> “Poetry is thoughts that breathe; words that burn” (Thomas Gray)
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry is the language that puts words on the sounds and silences that make up our lives. It is the power to name that which is un-nameable. It is the grace to name something “Mystery” and to take comfort in that.
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry is the force that allows us to speak with fierce honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. It shatters the glass cases we use to contain things like faith, love, hope, and God. Poetry scoffs at our clichés because it knows those are merely our attempts to avoid life as it really is.
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry challenges me to see that the world is made up of more than just myself and my own junk. It dares to set free that which I try to put in a neat box. Poetry calls me to the silence and beckons me to be present in it.
Why do I need poetry?
Because on days when I am consumed with my own busyness, and pretend like I have all of the answers, I need to be reminded that in order to truly live, I stop pretending, slow down, and learn to sit with my own questions. For that is where God will meet us.
It was a hot, June day in South Georgia. The word “hot” doesn’t even seem sufficient. After all, June in South Georgia can bring days when the heat sits on you like a 50 pound backpack.
It was the sort of day when you couldn’t keep water cold for long. But you don’t care because you’d settle for tepid water if it means rehydrating after just a few minutes in the oppressive heat of the day. It was the sort of day when any indoor space became a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey, and air conditioning. On this particularly hot day, the assembly gathered in the convention center, fleeing the heat and anxiously awaiting the start of the next business session.
“Yes, microphone number 1. Do you have a speech for or against the motion on the floor? Please tell us your name and district.”
And then suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind filled the convention center. Some wondered if it was a summer twister – the ones famous for rolling through South Georgia at a moment’s notice on a summer afternoon. But then they saw it – fire. Tongues of fire rested on all who were gathered in that place. All at once clergy and laity alike began to speak in one accord telling of the glory of God. The business of annual conference became a revival where worship and singing sprung forth in true Methodist fashion. And there was no more division between people based on theological stances and worldviews. Friend and foe alike began to praise God and speak of his mighty acts of salvation.
Onlookers began to ask questions about the absurdity of the scene.
“They must be drunk!” one said.
One of those on the floor of conference responded, “We’re not drunk, we’re Methodists!”
In the midst of the singing and praising someone remembered the words of the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.”
What would happen if Annual Conference really transpired like this?
It can be easy to long for dramatic scenes of revival in the midst of what seems like mundane business sessions. We’re United Methodists, and these days we probably feel less evangelical and Spirit-led and more method-oriented and process driven. Sometimes it may feel like we listen to Robert’s Rules more than the Holy Spirit.
I’m still very new to the ministry (this is only my third Annual Conference session as a clergy-person). But I wonder if we don’t miss the forest for the trees in front of us when it comes to preparing for Annual Conference?
Maybe we long for the return of a past that we’ve romanticized so much that we miss the glory of the present and the future unfolding before us? We swear up and down on our grandmother’s grave that the Annual Conference sessions of 40 years ago used to be simpler and more spirit-filled. In an age of church decline it can be hard to see the movement of the Spirit among us.
Maybe we wonder if the mundane business of Annual Conference sessions – the policies, procedures, and Lord knows, Robert’s Rules – doesn’t serve as the perfect distraction from listening to where the winds of the Spirit are blowing.
But what if the Spirit of God is present even (and especially) in the moments when we aren’t expecting it?
What if the Holy Spirit is present in and guiding our talk of budgets and mission and even district realignments?
What if God’s Spirit is leading us even when we dare to talk about radically changing how we function as an Annual Conference?
What if, by the grace of God, we could see the Holy Spirit’s presence in our agendas and budgets, rules and procedures, reports and motions when we least expect it?
I’m looking forward to my third Annual Conference. I’m looking forward to breaking bread with friends and worshipping with the people called Methodist in South Georgia. But even more, I’m looking forward to being a witness to God’s mighty acts in and among us.
We do not orchestrate God’s redemption of the world – we simply look for the signs and participate in it. And we don’t have to wonder whether we should call on the Spirit to move among us – God’s Spirit is already at work in amazing and unexpected ways.
So I guess our prayer as we approach Annual Conference should be something like this: “Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of your mighty presence among us.”
Oh, and don’t be surprised if the cool rush of air you feel on the back of your neck at the Macon Centreplex is not the air conditioning at all. It might just be the quiet rush of the Spirit’s wind reminding you that God is indeed among us.
[This post originally appeared in The South Georgia Advocate on 5/3/13]
I want to tell you about a man who will make you believe God’s grace is real. Some of you may have heard the name Brennan Manning before, others maybe not. He was not as famous as C.S. Lewis although he could write beautiful prose that read as good as fiction much like Lewis. He did not write about 7 ways to grow a church or 10 ways to be happier in your job.
Manning was too busy living with the disease of alcoholism and writing about the relentless nature of God’s grace.
Brennan Manning lived as a man devoted to spiritual living. He was a member of the Catholic community based in France called Little Brothers of Jesus. He was a successful speaker and preacher at various conferences. But much of his life and career became defined to larger audiences by his decision to come back to America in the 1970s after acknowledging his deep dependence on alcohol. For the last 40 or years Manning has served as a speaker and author.
Arguably Brennan Manning’s greatest contribution to the Christian world was his coining of the phrase “Ragamuffin” as a term for what it means to understand yourself as a Christian. The best definition of what it means to be a Ragamuffin is probably described best in this simple yet penetrating sentence written by Manning:
“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
I found Brennan Manning at a point in my life long after I had walked away from a call to ministry when I found myself doubting my faith altogether. On the days I actually thought about faith, I wondered what the point of it all was. I was lonely even though I was surrounded by others. I was in a desolate place even though my days were full of activity. I did not yet know how much I needed God. And I didn’t know yet how much Brennan Manning’s words would come to mean to me. A friend gave me his copy of the book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, and I read the first two pages of Manning’s words:
“The Ragamuffin Gospel was written with a specific reading audience in mind.
This book is not for the superspiritual.
It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero.
It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of exegesis.
It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion.
It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion.
It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the moun- taintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.
It is not for the fearless and tearless.
It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’
It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made.
It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus. If anyone is still reading along,
The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.
It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.
It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.
It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.
It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.
It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.
It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.
The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and any- one who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.”
…I know, right?!?!
I never had the pleasure of meeting Brennan Manning in person but I felt like I knew him through his writing because he was so very honest and vulnerable. He wrote like a man who had nothing to lose — fearless in admitting his fears. He wrote like a man who knew the seductive and controlling power of sin that exceeds our pithy, human understanding or shallow morality. He wrote like a man who knew the life-changing and priceless cost of grace and what a miracle it is to be encountered by it at our lowest points.
Brennan Manning had the ability to write about God’s grace because who better to describe it than a man who lived everyday knowing how much he needed it.
As a gift of grace, Brennan Manning had the ability to strike at the very heart of how outrageous and scandalous God’s grace is:
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
Manning also had a gift for seeing through the often shallow and self-centered ways we describe what it means to be a Christian. His writing is a prophetic act of imagination — prophetic for telling the truth about our church culture and imaginative in describing the world as God might see it. Read this from his wonderful book, The Furious Longing of God:
“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”
Manning knew that being a Christian everyday of your life meant more than pithy, self-help advice. And it meant more than being consumers of religion. The demanding and life-changing task of being a Christian is truly living everyday as a new creation, as the person God truly created us to be. And it means living with the knowledge that we get it wrong many days. So we constantly stand in the need of God’s grace to help continue to be who God calls us to be. This grace also forms us into a people of humility and not arrogance.
Just last year I read what would be Brennan Manning’s last book, All Is Grace. It was my fourth written by him but it was the first in a few years. I decided to come back to Manning like you decide to pick up the phone and call an old friend out of the blue one day. You don’t know exactly why you do it, you only know that for whatever reason, it just felt right on that particular day. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. The most meaningful parts of his memoir were when he addressed his relapses with alcoholism even after his encounters with “Abba” and his writing of books on grace. He simply said, “These things happen.” While I’m sure many pious people would say that’s a cheap answer, I don’t see it as cheap at all. I imagine a man who’s face is worn with years of struggling with faith and falling short. I imagine a man who knows the cost of grace only after profound low points in his life. “These things happen” are an admission, a truth-telling, that we cannot fix or save ourselves no matter how hard we try. Only God can save.
I write this post to join the ranks of those who claim the name of “Ragamuffin” because they read Brennan Manning and heard the voice of God speaking through pages filled with raw honesty about life and the human condition. Brennan Manning helped me understand that one of the first steps in living as a Christian is to not only be honest about our brokenness, but to embrace it. Only then can God truly enter into the mundane and routine parts of our lives. Only when we can see our own brokenness can we truly experience the grace of the One who was broken for our sake, and who continues to live and dwell in the broken places of our world.
Holy Week has begun. It’s a time where we relive and follow the passion of Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the agony and despair of his final meal with his friends before his death, and then finally to the miracle of the empty tomb on Easter.
It’s a glorious time in the life of the church. By now plans have been made, bulletins are being printed, and the excitement is building toward what should be one of the biggest weekends of the year in the life of the local church.
It’s also the time of year where a special creature emerges from hibernation — the Chreaster.
UrbanDictionary.com defines Chreaster as: Those Christians who only show up to religious services on Christmas and Easter. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s out of obligation, maybe it’s just habit, or maybe it’s because it seems like the right thing to do, but these are people who attend church twice a year. And we’re about to embark on the second sighting of Chreasters in the last 4 months (or the last sighting until December?).
I’ve had the opportunity to be in a couple of clergy meetings in the last week or so. As you might expect at this time of year, Chreasters are a featured conversation topic. Usually the conversation moves in a predictable pattern. First we bemoan the existence of Chreasters (“you know those people will actually find their way back to church this Sunday…”). And then we talk about the opportunities, challenges, and possibilities of a Chreaster sighting (“What if they actually heard the Good News this time? What if they were inspired to morph into an actual church member? What if…?). As the conversation moves in this pattern, you can just see the clergy in the room licking their chops. They’ve caught the scent of fresh blood in the waters and they’re already imagining scenarios where possibilities become realities. Sermons are being honed to just the right calibration — when we fire our best shot and cast the net, we’re expecting to real in some Chreasters.
What if this Easter, we concentrated less on our hunting strategy and more on sharing in the good news of resurrection together?
I know that may sound crazy to some. We should always be invitational. We should see every Sunday as an opportunity to invite people to change their lives in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. It’s vitally important that we be invitational.
But what if we began our sense of being invitational by viewing Chreasters less as creatures and commodities, and more as people made in the image of God? What if we saw Easter less as a hunting expedition and more as a communal experience of resurrection?
You see, the assumption we make in our talk about Chreasters is that we’re a privileged bunch enlightened in the right ways of believing and living and until they join us, they are not. We can’t imagine Chreasters not wanting to join our tribe once they heard about how great it is. We figure all we need to do is get the message right this time, open the doors, and they’ll come running. The truth is, Chreasters come back on Christmas and Easter year after year, they hear the appeal year after year and they still opt out of becoming “one of us.” Maybe it’s not a sales pitch problem at all, maybe there’s a problem with the product they see?
It’s hard to hear that we don’t have it all together. And it’s hard as Christians who are used to seats of power and esteem to hear that we are still in need of grace. Pastors are also notorious for assuming we are wells of knowledge and insight. In all of our preparing, planning, and preaching we forget that we too need to hear the good news of resurrection. It’s not ours to tell, we need to hear it as well. Our churches need to hear it too. Too often we exist week in and week out in a fog of self-denial while we focus all of our energy on our own self-preservation and success. We desperately need to hear again that life does in fact spring forth from death. We need to hear again that God’s plan for the redemption of this world is on the move despite the fledgeling efforts of the Church. And if we’re honest, we should admit that Chreasters aren’t meant to be creatures we hunt as much as they are eyes and ears and voices of the goodness of God outside of our church walls.
What better day than Easter to gather with insiders and outsiders alike to hear the good news that, by the power of God, there is still hope for us all. God is not finished with any of us. This Sunday, may we listen before we speak, look before we judge, and share in the joy of new life together.
I’m writing this column around 2:30pm on Ash Wednesday. We’ve completed two of the three services we’re offering today. It’s been a busy day of activities and our night will end just as the day began – with a worship service reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall one day return.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You know, sometimes it’s strange to be a Christian.
This is only my third Ash Wednesday in the role of “pastor.” I’m in my very first appointment and in many ways I’m still learning what the title of “pastor” really means. For example, Ash Wednesday reminds me that as pastors we have the duty and delight to tell people, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent.” Maybe I’m still young and a little green, but there’s a part of me that shudders every time I declare that the words I’m about to say are on behalf of the whole Church universal. Yet every Ash Wednesday I tell people that contrary to what direction the cultural winds might be blowing that day, we are expected to live a life of holiness.
Lent is a season when our priorities shift. It is no longer an option to remain bland, “Christian when it’s convenient,” pew-warmers. Lent reminds us that being Christian means change – even when it hurts.
When everyone else is worried about being comfortable in life, Christians spend a season trying to remember how uncomfortable the Christian life can be. Strange indeed.
One of strangest things about Ash Wednesday is the way the Christian life demands physical touch. When I look into someone’s eyes, move their hair to the side, and rub my thumb on their forehead in the shape of a cross it’s a very intimate moment. The miracle of the Incarnation is that Christ is most fully found in the physical and tactile ways of being human – holding sweaty hands in a hospital room, finding blemishes of make-up left on your collar reminding you of a hug someone shared that morning, having your shoulder soaked with the tears of another person, tearing bread from a loaf to place into the mouth of a person who does not have full use of their hands, and yes, rubbing a little dirt on the forehead of each other. Being Christian means we share the full human experience with each other, and when we do so, Christ is among us. There are a lot of things you can do by yourself but being a Christian is not one of them. Very strange.
Lent also reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we won’t make it out of this life alive. This is a time when we are constantly nagged with the reality that whatever magic pill we’re taking, cosmetic surgery we’d love to get, or anti-aging remedy we’d like to try, nothing will stop the process of death. I was keenly aware of this today as we were imposing ashes at a local assisted-living facility. It struck me about halfway through the process that here were two young pastors under the age of 40 telling a room full of senior citizens that they will one day return to dust. The look in their eyes as they graciously received the ashes told us they knew the meaning to those words better than we did. After the service I went to a nearby sink to wash out the bowl we used for oil. One of the residents from the service came over to me on her cane, took my plate, and insisted on hand-washing it for me. I was just going to give it a quick rinse but here this saint of God stood, leaning on her cane, and gently and lovingly washing and drying the bowl. I didn’t have to ask her about the theological meaning of God’s hospitality – I could tell by the way she treated that dish she had years of experience treating other people the same way. You see, as I was relishing in the irony of telling senior citizens they were to one day return to ashes, she embodied the way we are called to live as we journey together through life – in loving service to each other.
I hope you’re season of Lent is going well. And by “well” I mean I hope it also hurts a little. No one ever promised being a Christian would be easy. All we’re promised is the unfailing love of God and a few friends along the way as we learn share in the beauty and strangeness of the Christian life. Thanks be to God!
There’s a growing discussion in the church these days over whether or not we should use statistics as a tool to evaluate ministry. One side says “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting” (to paraphrase Will Willimon) while the other side argues that we should prioritize the subjective over the objective — after all, how can you measure spiritual transformation.
Honestly, I can sympathize with both sides of the debate. Statistical data does help monitor health whether it’s taking one’s blood pressure or measuring the bottom line of an organization. Numbers may not give a complete story, but they can give indicators that help tell a larger story. On the other hand, numbers fail to tell certain parts of a story. My blood pressure say nothing about my personal character. Likewise, bottom-line numbers like profit margin say very little about overall working conditions and employee morale. We have to admit that while numbers do help us evaluate, they cannot be the sole tool for evaluation.
All of this begs the question: If we are moving to a culture where numbers are used more, can we figure out a way to use the right numbers in the right ways? In other words, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting — and if it’s worth counting, it’s worth counting right.
How Could We Count the Right Things the Right Way?
Sabermetrics is a new phenomenon in Major League Baseball. If you’re not a baseball fan, maybe you’ve seen the movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill? That movie was the story of how the Oakland A’s used sabermetrics to field a playoff quality team full of relatively unknown players. The basic premise of sabermetrics says we can make better evaluations through the use of objective data. What makes sabermetrics unique is its use of complex formulas that offer a more complete composite report. For example, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. This is an example of how sabermetrics thrives on using more than one metric at a time to make an evaluation.
So what does this have to do with the church?
What if we could create a sabermetrics system to aid in evaluating churches and clergy?
The complaint over the current proposed set of metrics annual conferences and denominational leaders are using is that it’s too simplistic and doesn’t give a thorough enough analysis. I would agree. New members added cannot tell the whole story of growth in a congregation. Further, membership says very little about discipleship because membership and discipleship are often two very different tasks.
But what if we could employ a formula that could track new members for 3, 5, or even 10 years as they get plugged into the life of a local congregation? What if there was a composite formula for scoring local congregations on adding people to meaningful ministries after they join in membership?
How could we measure missional activity? Is there a way to use the numbers provided in charge conference reports in such way as to score the overall missional activity of a congregation? Could baptisms play into the missional activity of a congregation instead of just growth numbers?
Could small groups be divided based on content so bible studies and practical theology affect different areas of analysis? What about Sunday School? How would long-term studies like Disciple be scored with multiple short-term studies?
How could average worship attendance be viewed as something more than just a means to track how many butts are in seats every Sunday?
The Big Question: How would these numbers be used?
In his book, The Sabermetric Manifesto, David Grabiner writes:
Bill James defined sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Thus, sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as “which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team’s offense?” or “How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?” It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favorite player?” or “That was a great game.”
Therefore, sabermetrics cannot be expected to give subjective analysis. It is a means to put objective data up against a subjective story in the hopes of giving a more full narrative account. Obviously disciples of Jesus Christ cannot be mass-produced which is why sabermetrics could offer a more faithful way of monitoring growth and progress that is slow and very detailed in nature.
But what if sabermetrics can aid Bishops and Cabinets in appointment-making. Instead of using salary and tenure as the primary drivers for making appointments, what if complex data was available so that clergy strengths and church needs could be better matched up? How would our culture of salaries and entitlement need to change to allow this to happen?
Could sabermetrics offer a means to address missional concerns in appointment making? How would Bishops and Cabinets need to work with local churches so as to make room for longer pastoral appointments if that means missional needs are being met?
Likewise, could sabermetrics offer a more objective approach at defining ineffectiveness that takes into account a variety of concerns and does not favor unfair data like number of new members, avg. worship attendance, etc.? If sabermetrics could tell a more full story of ministry, surely it can also track ineffective ministry in a way that is less biased and more faithful to the overall health of the church.
I don’t know the answer to many of these questions — they’re above my pay grade and experience level. However I do think we should be asking tougher questions. If we’re in fact moving to a culture of more counting, then let’s count the right things the right way and use the data in a faithful way for the betterment of the Church and God’s mission.
Otherwise, we’re just creating ways to prop up a dying institution. Who wants to get excited about that?
What are your thoughts? Is there hope for using data in a healthy way that better tells the full story of ministry?