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.

When Is The Right Time to Close a Church?

When is the right time to close a church? The technical process of discernment and action is outlined in Paragraph 2549 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but the emotional process is much more complex. The bigger issue for me is the distinction between abandoning a church or discontinuing it. I haven’t closed a church in my 8 years as a District Superintendent and, as I’m in my last few months in office, I don’t plan on doing it now. It wouldn’t be fair to the next superintendent.

There have been a few Columbia District churches along the way that have been “on the bubble” in this regard, but I strongly believe what the anonymous author said, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” If there was enough movement of the Holy Spirit to start a church, why not wait and see if the fire can be rekindled? This seems like a plug for revitalization of existing churches over new church starts and maybe it is. I strongly support doing both!

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that “Where two or three gather come together in my name, there I am with them.” That can be an awkwardly low number. I heard about some ladies comparing their previous week’s worship attendance numbers. One said that they had 500 in worship. Another said that they were at the 100-person mark. The last person said their crowd was so sparse that when the pastor said, “Dearly Beloved,” she blushed. Is there a church size that is too intimate to be effective, too small to really be church?

A case in point is Cedar Creek UMC in the Columbia District. It was founded in 1742 as a German Reformed congregation then Bishop Francis Asbury and circuit-riding preacher “Thundering Jimmy” Jenkins came through in 1785 and the whole congregation, including the pastor, became Methodists. There’s a wonderful historical marker in front of the church. Unfortunately they’re down to five members now, all in their nineties. I’ve told the pastor of this three-point charge to go to Cedar Creek and wait, work on the sermon, and if nobody shows up in 15 minutes, move on to the next church. The people are faithful more than they are able at this point, but how dare I close a church that predates American Methodism?

None of the Cedar Creek folks want it on their conscience either so we’ve made an agreement. I will not start the process for their discontinuation. When they have all gone on to meet the Lord or the Lord has come back to meet them, then the church will be subject to the abandonment clause. However, this bothers me somewhat, too. Is there any spiritual value in the difference between abandonment and discontinuation? Maybe there is since you must have a death before a resurrection!

Sure, the Annual Conference trustees will do their best to see that Cedar Creek’s property is used in a way that promotes Christ’s ministry and the funds that they are currently using will be redirected to more flourishing ministries, but there’s still a sense of loss, even death. As Cabinet Secretary for these past eight years I have been the one who has stood in front of our annual conference and presented the resolutions for church closures. It has always been solemn, moving, and a funeral of sorts, except it’s hardly ever felt like a “Service of Death and Resurrection.” The resurrection part has been largely absent except when there’s a church whose assets have been designated to start or fuel another ministry. There’s real gratitude for past ministry, but seldom a hope of future fruit.

What is there to do? Oh, there are lots of avenues that have been explored through our excellent Congregational Development Office, great nearby churches and other partnerships, but in an area where the deer vastly outnumber humans there’s a dilemma. This is true across our denomination and others where demographics have changed. I have seen churches in the U.S. repurposed where a former Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh was turned into a brewery and a Baptist one in New York City has become an excellent Italian restaurant.

What happened? Is there any valid excuse for a church to close? I’m really struggling with this. You can visit Wesley’s Chapel on City Road in London and quickly discover that people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but they still have an active congregation! In Cedar Creek’s case its near-demise seems to be all about location, location, location, but in New York City and London people can catch a subway or ride the tube to get to church. There are plenty of cars and drivers around here to get people to Cedar Creek, too.

So maybe the problem isn’t as much about location as what happened decades ago or sometime in the interim. I don’t think that this is Cedar Creek’s story, but I have certainly seen it in other places: Many if not most of our declining churches either started as or at some point turned into family chapels and the families have died out. For too long we have counted on people having children who stayed put: duty, loyalty, and inward focus; i.e., too much intimacy without welcoming the stranger and the church has shrunk. If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication.

To replicate the New Testament church we have to sometimes shut a church’s doors for a season in order to squash the old DNA and later reopen it as a new ministry. Frankly, the results have been mixed, but we have to do something. Rocking along propping up failing institutions is a horrible drain on our human and financial resources without much fruit to show for it. Our Wesleyan Movement ends up motionless.

The preferable response to this inertia is worth repeating: If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication. For instance, use the official definition of “replication” in computing. It is defined as: “sharing information so as to ensure consistency between redundant resources, such as software or hardware components, to improve reliability, fault-tolerance, or accessibility.”

Now, that will preach when I think about keeping churches alive and well: sharing information (talking about Jesus Christ and his mission), ensuring consistency (discipleship), between redundant resources (connectionalism-“Together We Can Do More!”), such as software or hardware components (people and buildings) to improve reliability (sanctification), fault-tolerance (loving communities), or accessibility (openness to new people and ideas).

My task as a District Superintendent is to be a “chief missional strategist” (Par. 419.1 BOD). That means that I need to help churches effectively share the Good News of Jesus by using all the resources of replication. In Cedar Creek’s case we might build a buzz and momentum for Christ’s witness by turning it into a teaching church. I have 65 churches in the Columbia District and 58 charges. What if I got at least 52 of those churches and charges and/or their Sunday School classes to go out there and hold services once a week for a year? It would be a chance to hold a lab school of sorts about the early history of Methodism for both adults and confirmands, an opportunity for Lay Servants to hone their speaking and teaching skills, a place to talk about ways to retain relevancy when your demographics change and the need for churches to engage new and different people.

The Board of Ordained Ministry could use it as a place for Residency Groups to learn about the Wesleyan Movement and have their very own class meeting. They would have a chance to get ready for the Proclamation Committee, too, by sharing the Word. Gosh, the Cabinet could meet there as a big reminder of two big questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” Rather than be repurposed into a bar or restaurant, the Lord’s Supper could be served to Emmaus gatherings and others. There are lots of opportunities that need to be explored.

My wheels are turning, but I need to hear your thoughts and dreams. What do you think that we should do with Cedar Creek and others like it? What are your suggestions? I’m all ears,


church bldg

Caught Between Time Zones, Cultures, & Grief


I am spent, tired and probably need to be in the Azores to have some semblance of biological normalcy. It took 17 hours in flight to get to East Africa, and 17 to get back in 5 days. I’m no “spring chicken” and I feel the weariness. I am also emotionally drained from preaching my brother Carlee’s funeral yesterday. He was so special, and his devotion to family and our little historic hometown of Edgefield, SC was so complete. To capture him and our memories was both comforting and caused a degree of sadness. I miss him and those halcyon days of common joy. Nevertheless, he would want me to press on. That’s what I’m going to do. I may head to the top of Mt. Mitchell, my quiet place and rest, read, and bask in its mystery for that is what I need in the summer of 2010 that has been so fraught withits own mysterious changes. I would be remiss if I did not at least offer to you my thoughts on the work of the Worldwide UMC Study Committee and our trip to Mozambique.

This is an email with some slight subsequent editing that I sent to Bishop Jones within hours of my return on Wednesday and in response to his offer of condolences about my brother and illiciting my thoughts on the interviews we conducted in Maputo, Mozambique.

“Scott/Bishop Jones, Thank you for your support and prayers for my family. Indeed, all of this with my brother and daughter have been unexpected and have been difficult. I want to express to you and the staff (especially Cynthia Dopke) my sincere thanks for rearranging my flights to get me home for his service tomorrow (Thursday). I’ll be preaching the service and have been meeting with family all afternoon. I haven’t crashed yet and there’s more work to be done on his eulogy, so please understand the following thoughts as preliminary at best.

We had a very enlightening time of things in Maputo. I was able to peruse their 2008 version of their BOD (Book of Discipline)which was based on the 1988 version of the GC BOD. They simply have taken things out they feel are not relevant or offensive, and they have added as other Central Conferences have, “Special Advices,” in the middle of their BOD. These seem to carry the weight of law, but they are different from the Social Principles, which in my opinion are not church law.

I went there thinking that perhaps we could have one common book of doctrine, discipline, and order; but I feel this is unlikely given their ability and willingness to wholesale pick and choose their preferences to adapt, leave out, and add new parts. For instance they still use the deacon to elder two-step ordination process. I am sensing that our study will need to go beyond the 2012 GC if we are to really rethink our church and do the adequate study, and we must not allow money or sexuality drive our ecclesiology unless we want to polarize everyone.There must also be some sense of proportionality in our relationships with churches outside the US to avoid colonialism.

A huge difference discussed at great length was the non-itineration of bishops and that they are elected at the CC level to serve in their own home episcopal area for a specific length of time. This is a dangerous thing in terms of politics in the episcopal areas when people serve among their peers and have preconceived notions that exist from Bishop to people and in reverse, and I remember as Aesop said it, “Familarity breeds contempt.”

In final analysis I find it difficult to think we can have a common discipline unless it is VERY thin, and I don’t think that is worth our efforts or good for the UMC. Another approach might be to see where the whole church can agree and allow very little, if any, adaptability. I think we must not rush into hurried decisions that will be misunderstood and fail. I would rather study longer and get it right, or simply accept the constitutional vote results on the worldwide nature of the UMC and the “no” votes on this issue that have occurred ever since the COSMOS report of the 60’s all the way to this point as indicators that 1. We would rather live with the dysfunction as is, or 2. We really need to study this with seasoned ecclesiologists who have no agendas except to fulfill a commonly held mission of the Church and actually be a worldwide UMC. Anyway, that’s where I am at this point and need to process it all much more. I’m truly sorry not to be there with you all. The group is in my prayers and I thank everyone for their’s,


Cultural contextualization of the Gospel is not only appropriate, it is neccesary. St. Paul did a good job of this with the Athenians. However, in our UMC Connectional polity, one must discern with clarity what causes the UMC to be distinctive. What are the non-negotiables? I know Wesley said: “Let there be unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and in all things, charity.” The daunting task in our indivualistic world is to figure which is which.

We cannot devolve into congregationalism and have pastors and churches act like individual silos, nor have annual conferences, or jusrisdictions/central conferences doing their own thing. That is NOT who we are. What we are is a corporate group of Jesus’ followers who believe the saving work of Christ makes as much of a difference in this life as it does in the life to come. To quote John Wesley once again, and also use my brother Carlee’s favorite expression, “Best of all, God is with us.” The path to the future for me, the UMC, the world – is how is God with us? If we get that answered, then we will see a light into the future.

Happy Times


Cindy’s summer last year was consumed by her mother’s illness and death. Today she’s trying to finish the estate. A lot has happened in a realtively short period of time. I miss her Mom, but I think all this stuff with Narcie would have broken her heart with worry and ended her days with sadness. Instead Ganny died with a book in her hand, ever the librarian, looking forward not backward. I’m still amazed at how well she adapted from living in her special home to being under someone else’s care. I won’t forget how just a couple of weeks before her death, we went to see “Julie & Julia.” Then the bone marrow biopsy and the day before they were going to tell us what it was (Acute Myleoblastic Leukemia), she was dead. Just like that. She had asked Narcie and Josh to do her eulogy and they were great in sharing their special “Ganny Memories.” It would be tough for Ganny to know about Narcie. Just to think she died just a year and a half after seeing her precious Josh marry Karen. That was one of her last highwater marks exceeded perhaps only by the birth of Evy.

So, Cindy has been through a lot over the last couple of years. She is a trooper, dealing with last summer, a tough school year as usual as a guidance counselor, then just as school ended another saga began. I’ve had my break with the College World Series, she hasn’t. She’s been cheerleader, Mom, Grammie, friend, prayer-warrior, and so much more for all of us without so much as a thought for her own well-being. I sure do love her. I married my mother. She is so much like her. We joke around because I’ve sort of turned into her Mom which makes for an interesting visual when you think of our mothers marrying each other, but, hey, we’re more complex than that, and I’m grateful.

This December 20 is our 35th wedding anniversary, and I hope we can do it up right. I’m not telling what I’ve got in mind but she’ll love it if I can pull it off. She certainly deserves it. Both our best hopes would be fulfilled if Narcie’s MRI’s come back with no tumor. That would be gift enough. Nobody wants to outlive their child. I’m taking part in a funeral tomorrow for a child I baptized as an infant, who as a 19-year-old college student took his last breath on Saturday, from a summer cold turned into congestive heart failure. I cannot imagine his sweet parent’s heartache, but all of this with Narcie has made me feel just a bit of it, more than I want. I guess tomorrow’s sorrow has reminded me of how close we’ve come to the same horrible place and how grateful I am that Narcie Jo is alive and has the hope of being well.

Please pray for Wiley and DeLois Alexander and their family as they lay Karl to rest tomorrow. I never want to be in their shoes. I know that Jesus is in their hearts, but the ache that they must feel is beyond my pondering and is unfathomable. May God grant them peace. Ganny found peace and we are glad, but she was 76, not 19 like Karl, or 30 like Narcie. God please be with the families whose children are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, Haiti, the neo-natal unit down the street, everywhere.

Garden of Eden, is that where I want to go? Back to Eden sounds good, but didn’t God put seraphim with blazing swords to keep Adam and Eve out? Why? If they had gotten back in they would have had access to both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil AND the Tree of Life. Going back to Eden knowing good and evil, and eating of the Tree of Life and living forever would have been an eternal curse. God didn’t want them to go back to Eden for their own good, our own good. So, we’re people headed in a different direction – forward to the New Jerusalem, Rev. 21, no crying, no sadness, no good and evil – only good. Sounds good, but I’m in no hurry for any of us, not Karl, not Narcie, not Cindy. Maybe Ganny because she was ready and was wearing out. Maybe death can come as friend, but only through Jesus and not without a fight.