The Dones and Nones can be Undone

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!

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Judas Trees and Jesus

As I was driving across town this morning to the United Methodist Center I counted 19 Judas Trees. They look like thin trees or shrubs with close-cropped purple buds on the limbs. They are beautiful! Some people call them redbuds although I haven’t seen a color close to red yet. Much like the dogwood with its association to Lent and Easter via Jesus’ cross, the Judas Tree is said to have been the type of tree upon which Judas hanged himself after he betrayed the Lord.

No matter whether it’s an Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) or a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) the bright purple Lenten-like color is a great precursor to Passion Week and Easter. Before there are any blooms on any other trees or shrubs these artful wonders stand out in yards and woodlands with their bright foliage. My mother always pointed them out when I was a child and said, “Look there’s a Judas Tree blooming. Easter’s coming, we better get ready!”

That is always good advice, hence our reason to have 40 days not counting Sundays to prepare for the Lord’s resurrection. In this in-between time of spring being sprung and the last vestiges of winter, I need a visual reminder that Passion Week and a culminating Easter are upon us. Judas Trees blooming while no dogwoods are in sight is a metaphor for the spiritual work that I yet need to do. What do I need to do to get ready for Passion Week and Easter?

I’m going to take my cue from Judas Trees, more specifically the relationship between Judas and Jesus. Judas Iscariot is such an enigmatic character. He’s the only disciple who was a city-boy, from Kerioth, which is why he’s called Judas Iscariot. We know he’s a thief who helped himself to the Disciples’ common cache of money. He struck a deal to turn Jesus in to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver.  He identified the Lord with a kiss. We also know Judas felt remorse over his actions, perhaps too little, too late.

But, hold on, we also know something else! Jesus called Judas his friend when he betrayed him with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50). Jesus said, “Friend, Do what you came for.” We absolutely need to note that Jesus didn’t call many people “friend.” As a matter of fact, except for several uses of the word “friend(s)” in a few parables, the only other times Jesus uses the word directly about a person was when he healed the paralytic let down through the roof (Luke 5:20), and when he was talking about Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. In John 11:11 Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up.” Jesus only called three people, “friend!” Wow!

And one of them was Judas, and Jesus already knew that he was going to betray Him (John 13). To top off this audacity of grace, Jesus called Judas “Friend” just after He washed all of the Disciples’ feet, including Judas’, in the Upper Room. How many of us would wash Judas’ feet? How many of us would call our betrayer “Friend?”  We have all had someone treat us poorly. Rather than ostracize or at least avoid them, Jesus goes out of his way to show extraordinary grace and compassion, and He calls us to do the same knowing that there is nothing He does that He won’t empower us to do.

Therefore, I want every Judas Tree that I see make me want to have a Jesus-heart, a heart that can express friendship to all regardless of their meanness. Rather than stoop to the level of our adversaries, let us rise to the example of Christ. Jesus calls us all His friends and we’ve all let Him down like Judas. Look around you in the coming days and let the Judas Trees inspire you to turn your enemies into friends!

Judas Tree

Selective Hearing and Appointment Making

Poor listening has been called “selective hearing.” With about a week to go before we make appointments, I have been duly described and resemble the remark! Do I listen selectively to the S/PPRC or to the clergy? Do we as a Cabinet value the input of clergy over churches, churches over clergy, or give a fair hearing to all? These are tough questions, and starting March 3 we will find out the answers.

In my mind, clergy exist for churches, not the other way around. There are, however, special circumstances that may warrant extra consideration in terms of clergy assignments. Children’s education, proximity to doctors, and spousal employment come to mind. All that being said, in the United Methodist Church, clergy gave up their right to preferential treatment when they committed to the itinerancy.

We go where we’re sent and I personally know the ramifications. We found out that we were going to move just before annual conference one year. A clergyperson died suddenly and the Bishop called. The difficulty was that Narcie was going into her high school senior year, Cindy loved her job, and on top of those considerations the raise I was to receive was $300 annualized. Not a lot considering the sacrifice my family was going to make, but everything worked out! We stayed there 9 years and Narcie must not have been too affected by it since she’s a UM clergyperson now. I have taken a big cut since then, too, but fruitful ministry has resulted in spite of my reservations!

I guess the point is that fruitfulness always trumps personal prerogative. The Cabinet will do everything that we can to make churches and clergy happy. I know that this is a tense time for clergy and churches because I have had last ditch efforts thrown my way for several weeks now. There are clergy who a month ago wanted to move that now want to renege. There are churches who would rather keep their known pastor rather than risk receiving the unknown. Why? I think that the answer is quite evident. We have all been burned by bad matches.

I remember several years ago when we had a pastor that was low on about everybody’s list, and a DS took an educated chance. It ended up as a great match! I have seen pastors whose DS oversold them and it hasn’t worked out at all. I had a preacher come in here the other day who blatantly stated that they felt like they deserved a promotion. After a lengthy discussion of this person’s track record, I attempted to speak the truth in love that this person’s fruitfulness had been spotty at best. Of course, as usual, I got plenty of valid and not-so-valid excuses.

We have all heard them, whatever the profession or avocation: “It was my predecessor’s fault; the church didn’t want to grow; the church didn’t serve the community; they were dysfunctional; a family chapel; too liberal, too conservative, too conflicted; they wanted a white male, a female (wish I heard that one more), and on and on.” I have heard churches voice the usual: “We want someone with experience who’s 25.” Good luck with that!

There comes a point in time when the reality adds up to mediocrity and a person’s portfolio of ministry simply falls short of everyone’s expectations. Sure, they did good things, people’s lives were touched, but they either didn’t light up the scoreboard or outkicked their coverage. Maybe they could thrive in a greater work, but the facts seem to dictate that they would be better off serving a lesser one. Since gauging what’s greater and lesser is often theologically and empirically impossible, maybe they need to do something entirely different with their life which gets to a key point for me.

What if a lot of our mediocrity in the pew and the pulpit is due to people’s high expectations and low performance? What if our clergy problem is because people went searching for God by going to seminary and came out with a degree in hand and ended up looking for a career? We must recapture the theology and language of call over career. I honestly think that most clergy feel called, but I am afraid that along the way the call for many has dissipated into a career.

We don’t have time as the church in a hurting world to dither between play acting as either church members or as clergy. It’s time to get real! Church members who don’t take discipleship seriously should NOT serve as church council members. Put those nominal Christians and a pastor who is career minded together and the certain result is a lack of fruitfulness.

One of the biggest myths for United Methodist clergy is that your ministry track will be this long ever-climbing straight line from the bottom at the beginning to the top at the end with an ever increasing salary. The reality is that the ministry track for many persons should look like a bell curve which is low in the beginning, peaks in the middle, then concludes with a tapering and diminishing end.

There are some clergy who do keep rising until they retire but they are few and far between, and they aren’t into comparing themselves with other clergy. They bloom where they’re planted and go where they are sent! Their fruitfulness hasn’t diminished and won’t!

I have seen S/PPRC’s buy into mythology when they think that if they cut the salary they’ll get a young preacher, or if they raise the salary they’ll get a better one. Myths abound for clergy and laity alike! Unfortunately, sometimes myth becomes reality. Regardless, any clergyperson who thinks that their worth is determined by salary is bound to be disappointed. Any church that worships their pastor and/or puts restrictions on their pastor’s preferred gender, race, age, family size, or marital status is limiting what the Holy Spirit can possibly do in their parish.

The truth as I see it is that we go as clergy where we’re sent and churches receive whomever they are sent. Sounds simple, and I thought it was 8 years ago when I came on the Cabinet. I know better now. Matching clergy and churches is unbelievably difficult. Cabinets try to listen carefully to your needs with a primary focus on local church fruitfulness. We try to avoid stereotypes about age, race, gender, location, and where someone went to seminary. I am firmly convinced now that teaching each clergyperson and church how to complete a pastor/church profile would go a long way in helping everyone involved start off on the right foot. That profile is a welcome mat to your soul as a person or as a church. Get it right because selective hearing is hard to correct if what you’re saying is garbled!

Tim at Wedding

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,

tim

church bldg

Finding God’s Will: Will Jackson

This morning as the dawn’s sun peeks through the trees, I’m thinking about my last congregation where early on I quit going to the front door to shake hands with parishioners. You see it was the custom for whoever did the preaching to go to the front door and the other clergy to go to the side door. On my first trip to the side door and every Sunday after that the dear and challenged young man, Will Jackson, grabbed my hand and heart. He sat by the side door every Sunday with his beloved parents, Bill and Faye, and his big sister, Mary Katherine. Every time I walked by he reached out his hand – a touch of sacramental grace from a lad who couldn’t speak with words, but spoke with his heart. From that first time it happened I knew it was God’s will/Will for me to go to the side door because I didn’t have church that Sunday or any other until Will touched me.

Do you want to know God’s will/Will? What or who is God’s Will/will for your life? What’s your personal mission statement? What’s your church’s? I have enjoyed listening to churches share their mission statements and goals at charge conferences, and I agree with what someone once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” In my experience that lack of direction usually means a less than worthy destination. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Thoughtless doing without clear goals is busy-ness without fruitfulness. Doing lots of stuff without clarity of purpose is wearisome and lacks satisfaction. It leads to mediocrity, and describes much of what I see in our churches.

The churches that I’ve seen that are thriving know their goals. They can say them out loud, not like automatons or lemmings, but because they have a passion for a singular purpose. Someone said that mission statements need to be “long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized.” I like that. The purpose of the church should have enough depth to challenge, but be clear enough to be immediately verbalized. I’ve heard some like “MD4C” which stands for “Making Disciples for Christ,” and “Together We Can Do More.” Clarity of direction is key for disciples. If leaders aren’t clear then the rest of the flock is left wandering in the wilderness!

In ­Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters the Red Queen as she is trying to find her way through the fairy tale forest. Alice cried out, “Which way do I go?” The Red Queen was almost nonchalant in her reply, “Well, that all depends on where you want to go.” Alice continued her plea for directions with, “Well, to tell the truth, I really don’t know!” The Red Queen concluded, “Then it really doesn’t matter which direction you take, does it?” So we have churches, people, governments, and societies floundering around going in every direction imaginable like chickens with their heads lopped off because they have no clue where they want to go.

Where do you want to go? Better yet, where does God want you to go? How can you tell? I think sometimes our sense of call or direction begins with the opportunities around us. What’s the need? Other times I need to ask myself what are my passions, or as I ask the clergy who are coming in to see me for their consultation, “What lights you up?” That simple question gives me more than a hint as to what that person’s direction might need to be. What do valued and wise people in your life advise you to do? Sometimes others see more clearly than we do what our priorities should be! Of course and foremost, what has God said to us in prayer and in God’s Word? If I read the Scriptures and ask intently with undistracted focus, “What are you saying to me today, Lord?” – God usually speaks with a deep inward impression on my soul. Oh, for the courage to do what the Lord says! That’s direction!

Our Bishop, Jonathan Holston, is wonderful. He often says that we need to dream what he calls “God-sized dreams.” He’s so right! That’s a sure-fire way to avoid mediocrity. When Disney World opened south of Orlando the widow of the great entrepreneur Walt Disney stood with one of Disney’s engineers as they were both gazing at its magnificence and beauty. The engineer was sincerely trying to honor one of our country’s greatest innovators when he turned toward Mrs. Disney and said, “Boy, I wish Walt could have seen this!” Without lifting her gaze off the awesome sight of Disney World in all its splendor, she simply replied, “He did. That’s why it’s here.”

God wants us to have God-sized dreams and articulate them clearly enough to inspire others to catch them. Listen today to God’s voice and sense the Holy Spirit’s nudges; listen to your own heart and think about your passions, giftedness, and what lights you up. Listen to the wise counsel of Christian friends. Look at the needs around you that must be addressed. Knowing God’s will ain’t rocket science! Do something about it! Amid the din of all other voices and clamors for your attention, touch the “least of these” in Jesus’ name and you’ve met and done God’s Will/will. Give a listen to Martina McBride to know what I mean.

“I’ll Be Praying For You!”

Right off, I want to say thanks for everyone’s prayers on our family’s behalf during this eventful summer. An update: Narcie has finished radiation and is daily improving. There’s months of chemo to go, but she’s been in ministry every day at Gator Wesley and across the United Methodist connection as a leader in Campus Ministry. She has been preaching and is overcoming the initial issues with her voice and fine motor skills. She continues in speech and occupational therapies. I am amazed at her progress and I know it is largely because of your prayers and support, and mostly Mike’s help along with Enoch and Evy, too! Narcie has been a witness for perseverance, faith, and the power of prayer! She needs more, for sure, but the Lord continues to sustain her and us! Thank you!

However, not to sound critical, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between real prayer and the ubiquitous phrase I’ve heard not only this summer, but for many years: “I’ll be praying for you.” I am sure that most people have really been praying, but this phrase sometimes comes across as a Southern way of saying, “Goodbye.” “I’ll be praying for you,” is it a greeting, prayer, or an unfulfilled intention? I don’t doubt your sincerity when I’ve heard you say it. This is about me because I need to do better and pray more! I love the old Cokesbury Hymnal song, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” but I haven’t hit that benchmark in a long time unless you add up the cumulative minutes of my breath prayers throughout the day!

So how do I do better? I think one way is to personalize it. What I mean is that prayer is a relationship expressed in words, a give and take, with much more listening than me spouting off a list of what I or others need. Hey, if I would listen more I would probably hear the ways that God wants me to be the one to answer the prayer needs of others anyway! Comedienne Lily Tomlin once tongue-in-cheek questioned, “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?” What’s really crazy is for us not to listen to God. It’s the difference between a soliloquy for an audience of one and a divine-human dialogue. Therefore, prayer is an art, practiced and spontaneous, speaking and listening to God, both/and, not one without the other. It is meant to be more than a conversation-ending pleasantry, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s supposed to be a real conversation!

Someone said that prayer should be like having a date with God. Now we’ve all seen people out on dates or at least sitting across from each other at a table in a restaurant. Unfortunately we have also noticed the difference between certain couples’ conversations and others. Some talk with each other with ease while others hardly speak or don’t even look up from their plates. Someone might assume that it’s the difference between courting couples and long-married ones, but I don’t think that’s the whole story at all.

Keeping our relationships fresh is an ever necessary opportunity to grow more deeply in love. Praying to God is similar. In prayer we too often show the dispassionate nature of a stale relationship, barely looking up, just mumbling through some rote words as if they were good enough. If we talked to our spouses or dates the way we talk to God, I think a lot of us would be in big trouble. Listening attentively and speaking passionately about things together is what makes communication the number one ingredient in successful relationships.

Likewise with God and us! We make time for everything else, don’t we? I know some people who spend more time sending and answering their email than praying. I heard of one mother who said, “I had been teaching my 3-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ she prayed, ‘but deliver us from email. Amen.’” Yes, God deliver us from email or evil – anything that might get in the way of our time in prayer.

We should resemble the monks from California that Barbara Brown-Taylor, famous preacher and writer, described in an article in “Christian Century.” She said, “Four times a day, a bell rang in the courtyard. As soon as it did, the brothers stopped to pray. The rest of us were welcome to join them, but it was not required. If we did not show up, then they would pray for us, as they prayed for everyone else in the world – for those who were present along with those who were absent, for those who were inclined toward God along with those who were not, for those who were in great need of prayer along with those who were not aware they needed anything at all. Prayer was their job, and they took it seriously. They prayed like men who were shoveling coal into the basement furnace of some great edifice. They did not seem to care whether anyone upstairs knew who they were or what they were doing. Their job was to keep the fire going so that people stayed warm, and they poured all their energy into doing just that.”

Let’s stoke the fire and pray! What do you say?

Brain Surgery to Birthing a Baby

It’s a new day, a new season. I welcome Pentecost for lots of reasons this year! This morning at 6:28 a.m. a new granddaughter was born. Joella Anne McClendon was born to Josh and Karen and beautifully welcomed by her big sister Kaela. Joella is an interesting name, and it fits both Pentecost and my family. Her birth will always be connected to the Spirit’s power predicted by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32) and fulfilled on the first Pentecost. As for the name’s connection to us, I can name at least 17 family members who have been named Joel. Joel/Joella is a great name that literally means, “The Lord is God!” Josh’s Hebrew classes have come in handy as he and Karen have selected names. Whenever there is an “el” in a name you can bank on God showing up because it is a shortened rendition of Elohim (God). Way to go in sharing the faith-reminders of Kaela (“Who is Like God?”) and Joella (“The Lord is God!”).

Our whole family says “Amen!” because we need faith-reminders. Who doesn’t? Narcie’s brain surgery was a scant 9 days ago. The surgeon deftly removed the tumor and margins, and slowly but surely, as predicted, Narcie’s speech and fine motor skills are returning. Please keep praying for her as she continues to improve. We have been flying the trapeze between brain surgery and birthing babies. We need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit to ride these waves from crest to trough and back to crest again. Have you ever felt like an unanchored buoy bobbing from one emotion to another? Oh, Lord, we need your Holy Spirit to give us strength. We praise you for the mighty things you have been doing in Narcie and with Joella’s birth, but please help us to catch our breath. Interesting that the Hebrew word used for the Spirit is ruach, or “breath.”

So during Pentecost we celebrate the power of God’s Spirit poured out on Jesus’ followers. Pentecost has appropriately been called the birthday of the church, and it will certainly be remembered by us as Joella’s birthday. Pentecost is very personal this year because of Narcie and the baby.  Why? The answer is the same as it must have been for Jesus’ followers on that first Pentecost. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost turned reluctant fear-ridden disciples into daring witnesses for Jesus. After Pentecost every apostle but John gladly died martyr’s deaths for the sake of Christ. The Greek word martyrios meant witness before it came to mean someone willing to die for their beliefs. Pentecost gave Jesus’ followers supernatural power that inspired them to do amazing things.

Pentecost is such a contrast to our usual experience of God. Perhaps we should let God shake us up more so that we won’t be so freaked out by life’s tidal waves. How would we react if our church buildings were shaken like what occurred on Pentecost? What would our reaction be if we saw flickering flames dancing above people’s heads while they spoke about Jesus in unknown languages? Would we be worried? I hope not, but most of our churches are afraid of a smidgeon of the Holy Spirit, much less a real dose. Pentecost is a reminder of what God can do in and through us, not what God can do for us! A God chained to our desires will always be too weak to deliver us from evil or whatever trouble comes our way.

So from one extreme to another we go, God-in-a-box to God-unleashed. Which would you rather experience? I heard of one woman whose idea of worship was decidedly focused on meeting her own personal needs. She complained to the organist one Sunday, “Your preludes are so loud, I can’t hear what my friends are saying.” True Spirit-filled worship is more in tune with what pleases God than us. After all, transformative worship correctly identifies God as the audience for everything we do in worship. The congregants are the actors, and those who serve behind the chancel rail are stage hands of sorts who direct the congregation/actors in whether or not to bow their heads, give offerings, stand up, or sit down, etc. Worship services put God first and foremost or they aren’t worship, and they aren’t relevant to people who have been on life’s trapeze without a net!

Pentecost should remind us that God can do mighty things that are out of the norm to those who truly worship. A woman was attending a meeting of Church Women United where the secretary asked what her church affiliation was. She replied, “I’m United Methodist, but my husband is nondimensional.” Surely she meant nondenominational, but being nondimensional in our faith seems to be pretty popular – shallow, predictable, with a one-sided “What’s in it for me?” attitude. Many want a domesticated God that isn’t Pentecostal. We are afraid of a multi-dimensional God because a wild God who shakes buildings might shake us up, too. Let me tell you, from what we’ve been through lately, and more truthfully our whole life, we don’t want a flat one dimensional or non-dimensional God ever! We want and need the real deal – a God of Power and Might! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Who is like God? Nobody! The Lord is God! Amen!

Kaela & Joella
Kaela & Joella
 

God is Hands-on!

I have about had it with our presumption that we’re so important that a phone call can’t wait until we get back home, to the office, or pulled off the highway. Have you driven down a street going at the correct speed limit only to be brought to a crawl because the driver in front of you is oblivious to their speed because they are talking on a cell phone? Multitasking can be a good thing, but it can be downright annoying at best or dangerous at worst if people lose their focus on the task at hand.

For Fred Proust of Quakerstown, Pensylvania, it looked like November 2, 1999, would be a busy day. He had a lunch date and full schedule and he was running late. He picked up his cell phone to call ahead as he steered his Ford Explorer at an even 45 mph. As he entered the intersection of Route 152 and Rickert Road, he glanced down at the phone to punch in the numbers.

Little Morgan Lee Pena was getting tired. Only 2 years old, she felt comfortable in her car seat. She had spent the morning with her 4-year-old cousin, Christian. Her mom was now taking her home in the family Jeep. It was a beautiful autumn day. She was a happy little girl as her mom approached the intersection of Route 152 and Rickert Road. Little Morgan and her mom, Patricia, entered the intersection. So did Proust, driving and dialing. Then, in a dial-and-crash accident, Morgan Lee was dead.

Rich Hovan, 54, is a patrolman in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, that was the first town to ban the use of hand-held phones while driving. Now when he stops chatting drivers, he not only gives them a ticket, but he hands out a picture of Morgan Lee Pena (to view her picture, go to http://www.montco.biz/pena/). “I write every ticket in Morgan Lee’s memory,” says the 25-year veteran. The saddlebags on his Police Department Harley-Davidson have stacks of three-page handouts. On the tickets he writes the initials: MLP.

New York governor, George Pataki, signed into law a bill that bans using hand-held cell phones while driving. Most other states have considered the issue in the last few years, but New York was the first to adopt a ban. The law does allow drivers to talk with a headset or hands-free telephone, as long as both hands are on the wheel.

Distracted driving is dangerous, no doubt about it. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident and is as dangerous as being drunk behind the wheel. That’s why state legislators in New York believe that it is better to be hands-free so that we can be hands-on, as in: hands on the steering wheel.

God knows how important it is to be hands-on in relating to human beings. God gives us undivided attention. From the beginning of creation, God has longed to be in fellowship with us, constant contact, and involved. God loves us too much to abandon us. Listen to the way John Macks describes God’s hands-on attitude towards us in his book, Heaven Talks Back: “I am always with you. I’m always with everybody. This is a hard concept for most people to imagine, so let me try to explain. Remember in the first Superman movie where the missile is going to blow up the house of Valerie Perrine’s mother at the same time the earthquake is about to swallow up Lois? Superman had to let Lois get killed because he couldn’t be in two places at once. Well, on my worst day, I’m better than Superman.” Thank you, God, for your undivided attention! Through the power of your Holy Spirit you are everywhere with everybody even before we get there!

Conflict Control

I just reread Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17 and a timely theme has guided my prayer thoughts this morning. Four times in this short passage Jesus prays that we might experience a unity like that of the Trinity. Wow! What a thought! Listen to the verses. In John 17:11 Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me –so that they may be one as we are one.” In John 17:21 Jesus prays, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” In John 17:22, He prays, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” Finally, in verse 23 Jesus prays, “… 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.”

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to be united – one! It’s a powerful testimony to how we reflect God in our witness to the world. One of the primary ways that we as United Methodists celebrate being made in God’s image is in our use of the words connectionalism and conference. We try to do things together because we focus on being made in God’s social image. If God is revealed as Trinity and works in community, so should we!

But, why don’t we? Selfishness and “My-way-or-the highway” attitudes too often prevail. What makes you angry? Are you one of those people that get bent out of shape by inanimate objects? I admit that I can much more easily deal with bothersome people than an uncooperative computer. Anger can consume us so quickly that it overruns most of our controls. I even heard of one guy who shot his computer because it kept crashing. Well, he took care of that didn’t he? Needless to say, anger can be dangerous to the point of injury, murder, and harm. My grandmother readily preached the admonition of the Sermon on the Mount that if anyone calls someone a “fool” they are in danger of hell-fire. Unfortunately, this did more to inspire a quest for synonyms than conquering my temper.

So how can we effectively deal with our anger? The anger advice of none other than Rodney Dangerfield makes great sense: “It would be great if people never got angry at someone for doing something they’ve done themselves.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Jesus put it similarly in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, saying and living the Golden Rule is extremely difficult. It’s easier said than done!

Abraham Lincoln had a couple of skunk stories or sayings that keep my anger in perspective. One was “What kills a skunk is his own publicity.” This reminds me to be like Jesus and not toot my own horn, plus give troublesome people enough space that they are found out on their own. The other story occurred when Lincoln was about to replace his Secretary of War. Some senior members of his own party urged him to make a clean sweep of the whole Cabinet while he was at it. He responded by telling them a story about a farm family in southern Illinois that had a problem with a skunk. The farmer’s wife told him to take care of it, so he got his shotgun out one night and waited for the skunk to appear. His wife heard a blast shortly thereafter. The farmer came inside and his wife asked him, “Did you get him?” The farmer said, “Well, first of all, there was a family of six skunks, not one.” Then he added, “I shot the lead skunk, but he raised such an awful stink I decided it was best to let the other five go.” All the people left Lincoln’s office chuckling, but they certainly got the message: Sometimes raising a stink causes more trouble than it’s worth. It reminds me of United Methodism’s first rule: Do no harm.

So why get angry if it doesn’t help? That doesn’t sound like a Spirit-filled reaction to conflict. We need Jesus’ Spirit to help us when we’re dealing with troublesome people. God’s Spirit can do for us what we can’t do ourselves. The Holy Spirit can give us creative nudges and new eyes to see ways that we can live at peace with others. The key to the Spirit’s infilling is a yielded life. Rather than retaliate, fly off the handle, or overreact inappropriately, we can exhale our anger to God and inhale the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s fruit then becomes self-evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There’s not much room for ungodly anger in this list!

The late Dr. Wallace Hamilton, novelist and playwright, was a Spirit-filled Christian and it showed in his anger-control. He liked to tell of an American Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Second, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children, and the children loved them! When the lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up the dogs and his problems were solved. Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” May peace be with us all today as we act like Jesus’ peacemakers!

Church Conflict and United Methodist Zeitgeist

Church conflict hurts the Gospel. Duh! Who would want to be one of Jesus’ followers if this is how we treat each other? As a District Superintendent I spend a lot of time dealing with disgruntled pastors and church members. It is the infamous triangle: “We can’t talk directly to each other so we’ll dump our issues on you.” Well, in our connectional system that’s the way that the dots connect, and DS’ are major dumping grounds. A healthy outcome largely depends on how I respond to the conflict.

If I get reactive there’s more tension. If I take one side or the other, things get worse. If I do nothing, I come across as either uncaring or incompetent. What’s the answer in a Rabbi Edwin Friedman Generation to Generation sort of way? Non-anxious presence. If I can relate directly with the conflicting interests and coach either to view the situation from a new vantage point, there’s hope. All it takes is a little bit of change to deflate the tension. Reactivity doesn’t help. I have to remain as neutral as possible defecting in place with the different sides while modeling Christ.

Would it have helped if Jesus had got into a shouting match with Pontius Pilate? Of course not. He was quiet. He was secure in himself and it showed. Oh, if we could act like that when things get hot. If we could just chill out and trust the Lord and speak from his perspective to each other. Even better would be to listen to each other with Jesus’ ears.

This isn’t just about local church conflict or conflict in general. This speaks to some of our United Methodist scorched-earth tactics and intractable rhetoric that threatens to divide the denomination. I’ve been reading through Gil Rendle’s book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement. I am vividly reminded of our utter failure to conduct holy conferencing at General Conference 2012.

Rendle speaks about our legislative attempts to enact change: “We enact or we deny change through democratic practices. Changes are pushed or resisted by strong voices, interest groups, and caucuses. It is critical to note that in the United Methodist denomination there is no authoritative head leader with positional authority to make declarations and change the balance of competing legislative preferences (pp. 21-22).” What I get from this is that we are a group that likes group-think, but places a high value on arguing about everything.  We have a system that purposefully includes challenges to every issue and all discussions. However, there is one Book of Discipline and only the General Conference can change it. Our last General Conference clearly exposed that we are many conflicting constituencies, and every four years we try to make sausage out of all of the inputs.

No matter how much you agree with the statements coming out of the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions about “Gospel Obedience” over obedience to the actions of General Conference, this regional diversity of opinion is a problem in a covenantal, albeit argumentative, body like the UMC. Gil Rendle accurately points out that groups who attempt to legislate change cannot do it! He puts it this way: “It has taken a good bit of time for leaders to understand that additional rules will not set a rule-bound people free (p. 23).”

His suggestion to foster our denominational return to being a movement is a starting place, but comes up short in my analysis: “Rather than additional rules, we need bold people. While organizations do not have the capacity to break their own logjam of rules and norms, individuals do (p. 23).” He spends the rest of the book asking questions and offering guidance for how individuals can break the rules while honoring them – no small task. He admirably says that rule-breakers who help nudge the UMC back to movement status must question our whole system of rules in light of our mission. The mission is the driver of everything. My problem is that “bold people” are still people, and, in the words of my late father, “There ain’t nothing original about original sin.” Bold people can sin boldly. Everybody needs redemption.

Now, I don’t want to make short shrift of Rendle’s book. It is engaging and has great images from another favorite book, The Starfish and the Spider, but it leaves me ill at ease. Rendle basically says we need enough differentiated leaders who will break our rules for missional purposes. Yes, how nice, but that’s not how we do things. I have stated before that I believe the UMC needs to have a one or two-month constitutional convention and do what Rendle’s book title suggests and get Back to Zero, in other words, start over. However, when I hear the notion of bold individual rule breakers I foresee internecine warfare over what the mission of the church is exactly. I see reactivity going nuclear. I see schism without a mission because we can’t agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day.

Ah, now maybe this is where I find hope. Where Rendle comes up short is where most of us, especially me, miss the mark. “Individual” rule breaking is all about “me, me, me, and my agenda.” Where is the “United” in our denominational name in that? Sounds more like “Untied” than “United” Methodist Church. It all depends on where the “I” is placed, doesn’t it? I want to get back to zero and start our denomination over, but want to keep from turning the endeavor into a my “I” against your “I” issue war. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “missional” or not, if we’ve shot each other up in the process. That’s an oxymoron that can’t be fixed.

It may sound simple, and I know it’s not, but I want to suggest that every denominational and local church conflict does not hinge on our personal determination of what’s missional, or what is God’s preferred cause de jour. It strikes me that we may need to follow the example of Christ and take up a cross and crucify every one of our causes until we discover what is Jesus’ cause. Until we do that we’re just going to keep going around in circles arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong, and letting the Judicial Council sort it out. I’d rather preach Jesus without any elaboration than hear the mixed signals of 9 million individual rule-breakers. If we don’t have a single voice about anything, even General Conference, maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!