish Relations Committees complete Church Profiles that describe the church, and clergy fill out Pastor Profiles that offer insights into their situations. By the way, both need to understand the importance of a well-presented profile. Those profiles will be pored over with microscopic attention when appointments are made. Please at least use spell-check!

A key paragraph from my perspective about appointment-making is found in Par. 428.4 which says, “All appointments shall receive consideration by the bishop, the district superintendent(s), and the cabinet as a whole until a tentative decision is made.” This fleshes out for me that our appointment-making system is a collegial effort, though the final decision indeed belongs to the bishop. As a former district superintendent who maxed out my tenure after 8 years, and one who is absolutely relishing being appointed to a thriving congregation, I think that a key word as we ramp up for the annual anxiety-laden period of possible clergy transitions is “perspective.”

The bishop and cabinet have a perspective about clergy and churches and the needs of the whole conference, and sometimes they have to make decisions about which only they know all the facts. Churches have their own unique perspective and rightly so if they can only count on one hand the number of effective ministers they have had in any given person’s lifetime. Clergy certainly have a unique perspective shaped by their family needs, and their sense of their gifts and graces and how they might be best utilized. So, what we have as we approach “appointment season” in the UMC is an “intriguing dance of perspectives,” a cooperative connectional effort to discern who goes where and who gets whom.

I pray for all those who are feeling the tensions rise in anticipation. Being on a trapeze with one hand letting go of one bar (pastor, church, friend, etc.) and willing to trust God enough to reach out for that the next bar (church, pastor, friend, etc.) is daunting, yet potentially thrilling. Throughout the whole process, as it is bathed in prayer, we absolutely must believe that God is in this enterprise, that Jesus will be glorified, however saddened or distraught we might be. In other words, we need more than a human perspective. We must affirm that a heavenly perspective is of highest importance. In our system we yield ourselves to a scary and vulnerable process not unlike the risk Jesus took in his incarnation.

So the word is “Perspective,” both divine and human. This is the essence of our belief in the system we call “itineracy,” the moving of clergy. John Wesley called itineracy the “apostolic plan of evangelization.” He thought that our “sent,” not “called” system was and is one of God’s best ways of mobilizing and energizing God’s salvific plan for humanity. I agree and have yielded myself to our peculiar process. Trust me, I haven’t always seen the wisdom of the bishop and cabinet, nor have all of my appointments been rosy. I do know this, however, that God has provided for me, my family, the local church, and the community. When we yield to a divine perspective all other perspectives come into focus!

Some people claim that their personal perspective is supreme and that their needs and/or agenda supplants and trumps everyone else’s. That’s not our system. I’ve seen people finagle their way upwards using manipulation and maneuvering, but, sooner or later, their solitary and self-promoting perspective will come to a halting stop. They have elevated what they want over saying “Yes!” and yielding. God help the UMC if that kind of personal aggrandizement ever wins the day.

Let me share a story that illustrates the illusion that getting our way and making what we think are unseen jabs is the way to go in appointment-making, whether by churches, clergy, district superintendents, and even bishops. Good appointment-making values everyone’s perspective, especially God’s. The story goes like this:

“During World War II, a general and his aide, a lieutenant, were traveling from one base to another. They were forced to travel with civilians aboard a passenger train. They found their compartments where two other folks were already seated – an attractive young lady and her grandmother. For most of the trip, they conversed freely. The train entered a long and rather dark tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, the passengers in this particular car heard two distinct sounds – the first was the smack of a kiss; the second was the loud sound of a slap.

Now, although these four people were in the same compartment aboard the passenger train, they came to four differing perspectives. The young lady thought how glad she was that the young lieutenant got up the courage to kiss her, but she was somewhat disappointed at her grandmother for slapping him for doing it; the general thought to himself how proud he was of his young lieutenant for being enterprising enough to find this opportunity to kiss the attractive young lady but was flabbergasted that she slapped him instead of the lieutenant; the grandmother was flabbergasted to think that the young lieutenant would have the gall to kiss her granddaughter, but was proud of her granddaughter for slapping him for doing it; and the young lieutenant was trying to hold back the laughter, for he found the perfect opportunity to kiss an attractive young girl and slap his superior officer all at the same time!”

Perhaps our so-called “opportunities” are not at all what they seem, or they are fleeting chances for us to “work” the system and “slap” the “Man” by bucking authority. We better be careful not to be so creative in our massaging the system that God’s video cam doesn’t catch us and we end up as our own worst enemy. I would rather trust the communal perspective of our appointment-making system than end up getting what I finagled for and be absolutely miserable. So, let’s trust everyone’s perspective, especially God’s! Everyone’s input insures a better opportunity for fruitful ministry.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Narcie, Josh, and I at Josh’s Ordination

The red Stoles represent the Yoke of Christ saying that We YIELD to where we are SENT!