Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Beatitudes of Chili

It's hard to believe that this year is our 12th Annual Chili Cook-off here at the United Methodist Church in Piedmont but there you go.  In honor of tonight's festivities, I wanted to share a tongue in cheek presentation of chili as it relates to the Beatitudes that Jesus presented in the Sermon on the Mount:  

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Chili has never had the sense of being a rich man’s food.  It is a good hearty dish that warms (blesses?) the soul.

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.  Chili is comfort food if ever there was some although some chili actually increases your tears rather than decreases them.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.  There are some chili’s that you should approach with meekness or you may end up regretting it!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied.   Can one equate chili with righteousness?  I do know that many find chili to be satisfying to their hunger.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.  When you declare “mercy” is when you put your bowl down and can’t eat anymore!

This is an Habanero pepper.
It will clear your sinuses!

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.  This one gets a little tricky.  Not sure how many heart-healthy chili’s we'll have tonight.  But if you eat habanero chili, you might see God through the tears.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.  Sometimes those in conflict need to find something to agree on.  Sitting down over a good bowl of chili might just do the trick!

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  I’m not sure about persecuting but I’ve certainly wheedled and needled our church members into bringing chili for the cook-off.  I hope they understand their reward!

If you’re near our zip code, drop by for some delicious chili tonight.  The cost is $6 for adults and $3 for students and the proceeds all go to missions.  We'll serve from 5:30 until 7:00 pm but it's better to get there earlier because some of the more popular flavors run out.  There will be many different varieties – I’m sure you’ll find several you really enjoy!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Beyond the Comfort Zone

Sam, David and Kyla in front of the Seattle Great Wheel.
One of the things we did in Seattle over the summer was to take a ride in the new Ferris wheel over the Puget Sound, the Seattle Great Wheel.  It only opened June 29th so it was a brand new attraction for the area.  We bought the tickets and as I stood in line watching others, I was thinking that for the money we had to shell out, this ride seemed kind of short!

Our family had our own "car" or gondola and it consisted of two benches facing one another encased in glass.  The encasement was a good idea not only for safety but also to combat Seattle's famous weather.  As you can see in the picture, we were not exactly sweating.

When we got into our gondola, they told us that we would be suspended at the top for a while which makes sense when you consider that they have to load and unload those on the opposite side of the wheel.  I was originally thinking, "That will be nice, we can see a lot up there."

When we got about half way up, I was getting a little edgy.  David kept moving back and forth as he looked from side to side and this would start the car rocking.  At this point, we were suspended over concrete and it was apparent that we wouldn't survive if the bolts gave way.  My older brother's voice from many a roller coaster ride was going through my head, "You know this was built by the lowest bidder!"  My original assumption that it would be too short was way off.  It felt like we were going to be suspended from this death height forever!

Kyla, David and Sheryl from about 200 feet up!
It was easier when we got over the bay. We would probably die from falling into that as well but it seems more comforting being over the water.  I finally began to settle down and relax and enjoy the view.  We could see ships moving around the water.  The Space Needle was also within view.  The Seattle Aquarium was just below us.  Pike's Place Market was a short walk as well.

But when it ended, I discovered that this was not too short nor too long but just the right amount of time.  I ended up enjoying it and was surprised by my anxiety at the beginning.

Fear and anxiety are funny things.  They may strike us at unexpected times in life.  How we react is up to us. I understood that any catastrophe at this point was beyond my control.  I might as well try to enjoy it as best I could.  It seems like we do this in our walk with God.  We like to be in control and when we discover that we aren't, it makes us a little edgy.  We try to re-establish control even in our prayer lives.  We direct God to give us just what we need.  Or at least what we think we need.

What if we prayed to enjoy the blessings we've already received?  We might be more likely to sit back and enjoy the view.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Christianity and the Prius Plug In

Sheryl stands in front of our new Prius Plug-In
in Burien, Washington
Those of you who know me well would figure it is past time we bought a new car.  The last vehicle we bought, we didn't incur any debt (savings = more overall purchase power).  Our belief is that we shouldn't pay more for a vehicle by making payments in taking out a car loan.  In the past we've always bought used vehicles but this time we decided to buy new.

Good stewardship is important to us whether we are talking about money or God's creation.  So we decided that our next automobile would have a very high miles per gallon rate.  Sheryl (my wife) began to thoroughly research vehicles that were fuel efficient.  She decided to go with the Prius Plug In.  Unfortunately, it is not available for order by Toyota dealers in Oklahoma.  We were planning on going to Seattle to see my sister and her family anyway, so Sheryl began to shop online for our next car there.  We would fly in and get the car - she even arranged for the dealer to pick us up at the airport!  An added bonus is that we saved money by not renting a car while we were there.

We were a little nervous about making an online purchase this large but since we were going with a reputable dealer (Burien Toyota), we felt like we were doing the right thing. And so that's how we ended up making a large part of our vacation the drive home.

So how is being a good steward of the environment a part of Christian discipleship?

The environment can be a touchy subject.  There are many people who do not support Climate Change.  I tend to go with the majority of scientists on this and believe that emissions do effect the weather (it currently feels like Oklahoma is trying to move from a plains ecosystem to a desert ecosystem).  I hope and pray that I am wrong in this!  My simplest rationale for my belief in Climate Change is the traditional conservative value: hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

But let's take Climate Change out of the debate for a moment.  Tailpipe exhaust does affect human health.  Studies show that children who live in the cities with worse air pollution ratings have higher rates of asthma.  This makes sense in that people used to commit suicide by locking themselves in a closed garage with the car running.

So being a good steward of God's creation has positive impact upon God's children.  The less gas I burn in my car = cleaner air = healthier families.  It's hard to argue against caring for our kids.  As Christians we remember that when the disciples tried to brush off all the little ones when they were crowding around Jesus, they heard their rabbi say, "Let the little children come to me." I try to model this each day - I'll also do my part to make sure they can do so while breathing easily.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tragic Moments

Flag outside the Piedmont Post Office lowered at half-mast as a
mark of respect for the victims of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
I recently wrote a piece on what influences us for the Piedmont Citizen.  It was written before the tragic shooting in the movie theater early in the morning of July 20th this month in Colorado.  My article seemed kind of light in the wake of a nation's wrestling with such a senseless act.

When we experience this kind of loss, we are often asking the question, "Why?"  We want to ascribe some kind of meaning to it so that we can compartmentalize it in the sensible section of life.  We would like all of life to be in this section and do our best to either put things there or to ignore them completely.

I've spoken about free will and how I don't think God takes people from this life as much as God receives them.  That can be comforting but there are times we need to rage at the senselessness of what life deals us.

Lamentations, commonly attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, addresses a people that ran into the buzz saw of the Babylonian empire almost 2600 years ago.  Their capital city - their holy city - of Jerusalem including their temple was destroyed.  Their people were killed and carried away.  What kind of sense would you make of this?

Here's the author's take on the violence done to them:
     I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; 2he has driven and brought 
     me into darkness without any light; 3against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, 
     all day long. 4He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; 5he has 
     besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; 6he has made me sit in darkness 
     like the dead of long ago. 7He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put 
     heavy chains on me; 8though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9he has blocked 
     my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.
                                                                                        Lamentations 3:1-9, NRSV

Although I attribute the brutality to the misspent free will of the Babylonians, it sometimes feels good to rage against someone close to us.  God may fill this role for us and sometimes pastors stand in for God as the human representative.  I've been on the receiving end of a lot of anger before that didn't seem appropriate for the circumstance at hand.  I attribute it to anger at God for some other issue.

Lamentations continues to spit and cuss through the chapter before the author begins to turn back toward hope.  Have you ever cried until you can't cry anymore?  Sometimes we have to get it out of our system, like expelling a poison.  Only then can we look toward something positive.

     21But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22The steadfast love of the Lord never 
     ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your 
     faithfulness. 24“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 
     25The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 26It is good that 
     one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
                                                                                         Lamentations 3:21-26, NRSV

My prayer is that the people of Aurora, Colorado may come to this understanding of God's love in their life more quickly than slowly.  The cruel act of one individual has changed their lives for the worse.  It would be easy to become hardened and bitter to the world because of it.  Bitterness is a disease that seems to spread so easily.  

The gunman surely was bitter.  

My hope is that they do not learn from him but rather rise up in spite of him.  But in the meantime, we weep and gnash our teeth with them, just as God surely does.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Freedom and Faith

As I work on Sunday's sermon, I'm using the text from Mark 6:1-13 where Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth.  The language has always fascinated me from verse 5, "he was unable to do any miracles there".

The Revised Standard Version states, "...he could do no mighty works there,..."  If you look at Matthew's account of this story, 13:58 states, "...he did not do many mighty works there,..."  Scholars believe that Matthew's Gospel is based upon Mark's and it is interesting to see the language change.  Almost as if Matthew was saying, "He could have done them but he chose not to."

I believe we all have free will - our trouble
begins when we use it to hurt others
or ourselves which is sometimes debatable!
Photo by Beniamin Pop of Romania
But both versions agree it had to do with unbelief.

This really allows us to ask the question, how much do we have to do with our own faith, healing and salvation?

John Calvin's famous TULIP referring to salvation includes the following points:

Total Depravity – the idea that all human beings are in a state of sin (total refers to all people rather than all people are totally evil).  People are unable to choose God because their natures are corrupt and choose self.  Only God can grant this grace to an individual.

Unconditional Election – salvation is not based on merit or works but is entirely the work of God in human beings.

Limited Atonement – only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’ death.

Irresistible Grace – when God desires for someone to be saved, God will make it happen – i.e. overcome resistance or obstacles.  A person cannot resist God.

Perseverance of the Saints – those whom God has chosen for salvation cannot fall away from salvation (once saved, always saved).  Those who backslide were likely not saved to begin with (not those of the elect).

John Wesley followed the tenets of Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch Reformed Theologian of the 16th Century which tended to disagree with the final four points.  As I prepare for worship for Sunday, I looked for an affirmation of faith that incorporated the Arminian understanding dealing with salvation and free will but didn't find anything.  So here's what I wrote.  I invite you to look for the differences in Arminianism and Calvinism:

                    We believe that God is always the initiator in our salvation and refer to this 
                    as prevenient grace.  We have the free will to accept or reject God’s

                    We believe that salvation is authored by God’s grace.  This is a free gift 
                    uninfluenced by human action or merit.  Our salvation comes through our 
                    acceptance of the atoning gift of Jesus Christ and his subsequent Lordship 
                    of our lives.

                    We believe that the love of God and this free grace through cross and 
                    resurrection is for all people.

                    We believe that while God seeks out all people, God does not force our 
                    belief or faith and that this grace may be resisted.

                    We believe that God gives disciples of Jesus Christ the freedom and power 
                    to resist sin but that this is also freedom to reject God’s grace through 
                    persistent, unrepentant sin.

                    We believe that no matter our choices, God continues to love us and will 
                    always seek after us, offering us mercy, grace and salvation.

You can see that free will is essential to this and that we do have control over our choices - even the choice of grace or rejection.  I think that this shows up in this week's gospel lesson.  Clearly the people of Nazareth resist the grace offered in their midst.

So our struggle really becomes, "How do we resist God's grace in our lives and how can we do this less often?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thunder Fever and the Need to Contribute

Piedmont is experiencing Thunder Fever just like most of the metro area (and the rest of the state for that matter).  My kids got me a blue Thunder Finals shirt for Father's Day and I put it on for game three of the finals series that night.

Unfortunately, we lost the game.  I hesitated wearing it for game four; wanting to change up my habits in case it had become unlucky.  I mean we shot 62% from the free throw line that night when the season average was 82%.  Twenty percent is a major dip that cost us the game!

Okay, I realize that my new shirt didn't lose us the game.

And since I wanted to show my appreciation to my kids, I wore it again last night.

James Harden, NBA's Sixth Man
of the Year by Keith Allison, wikicommons
But then James Harden shot only 20% in that game after shooting 49% for the season.  Now we are facing elimination on Thursday night.

I along with many other folks around Oklahoma are a little bummed.

So the question is: do I wash the Thunder shirt and wear it again tomorrow or do I leave it in the laundry pile?

Human beings feel the need to contribute to the outcomes that affect their lives.  We don't like feeling helpless.  We don't like simply watching the world go by.

But unless we fly to Miami, buy a ticket and cheer wildly for the Thunder, we are likely not effecting the game play much of our favorite team.  Oh sure, you can talk overall morale of the team being infected by the enthusiasm of the environment they live in but in the big picture, we are not taking those shots.

As a pastor, I see the similarities with God's grace.  We want so much to earn our grace. We want to be worthy recipients.  We want to tip God's hand into acting on our behalf. But in the end, grace is God's to dispense.

In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus suggests that we are not to determine who is worthy but that we should leave this job up to God.

I've had people ask me "why" in regards to illness or loss in their lives.  Some feel guilty over some sin they had committed and wonder if the two things are connected.

Jesus seemed to answer this as well by talking about the people who died when a tower fell on them.  He said they weren't being punished for their sins.  It just happened.

That's our trouble.  We don't like it when things just happen.  We like to pretend we are in control.

But sometimes superstars miss free throws.

Sometimes referees miss calls.

And for good or bad, I'm along for the ride in spite of the fact that I won't have an effect on the outcome of the next game.

But I may not have time to do laundry before it gets here...

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Holy Spirit at Work

Ever felt like you couldn't catch a break?

Sometimes I resonate with the old Hee Haw song, "Gloom, despair and agony on me!"

But more often, I live with a quiet confidence that God is working through me and in spite of me and all around me.  This Saturday, I officiated at the wedding of Alex Howell and Curtis Getz.  Alex has been in the church since I confirmed her as a sixth grader so it was a special joy for me to share with them.

At the rehearsal, we had some electrical problems - there was a storm the night before and not all of the power was working - you didn't want air conditioning at the church on a Saturday afternoon in June, did you?  Is it okay if the florescent lights flicker on and off? Just pretend they are Christmas lights!

Our Trustees Chairperson, Dan Rempe, came out and got to work.

In the meantime, we had the rehearsal and everything went well.  After we finished, feeling good about the ceremony which is now only hours away, I casually reminded the bride and groom to bring their marriage license to the church the next day so that I could fill it out.

Instead of "Of course, Sam," I received some blank stares.

"You did stop by the courthouse this week to pick it up didn't you?"

"Umm... Curtis just flew in this afternoon."

Curtis serves in the Air Force and they hadn't had time to pick it up.

At this point, it was after 5 pm and I knew the courthouse would be closed.  It wouldn't reopen until Monday.

"We can still have the ceremony and we'll have to pick up the license on Monday.  You'll both have to be there because you'll both need to sign it."

But this didn't work either because he was flying back for duty - leaving on Sunday morning.

Imagine being a young couple just trying to get married on a tight schedule, knowing that relatives were already here from out of town.  What do you do?

It is at this point that we see how connections can work for good.  I believe that God works through our connections - our relationships with one another.  God is working for good in our lives.

Lois Dickerson was there helping out.  She was there because she served the church as a greeter.  She happened to see Alex at church the week before (Alex teaches one of our children's Sunday school classes) and Alex invited her to the wedding.  So Lois came to help out where needed that evening.

Lois's brother-in-law is Judge Ken Dickerson of Piedmont and so I asked for the number and I called him for advice.

After explaining the situation, he said that he knew the Canadian County Clerk, Marie Ramsey.  He would contact her and call me back.

Judge Dickerson called back and reported that she was waiting in El Reno for the couple if they would leave now.  I relayed this information to them and they hit the road (obeying all traffic laws I'm sure).

Amazingly, they managed to get their license.  The electricity was also fixed and in working order for the wedding (yeah for air condition!).  The ceremony was beautiful and everyone was happy.

At the reception, the DJ was a no-show.  But the guests pooled their Ipods and got the music going on their own.  "DJ?  We don't need no stinkin' DJ!"

Curtis and Alex Getz signing their marriage license.
All of this goes to show how things can work out for the good when we work through our relationships.  Some say that this is just humanity at work and I agree but the mystic in me adds that it is also more.  The Holy Spirit works in our lives through the Body of Christ.

It would have worked even if they didn't get the license.  They would have had the ceremony and Alex would have had to fly to South Carolina where they would have had a justice of the peace sign their license.  Messier and not ideal at all but do-able.  But it did work out.  The cool thing is now they have a great story to share with future generations.

This reminds me to remember how God is at work in our lives.  For my good as well as yours.  It also reminds me that connections are important and helpful.

How is your activity within the Body of Christ?

We are stronger with you than without you!

And I believe you are stronger with us than without us.

But that is just my faith talking...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I Spoke Too Soon

I really felt like my previous blog post, "No Guarantees" was late in arrival because General Conference is getting farther and farther in our rear view mirrors.  It had been written but commitments to the church, the annual conference and our United Methodist camps kept me from refining it for publication.  

Now, I wish I had procrastinated in releasing it for another twenty-four hours.  I would have seen the announcement by General Conference Secretary Reist stating:

The Book of Discipline 2012 does not eliminate security of appointment for elders.           The amendments to paragraph 334 that would have mirrored the changes in 337 were not supported by the committee.  They were not voted on in the plenary.  The language of 334.1, “Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop provided that if the elder is appointed to serve in an affiliated relationship in a missionary conference (¶ 586) and that appointment is terminated by the bishop who presides in the missionary conference, then the responsibility for meeting this obligation rests with the bishop of the conference of which the elder is a member.” remains in effect.   
There's already been some hand-wringing by the Ministry and Higher Education committee members since the intent was to eliminate "guaranteed appointments" from the Discipline.  However, we don't operate by intent, we operate by church law.  The bishops interpret the church law for each conference.  The Judicial Council decides if the bishops have done so correctly.
The new language states that the bishops may recommend an elder to transitional leave which is a newly expanded clergy status that was recommended by the Ministry and Higher Education committee and adopted on the consent calendar (Item 358).  
My guess is that the Council of Bishops will rule that an elder put on transitional leave under its (now) expanded role is their appointment.  They are "appointed" to transitional leave.  
So the Judicial Council will be forced to decide if paragraph 334.1 continues security of appointment or not.   
Whether this stands or not, the General Conference did eliminate the security of appointment for Associate Members (Item 352 of the Consent Calendar).
What will tomorrow bring?

Monday, June 11, 2012

No Guarantees

Guaranteed Appointments in the United Methodist Church have gone by the wayside as of this January.  The General Conference did this in response to the shrinking of the denomination in the United States.  A way to trim the fat so to speak.

As we see resources diminishing, we have this hypothesized number of clergy who are deemed ineffective.  Until the end of the year, clergy are guaranteed to be appointed full-time as long as they don't do anything considered drastic.  There are some who seem to shrink their churches at a much faster rate than the majority of the clergy experiencing the same thing (around 2/3 of the Oklahoma churches have declined over the past five years). But unless they actually do something chargeable, the annual conference where their membership is located must continue to appoint them.

Now all this has changed.  A bishop can appoint to less than full time status or not at all.

For years, our anxiety around the shrinking numbers across the United States has been targeted at the clergy.  We've shifted the sieve further and further up the process of becoming clergy.

It used to be the fault of the Board of Ordained Ministry for letting in all these lazy malcontents.

Then it was the District Committee on Ministry's fault: "They never should have been sent to the Board of Ministry in the first place!"

Then it was the Local Church: "Don't recommend anyone for ministry that you wouldn't want coming back to serve your church!"

And so we've made the process more and more labyrinthine due to the fact that once they were in, we couldn't really get rid of them.

Now that the guarantee is gone, it seems that we should begin to look to ease up on our requirements.  I still believe that an educated clergy group is the best pool from which we can pick to serve our churches.  But I also know that there is a lot (and I mean a lot) of paperwork our candidates are required to do on the front end.  My cred: I've served as the Vice-Chairperson for the Board of Ordained Ministry and I currently chair our District Committee on Ministry.

I think about how much I learned in my first year of appointment.  It seems that we might begin to shape the process to allow people to try out the ministry at a quicker pace.  As we see the fruits of their labor, we can move them along through the process toward ordination.  If we discern that this may not be the way God is calling them to serve the church, we can gently move them into a different direction.

All of this could be done at the candidacy end.  People could become certified as candidates for ordained ministry much quicker than they are now.  This would allow them to attend Local Pastor's Licensing School and serve as either full time or part-time local pastors before going on to ordination.

Interestingly enough, local pastors were never guaranteed an appointment in the first place.

What can we do to attract young people to a position that is being asked to grow a church in a system that is shrinking overall?  We've taken away their guarantee to an appointment.  We've cut pension benefits in order to be more fiscally responsible.  Our health benefits seem to be less benefit for more cost each year.  The best answer may be letting them try it out to see if this really is their call.

I actually believe that this would be beneficial because of the God factor.  I am called to be a pastor by God.  I am called to do so regardless of the benefits or even the guarantee.  In this vocation, I have found not only joy and peace but my very identity.  An ordained Elder is who I am.  My hunch is that there are plenty of others who feel the same way.

Allow people to experience the ministry and if they are called to do it, they may also discover that this is fundamental to their being.  Regardless of the guarantee.

Here I am posing with Bryan and Angela Tener at Bryan's ordination this year.
They are obviously impressed with getting to take a picture with me.  I first met Bryan when
he was starting the process - about the same time that Q was being written down.  I guarantee that
Bryan is a minister with a bright future in the Oklahoma Conference!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Anxiety and the General Conference

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

                 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

This could describe the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.  There's been a lot of anxiety over what we accomplished but maybe more anxiety over what we didn't.

The Call to Action received some major support by some heavy hitters in United Methodism.  A lot of bishops put their stamp of approval on it.  Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke out for it before and during General Conference.  He even showed a video interviewing a woman who was closing her church.  The implication was that this is where all our churches are heading if we don't get it together.

I saw and probably did a lot of this while in Tampa.
Picture by Julia Freeman-Woolpert, Concord, New Hampshire
It was stated by Rev. Hamilton as well as many others that what we do with the structure of the General Agencies really won't make or break the denomination.  The future lies at the local church level.  These moments of clarity didn't subdue our anxiety though.

I'm wondering if the fact that the majority of our leadership is coming from the Baby Boomer generation makes a difference in the level of anxiety.  They've always had the biggest numbers and they may be concerned about their legacy.  But schools have closed due to changing population dynamics and churches are now experiencing some of the same.

The Call to Action failed to secure enough ground support to pass.  And yet there was a great pressure to change due to the impending population shift within our denomination.  Basically, we have aged as a people.  The majority of our churches are old.  Everyone's looking ahead ten or twenty years and all we can see is tumbleweeds blowing around our sanctuaries.

Plans to change our structure abounded.  The Methodist Federation for Social Action was the first group to fire a shot across the bow with their own plan.  Then a collection of lay and clergy largely from the Southeastern Jurisdiction put forward Plan B.

None of these passed through the General Administration committee.  Those serving on other committees seemed to be shocked that no new plan passed and would be presented with majority support.  Derogatory comments were made about the committee members as if they were less holy or intelligent than the rest of us for not being able to get something - anything - passed.

The Set aside Bishop did not pass (more distrust of our bishops) but guaranteed appointments were done away with (distrust of the competency of our clergy as well as our laity - where do we think clergy come from in the first place?).  

A hybrid Plan UMC was thrown together and brought to the floor of General Conference (we suspended the rules to do so).  It passed with a strange feeling among the delegation.  No one was really happy with the plan and yet the anxiety generated leading up to the General Conference left many feeling that we needed to do something (even if we weren't really sure what we were passing).

Then the Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC unconstitutional and we had to scramble.  We passed the original General Agency proposals to restructure their own bodies.  Not as sweeping but it did cut the budget to what our projected income would bear over the next four years.

The feeling leaving General Conference was unusual.  For the first time, legislation was left on the table without seeing debate on the floor.  The current structure stayed basically intact.  We didn't add any over-site to the General Agencies which didn't help the mistrust of them (which may be a carry-over of the distrust of big government by the US delegates). 

There's been a lot of blog posts lamenting our lack of movement.  There's been a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I'm not sure why anyone who's studied systems theory was surprised.  This was a demonstration of the main tenet:

      Systems resist change.

We saw the same thing in 2008 when the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposals passed General Conference (barely) and then failed to secure the two-thirds support needed by the annual conferences.  

We see that change is needed by the population dynamics but we are unable to agree on what that change should look like.  And yet change will come.  

It will likely come at the ground level.  Churches will learn to successfully share the gospel with a changing society and they will grow or they won't and they will close.  Unfortunately, there will be more closings than growth.  But we will survive.

And this will facilitate change.  

We may have forgotten that God is a part of this process.  We believe that God precedes us wherever we go.  That includes what we do as a denomination.

I shared a devotion with our Annual Conference Council leading up to General Conference.  It was about when Elijah thought he was the only faithful one.  Then God informed him that there were 7000 faithful subjects left (which indicates the perfect number left to accomplish God's designs).  Elijah remembered that something larger than himself was a part of the change.

He learned to trust in God and not worry.

A Tale of Two Cities ends with revolution but it also ends with sacrifice for the greater good.  If we can learn to trust in what Christ has taught us about this, we will be fine.

The church will look different but that is to be expected.  

We're better off leading out of confidence rather than anxiety.

It is a confidence that God is out in front which really is the best of times.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

One Year Later

When I was driving to the church this morning, the sky had an eerie yellow cast.  Not something any of the survivors of last year's tornado in Piedmont would take comfort from.    Luckily, the skies are looking a little more cheerful as the day progresses.
Garrett Rempe of Piedmont First United Methodist Church
helping with debris removal.

I met with the Central Oklahoma Recovery Effort (CORE) at 10 am as we continue to try to help with the final cases in our communities.  We've done some good work but sometimes it seems to move frustratingly slow.  I chastise myself when I realize that my frustration is only a small fraction of what the affected families are feeling. 

My thoughts dealing with the theology of this event have been published by the new Piedmont Daily website (which I will be contributing to on a monthly basis).

As families continue to recover and put their lives back together, they enter what we call a new normal.  Nothing ever goes back to the way it was and that is to be expected.  When large events happen, we are changed.  My hope as a pastor is that the majority of the families will be able to change for the better - that they will be stronger and more confident.  

They will know that they can get through tough times and they will hopefully realize that God worked in their lives to help them along the way.  

As you read this please say a prayer for the Oklahoma families whose lives were altered last year - and a prayer for bluer skies wouldn't hurt either!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Those Dinosaurs Never Saw It Coming

Well, I've spent nearly two weeks of my life in Tampa at the United Methodist General Conference which occurs every four years.  During this time, delegates from around the world get together and try to figure out how we can best be the church to a variety of places and cultures.

One of the ways I've tried to push us was toward better communication for some of our denominational publications.  I suggested that several things be available for free download such as our Book of Discipline, Book of Resolutions and the Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation which are written for our various local church committees and based on the structure we put forth at each General Conference.

The dinosaurs were surprised by an extinction event 65
million years ago.  We can see ours coming and might just
avoid it if we can take appropriate steps.
The first two books are documents that are produced by the action of the General Conference.  We own these as a denomination and I believe that they should be shared as widely as possible.  The only argument against releasing these for free is that it would cut into sales by our publishing house (Cokesbury).  Currently, you must purchase the print copy or a CD-ROM edition or pay a subscription fee to view them online.

Now let me make this clear: As cheap as I am, I'm not worried about paying for my own Book of Discipline.  I will continue to purchase a printed copy.  However, I am thinking about the generations coming after me who have certain expectations when it comes to online availability.   One of my youth serving on our local church youth council and involved in our conference youth programs, recently searched online for something within the Book of Discipline and came away realizing that it was not easily accessible to him.

It's not that he couldn't afford the $14 subscription fee - but he was left wondering why his church was charging for this information in the first place.

We want you to follow our polity and know our rules but we're going to charge you to do it.

In a business analogy, it would be like charging employees to buy copies of their personnel policies or worse yet, their organizational goals and vision.

The Conferences Committees agreed that the Book of Discipline should be available online but removed the word "free" from the legislation which simply adds more words to the Book of Discipline without really changing anything.  The General Conference ran out of time before this piece made it to the floor for discussion.

The Guidelines mentioned above actually passed on the consent calendar but was then later removed and referred to the publishing house because of the financial implications. A publishing house representative shared that it would cost around $100,000 to produce these electronic files and that Cokesbury (our United Methodist bookstore) would lose $1.1 million in sales (you can watch the drama unfold here at about the 1:05:30 mark).

I believe that these were inflated numbers presented so that the body would vote to do nothing.  If the production number is true, we need to reevaluate how our publishing house is spending its money.  The Guidelines should be written by agency staff and so we shouldn't need to pay a royalty fee to anyone.  They are based on information directly from the Book of Discipline which we own.  Currently, no author is listed on the individual booklets (at least online).

Furthermore, they already produce electronic documents of the Guidelines.  Downloads cost $2.65 each compared to $2.95 for the print version.  Any printed material is produced electronically before it is published so that is basically a sunk cost.

We need to get creative here.  How much does Cokesbury spend on advertising? Sending out all those multiple catalogs to churches is pretty expensive.  If the Guidelines were available as a free download, you would have multiple hits on the Cokesbury site as churches acquired their copies.  In fact, you might have 27 different people from each church going to the Cokesbury site for their particular committee responsibility. Cokesbury ad banners for related materials for purchase would probably more than make up for any lost revenue that the Guidelines would produce.

Electronic sales on our website is the future for our publishing house (just ask Borders Bookstores).  If we offer enough hooks free material through our website, it will generate loyalty as well as multiple hits.  If we overcharge for everything, today's consumer will find it cheaper elsewhere and might never venture back to our publishing website.

The petition on free Guidelines was referred to the publishing house.  My hope is that this will help them to take a serious look at not only how we do business in today's world, but how we communicate effectively.

Which I think is the purpose of having a publishing house in the first place, isn't it?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lamenting with God

Lament: to feel, show, or express grief, sorrow or regret.  To mourn deeply.

There are many psalms of lament.  These are soul searching Psalms such as Psalm 42. The author is clearly in a lot of pain - probably a Gen Xer.  

This comes through in verses 9-10:

       I will say to God, my solid rock,
             “Why have you forgotten me?
         Why do I have to walk around,
         sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10      With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
             constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”

Clearly, the depth of our anguish can be communicated with God.  While listening to Pandora on Friday, I came across a song I hadn't heard before called Laughing With by Regina Spektor.

Here's the official video:

The song may mean different things to different people but my take is that we don't have the luxury of laughing at God when we are in grave need.  When things are going well, we may not feel a need for spiritual connection with God - we are masters of our domain.

Spirituality can go to the back burner and some can even laugh at the notion of God.

But when we're in the foxhole so to speak, we find that we do need strength from somewhere greater than ourselves.  Like what the Psalmist is looking for.

The song also pokes fun at the hyper-religious who carry around poor theology - seeing God as Santa Claus or seeing people as objects of God's hate.

The people in Woodward, Oklahoma are suffering today.  They have experienced loss in profound ways and no one is laughing at God there tonight.  I'll pray for them and I would invite you to do the same.  When the time is right, we'll go and put feet to our prayers.

Maybe then we can laugh with God together as we see resurrection come out of their cross.  I think I've seen that before - somewhere close.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Daily Devotion for Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012

Scripture Reading for Today: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Key Verse for Today: 1 Corinthians 15:10a, "I am what I am by God's grace, and God's grace hasn't been for nothing."

Today is Easter Sunday!  Technically, my Lenten devotion of writing daily devotions ended yesterday but it seemed somehow wrong to quit before Easter.  We've been leading up to... what, exactly?  You can't just stop on the Saturday before.

My hope is to continue to write on this blog.  Probably not daily but I'll try to keep it fairly current.  I'll have more options for the subject matter as well as I won't be self-restricted to the daily common lectionary!

But I digress.  We're here on Easter Sunday and we are celebrating the resurrection.  I included Paul's discourse on the resurrection rather than the Gospels because I don't think it's as well known.

Three Marys at the Tomb
by William Bouguereau.  They experienced
resurrection differently than Paul and
likely differently than you or me.
Paul shares with us that this is all about God's grace.  He recognizes that he walks by grace - pardoned for sins that strike against his new-found faith.  You can tell that Paul is still wrestling with the acceptance of this grace.

And don't we all?

There are many times we believe in our unworthiness more than in the grace we receive.

Paul shows us that this is foolishness.  It is a waste of the grace.

He could have given up but he went on to be an apostle for Jesus Christ.  In fact, we likely wouldn't be attending to our daily devotions if not for Paul's persistence.

The resurrection continues to shape our lives - how we live and what we live for.

It is grace that has already come to us but it is grace that is also still yet to come.

On many levels.

I like the Modest Mouse song, "Float On" for these lyrics:

        I backed my car into a cop car the other day
       Well he just drove off - sometimes life's okay
       I ran my mouth off a bit too much - oh what did I say?
       Well you just laughed it off - it was all okay
       And we'll all float on okay

The song is overtly positive - acknowledging that grace happens in various ways.  There are times when things work out even though they shouldn't.

Paul shared that with the church at Corinth and he's sharing it with us.

If we believed it for ourselves, what could we accomplish?

Breath Prayer: Risen Christ, thank you for your grace.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Daily Devotion for Holy Saturday, April 7, 2012

Scripture Reading for Today: John 19:38-42

Key Verse from today's reading: John 19:39, "Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too.  He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all."

The devil is in the details.

I thought I had heard that phrase all my life but according to Wikipedia (citing Google's ngram function), it didn't appear in print until 1975.

It likely comes from the original phrase, "God is in the detail."

Do we ever experience God in the detail work that must be done?

Whenever I assist a family when there's been a death, there can be so many things to do.

A funeral home must be located.  Caskets or urns are selected.  Cemetery plots sometimes need to be purchased.  Cremation or burial?  Were they an organ donor? Who's going to pick out the clothes they will wear to the funeral?  Will it be open or closed casket?  Who will speak?  What should go in the obituary and who has all that critical life information written down?  Which newspapers will we submit it to?

Have all the family members been contacted?  Even those that have been estranged?

Did they have a will?  We need to get death certificates to start closing down or changing over accounts.

The details can be overwhelming.

But they can also keep us going.  These things have to be done and they keep us moving in our grief.  Maybe during these times, God is in the details.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem - a possible site where
Jesus may have been buried.
Nicodemus was a pharisee. He originally didn't want anyone to see him meeting with Jesus so he came to him at night.  Now he is attending his body.

I wonder if he felt guilty and thought, "I should have done more while he was alive."

Sometimes our lives seem to pass us by and we wonder what it is that we've been attending to.  Are we tending to our faith or has it passed us by as well?

God might indeed be in the details but unless we stop to notice, we might never acknowledge it.

What can you do to look for God more often in the everyday?

Breath Prayer: Loving Lord, help me tend to you.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Daily Devotion for Good Friday, April 6, 2012

Scripture Reading for Today: Psalm 22

Key Verse from today's reading: Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you left me all alone?  Why are you so far from saving me - so far from my anguished groans?"

The first time I visited the hospital as the pastor for a person who was dying was a scary experience.  This man was a senior citizen and had cancer.  I had visited with him in the home.  He and his wife knew that he was dying and we talked and prayed together.

After getting the call that he had been hospitalized and would likely not make it through the night, I drove into Enid to be with both of them.  I still remember vividly the drive over there - how I prayed for God to give me the right words to share.

This was not my first trip to the hospital.  I had already been there for myself several times for various injuries and surgeries.  I had been for family members.  My grandfather died when I was only 8 years old and we went to the hospital when he was dying but I wasn't allowed in the room back then.

I had been as a youth minister to visit kids with broken arms and even went with the senior pastor to visit others from the congregation to learn on the job so to speak.

But I had never visited someone who wasn't expected to recover.

They ushered me into the hospital room.  He wasn't really conscious and his breathing was labored.  I prayed with them and hoped that it would provide him some comfort in his passing.  After some time in the room, the nurses ushered everyone out but me.  Looking back, I'm still surprised by this outdated policy.  I remember thinking, "Why in the world would they leave me and not his wife?"

I felt inadequate.

When we feel inadequate, we turn to God.  I prayed for him out loud and tried to envision images of the Gulf of Mexico where they had spent so many good times together.  I mopped his brow with a wet washcloth and tried to keep him comfortable.

He died that night and God welcomed him home.

This book is a good one for understanding
God's work in Christ on the cross.
The pain for his life was over but the pain of his widow was really just beginning. They had spent the majority of their life together and now she had to adjust to living without him.

This is part of the pain of human suffering. We all go through it in our lives as we experience loss or heartache or tragedy. Today is Good Friday when we remember that Jesus experienced rejection and pain and humiliation on the cross.  Today's Psalm reflects so much of the Passion of Jesus as we look back.  When we are honest with our feelings, it unfortunately reflects our own story as well.

Good Friday is an important day to remember our faith in the Trinity.  We see that it is not only Jesus on the cross but God as well.  God experienced rejection and loss and pain as a human being. This helps us not only to bear it ourselves but to represent God to others when they suffer.

And amazingly enough - even when we feel inadequate - God helps us to help others.

Breath Prayer: Divine Love, work past my fears.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Daily Devotion for Thursday, April 5, 2012

Scripture Reading for Today: Exodus 12:1-14

Key Verse for today: Exodus 12:13, "The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live.  Whenever I see the blood, I'll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt."

I remember my Dad taking me to the altar at the New Life Center Assembly of God Church in Tulsa as a small child.  It was for Holy Communion.  We had the little white wafers that don't have much taste but there was also a little thimble-sized glass cup of grape juice.  I had previously watched the elements of Communion pass me by on Sundays when it had been given in the pews.  On this Sunday, Dad broke his wafer in half and gave me half his cup of grape juice.  He tried to explain to me that this was a time of prayer and that we were communing with God.

Picture from Grace United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas
I tried to take it seriously and I did pray.  It felt good to have that time with my dad.  I think my good feeling was mostly about being included and I certainly didn't understand that this sacrament was a new covenant based on the Jewish Passover.

What does Holy Communion mean with this talk of eating the body of Christ and drinking the blood of Christ? At a young age, it seemed kind of cannibalistic in a way.  Later I came to understand this more metaphorically.  We talk about the spiritual presence of Christ rather than the elements physically transforming into the actual body and blood of Jesus.  It sounds pretty literal in John's Gospel when you read chapter 6.  

Bruce Chilton in his Rabbi Jesus, theorizes that Jesus began to share in these holy feasts as an alternative to the perceived corrupt worship in the Temple.  In the animal sacrifices made in the Temple, flesh and blood are offered on behalf of the individuals to God. According to Chilton, when Jesus says "this is my blood" (wine) and "this is my flesh" (bread), he is equating the holy meal as a substitute for Temple worship rather than asking people to envision eating of his actual flesh and blood.

Holy Communion is a sacrament that is a representation of the sacrifice of Christ according to our official United Methodist doctrine.  Yet it is more than a remembrance through our belief in the living Christ present within the elements of bread and juice.  It is this spiritual presence that unites with us so that we may be a holy and living sacrifice for God.  We are reminded in Communion that we covenant to give our lives to God.

As we celebrate this Holy Thursday today, there are likely opportunities in your area to celebrate the Lord's Supper.  John Wesley called Holy Communion a "means of grace" and thought it was helpful for Christians to partake whenever it is offered.

What does Holy Communion mean for your faith?

Breath Prayer: Holy Lord, live in me today.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Daily Devotion for Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Scripture Reading for Today: John 13:21-32

Key verse for today: John 13:26, "Jesus answered, 'It’s the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped into the bowl.' Then he dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son." 

Judas is the disciple whose very name is a synonym for betrayal.

The Judas Kiss by Gustave Dore' 1866
Recent treatment of Judas has been varied.  Mel Gibson's The Passion takes the harshest view.  In the film, after Judas betrays Jesus, he begins a descent into madness.  He sees the local children as demons who are tormenting him until he hangs himself.

Matthew's Gospel records the hanging but the demonic visions are the embellishment of Gibson.  

The Acts of the Apostles also tells about the death of Judas and the details are a little different if not more grisly.

The 1988 Martin Scorsese film, "The Last Temptation of Christ" was controversial for many reasons - one of which was his portrayal of Judas as a faithful disciple who only betrays Jesus because he is instructed by him to do so.  

Interestingly enough, this was essentially the portrayal of Judas in the 2006 rediscovery of a lost text entitled, The Gospel of Judas.  This is a Gnostic text considered heretical by the church.  It focuses on the spiritual nature being good while the earthly body is considered evil.  Within this text, Jesus seeks to escape the earthly bonds and Judas is the one to help him with this through his turning Jesus over to the authorities.

Both of these views of Judas stray from the New Testament's teaching.

I wonder if this is out of some sense of empathy for Judas.  Is is because we can't imagine someone who studied with Jesus - who spent so much time with Jesus - being able to turn against him for mere money?

We would like to invent a back story that helps to explain it.

Maybe we can see ourselves in Judas when we really look.  Are there ways in which we betray Jesus through our actions today?  A tough question but this is the Lenten season.  We may wonder if there is really any redemption for Judas because we are actually wondering if there is redemption for ourselves.

In actuality, the Gospel of Matthew mentions that Judas repents (reread the above Matthew link).  Did Jesus forgive Judas along with his other tormentors when he prayed, "Forgive them Father, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34)?

I like to hold out hope for Judas because I hold out hope for all of us. And it says something about the nature and mercy of God.  After all, Jesus did teach us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Breath Prayer: O Lamb of God, have mercy upon me.