Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Called to Relationship

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)

When Moses shared the Ten Commandments with the people of God, it was a way to establish covenant with a people who were trying to figure out how to govern themselves for the first time in centuries.

The rules were to establish how they should love God and how they should love one another.  For the former, we see that they should forsake idols and other gods which they would encounter in abundance.  For the latter, we see concrete rules against murder, theft and adultery which give easily identifiable guidelines to follow.

Probably the last commandment is the one that is the most difficult to define.  What does it mean to covet?  Does it require action or just deep pondering.  Do stray thoughts count?  This requires us to think about our faith and who we are as God's people.

Within Matthew's Gospel, we have arrived at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  In writing to a Christian community steeped in Judaism, Matthew seems to portray Jesus as the successor to Moses.  It is in Matthew's Gospel that we have the baby Jesus taken by his parents to Egypt to save his life from the orders of a corrupt king.  Moses is saved in Egypt by his mother and sister from similar orders from the Pharaoh.

Moses presents his covenant with God from on high.  Jesus presents this new covenant on a mountain.  The Beatitudes are given as a way to think about how we are in relationship with one another.  But these are not presented to a free people but rather a captive people who are living under a Gentile nation that have other gods as first in line for worship and do so with idols as the obvious substitute for their adoration.  By the time Matthew records this Gospel, Jerusalem has been destroyed along with the Temple (again).  The rules that Jesus invites us to live by are not nearly as concrete at the Ten Commandments.  They are more in line with the admonishment not to covet.

Whereas the Ten Commandments are largely what to avoid, the Beatitudes are a map toward blessing.  But as any journey, we often learn as much on the way as we do in arriving at the destination.  This may be helpful for us in looking at them because at first glance, mourning and meekness don't sound like things we would normally identify with blessing.

I doubt if many Christian prayers start with "Lord, make me a meeker person in all that I do today."

Is there more blessing in accomplishments achieved alone
or in helping someone else reach their potential?
But if we think about the Beatitudes as a covenant, how do they help us to more fully love God and love our neighbors?  How are these a call to relationship for a people without the power of self-governance?  For those in the United States today, we have much more freedom in how we live our lives than those in Matthew's community.  But I think that sometimes this freedom is illusory and we find that our captivity comes to things that are less obvious.

We still need the concrete rules found in the Ten Commandments.  But we also need to explore our faith through the Beatitudes.  Americans have more options for entertainment at their fingertips than ever in the history of the world.  While these can provide hours of enjoyment, they can also pacify our need for deeper thinking.  Fortunately, we have a time when we gather for worship and the deepening of our faith through thoughtful reflection.  I hope you'll join us if you are available in person in Edmond or Guthrie.  But if not, please join us online at a time of your choosing.  We'll be exploring the Beatitudes this Sunday and hope that we find blessing during our time together.

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Adam Bautz via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Anxiety and the Protocol



How is it with your soul?

To say that there is anxiety surrounding The United Methodist Church these days is an understatement.  There have been issues of how we will be in ministry with LGBTQ+ persons for decades and it seems to be leading toward formal division.

Within the United States, we have difficulty discussing sexuality.  When I meet with couples who are planning to marry, the most uncomfortable part of our discussion is when I bring up sex.  I would guess that a lot of this comes from a fear that I will judge them.  But sometimes I can see that they have difficulty discussing it with one another.  And so, here we have a topic (sexuality) that is difficult for many of us to talk about even with the people with whom we are most intimate.  And this is the topic on which our denomination will make us categorize ourselves?  Now pastors, go and lead your church through this!

Earlier this week, I attended the clergy orders meeting for the Oklahoma Conference and Bishop Nunn's material was striking and insightful.  He suggested that United Methodists have been engaged in a civil war with one another and that we are likely experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He quotes Edward Tick from War and the Soul:
 “The common therapeutic model . . . misses the point that PTSD is primarily a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic disorder – in effect, not a psychological but a soul disorder.  All of its aspects concern dimensions of the soul, inasmuch as the soul is the part of us that responds to morality, spirituality, aesthetics and intimacy.”
After serving as a delegate to the 2019 General Conference, I have often joked that I have PTSD as a result from my time there.  Sometimes our humor is a thinly veiled stab at the truth.

I actually was diagnosed with high blood pressure shortly after serving as a delegate to the 2016 General Conference in Portland.  To be fair, some of this is genetic as my father was also diagnosed around my age.  But I think the timing is not just coincidental.    

Recently, I was on the phone with a Wespath health coach (part of our new benefit package this year) and I asked her if she knew about the upcoming General Conference.  She did not.  I suggested that the stress of this might be affecting clergy health in the coming months and that they might want to make a note for those coaches handling United Methodist clergy.  For any conference leadership out there, don't be surprised to see an increase in health issues for the clergy you supervise in the coming months.    

Part of the stress that I realized in myself is dealing with grief.  I've been no stranger to grief lately in my life.  Both my parents died in 2018 (my mother in the spring and my father in the fall) and I thought it would be helpful in dealing with this grief by going to St Louis in February of 2019.

Sarcasm aside, we think about our most common emotions in dealing with grief from the research of Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross when she studied how people dealt with being told they had a terminal illness.  Anyone dealing with loss seems to encounter at least some of these:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

As a United Methodist elder, a large part of my identity comes through the credentialing I received through the denomination.  That sounds rather clinical.  Bishops laid their hands on my head and ordained me to set my life aside in order to do this work on behalf of Jesus Christ through The United Methodist Church.  I think the sadness I feel when thinking about a split in said denomination is warranted, don't you?  

Within systems theory, we remember that systems resist change.  Separation is one of the largest changes we have ever attempted (I would say the largest but our denomination has walked this road before).  Systems theorists also might say that our strategy is to cut-off one another emotionally rather than deal with our conflict over sexuality (not healthy).  Others might argue that the denomination keeps us emotionally fused within our conflict because we aren't allowed to leave (also not healthy).  Both are likely correct.  

And so the pastors have to deal with all of this movement toward separation.  Questions from the congregation might be: Is a split going to happen?  What will happen to our local church?  If there is a split, which direction would our church go?  Pastor, what is your position on all this?

Is your blood pressure rising yet?  Most congregations within the Oklahoma Conference have people on both sides of this issue.  While urban areas have multiple churches that will allow people to select a pastor or church that fits more closely with their beliefs (and thus further polarizing our nation), the rural areas don't have this possibility.  There are no alternatives at least within Methodism.  What happens when a clergy person is leading a church where the majority of membership opposes the pastor's beliefs?
My first time addressing General Conference in 2008.
It might be telling to measure the vital signs
of those speaking!

As stressful as this is, I think our extension ministers have it even worse.  Their employment may not be able to continue as the funding for these positions shrinks and vanishes.  And if their position goes away, will there be any appointments at the local church to be had?  

This is an adaptive problem rather than a technical one.   Adaptive problems are stressful by their nature because we are traveling in new territory.  We don't do well in facing this kind of problem in isolation.  I am fortunate because I serve a church where two other clergy are appointed.  There are also multiple retired and extension ministers related to our charge.  We talk it through.  It helps us to not only problem-solve but to encourage each other.

During the previously-mentioned orders meeting, I was speaking to many of my colleagues who do not have this advantage.  They are isolated in rural areas.  It feels like being on an island.  This does not help them to deal with an already stressful situation!  But one of our strengths is our connectionalism.  As United Methodists, our origins arise from John Wesley's class meetings where they would ask one another,   

How is it with your soul?

I believe that at this time, it is crucial for our clergy serving in appointments as the sole pastor to form covenant groups with one another.   I would suggest four to a group.  Meet online.  Use zoom or some other group video chat software.  It doesn't cost anything.  Meet weekly for 30-60 minutes.  Try to covenant to quit after an hour.  If someone needs more time than that, it may be that a therapist is a good option.  Within the Oklahoma Conference, we get eight free sessions through our health care with the Employee Assistance Program.  And as a helping professional, don't be a hypocrite by refusing to get help after you have referred people in your church for counseling!  

Make sure you don't dominate the time.  Everyone should have time to speak.

I would suggest like-mindedness.  Centrists meet with centrists, progressives with progressives, traditionalists with traditionalists.  The reason for this is that you don't want to end up debating with one another or even feeling defensive toward feelings shared.  This is time for supporting one another.  Of course, ultimately you should do what is helpful to you.

I'm not opposed to crossing theological lines for covenant groups (there would be great value in this) but that is not the rationale for this proposal.

Ask the question, "How is it with your soul?"  Let each one answer as they will and see where it takes them.  

Ask the question, "Where are you encountering difficulty this week with regards to GC 2020 (or the issues surrounding separation, LGBTQ+ inclusion, etc.)?

Ask the question, "Where have you seen resurrection this week?"

Finally, are you facing any unique challenges at your appointment that you would like to bounce off the group?

Don't use things you hear as sermon illustrations without permission!  Pastoral privilege should apply.

While this is designed for clergy, I would think that laity may also find this helpful.  Especially those heavily invested in leadership such as lay delegates, lay staff members, lay leadership in the church.

Remember the five stages of grief.  It is helpful for us to self-identify which stage we may be in (they fluctuate).  And if you are laity reading this, as you self-identify your stage, you might think of how this influences how you are relating to your pastor.  Be nice to your pastors even if you disagree with them.  They did not invent this conflict as much as they inherited it.  If we are angry, we tend to blame the elders who are in charge of interpreting the Discipline for our local church (just as pastors blame superintendents and bishops).

And clergy, let us remember that we are smart, well-educated people.  We are able to move through even this and continue to answer our calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  If you can make it through the credentialing process, you can get through this!  This latest challenge is a part of a larger movement in post-Christendom.  If we were not experiencing decline in overall Christianity across the United States (putting stress at the general and conference levels), I don't think we would be at this crossroads right now.  But here we are.

The world doesn't need us any less.  In fact, I would argue that a Wesleyan interpretation of Christianity is exactly what the world needs.  I am confident that you will continue to make a difference no matter what the General Conference brings!

Blessings to all and may God continue to bless the work you do!

In Christ,

Sam

Monday, January 20, 2020

Called to Repent

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 4:12-23 (NRSV)

Last week, we saw John's version of how Jesus called Andrew and Peter to be disciples.  This Sunday, we'll look at Matthew's.  While they seem very different, a Gospel harmony might suggest that John's story came first and then was followed by Matthew's.

This would make sense for why they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.  This was not their first encounter.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus was already preaching and teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near.  It was a message of repentance.  I like to think that these disciples had heard him preach.  Andrew had already spent a day with Jesus according to John.

So they had evidently heard enough.  They dropped everything and followed him.

Jesus continues to preach and teach throughout Galilee.  He proclaims the good news of the kingdom and cures every disease and sickness among the people.  In an era where medical assistance was hard to come by, this would have put quite the exclamation point on his proclamation!

What is interesting is that the call to repentance precedes the call of the disciples and the healing of the multitudes.  When we tie repentance with healing today, we can get into rough waters theologically.  For instance, I knew of a woman who was dying of cancer.  Her pastor told her to repent of her sins and she would be healed.  This was not helpful for her final days.

But is there a tie between repentance and healing?

To repent is to change one's mind.  It is to change one's heart.  It is to change one's behavior to match the new way of thinking and being.

I've been on both sides of this bed
many times in my life but much more
often looking down on the patient.
When I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2016, I had to repent of certain things according to my doctor.  Americans like their meat and I am a good American!  And while I still eat more meat than I actually need, I mostly keep it to fish and fowl these days.  I try to get regular exercise before going to the church.  I also now use a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea so that I will get more quality rest at night.

Are there other things concerning healing of which we need to repent or change our ways of doing things?

As a pastor, the largest number of anxieties faced in our congregation are health-related.  Even those who have insurance tell me anecdotes of being unable to receive the care they need.  They may have to wait for prescribed tests in order for the red tape to clear.  They may be released from the hospital too soon and relapse.  They may need medications that are not covered in their prescription plan.

When I first got my CPAP machine, I found that wrestling between insurance and what the company was trying to charge me was likely doing the opposite of what was needed for my high blood pressure!

As I hear people stress about their medical care, and as I pray for their healing, I wonder to myself, "Is this the best we can do?"

What I do believe is that as Jesus proclaims good news for the kingdom of heaven, it is coupled with him curing every sickness and disease among the people.  It may be that wholeness and health are what we would equate with the kingdom of heaven.  I certainly don't imagine any need for hospitals in heaven, do you?

If this is the case, how do we help God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?

We all may need to repent or change our thinking about our current practice regarding wellness in our country today.  What would it take for both sides of the aisle politically to work together on medical reform?  One thing I'm sure of is that illness is not partisan.  We'll continue to explore this scripture as we examine the call to repent on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Jim Sorenson via flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Called to Faith

Lectionary Text: John 1:29-42 (NRSV)

We are now well-into the Season after the Epiphany.  This season is book-ended with the Baptism of the Lord and his Transfiguration.  One of the themes is the call of the disciples.  As modern disciples, I will continue to explore how we are called to various dimensions of faith as we seek to grasp a direction from scripture in our lives today.  Last week, we looked at being "Called to Witness" and this week, we will look at being "Called to Faith."

John was the same age as Jesus (according to Luke).
How would you imagine him hanging out today
 with two of his disciples?
Within Sunday's text, we see the echos of the ministry of John the Baptist.  He is the one who baptizes Jesus and "prepares the way of the Lord."  Luke informs us that John is actually a cousin of Jesus.  This makes us scratch our heads a little because today's reading has John stating not once but twice, "I myself did not know him."  Within that culture and time, it would have been incredulous to not have met a relative living in the region. 

We must remember that John's Gospel was written more for doctrine than for historical account.

It is possible that John (the author, not the Baptizer) has him make this claim with intent to the faith rather than relational knowledge.  We see that John the Baptist never follows Jesus as a disciple even though he was a witness to the Holy Spirit's descent upon Jesus.

But in today's text we do see two of John's disciples leave their old master behind and follow Jesus.  As disciples of John, it is possible that they were also witnesses to the baptism of Jesus.  One of them remains unnamed but the other is the fisherman, Andrew.  He is responsible for bringing his more famous brother Peter to faith.  This account varies some from how Mark (the first recorded Gospel) shares it.

What is fascinating to me about this account is how all seem to point to Jesus.  John, who is not a disciple, points to Jesus.  He twice refers to him as the "Lamb of God."  This symbolism is rich in Christian history and you may have heard the Latin translation "Agnus Dei" sung in worship before.

The older tradition of Holy Communion (found in A Service of Word and Table IV in the Hymnal) utilizes this as we sing together:
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.  O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.  O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.       
Andrew then also points to Jesus as he is the first (in John's account that is) disciple to declare that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah).  Each seems to be faithful in their own way.

This is similar to us today.   All are called to faith.  We each may respond in ways that are unique to our place and time.  So how do we interpret this for our lives?  And how does our interpretation point to Jesus?  We'll continue to explore this on Sunday as we worship together!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Brandon via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Called to Witness

Lectionary Text: Acts 10:34-43 (NRSV)

This Sunday is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday in the liturgical calendar.  We remember our own baptism in the context of that of Jesus. 

When Christians are baptized, they experience dying to sin and newness of life.  If one is immersed, this is symbolized by being taken under the water (akin to being put in the ground) and brought to resurrection as one rises (new life).

Christians receive the Holy Spirit and are initiated into church membership (the Body of Christ).

Do you think this dad is remembering his baptism?
The boy may have a calling.
In 2008, I remember when we voted at General Conference to add "witness" to the list of how United Methodists would show faithfulness to the local church along with "prayers, presence, gifts and service."  Some of the rationale for adding witness was due to the losses in membership the church had undergone.  It was part of the overall trend in Christendom in the United States.  By adding witness, it was thought that we would remind ourselves of our call to share our faith which would strengthen our church.

This Sunday's reading reminds us that God chooses us as witnesses.  According to Acts, Jesus appeared not to all people but to those whom God has chosen.  Within the context of our baptism, we become the modern witnesses to the resurrection.  We are the modern "chosen." 

As we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, this puts us in relationship in a unique way.  We become a part of something larger than ourselves.

How do we witness to our own sense of forgiveness and new life we find in Christ?

How do we witness to the transforming grace of God in our lives?

How do we witness to the significance of baptism?

This Sunday, we will remind ourselves that we are called to witness.  We will explore in worship how this continues to be a significant part of the Christian story.  Our story is part of a much larger narrative.  It is a blessing to come together and remind ourselves of our part to play.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by popofatticus via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Does the Latest Plan of Separation Pass Constitutional Muster?

There's a lot of news circulating around the upcoming split of The United Methodist Church since a plan and a press release hit the internet today.  As a delegate to the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I wanted to briefly weigh in on what is being said.
I wonder if this is what we look like to the rest of the world?

The plan is a general outline and is not legislation which should give more specifics.  Even when we see the actual legislation, it may be amended at General Conference.

This is one plan among a wide variety of plans of separation to be considered at General Conference in May.  It may gain traction to be examined first but it may not have the votes to pass.  If it doesn't pass, other plans will be scrutinized.  It is possible that no plans of separation will pass.  

This plan will be submitted to the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church so that they can consider whether or not it is in line with the Constitution (currently paragraphs 1-61) of the Book of Discipline.  If not, it requires a greater threshold to enact:

"¶ 59. Article I.—Amendments to the Constitution shall be made upon a two-thirds majority of the General Conference present and voting and a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate number of members of the several annual conferences present and voting,"
So not only would it require the General Conference to pass it by 2/3, but it would then go to all of the Annual Conferences across the globe for a 2/3 ratification.  If this is the case, it would likely not be enacted until 2021.

If it does pass as we see it outlined, what would the Oklahoma Conference do?

Would it vote to become a part of the new Traditionalist denomination or would it remain within The United Methodist Church?  It is unlikely that we would consider it at the 2020 Annual Conference in May since it would occur so soon after General Conference.  We would likely consider either constitutional amendments if needed or a decision on denominational affiliation sometime in November of 2020 at a special called session.  If Oklahoma seeks to go to the new Traditionalist denomination (assuming legislation passes as proposed), it would need a 57% threshold for approval by all of the clergy and laity members of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.

After a determination is made, local churches may then choose to vote if they don't like the way the annual conference voted.  If they largely approve of the decision of the annual conference, no vote is required.

While we wait to see actual legislation on this, we do have the proposals from other plans of separation.  Many of them try to operate outside of the constitution which is easier to pass.  However, I'm not sure any separation legislation is currently constitutional.

In the preamble to the Constitution, the Discipline states, "The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world."

Article Six then reiterates this thought:

"¶ 6. Article VI. Ecumenical Relations—As part of the church universal, The United Methodist Church believes that the Lord of the church is calling Christians everywhere to strive toward unity; and therefore it will pray, seek, and work for unity at all levels of church life: through world relationships with other Methodist churches and united churches related to The Methodist Church or The Evangelical United Brethren Church, through councils of churches, and through plans of union and covenantal relationships with churches of Methodist or other denominational traditions."

While this may not be enough to keep a plan of separation from taking effect, it also could be.  It depends upon how the Judicial Council rules.

As a systems theory thinker, I don't believe it is helpful to hold someone in relationship that doesn't have a sense of mutuality about the covenant.  But at the same time, I think we should understand the seriousness of separation and stand in repentance if we acknowledge that it is the best way to move forward.  Sometimes a little space may be required for us to work together more closely in the future.

Fragmentation has been a part of church history since its inception.  It is fairly normal when considering the scope of the last two millennia.  But I don't think it is something we should ever take lightly and maybe the seriousness of separation should require a higher threshold of voting.  Maybe it should require annual conferences to weigh in on it.

I do believe that God will continue to work through the various expressions of Methodism that arise from whatever is passed.  But my hope is that we are not merely reflecting the polarization that is spreading through the United States and the world at large.  If that is the case, then we are deluding ourselves that we are separating for missional purposes when the reality is that we have failed to engage in the hard work of loving one another.

Please pray for our leadership and our process!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.