UM IDENTITY: A WAY FORWARD

Identity is huge! Olympians display their identities by their country’s symbols and flags. Children and youth attending new schools or grades establish their unique identities pretty quickly in the ways that that dress or who they choose as friends.

Tattoos speak volumes about identity. Last names carry identity. Red State and Blue State, Republican and Democrat, are labels that carry identities especially in places where you have to register for one party or another. The upcoming college football season will bring out other identifiers like Garnet & Black or Solid Orange.

All this talk of identity has made me think about the identity crisis of the United Methodist Church. It helps me to start with what it used to mean. Having grown up as a Methodist, it meant we were middle to high church in music and worship, loved family night suppers, Vacation Bible School, and were mostly moderate in all matters inside and outside the church. We called our pastors “Mr. _______” more than “Reverend _______.”

There weren’t many “Ms.” or “Mrs.” clergy back then, but it would have been perfectly fine. We were proud to be middle-of-the-roaders. Frankly, what I liked the most about church was light green pistachio-pecan congealed salad and deviled eggs, plus a whole lot of positive vibe. Church gave me hope when my Dad was given 6 months to live when I was 8, and when I had encephalitis and had to relearn how to walk. The church exposed me to faith as a community.

I wonder if you resonate with the way Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame characterizes us:

“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you can call up when you’re in deep distress.

 *If you’re dying, they will comfort you.

*If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you.

*And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad.

*Methodists believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.

*Methodists like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.

*Methodists believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don’t notify them that they are there.

*Methodists usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their away of suffering for their sins.

*Methodists believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.

*Methodists think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.

*Methodists drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.

*Methodists feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.

*Methodists are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at the church.

*Methodists still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna casserole adds too much color.

*Methodists believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.

And finally,

+ You know you are a Methodist when: it’s 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service.

+ You hear something funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can.

+ Donuts are a line item in the church budget, just like coffee.

+ When you watch a Star Wars movie and they say, “May the Force be with you,” and you respond, “and also with you.”

+ And lastly, it takes ten minutes to say good-bye!”

Does our local experience of United Methodism correspond to the macro view of our denomination, or is it the other way around? As much as I have been involved with our denomination at the 30,000 ft. level of general boards and agencies and 6 General Conferences, I am convinced that we are a better denomination when we view the church from the bottom up, not the top down. Everything done at the upper level is far from practical unless it makes the pistachio-pecan salad taste better on the local level.

So, who are we, and who do we want to be? Maybe if we start with answering those questions from the perspective of our thousands of local contexts then we can put to bed some of the things that divide us. What makes your local church unique? Is it having a great choir or sensational band; lively worship and practical sermons; bereavement meals that are unbelievable; an Apple Fest or annual event not to be missed; delectable church meals and scones; social action projects like soup kitchens, ramp ministries, home rehabbing; wonderful support groups of Sunday School Classes, UMW Circles, or UMM; great faithfulness for connectional giving and missions that are both far and near; youth and children’s ministries that excel; a thriving Mother’s Day Out; Bible Studies and/or Disciple; and can’t the list go on and on? In other words, “What makes your church, church?”

My challenge in the impending war over our identity as United Methodists is to let local churches define us more than anyone else. What does our common ethos declare? Let’s name everything that we all love at the local level, then ask what connectionalism looks like from that perspective. Book of Discipline Paragraph 120 sets the tone of what I’m describing as a genuine way forward for the UMC: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Paragraphs 132 and 701 are right up there, too. Let’s ask ourselves these questions: “When you recall the church of your youth, what do you remember?” “What do you think will be remembered 30 years from now about your church?” “Are we doing things that are truly memorable and why?” Our answers to these questions will determine the identity of the UMC where it counts in the eyes of God, the world, and our own.

Pistachio Salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen!

 Prayer pic

Who Gets Written Off?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus with Sheep

Pray for UMC General Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Conference 2016 Picture

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!

Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice & World Communion

This is that time of year when I ponder what World Communion really means. I can say that I love everybody, but if I harbor ill will when I come to the Table then it doesn’t do much good. If I’ve been a jerk to someone, I have prevented them from knowing grace, too. I very much like what someone said, “The three phrases we most often desire to hear are: “I love you!” “I forgive you!” and “Supper’s ready!” In the sacrament of Holy Communion this is what we hear from Jesus. It’s His Table, and all are invited. It’s up to us to come!

When I was a youngster in my home church we went to Sunday School and afterwards made our way into the sanctuary. The educational building was behind the sanctuary so that if you went from one to the other you usually entered through the back door that opened into the sanctuary right beside the pulpit and altar. If we saw the communion elements and the white cloth spread out we immediately pressed our parents into leaving early.

Communion services were so long and were as somber as a funeral service. We used the old ritual; where what we said focused more on guilt than grace . We used words like, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed in thought, word, and deed…” I felt sinful enough already. Our communion service added to my sense of guilt. The words of pardon were miniscule in comparison to the confession. I usually left feeling worse.

This is one reason that today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we attempt to focus more on Christ’s marvelous work of grace than on our power to reform ourselves. We, more often than not, now refer to Communion as the Eucharist. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The most important thing that we do when we come to the Communion Table is say, “Thanks!” to Christ for his gift of mercy. Rather than focus overly on our sinfulness, we thank God for God’s graciousness. What a better perspective!

World Communion Sunday is an event that bridges denominations and spotlights our commonality in the Body of Christ. This world would be so much better off if we looked for that which we hold in common rather than our differences. Holy Communion, rightly observed, reunites the Church. This is the pastor’s hope when he or she holds up the loaf of bread and says, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body in Christ.”

Therefore, our focus this week is in how to get over our differences and find common power to live in Christ. The Eucharist is a time of positive celebration, reunion, prayer for healing, and a sacred time to put others before ourselves. Dentist Thomas Welch found himself wanting to make communion accessible to all back in 1869. Communion was problematic for a number of reasons, but the alcoholic content of the wine was primary. Dr. Welch was the Communion Steward for the congregation of First Methodist Church of Vineland, New Jersey. To his dismay, more often than not, communion either set some of the participants off on an alcoholic binge or on a rush to judgment by the abstention crowd. He and his family did experiment after experiment to come up with a solution and they did. He created unfermented grape juice, dubbed it “unfermented wine,” and soon churches all around wanted the product. By 1890 “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice” had become a staple on communion tables, where it remains so today, all because someone saw communion as a sacrament that brought Christians together, not divided them! Let’s pray that our World Communion 2014 brings the whole Christian family together in grace and thanksgiving.

Communion pic

The UMC and The Ice Cream Maker: Innovation & Excellence

We’re working on a new website at St. John’s UMC, Aiken and getting feedback from a variety of people. What has stirred my thinking this morning is that most of these people are church members. This strikes me as a little odd because it confirms that our target audience is ourselves although we have been trying to ask “What if I were a new person to town…?” But, even the best intentions of trying to innovate our “branding” is a little iffy if we don’t ask the opinions of people without a “brand” – the “nones” who have no religious affiliation, the people who are struggling day-to-day to get by and have no clue that Jesus loves, forgives, heals, and reconciles.

I just finished reading a business genre book titled The Ice Cream Maker by Subir Chowdhury, a famous corporate consultant known for his expertise in helping companies achieve excellence. He suggests in his allegorical story of an ice cream manufacturer that quality is America’s missing ingredient for success.  He has great ideas to help us all reach higher degrees of national, corporate, and personal excellence. Summed up, they are: Listening, Enriching, and Optimizing. The book jacket says, “Chowdhury illustrates what businesses must do to instill quality into our culture and into products and services we design, build, and market.”

So as we design a website, a new ministry building, and sanctuary renovations, too – plus the fall kick-off of small groups, Bible Studies, outreach ministries and the like, we must ask as much or more about QUALITY as we do about INNOVATION. If we’re answering questions that the culture isn’t asking we’re wasting time, effort, and breath. If we believe in the mantra, “If we build it, they will come,” it probably isn’t going to happen! Innovative ministries are a must but we have to be excellent, too!

As United Methodists I have often thought that our most excellent theological hallmark is sanctification: that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. This doctrine of holiness and excellence has inspired the Methodist Movement to seek changes individually and in society so that everything might reflect the Kingdom of God. Like the author of The Ice Cream Maker, we are a denomination that promotes quality, yet I’m afraid that our primary excellence has diminished into taking care of those who already know Jesus and not the ones who don’t. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian if my parents and home church had not discipled me, but if I hadn’t listened and responded to a Billy Graham Crusade on TV when I was an early teenager I know that I would have have ended up as a casualty of misplaced priorities, a nominal Christian at best or not at all.

What are we going to do to be more excellent? I think we need to start by asking the right questions. Who are the customers we need to listen to? What are our strengths that need enriching? How can we optimize and build on our successes? These are tough questions. Many of our churches act as if their customers are the folks already caught in the fish bowl. As a matter of fact, it’s what I do! I want to spend more time reaching those outside our congregation’s walls, but if I had to put percentages on my ministry I would have to admit that I am about 85% focused on sheep tending and 15% on outreach. I believe John Wesley’s percentages would have been the opposite. Sure, he spent a lot of time building small groups and infrastructure, but those groups were comprised of people new to the faith. You clean fish after they’re caught, not before. Most of our programs are directed at people who have already been caught instead of catching fish!

We’re not alone in this either. Look around at America in general, not just religious institutions. Innovation has been part of our country’s DNA but do we insure the slogan “Made in America” means best quality? Think about GM and all of its recent recalls. As a big fan of the show “Shark Tank,” I enjoy seeing how entrepreneurial the average American is. We think up ideas and create new products left and right, but as quickly as we have a new idea some person or company overseas either pilfers the idea through computer hacking or simply makes a copy and produces a better quality product so that the only way the US can stay ahead is by creating something new and the whole scenario gets repeated. Our only advantage is innovation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we not only were tops in new ideas but also in excellence?

Do you remember when cars made in Korea were almost a joke, and now Hyundai and Kia are both top of the line? Some are old enough to remember that a “Made in Japan” label on something meant it was inferior, yet most of us demand Japanese products today because of their exceptional quality. I wonder which countries that are lagging today will be tomorrow’s premier manufacturers. Doesn’t this sound familiar as we think about the mainline church and the UMC?

Mainline Protestantism cornered the market for 150 years in the US and has been losing “market share” to non-denominational churches and others for quite a while. They have copied Wesley’s small groups and discipling methods (Methodism), and can articulate our theology better than we can ourselves, but they do it all better than we do. They combine innovation and excellence, and I am convicted by it because this was our forte. That is who Methodists are by theology and definition, or at least who we used to be! I personally repent for my lopsided focus, and pledge to start asking and answering questions that are pertinent to everyone. We must offer Christ to the world in the most creative and excellent ways, or die a dead sect.

The Ice Cream Maker

 

New Clergy as Detectives

Well, one to two weeks are under the belts of newbie clergy who just moved to new parishes and, if they are like me, they’re pondering potential changes. Of course, someone wisely suggested to new clergy that, “You shouldn’t change anything for the first six months except your underwear!” Some may be wondering if they can wait that long. You’re probably wondering if you don’t make some strategic changes now, your “Honeymoon Advantage” may run out and be for naught. What are we to do as we make these first critical and highly analyzed/criticized decisions?

For me I have to first remember that every church is its own unique organism, family system, and culture. Therefore, what works in one place may or may not work in another. I also know that I need to find people that I can trust to tell me the unvarnished emotional history of the church. The factual history is easy enough to find in available documents, but find someone who can give you the “skinny” on the emotional processes that have occurred at nodal points in the church’s life.

How does the church handle decision making and crisis? What gets stirred up when there’s tension? Do people fight fair? Is passive-aggressive behavior the norm? Bottom line, become a church psychological detective and connect the dots of the family system.

Family systems theory, as in Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is fascinating. There’s no way that I can summarize such an important tome, but here’s one quote that is illustrative: “One’s life course is largely determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment to family of origin, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and what to do with it.” The question for newbie clergy is to discover the hidden wounds, the unresolved emotional attachments embedded in the psyche of church members and even their larger community.

You have heard the story of the young bride who marries a guy and cooks her first pot roast. She does everything just right, but her new husband is visibly disappointed. After a heated discussion he admits that his problem is that it’s just not the way his mother made pot roast, so she dares to go talk to his mother. The mother-in-law is clueless and assures her new daughter-in-law that she didn’t do anything special. But she does admit that she learned how to make pot roast from her husband’s mother. So she suggests that she go see her mother-in-law explaining that maybe she would have some insight.

The bride goes to see the grandmother and tells her everything that she did. The grandmother nodded approvingly and with a quizzical smile and asks the bride to step into the kitchen because she had made a pot roast that very day. The bride immediately sees what the difference is. The grandmother’s pot roast is square! When asked why she had a square pot roast the grandmother said that she and her husband were so poor when they got married that the only pot that they had to cook a roast in was square so they cut off the edges of the roast to square it up to fit the pot.

Wow! This was an unresolved emotional attachment that finally made sense when the bride connected the dots and did some research. Upon explaining this to her new husband, he was okay with the change. The discovery is that a family’s, and, I daresay, a church’s emotional processes are much more important than the facts or content of the issue(s), but once the emotional processes are uncovered you can more easily accept the content of the facts or the way things are.

Some new clergy have inherited churches with “square pots” and emotional operational systems that are begging for illumination and exposure. The risk is in when to do it. Two analogies come to mind in this whole endeavor that separates emotional process from content: one about doctors and medicine and one about “river babies.”

The doctor and medicine one is pretty straightforward. Tests and procedures provide facts about a person’s condition, but we don’t rely on facts alone when we are in the throes of illness. Whether or not we trust the doctor is of huge importance. A doctor can have all the facts (content) straight but have the bedside manner of a frog run over in the road (emotional process) and we are not happy, and say that we want a second opinion when what we really want is a second doctor who really cares and takes it personally that we survive!

The story about “river babies” is also helpful to ponder in a who-done-it assessment of our new churches. In this story many of townspeople are down at the nearby river and they notice a toddler floating by about to drown. Many rush in and rescue the child, then another child starts floundering by, and then another, and another and on and on. They call to get more townspeople to come help pull all these babies from the river when two men desert them. As the deserters are heading up the riverbank someone calls out and says, “Why are you leaving us? Where are you going? We need you here to help us save these babies!” The guys reply, “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

In our decision to let things slide for 6 months or not, do we keep pulling babies out of the water reacting to the tyranny of the urgent, or do we try to figure out what the systemic cause is of our under-functioning? Every situation, family, church, and community can be better. The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. God bless us as we determine whether or not to tread water or go upstream against the flow and do something about the real issues. Happy detective hunting as we separate the facts from the emotional processes at work in our new places of ministry.

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Stop It If You Can

I have been reflecting this morning on the Epistle text for this coming Sunday. The section is actually I Peter 2:1-10, but verse 1 connects, of course, with verse 2 so that’s my starting place. Verse 2 basically says, “Grow up!” as it literally says “… grow up in your salvation.” The primary method offered for growth comes before rather than after this verse. The first verse of the chapter says, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” If I did get rid of these things I would be a lot farther along in my understating and experience of salvation.

There’s a comedy sketch with Bob Newhart as a psychologist who says basically the same thing as I Peter 2:1. Please understand that I know that a lot of this sketch is insensitive to those who have very real mental health issues that cannot be helped except through the channels of therapists, doctors, and/or meds.

We just had a district clergy meeting about the need for better mental health care for the incarcerated, and, frankly, I think that everyone who suffers in this manner is imprisoned. Our own denomination needs to do a better job addressing this issue. For instance, one of the most disturbing sections in the United Methodist Book of Discipline is paragraph 4 of our Constitution entitled “Inclusiveness of the Church.”

The synopsis of this section of our Constitution gives a lengthy list of those who are eligible to attend our church services. I hope you notice who is left out: “All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status (which by the way is undefined by General Conference and therefore without meaning), or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate…” It appears at first glance that no one is excluded, but did you read anything about “mental condition?” I know personally that the UMC is welcoming to persons who have mental health issues, but I do think that it needs to be spelled out. Perhaps it’s an oversight, one that certainly needs to be rectified.

But back to I Peter 2:1 and how we can grow up. It says that we are to “rid ourselves” of some things. There are some things that we need to stop doing. Titus 2:11-12 says that God’s GRACE enables us to stop doing the things that we can actually stop: “It (grace) teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age…” So, if you’re trying to mature in salvation as I Peter 2 declares then that means that there are some things that you have to stop doing, things to get rid of.

Of course, the Serenity Prayer is for all who cannot stop it because of disability: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.” For those of us who can, by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, take responsibility for our own actions, give a listen to this Comedy Central sketch featuring Bob Newhart as a counselor.