{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

General Conference 2016: A Time To Listen?

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“The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity.” (Acts 15:12)

It seems like the lead up to our General Conference every four years mirrors that of each presidential election cycle – it gets loud, divisive, angry, and ugly. I think much of that is due to the fact that there’s a direct correlation between the two events. Both events seem to ask us to “take sides.” Both events lend themselves to a spirit of competition because they require votes where someone “wins” and someone “loses.” Both events try to call us to our best angels, longing for high, moral, and even holy things.

And yet this pursuit for something seemingly good tends to be expressed through our worst demons like anger, bitterness, and division. Every four years, whether it’s General Conference or a presidential election, it seems we’re led to believe that we’re on the brink of death and destruction.

Sometimes I wonder what God thinks of it all. Is this really the way God would have us pursue the higher good for our country or, in the case of General Conference, holiness of heart and life through our denomination?

All the noise seems to be vying for our attention: “Support this stance…Stand up for this issue…Don’t compromise!” It’s exhausting sometimes. At some point we have to make a point to unplug the computer and television, sit, and try to listen to God in the deepest places of our soul. And this doesn’t come easy in a world that values talking over silence and arguing over contemplation.

In Acts 15, we find the apostles holding a general conference of their own. Word has gotten out that Paul and Barnabas have been a part of some incredible, Holy Spirit stirrings among Gentile believers. The believers who come from the Jewish tradition take issue because they find out that these new Gentile believers are not following the tradition of being circumcised first. Jerusalem serves for the early church in Acts 15 what our modern-day Portland will serve for United Methodists – a venue where law, polity, and faithfulness in ministry is debated.

Now this may also be the point where readers are expecting me to follow the predictable trail of “just as the early church bent their laws for mercy and inclusion, so must we United Methodists do the same”…only, not so much. Make no mistake – I long to always be on the side of mercy and inclusion. But I’m not a delegate to General Conference. And the longer I live out my ordination through service in ministry, the more I admire those who are called and elected to serve and the more trouble I have judging the struggles they go through in making decisions. What a tough job!

The most striking part of Acts 15 for me is twofold: 1) Peter’s acknowledgement that it is God, and God alone, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires (Acts 15:8) and 2) the church’s response to hearing this – they “fell quiet and listened” as Paul and Barnabas told them about the “signs and wonders” God was doing among these people who fell outside of the typical church crowd.

It’s God who is our ultimate authority in how we relate to and love others. And we should, from time to time, fall silent and listen for the voice of God because God is usually always working in the most unexpected places and in the most surprising ways.

Among my prayers for General Conference 2016 is that we learn to listen more and talk less. And maybe even more, I pray we learn to have eyes to see and ears to hear the mighty work of God taking place is surprising places among unexpected people. More than winning arguments, I pray we search for where the kingdom is breaking in and breaking down walls of division we’ve established (walls BOTH SIDES work way too hard to keep up). And most of all, I pray for wisdom – wisdom for our delegates, wisdom for me as an elder leading a local church to be more faithful, and wisdom for our denomination that we learn to let go of the stranglehold on stances and let God lead us to new life.

Christmas Sunday…What Should We Do?

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So it’s the Sunday after Christmas (which falls on Dec. 27th this year), you’ve spent all of your creative resources on special music and services throughout the season of Advent culminating in an awe-inspiring service on Christmas Eve celebrating the arrival of the Christ child…and you’re just out of ideas of how to keep the celebration going!

It’s hard for the church not to fall into the rut the rest of the world falls in – we do so much pre-Christmas celebrating and preparing that we’re done with it all by Dec. 26. Tear down the trees. Put the garland away. Give us a Sunday off!

However, unlike the shopping world we celebrate 12 FULL DAYS of Christmas. And this means that no matter how tired we are or how much we’ve exhausted our creative resources, we need to be intentional that Sunday, Dec. 27th be a day of celebration too.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “By this point our musicians are tired, our soloists are on vacation, and we can’t book brass again lest our budget be blown for good.” At the same time, you want the service following Christmas Day to have structure and not become a free-for-all mess. Don’t worry. Take a deep breath. Below is an order of worship I’m calling a “Modified Service of 9 Lessons and Carols” designed especially for the smaller church or larger church with limited resources 2 days after Christmas Day.

Worship Notes: This is designed to be a day of singing and celebrating, and NO PREACHING too. It follows the traditional 9 Lessons and Carols structure (even down to the texts you read) but it takes on a more relaxed feel (a couple of more familiar hymns included). Note that you can turn any of the following carols into a solo or add an Offertory solo if you wish, but you certainly don’t have to. Also, the selected verses allow people to enjoy singing without singing their voices out or turning it into a 90-minute service. In fact, encourage folks to come to worship dressed casually. Make it a relaxed, yet celebratory feel. Don’t wear a robe or vestments – you wore that stuff enough during the weeks of Advent and on Christmas Eve.

Announcements (only if your church does this sort of thing)

Opening Hymn – “Angels We Have Heard on High” (UMH #238)

Opening Prayer – UMBOW p. 285

Lord’s Prayer

Carol – “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” verses 1 & 3 (UMH #240)

1st Lesson – Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19

Carol – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” verse 1 (UMH #196)

2nd Lesson – Genesis 22:15-18

Carol – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” veses 1 & 7 (UMH #211)

3rd Lesson – Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

Carol – “Angels From the Realms of Glory” verses 1 & 4 (UMH #220)

4th Lesson – Micah 5:2-5

Carol – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” verses 1 &4 (UMH #230)

5th Lesson – Luke 1:26-35, 38

Carol – “Joy to the World” verse 3-4 (UMH #246)

6th Lesson – Luke 2:1-7

Carol – “The First Noel” verse 1 (UMH #245)

7th Lesson – Luke 2:8-16

Carol – “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” all verses (UMH #229)

8th Lesson – Matthew 2:1-11

Carol – “What Child is This” verses 1 & 3 (UMH #219)

9th Lesson – John 1:1-14

Carol – “O Come, All Ye Faithful” verses 1 & 6 (UMH #234)

Closing Prayer – UMH #231

Offering (solo only if necessary)

Doxology

Closing Hymn – “Go Tell it On the Mountain” all verses (UMH #251)

Benediction –

May the Christ who by his birth gathered us all into divine fellowship, fill you with the sweetness of peace and goodwill; and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, remain with you always. Amen.

Go forth in peace and joy!

Why Partnerships, Sharing Ministry, and Mergers Matter

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I’m pretty sure when church people read the words from John the Revelator, “Behold I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5), they never thought their beloved churches might be a part of that which is being made new. And yet here we are: church membership and attendance are down, money is down, church vitality and health are down. This makes us worry. We hear the words from Gil Rendle that “1/3 of United Methodist Churches will be closed by 2030,” and we quiver with fear. Surely not our church!

And in our worry and fear we go back to old John’s words from the Lord: “Behold, I am making all things new!”

Besides making individual lives new, Jesus is speaking a gospel word to our local churches, annual conferences, and our denomination as a whole – Get ready, new things are on the horizon!

Most every church I know says in their moments of struggle, “We need a resurrection here.” And they’re right. As Christians, we are a resurrection people. Jesus got off the cross to conquer sin and even death – that’s what we say we believe and even stake our hope on. And dying churches do need resurrection. However I wonder if we know exactly what we mean when we say we want our churches to experience resurrection?

John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus appeared to Mary and when she finally recognized him, she exclaimed, “Rabbuni,” to which Jesus replied, “Don’t cling to me” (John 20:16-17). Interestingly John never tells us that Mary lurched forward to grab and hold onto Jesus. This has always struck me as an odd passage of Scripture, and then I ran across a commentator who said maybe it was a rhetorical statement Jesus was making – Rabbuni was my Friday name. This is Sunday. God has done a new thing!

When we say we want our churches to experience resurrection, how tightly are we holding onto old stuff? What about programs we do because we’ve always done them – even though we can’t remember why we started them in the first place? What about mindsets on how the church should look or dress or who should be sitting in our beloved pews? What about images of the past we cherish and mourn the loss of – even at the expense of passing up potential new opportunities to engage in ministry? What about buildings that have long served their purpose, cost too much to maintain, and aren’t being used on a regular basis due to lack of people and ministry?

God is calling us to a new era of ministry where churches do the courageous work of letting go of old stuff in order to discover how God is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). This is why I believe repositioning our churches through strategic partnerships, shared ministry, and even mergers is the faithful new work God is calling us to. 

We live in a world that fears death and tries to avoid it at all costs. And yet Jesus tells us, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever will lose their life for my sake will save it” (Matt 10:39). This counts for our churches too! Friday is here and it’s time to consider the things we’re willing to let die in order to experience the new life of resurrection.

Is it letting go of a beloved program that was once faithful but whose purpose has expired?

Is it letting go of a building and downsizing in order to become more financially healthy and missional in the ways we spend God’s money given through our offering plates?

Is it considering a creative partnership with another church nearby knowing that while it means giving up a church life we’ve always known, we will receive a new life in return and an opportunity to reach new people for Christ?

It’s time for our local churches to stop looking at one another as competition and start seeing each other as partners in mission (we’re better together, after all!). It’s time for annual conference leadership to do the hard work of establishing benchmarks for faithfulness, lovingly holding churches accountable, and prayerfully discerning the best ways to lead congregations through this very difficult, yet faithful, work of living their discipleship together.

We must learn to let go of Friday things in order to embrace a Sunday of new life!

Leadership consultant, Roselinde Torres, gives a TED Talk where she talks about the traits of great leadership. She says great leadership begins by asking three important questions: 1) How diverse is your network to help you make decisions? 2) Where is your next change? 3) Are you courageous enough to abandon the past? Maybe we should start asking these questions in our local churches and in our annual conferences…

The church as we know it is in decline, and yet God is calling us into a new day of being church. Do you feel like your church is at a stalemate and needs to begin a process of major change? Are you asking the hard questions about what could/should change in your local church in order to reach new people for Christ? Are you asking your DS and conference leadership to help you make tough decisions?

To put it another way, is your church asking the fundamental question of discipleship – Are you willing to die in order to be resurrected to new life with Christ?

A Metric Worth Measuring

Church metrics continue to be a moving target of evaluating the health and effectiveness of our churches. I’m reminded of that fact today as our conference journals hit mailboxes and we were bombarded by statistic upon statistic from the local churches across our conference. These numbers (we believe) offer a snapshot of how healthy (or not) our churches are. We look at things like number of new members, professions of faith, baptisms, active small groups, pastor salary, money contributed toward apportionments, etc. etc. etc. All of these numbers and measurements are good. They each serve an important purpose (well, maybe not all of the stats but follow me here).

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if we’re missing or not fully capturing an important statistic that could tell a lot about the health and faithfulness of a congregation – and the health (or lack thereof) of the disciples we’re forming in our churches.

Here, I don’t mean how large the membership is.

I don’t mean how much money a church generates.

And I don’t mean the value of our buildings.

I don’t even mean how much a church pays in apportionments.

You see, all of those numbers, while important, tell an inward-focused story of a congregation’s life – how it perpetuates itself and the denomination. And we’re called to be disciples and churches that focus on more than just ourselves.

I wonder if (and how) we could begin to measure an important metric I’m calling: Community Footprint. Community Footprint seeks to tell the story of how a local church is engaged with the community outside of the walls of the church building. Instead of just measuring how effective a church is at getting people inside its doors, how can we consider measuring how effective a church is at getting people engaged in ministry outside of its doors?

For example:

How many people are engaged in mission outside of the church walls?

How much money (or % of your local church budget) is spent on ministries, missions, or causes that do not directly serve to maintain the life of the local church and its buildings?

How many collaborative partnerships has the local church engaged in within the community?

As the number of people not involved in local churches increases, the accountability factor for churches to be faithful should increase as well. The worst kept secret in Christian circles is that we’re far more exclusive than we are inclusive; we serve as social clubs instead of service agencies; and we worry too much about how large and powerful we are in our communities and we don’t worry enough about how lowly and servant-like we could be. And the ways we measure the health of our local churches says a lot about how we prioritize being big and focusing inwardly over being mobile, self-giving, and outwardly focused.

At some point we need to find ways to measure the health of our local churches that go beyond just being self-sustaining or self-serving (or just denominationally-serving). A church’s Community Footprint tells the story of how we succeed (or fail) to send people out into the world to serve as disciples of Jesus Christ. In other words, we don’t know how disciples are transforming the world if we ignore the need to recognize and measure involvement beyond the walls of our churches.

So what is your church’s Community Footprint? Where are you leaving your mark in your communities through love and service?

A Change is Gonna Come…

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“Look! I am doing a new thing…” (Isa. 43:19a)

Change never comes easy. And yet change is one of the only constants in our life. People come and go in our lives. We move to new places and begin new jobs. We raise our kids and they eventually move out on their own to live their own lives independent from our constant care.

And sometimes our beloved churches enter into a new season of ministry where the familiar things change so that new life can spring forth.

This past Sunday, Aldersgate United Methodist Church voted to enter into a new season of ministry as it will merge with Cokesbury and Speedwell United Methodist Churches effective in June 2016. This decision did not come without much discussion. Over the past few weeks there have been conversations in living rooms, small group meetings, and on Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour. People have asked questions, shared thoughts, and bore their hearts as we considered such a life-altering change. Even those who voted to support this change did so with a heavy heart knowing it would mean saying goodbye to many familiar things they have always associated with being a part of the church.

Needless to say, it was a bittersweet day filled with a variety of emotions. As pastor, I do NOT take it lightly that so many struggled with this decision. Likewise, I do not take it lightly how so many have stressed and worried about our future for so many years. Aldersgate has been in numerical decline for many years now. And financial resources are becoming more and more of a worry. The blessing of a great facility has become a double-edged sword as the building has become more and more difficult (and expensive) to maintain. I am grateful for the courage of so many who made the difficult decision to merge with these other two churches even when it means changing the ways we’ve always seen ourselves as the church. This church is filled with brave saints of God.

For those who do not know, let me share a little about this merger process and what we hope the end result will be.

The joining of Aldersgate, Cokesbury, and Speedwell will, in effect, create a beautifully diverse congregation made up of roughly 50% Caucasian members and 50% African-American members. The vision of a diverse and exciting worship experience will be led by laity and staff who reflect the beauty and diversity of the community. The move would bring Aldersgate and members from Speedwell into the building currently occupied by Cokesbury with the Aldersgate campus still being open for existing ministry (mostly mission) for the time being. Beyond that, there are many, many details yet to be determined and we have 10 months to live into this great change together.

Probably the most exciting (and scary) part of this change process is that these churches will be living into the meaning of resurrection. They will, in effect, be dying to what they have always known in order for God to raise them to new life in this new church. There is a lot of pain and joy that will accompany these next 10 months. And we will need lots of prayer. But I couldn’t be more proud to be the pastor of these courageous saints at Aldersgate who are electing to do something so wild, so risky, that it can only be described as the holy work of discipleship.

May we live the words the hymn writer offers as a gift of grace over these next 10 months:

“In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

 

As Much as I Hate to Admit It, Participation Trophies Are Good For Kids

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Pittsburg Steelers Linebacker, James Harrison, seems to be everybody’s favorite dad these days. The news story caught fire last week that he took away his kids’ trophies for participating in a track and field meet because he wanted them to earn one. It seems simply participating in a sport isn’t enough for this elite athlete/dad – you need to win for it to count.

Over the years I’ve read the countless articles saying we’re raising an “entitlement generation who thinks they need a trophy for everything.” I’ve heard the complaints about how this is terrible for a kid’s work ethic (because you need to know how to sweat and work when you’re 5). To be honest, I’ve always felt the same way. Who do these kids think they are getting recognition just for showing up?

But then again…

For every parent who gripes about this “trophy generation” I want to ask:

  • What about the “trophy” called a paycheck you get for just showing up to work every day? I know that isn’t so for some jobs, but for many of us who have time to complain about this budding generation of shiftless youth, we have the luxury of working at jobs where every so often we don’t give 100% or “win” our job for the day. If kids shouldn’t be recognized for just showing up, then how about we all agree to give back the money (recognition) we receive on the days we linger a little too long on Facebook or texting with friends under our desk?
  • Maybe parents should consider giving back every 5K t-shirt they received after completing a Couch25K? Or every half-marathon medal they received for finishing that first big race? After all, who cares that you wanted to do something healthy with your life and feel better as a person – you didn’t win the race so it doesn’t count when you just finish.
  • Maybe instead of thinking of participation trophies as compensation for doing nothing, we should treat with their true intent – as a way of congratulating a kid for finishing a task. In a world where everything from hobbies to jobs to marriages are seemingly disposable whenever we don’t think we’re winners, maybe it’s a good thing to teach kids the art of starting a task and seeing it to completion. After all, God said patience was a fruit of the Spirit – winning didn’t make the top 9 (Gal. 5:22-23).
  • Maybe we should worry more about kids falling in love with sports (or whatever trophy-giving recreational activity), and worry less with kids falling in love with winning all the time. The world would be better off with people who know how to love something more than just being right or winning all the time.

I’ll admit that I’m at the front of the line among competitive parents (and my kid is only 3). But when I stop and take a step back – and maybe even watch how much her little 3 year old self loves simply playing soccer or doing gymnastics – I might be lucky enough to remember that I’ll gladly take a closet full of “Congratulations! You Tried!” trophies if it means raising a kid who knows how to give her all, finish what she starts, and how to love every step of the journey…even when she doesn’t always win.

 

That Time Harper Lee Put a Mirror Up And Made Us Face Our True Selves – A Review of “Go Set a Watchman”

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“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

(Isaiah 21:6 KJV)

A lot of ink has been spilled (or digitally typed, I suppose) about Harper Lee’s new (old) book, Go Set a Watchman. Supposedly, this was the original book she submitted for publishing only to have it rejected and to be told that she should write more about the flashbacks Jean Louise has to her childhood that are sprinkled throughout the book.

Nonetheless, a lot has happened in the world of the Finch family and Maycomb, Alabama between the two novels. And a lot has changed in our world over the last 55 years since Harper Lee last graced us with her writing. What’s even harder to swallow, maybe, is that while much has changed, Watchman is a glaring reminder that much remains the same.

We join now adult Jean Louise Finch as she returns for her annual 2-week visit home to Maycomb, Alabama from the big city of New York that she now calls home. In many ways comforted by the way things in Maycomb never seem to change. Even though the scenery is slowing becoming more modernized, “the same hearts beat in new houses” (p. 46). She even reacts negatively upon seeing the new fangled neon signs and whitewashed walls lining the familiar streets. “Conservative resistance to change, that’s all,” (p. 46) she tells her childhood friend and adult love interest, Hank. Those words, “resistance to change,” would come back to haunt Jean Louise for the rest of the novel.

The most widely publicized (and criticized) revelation in this novel is that one of our nation’s most upright and beloved literary characters, Atticus Finch, has himself succumbed to the cultural pressures of “separate but equal” as Jean Louise finds him attending, of all things, a Citizen’s Council meeting where white leaders – people she grew up admiring – sit and listen to a man spew one of the most racist and hateful dialogues in recent literary history. It’s there that Jean Louise discovers not only her father’s complacent, but his support, for such things as he introduces the speaker for the day. For Harper Lee to tell us Atticus Finch has a racist streak is just beyond comprehension. She might as well have said Mr. Rogers had a drug problem or Kermit the Frog ran around on Miss Piggy. It’s almost too much to bear.

And yet, in one bold and beautiful literary move, she makes Atticus (now aged) one of the most complex characters in literature. Here is a man who stands for justice and upholding the law, but he’s not comfortable with the Supreme Court overstepping their boundaries and the NAACP advocating to overturn certain societal norms. Here is a man we all grew up knowing for his courage and compassion, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And now we’re told he believes white people are superior and that the purpose of living for black people is to “adapt to white ways” – which Atticus says they were doing fine, “traveling at a rate they could absorb” (p. 247). I’m sure there will be literary courses designed around a comparative study of these two books.

The main thrust of the novel is Jean Louise struggling to grow into her own person and exercise her own conscience separate from her father, Atticus, who had served as her moral compass her entire life. The themes of conscience and justice take center stage just like in Mockingbird. But the themes of progress and change show how the times have affected our characters and their development. I would spoil a chunk of the novel telling all you all of the twists, turns, and changes Jean Louise goes through. Suffice it to say, Go Set A Watchman, is a much more complex (albeit less balanced and seamless) novel than its beloved predecessor.

The biggest takeaway for as a native Southerner is how complicated and horrific and perfect Harper Lee paints us all as a people who stridently hold to our beliefs even at the expense of listening to or getting to know someone who might be different. As Jean Louise’s eccentric uncle reminds her and the rest of us, “You’re a bigot…not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” He asks Jean Louise, “What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out” (p. 267). We’re all bigots in some form or fashion.

As a white, male, native-Southerner I don’t like being faced with the reality that I have a bigot streak in me. In fact, I don’t like it when people who aren’t from the South try to label all Southerners and Southern culture as bigoted. I don’t like it when Christians get labeled as bigots when they say intolerant things about other religions (hello there, Franklin Graham). And I don’t like it when straight people get labeled as bigots when they don’t give a full-throated endorsement of same-sex marriage. But here’s the thing: There’s a bigoted streak in the South. There’s a bigoted streak among Christians. There’s a bigoted streak among those who don’t support same-sex marriage. And there’s a bigoted streak among those who love to label anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions as a bigot. There are conservative Republican bigots. And there are progressive Democrat bigots. We’re all bigots when you get right down to it. 

The beautiful turn Harper Lee offers in this novel reminds me of the saying the great white Baptist preacher from Mississippi (and Civil Rights leader), Will D. Campbell once uttered when he was challenged to sum of the gospel in 8 words or less: “We’re all bastards. But God loves us anyways.”

In her journey of self-discovery, Jean Louise Finch delves into the complicated places of her own conscience as she struggled with seeing her father and other loved ones as the flawed, equally complicated beings they are. She dares to listen even when it hurts and even when she could never bring herself to agree. Harper Lee’s 1955 novel rings as true today as it did in the days she first wrote it – we’re all a big, complicated mix of good and bad, righteous and bigoted, sinful and holy.

Needless to say, the Watchman has seen us and has told us who we are. The question is, once we discover and admit that truth, can we actually trust one another enough to listen and even love in spite of it all.

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