Tag Archives: church

DON’T SOUR

At Order of Elders, we were invited to share a word or phrase that epitomizes our calling. I couldn’t think of a scripture. But I eventually fell to a piece of advice given to me by the right person at the right time.

I was accepted to seminary when I came across an opportunity to apply for a program with the World Council of Churches. I asked a co-worker at the General Board of Global Ministries to write me a recommendation. He obliged and invited me in to hear what he wrote. It was embarrassing in its glowing prose.

I asked if he had any reservations.

“Don’t sour.”

Basically, he said I had seen plenty and might have been predisposed to cynicism. He was clear that sarcasm and cynicism were ungodly. He was right.

I saw cynicism being played like a sport in seminary. No one believed in the church. Everyone wanted to change it, save it, redefine it and blow it up to start over again. “If you’re not pissed off at the world, then you’re just not paying attention.”

Even now I see blanket statements about the awfulness of ‘the world,’ as if ancient Roman dichotomies are still en vogue. I see good everywhere I look. I see evil everywhere I look. They live as neighbors, even housemates. They both live within me. To only see evil is to look at the world with only one eye. It doesn’t stand up to more intelligent inspection. As the world is, so too is the church, rendering trendy cynicism a bit stupid.

Entering my 13th year of parish ministry, I can say I love the church. Despite the fact I work daily to make it better, I don’t really want it to change. I mean, I want it to be more inclusive, more courageous, more fruitful. Ultimately, I want it to be more of what it ultimately really is. I love the process of church and I don’t see that changing very much, technology be damned. I love being in small rooms with people trying to figure out how to live out this ancient teaching in a modern world. I love walking with people and watching them grow in courage, compassion and service. I love being with people as they negotiate those seasonal changes every life endures. I love being with a group of people trying to understand Jesus and live like him. I love the blessed community of church.

I know 2019 will be rough for the denomination. But I also suspect that church will simply continue to be church, beautifully imperfect, still striving to be more godly. In our twig on the family tree, we are welcoming ~50 kids to read, play, grow and be loved for the summer. We are crossing boundaries of race, economics and nationality. And we have decided that being is the key to doing. We adopted “Love God, Love People, Serve Both,” as our mission. And we aren’t worrying about making disciples. We are strategizing, even this weekend about what it means to love effectively. It’s what Jesus did. And we’re still just trying to be like him. And I can’t find a good reason to sour yet.

Tradition as a Spiritual Foundation

Since marrying almost 11 years ago, I have entered the realm of another family’s traditions. It’s nothing new. Ever since Cain met that girl from somewhere else, family traditions have always come and gone and evolved. As a child, I never thought much of the traditions of my family. They seemed plain and were less taught than assumed. During holy seasons, you went home, gathered around the table and talked about life. The food was good, the company was quiet but dependable, the conversation polite, the mood warm.

Now I live out west and the holidays are spent elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. The food is still good, the company is less quiet but still dependable. But the people are different, and my people are “back home”. The routines that feel familiar out here are not illogical…they’re just not my routines. As our family grows, the tradition changes and all of that is okay.

But I feel foreign. And I am foreign. Even if someone were to ask me about my traditions…well part of my traditions were the unspoken-ness of them all.

As it stands, the only tradition I have left is my religion.

What is Tradition?

Tradition binds us to space and time. Tradition recognizes my connection to my ancestors. Tradition also is my gift to give to people who will come after me. Tradition is the community of time. It is the wisdom database that is stored within my bones containing all the lessons and tendencies of those who have gone before me. And I am contributing to that wisdom database by simply living. I reinforce the wisdom that I understand to be true by practicing the traditions of my ancestors. I also correct the wisdom database by exposing the falsehood within it. Finally, I add new practices and tendencies for my offspring based on my living in my environment in my time. Hopefully, my descendants will inherit a more true and fulfilling wisdom database because I contributed.

It seems to me that the sources of tradition are family, location, culture, religion (both formal and folklore) and history.

Rootless Society

I wonder about a populace that is maniacally mobile. I wonder if our mobility is the cause or the result of our societal restlessness. I wonder if our mobility contributes to the ideological silo-ing of America. I know that I moved because my ideas and beliefs were not welcome where I was. And neither party was interested in further conversations to work out differences. So that population of uprooted people includes me.

But rootedness feels good. It feels safe. It gives me guidelines for how to act and what to decide. Of all the things lost in my various moves, gained is a surer rootedness in my religious tradition. Now people want to break that up.

The United Methodist Church, Tradition and Transcendence

In 2017 the momentum within the United Methodist Church will continue toward a showdown over human sexuality. This year will be a bridge year between General Conference 2016 and a specially called session of General Conference in 2018 to address all matters of human sexuality. It is a shadow that hangs over me and my family in a particular way. After bouncing wastefully around the connection for better part of a decade, we both find ourselves in positive and fruitful appointments. We fully expect that in short time, we will have to make very tough decisions about our callings and our appointments. The irony is that we are both skilled enough to lead our congregations through such moments. But we could end up on the outside.

Add to this the emerging uneasiness politically in America and you have a recipe for tremendous upheaval. For any aspect of my tradition to give me wisdom for this particular journey, I’d have to go back to my ancestors who fled the homeland to come to the New World. That is a very murky time to me now. More apropos is going back to the very roots of my faith: to Jesus touching the leper and eating at Zacchaeus’s house.

I’ve been working on this idea of ‘sectlessness’ for a while now. It is a feeling that all the divisions between humanity are ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. That among the lessons of Christ is the oneness of earthly life. We all need each other and we’re built to be bound as one. Jesus transcended the divisions of his day and joined humanity together through his life, death and resurrection. Trying to be like Jesus means also transcending these divisions.

[My hesitation is that this feels very easy given my privilege. I am aware that people in minority groups often cannot and do not want to escape their distinctions. I know many embrace their distinctions as a matter of pride and identity and I see nothing inherently wrong with that. I think for me, my desire to transcend may actually arise out of my place of privilege. I often feel entrapped and minimized by the privileges assigned to me. This is an unresolved dilemma for me.]

So What?

All of this rootlessness, both forced and sought, leads me to the only rootedness that seems trustworthy…my identity as a child of God in a universe of siblings. I give thanks to God that my church tradition has propelled me to this revelation. I also fear that this revelation will outlast my church. The ultimate tradition is that of innovation and growth and why should I not embrace this reality.

The Body of Christ in the None Zone

What I love about church in the None Zone:

  • No cultural Christianity: They’re is no civic version of the religion telling you what Christianity is (ie. Patriotism, gender roles, etc.)
  • Deliberate choice to be in church: We’ve all heard the None’s reasonings and have decided to pursue Jesus anyhow. This makes for a stronger church member.
  • None’s keep us honest and transparent: Some of the None’s reasonings are due to pain from the church…the church locally has learned to recognize this painful history and many have adopted ways to not repeat it.
  • Sense of ecumenism: We all love our traditions, but we know that we need our ecumenical friends.
  • Sense of camaraderie: Less competition, more collaboration
  • Room to innovate: Being small and regularly on the brink, we have developed a sense of freedom to try new things. This brings joy and fun to the work of ministry.

What about you? What do you love about church in your context?

Bible Leads: Luke 7:36-50

TEXT

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. What must happen for a wrong to be righted?
  2. Why is forgiveness so difficult?
  3. Who needs your forgiveness?
  4. Who needs your apology?

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SOUNDTRACK

  1. Who Is it? by Bjork
  2. Oceania, by Bjork
  3. Triumph of the Heart, by Bjork
  4. All is Full of Love, by Bjork
  5. Undo, by Bjork
  6. Frosti, by Bjork
  7. Aurora, by Bjork
  8. Hyperballad, by Bjork
  9. Stonemilker, by Bjork
  10. Unravel, by Bjork

HAIKU

This jar, full
of pain, pouring me
out on you.

Bible Leads: John 1:35-42

TEXT

 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).


REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. What do you want from God?
  2. In what ways does God/Jesus NOT meet your expectations?
  3. What does it mean that our savior is a teacher?
  4. In what ways are you still being taught by Jesus?

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SOUNDTRACK

  1. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, by U2
  2. Calling Cards, by Neko Case
  3. Follow You Down to the Red Oak Tree, by James Vincent McMorrow
  4. Teach Your Children, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  5. Jackie and Wilson, by Hozier
  6. The Down Town, by Days of the New
  7. What a Wonderful Man,. by My Morning Jacket
  8. Chloroform, by Phoenix
  9. I’ll bet on You, by Toad the Wet Sprocket
  10. Hot for Teacher, by Van Halen

HAIKU

That time I
followed you saving
all of us.

Bible Leads: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

TEXT

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
  1. On Turning-Toward
  2. The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience
  3. Van Gogh’s letter to his brother (after he failed as a pastor…by doing the right thing)
  4. On Anger and Forgiveness

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. How is your relationship with your brother/sister?
  2. What in your life might be gently or insistently inviting you to turn toward it, rather than away?
  3. When was a time you had to come to terms with something wrong you did?
  4. In what ways do you sin against God?

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SOUNDTRACK

  1. Ignorant Boy, Beautiful Girl, by Loney Dear
  2. Forgive Them Father, by Ms. Lauryn Hill
  3. World Sick, by Broken Social Scene
  4. Return, by Glen Hansard
  5. Carrying a Stone, by Loney Dear
  6. If It’s a Light, by Mavis Staples
  7. Father Figure, by George Michael
  8. Say Goodbye, by Beck
  9. Why, by Brothers of End
  10. I Measure the Days, by Derek Webb

HAIKU

From sandbox
to nightclub to slum
to shame walk.

The Regretful Side of Itineracy

I began itinerating when I graduated from high school in 1993. Since then…

  • 1 year at Bluefield College as a commuter.
  • 3 years at King College as a resident.
  • 1 year with my parents as an unemployed college graduate.
  • 2 years in Webster Groves, MO in the US-2 program.
  • 1 year in Cambridge, UK in the Time for God program
  • 8 months back living with my parents in Bluefield, working lay-away at a department store the mall that was liquidating during Christmas!
  • 18 months in New York City working for the General Board of Global Ministries.
  • 3 years in New Jersey in seminary.
  • 5 years at the Sabra-Highland-Jones charge in Morgantown, WV. Began that as a newlywed ended that time as a new dad.
  • 2 years at Greenview UMC in Bluefield, WV. That ended prematurely, but also as a new dad again.
  • 1 year at Cedar Grove UMC in Parkersburg, WV the whole time looking to move out west. Had two houses in that time.
  • 15 months commuting to Sunnyside-Centenary UMC in Portland. That ended with a church closure. I’ve been to Portland maybe 3 times since then.
  • 6 months and counting at Orchards UMC in Vancouver, WA.

So I saw an old picture of myself with my US-2 classmates. I couldn’t even find myself in the picture. Then, I did a double-take. Was that me? What was I like then? I don’t really remember. Yet, I know my own narrative about that era of my life: idealistic, hopeful, enthusiastic, wide-eyed, scared but daring, ready and wanting to do tough stuff.

I loved that era of my life. I loved my classmates more than anything. I loved who they were helping me become. I loved how courageous I could be because I had friends helping me be courageous.

And that’s when I really began to unravel. Those friends are in the past. I see them on Facebook. But they don’t know my wife; I don’t know their kids. I am happy when they seem happy and bothered when I hear of their bad news.

The worst part is that by moving around, I have met lots of tremendous people. I met this guy Andy MacKenzie in Cambridge, who is an artist and loves youth and old people and is just the most chill guy you’d ever want to meet. Then I left Cambridge and have never seen him again. The problem is that I fall in love with people left and right, and I never get to stay around them. I closed a church not 6 months ago and they all feel so distant. And the rules for itineracy are completely sucky, despite the fact that I agree with them. The rules are for the church (which I love) and the good of the congregations and parishioners (which I love) and for the success of the next guy/gal (whom I respect) and I have to “Just suck it up, Lebron!

When I make the list I made above, it’s no wonder I feel like I don’t have any real friends. I had one chance in Morgantown to make lasting relationships. But that list reminds me that I’ve had to say good-bye 13 times in my adult life. That’s too damn much. Too much for a reluctant loner. My friend-making muscles were never that good to begin with; now they haven’t had to work in years. So I catch myself with these new folks at Orchards: I’m admittedly desperate that they’ll like me. And I’ve been sensitive to the criticisms and overly hard on myself over failures.

And I miss that idealistic, hopeful guy from 1998. I’m still idealistic, still hopeful. But it feels buried under the grief of itineracy. I have to keep reminding myself that all appointments have been different. And I’ve loved all of them. And God has been with me all along. And God is still faithful and waiting for me to be fruitful.