Archive for July 2013

Hosea 11:4

I could not choose! In Hosea, God speaks of his constant love for his people with the tender image, “ those who lift infants to their cheeks” (11:4). In Luke, Jesus speaks right to our Kardashian-crazed country by talking about a rich landowner who builds bigger barns in the hope that he can make his ‘soul’ happy (12:13-21). In both the Old and New Testament, you hear God pleading with those whom he has blessed with luxury to not forget their maker. Jesus speaks of wealth as an extreme impediment. Those with money have as much chance of praying sincerely as I have of winning the lottery. Hosea hears God complaining that He has done everything He could to bring his people into a healthy spiritual relationship, but they have chosen instead to run after Baal (see The Sound of Silence).  For us in 2013, middle-class wealth is the new Baal. We worry more about our 401k than about our spiritual condition. We tear down our old pension barns and build new ones saying, “Soul, now you will be happy in retirement” (Luke 12:19).


A recent survey found that only 28% of Americans with between $1 million and $5 million in investable assets consider themselves wealthy. I was incredulous, until I put this in the context of the people that I know and have ministered to over the years. It is a common thing in middle class America for a 65 year old who has worked in midlevel management, been a teacher, nurse, or shop owner, to have accumulated over a million dollars in pension, property, and real assets. As I name individuals in my mind, it does not seem far fetched for three quarters of them not to think of themselves as wealthy. We have become blind to the abundance of our lives.


If we cannot see our own state of wealth, we also cannot see our own state of spiritual poverty. I  can’t remember the sermon that I heard two weeks ago, even though I remember telling the preacher at the time how excellent it was. Last night I saw in my basement a device that five years ago I paid $200 for and it failed the week after its warranty expired. I remember verbatim the hours of customer service calls that I made. The object has not been pitched, but remains in my basement as a memorial of my hatred for that brand. Yet, I can’t remember a spiritual issue that I have confronted with equal zeal over the last five years. Baal has a way of asserting its priority, while the Lord God wonders why we drift away.


Einstein taught us that massive objects, like our sun, have the ability to bend light. Spiritually massive objects, like money, bend the light of God’s love away from our eyes. In a similar way, poverty, loneliness, sickness, and the naked love of the soul, bend our hearts into alignment with the Holy One. What is radical and needs to be remembered in the church, is the way Jesus always spoke about wealth as a mortal danger. Camels can’t make it through needles to save their souls.

Jesus' statistics on rich people in heaven
Which is first pre-evangelism or low spiritual passion?

Last week’s post on Pre-Evangelism has generated a “which came first...” type of question. Does a congregation spiral down and become incapable of gathering in new people because it lacks Spiritual Passion?  -- or -- Does the poorly led, non-evangelistic, and/or unattractive church naturally become less passionate about spiritual things?


Jesus says something interesting about this. Just after his famous lesson on prayer, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).  Logically, every time we encounter a church with low spiritual passion we are dealing with a failure to ask for Spiritual Passion. Note the contrast: We are never promised that if we pray, God will answer by making our congregation richer, more attractive to young families, and more likely to maintain good pastoral leadership. The Bible doesn’t tell pastors that if they pray hard enough, their church will grow. Instead, we are promised that prayer will always lead to a more fulfilling spiritual life. As individuals, this means that God’s grace and Holy Spirit will become personally real and guide us through all things. As congregations this means that God’s spirit will enter into every aspect of our church life; adding efficacy to our prayers, relevance to our study of the scriptures, joy to our witness, and inspiration to our worship. Who wouldn’t want that?


Obviously, some churches and many individuals don’t want the Holy Spirit. I think Jesus spoke the promise of Luke 11:13 with an ironic smile. The Father is willing to give, but we aren’t as willing to receive. This is the human reality that painfully unfolds in the story of Jesus’ passion on the cross.


There are hundreds of books published each year on how to become a more win-some and evangelistic church. It is obviously a skill that can be mastered. Given the right leadership and sufficient funds, any church can: improve its facilities, change its location, increase its visibility, raise the quality of its worship, manifest high-hospitality, and become more attractive to generation x or y, etc. The Holy Spirit, however, is a gift. The good news is that this gift is freely given to all who ask. The bad news is that the Holy Spirit always takes us in new and unpredictable directions. The Holy Spirit has a reputation for creating more problems than it solves, consider the story of the Stoning of Stephen (Acts 6 & 7). High Spiritual Passion led directly to the blacklisting of the institutional church in Jerusalem and the scattering of its leaders (Acts 8:1).


It is not God’s desire or plan to make every congregation grow like Willowcreek, but it is in the nature of the Holy Spirit to make our hearts more sensitive to our own need to witness and the unchurched seeker’s need to know about Jesus. Congregations who cease to care about meeting the spiritual needs of the lost are rightfully termed, “pre-evangelical.” They will exhibit all the characteristics of low Spiritual Passion (see Ezekiel’s Bones), even though they may put on a good outward appearance. Some of the nicest churches of our denomination are stuck in this sorry state. The are not in danger of dying, just in danger of becoming un-Christian.


By way of contrast, our desire is to have a safe and surefire plan to make our church attractive to the right people. We want our facilities improved, our budget met, and the quality of our church leadership guaranteed. If there is a prerequisite to the promise of the Holy Spirit that Jesus makes in Luke 11:13, it is that we be willing to have our priorities reordered. Thy will be done. To answer the old Chicken and Egg question; the failure to be passionate about our need for the Holy Spirit does precede a congregation’s decline into pre-evangelism. It is the root that needs to be addressed at every turn.

additional author: 
Joe Fort, Texas Conference UMC
Genesis 18:20-32
John 15:15

The story of Abraham praying for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared deserves to be preached, if for no other reason that it demonstrates how to argue with God. When I counsel couples before marrying them, I tell them that our second session will be devoted to the subject of how to have a good argument. “But, we don’t argue,” they say. “Then you can’t be married.” In a similar vein, arguing with God is an important skill to be developed for a long term relationship.


The story of Abraham praying for Sodom and Gomorrah begins with God saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? If Abraham’s people are to bless all of humanity on God’s behalf, then God will need to be transparent with him. One is reminded of how Jesus during the last supper told his disciples that he wasn’t going to treat them as servants who didn’t know what God was up to, instead he would call them ‘friends’ (John 15:15). This is why I think of the conversation between Abraham and God over the fate of the two cities as prayer taken to the next level. It allows us to say that prayer is not about getting God to do things for us. Instead, it is about relationship. We seek to become the kind of friends with God who can speak honestly and listen deeply.


Abraham’s boldness is born out of his deep understanding of God. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he respond by giving them a formula. Everything else that Jesus says and does, however, points to prayer as honest discussion. Jesus makes it simple because the disciples weren’t ready for much more. What he really wished for them, and for us, was the ability to pray like Abraham. Are we willing to take prayer to the next level?


The surprising thing, that also needs mentioned, is that the subject of Abraham’s prayer was two cities deeply caught in sin. Abraham mistakenly believed that there were some good people in those places. Abraham’s heart, like Gods, is for people to be redeemed not punished. Notice, however, that Abraham could have simply prayed for his nephew’s family to get out safely. Abraham’s love, however, is for the stranger. He cares for those who, without his intervention, wouldn’t be saved. Abraham was a true evangelist. The wretchedness of his neighbors’ lifestyle didn’t diminish the value of their souls. 


This might also be a good time to do your due diligence in biblical research. Genesis 18 is pivotal in the church’s ongoing debate regarding homosexuality. Note that the chapter begins by showing the hospitality of Abraham towards strangers. In contrast, the chief sin of Sodom was the way they abused everyone they could. The preference that men of Sodom had for other men is a minor issue, compared to their violence and lack of hospitality. Similarly careful examination of other Bible passages reveals God’s overarching concern that we treat all people justly and prevent the weak from being preyed upon by the strong. Like Abraham, we have to seek God’s blessings upon all people, even those whose customs seem peculiar to us.

Abraham in the movies
Eminent Domain & Shame-based Churches

There once was a town that was scheduled to be flooded when the new dam was built. Suits from the government came and explained why and how these people’s homes were to be bought (or taken by eminent domain) and there was nothing they could, or should, do about it. Watch now. Within days, there was a change. Some people stopped mowing their grass. Contractor's signs ceased to dot the yards and nobody was buying wallpaper. Within weeks, a rattier appearance had settled in. It rippled out, even influencing homes distant from the flood zone.


Two years passed before the dam was completed and the first government reimbursed moving van arrived. In that time, the town became almost unlivable. Worse than any ghetto, for here the bustle of the street was muted and natives ceased to talk to strangers. Coffee shop chatter stopped being witty. Home made pies were replaced by Sara Lee. Even the tap water looked cloudy and tasted flat.


Many morals could be drawn from this parable about hope and the power it has to lift us above circumstance and sustain the virtues of a community. In the real world, the care we have for our property manifests our vision for the future. Notice also, that shame or the fear that we are not worthy, can destroy our capacity to maintain current relationships and squelch our desire to form new ones. Obviously, they are building the dam here because our town doesn’t matter. Our church is going to close because we aren’t big enough. The visitors that came this morning won’t be staying because we don’t have much to offer.


A colleague of mine has a word for congregations operating this way; he says that they are in a state of ‘pre-evangelism.’ Before a church can witness and attract new families, they have to reach a certain level of hopefulness and system-wide health. Just having a new preacher in the pulpit won’t do if the nursery is dingy and the parking lot shows potholes of neglect. If the greeters by the door don’t greet and the trustees bicker instead of fixing, it may be that shame has sucked away the spark needed to evangelize your context.


Congregations in pre-evangelism feel overwhelmed. They are stuck in a series of negative feedback loops; the lack of new people means a lack of money to fix things, the lack hope leads to loss of capable leaders, the lack of faith leads to ineffectual praying, a culture of shame diminishes witness, the boredom of facing repetitive problems leads to apathy, but most importantly, a loss of vision (optimism for the future) leads to low Spiritual Passion. This leads me to suggest system wide tools to jump-start congregational health. Such as:


1) Low hanging fruit or “Just fix one thing” -- having the whole congregation focus on one improvement and then celebrate when it happens.


2) Walk the neighborhood -- use some tool that gets people out and asking their neighbors what they need the church to do for them.


3) Radical Rebirth -- close the church doors, spend 50 days in serious prayer, rebirth focusing on what the congregation discerns that the Holy Spirit is saying.  (see Reality Check 101  pp. 187 - 194)


There are many more system-wide tools, but what marks each of them is that they don’t center on a single panacea, such as winning the lottery or receiving a gifted, but cheap, clergy leader. Labeling this state ‘Pre-evangelism’ should help us to see it for what it is, a spiritual issue.

additional author: 
credit Joe Fort, Texas for Pre-evangelism concept
Luke 10:38-42
Amos 8:1-12

Amos gets a vision of Summer fruit (makes you wonder how ‘seasonal’ the Lectionary is in the southern hemisphere) and concludes that religious people can either be very good or utterly rotten. I’ve been picking blue berries as fast as I can this week. Why? Because I failed to keep up with picking the strawberries this year and most of them went rotten. There is nothing more delightful than a strawberry gently culled at its prime.  A day or two later and the strawberry gets soft, then turns black and inedible, unfit even for slugs (fortunately, they prefer beer). So, Amos would say, is the social conscious of our fine church members. Sometimes they can be good and generous and sweet. At other times, they fully blend in with the materialist herd of American culture, “Buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6).


Meanwhile, Jesus is sitting in the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Dinner is being served, and served, and served. After fifteen courses, Jesus perceives that food is message. I was struck by how short this story is. I remembered it being longer. Perhaps it seems longer because we each embroider it with all the times we have either served or received an elaborate meal and known that any negative word spoken in that setting would be multiplied a hundred time. Meals are where we communicate our deepest truths; consider communion, or the significance of a wedding or anniversary meal. The story is short because the message is simple, in life we either live in the moment of grace, or we fret in the kitchen of many worries.


Some Bible scholars are puzzled by the fact that Luke puts the story of Martha’s meal immediately after the Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. After all doesn’t the one teach us to spend our lives stopping to help strangers and being busy doing good, and the other teach us to be lazy like Mary and let someone else do the dishes? Last week I blogged that the point of the Good Samaritan wasn’t that we should be boy-scout-esque do-gooders (Say Something Different About the Good Samaritan).  It was instead that anyone who joins the High-hurry Professional Culture ceases to be much good for the kingdom of God. In other words, if we like Martha get worried and frustrated over many things, we will cease to be compassionate people. We, especially those of us who are ordained or other professional types, are constantly threatened by self imposed expectations that spiral us out of the moment of grace where both authentic spirituality and genuine compassion reside.


Mary was seeking one thing, the language of food so often serves many things. Who sits where at the banquet table? How gluttonous can we be while still being mindful of the poor? What food and drink are permissible (kosher)? If so and so invites me to their house, do I have to reciprocate? If seven groups in the church have fund raisers and I am asked to bake cookies, can I be forgiven for saying No? The reason that Amos was so negative about where his culture had come, which is not far from where we have arrived, is because they were so far from holiness that they couldn’t understand why Mary was right and Martha wrong.


Have you had this experience? Every time I preach the story of Mary and Martha I have some church leader pull me aside and say, “Without us Martha’s nothing would get done around here.” That’s how I know that I am preaching it right. It should make those of us who have stepped over into the high-hurry professional culture very angry. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Like Lazarus, a man fishes for food at the church doorstep
Reality Check 101 - church visioning process

For the last two weeks I have been writing on the impact that the repeal of DOMA will have on denominations that fail to recognize gay marriage, such as the United Methodist (see What Voice Will I Listen To? and DOMA and the UMC). Both of these articles stem from my concern that the Church (capital ‘C’ because I mean the whole Church of Jesus Christ) stand in the proper position regarding popular culture. In this week’s sermon helps ( word), The Good Samaritan, I made the point that Jesus never allowed his ministry to reinforce or provide mythology in support of racism or classism. From Neanderthal times there has been political pressure and social expectations placed upon religious institutions to provide mumbo jumbo (what Marx would call, ‘opiate for the people’) to grease the rails of oppression. One of the major criticisms postmoderns have with organized religion is the way it has historically reinforced and modeled hierarchy, providing a broad spiritual comfort zone for those at the top of society and abandoning the marginalized folk that Jesus commanded us to love.


An additional concern has been racing around in my head: I wonder if church law relating to gay marriage could be disentangled from the issue of gay ordination. I began to ponder this two years ago when an Episcopal colleague of mine astutely said, “We’re ahead of you on this, because no Episcopalian congregation will ever be forced to accept an openly gay pastor even though we now have a gay bishop.” Since then, I have been formulating a yes and no answer that is sure to offend everyone. 


I believe that congregations need to take more ownership and control of their own future. Every congregation should engage in a visioning process and discern the specific vocation that God is calling them to perform in their context. This is why I wrote the Reality Check 101 workbook. With this in mind, I can imagine that a congregation could conceive its ministry to be as a Hospice Church (Spades), caring for an elderly population, and as such be unsuitable setting for an openly gay pastor. Other congregations might discern that their ministry to postmoderns (clubs) or their missional work (hearts) makes them an appropriate setting for a gay pastor. There may also be a large, regional congregation (Diamonds) doing the math and deciding against having an openly gay pastor at this time because of their target demographic.


In each of the above cases, the local church must really do the work of prayerful discernment and prove to its denominational officials that it does have visioning process in place. Sin and prejudice too easily dominates both our ordination and employment process. In the United Methodist Church we have the tradition of holding the individual’s own discernment of their vocation as the primary consideration in the ordination process. We have historically prevented congregations from rejecting pastoral leaders who have a legitimate call to the ministry. I am now going to be radical and say, in today’s postmodern era, the vocation of the congregation trumps the vocation of the clergy person. We can no longer afford to place in pastoral leadership everyone who says, “God called me.” We are entering a time of functional leaders, where local churches will be led by teams who may have only been called to this work for a season in their life and then move on to other occupations. How about that? The end of DOMA is tied to the end of lifelong ordination.

Luke 10:25-37

With cell phones, 911, and AAA Roadside Assistance, the traditional way to preach the Good Samaritan has become a bit threadbare. I believe that Jesus is doing more than simply encouraging us to stop and help those who are in trouble. The story is designed to shine a klieg light (Or should I say halogen light?) on some serious contemporary issues. Have you noticed that both the people who walked by the broken man and the lawyer who invited Jesus to tell the tale were members of the high-hurry professional culture? Jesus, like many postmodern Christians today, is not a big supporter of positional authority. In other words, a person who has a professional title (doctor, professor, boss, reverend, esquire) can’t be assumed to do the right thing just because they have the degree, have passed their exams, or have been ordained.


Elsewhere, Jesus says, “By their fruits you shall know them,” (Matthew 7:15-20). We live in time of medical miracles. Yet, medical professionals are often too busy and too specialized to exhibit basic human concern for the individuals that they treat. They prescribe pills without knowing the life situation of their patient. They dispense advice without spending the time listening and the necessary minutes by the bedside to earn the right to speak. In describing the actions of the good Samaritan, Jesus is also presenting a summary of way he himself acted as a healer in this world. He touched the sick. He asked questions. He cared about the whole person and their spiritual condition. He earned the right to be our healer. Such things are not taught in school nor are they evidenced by diplomas on the wall.


My brother was a member of that dying breed of small town lawyers who often listened to people tell him their problems without billing them. Elsewhere in America we have the best legal system that money can buy. Race, class, and cash have become the primary determinants for who gets justice and who does not. The high-hurry culture of professionalism runs counter to the Bible’s basic demand that we provide dignity and legal protection for the weakest members of our society (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-3, Amos 5:23-24, etc). In nearly every community, there are opportunities for the church to advocate for those whom our current legal system has neither the time or the financial incentive to provide for.


Having pointed the finger elsewhere, I need now to say that the failure of the high-hurry professionals in Jesus’ story was primarily an indictment of organized religion. The reason the Samaritan stopped to help the broken man was because he was still a spiritually functioning human being capable of compassion. In contrast, the reverend and the head deacon were too religiously burned out and time crunched by church administration tasks to stop. We have a rule that is often spoken by nomination committees, ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person.’ This myth is killing our religion. If we want to be holy, we need to restore our personal sense of Sabbath. Then we will know how to listen and care as real human beings for the people in need around us.


I would further be remiss, if I didn’t mention that the context of the Good Samaritan is the racism and class divisions that mar every human culture. In Jesus’ day it served the political and economic interests of the religious elite and the Herodian Kings to have a distinct second-class group of hated people within the country.  Samaritans could be blamed for the country’s ills and enslaved when cheap labor was needed. Then, as today, religious institutions were expected to provide cultural myths that reinforce the superiority of the ‘in‘ crowd. Jesus was dangerous because he told one parable after another that involved a reversal of stereotypes. This may be why we so often choose to go the traditional way from Jericho to Jerusalem, ignoring the U-turn Jesus puts in our path.

Amos 5
Pentecost 9
Sunday, April 22, 2018 - 5:00pm to Monday, April 23, 2018 - 2:00pm

A fellowship for those working with congregations in transition

Spring 2018 Retreat:   April 22-23rd

Eccumenical Fellowship and Learning time for Interim Ministers in the Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, Western New York region (Around Lake Erie).

Meets twice a year at Olmsted Retreat Center in Ludlow, PA 

Sunday evening meal, worship, fellowship time.

Monday workshop, lunch, worship.  This spring's topic, "The current state of marriage and the roles of the church and the state regarding it." 

Who is Invited : 
Interim ministers and transition consultants
Event Sponsor : 
Context for Gay Marriage?

In last week’s blog I stated that the repeal of DOMA (DOMA and the UMC) is a game changer for clergy who are being asked to officiate at gay ceremonies. While individual clergy may still wish to set higher standards and restrict who they will unite in marriage, the denomination can’t exclude a whole class of people without good reason. It would be like the United Methodist Church saying to me that I couldn’t perform marriages for people over 70 years old because they were unlikely to procreate. Unless the denomination can prove to me that there are biblical principles that I am violating, I don’t see why I couldn’t perform any marriage that is legal in my state. This would certainly be less theoretical if I were actively serving in California.


As I write this, I am aware that my authority to perform “pastoral acts,” such as funerals and weddings, is tied to my ordination and appointment to a local church. This undercarriage remains, even when I am performing my duties outside the local church and for non-Christians. There are several caveats; because congregations are notorious for being narrow-minded and prejudiced, the local church is not allowed to restrict my ministry or curtail my works of compassion towards any person or group. They certainly are not allowed to vote on who I marry or burry. The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, is equally famous for bending to political pressure and failing to do serious theological work in matters relating to social justice. To counterbalance this known fault, however, United Methodists have historically given the benefit of the doubt to individual clergy who acted according to their conscience. 


We are still three years away from the next General Conference and any opportunity to adjust our church law. As gay marriage becomes common in perhaps a half dozen states over the next year, the UM Annual Conferences of those states are unlikely to continue to defrock the clergy who perform these unions. The question that occurs to me is, what right would either the local church or the General church have to interfere if a clergy person has the support of his or her colleagues? I have always said that my calling is to advance the Gospel in my region. The local church is often to self absorbed to support the ministry that I do for the world outside their walls. The denomination as a whole is such a nebulous political beast that it is hard to believe that it always knows what is right for my region. So, I think the United Methodist clergy of each state need to decide together what is best for the advancement of the Gospel in their context.