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

Announcing a New Series…

I’ve decided to begin 2012 with a new series that I hope will take us at least most of the way to General Conference. If you’re a United Methodist, you know by now there’s a great deal of change coming out of Tampa that will affect the entire Methodist Connection. The Call to Action is being used as a basis for assessing the health and vitality of our local congregations. There’s a good chance that there will be some major changes to the ordination process as a means of addressing ineffective clergy and hopefully stem the tide of decline in our churches.

As you also know, I’ve been a bit of a critic of many of these changes. I’m not convinced that implementing some sort of contrived plan of action will do much more than make us feel better for having “done something.” And yet, over these past few months and after studying and following much of the debate, I can now see some of the merits of the plans that are being proposed. We do have a problem with unhealthy congregations. And we do have a problem with clergy who feel more entitled than empowered to preach to preach the gospel. There’s a lot to be said for these plans in holding clergy and congregations accountable for doing good work of ministry. Are the priorities dangerously close to being self-serving? Sure. Are there still merits with the plans in spite of some shortcomings in theological integrity? I think so.

But that’s not why I’m writing this series. If you want a more candid and electric view of criticism for the Call to Action, check out my friend, Jeremy–he’s got some convincing material out there. I would rather examine what I’m not hearing much of in these debates: our failure in Christian Discipleship.

This upcoming series will seek to address the practice of Christian discipleship at the most local levels. Yes, there will be some theoretical approaches to my work: you can’t study practices without a little theory. But I hope this series will address some of our denominational shortcomings at the most practical level. Recently a friend of mine offered a thought that has stuck with me:

“It’s not about who or how many people or dollars we’ve lost, but how well we disciple people”

Therefore, I want to undergird this series not with our shallow mission statement of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but with The General Rule of Discipleship:

“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

And so as I begin I want to ask you for your  help. Please feel free to interact on this blog and offer your thoughts along the way. I want this to be a community experience of sorts. And frankly, I probably need some help fleshing these thoughts out. So please feel free to respond!

Is discipleship our greatest need in the Church today? How do you see our failure of discipleship in American Christianity? What do you see as our greatest need in forming disciples of Jesus Christ?

Women’s Witness to the Gospel

I’m a 29-year-old, Southern male who’s been born and raised in the buckle of the Bible-Belt here in South Georgia. I will testify to the fact that the gender debate in the Church is alive and well despite the amount of progress the feminist movement has made in the last 30 years or so. It’s still very common that we address God with male imagery in the liturgy of worship. The fact that Jesus is called “Son” and God is called “Father” leads many to see the image of God solely in male terms. Women still struggle at times finding a clear and definitive voice in the Church. This is nothing new.

You can imagine my boredom with the fact that John Piper has publicly declared God’s intention for Christianity is for it to have a “masculine feel” at a recent meeting of preachers. In his defense I’m sure Piper was trying to offer a corrective to the “Macho-God Movement” promoted by the likes of Mark Driscoll and other pastors who would lead us to believe that God is somehow a steroid-pumped Rambo figure waiting to drop a hurting of judgment on all who would cross his path. Piper instead advocates for a more sensitive male-figure God. Maybe a kinder, gentler Mr. Rogers sort of God who loves both men and women to the fullest degree. This is a quaint view of God but unfortunately it’s not the kind of God I know best.

Now I’m not the kind of bible scholar who would dare challenge the likes of John Piper on his use of scripture. But I am a pastor in the United Methodist tradition and I’ve been introduced to the idea that as people of faith, we have to employ the tools of tradition, reason and experience along with our reading of scripture in order to gain a robust interpretation of matters of faith and theology. We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. And so I have to look to my experience and reason to inform my readings of scripture and tradition where John Piper would lead me to believe God is somehow predominately masculine.

Women Taught Me the Very Scripture John Piper Quotes

My earliest recollections of faith come in the form of Sunday School lessons taught by wonderfully loving and patient women. I encountered the Bible with the help of these women through reading and learning texts (memorization drills) as well as interactive activities (usually in the form of crafts). And so before I learned that God could somehow be male, God was made manifest in the form of these wonderful women of faith who served the church by teaching children the faith. I’ve known countless women who have devoted their lives to shaping the faith of others. And in doing so, they’ve also modeled the faith in radical ways, teaching me the virtues of faithfulness, justice, and compassion.

Women Were Leaders in My Life

Even though I grew up in the Bible-Belt, I learned early on that women could actually thrive as leaders in the Church. For 15 years of my life, I went to church where a female pastor served as the senior pastor. Our church grew and even thrived as a mid-size, neighborhood United Methodist Church during that time. I was confirmed as a member of my church and in the vows of my baptism that remind me of the waters of baptism being like the womb (female imagery) where life is born. I went to seminary with some of the brightest and most capable young, up-and-coming pastors, many of whom were women. Some of my most influential professors in seminary were world-renowned biblical scholars that also happened to be (you guessed it) women. And so I know that I can read biblical texts that might lead me to believe this isn’t so, but my experience has shown that God just loves to defy the norms we create with narrow readings of scripture.

Church Leadership Begins with Faithful Discipleship

I’m concerned that somehow John Piper and other evangelicals like him seem to believe that leadership goes exclusively with power. The examples he uses in his recent talk speak of a God who is portrayed as a powerful king, men who make up the power structure of councils, and husbands who are to assume the position of power as the head of the household. What about the texts that remind us, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)? What about the fact that while the powerful disciples sat paralyzed behind locked doors, the women were faithfully caring for the body of Jesus and thus became the first evangelists who told the good news of resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12)? And what about the fact that even Paul declares, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28)? When did power become the sole descriptor of God?

I fear that our cultural tendency to love power and position leads those like John Piper (and the rest of us for that matter) to forget that God is so much bigger than the images we might project. And we may live in a world that clamors for powerful leaders but we have to remember that we’re all called to be faithful disciples before we’re called to be leaders. And for me, it’s always been the women in my life who have embodied that sort of faithful discipleship.

I want to thank, Rachel Held Evans, who is one of my favorite theological voices these days for issuing the challenge to men to respond to John Piper’s remarks. Too often we men who agree with wonderful voices like Rachel sit back and depend on her and others like her to raise these issues so that we can rubberstamp them with our quiet, “Amen”]

Honoring Methodist Conference 21st Century Style

There was a time when conferencing in the Methodist tradition meant something closer to a direct democracy than it did to the now more prevalent sense of representative government. For example, the Christmas Conference of 1784 saw the majority of itinerant pastors in America gathered in attendance. Over time, however, as the church grew both in size and structure that the proportion of representation grew less and less. Now annual conferences are allotted a certain amount of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference based on size and the number of church in a respective area. This is very similar to the method found in the United States House of Representatives and how they are organized and allotted. The way we organize ourselves in light of governing speaks to the heart of what it means to exercise our voice.

In a day and age that has seen massive political upheaval across the world and major demonstrations here at home from both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, one must ask whether proportional representation still suffices as the prominent way we make our voices heard. We’ve seen many examples of masses of people gather to cry out against the representative governments. We now have to ask whether that’s a truly faithful way of organizing as the church. Where are persons being shut out? Who and where are the absent voices in our church? And how can we see too it that no one feels left out of the process of organization?

Interestingly, a new development has started to have an impact on larger meetings around the church. Whether it’s a conference event or a continuing education conference wireless internet, smart phones and portable tablets (think iPad) have allowed participants to log on to Twitter and react to what is heard at these meetings. Yes, social media has, in fact, infiltrated the church in new and exciting ways.

Now for those who don’t know, Twitter is known as a social networking website. Posting on the site is called “tweeting.” You can search for and follow the posts of whoever you want. And there’s a wonderful method of tagging your tweets to allow others to see what you’ve said called a hashtag (# symbol).

Let me give you a recent example of how this works in the life of the church. I went to the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville put on by The General Board of Discipleship back in October 2011. At the beginning of the gathering we were notified that our hashtag was “#WesleyLC2011.” So every time we tweeted, we ended our tweet with #WesleyLC2011. This way those who were not physically present could interact with what we were discussing. Essentially, Twitter allowed for a meeting of 75 participants to be opened up to whoever wanted to interact through the virtual world.

By now you may be asking what in the world does the Christmas Conference of 1784, political upheaval, and Twitter have to do with one another and The United Methodist Church?

First, for the first time those who were elected as delegates to General Conference do not have to be the only ones present. There will hundreds of United Methodists physically gathered in Tampa from all over the world. But there will also be hundreds gathered through the power of social media.

Secondly, many analysts have noted the fact that social media has helped drive the transformative power of political change. The Arab Spring in the Middle East was largely organized and driven through social media, often by younger adults. The same power has been seen among movements here in America as well. It is because of this influence that we have to plead with our denominational leaders to see to it that the Convention Center in Tampa is 100% wi-fi enabled. In the 21st Century, to disable Internet access would be likened to cutting off phone access. It is a means of communication and information access.

Finally, the politics of running for and being elected as a delegate to General Conference can no longer forbid access to those who are not elected. Social media has granted us unprecedented access to follow what’s happening and to voice questions and comments in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Christmas Conference of 1784. The system is in the process of being upended and we’re in the process of watching the way we exercise authority shift in a major way.

Social media has had a hand in some major change in the Arab world and here at home in America. It’s driven the voice for change and empowered those who once had no voice. By utilizing the power of social media I’m convinced that conference will no longer just be a place or an event—it will be a way of acting uniquely as United Methodists. It will be a return to a way of life that maybe we’ve forsaken in recent pursuits for efficiency and streamlined organization. And it will be a 21st Century example of honoring the Methodist sense of gathering to conference–a true means of grace–in such a way that I’m sure would make even Mr. Wesley himself very proud.


Faith Is…

 We’re now 5 weeks (give or take) away from the arrival of Baby Gosden. The nerves are starting to build and the anxiety levels will soon be reaching Defcon 1. We’re currently going through the rhythm of baby showers that shower you with gifts, questions and advice. “Are you ready yet?” seems to be a favorite question to ask. It seems to be second nature for people to ask that one. Frankly, I don’t quite know how to answer it. The truth is, you’re never actually ready for a baby to arrive, we only pretend to be. You can prepare a nursery, get bags packed, lay out clothes and even rehearse the trip to the hospital. But no one is truly ever ready for a baby to enter the world. I normally go for the honest answer–if for no other reason than because it’s the easiest to remember–and say, “well I don’t know what ready would look like but we’re excited.”

I admit that some days I struggle with the feelings of ineptitude at having a child. You can torture yourself with the internal questions of, “Will I screw things up?,” or, “Can I actually fail as a parent?” It’s a tough in-between place to be in.

Recently a friend reminded me that having a baby is truly an act of faith. You see, he astutely pointed out that the opposite of faith is not doubt but knowledge. Faith is an act of trust that happens in the face of insufficient knowledge. It’s believing that things will turn out a certain way even when you’re not quite sure how that will happen. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Faith is the belief in things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” In the church we talk so much about faith and what it means to have faith. But sometime I fear we talk about faith in such a way that we demonize doubt, questions, and insecurity. We act as though to have doubt means we don’t have a sufficient amount of faith to ground us.

In a world that seeks to proclaim knowledge of everything around us, it’s exciting to know there are things we’re yet to fully understand. There are still things we have to put our faith in. God cannot be boiled down to a particular understanding and we can’t explain all of the miracles of Creation with a formula. We know how babies are born but there’s a lot of mystery that comes along with their arrival. Who will they be? What kind of personality will they have? How will they interact with you? How will you measure up as a parent? All of these are legitimate questions that we can’t have answers for until we actually live into those answers. It’s the job of parents to search out soon-to-be parents and offer the support that on those uncertain days, faith can get you through to the next day. Lord knows I’m soon to need that more than I probably know.

Putting nurseries together, filling out registries, and reading all of the latest baby books are fine–you have to do that stuff–but they won’t solve those mysteries for us. Life will bring those answers in the fullness of time. And God, well God is with us–even in ways we can’t comprehend. Thanks be to God.


Agreeing to Disagree: A Project on Political Conversations in Christian Love

Today I began a project to prove that younger adults can, in fact, discuss politics in a religious setting in a more civil way than our parents can. I know it sounds crazy. After all, it’s an election year. Turn on any cable news station and you’ll find the political rhetoric is getting ramped up a few notches in lieu of the upcoming Presidential election. Candidates accuse one another of all sorts of shortcomings. Networks heighten the drama by putting intense spin on these stories and then broadcasting them across a 24-hour cycle of never-ending emotional diatribes from pundits and analysts. While I find much of this to be theater, the saddest part of this equation happens in the shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and churches across American–arguments break out fueled by the as seen on TV rhetoric.

It is in this spirit that I decided to coax some young adults (late 20s early 30s) into a project idea that I’ve had for sometime. Over the course of the next few weeks we’ll talk about a variety of political issues. From the outset we know we will not always agree–some in the group may never agree. But the point of this project is not to agree or convert anyone to another ideology. We’re setting out to prove that it is possible to engage one another in passionate conversation, agree or disagree, and do all of this in the spirit of Christian love that ultimately edifies us all in the process. Therefore, we’re beginning the project not with issues, but rather in studying how we talk about issues. The hope is we’ll alter the terms that will guide our discussion once we get to actual issues in a few weeks.

Below you’ll find my outline for leading the discussion for Session 1: Beginning the Journey, Setting the Rules, and Discussing Labels


I. Begin the Journey

  • What has been your experience of political discussion around family dinners? Church groups? Friends?
  • How do you get your news? Do you prefer articles online or cable news reports?
  • Just and FYI: I’m a self-proclaimed Independent who’s a reformed Democrat (for example, I’m anti-war, pro-life, and anti death penalty; I believe in welfare insofar as it helps meet basic needs but I think conservative economics is the most fiscally responsible thing to do on a national level; I think we have to protect rights of minorities, I believe in gay marriage, and I also think states often know what’s best for citizens in their area because it’s contextually informed; and I don’t want the government telling me what to do as a pastor under any circumstances)

II. Setting Rules

  • Anyone is free to contact me personally if they feel offended by anything we discuss. I’m more than happy to hear the concern and I’m even willing to shut the whole project down if I feel like we can’t achieve our goal of upholding edifying discussions grounded in Christian love.

III. Discussing Labels

  • What do the terms liberal and conservative mean to you?
  • Would you label yourself as 100% liberal or 100% conservative? How can these terms be problematic?

Next Week: Session 2: What does it mean to be civil in our discussing political topics and how can we learn from the mistakes of others?

Justice and the Heart of the Poet

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seemed all cross’d),

After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,

After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs

-Walt Whitman

The Church’s Alternative Vision for the World

I’m reminded on this day where we observe the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the issue of justice has a way of taking unique shape for every generation. Time and circumstance will mold the conditions of justice into whatever form that generation is to encounter it. And so, as one who has agreed to devote my life to the ordained ministry of the Church, I have to ask myself, what does justice look like for me? In doing this, I have to admit from the outset that I am a middle-class, American, straight, white, male who has lived a great deal of my life in the majority of whatever social classification one can come up with. That being said, being called into the ordained ministry requires that I also expand my world beyond the groupings that sociological study can offer.

The greatest act the Church can do is to tell the truth about the world as it is, and offer an alternative picture of the future. We don’t always do such a good job of this because, frankly, we’re often too caught up in our own issues at the present time. Bills need to be paid. We’re losing members left and right. We long to be more efficient in operation in order to survive a cultural shift that would cast us aside from the center of society.

It can be easy to forget that before we institutionalized ourselves, we were called into the grander vision of salvation for the world in Jesus Christ. Before we sought to find our place in the order of the world’s priorities, we were called to a different set of priorities that would dare to toss the norms of society aside. And before we thought our job was to work within the framework of politics in order to bring about the Kingdom, we were called to radically embody the Kingdom and model an alternative framework to that with the political landscape can offer. 

It can be difficult for the mainline church to hear, but maybe we should consider leaving issue-driven justice alone for awhile. Now before you throw the pitch forks and flames, hear me out.

Over the past 200+ years of American evolution we’ve adopted every initiative from Prohibition to anti-gambling to civil rights. Many of these were bold and much needed during their time. What would this country be had the Civil Right Movement not happened from within the Church? But so much of our society is built around the ideas of identity politics now that we’ve slowly allowed the political realities of our world govern the ways in which we engage and live out the realities of the Kingdom of God.

The Prophetic Power of Poetry

Walter Brueggemann argues that the prophets of the Old Testament specialized in a poetic rendering of reality for ancient Israel. The great power of prophesy was not simply the message of change, but it was in the act of poetically rendering the world in a new and alternative way than the one people had known. The prophets spoke in imagery and poetic verse in such a way that it cut through the malaise of a prose-ordered world.

I’m reminded this day as well that Dr. King knew a little something about the power of poetry in constructing alternative visions of the world:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity…”

“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…”

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

You see, King’s dream was a prophetic vision for the world as it should be and in spite of what it is. This is the same vision we need in the Church today. It’s one that is both prophetic and poetic. It’s a vision that’s not governed by politics or issues but is, instead, one that seeks to cut through our rigid and temporal vision of the world that we might see the world as God sees it. This is the vision of the great banquet table set in Luke 14 and we have to make sure that we’re not so consumed with our own narrow worlds we miss the invitation to the great meal. It’s a poetic vision of the world that offers an alternative to the realities we see and hear and know in the moment.

It’s not that I don’t think we should worry about efficiency and measurable vitality–I think we should worry a good deal about those things. And it’s not that I don’t think we should care about the pressing issues of the day and how our witness is revealed in our response to those issues–I think we should care deeply and passionately about pressing issues of justice and righteousness.

Let’s just make sure that when we do these things we allow for the vision of God’s kingdom to stay large and eternal in the process. Let’s see that we don’t get so consumed by our time and our issues that we forget God’s Kingdom is one for all time and space. Rather than trying to fit God’s Kingdom within our debates and policy initiatives, why not boldly proclaim the grand, cosmic vision of the Kingdom and see how our lives fit within that?

I’m indebted to the legacy of Dr. King–not just for helping lead a movement to pass laws and bring change, but for seeing the world in such a grand poetic and prophetic, Kingdom-driven way.

Jesus vs. Religion

This is a video that’s been made viral over the past week or so. According to YouTube, it has well over 2 million hits now. Jefferson Bethke does a wonderfully creative job of articulating the differences between Jesus and following a religion. And I admit that the first time I watched this, I was inspired and wanted to respond with a resounding, “Amen!” But it was on a second look of the video, guided also by an early critique I found, that I realized just how much might be wrong with this.

A Good Conversation Piece–Not a Piece of Theology

Also, my second glance at this leads me to want to dissect it theologically and outline all of the “bad theology” used here. It’s important to remember that this is a poem and not a scholarly work of theology published and peer-reviewed. Is there bad theology present in this? Yes, lots. But it’s a poem so we have to be aware of the type of work we’re dealing with here before we criticize it. You could argue that what he calls, “religion,” could easily mean, “Sunday Christian,” or “Christian hypocrisy.” It’s because of this that I think this can serve as a good starting place for conversations on what it means to be a Christian.

We have to be careful how much of this we regard as a theological statement and how much we use to begin an all-important conversation on what it means to be a Christians. Listen closely and you’ll hear Bethke say he “believes in the church.” So before we hear all of this and assume we should be inspired to simply throw out religion in favor of an individualized approach to following Jesus, just be clear that Bethke seems to be promoting a protest of bad religion–not all religion–whether he even wants to admit it or not.

Was Jesus Really Against Religion?

The simple answer to this is, no. Jesus was a good Jew raised by good Jews. Go back through the gospel accounts and you’ll find Jesus at the Temple, sometime blasting religious leaders, but always at specific times. Luke 2:39-52 tells the story of Jesus at the Temple at the age of 12. Note that it begins by saying that Mary and Joseph had followed the law following the birth of Jesus. It immediately shifts into a mention that it was their custom to go to the Temple of the Passover festival. Later passages locate some of Jesus’ best encounters at the Temple during specific festival times. Why is this important? Jesus was raised a good Jew whose parents followed religious law and observed religious rituals. No matter how much he blasted religious leaders, he did so out of devotion to the law and observances. Nowhere in the gospels does it say that Jesus wanted to end religion altogether–no matter how compelling Bethke’s poetic turn of the phrase, “It is finished,” might be. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or religion, he came to fulfill and fully embody it (Matthew 5:17). It may be cool to say that Jesus was anti-religion and anti-institution but we have to remember a couple of points about the biblical text (the only insight we have into who Jesus was): 1) Jesus came against the Pharisees often. Not because they were the symbol of religion, but because they were the symbol of bad religion–a religion consumed with works and self-righteousness and not grace, love and humility; and 2) The gospel accounts were written for religious, Christian communities who wrestled with this idea of what it meant to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus.

More About Being an American Christian than a Follower of Jesus

In the end I think this is an artistic portrayal of the tensions we face as American Christians. The culture as a whole has lost trust in institutions. No one trusts Congress, the government as a whole or the Church. I’d waste a ton of space going into the many good reasons for this mistrust so let’s just agree there are plenty of reasons. And yet somehow we have to reconcile the fact that we want to be Christian and not a part of the negative side of institutionalized religion. So we just resonate with the individualized approach to faith that says “I can be a follower of Jesus and I don’t need the Church to do that.” Sadly that’s more expressive of an American sense of vague spirituality than it is of Christianity.

This push for “following Jesus but not the church” wants to shake the shackles of religion in order to “truly follow Jesus.” But truly following Jesus requires we live a certain way and be held accountable to that. Has the church gotten this standard right over these past 2000 years–largely yes and largely no. It’s always a mixed bag of good when you look at it from that angle. But the spirit of this Americanized spiritual view of Jesus seems to desire more “freedom” and fewer “restrictions.” We just need to own the fact that this so-called “freedom without rules” is not Christian at all–it’s American.

I’m not entirely opposed to this wonderful work with words. Bethke turns some amazing phrases about church being an “ocean of grace.” I love his descriptions of an inclusive church. I just hope those who watch this video will see that the only way this is possible is for good people who see that grace as integral to their faith not to leave the Church in search of something they’ll never find. We need those people to live in, engage, and renew the Church as we know it. 

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