Archive for 2015

Ephesians 1:3-14

To write well, I avoid the passive voice. Or to put it the wrong way, my writing is becoming less passive. Yet, when Paul greets the church at Ephesus with the rich and sonorous, ‘blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ everything he says for the rest of the page is passive. It has to be this way. God already is fully blessed by His nature and totally the gift-giver in our relationship with Him. We are like young children on Christmas Day, requiring fourteen minutes to tell of all the things that we received, but since we are not yet active in the real world, can’t point to a single thing that we have given back. So, Paul goes fourteen verses listing the gifts we have from our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

 

Imagine a child in a car seat with a little plastic steering wheel. That’s us. We have entered the New Year with someone else driving the issues that will really matter for us in the year ahead. Our health, our family unity, our safety, our daily bread and our weekly rest; all God. Paul is one of those rare voices in our lives that points to the steering wheel in our hands and says, ‘it’s plastic and not connected to the control arms of our vehicle, but that’s okay.’

 

In Ephesians 1:11, Paul passively uses the most politically incorrect word in the Bible; “…having been predestined according to [God’s] plan.”  I don’t think he does this in hopes of creating theological divisions in the church. The racism, colonialism, and classism propagated for the last 20 centuries by Christians who take pride in their birthright, is not Paul’s fault. Quite the opposite, all Christian service is laid on a foundation of utter humility. We are like recovering alcoholics who say:  

1. We now admit that we are powerless over life — that without grace, our days quickly become  unmanageable.

2. We believe in a Power greater than ourselves who can fully restore us to sanity and love.

 

It is only after laying this foundation, that Paul is able to tell the Ephesians about his active love for them; his prayers and his hopes of being helpful to them in their spiritual growth. 

 

This year, I am humbled and particularly mindful of grace. I felt fully in control of the upcoming holidays and my life on December 15th. The next day my wife was hospitalized and straddled the doorway between this life and the next until the day before Christmas. By God’s grace, we now take things one day at a time. And looking back, I am aware that those moments when I have been most loving and helpful to those around me, have been when I have admitted openly that the steering wheel in my hands is plastic, and then added, that I am okay with that. Thank God.

Christmas 2
New Years
Sunday, January 3, 2016
I'm okay with God driving
Luke 2:41-52

We only have one childhood story about Jesus, that of his amazing the elders in the temple. I’m not really sure what this story tells us about Jesus, or his Home-Alone-ish family, but its context deserves some reflection. A couple times a year, people would pilgrimage to the temple. Diaspora Jews would make these trips less frequently, perhaps, once or twice in a life-time. We have little in today’s world that is equivalent to this. As someone who cares about mental health, family systems, and healthy transitions, I think this is our loss.

 

Imagine what it would be like to put your faith into motion by walking seventy-five miles. Parents would be explaining to their children, as they schlepped across the Judean Hills, just how important religion was. People who had lost loved ones, would work through their grief as they walked. Newly weds would explore their new relationship, with each other and with their new extended families. There would be deep discussions about the things that mattered. There would be songs. The fellowship of God’s people would be made visible.

 

During the holidays, we all tend to complain about our family obligations. The truth is, it’s not that we have too much at Christmas that takes us away from our routines, it’s that we have too little. Perhaps our celebrations are maddening — but life without the centering effect of pilgrimage is also crazy. Some of the healthy effects of pilgrimage can be experienced in smaller doses, if we value the work that a structured spiritual experiences does in our lives.

 

Further, we should plan for the year ahead. Can we shift our vacation times so that they do more than just remove us from work? Can we incorporate the religious pilgrimage into the way we navigate transition and respond to life’s critical moments? How can we rediscover the wisdom of walking with a crowd.

Christmas 1
Sunday, December 27, 2015
In 2001, I had my life altered by a religious pilgrimage
Health Insurance Debate

Wednesday, I drove my wife to the emergency room with what had been, only an hour before, a minor condition. Within a short time after arriving, a doctor said to me, “It is a good thing that you brought her in when you did.” Why did I bring her in when I did? Because we had health insurance. If we were uninsured, as we had been back in the 1980s, I would have held off. It’s just a bug, it will pass. My dithering may have been fatal.

 

Moses says, “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Before the Affordable Care Act, neither of our adult children had health insurance. Today, many popular politicians are committed to rolling back Obamacare and choosing death, over life. Further, some states deny medical services to those who cannot document that they are here legally. I believe that healthcare is a basic human right.

 

As I write this, the doctors are waiting for lab work to come back to determine the nature of my wife’s infection. Each year, there are more and more ‘super-bugs’ that are resistant to antibiotics. The science behind this problem points to America’s agri-business, which uses carelessly uses antibiotics to speed livestock to harvest and lessen the effects of over-crowding. Competitive market pressures lead farmers to choose death. It may be only a matter of time before an apocalyptic order strain get’s loose. Moses would call that a curse.

 

Lately I have come to believe that all choices are linked. Moses is calling us live with  humility and generosity, such that, whether we are responding to our neighbor’s need, or deciding upon which presidential candidate to support, or buying hog feed, we will prayerfully weigh whether life is affirmed or cursed in some small way by our choice. God grant us all, wisdom and grace in this.

Be careful in desiring a King, see 1 Samuel 8

The problem with Trump is that he doesn’t live in a world where he can see a woman in a hijab, shepherding her children onto the school bus and think to himself, “hey that family shares my hopes and dreams.” The problem with our country, is that 30% of the people want to live in Trump’s world. It’s a world where language is used to hurt, not heal, where might makes right, and where public service has been forgotten. It is the land of a people who desire a king (1 Samuel Chapter 8) and a man who says, “I’m smart enough for the job.”

 

The framers of the American Constitution labored to design a system which would resist being co-opted by self-centered, populist, king hopefuls. They divided the authority of the federal government so that the judicial branch would keep us progressing towards higher standards of justice and equality (the replacement of slavery by civil rights required a hundred of judicial action), a congressional branch would serve the common good and the concerns of those who work for a living, and the executive branch that would represent us gracefully in the world. This model proved so innovative that most countries have adopted it, and many are now surpassing the United States in providing equal rights to their citizens and prosperity for their middle class.

 

Our two party system is not mentioned in the constitution. It is instead, one of those complicated add-ons that by and large serves the intentions of the founding fathers. A similar thing could be said about church denominations and the religion that Jesus designed. People who desire to be King, challenge the political process from time to time. One can look with trembling at Germany in the 1930s. I watched the movie Trumbo this past week, which portrayed the mess created by Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt, and realized that equally passionate craziness can be found in the anti-muslim rhetoric of the leading Republican candidates. But, to find someone who matches Trump in his dangerous personal charisma, you have to go back to the 1890s and look at the Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. Fortunately, the system beat him twice in his run for the presidency. 

 

In the church, we look for a non-anxious presence, or an interim minister, to heal things when they get this dysfunctional. Perhaps, cooler heads will prevail as an inconclusive primary season leads to a brokered convention in Cleveland. Anybody for printing some Romney/Ryan 2016 t-shirts?

Luke 3:7-18

John the Baptist doesn’t make any friends by calling everyone brood of Vipers. Now note that Jesus doesn’t contradict John. To understand their shared message, we need to focus on what is healthy and not, relating to pride and shame. What would John, or Jesus, make of the boast, “I am proud to be an American” or the current rush in France to buy tricolor flags since the Paris attack?

 

Shame is related to who we are, as opposed to guilt that involves what we do. We can have false pride relating to both who we are (things outside our control) or relating to things we have done (boasting of our accomplishments).  John tells the good Jewish people who come to him, not to have unhealthy pride in the fact that they are “children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Similarly, I don’t think we should have false pride in the fact that we were born Americans. If I had been born 10 miles south of where I was, today I would be speaking Spanish and worrying about Mexican politics. False pride is sinful and can lead to a lack of compassion.

 

I suspect, but it is not recorded, that John the Baptist welcomed and spoke graciously to non-Jewish immigrants living near the Jordan River. Jesus certainly showed compassion and ministered to those who were shamed. That is, he honored those experiencing the inverse of the above, false pride about things you have no control over. We have very little control over our race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, or gender. To be shamed for any of these is a bad thing. To be caught in a war, or some other crisis that causes one to immigrate, is an unfortunate circumstance that deserves our compassion.

 

John’s sermon makes it clear that there are some things that we can do, and be proud of. We can share a coat with someone who is underdressed for the winter (Luke 3:11). We can strive to do our job, whatever our occupation may be, in a way that honors God (Luke 3:12-14). Such things are their own reward. When we think that being good saves us, or that we should get stars in our crown because of our behavior, then we fall into the other trap of pride, self-righteousness.

Advent 3
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
How Shame and Pride relate to each other
Saying No to metrics is like saying No to Monsanto

Ask yourself, “Why am I in ministry?” Most of us are here, not because of a single mind-blowing worship experience, but because our hearts were quietly, over time, nurtured by the Holy Spirit. There is a Way of the spirit which we simply desire more of. There is a Way that is more compelling than riches, or the fleeting entertainments of this world. How many of in our church or place of service might be compelled by the same motivation? If the number is as low as a dozen, from out of the hundreds that we break bread with, are these people too few to be considered? What if we shaped our ministry towards increasing this number? What if, for the sake of authenticity, we commit ourselves to not exceed any religious authority that isn’t justified by our own personal experience of God?

    Think of a lab rat running a maze for some scientific experiment. Early on, it discovered the most wonderful cheese. Now it is committed to learn and run complicated patterns for the sake of this cheese. Then the institution begins to randomly withdraw this cheese from the maze. What do you, or the poor mouse, do? Run faster! I define burnout as the spiritual state of a church leader who continues to run the maze of institutional expectations and job requirements, but has given up all hope of ever finding cheese.

    Burnout is too narrow a term for this difficulty. The biblical expression is that we have grown weary while doing good, and that we have lost heart. Paul, in the sixth chapter of Galatians, displays his concern for the internal attitude of those that work in the church. He compares us to farmers who have a choice as to what seed we plant. Paul says that we should be deeply respectful of the organic process that sustains our spirituality. Today we speak of farmers being stuck in a system where they must plant genetically modified corn and then use Round-up to control their weeds. To do that which looks prudent on the outside, but we know in our hearts to be wrong, wearies the soul.

Luke 3:1-6
Isaiah 40:1-11

Every four years our country makes a show of sending the presidential candidates through the rural villages of Iowa and New Hampshire. For a few fleeting moments, common people seem to matter. They have a voice in Ottumwa.  Individuals in Concord can ask the next president if he or she knows the price of a gallon of milk. Yet the Bible speaks about the voice in the wilderness as being something more than just symbolic. We are all made to travel through wilderness from time to time. Life is enriched by trauma and displacement. There the soft voice of God has a chance to rise above the static. John the Baptist isn’t just a foot note in the story of Christ. He is an embodiment of all the reasons that God sends us out into the wilderness.

 

I am hoping that the candidates learn some humility during their trek through small town America. Jesus and the multitudes went out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist. Since they walked, it took some time.  Advent is intended to be this way. Our experience should teach us the deep and quiet things of life. We should enter the New Year more rooted than we are today. Similarly, the candidates for our nation’s highest office should reach Super Tuesday on March 1st chastened by what the most reflective rural folk have said to them. One can only hope.

 

The voice in the wilderness may be for us that relative we are not looking forward to seeing this holiday season. The voice in the wilderness may come to us late at night, when we ask ourselves if we are really ready to have God pitch his tent among us. The voice in the wilderness may already be on the lips of thousands of Syrian refugees. I don’t know. But I plan to stop and listen.

 

Avent 2
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Sit in the brush arbor until you see the beauty of the empty place
Will the church turn and heal?

Church should be defined by its imitation of Jesus, who spoke a blessing upon everyone he met. Jesus spent his days walking among the fallen and touching those who needed his healing. His few sharp words, were directed towards those who spoke nonsense and shame towards the weak. And, even though Jesus had been educated in the highest place, he continually prepared for his peripatetic teaching work by going off alone in prayer. He only spoke about God from his own personal experience. He was in this Way, the word made flesh (John 1:14).

    My denomination, like most, continues to undervalue people with Jesus’ approach to service. Those leaders who fail to produce quantifiable results are considered ineffective. Those members who refuse to serve on committees, or speak up at meetings, or host events in their homes, are labeled shy, under-committed-to-the-cause, and unimportant, even though these same people may be radiating circles of love and acceptance in the context of their daily lives. Meanwhile, the language of the church continues to grow more and more institutional. Our collective hunt, is not for the elusive spirit of God and better ways to serve, but for programs that entrap more participants inside our walls.

    I think it is important that we filter out what those who run the church say from what those who actually serve know. For instance; clergy-types constantly complain about not having enough volunteers to maintain their cherished programs, and about how few workers are willing to take on leadership roles in the church. “Something is wrong with this generation,” they say. Yet what is right about this post-modern generation is their zeal for core values and their disdain for institutional jargon. Where they are less likely to give you a blank check for an hour of their time each week, they are more likely to work with you to develop a unique plan for meeting the spiritual needs of the worshiping congregations and small groups that they enjoy. They are also more likely to ask relevant, perhaps even troubling, questions about the church’s outreach program. Further, if they find a ministry to be authentic, they will tell their friends and post comments on social media. This street credibility cannot be bought, nor can a church boost its search engine ranking by executive fiat.

United Methodist Church
Psalm 25
Luke 2:1-8

This is the season when we get in the car and journey to see family and friends. When the kids complain because it’s three hours in the car to Grandma’s, we remind them how Joseph and Mary saddled up the old Yugo and drove a hundred miles, the limit of that car’s extended warranty, in order to get tax forms from Quirinius’ office in Bethlehem, because Nazareth was too small a town to have wi-fi. The thing we mustn’t miss in our attempt to explain the oddness of Palestinian life, is that faith is a journey. Jesus invited people to follow him. The first Christians, having no name to call their new religion, simply said that they were people of the Way (see Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23). When we share communion, we should remind people that this is bread for the journey. Those who think that they have arrived, aren’t welcome. 

 

It is a dangerous thing to go to church expecting to get a check list of do’s and don’ts that will somehow make life safe. Pilots do a preflight checklist and then choose their destination without consulting the airplane’s manufacturer. Church goers often expect an hour of religion to make their lives safe for living according to their own goals. The pre-natal Christ put his family in mortal danger so that his journey on earth could be symbolic of the transient nature of our existence. People of faith are more likely to become refugees and to be persecuted, simply because they follow paths that are not approved by those who seek to rule this world.

 

In 1972, when Tyndale House Publishing was developing a new Bible version targeted at post-moderns and in a stroke of marketing genius called it, The Way. While many churches adopted the Living Bible in an attempt to win young people back, there was something far more subversive going on. No one brings a car into their garage with the hope of it increasing the value of their home. No one tells people that Christianity is the Way, that actually leads somewhere and can transform the world, and then insists that they sit contentedly in their assigned pew and wait for heaven.  

 

The Way is neither rule oriented, nor institution bound. One sees it exampled in the story of the Good Samaritan when a stranger leaves the highway of social expectation and shows compassion. One sees it in the story of Ruth, when the hated foreigner immigrates to Bethlehem and gleans her way into the linage of the Messiah. The first Christians knew that they had found the Way, when they were excluded from the traditional houses of worship. Christians today know they are on the Way when their actions are more, not less, compassionate than that of popular culture.

 

 

Advent 1
Communion
Sunday, November 29, 2015
People on the Road -- view with faith not fear
Numbers are important to the craft, but not the art

Lao-tzu, as he begins the Tao Te Ching, says that the Way (Tao) that can be accounted for, or explained, is not the real Way. Remember how Jesus used parables, and only parables, to express the deepest concepts behind the Christian life? As I practice my craft of photography, I am surrounded by numbers. F-stop, shutter speed, and length of lens are recorded in the file of each image. I often review these statistics to see if I am handling my camera the way that I should. This work of the thing, is not the same process as the pursuing of light. If any of the numbers are off, I may fail to capture this or that image. In the same way, having bad numbers may cause you to lose your ministry in a particular place. But never in a thousand years, will I trust the numbers to tell me whether or not a photograph is beautiful. The servanthood that can be accounted for is not the real servanthood.

    Micah says:

What does the Lord require of you?

Act justly (Te)

Love steadfastly (more Te)

    and to walk humbly with your God (Tao).

John 18:33-37

Whatever you speak about this week, take to time to dwell on the Christian’s obligation to be compassionate in all circumstances. All circumstances includes Syrian refugees. The terrorist attacks in Paris have shifted our cultural vision, from pity towards the thousands who are homeless and hungry, to eye-pluckingly-spiteful revenge taking for fear that one or two wolves might be hiding naked among the huddled masses yearning to be free. One political cartoon contrasted the bombing of ISIS with the recruitment of terrorists online and captioned, “An analogue response to a digital threat.” We, as Christians, are always in danger of becoming pre-Jesus and compassionless in our responses to perceived threats in our secular, protect-yourself-first, world.

 

Something the Dali Lama says is helpful at this point: "Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back ... but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you."

 

This ties in well with the problem that Pilate is having with Jesus in John 18:33-37 (Lectionary for 11/22/2015). Pilate knows enough of pre-Jesus religious movements to believe that they are all terrorists in hiding. His experience has been with one ISIS-like group after another, recruiting Palestinian peasants into a Zionist jihad and naming the craziest man among them to be their messiah or king. He has had his hands full of violence, such as we saw in Paris this past week. So his first question of Jesus is, “Are you a king/messiah?” But we all know that Jesus is something that Pilate hasn’t seen much of lately. Jesus is a compassionate human being, committed to loving everyone, even the man who is now preparing to sentence him to a brutal death. Jesus is leading a revolution of the heart. The people who hear his voice will no longer be able to build walls to isolate those in need. They will refuse to let ideology, religion, or language, divide humanity. The people who hear his voice will bandage the wounded, on both sides of each conflict — think Doctors Without Borders. They will welcome floods of refugees — think of the words on the Statue of Liberty, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel and given to us by the French people.

 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame—

Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she.

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Pentecost 28
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Why have we turned away from this image, but not our prejudice?
We need to see the embers and nurture the fire

People came to hear Jesus teach and they asked each other, “What’s different about that guy?” The Gospel writers, who are already shifting into an institutional mindset, offer this answer, “He spoke with authority.” Actually, what people sensed was the natural flow of Jesus’ passion for God. Later, the book of Acts tells how the church, as an institution, was formed. The Apostles note that a man named Stephen was really doing a lot of service for others, so they ordained him a deacon (literally, one who serves). Luke wants to us to observe how organizational innovations like this helped the early church to grow. But the religious historian’s point is overwhelmed by the greater story of how the Spirit filled these people. When Stephen is martyred, friend and foe alike pay homage to his spiritual passion. Somewhat to the chagrin of Bishop James and other early church leaders, the Apostle Paul spent his time out on the street passionately loving people into God’s Kingdom. The later letters of Paul (or perhaps his amanuensis) contain an unfortunate, ragtag, jumble of hints about church organization. But his early works thrill us with their descriptions of a life shaped by the Holy Spirit. His passion seems to be to guide people onto the Way, so that their spiritual gifts might be manifested in their daily lives and the church (see Romans 12, I Corinthians 12 and 13, Ephesian 2, and Philippians 2). The New Testament ends with neither an organizational chart, nor a creedal confession, but with an unmediated narrative about the Spirit and the visions she instills in those still willing to dream. The book of Revelations is a nonlinear portrayal of spiritual passion. In the end, God says that he will make everything new (Revelation 21:5). There are no limits to the love of God or the power of His Spirit. Each person that serves in ministry, channels some of that spiritual passion from the end of days into the present moment.

    At the end of the fifth chapter of Mark, Jesus brings a child back from the dead. Then he goes home to Nazareth where he is not able to perform many miracles. He explains that prophets only get respect when they are far from home. The biblical role of a prophet wasn’t to predict things, but rather, to see the movement of the Spirit (be a see-er) and cobble together language to describe it. Popular culture and religious institutions perennially lose sight of God, and as a result, start acting in ways that oppose the Spirit. It’s the prophet’s job to enable the paradigm shifts that heal society. Jesus did this everywhere he went, except Nazareth. Don’t make the wrong assumption about this.  Jesus isn’t complaining about the damp rag effect that the home-crowd might be having on his spirit. What empowered his ministry was not so easily thwarted. Instead, he wants people to see what he saw. He wants them to join with him in authentic servanthood. The Nazarenes, like most church goers today, wanted a heroic leader. They wanted Jesus to do great religious things so they wouldn’t have to. 

    In all group endeavors, it is common for people to ask their leaders to point them in the wrong direction. Part of the prophetic role of pastoral ministry is our responsibility to be a see-er and to cobble together language that leads to paradigmatic changes in the hearts of our parishioners. We want them to become servants, too. From time to time, they’ll fight us in this. The old guard always wants to go faster and further along the path that leads them away from real partnership with God. We will be required to have a certain degree of internal clarity about the shape and form of the Holy Spirit, to be of much help to them. Our enthusiasm for the Spirit, needs to sustain us when our leadership is unappreciated. Before the advent of switched on devices, women used to kneel before the kitchen hearth and blow on the embers each morning to restart their cooking fire. So we are humbled by the relationship between Spirit and effective ministry.

Mark 13
Matthew 24

Many people skip the apocalyptic passages of the Bible. Historically, religion in America cycles through periods of high apocalyptic awareness about every fifty years. The most recent peaking being thirty years ago, as captured in the book title, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur in 1988. These times are always followed by decades of exhaustion, when main line churches forsake the Book of Revelation like it was the actual plague, not just the messenger. Popular culture takes up the banner that religion drops, so we have Y2K, the Zombie Apocalypse, and the tragic over-response of the Bush administration to 911. This leads me to wonder if our failure to consistently incorporate eschatology into our personal theology won’t have real consequences. Why do we fail to involve our church in saving the planet? What if our lack of concern about Global Warming is related to our dismissal of all apocalyptic thinking?

 

In Mark 13 and Matthew 24, where Jesus speaks apocalyptically, he is providing useful advice to his hearers about their response to the coming Zealot rebellion and the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD.). He says, “ “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’[a] standing where it[b] does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mark 13:14).  These words may have saved the early church from being destroyed. Other passages in the New Testament warn the faithful not loose heart when popular culture turns against them and they are persecuted for what they believe. This message may be relevant today.

 

The whole enterprise of putting end-time prophesies into a time-line is ill fated, and thankfully, not often practiced today. The points that the Bible teaches are: 1) That national trauma always comes when you least expect them. 2) The world will end sooner than we think. 3) History is under God’s control. 4) Use your head, not your heart, when preparing for disaster. 5) Faithful people behave compassionately under even the worst circumstances. 

Pentecost 27
Sunday, November 15, 2015
People did a lot of silly things because of this book
Even the smallest creature lives in a relationship with Light

How do we know if our ministry, is on the right track? Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” - Matthew 6:22 This is one of many places where he speaks about the binary simplicity of Christian life. Our eyes are either actively attuned to the nuances of the light around us, or we are visually challenged. A local church is either discerning each day its role as a partner of God, or it is lacking in vision. Individual Christians are either prayerfully open to what the spirit is leading them to do today, or they are blind. The heart of a congregation must seek its own path in the light, or all will be darkness.

    As a photographer, I am very attuned to the light. More than once, I have driven many miles to photograph a particular landscape, and then left my camera in the bag because the light wasn’t right. When I walk my camera through the dappled sunlight of a forrest trail, I find myself drawn away from the monkey-brained ideology that approaches photography the way victorian butterfly collectors approached the gathering of their specimens. The shutter isn’t my killing jar, photoshop doesn’t pin experience beneath glass cases. Turn. Pause. Breathe. All that you can see is light. Literally. I find myself humbled. 

    The subject may be what people say they like about a photograph. But it is the light that makes a particular exposure worth framing. The subjects in a photograph are like the tangible aspects of a local church; the people in the pew, the money in the bank, the new programs being launched, etc. Any idiot with a cell phone can take a decent picture of a tangible thing. But, what sends me out into the world, and drives me to be passionate about my craft, is the light. My favorite photographs are those which capture a fleeting moment when the light illuminated something invisible and yet profound.

    Many congregations today are steadily shrinking. They shift their attention and energy inward, towards meeting their own needs and making those already in the pews more and more comfortable. They go down, losing membership, worship attendance, and enthusiasm for new things. These tangibles, however, a merely symptoms of a deeper spiritual condition. The basement is dark. There aren’t any dollars there to spend on mission. Every cent goes towards maintenance. Like a black hole, the fellowship has become a selfish singularity. Light doesn’t like black holes.

    Light always travels outward, whether we join with it or not. A church can’t choose not to be in mission, just as a photon can’t choose to stand still.

Ruth 2:1-12

There ought to be a law: One can’t tell the story of Ruth without dealing with the social implications. The time of the Judges, when Ruth is set, is often viewed with nostalgia. Back before the disastrous anointing of King Saul, the land of Palestine was a place where every man did what was right in his own eyes. This is the land of Ronald Reagan and Mad Comics. Whenever we time travel, we have to intentionally open our eyes and think critically. Things are not as wonderful as they seem.

 

Three points should be made:

  1. In an era where government does not do its part in protecting the civil liberties of all individuals, xenophobia and patronizing customs are free to take the place of law. So, in the time of Ruth, the foreigner and the widow had no claim on social services. The poor were forced to glean on the edge of the fields and take the kind of demeaning charitable handouts that locked them into the cycle of poverty.  Those on top spoke about Freedom. Those on the bottom, spoke about the lack of fair housing and equal access to education and healthcare.
  2. Without the Gospel or a similar, healthy religious teaching, the default setting of popular culture is to believe that successfully having a male child is the only way that a person has value as a human being. So Boaz was asked to marry his kinsman’s widow to have sons in that man’s name. Sounds like a bizarre custom until you look at all the family values crap our American culture preaches as “Christian.”
  3. Ruth doesn’t belong to any man. She would be a winsome and heroic person in the Bible, even if she didn’t marry Boaz. We tend to rush to chapter 4, as the lectionary does, because we want to set Ruth within the Christmas narrative. This is to miss the point that the Bible is making when it tells us of Sarah, Rahab the Harlot, Debra, Ruth, Esther, etc.
Pentecost 24
Sunday, November 8, 2015
History must be honored, it also needs to be told critically
Integrity and Spirituality are not age dependent

Laity will often say that their church needs a young pastor to attract new people, or win back the lost generation(s).  There are three problems to this:

    •    Chronological age is not a good predictor of a pastor’s ability to minister to young families, nor does it correlate with either church growth or a clergy person’s skill at evangelizing borderline Christians.

    •    All clergy get old, and recently, the average pastor’s career has been starting later. Even as many denominations actively recruit the young, the best, and often only available  candidate, for an open pulpit may be an older, second career, person. Who are we to argue with those whom God is calling? Why are we so reluctant to honor those who have gained valuable experience in other professions?

    •    Even though clergy know that they have received most of their training on the job, and no congregation is prepared to bear the losses associated with pastoral incompetence, experience has a negative correlation with clergy appreciation today. Clergy changing churches after age fifty have a hard time receiving a call. If you are United Methodist, you don’t have to worry about receiving a church, there are plenty of minimum salary situations to go around.

 

In general, we all tend to accept the leadership of someone who has either been at the organization or workplace longer than we have, or who is older than ourselves. For laypeople in church, this means being more receptive to new ideas that are being presented by pastors who are older than themselves or who began their ministry with this congregation before they joined. This aspect of human nature remains true, even though our current culture is youth obsessed.

 

If you are a young pastor who has newly arrived at a church, you have the double whammy. What are you going to do about it? First, intentionally form relationships with every age segment of the church, carefully showing honor to those whom honor is due. Second, take with a grain salt the encouragement you receive to do wild and wacky things. Those who expect you to act young, are not likely to be representative of the whole congregation. Further, being associated only with the young and disenfranchised will diminish your overall effectiveness as a pastor.

 

If you are over forty years old, recognize that agism is a part of the current religious context. Make peace with your own aging process. Never present yourself as older than you feel, but don’t be afraid to bow out of things that you no longer enjoy. Exercise and take care of yourself, but don’t boast about your fitness regime. Know that the gifts of stability, experience, and wisdom, that you provide to the congregational process have value, even if they are not appreciated by those who expect the young to save the church.  

 

On a personal level, how well is your call to ministry adapting to your aging process? It is normal for people in mid-life to receive a call to a new career. When I was 47 and had been in the pulpit for a quarter century, I felt myself pulled away from traditional ministry and towards my current writing career. It was important that I honor this shift, even though it took me another decade to gain clarity as to what it involved, and to leave parish ministry. If, on the other hand, you are not sensing any diminishment in your vocation, then don’t pay any attention to those who are clamoring for you to reverse nature and grow younger.

Ruth 1:1-18

Some people can summarize their entire life’s story in one line. One thinks of Nixon saying, “I am not a crook,” or the hypochondriac who was buried under the tombstone, “See? I told you I was sick.” For Naomi, in the book of Ruth, the line is, “The Lord has turned his hand against me.” Imagine how hard it was for this woman to live with her own interpretation of events. This is one definition of insanity, when we believe our own internal messages, and those messages aren’t helpful.

 

When we seek to explain Ruth’s behavior, her leaving her home in Moab and going to Bethlehem, we tend to imagine Naomi to be a very lovable mother-in-law. There isn’t any biblical support for this rumor. My experience is that once a person believes that they are cursed, that is that God himself is out to ruin their lives, they tend to become difficult to live with. “It’s my cross to bear,” are not the words of a desirable traveling companion.

 

The only way to explain Ruth’s behavior is to suppose that both God’s prevenient grace led her to believe that Moab was not her true home. She also had her dead husband’s witness to his God and the role that the land of Israel played in that his faith journey. These thing caused her to choose to love Naomi and follower her to Israel. From time to time you run into people who are attending your church, not because they found the pastor a great preacher, but because they had a family member who in an authentic way witnessed to the faith and spoke about that particular congregation as the place where it could be nurtured.

 

That being said, we need to speak about God’s grace in a way that the Naomi’s among us can hear it. The Lord doesn’t turn his hand against us to shame us. The adversities we face are not punishments. From time to time, though, the Lord does allow circumstances to push us. We sense God calling us… or should I say, forcing us, to turn and go a new direction? To leave Moab and go up to Bethlehem, whether we be young like Ruth or old like Naomi.

Pentecost 26
All Saints Day
Sunday, November 1, 2015
Was Naomi really  so winsome?
Outward beauty has little to do with Gospel

Simone Weil said, “A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.” Fortunately, many church leaders know their church’s image is not her reality. Well to do, suburban, congregations often are deluded into believing that their church’s charismatic pastor and modern facilities makes it a great church. Intuitive and theologically aware church leaders know that the congregation’s mission, hope, and strength, lie elsewhere.

 

Isaiah speaks about Jesus:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,

    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain

    and bore our suffering…

(Isaiah 53:2-4)

 

Why do we assume that the church that Christ created will look different from her master? There is a core process that the Gospel offers. It moves people from trauma (or sin), through transition (or salvation), to new life (or sanctification). Outward beauty has little to do with how a fellowship witnesses to this gift.

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is easy to outline: It starts in the past, with praising God, then touches on the present which isn't going so well and needs prayer, then sings about the future (prophesy)

Part 1 -- past & praise

There is a good remembering of the past, and a bad one. The church spends most of its time doing bad remembering. Bad remembering includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Making the biblical era a special miraculous era, and not expecting God to be at work today
  • Making past people into heroes, and diminishing our expectations of ourselves as people of faith
  • Telling Bible and Church History stories in boring ways
  • Opening the Bible without expecting it to be relevant to today
  • Not doing the math to translate past sacrifices into current dollars and relevant actions

Years ago, I pastored a church that had a big building project to do. I looked up the contributions that the founding generation had made in 1906 to build the existing building. Then I multiplied this by inflation. It staggered the congregation to hear how much a similar sized group of their ancestors had given. 

 

Part 2: Present needs prayer.

Psalm 126 begins with a neat line. Those who experience God in present tense, are like “those who dream.” Obviously, the present for the writer of these verses was a nightmare. That didn't prevent them from dreaming of what god could do. It also didn't keep them from acting in the present. This Psalm talks about planting seeds. Sowing with the expectation that God bringing about the harvest. Verse 5 says that sometimes you sow those seeds with tears in your eyes. A man may go out with his precious seed bag with tears in his eyes, and spread his seed and wait, and wait, and wait and only much later comes the harvest and the rejoicing. Sometimes have to part with what you would have like to have kept for yourself.  For farmers in primitive places, the only way to plant a seeds, is to take some of the precious food that your family would have eaten and to take that wheat seed that your wife could have made into bread for today, and cast it out upon the field. In order to farm you have to be willing to give away what you would have like to have kept.  Sacrifice and seed planting, go hand in hand.

 

Part 3: Future -- Prophesy

What are your hopes for the future? Describe your dreams.

 

 
Pentecost 25
Sunday, October 25, 2015
What are your dreams?
Why does honesty matter?

Recently, I attended a church where the pastor told a story that I suspect he got from a homiletics service. The problem was, he told the story in first person, i.e., “This is what happened to me.” He then proceeded to use the story to reinforce a theological point that I found questionable. I doubt that anyone else was as troubled by this as I was. First, because most people of that denomination are okay with the theology which I found questionable. Second, because the average church goer doesn’t expect their pastor to lie. Yes, I think saying that something happened to you when it didn’t, is a form of lying. 

 

Last year, we watched Brian Williams fall from being one of TV’s most respected newscasters. Why? Because the news is worthless to us if we don’t trust its source. The same can be said of the gospel. In fact, the whole business of church is heavily trust dependent. When we counsel a parishioner in our office, it is not our opinions or the accuracy of our facts that matters, but rather our prayers and our capacity to offer personal assurances, based upon our own struggles with life’s ambiguities. People need to trust that we are giving them an authentic response to what they have been vulnerable enough to share with us.

 

Right preaching and teaching is not about theological orthodoxy, but about sharing our personal experience of faith. We witness to the good news that we know. Church leadership and administration is not about being smart or respected, its about the trust the system places in us to ensure that all voices are heard, that all decisions are made by the appropriate process, and when conflicts come, that we have already earned the trust that enables us to act as a mediator.

 

Most pastors work hard to be entertaining in the pulpit. We can’t hit a home run every week. We should accept this fact and choose instead to be honest every week.

Mark 10:35-45
Psalm 8

I think we should pay attention whenever Jesus makes a direct comparison between how his people do things and the standard procedure of the rest of the world. In Mark 10:37, Jesus gets asked a simple question, “When you take over, who are you going to have as your right hand man (or woman)?” It’s the kind of question that we’ll be asking the 2016 field of presidential candidates when it gets winnowed down a bit more, “Who’s going to be your running mate, Jesus?” His two-part answer pleases no one.

 

Part 1: Jesus says that among his people, the person at the top of the organizational chart empties the trash and cleans the toilets. The first place person is servant to all. The pyramid of power is inverted. This is not a token performance, such as when the Pope washes the feet of a peasant on Maundy Thursday. This is a fundamental aspect of the church, all christian mission organizations, every committee, and even of our families and the places where we mix with those  outside the faith. The higher we go in a work environment, the more humble our attitude and approach to every decision must be. In politics and in our families, we are always mindful of the Psalm 8:2

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants

You have ordained strength…

 

Part 2: Jesus says that his title, Savior of the World, reaches its zenith when he is hung on the cross. So it is with every one who bears the mark of Christ, in those moments in life when we are sacrificed and living entirely for others, we are at His right hand. Life doesn’t have any greater honor than that of servant of all.

Pentecost 24
Sunday, October 18, 2015
You can't have humility without service
How much do I have to pay for this pastor?

It’s fall, time to set the pastor’s salary. When I reflect back on my career, my most painful moments revolve around this ritual. In my first two situations, the compensation package was literally at the poverty level. I had to plead to get a few dollars above “minimum.” This was in spite of the fact that the churches were doing better than they had under my predecessor. If it wasn’t for the real needs of my family, I would have kept silent at the committee meetings where my salary was under discussion. It was hard to serve with love people who treated my livelihood like it was a negotiation at the used car lot.

 

In the mid-ranged churches of the middle portion of my career, I had some breathing room. I began to approach the fall salary negotiations as an educational opportunity. I now had a few small business owners and professionals on the key committees. I was able to demonstrate to them how consistent raises were essential to pastoral tenure. In the long run, its cheaper and safer to over-compensate the pastor that you know than to low-ball the salary and get someone new every three years.

 

This got me in trouble in 2001. An economic slump had hit community and the financial gurus at the church were adamant about imposing a wage freeze on all church employees. Coming off of a sabbatical, I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. But I did, because I had a youth director who was a new hire and the best person for the job. The board assumed that I was just fighting for my own salary, again. Within weeks, both the youth director and I were looking for other employment. The church did okay on the situation. The next pastor served them well, though repeated my experience of having dismal luck filling the youth director’s position. 

 

What advice can I give from all this? While I have learned a lot about human nature from three decades of salary negotiation, I haven’t learned how to succeed at it. You do what you need to do, but you don’t let it effect the way you minister to the people. It is the Gospel in practice, turn the other cheek and be thankful that it comes only once a year.

Mark 10:17-31

I sometimes tell people that the reason I am a writer today, is because I bought a computer in 1984 that had Spell Check installed. In grade school, I would get the weekly spelling test back with three or four out of the ten words marked wrong. As classes progressed and I was given essays and creative writing assignments, they would always come back with some variant of “nice story” or “interesting points” at the top, and then such a multitude of red marks and grammatical mistakes that the net grade barely passed. I didn’t know that I could write, until a mechanism allowed me to stop focusing upon the rules. In Mark 10:17-31, a rich young man comes to Jesus claiming to have kept all the rules. He is like the teacher’s pet at my grade school, a perfect speller. But something has brought him to Jesus. He knows that he is spiritually lost. He is like the novelist who writes a perfectly composed story, with each sentence grammatically correct, but fails to unfold a plot.

 

Many in the church are like this rich young man. They have kept all the rules, or at least enough of them to pass if you grade on the curve. But, they realize in their hearts that they have missed the path. Jesus says, “You are not far, you only lack one thing.” Most people in church today, only lack one thing. Often, as in the case of the rich young man, that one thing is compassion. By selling everything and giving to the poor, the rich young man would be set on a path where he saw his neighbor’s affliction as something he could and should do something about. I don’t think Jesus was testing him. He was saying, “here is the plot for the story of your life; live with generosity.”

 

For each of us, the step back to the right spiritual path is a small one. But, it is exactly the step that we find in our hearts to be the most difficult one to take. The challenge of finding meaning in life is like that. It is both easy and hard.

Pentecost 23
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Jesus could see how close the man was to finding his path
Not My Job

Two of the most helpful terms in describing church leaders are  Over-Functioning and Under-Functioning.  Over-Functioning as a neurotic state is related to codependency. This was first noted in the study of the family systems that surrounded alcoholics.  The vacuum in family structure and process created by a drinking parent would suck one or more of the children into adult-sized roles. They would take on tasks that were really not their jobs. As they grew into adulthood and left their family of origin, these wounded souls would characteristically over commit. If they were in charge of something in the church, they would do their task in such a way as to make themselves indispensable. Of course, there are other reasons for people to over-function. Once you become aware of the condition, however, it is an easy pattern to spot.

 

It only takes a few people who are over-functioning to drive out those who function normally. This leads to most people under-functioning in the committee or church. Under-Functioning feels normal when there is someone getting things done without you. Obviously, it is hard to follow a pastor who consistently over-functions. Most clergy, have some degree of codependency. In fact I have sometimes accused the Board of Ordain Ministry of going out and looking for codependents. Every time we move from one church to another, we discover the ways in which our predecessor over-functioned, because those are the committees where we have limited lay leadership or interest in being self-starters.

 

Fortunately, most of us pastors choose a few areas where we feel especially gifted and over-function in those aspects of church life. We come into conflict with laity who share our same interests. The irony is that the one job that is our job is the equipping of the saints so that they may do their ministry.

Psalm 8
Genesis 1&2

Psalm 8 and the Genesis creation story reveal something that can only be learned from revelation: that our dominion over all creatures, as well as, our responsibility for the environment, is not something humanity gained by evolving into the top position in terms of intelligence, nor have we conquered the earth by our own might, ecological dominion is instead a gift, a matter of grace from our creator. This is why Pope Francis’ voice on climate control is a significant addition to the debate. Many have stopped listening to the scientists who say that our carbon emissions have already raised the average temperature of the planet, and unless checked, will create chaotic weather, dramatic climate changes that will threaten the world food supply, and raised sea levels, that in time, will flood our coastal cities. Those in authority receive this bad news much as an alcoholic receives the advice that he should stop drinking. Facts are not enough. The Bible tells us, however, that to abandon our role as wise managers of the planet is sin.

    Psalm 8 has three striking lines:

Verse 2: Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.

    God’s spirit often uses humble instruments to rebuke us. How often have we been busy doing our own thing and a child says something that tips us off of our high horse?

Verse 5: Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

    Mark Twain famously said, “Man was created a little lower than the angels  and has been getting a little lower ever since.” We dare not deny the middle management position that God has put us in. Just as angels have fallen, so also, those in leadership in the human economic and political system have fallen. Our pride has allowed them to fall.

 

Verse 6: You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

    We can’t say that climate change is inevitable and we are helpless. It is the very fact that all of these things are under our control that makes the issue so important. God has handed the planet to us, that we might be his trustees over creation. If we could easily leave earth and establish a human colony on Mars, that would not remove our responsibility for this world. If we find a way to live through technology, even though the earth and its seas have been turned to crap, we will still be responsible for our sin.

Pentecost 22
Sunday, October 4, 2015
Fragile and commercially unimportant things deserve our protection
What is different about this Pope?

Places where we experience the Holy are more common than people who embody holiness. As we watch Pope Francis visit our hemisphere, this seems to be the point neglected by many commentators. The crowds are coming as pilgrims to places where they expect a blessing. No matter what the form our religion takes, we are called to extraordinary prayer in particular places and by contact with those we consider to be Holy. It is important to recognize this fact without getting too analytical.

 

For me personally, I can list specific times and places where I was nurtured into a better faith by simply being in a particular place or with a particular person. I was alone on Patmos Island two days after 911. The altar rail at Grace Church in Bangor during the late 70s. There was a Holy woman who opened her home to the Young Life group which introduced me to Christ. There are more, they may not make sense, though, to you.

 

At a nearby United Methodist camp, many counselors take their youth to a chapel, hollowed out with rough benches and a cross barely distinguishable from the surrounding trees. “Green Cathedral is a Holy place,” we tell them. The Friday evening message is often transformative, not because the counselor offers the invitation properly, but because we honor in that moment that we are all pilgrims in need of a Holy place, as a catalyst, to move us to the next level.

James 5:13-20

In James 5:13-20 seven prayer topics are considered: Trouble, Happy, Sick, Sin, Prophetic (Elijah concerned with political situation), Environmental, and for those who are Lost. But, everything James says is prefaced by a discussion of the prayer-less attitude many have towards life.  In James 413-15 we are cautioned not be drawn into thinking that we have a god-less solution to the troubles of this world.

 

Some people deal with trouble by saying “Let’s eat drink and be merry.” How many of those in church are struggling with a substance abuse, whether it’s alcohol, over eating, or the accumulation of material things. What can we say to help them shift from drowning their troubles to James’ advice that we simply pray?

 

Some people live by the mantra, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” With this prayer-less attitude, they post notes on their bathroom mirror encouraging themselves to believe in themselves. But James shakes his head. He suggests that we live the motto heard everywhere in the Arab world, Insha’Allah, “if God wills it.” There is a mindful dependency upon our higher power that is universal among the great religions. James would tell us that prayer is not a matter of saying the right words or knowing your religion’s secret password, it is instead an attitude that accepts this moment, lives fully in it, and offers it up to the Holy One.

Pentecost 20
Sunday, September 27, 2015
What will we teach her about handling her troubles?
Burnout is related to Time Management

Too often we think that time management involves finding tricks to multi-task or get everything done efficiently. I want to suggests that time management  begins with two simple understandings:

  1. The value of any hour I give to my ministry is largely determined by how present I am to the task of that hour. I can’t give any my attention to sermon preparation if I am constantly interrupted or if I feel exhausted.
  2. The number of quality hours that I give to ministry over the course of my ministry can not be added to by working more hours per week. It can only be added to by my remaining healthy, both emotionally and physically, and by my curiosity and love of the job being constantly uplifted by a joyful spirituality. Ill prepared and emotionally drained pastors rarely develop a joyful spirituality.

 Obviously, our capacity to keep a regular weekly sabbath time and maintain boundaries around our work schedule impact the above two points.  Reflect on this until you own it.

When you fully own it, consider developing a covenant life the following with you PPRC and congregation:

I have considered the needs of this congregation and what I know of my own personal and spiritual needs. I think the following balance will help us to have a long and fruitful ministry together. The following guidelines will be observed, unless there is a pastoral emergency (parishioner in crisis, funeral, local flood, etc.):

    1) My weekly day off is ______. This day will publicized and I will inform the church secretary whenever it is changed, so that church leaders will know when not to call. If you have a regular dinner time, you may wish to list that as well. 

    2) I will seldom schedule myself  to attend more than four evening functions per week. (This number should be reduced to three if you have school-aged children at home or a similar family obligation). This includes premarital counseling sessions and individual meetings.

    3) I tend to structure my personal study, retreat, and continuing ed time as follows…  I have also committed x days per year to conference work, camp leadership, mission trips, etc. These offsite periods are not to be considered vacation.

    4) I will utilize the vacation time allotted each year by the PPRC and the Conference rules. This will mean ___ weekends out of the pulpit. These weeks will be publicized a month ahead so that church leaders can plan not to interrupt these recreational periods.

    Verbalize your time management guidelines early and often. Don’t present them as an authoritarian fiat or pawn them off as a Conference requirement. Work to bring people on board. Admit that you did a lousy job at this before and need their help so that a year or two from now you’re not running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Enlist the support of your staff and spouse in wording your time usage guidelines and communicating them.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
James 3:13-4:8

At the heart of every twelve step program, like AA, there is an emphasis on holy confession. We confess the path that our urges and inner demons have put us on. We confess our inability to manage them by ourselves. We affirm our commitment to change our course and walk on a new path. James, being the New Testament’s wisest wisdom book, resonates with these truths.  In James 3:13- 4:10 we are urged to think about the costs associated with following our selfish desires. He matches each description of sin, with an assurance that God’s grace will be there for us, if we chose a different path.  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” James assures us.

 

How can we speak about this truth without drawing on a personal example that we are embarrassed to confess in public? This is the great challenge. If I go to an AA group, there is an assurance of confidentiality is given before I make my confession. I have often experienced a similar, grace-filled, environment in the sacred space of a prayer circle or Christian friendship. The church is filled with the wisdom that James is talking about. The one place this assurance of confidentiality does not cover, however, is the pulpit. So we must use fictional stories, the biographies of saints in glory, and the great narratives of the Bible to speak this truth. We also from time to time, feel led to tell our own story — but with careful words and humility.

 

It might be healthy to tell people our rules, from time to time. 

    Special Rules for the Pulpit:

  1. I will not allude to a family member, or a member of the congregation, without their permission.
  2. If I share someone’s words, I will take care to speak them accurately and in context. 
  3. I will not denounce someone’s actions without speaking about how I share some of the same selfish desires.
  4. I will encourage each person to seek trusted guides and to participate in small groups where they feel free to share and receive healing and grace. At the same time, I will encourage every group and mature Christian to commit to sacred confidentiality.
  5. I will emphasize God’s grace and the forgiveness that is offered to all.
Pentecost 20
Sunday, September 20, 2015
We don't get to this, without building a foundation of trust
Leadership demands precise language

Imprecise language is the bane of group processes. Whether you are Donald Trump, Bill Maher, or the substitute teacher for the kindergarten Sunday school class, your audience deserves a better word choice.  Unless you are referring to a recent blow on the head, as in to be knocked stupid, the word “stupid” is always a poor choice. Not only is it inflammatory, it distracts us from the choice we must make whenever we talk about motive. I write novels and none of my characters are stupid. Whenever they make a bad decision or commit a felony, the proper word for what they are doing is either incompetence or malevolence. I still do not know if Donald Trump believes that the US Congress is entirely composed of people lacking intelligence (which could easily be disproved by checking their school records), or if some conspiracy is afoot, giving them selfish motives to pass legislation that hurts our country. If neither is the case, then those want a job in politics should seek to impress us with their personal integrity and their track record for brokering win-win compromises.

 

Whenever we engage in public speaking, especially when it is in the church, we should chose our words carefully. If something needs changed, we must illuminate the issue without shaming another person or group. If we suspect incompetence, we need to focus on leadership training and the placement of people in positions that utilize their spiritual gifts. The nominating committee needs to be taught spiritual discernment. If we suspect malevolence, what we say should clearly indicate which of the seven deadly sins are at play. Our audience always deserves something better than to be called stupid.

Mark 8:27-38

The news tonight is bound to contain at least one example of a foolish religious sacrifice. It may be a suicide bomber, an IS recruit selling all to go to Syria, or a county clerk going to jail for failing to give marriage licenses. That last example may be a bit controversial, but it is carefully chosen. I think all forms of martyrdom should conform to the rules of civil disobedience. Before I pick up a cross, participate in an act that is likely to cause me harm or imprisonment, or fail to perform the reasonable duties of my workplace, I must ask:

    1) Is it my heart’s desire to alleviate suffering, guarantee liberty, or provide justice for those unlikely to receive it otherwise?

    2) Is the authority that I am disobeying or resisting legitimate?

    3) Am I willing to bear the consequences of my action?

    4) Have I thought through the above and concluded that my action is the most appropriate and loving response to the issue?

 

    Jesus never calls us to make unreasonable sacrifices. We each pick up our cross by doing that thing for which we made. We should know our crosses well. They are unique and represent the intersection of our giftedness and the humanity’s pain. Our mind, soul, and strength, are bound to our cross. From time to time, an illegitimate authority threatens the innocent. We bring our cross and stand with those in pain. From time to time, the strong steal from the weak. We must confront the powerful and shame the greedy. From time to time, the actions of our workplace or society are unfair and wasteful. We choose to act differently, accepting the consequence of our civil disobedience.

 

    Our cross is always with us. It is the latent portion of our faith. From time to time, the Holy Spirit calls us to bring our cross out of hiding. Ideally, our actions will represent our deepest convictions and be tempered by a loving heart seeking understanding. We can’t just do something unreasonable and call it a sacrifice for God.

Pentecost 19
Sunday, September 13, 2015
The contrast between real cross bearers and today's fakes should be obvious
During transition, our souls rest on a base of body and relational concerns

All transition has three components. It doesn’t matter if you are moving to a new location, starting a career, or exiting puberty. For general terms you could name the components: body, soul, and relationships. Attention should be paid to each one; failed transitions and broken hearts are often the product of rushing the process and failing to do one or two components well. 

 

    1)    Body  - This represents the physical aspect of the change. When one moves to a new location, one has to pack boxes, buy a house, sell off the old, discover new doctors, stores, etc., clean the new place, unpack boxes… Oh, well. It’s a process, best done with detailed check lists. You don’t want to forget something important, like the youngest child. 

        It is easy to focus so completely on the demands of this component of transition, that we ignore our spiritual, emotional, and relational needs. The business mindset of project management, scheduling, and cost containment, is critical for a successful transition. Our minds tend to grasp this fact and highlight this component in orange, lose sleep over it, and then,  starve the other two components of our transition.

 

2)   Soul - All transitions bring loss. Your soul will journey through the five of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Personal growth requires self-awareness. Being spiritually aware during transitions enables us to exit with deep emotional learnings. Success as a person depends upon this depth, that only radical and disturbing change can bring.  Great souls grow from transition, developing integrity and remaining true to their values under stress. Doing transition intentionally helps us to manage chaos, accept our losses, and be open for the creativity inspired by the new situation.

 

    3)  Relationships - Transition forces you to redefine your role as an individual, relative to other persons and the community. You cannot be in the same exact relationship with you parents or  friends after you exit puberty. Similarly, you may pack your whole family up for a move to Far Rockaway, but you won’t arrive in the same state of relationship with each other. Your kids will make new friends. Your spouse will develop other interests outside the house. 

        Thinking about our relationships is important during transition. We will be required to make decisions that effect the body and soul of those around us. How we collaborate with them in our choices determines how we will relate with them in the future. Being able to bare our collective souls and talk about loss is often a prerequisite for exiting the transition with a higher regard for each other.

James 2:1-17
1 Timothy 6:6-10

Most religious beliefs aren’t suited for Yes/No, no qualifiers, interrogations. The Republican field of candidates was asked to indicate by a show of hands whether they would support the nominee if it was not them. Simple question, answer Yes or No.  In the Baptism ritual we ask a series of similarly simple — no grey area — questions. Beyond this, what other assertions deserve this treatment? In James 2:5, a rhetorical question is asked and James assumes that we will answer confidently, “Yes.” That question goes like this:

 

“Do you believe that the poor actually have been chosen by God to be rich in faith?” and, “Don’t you realize that the poor have a special place in God’s Kingdom?”

 

You know that the answer should be yes, because Jesus (James’ brother) says:

 

Blessed are you who are poor,

    for yours is the kingdom of God.

 

And,  

woe to you who are rich,

    for you have already received your comfort

    (Luke 6:20 & 24) 

 

James, himself, makes sure that we don’t pass over this statement of faith by contrasting God’s treatment of the poor with the way the rich treat them (us). The rich blaspheme the name of Jesus (James 2:6). Obviously, the real saints of his congregation are people of limited means. From his humble birth in Nazareth to his current position as the Bishop of Jerusalem, James has not seen the rich do anything of worth to advance the Kingdom.

 

When I read James, I find myself reconsidering the radical statement that some Liberation Theologians make, that being poor is a prerequisite for understanding Jesus. I think that James would find himself connecting with today’s Pope Francis. Or perhaps I should say that Pope Francis is helping us to hear again this biblical voice that we have long ignored.

 

Throughout the Bible we hear an oft repeated warning, friendship with wealth never ends well. Those who have been born with it, need to flee into the wilderness — do a Saint Francis of Assisi style run — to be purged of its effect. Those who have earned it, must cauterize all thoughts that they are somehow better people because they played life’s game to achieve this sordid end. All of us need to live by Paul’s advice to Timothy:

 

Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 

 

I Timothy 6:6-10

Pentecost 8
Sunday, September 6, 2015
What would James ask them?
To be sustainable, churches must serve the community

It’s important not to get caught up in America’s current political polarization. There was a day in which Republicans were promoting the Fourteenth Amendment instead of seeking to get it repealed. Support of particular political candidates, movements, or parties, often gets the church coopted into simply providing the people to serve someone else’s agenda. 

    The goal of Christian education is to help people think like disciples. Disciples care about justice and the healing of our society. They expect political process to serve the needs of all people. We cannot afford to relinquish our  witness or our organizational strength. Today’s world demands reasonable leadership. With this in mind, our preaching, teaching, and mission work, should support sound public policy, even when opponents demand that we seperate church from state. Our focus is always on the capacity of all people, no matter what their current political stripe, to think with compassionate hearts.

 

  With this in mind, I seek to express my social concerns in non-partisan ways. As a matter of intellectual integrity, that is valuing reason over ideology or political expediency, I expect the candidates from both parties to present arguments aligned with the following assumptions:

 

  1. Science matters. Whether the issue is climate change, reproductive health, or the teaching of evolution in school, the best information that scientists can provide should appear in our public policy arguments. In today’s technology driven market place, we are no longer served by politicians who feign ignorance in order to pander to inefficient industries and popular opinion.
  2. Zero-sum game thinking is often unethical and rarely justified. Arguments relating to immigration reform, free-trade, affirmative action, affordable health insurance, etc., often become unconscionable when a speaker shouts that our country only has limited resources and that these need to be jealously guarded. In our history as a nation, has providing new opportunities to a disadvantage class of people (be they the poor, the disabled, the children of immigrants, people of color, or those who hold differing religious beliefs) ever taken away from our collective strength or endangered our productivity? Further, zero-sum game thinkers tend to downplay the ongoing problem of race and classism in our society. 
  3. Foreign policy should be focused on humanitarian concerns. Our goal should be to work collaboratively with other like-minded nations to reduce global violence, end hunger, improve literacy and infant mortality rates, guarantee the rights of women, children, and minorities, and address environmental concerns. Other interests only lead to unnecessary wars.

 

The above assumptions are neither liberal nor conservative, but rather are radical, taking us back to the Jeffersonian principles that began our nation. I would ask each candidate to affirm these principles. 

 = Please Share =

  • Bill Kemp

8-23-2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The great physicist Richard Feynman once described what he and other scientists were doing this way: “[The Universe] is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules.” I think he was right, but his analogy scares me a bit. People who attempt to learn something, like chess or swimming or religion, often get fascinated with irrelevant customs and nonessentials. A child may think that it is impossible to learn to swim without a blue bathing suit or that chess (or science) is only played by boys. Further, if we were to describe chess to someone who has never seen it, we might mention that the pieces are black and white, that the opponents sit on opposite sides of the board, and that it is played by two humans. None of these things are required, and drawing a novice’s attention to petty rituals can interfere with their grasping the game’s brilliant simplicity. The same is true of religion.

Jesus says:
There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

The essential rules of religion involve creating and maintaining a heart of compassion and acting in loving ways. Not only is all ethics boiled down to the simple, and universal among world religions, command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but the very motivation for being religious relates to developing the inner core or soul that enables us to live by the Golden Rule.

Remember this the next time someone asks you why there are two candles on the altar.

Pentecost 17
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Often our dogmatism origenates in a failure to ask questions
Goal setting can often exclude the more basic need to be compassionate

I have learned a spiritual rule: Whenever my expectations for others cause me to treat them in a less than compassionate way, something is wrong with my expectations. This rule needs to be consistently applied whenever we act as church leaders. Before turning something sticky, like staff management, consider the following examples:

 

You find yourself shaming your child because you want him to do his homework. Consider this, your true expectation should be that your child finds his path in life and accumulates the tools to live fruitfully and with compassion. Shamed people rarely establish healthy egos and develop to their fullest potential. You must adjust your expectations, so that your actions as a parent have a deeper motivation than just wanting your child be an “A” student.

 

I’m always yelling at telephone solicitors. I know this is wrong. They are human beings (when they aren’t recorded messages). My expectation that my morning be uninterrupted is interfering with my greater expectation, that I always treat all people well. Perhaps my pride in being a writer needing quiet is a false expectation.

 

Now consider the last time you reprehended a staff member. What expectations were you acting out of? Which ones should have been primary? Even when he displayed anger and cleaned the temple, Jesus acted on his higher expectations, i.e. that the Temple be a house of prayer for all people. Will your church become more of a place of peace and a home for prayer if you get your way on the this matter with your staff? Is is possible to tailor your expectations so that they do not cause others to be shamed or treated badly? Changing your expectations may change your temperament.

I Kings 8
Matthew 21:12-17

Do this: while you’re reading Solomon’s dedication prayer for the temple, take a can of Pledge and dust the altar rail. If your church doesn’t have one, take a few moments to complain about that fact (the architect must have been a pagan). Solomon admits that God doesn’t need an altar rail to be worshiped — in fact his great temple didn’t have one. Actually, his whole temple was an altar rail and the courts around it equivalent to the kneeling pads we place before our rail. In church language, people come to the altar during prayer time, even if they don’t leave their pew. Similarly, those living at a distance in Solomon’s day, lifted their hands towards Jerusalem and the Temple when they prayed.

 

Solomon admits that God is not limited in time and space the way we are, nor does he need a “house to dwell in.” This is a key developmental moment for religious thought, God is greater than the places we construct to honor him. But, we are geographical people —needing particular times and places to incorporate the sacred into our lives. Even couples who were married in a cabbage patch by a drunken sea captain, honor the particular day of the year that is their anniversary and speak of how they said their vows before God’s altar, such as it was. Even the most web savvy techies, use geographical constructs when they go online; having home-pages, ISP addresses, and browsers named Safari. Our worship of the omnipresent god, is diminished when we lose respect for sacred space, sacred time (sabbath), and the altar rail in particular.

 

Even though it’s two and a half to three millennium old, Solomon’s dedication prayer sounds very current and relevant to my ears. This is because the gap between human religion and eternal realities remains about the same. Solomon’s humility, when he admits that God doesn’t really need this Temple contrasts the bombastic attitude Herod and the Sadducees had about the Second Temple (Matthew 21:12-17  is a complimentary scripture to 1st Kings 8). Many of our church members evidence the same spiritual stupidity. 

 

Solomon, however, takes a great leap, and imagines the role the temple and its altar rail-like courts might play in the lives of foreigners. The temple he has built is a “house of prayer for all nations.” We too, need to catch Solomon’s vision. People today needs places they can go, and scheduled times they can trust, to say their prayers. They don’t need to have our same theology or ethnicity to be permitted to use our sacred space.

Pentecost 16
Sunday, August 23, 2015
How can we encourage altar prayer?
Discernment deals with both dreams and reality

Bill: When a married United Methodist clergy is up for a change in appointment, how much consideration should be given to the spouse’s career?

 

Joe: Spousal employment is becoming more and more of a challenge to appointment making by cabinets.  It is just the way of the world these days.  I'm not sure there is any simple solution. We clergy persons need to remember that we can't have it all.  If we are committed to supporting our spouses' career path, we will have to make sacrifices and compromises in our ministry path.  On the other hand, if a couple is fully supportive of the value that the ministry must come first, then as a family we must be committed to be fully itinerant. 

 

Bill: Over the course of my ministry, I have seen three distinct eras relating to this issue. When I began, in the early 70s, none of the cabinet members or elder statesmen of the conference had working spouses. The cultural bias was that whatever the wife did outside the home was of little consequence. On the other hand, female clergy were always asked about their husband’s work. As the general culture shifted, the church lagged. The second era, which still holds sway in some regions, was to consider clergy spouses that volunteered in the church, or worked in a staff role, to be assets. These pastors were promoted, whereas, those whose spouses had significant secular careers were assigned to financially struggling congregations, with the explanation that priority had been given to providing a location near to the spouse’s employment.

 

Joe: Having it all isn’t a realistic option. There’s only so much that the cabinet can do as it tries to meet the expectations of both clergy and congregations.

 

Bill: But, our growing awareness of justice issues has ushered us into a third era. Today, conferences are developing tools to enable clergy families to list their priorities. It is inequitable for the cabinet to appoint a clergy couple in such a way that one is earning less than what they would earn if appointed separately. In a similar vein, it is wrong for a district superintendent to ‘sell’ a pastor to a church by saying that their spouse will play the organ for free. Further, a new ministry is unlikely to be fruitful if it begins with significant clergy family needs being unmet. But, in each of these cases, the unusual thing about the clergy person can be viewed as an asset, rather than as a barrier to full itineracy.

 

Joe: With a limited number of positions available each year, certain sacrifices need to be made. Honest dialogue in the off-season, before any particular appointment is being considered, enables pastors to clarify their priorities with the cabinet, and say what they are willing to give up in order to get what they need.

 

Bill: Both clergy persons and congregational situations are becoming increasingly diverse. If appointments continue to be made in the old, paternalistic, way, where a group met in secret to determine what was best for the churches and clergy persons on the table, then United Methodism will become untenable. If however, new forums are developed for both clergy person and congregations to discern the difference between need and want, priority and like-to-have, missional and optional, then there is hope for progress in this third era.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
United Methodist Church
I Kings 3, Proverbs 9:1-6
Ephesians 5:15-20

Today if you want to know something, you Google-it. Works for discovering the lyrics to the song in your head, knowing how to tell if your pomegranate is ripe, and for looking up the population of Canton, Ohio. Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia dispense a lot of useful knowledge — people even buy smart-phones so as to never have this wealth out of reach — but, where is wisdom? What is Wisdom? People should hear about wisdom in church often, because it is our business. Internet-based information sites out perform bricks and mortar religious institutions when it comes to answering peoples’ questions. What keeps us competitive, is our claim that we can help people live better and live with an assurance about eternal realities.

 

It hits me that many of my most life changing moments, occurred in small, Christian, fellowship groups. The foundation of today’s church is a variety of small group experiences where wisdom is shared prayerfully, in relevant and personal ways. Lions may suffer want, but those who seek the Lord — and attend Sunday School — lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10). What needs to be said, is that the message of wisdom is best transferred in the medium of face to face contact.

 

There is a value statement being made in the many scriptures dealing with wisdom. It is possible to be smart and clever and successful in this world and be woefully spiritually bankrupt. Those who fulfill the world’s lust for bobble-headed insights, garner the most twitter followers. Those who wrestle with life’s inequities and seek to live with compassion and wisdom, find sweeter fruit.

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise…

- Ephesians 5:15

Pentecost 15
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Lions represent the powerful of today's information economy
Is this attitude permanent?

Joe:  OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.”  During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years. Plus, giving is down and an anonymous parishioner has sent you another message complaining about your sermons. What do you do when you get to one of these “I’m at the end of my rope” periods?

 

Bill’s response: I always put these stories in the context of what is happening to the church in America today. Two funerals may be bad news for your calendar and the church’s membership role, but funerals are our most consistent form of evangelism. Every funeral gives you a chance to share deep spiritual truths with dozens of people, many of whom rarely attend church. This is “low hanging fruit.” Rejoice!

    Every pastor is plagued by building issues. Our task is to remind ourselves and others of two truths; first, that church buildings aren’t meant to be perfect or lovable, they are meant to be functional. Second, these structures are tools for ministry, caring for them is a spiritual task. All of our ministry tools need to be sharpened, maintained, and, when they no longer serve the church’s mission, replaced. The same thing is true of long-term staff. The bad news is that staying on target is expensive, and the worse news is, offering real leadership today is often controversial. You must be willing to post transparent budgets, receive professional assessments of structural issues, be honest in reporting attendance figures, and clear in stating shared expectations. These things separate the okay clergy, from the great ones. They should cause us to raise the bar on our own plans for professional growth.

    When people are critical, its hard not to take it personally. Often, there are underlying church issues that haven’t been adequately dealt with. You may have stepped on a land mine. Now are you willing to dig up the other buried problems and make this church a better place? Your job is to educate and gently lead your people through today’s theological and cultural shifts. This task will be quickly derailed if you adopt a defensive or authoritarian attitude. Further, today’s culture also expects you to be willing to receive feedback on your sermons. 

    Each of the components of a bad week are indicative of the problem ministers face everywhere. Still, these negative experiences may lead you to question whether you are due for a move. 

 

Joe: We all go through occasional rough stretches.  If we truly believe that things will likely get better soon, it’s possible to maintain a positive attitude. But what if it’s more than just this week? It may be months since you caught a serious break. You feel tired, fed-up, and discouraged. This is when the thought continues to creep into your mind, “Is it really worth it for me to keep grinding it out here?”

 

Bill: I think it is important that we reflect upon why we feel burned out. Is it related to our failure to manage our time well and to fulfill the expectations people have of us? A simple change in ministry locations is unlikely to fix this. Or is it instead, that this church is requiring of us new skills and we are struggling to develop these tools? I often say that Bradford was my favorite church to serve, because when I arrived, it was ready for the skills that I already had in my tool box. My next appointment was more of a challenge. I felt less productive there, but I learned more. God seems to believe in on the job training. Burnout can also be a sign that we have accomplished or learned what we needed, and now it’s time to move on.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
John 6:35-51

In John 6, Jesus causes a scandal by claiming to be the bread of life. The word bread itself is problematic today; many people are on gluten-free or low carb diets. This leads to three sticking points around Jesus and bread.

  1. Is Jesus a fad, like the latest diet, which one can join or dismiss? Many at the time of Jesus saw him dangerous cult leader, a magician who was leading the gullible away. Even today, the critics of Christianity liken Jesus’ popularity with the snake-oil dealers and tele-evangelists that grip popular imagination, for a time, and then are shown to be frauds. Is Jesus optional? Is he a choice one makes, like to go on a diet or to back a certain political candidate?
  2. By doing the miracle where he provided bread to feed a multitude, Jesus was inviting comparisons between himself and Moses. The religious leaders and the establishment, loved Moses. They were also, extremely territorial. Since Moses was long gone, they could interpret him in ways that supported their position of power. Moses, not like Jesus, would never act with compassion and show them to be frauds.
  3. Jesus scandalized them by saying ‘eat my flesh, like bread, and you shall live forever.’ This sounded like an invitation to cannibalism. The promise of eternal life, was even more difficult. Today, many downplay this pivotal component of Jesus’ message. Many preachers only mention it at Easter and funerals, if then.

A three point message could be arranged as follows:

  1. Jesus is meant, like bread or some other gluten-free modern example, to be a daily and essential component of our lives.
  2. By both his teachings and actions, Jesus leads us to live lives of compassion.
  3. Eternal life is assured. Live with heaven in mind and Jesus internalized.
Pentecost 14
Sunday, August 9, 2015
Traditional Navajo home, bread is made each day in ovens
William Bridges' 3 Stage Model

Summer is a good time to talk about transition, even if your church isn’t going through one. Many of your members will be mid-transition. The important thing to remember is that all forms of major change are similar. Use the table below or think through the plots of movies, books, or Bible stories. 

 

 

7 Stages of Change

Bill's summary - there are many other models
The Stages

In a Move,

Job Change,

or Relationship

Building Project

Addiction

Recovery

1) Wishful Thinking

Vision of new role

or situation

Vision of more

functional facility

 

Desire to be Sane/Sober

intrudes on ones thinking

2) One Ray of Hope

Discovering the

means to leave

Finding some

money

Support offered from

group or counselor

3) Disruption

Discovering reasons 

that you can't leave

Major Issues and

financial shortfalls

Discovering that you are

stuck and can't save

yourself

4) Maximum Mess

You choose

not to turn back

People leave,

current functions

flop

You hit bottom,

but continue to live

in unbearable pain

5) Seeking Lost

Things

You find some

continuity between

the old and new

You find better

places to do things

You renew friendships

with those who are

sober/sane

6) Renaming

You stop calling the

old place home

New leadership,

policies, and

programs are

developed

You learn how to

live sane/sober

7) Celebrate

Say goodbye &

hello

Thank those who

helped, all are 

invited to rejoice

You celebrate

anniversaries and

attend meetings

 

Remember Dag Hammarsköld’s prayer:

For all that has been — thanks.

For all that shall be — YES!

additional author: 
William Bridges
Ephesians 4:1-16

From the prison cell, where he is cut off from the lifeblood of Christian fellowship, Paul speaks with clarity about how church is meant to be. Ephesians 4:1-16 should be read by those nominated to church office, should be responsively chanted at church council meetings, and should be prayerfully kept in mind as we enter our fall reorganizational and vision casting gatherings.

 

In 4:2, Paul begins by establishing a guideline for Christian behavior. We are not an NFL football team, nor are we Walmart. Out goal is not to win, grow, or make a profit. We are to be the church, which means in every instance to be humble with each other, loving, gentle, striving always for unity and peace. I know of youth group leaders and conflict management consultants who begin their gatherings with putting a set of behavior agreements up on the board. It may be useful to rework this scripture into a statement of behavior that we will hold ourselves to in church leadership.

 

The thing about behavior in the church, and behavior in our daily lives, is that they are related. People who need to learn better life skills, come to the church for hands on training. People who have applied Christian gentleness to their personal lives are to be promoted and given more respect in their church work. Instead of striving to meet our goals or metrics, we must be working together to create an environment where Christ’s lifestyle is experienced and learned.

 

The theme of the Ephesians 4 chapter is the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are called by God, and our calling utilizes both situation and our inner strengths. Paul is called to be in prison and to exercise his gift as a writer. We may not always like our calling. We each must honor our own calling with humility. We must also encourage others to live up to their calling.

 

Whenever talking about the Holy Spirit, we must emphasize the truth, that the gifts exist for the upbuilding of the church. Our personal enjoyment and the status we gain when we do something well, is not the point. The point is the fellowship that we belong to. The point is the church, which Paul finds himself missing, as he writes from prison.

Pentecost 13
Sunday, August 2, 2015
Church life isn't meant to look like Dilbert's meetings
What music is being played in Hell?

First let me say that this cartoon gets it wrong. True: bagpipes are hideous when badly played and serve such a narrow range of music that they are the butt of many jokes. Yet when I try to imagine the music that will be played in hell, my closest reference point is to ask, what kind of music was played by the Nazi party during their conquest of the German people? It is unlikely that Satan has the same musical tastes as Hitler, but I think their utilization of music will be similar.

 

In Nazi hell, the loud speakers carried Richard Wagner’s symphonic celebrations of the German spirit (think Apocalypse Now, note that Wagner died in 1883), Strauss-type marches (Strauss himself parted ways from the Nazis in 1935), and Beethoven, who said that,"strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest.” Next time you have the traditional verses contemporary music argument, bring out this list. 

 

Our choice of music for church services, has to reflect our commitment to diversity and the capacity music has for helping us to understand other cultures. Music Nazis in the church often want to narrow selections to the tastes of the current majority or “what we all know.” In 1933, the German people all knew that their kinfolk wrote the best music. I imagine that in Hell, souls are given headphones and made to hear the music of their childhood played repeatedly.

 

All forms of music, with the possible exception of Techno, can be used to celebrate ethical behavior, faith, and love. Music can also be used to engender loyalty in false gods, materialism, and xenophobia. Our choices in the church must be made prayerfully and with discernment as to how those who are new to our worship will be effected by our songs.

additional author: 
Cartoonist: S. Gross
2 Samuel 11

I once preached about David and Bathsheba on a dare. It was during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. The dare was that I had to preach about the President’s problem at the 11 o’clock worship service where there would be families with young children. The parishioner that challenged me knew that I was the lone democrat in a congregation of republican wolves. I chose the Bathsheba story then, and I think it is worth considering again.

 

The context of David’s scandal is set with the phrase, “In the spring, when Kings go off to war…” The story, as well as today’s application, begins with the understanding that there are certain things that people in power do. People in authority often feel themselves to be above the rules. This, and not David’s lust for Bathsheba, is the heart of the story.

 

It is very hard to be a peace maker. One has to respect all people and have a heart for justice. David had this mindset as a youth, but the further he shifted away from the shepherd’s worldview, the more he became corrupted by political expediency. 2nd Samuel 11, is the story of a fallen man. Even if he had never had sex with Bathsheba, he would still be a despicable anti-hero. His sin was to sit in his palace and do what everyone else in his position was doing.

 

We know that in the next chapter, David finds forgiveness and grace. It is not cheap or easy. An honest man and an innocent child die. When we tell David’s story, we must linger over the way a shift in perspective can either save or damn us. How we see the world is important. The story adds credence to the claim of Liberation Theology (and the current Pope) that the gospel cannot be understood, without seeing the world as the poor and the powerless see it.

 

Every person, no matter what their role in life, needs to be aware of the temptation that power offers us. David was led astray, not by his view of a woman bathing, but by his advisors that told him to be a king like other kings. What do our coworkers and friends tell us? How have we fallen into the comfortable, accepted wisdom of those who think that some people are more valuable than others?

Pentecost 12
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Gifted people do stupid things when they cease to be humble
Psalm 23

One way to say something different about the familiar Psalm 23, is to list the things that are constant about our relationship with God and give personal examples for each. Then point out that the psalm deals with the scary changeableness of life and its great transitions. This contrast, lulling people into a security with the familiar aspects of their favorite psalm, then hitting them with the harsh realities that demand faith, can be effective, if you don’t show your hand ahead of the big reveal.

 

The Relational Constants:

The hierarchy of Lord/Servant and Shepherd/Sheep

The provision of God - meeting our needs

Ethical certainty - Rod and Staff…

Eternity - I’ll dwell for ever more…

 

The Transitional Realities:

Situations change: activity & stress is followed by still waters

Sheep are led through narrow valleys to new grazing lands

Enemies became friends

We transition through death to eternal life

 

Also see “A German Shepherd Teaches Psalm 23

Pentecost 11
Sunday, July 19, 2015
The sheep left behind think the one under stress is nuts
Mark 6:14-29
Herod's Confusion about Jesus

Guilt is a funny thing. Like humor, it depends upon ambiguity. Everyday we do things that are wrong, but we tend to only feel guilty about the ones that have some confusion to them. Remember the story that Jesus tells about the rich man and Lazarus; the dude with a Rolex on his wrist and a Porsche in the drive, walks by the beggar at his door, never feels guilty, and doesn’t realize that he has contributed to Lazarus’ early death by his neglect. The rich man lives, we assume, a very purpose-driven life, with clear goals and no time for soft-headed things like charity. His approach to social ills is unambiguous; what’s this got to do with me?

 

Where we see great guilt in the Bible is in characters who allow ambiguity to creep into their worldview. This is the primary purpose of preaching. To insert ambiguity into people’s lives. This is the desired outcome of worship, to leave people feeling insecure about their prejudices and assumptions.

 

So, King David has a heart that has been shaped enough by worship that he falls into a dark ambiguity-driven depression when he is told by the prophet that God has seen what he did with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. So, King Herod, who orders the execution of thousands without loosing a minutes sleep, feels guilty about beheading John. He liked John, even though he couldn’t stomach a thing John said. Many people have the same relationship with Jesus.

 

What is the role of ambiguity and guilt in your life?

Pentecost 10
Sunday, July 12, 2015
We see the things most clearly that we are confused about
Clem led both in the church and in the political process

As we enter into patriotic reflections this weekend, it is good to remember that there are three things that we cannot change; the past, the truth, and other people. The church and her people need to be involved with social change. This involves honoring the past, speaking truth, allowing change to begin within our own walls, and then reaching out to be change agents. The AME Zion church has walked this path. President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, one of the Charleston martyrs, contains some lines that are helpful and inspiring:

 

When Clementa Pinckney entered a room, it was like the future arrived… 

 

[The state senate district that he served was] one of the most neglected in America. A place still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment. A place that needed somebody like Clem. 

 

His calls for greater equity were too often unheeded, the votes he cast were sometimes lonely.

 

“Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

 

Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long.

 

To put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.

 

[God’s grace] has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.

 

For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.

 

[In America,] we have a deep appreciation of history – we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.

additional author: 
President Obama
AME Zion Church
Mark 6:1-13

Long ago I read a sci-fi story about a world where appreciation was the currency, not money. Gold was plentiful, so people tried hard to be liked. I can’t remember much more about the story except that it ended badly. It’s not healthy for us to devote too much of our  lives to the pursuit of popularity. At the time, I thought the sci-fi story was far fetched. How could you monetize appreciation? Guess what? I’m on Facebook and I need to be Liked, I have a blog and I track how my hits, and when I preach, I listen hoping to hear people say, “Good sermon, Bill.”

 

Jesus exampled a life in which one does the compassionate and true thing without expectation of being Liked. His teachings always form a reality check; “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you…” In Mark 6, he faces difficulty in Capernaum because people knew him as a child. He says, “a prophet is without honor…” This is normal, people are still the same. The way he responds is to move along to the next village.

 

A problem that afflicts many people today is codependence. This is the need to be needed. This is where we will do anything to be liked or to have people depend upon us. A codependent person becomes attuned to how what they are saying or doing is perceived by others, and adjusts, even when that adjustment drives both parties crazy. This is not compassion, it’s madness.

 

 Jesus does something counterintuitive, he sends his disciples out without money, backpack, or safety net. This forces them to be dependent, not codependent. When they go into a well to do neighborhood, they are rejected because they look poor. They can’t make people like them. For all they meet, their message must be spoken with purity; one naked human soul to another. Class, popularity, what-I-can-do-for-you, means nothing to the Gospel.

Pentecost 9
Sunday, July 5, 2015
Who is in the better place to speak the Gospel?
"It's my tradition," the trustee chair says.

Some churches have confederate flags in disguise. U-umc had a memorial chime set in its belfry that played four times a day at two notches above what the neighbors could tolerate. Trustees explained this inconsiderate behavior by saying, “But it’s our tradition. We have members in the nursing home two miles away who helped pay for those chimes.” Sacrifice by past generations doesn’t give you a right to be insensitive.

 

True, the stubborn behavior with the chimes doesn’t approach the obnoxious racial insensitivity displayed by statehouse buildings and license plate owners with their confederate flags, but it is a similar type of rudeness. The church should never be rude. We also, should never be behind the times. If something causes our neighbor to stumble, we shouldn't do it.

 

What happens in your church that displays a disregard for the feelings of nonmembers?

Psalm 130
Mark 5:24

Prayer should interrupt our lives. This is something you learn when you travel in other lands. In the middle-east, the call to prayer wails from a minaret and suddenly people stop what they are doing and pray. In Asia, the crowds part and you see orange robbed young men with their begging bowls. Life can be interrupted by the search for enlightenment.  These men have taken a hiatus from their career path to pray. There is something universal about Psalm 130’s, “Out of the depths I cry to You… be attentive to my supplications.” Unfortunately, we have segregated our prayer to an hour on Sunday and a building. I want a religion that meets me on the street.

 

Psalm 130 is a very personal litany of prayers; each line the breath of the human soul. This forms a one-two punch when matched with Mark 5:24, where a woman interrupts Jesus — when he is on the street and very busy — with her supplication.  Out of the depths, I cry to you — the creator and interrupter of my existence.

 

This is a good time to remind people that when illness interrupts our daily lives, there may be positive spiritual benefits. The story of the woman with the unstoppable hemorrhage moves us to compassion. How terrible. Yet it contains that precious line about her touching the hem of Jesus’ robe — knowing him to be the divine in our midst — and being recognized. When has God saying, I know you, interrupted our lives?

 

Young people need to be given permission to interrupt their career paths and schooling in order to pursue mission work and spiritual adventures. Life doesn’t need to be lived according to plan.

Pentecost 8
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Spiritual interruption takes many forms
Teaching and prayer go together

Teaching is what Jesus did — they called him rabbi — day after day. He taught publicly, privately, and in impromptu settings. He never said that one place of teaching was better than another. He met with people in multiple formats because disciple making was his goal. With that being said, why do we choose to ignore the older adult Sunday school classes in our church?

 

Week after week, three to ten seniors meet in the parlor. Most pastors leave them be, unless the room is needed for some other purpose. When the saint who has taught them for forty years dies, we secretly hope that the class will get buried along with him. Instead they send a representative to our office, saying, we need a teacher.

 

If for a moment, we shift our perspective to see the church as a place where all people are nurtured by the Holy Spirit, then we’ll grasp the value of this little group. Our role will be two-fold. First, to observe how prayer happens in that group. Should we step in and teach them how to pray? Can they teach us something about prayer? Second, to discern with this group how they can continue to be nurtured in the faith. It may be that they should join another class. Or, it may be that they have a vital role as a location of prayer in the church and need to receive someone they can love into the role of teacher.

I Samuel 17: 32-49

Little David goes up to the front line, lunch pail in hand. Everyone around him is dressed like a soldier. They have khaki pants with big pockets to put their grenades and candy bars in. They have helmets with Go-pro cameras and night vision goggles. They have riffles that shoot around corners. And when David volunteers to face Goliath, the soldiers offer to trade clothes and let him wear their cool stuff.

 

“This isn’t me.”

 

It’s a significant moment in the story and a place that we have all been in. People are always insisting that we dress a certain way, that we protect ourselves by putting on the things that they depend upon, that we forsake our integrity and conform to the approach they have for facing life’s problems.

 

The context of the David and Goliath story is the I Samuel plot; the people have begged for a king, because every other nation has put on some type of political overclass to solve their selfdefense problems. In putting on what everyone else is wearing, Israel has denied its relationship with God. The people have forgotten who they are.

 

David tells how he was most himself when he wore shepherd’s clothes and faced the lion and the bear with a simple sling shot. In casual dress, David knew that he depended upon God. This is who he was. He wasn’t about to face his current problems dressed-up as someone he wasn’t.

 

One of the roles of faith in our lives is to remind ourselves of who we are and who we are not. We are people of great compassion. We are not people who build walls. We are people who worship. We are not those who forget the Christ who has saved us.

Pentecost 7
Sunday, June 21, 2015
They look bad because they choose what isn't them
What should he do?

One of my favorite books tells the story of Grover, the blue Sesame Street character. He’s on a farm and doesn’t know what his role should be. Should he cluck and peck the ground like the chickens? Should he roll in the mud like the pigs? Each animal tells him that they have their role in the joint covered. On the final page of this plot boiler, Grover discovers that he is supposed to be a farmer. 

 

There was a day when pastors were told to be evangelists. They spent their week writing hell-fire and damnation sermons and going about town, dressed in black. What this role lacked in good-humor, it made up for in clarity. 

 

In the middle of the last century, a movement arose — advocated by Henry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peal — that saw the pastor’s role as public counselor. Denominations incorporated this standard by speaking of their clergy as therapeutic professionals.

 

About the same time, a movement arose that spoke of the local church pastor as a business administrator. Seminaries scrambled to add practical courses in parish management. This concept was further refined by the church growth movement of the 1970s. They spoke of the pastor as an entrepreneur, working to increase the market share of a particular outstanding church in his/her community. 

 

Bold personalities, such as, Rick Warren, Adam Hamilton, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyers, were the darlings of this high concept. Many pastors, like myself, said, “I think they’ve got that role covered in my community.” 

 

My mentor in ministry, Dick Arnold, once said, “The church is like a greenhouse. Your role is to help each plant grow and become healthy.” Later, when I was struggling to survive my first parish I read about Grover on the farm to my children. Perhaps, the role of the pastor is to be the local farmer.

 

Jesus says this much in Mark 4:26-34  This passage pivotal for the healthy congregations movement,and thinkers such as Christian Schwartz (Church Smart - Natural Church Development). A farmer gets up everyday and looks at the fields — his little agricultural system, and tries to do what he can do that day to make the place more fruitful. He has concern for the health of his plants (which are like a pastor’s members). He has an even bigger concern, though, for the over all mission of his farm. With humility, the farmer always sees him or herself in partnership with God. 

 

Be a farmer. See Holy Process

additional author: 
Christian Schwartz
Mark 4:26-34

Jesus talks farming in Mark chapter 4. This gives rural people and gardeners an advantage, but means that you’ll have to till the ground a bit more carefully to explain it to people who aren’t normally aware of organic processes. Jesus says that the growth of holiness in our lives and in the world is an organic process, like the gradual transition of seed to plant to fruit to the easing of hunger. One could also speak of the process of acorn to oak to wood to house to home.

 

So the first question to ask may be, is holiness growing in your personal life in an organic and healthy way? You could ask the same question of your church. What about your neighborhood? Is there a healthy process of development; people needing shelter, to houses to homes and schools to young adults who leave the neighborhood to start lives elsewhere, remembering the values, missional mindset, and spirituality that they had been taught?

 

An organic process is something that occurs over time. Note how a tree branches out. The placement and direction of each branch is determined by the trees innate DNA and the direction the sunshines into that patch of the woods. The health of tree depends on many factors, the most important though involve the water and nutrients the tree has at its roots and the skill set of defense mechanisms the tree has at its disposal. The total process, Jesus tells us, is a miracle.

 

How do we become spiritual and holy people? Do we want to be saved, healed, or made holy?

 

Jesus says that this is an organic process. The farmer does a certain amount of work, but he mostly watches his field, and the seed “of itself” produces the plant, which “of itself” produces the wonderful harvest. Like a tree, where we are rooted spiritually matters. We need a healthy church fellowship to grow properly. But our spiritual journey springs up in a mysterious way from within us. Becoming holy is an organic process. We engage in spiritual disciplines, but mostly we observe and try to be a partner with God for the harvest that he alone can bring about.

Pentecost 6
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Note how even the bees are part of the organic process
First, you must not fool yourself & you are the easiest person to fool

In light of the troubles at FIFA, and at the Red Cross, and knowing that I will be attending a meeting of the grand poo-paws of the United Methodist Church next week, I present a remembrance of Richard Feynman. He was a clown, prophet, atheist, and one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. Famous for picking the locks and leaving ‘got-cha’ notes in top secret file cabinets at Los Alamos, where he worked as a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan project, Feynman was asked to serve on the commission investigating the Challenger explosion.

The Space Shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after lift off in January 1986. The cause of the accident was the culture of disrespect for life at NASA — the people in charge of the launch knew they shouldn’t go when the temperature was below 40 degrees. The temperature at the pad was 28 degrees at launch. This fact should have made investigation into the disaster easy. It wasn’t.

Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the Rogers Commission, even though he was in ill health (he died of cancer the next year). He was the token scientist and outsider — a Nobel prize winner, expected to add some credence to the investigation without making a nuisance of himself. Richard found himself annoyed by the nice little guided field trips that NASA let the commission take around the facilities. He left the beaten path and asked enough questions to reveal that NASA was under political pressure to keep to the launch schedule. Further, what the brass at NASA told the public about the safety of the shuttle differed from what the engineers on the project knew to be true. A systemic culture of disregard for life kept the shuttle flying.

At the public press conference where the Rogers commission made its report, little was said about the systemic problems at NASA.  Feynman spoke up at the end of the conference. He produced an O-ring, made of the same material as the ones that sealed the critical booster joints on the shuttle. He flexed it and then threw it into the glass of ice water at his table. Lifting the o-ring out, he showed how brittle it had become. Here was the direct cause of the accident — but Feynman would be gone before NASA was ready to fly again.

Sometimes the system needs a clown. Churches and nonprofits, like the American Red Cross, are always in danger of believing their own PR. A culture develops were everyone seeks to meet their metrics or quotas, and no one considered the biblical call to choose life.

I Samuel 8:4-20

It is hard to bite the hand that feeds you. It requires courage and a whole hearted dependency upon God to do it more than once. Thing is, people who keep people, like pets, and feed them everyday in paternalistic ways, are many. Most of us belong to something or someone who is happy to feed us. Three notable exceptions are Groucho Marx, Jesus of Nazareth, and the prophet Samuel.

 

Groucho famously said, “I refuse to be a member of any organization that will have me.”  His team then went on to make the film Duck Soup. This 1933 classic pokes fun at the rising Nazi movement in Germany, while at the same time delivering jabs at the way political systems own all of us. It was the last film made by the Marx Brothers for Paramount, because Groucho habitually bit the hand that was feeding him.

 

Jesus, too, only gave to Caesar that which rightfully belonged to the temporal king. The political authorities above us rightfully control (or own) the materials of economic exchange (money, stocks, bonds, trade policies, etc) and the laws that protect every person from every other person. Caesar, or the king, or the American government, doesn’t own any person. Only the creator God truly owns us. Jesus was constantly working to free people from the politically induced issues of the day, and hand them back to God.

 

This brings us to 1 Samuel 8:4-20. Here the prophet speaks the truth about all political systems. The people are asking for a king, but they could be asking for a president. Samuel has a personal stake in granting this request. Any king that he names will be beholding to to him and his church. If Samuel names his neighbor Joe, then King Joseph  will make sure that Sam and his organization gets everything they want. There is a danger to this. God calls us to bite the hand that feeds us whenever that hand is being unjust. We must not consider which side our bread is buttered on. We must oppose all temporal powers. Can we love the poor and be dedicated supporters of either political party? Can we work for equality and give Wall Street such sweeping powers? Can we seek the peace of God’s kingdom and constantly give up our children for war?

Pentecost 5
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Prophets walk a fine line -- they bite the hand that feeds them
Things get crazy when we move

Back in the 1970s, Loren Mead identified “Five Developmental Tasks” for transitional leaders. In the next few weeks, some of you will be moving to a new church and/or your church may be recieving new leadership. These five tasks provide a check list for healthy transition:

 

1) Help the congregation come to terms with its History.

For the lame duck pastor, this means helping the congregation view the coming move in the context of the church’s larger lifespan. Pastors come and go. The church goes on. Looking at history has a way of diminishing our myopic obsession with personalities. History is something we come to terms with. We must each accept our failures and dropped balls. Both Pastors and Congregations can be gently led to make confessions and receive forgiveness and assurance.

 

For the new pastor, coming to understand the congregation’s history is vital. New comers to a family system (all congregations are complex family systems) can easily blunder into hidden conflicts and cross-cultural taboos. Knowing the congregation’s history also provides valuable clues about the church’s sense of identity. Further, asking long time church members to tell you the story of their congregation is a great way to show that you care and are willing to listen.

 

2) Help the congregation to discover a new sense of Identity.

Church leaders often fall into the trap of confusing their congregation’s identity with the aspirations and personality of their current pastor. A lay person will say, “We are very mission-minded here at First UMC.” In actuality, the long suffering pastor who has been at First for fifteen years has had to use all of her energy to get them to do the minimum of outreach. There is a brief moment between pastors, when churches are free to think about who they are when they aren’t trying to please the pastor. I believe each congregation has a unique calling from God. Their true identity is something that remains constant, even as pastors come and go. A new pastor is more likely to be successful in taking them to the next level if they can help the congregation discover a new sense of identity that aligns with latent personality or DNA that the church is already familiar with.

 

3) Set in motion needed Leadership Change.

When you leave your current assignment, there will always be some church leaders who will use this opportunity to step down from their positions. It may be that they were tired and didn’t want to tell you, or that they feel the new pastor should will need a new broom to bring in sweeping changes. You can help by informing the new pastor of these changes. Further, there are some office holders that need a nudge to leave where they are ineffective and move onto an area of service that the new pastor will find beneficial.

As a new pastor, you will want to involve as many new leaders as you can in the committee structure of the church. People who, like you, are relatively new to the congregation, are more likely to support the changes you will be inviting the congregation to consider.

 

 4) Help the congregation to renew the relationship it has with its Denomination.

For United Methodists, every change in pastoral appointment brings a renewed interest in the local church’s relationship to the conference. Paying apportionments (mission share) and participating in district functions are always positive attributes for a congregation. It is easier to build healthy habits and restore strained relationships during a pastoral change. No matter how you feel about your own experience of the appointment process, it is vital that you present the denomination in a good light. The people do not need to hear your personal complaints. Further, a good relationship with the denomination will be a good thing for the local church in the long run. It is in their interest that they do all they can to be a church in good standing.

 

5) Help the laity commit to new Directions in ministry.

Just as you are trying to grow as a person and take your professional skills to the next level by participating in a move, so also the churches involved are committing themselves to traveling a new direction in ministry. It is your responsibility to help the church you are leaving be open to new ideas and opportunities. It is also your responsibility to help your next church make the transition to where their ministry needs to be in the future.

 

These five words: History, Identity, Leadership Change, Denomination, and Direction, are key to promoting healthy attitudes in congregations as they change pastors.

additional author: 
Loren Meade
UMC
Romans 8:12-17

Here is a challenge: use these words, “for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (Romans 8:13) to speak about addiction. I say this cautiously: first, because the passage speaks in a very elegant way about the Holy Spirit and most congregations need to hear that message. Second, because none of us want to repeat the judgmental, temperance, language of our grandparent’s church. Third, because only a few in the church will be ready to hear the message and act upon it.

 

That being said, note a few advantages to this passage as a teachable moment in the discussion about drugs and other addictive agents in our society.

 

  1. It speaks about the ‘way’ of death/flesh and the ‘way’ of life. The focus is not on the addictive substance or activity. Addiction is a process. It entraps people, not just by hijacking the pleasure centers of the brain, but also by reinforcing habits and social activities. Many of those I talk to worry more about losing their friends than they do about losing their drug. Paul says we need to replace the life of the flesh with a life of the spirit. That means Christian fellowship and supportive group therapy.
  2. The context of Romans 8 is Romans 7. Here Paul speaks about how our good intentions fail. We, all of us, become at some point in our lives, enslaved to sin. The twelve step program’s, “recognize that we are helpless to help ourselves,” comes into play.
  3. Paul offers hope. The great faith statement: those who live by the spirit are children of God (14). We are not alone in our struggles… we have a God who jealously desires our freedom.
Pentecost 2
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Your brain on meth
People used to choose churches that looked like churches

I rushed to get to the bank and found it open. Good thing, because we chose this bank for its multiple locations and convenient hours. There was a time when people chose a bank because it looked like a bank — big vault, rigid hours, paternalistic attitude, etc. There was a time when people chose their church because it looked like a church. Big vault = high theology, rigid hours = fixed-in-the-marquee service times, paternalistic attitude=paternalistic attitude.

 

Churches used to emphasize membership. Today, people need to be invited to partner with you. This happens on two levels: 1) healthy congregations partner with your life to help you grow spiritually and become a better person. Small group meetings and worship services are planned as partnering events. 2) healthy congregations are in mission to transform their community and want you to partner with them.

 

Guess what? I’ve noticed that whenever I go to my bank I am bombarded with partnership invitations. They have a monitor running a powerpoint showing how by working together with them: I can save for retirement, repair my credit, buy a new home, etc. Paternalism is banished from their slides. This is financial discipleship formation. I can even use a mobile app to weave my bank partnership into my life 24/7.

 

Oh, and did I mention that they serve decent coffee? Why can’t my church be more like my bank?

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27

What if we prepared for Pentecost the way we prepare for Christmas or Easter? We spend the month before December 25 buying presents for those we love. What if the fifty days before Pentecost became a time in which we thought about how God has gifted us? We each have received spiritual gifts, natural talents, and places of service, by the grace of God. The post-Easter time should be used preparing ourselves — sharpening the saw, as Steven Covey says — for more effective service and more fruitful lives.

 

Hopefully our Lenten journey in preparation for Easter varies from year to year. One year we may study the Lord’s Prayer, line by line, seeking to understand the mechanism of prayer. In the Pentecost that follows, we could make changes in our church to make it a more solid house of prayer.

 

Some years, the key emphasis of Lent is upon the work and life of Christ. We arrive at Easter glad to hear the news that he lives, and was not defeated in death. Now, we should arrive at Pentecost amazed by the news that the Holy Spirit allows Christ to work in our community through the Holy Spirit.

 

This year, Pentecost falls on Aldersgate. Those in the United Methodist tradition should be preparing to evaluate how their church lives out of the same spirit that warmed the heart of John Wesley. Like the early church in Acts, Pentecost pushes us into the streets to show our commitment to social justice. It was the heart of a missionary that was prepared for the spirit on May 24th. John Wesley was also a man prepared for his Pentecost by a life of personal piety and daily devotions. Such things matter.

Pentecost
Aldersgate Day
Sunday, May 24, 2015
5/24 prepared Wesley to serve, Daily Devotions prepared him for 5/24
Life's forces have both direction and magnitude

Lately I’ve been telling people that all authentic long range planning in the church is driven by two outward and upward forces or vectors — a vector is a force with both magnitude and direction: Vector 1) The drive to reach new people, and Vector 2) The organizational charge to nurture our faithful and make them into effective disciples for Christ. Any action plans or goals that we develop for our congregation must move in at least one of these directions. Hopefully our goals serve both vectors, for this is where the energy of the Holy Spirit and our faithfulness to the scriptures lies.

 

This shouldn’t seem strange to us, for there is within our personal lives a similar nurturing of the Holy Spirit. Children are born into this world with two outward and upward desires: Vector 1) The drive to experience new things and to be creative, and Vector 2) The organizational charge to do good work, make things, and provide for ourselves. Sometimes these vectors are placed in opposition, people are told they have to decide between experiencing everything (vector 1), and working to be successful at one thing (or to have material security). This polarity breaks the human heart. The Holy Spirit calls us to be both creative and nurturing. A full life sends us outward to experience new things and deeper to live lives of service. 

 

In both my personal life and in my consultation with congregations, I have advocating the practice of discerning waypoints rather than fixing SMART goals. We can be more inclusive of every idea brought up at a planning meeting if we say, “What kind of things can we do that will help us to be both more welcoming of new people and grow in our effectiveness as disciples? What’s a good first step? We don’t need a five year plan, just a place to begin.”

 

Try translating this to your personal life. What if James is right when he says: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15) 

 

Instead of setting big goals, like “I’m going to lose 25 pounds by July 1st,” try discerning the next waypoint to a healthier you. It may be to start each day with a walk. Similarly, we should ask, What kind of things can I be doing that both help me to be more creative and help me to express love to my family? What’s a good first step towards a more compassionate life? What is the Lord willing to do with me today? Leaders who can get out of the “life by objective” mindset on a personal level will be more sensitive and flexible leaders in all of their church work.

Psalm 1
Mark 4:30-32

I like Psalm One, especially with the clear progression of verbs found in the RSV walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands… nor sits. One imagines a young person listening first to some bad advice, then finding himself loitering with the wrong crowd, then in time, becoming fully stuck in an addiction, financial folly, or illicit lifestyle. Wickedness is an active, dynamic thing, until it is not. It is easier to steer a life away from tragedy while it is yet unformed. Be careful the rut you choose, you’ll be in it a long, long, time.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about goal-setting and the role that visioning should play in our personal lives. It seems to me that the wicked are much more intentional about marketing long range self-help than are the compassionate. The wicked begin their sermons with, “You can do whatever you fix your mind to do.” Jesus began his sermon, “blessed are…” He focused on forming the generous heart in his disciples first, before he told them that the goal was to make disciples of the whole world. He began with inner peace and rooted spirituality (taught people how to sit), then branched out to spreading salvation/healing (walk to all nations).

 

The wicked are always going somewhere and asking you to join them. They go to Arizona and build a wall. They go into the city to buy drugs. They go to Wall Street and create Ponzi schemes and real-estate bubbles. They go to the Midwest and buy family farms, reseeding the earth with GMO corn and Round-up resistant soy. Once they have convinced you that you are in control of your own happiness, they ask you to stand with them so that they can grow richer and more famous. Eventually, their subjects are reduced to unthinking zombies — people who sit together because misery loves company.

 

Not so the righteous! Psalm one gives us the image of a fertile tree as the ultimate good life. Jesus builds on this in his parable of the mustard seed that grows to become a useful fixture in the community (Mark 4:30-32). We still need to think about goals and visions for our lives, but that needs to be done in the context of discerning the spiritual gifts and resources that God has already placed in our lives. We root in order to grow.

Easter 7
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Be careful the rut you choose, you'll be in it a long time
Are you keeping in touch with everyone

Sometimes I attend a nearby church that is clueless on communication.I don’t think that they are alone in having problems adapting to digital age. Because I am an irregular attender, I find myself asking questions like, “What time is the Ash Wednesday service?” or “What craft items do they need for VBS?” or “Is the church still collecting items for flood relief?” I could always call the church office, but when are they open? This church puts out a weekly bulletin, which is packed with worship parts and cryptic notes. This bulletin is optional for those who attend the contemporary service. Let’s face it, no one really reads the bulletin any more. Thank God for the church web site. Wait a minute, it hasn’t been updated in over a year! 

 

This is all exasperated by the way people schedule their lives today. Most of the faithful are irregular, like I am. Their personal schedules shift from week to week. They are used to planning their activities on the fly. The urge to donate to a mission project may strike them late at night or while they are out of town. They’ll go to Saturday night worship this week and the 11 o’clock traditional the next. The savvy church leader uses doodle poll or some other flexible scheduling process to gather their committee members. In planning programs, churches need to provide multiple small group experiences, rather than expect one large event to fit everyone’s lifestyle.

 

As we have shifted from paper to digital, each of us has chosen their own set of preferred communication tools. Some depend heavily on email, while others send texts. Facebook has become universal, but only some of your members will visit the church’s page. Blogs and twitter may work best for those who always have a mobile device at hand. For most of us, web sites are fall-back resources, that is, we go to them only when we urgently need information. Committee chairs should be given the website password and made responsible for keeping the calendar items and other information current for their work area. No one should have to call the church office to discover when a meeting is going to take place. Don’t forget to post church events to Facebook, so that church friends get an invite and have a chance to indicate if they plan to attend. 

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

One of the embarrassing things about our faith is that our entire theology can be expressed in three words of less than four letters. This fact, combined with the difficulty many of us have with practicing what we say we know, leads us to want to fancy up Jesus. Maybe my intellect would be happier with Scientology or some contemporary form of Gnosticism. Yet, God is love — and those who know this must also love.

 

I have been helped lately by hearing W. Craig Gilliam from Perkins and www.justpeaceumc.org, speak about Martin Buber’s I-Thou. It too, is a simple concept. Every social interaction involves either my treating the other as an IT, or my being aware of them as human, endowed with the full range of feelings that I have, and loved by God by the same grace that I depend upon. Take what should be an easy place to practice this, the daily interaction between two people in a long term committed relationship. Dr. Gillian points out that his wife knows when he has treated her as an IT. This is the hitch in our conversations, especially with people who know us well, we expect them to respond to what we have said, instead they respond to the actual I-IT attitude that was behind our speech. 

 

God is love. He always treats us as human beings. His grace is thou…thou…thou. I do religion when I treat God as an IT, and offer him an hour in church and a twenty dollar bill in the plate, but don’t seek to know his will. His will is knowable. He wants us to love those around us. He wants us to treat them, I-Thou.

 

One of my odd jobs in college was teaching a group of mentally challenged adults how to swim. For some of them, the fear of the water was so strong, that I could smell it. Instead of teaching them how to do the Australian crawl, I led them to go one rung further down the ladder of the pool, then said, “Good job!” Others, had been coming to this swimming class for years, and still depended upon the floatation devises we gave to them. Yet, what struct me, as someone preparing to go to theology school, was that each of them were capable of knowing that God is love. Some mastered what I have not in thirty five years. Further, this group of adults were fortunate to be in a facility where the people treated them with I-Thou love, day after day. 

 

I-Thou, this is evangelism. God is love, this is the sermon. Go do likewise.

Easter 6
Mother's Day
Sunday, May 10, 2015
W.Craig Gilliam applies I-Thou to church conflict & social justice
Vectors have magnitude and direction

In long range planing with churches, I have begun to use the word vector instead of goal or objective. The Goals/Objective language is borrowed from the business world which thinks in terms of profit being the underlying greatest good that all things serve. I cringe every time I hear a guru tell church people to adopt SMART goals. We have Christ to serve, and our driving long-range vision is the great commission, that we make disciples in all contexts and among all peoples for the transformation of the world. All of this is done with an attitude of authentic love for those outside the church, never treating them as objects to be manipulated for our own ends. Authenticity often gets lost when we set goals and adopt metrics to keep us tracking towards our business objectives.

 

The word “Vector” is borrowed from the sciences. Math and physics people use vectors to describe forces that interact with objects or people. Every vector has both magnitude and direction. We have within the church, a movement by the holy spirit to witness abroad about the love of God. This vector leads us to develop strategies to bring new people to Christ and the church. In each local church, this vector has a certain magnitude or intensity, often related to the degree of spiritual passion in the church. 

 

We also have another vector that leads us towards organizing and providing structures where our people can be nurtured towards effective discipleship. This force propels us to schedule worship services, develop small groups, engage our people in mission work, teach ethics and stewardship, etc. This fulfills the “make disciples for the transformation of the world” component of our call. I like the Methodist credo, organizing to beat the devil. In every local church this, too, has a certain magnitude. Where it is weak, the church declines.

 

Instead of setting goals or objectives, we should develop way points that build first one and then the other of these essential vectors. The Holy Spirit always adds these two vectors (not balances), leading the church outward and upward.

 

for more see the slideshow: www.slideshare.net/BillKemp/fire-and-ice-two-visions-that-dont-have-to-be-in-conflict

John 15:1-8
1 John 4:7-21

Abiding Love

Scholars may argue about whether the same man wrote the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, but John 15 and 1 John 4 sound like two peas in a pod. John is trying to simplify the relationship with have with each other and with Jesus into two words. The words Abide and Love. I want to go one step further and simplify the whole church experience into this concept of Abiding Love. Church is where people support each other in abiding in the love of God, and where God’s spirit supports us in abiding in love with those close to us. 

 

Did you know that the dictionary definition for church doesn’t contain the word love. It goes as follows: “Church is a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” (Apple dictionary)

 

I don’t like this definition. Not only does it exclude the love that Jesus says will define us, it includes three institutional words: clergy, buildings, and doctrines. The trouble is that this is exactly how most people in the world around us see the church. In fact, it may be the way most church people view the Church. It may also be the reason most people today say they can be religious perfectly fine without the Church, thank you. This past week, less than 18% of Americans went to church. 

  

Jesus defines his Church by how we love. Did I mention, that the one thing that separates the previous modern epoch from our current postmodern culture is this emphasis on relationships? For the last thousand years, we have been selling church as the place to go to hear a qualified (but often celibate) clergy-person preach, to be in a beautiful building (with an organ), and learn to the right doctrines (orthodox). What if we changed (The Church change?) And began speaking about entering into a discipleship formation process, which we call Church (with a capital ‘C’) and practice there in, love for each other and love for those who are hurting around us?

 

 

I think we need to redefine our church life to support the “abiding in love” that John and Jesus are talking about. In Reality Check 101 I offer this alternative definition that captures the spirit of John 15 and 1 John 4:

 

Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship,

 who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.

 

Perhaps you can think of a way to add the words Abide and Love to this definition — but I think it implies their importance.

Easter 5
Sunday, May 3, 2015
Church isn't defined by building, clergy, or theology
Had on air panic attack

ABC Nightline anchor Dan Harris recently published an account of the panic attack he had in 2004, while doing the news live, before about five million people. I found myself feeling for him. I’ve embarrassed myself — drawn mental donuts — while preaching. My public ministry has been on a much smaller stage, but the bitter taste of panic and failure is the same. For me, ministry has often felt like a high wire act. We see those around us fall. Some falls can be fatal to our career or continued ministry in a particular location.

 

Dan Harris confesses his meltdown on national TV was triggered by unresolved personal issues, drug use, and gobs of work related stress. It took a number of years for him to find the inner healing that he needed to do his job consistently. Most of us, like Dan, have a similar mixture of irrational inner demons that threaten to erupt, send us into crisis, and ruin our ministry.

 

For Dan Harris today, daily meditation and spiritual reflection are helping him to be 10% happier than he was before his breakdown. Being 10% happier may not seem like much, but it is enough to keep him sane, sober, and able to perform in public. He says that meditation isn’t a cure all, but its cost effective.

 

Looking back over my thirty odd years in ministry, I have come to see that my habit of daily devotions was a lifesaver. It didn’t keep me from some pretty major screw ups, but it made me at least 10% more effective and consistent. The fifteen to thirty minutes a day that I spent in devotional time and prayer was pretty cost effective.

 

Today, the extended version of Reinhold Niebuhr’ serenity prayer is a pretty good place to begin your habit of daily meditation:

 

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

 

also see Dan Harris story

additional author: 
Dan Harris
Reinhold Niebuhr
Psalm 23

The full version of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer draws a connection between the acceptance of hardship as a pathway to peace and our capacity to be “reasonably happy in this life.” This echoes a key theme of Palm 23. We are on an educational journey here, and to both understand our teacher and complete our course, we need to accept pain, as well as, a multitude of things we cannot change. Encountering this world as our shepherd does, is fundamental to Christianity. It leads us a away from the frivolous pursuit of happiness. It allows us to think missionally about our lives. We are not here to gather the most toys, complete a bucket-list of exotic experiences, or have unending comfort —- we are here to love. Reasonable happiness involves hardship. But, no matter what our circumstances, we can be reasonably happy if we have developed a deep trust in God.

 

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 

Taking, as He did, this sinful world 

As it is, not as I would have it; 

Trusting that He will make all things right 

If I surrender to His Will; 

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life 

And supremely happy with Him 

Forever and ever in the next. Amen.

Easter 4
Sunday, April 26, 2015
G. Donigian lists this prayer as one of three prayers you'll want to pray
Getting alignment around a vision can be frustrating

Rarely is there a greater gap between expectation and actuality than what is found in a local church the year after a new mission statement has been adopted or a serious goal setting process performed. In vision casting there s a rule: the more time and consultant costs expended, the less the person in the pew cares. In the business world there is a word for this, Alignment. Where alignment exists, the objectives of the management are well known and the company’s mission statement has been adopted by the employees, so that folk are pulling together. The business world has an advantage, everyone is on the payroll and gets something tangible from knowing the goals and cooperating. In the local church, achieving alignment is like herding cats.

    When goal setting fails in your church, lack of communication or some similar leadership miss-step will be blamed.  Pastors always feel guilty the year after a consultant has taken mucho bucks to help their church discover its vision. The consultant’s last words are always, “the ball’s in your court now.” The consultant leaves, assuring everyone that the hard work has been done.

The truth is, not just is alignment harder to achieve in the non-profit organization, it is impossible to achieve in the church if the goals haven’t been obtained in the right way.

    Where businesses can use the carrot and stick approach to force wayward cats to get with the program. Congregations have few legitimate tools to create alignment. People pull together when they have been consulted in the process of goal development, so consensus needs to be utilized early and often in the development church goals. Family ties and the positive sense of belonging are major factors in motivating stray committees and local church leaders to support an objective. 

    The big factor for alignment, that needs always to be kept in mind, is how a particular goal lines up with the faith that people hope to strengthen and live out of while associated with this congregation. Theology can’t be added in after the fact. Goals must arise out of our prayer life and shared sense of mission. This takes a lifetime to achieve.

    Instead of beating ourselves up about how we have failed to implement the recently adopted goals, we should concentrate on helping the church become healthy in its leadership process and more passionate in its faith.

Luke 24:36-48

The last line of Luke is, “You are witnesses of the things.” What things? I read backward and find a dead guy eating a fish and saying, “watch me.” So the first thing we as Christians witness to is the fact that God has totally disrupted the natural order of the earth by sending to us an ordinary appearing individual, who happens to have the power to rise from the dead. This changes everything. We’ve all had that speculative conversation, usually late at night with a glass of wine in our hands, about how things would be different if we encountered aliens and that we are not alone in the universe. Now we have proof that, not only are we not alone, but our alien god has inserted itself into a particular moment in time.

 

Put plainly, the Easter story is startling. It is news worthy. It is worthy of much discussion and suitable for changing lives. It changes everything. So the first thing we must say is, I know someone who has come back from the dead. Then, with this crazy fact out of the way, we can witness to how we discovered the fish-eating one to be God and that God is merciful. We can go on to witness to our own miracle; how we were saved by our own strange encounter with Truth or God-with-Us.

 

Thirdly, we can witness to the social changes that Jesus advocated. Jesus ate with the poor and the outcast. He valued life and hated the violence of those who oppress their neighbors. He witnessed in parables and simple teachings like the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) to the distance humankind has come from the loving expectations of God. He died and then got up and ate fish with his friends so that we might seek to be loving, peaceful people, witnessing to others about the grace of God.

Easter 3
Sunday, April 19, 2015
What miracle made you aware of God's intervention?
If someone offers you a way to peace, don't crush it

Ideology often trumps common sense. Common sense says that honey catches more flies than vinegar — being sweetly concerned about the interests and needs of others, will lead to a more fruitful and peaceful existence. But if you are acidic, competitive, slow to forget slights and always looking for a way to put others down, your life will be marked by sorrow and loss. Why do we choose the latter? As individuals and as congregations, we are often mired in destructive and painful thought systems, or to use an appropriate word, ideologies.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “Modern ministry is no easy proposition; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals… in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization.”  His immediate concern, when he wrote this in 1929, was the racial and ethnic discrimination that brewed conflict between the sweet message of the gospel and the ideological entrenchment of his Detroit parishioners.

 

He could be writing about the churches that I have served. He could be writing about the political polarization along party lines that is destroying the sweet fabric of our democracy. As I blog this, I am in prayer for a family member caught in the mental trap, or ideology, of addiction. He says, “I will have no friends if I stop hanging with those who do drugs.” The mind-system may kill him. I am also in prayer for our political leaders as they run to tear apart the current peace-process in the Middle East with their ideological swords.

 

This week I went out to photograph the spring crocus, realizing that I had only days to capture their fleeting beauty. As I knelt, prayer-like and close, I was mindful that I could easily crush the flowers I was seeking to capture with my careful photographic ideology. Ideology often tramples common sense.

If someone offers you

a way to peace,

don’t let old thinking

crush it

additional author: 
Reinhold Niebuhr
Psalm 133
John 15

I always associate Psalm 133 with the 1969 red Toyota Corona that I owned when I was young and slightly more foolish. The car had an oil filter located behind the wheel-well which required an extra joint between your elbow and wrist to reach. Back then, I felt that my manliness depended upon changing my own oil. The little car regularly baptized me for my sins. Oil dripped down over my long hippy hair, and nigh, even unto my beard and the collar of my turtleneck.

 

Psalm 133 waxes longingly for intimate spiritual fellowship. It speaks of the brotherhood of the temple priests, but we can easily imagine that this is what Christ wants for his church. The fellowship of those who love each other in the Lord is like sweet, cool, anointing oil, dabbing the forehead, and then, refreshing the parched skin of God’s wilderness dwelling people.

 

This hymn to congregational love, recognizes that it is rare. We live in the secular world. We duck into church, sometimes too busy to take off our coats. We worship God the way microwaves cook food. We pass the peace, half listen to announcements, and smile at the children going down the aisle for their mini-sermon. We name things like this as ‘signs of fellowship.’ We don’t know what we are missing. The days of King David may not have had much spiritual love either, but at least they didn’t kid themselves like we do.

 

It is impossible to separate Christ’s gospel from his command that we form nurturing fellowships. I think that when Jesus says, “Love each other as I have loved you,” he is pointing to the hard organizational work he accepted as his calling when he knit the first disciples together into a unity (John 15). Like stars fleeing the big bang, our members fly apart from the fellowship that marked the day of Pentecost when; they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1).

 

The important thing to know about the oil that flowed down Aaron’s face and even to the collar of his robes, is that Psalm 133 is poetry. Poetry speaks to the heart. It reminds us of our humanity and the joy that comes when we do our spiritual dance in harmony with others. 

Easter 2
Sunday, April 12, 2015
1969 Toyota - best for Oil Immersion Baptisms
Pastor's need a two minute drill prepared before they get the call to move

Football players learn something called the Two Minute Drill. This is a package of plays for the two minutes before halftime and the final possession of the game. These are the game’s most valuable seconds. United Methodist clergy need a similar package of plays for the days that follow a call from a cabinet member concerning a new appointment. If you don’t have a personal action plan prepared, it’s easy to feel out of control in this hustle-to-move-the-ball time.

    When your District Superintendent says, “I need your decision by…” remember that it could be worse. Just a generation ago, bishops and cabinets met during the week of Annual Conference and worked out all of the pastoral appointments behind closed doors. These were read, often without forewarning, on the last day of the Conference. Even today, some appointments get sealed without real consultation or time for negotiation. Until the phone rings, it is impossible to predict how much time and latitude will be afforded to your part of the decision.

    Your personal package of plays, then, begins with an intentional remembrance that you are a man or woman of God. The circumstances of the next few months will not change this in any way. Your decision to remember this one fact must color every conversation and undergird every choice. Faith, not fear or selfish career concerns, needs to guide how you share this process with your loved ones. Wisdom needs guide you, both as you seek advice from others and as you verbalize your feelings. Deep, persevering prayer for discernment from the Lord is and must always be integral in your decision making process. I am convinced that pastoral changes made without real prayer (and here I speak to both clergy and cabinets) are often bad appointments. The Spirit of God belongs in the process. Prayer should be the “alpha and the omega,” the beginning and the end, in our appointment decisions. Decide before the phone rings, how you will pray and who will be your trusted prayer partners.

    The second component of your two-minute drill, needs to be a tool for evaluating the role you and your family will have in the actual making of the decision. Is this appointment is a “done deal,” or an opportunity that you can decline without consequence? How you frame this question depends upon your relationship with the cabinet and bishop. Has this move been initiated by you, your current church, the cabinet, or some mixture of all three? If you don’t know or you aren’t sure how relevant this backstory is, you need to ask. Consider the following ways to broach this subject:

    “Before I pray about this, I’d like to be clear as to whether I have the option to stay here if the appointment doesn’t feel right.”

or    “I understand that it is important for me the move on from… if I, or my spouse, discern a problem with this new appointment, will the cabinet be open to reconsidering and offering a different place?”

    However you word the above question, your intent is not to prejudge the new appointment. In fact, getting clarity regarding timing of this appointment and your latitude in the decision before you have looked at what is being offered is meant to establish you as a team player. What you need is additional insight into the state of the cabinet. Are they heavily invested in making this move happen? Do they have only a few, or no, other places to put you? How is your move part of the big picture? Is this move part of an effort by the conference to address some external issue, such as, salary inequity, diversity, or the creation of opportunities for younger clergy? Clarity here will allow you to develop your own role in the decision making process.

    Often the window for your decision is short; a few days, or even twenty-four hours is not uncommon.  Therefore, besides praying mightily you must be prepared to gather as much meaningful information as you can so as to make a decision that will be a good one.

    If the appointment under consideration is within your present district, the superintendent should be able to offer pieces of relevant information over the phone.  If not, always request to speak with the DS within whose district the prospective appointment is located.  They will usually be able to give more information about the charge than your DS will.  Here are some potential topics that you may want to cover in the initial phone call:

    Share honestly where you were in terms of any move this year. Do you have a family concern, such as having a child about to graduate from high school, could make the prospect of any move, not just this particular move, challenging? Is there unfinished work at your current appointment that might influence your decision?  Sometimes out of expediency cabinets ask pastors of short tenure to think about moving.  I have witnessed this many times. You are the only one who can responsibly stand up and say, “I’m honored, but no thanks.”

Ask for a general description of the charge. Is it urban, suburban, town, or rural? Is it a community in transition — one where the church lay leaders may be out of touch with demographics of the neighborhood? 

Ask how has the ministry of the church been going recently? Push to learn the things that the statistical report can’t tell. What are the church/charge’s strengths?  Where has this congregation struggled in the last few years? What history needs to be known? 

The DS may not be able to answer these questions, but they at least should be able to name the gifts and skills in your ministry tool kit that made the cabinet choose you for this situation. This is not the time to set your record straight, but to get insight into the dynamics of this appointment. 

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be accumulating an image of how your approach to ministry and skill toolbox differs from the church’s current pastor. At your initial interview with the PPRC you will be sharing part of this assessment and checking it for accuracy. The emphasis here is the fact that neither of you wish to be unpleasantly surprised during the transition. If there are unreasonable expectations, they need to be talked about early in the process.

[This is an excerpt from chapter two of The Guide for Clergy in Transition book that Bill Kemp and Joe Fort (Texas Conference) are writing. Expected publication date, January 2016 - other sample chapters may be found at http://billkemp.info/tags/clergy-transition ]

additional author: 
Joe Fort
UMC
Mark 11:1-11

There a number of movies and plays that provide a false ending. Into the Woods, has four interwoven plot lines that seem to be resolved just before the intermission. Then the curtain comes up on Act two and everyone finds another reason to go into the woods and face even greater dangers. Palm Sunday is the same way. We see Jesus come into Jerusalem and be honored as the Messiah, no longer hidden away in the backwoods hillsides of Galilee. He gets to teach in the temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, deceive us into thinking that Jesus has passed the finish line of his race. If this were a book, I’d look at the remaining pages and wonder why they were there.

 

John’s Gospel uses the false ending of Palm Sunday to link two different books about Jesus; the first book tells seven miracles, beginning with the Wedding of Cana and concluding with the raising of Lazarus. Each miracle, or sign, separates Jesus further from our expectations of a “normal” religious leader. The seeds of Jesus own death, portrayed in the second book, are sown in the new life he gives to Lazarus just outside the city gates. John has Jesus get anointed for burial in Bethany, then asks us, do you want to go with him into Jerusalem?

 

Most people don’t bother to read further. They know that Jesus is a great teacher, so they expect his teachings in Jerusalem won’t be a problem. Lent has been a tough slog through winter, but hey, it’s spring now. Yes, Judas does betray Jesus. But, it all gets fixed, and it’s a short hop between Palm Sunday and Easter. Nothing good comes from this abbreviated Christianity. It is better not to know the story of Jesus at all.

 

Our Lenten journey begins again on Palm Sunday. We cover less territory, its only a few miles back and forth to Bethany, but travel much deeper into the human soul and God’s transformative grace. Before Palm Sunday, the Gospels give us a bunch of short stories about Jesus, that can be read piecemeal and dealt with in fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning. After coming with Jesus into Jerusalem, we are caught in a continuous narrative that has no easy stopping points. The passion story is like a pregnancy — it can’t be shoe horned into an otherwise full life.

Palm Sunday
Sunday, March 29, 2015
We enter a dark wood on Palm Sunday
Reality Check 101 uses four suits of cards to explain competing visions

What is the one thing your local church is uniquely called and equipped to do in your context? You may expect a variety of answers to this question, but they all boil down to four visions or unique callings:

    1) A church may be called to care for its members and buildings

    2) A church may be called to share Christ with the next generation

    3) A church may be called to give itself in love and service to those in need

    4) A church may be called to be the best quality church in the region

These four visions are presented in detail in my Reality Check 101 workbook. But, what if the leaders of your church are evenly split between two visions?  Church conflict often has a vision or a “this should be our one priority” aspect to it. I am currently consulting with a congregation that is evenly split between sharing Christ with the next generation (#2 or Clubs) and giving themselves in love and service to those in need (#3 or Hearts). My advice is:

 

1st — The competing parties need to realize how much they need each other. If they choose to make serving those in need their church’s one priority, they will need some leaders from the other party to shape their mission to the next generation.  If they choose instead to prioritize evangelizing young adults, they will need people who have a service mindset, because the postmodern generation is very mission oriented.

 

2nd — It is possible for a church to equally share their efforts between these two visions, but very few are successful in juggling two priorities equally. The problem may lie in the fact that they need very different pastoral leadership for the two visions.  

 + Service focused churches need a pastor who can keep the home-fires burning and provide a stable worship environment for people to recharge before going out to serve. Their pastor needs to be both good at pastoral care and administration. The pastor’s job is to keep people working together and express appreciation for everyone’s pet mission project. They don’t have to do the mission work, they instead help each person find where they are called to serve.

+  Evangelizing the next generation churches need pastors who spend a lot of hours outside the church walls. These pastors listen to what unchurched people are saying about their spiritual needs. They are like investigative reporters, explaining to their members how those outside the church see the world. They have a passion to evangelize. They work best in churches that already have a good administrative structure and can function with a pastor who thinks (and lives) outside the box.

 

3rd — When a church shifts from having mixed visions to having just one vision, it needs to undergo a period of transition. If they are called to be in service to their community, then they need to train their pastor to provide the worship experience that recharges their batteries. They need to come to trust his or her administrative and pastoral skills. Further, they need to study stewardship and missiology and learn how these concepts are relevant to today’s church. This may take some time. 

  If they are choosing the path of evangelizing the next generation, they will need to develop lay-lead administrative and pastoral care. They will need to transition their expectations of their pastor, freeing him or her to be an evangelist. This also, will take some time, and the process should begin before a new pastor is called.

 

Shifting priorities requires preparation. Consensus needs to be built. The new vision communicated clearly and people given a chance air their concerns. Most importantly, care must be taken to involve and express appreciation to those people who were championing the vision that wasn’t chosen.

John 12:20-33
Psalm 51

Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”

 

I have been reading this passage from John 12:20-33 in the context of the Lenten journey. Jesus is not rationalizing his upcoming death, nor is he saying, “I can’t wait to die so I can go to heaven.” He is speaking of a process. Seeds have a purpose. They are planted in a variety of soils, because spirituality has to be lived out in context. We have to confront our own self-centeredness and learn to be compassionate in our relationships with other seedy-souls. To be a seed is to be human. Life cannot be rushed. The journey is important. Jesus speaks about his death as, his hour. Timing is important. Transition is sacred.

 

I noticed something this morning; Psalm 51 is much more powerful when I hear it in church. Praying, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” and hearing the response, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” adds grace to what can be a difficult time of self awareness. Sin is a shell — I am a seed within that shell. Lord, let me live as someone who has found mercy in your miracle of new life.

 

There are two types of people in this world; those who realize that they are seeds and are appalled by it. And, those who say, “Huh?”

Lent 5
Sunday, March 22, 2015
We don't see the big picture
The Three Stooges remind us not to be ignoramuses

As mentioned before, HBO’s Bill Maher has laid down a challenge to all Christian Ministers. He states that our religion creates an urgent problem, namely sin, and then sells a solution, salvation and/or the regular support of the institutional church (see http://billkemp.info/content/bill-maher-and-nicodemus). He compares today’s ministers to an episode of The Three Stooges, where the guys have an extermination business. Moe, Larry, and Curly are seen planting mice and bugs in the homes that they hope to sell their services to. Maher implies that Christianity has planted the glitch of guilt into our nation’s collective conscience. Personally, I don’t think organized religion is that organized anymore.

 

Perhaps we are like The Three Stooges, but not in the way Maher says. I remember the guys getting themselves in trouble in each episode by selling themselves as experts in something they know nothing about. Whether it was pest control, painting, or laying brick, The Three Stooges were ignoramuses. There is similarly, a great danger when we pass ourselves off as religious leaders and understand little about human psychology or the mysterious ways of God. This is precisely the context of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John Chapter 3.

 

I am amazed by how few of my colleagues understand family systems theory or attempt to apply it to their church. How do you defuse congregational conflict if you don’t know the consensus building tools behind Getting to Yes? Do Jungian archetypes inform the narrative arc of your sermons? What about Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More? (Remember H.E. Fosdick’s belief that the pulpit should be used for personal counseling on a large scale?) As Jesus tells Nicodemus, the ugliness of the human psychic condition can be symbolized as a rattle snake on a pole. Those who look upon that snake will find healing for their inner traumas (John 3:14).

 

Nicodemus was running for Bishop in 32 AD, but he had little grasp of the grace of God. His theology lacked mystery. He focused on what could be said in legal phrases and declarative sentences. He would have no trouble with the Apostles’ Creed or the 39 Fundamentals. He had a problem with Jesus describing the Holy Spirit as being like the wind. He had a problem with the impossible; Christianity deals with the miraculous rebirth of individuals by the saving power of God. The gaps in his personal theological experience made Nicodemus as ineffective as Moe, Curly, or Larry in matters of religion. When will Jesus teach us how to pray?

John 3:1-21

This past week (3/6/2015), HBO’s political commentator/comedian, Bill Maher, spoke about salvation in this way:  “Take any religion, let’s say, Christianity. First they invent a problem, like sin. Then they sell you a solution [getting saved].”*  This was in the context of Bill and his guest, Lawrence Wright, discussing Scientology, a religion that certainly has a questionable marketing strategy. But, before we laugh with Bill and Larry, we ought to ask how Christianity is different.

    My gut level response is with an image. Jesus on the hillsides of Palestine, healing the multitudes. People didn’t come because Jesus had primed them with an imaginary affliction. Jesus did the opposite of bait and switch. People came to satisfy curiosity. They left with a a free healing of some critical component of their complex spiritual/physical-life-journey. This is religion at its core, identifying the particular hollow part of an individual’s soul and helping that need be resolved. What each person needs from their religion is different. Most of us have a hard time verbalizing where we hurt. Theological concepts like sin, shame, guilt, grace, and salvation, are designed to help.

    No legitimate religion sells a problem and then offers a solution. Mr Maher challenges us to do some real apologetics. How is my daily work, as a Christian leader, more like Jesus and less like the boogey man that he presents as the face of Christianity? Bill Maher deserves our respect — he has greater name recognition that Bonhoeffer, Bart, and Charles Schultz (the creator of Peanuts), combined.

    Jesus might respond to Maher’s HBO show with; “You have heard it said, but, I say to you…” He would recognize that many people have had a bad experience of our religion. Then he would following up with a parable demonstrating radical love and forgiveness. For Jesus, God doesn’t need to be marketed or encased in shrink-wrap plastic. God’s grace and love are meant to be freely offered to all. The Spirit blows where it wills, not where the money is.

    With this in mind, it is interesting to eavesdrop on Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:1-21.  More on this in my next blog: Nocodemus and the Three Stooges (3/12/2015).

Lent 4
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Sharp critics help us to define our faith
We move from ashes to fire

    In the United Methodist Church, decisions to move a clergy person from one church to another are usually made during Lent. This habit has many practical advantages, and one glaring fault. It disrupts the key spiritual process of Christian life. Lent is the process of moving from ashes to fire. We do it in our personal lives, as we embrace the fact of our mortality on ash Wednesday, follow Jesus to the cross, experience grace on a gut level, carry his body to the tomb, have our hope renewed by miracle, then rediscover the ways we are each called to utilize the fire of Pentecost. Without the yearly repetition of this pilgrimage, all that we know about faith is gibberish. The local church, as a human organization, risks becoming a petty social club if it abbreviates this season. The Bishop and cabinet become ineffective whenever they focus more upon their own power to change things than upon the power that stirs the collective heart of Methodism in this period of the year.

    I’m not advocating that we disband the practice of working on new clergy-church matches in the spring. We just need to be aware that our move from place to place isn’t the biggest show in town. Further, if you are planning to move to a new parish, redouble your prayer life and practice of the rituals related to Lent-Easter-Pentecost. Set aside personal time for fasting, journaling, a short retreat, labyrinth walking, etc.; with a focus on:

 

    1.    Where am I right now in terms of my relationship with God, my loved ones, and my own soul? Is burnout sapping the energy from my essential relationships? Am I still enthusiastic about my calling into ministry? 

    2.    Is there affirmation of this move (or my desire to move) from those that I trust? How would I rate my relationship with the denominational authorities involved with this change? Is my faith leading me to be more isolated or more connected?

    3.    What am I, and those in my household, being asked to let go of? Are my hands, and the hearts of those with me, open to receiving something new and unexpected? How do we deal with our grief and our fears? Note that anxiety, grief, and fear, are three separate emotions and will involve differing paths for each person as they head towards acceptance. 

 

Remember that Lent itself is a transitional process. Like many spiritual things, the journey is as important as the destination.

UMC
John 2:13-22

Why do I like Caravaggio better than Carracci? Two paintings, both about 1600, by Italian artists.  Annibale Carracci paints the Virgin mourning over Christ for the altar piece in Naples. Here, Mary represents the church, her extended hand inviting us to grasp her role in the passion story. She is serene, wise, and still. Jesus lays on her, like some waxen Adonis, perfect and inert. There are cherubs darting around the stonework, adding a little religious froufrou. I hate this painting.

 

Jesus goes into the temple and, as John chapter two tells us, gets rid of the cherubs. He doesn’t need a church that is full of holy froufrou. His disciples will gather people together, in simple buildings and homes, for prayer, study, and worship. They will relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires. They won’t need an altar paintings where the Church looks serene, wise, and distant from the world. The also won’t need goats, money changers, and fifty-fifty raffles to pay the heating bill.

 

Caravaggio paints a picture of the post-modern church.  A small intimate circle gathered for an intense learning experience. Thomas sticks his finger into a new reality. Christ crucified, but alive. Death present, but life triumphant. The Jesus of this painting is the one who went from village to village bringing healing to people. He touched the body of those who were wounded. He allowed his own wounds to be seen. Transparency and vulnerability marked his every movement. He ducks inside the great Temple in Jerusalem and what he experiences there makes him angry. He is not the inert, waxen, form, laying on Mary’s lap.

 

Caravaggio paints us a picture about relationships. Four men gathered in close, loving each other in a way that is seldom experienced on this earth. Thomas is loved by Jesus, even though his theology needs some correction. Peter hovers over Jesus, his bald head wrinkled as he attempts to understand. And we, the viewer of this painting, are invited into this loving circle. Bring your doubts, bring your sins, bring your broken lives needing to be healed.

Lent 3
Sunday, March 8, 2015
Workshop with Keynote
Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 6:00pm to Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 12:00pm

The annual meeting for United Methodist Transitional/intentional Interim Ministry Specialists Association

TIIMSA GATHERING 2015

“Conflict Transformation”

April 28-30, 2015

St. Andrew United Methodist Church

9203 S. University Blvd. 

Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Keynote speaker: Dr Craig Gilliam on "Conflict Transformation."

 

I will be doing the following workshop on Thursday morning:

Bill Kemp

Fire and Ice: How clarity of vision can save your church from the daily apocalypse.

Sometimes we face conflict, sometimes we battle apathy; this workshop provides tools for transcending both the urgency of immediate issues and the heartbreak of an unenthusiastic laity. Our Wesleyan heritage had two key visions which raised the early Methodist gatherings above the religious muddle of their day. The same vectors can clarify leadership roles, build spiritual passion, and reconnect people with transformative mission in the community. We will consider both the strategic ideas needed for healthy church growth and the management insights needed for sustainable ministry.

Who is Invited : 
Those interested in or practicing Transitional/Interim ministry in the United Methodist Church
Event Sponsor : 
TIIMSA
UN Sec Gen Dag Hammarskjold got IT

There once was a District Superintendent who got It. He:

  • Beat the bushes and found funding for emerging church congregations
  • Built an accountability structure that supported and mentored his local pastors and CLMs towards effectiveness
  • Taught his elders practical ways to make their congregations healthier
  •  Developed the language for speaking about evangelism in the particular culture and geography of his district

What happened? His bishop asked him to come on the staff of the conference, where he soon became another casualty of limited funding and intramural politics.

 

In any enterprise, getting It only gets you halfway. To succeed at local church ministry one needs to develop similar strategies to the above DS. You must:

  • Support small groups and the fellowships that imitate first century Christianity
  • Train all your members to use their spiritual gifts and be enthusiastic in their church work
  • Teach your leaders and staff to prioritize holistic congregational health, rather than their pet project
  • Develop a language for evangelism that works in your neighborhood

Once you got It, you must figure out a way to sustain It. This means that you must be spiritually healthy and self-differentiated. You should spend twice as much of your thoughts, your energies, and your prayers, on the concerns of your family than you do on your parish. You must example the humility that made Jesus take a towel and basin and wash the feet of his disciples. Even if you do all these things, you still will one day move on.

 

Then you must pray the prayer that Dag Hammarskjold taught us:

 

For all that has been,

Thank you.

For all that is to come,

Yes!

 
UMC
Romans 4:13-25

Paul reminds us that Abraham was saved by grace. We should know that obeying God’s laws isn’t the golden key that unlocks heaven’s doors for us (see Romans 4:4). So, go tell your people that all their being good isn’t getting them anywhere. This is the point at which all great religious reformations start.

 

Abraham reformed the religion of his day by rejecting the civilized temples with their rituals of offerings, guaranteed to bring good luck, and set out on that long walk that happens when you simply listen to God. “Take a right here,” God says and Abraham does. This is faith in its most refined and reformed state.

 

Jesus emphasized humility and told individual’s who were poor in spirit that God’s Kingdom had already granted them admission. He rejected the classism of Israel’s religious leaders. His reformation went face to face to tell people that they were okay. It distributed soul-healing freely.

 

The apostle John continued the extradition of early Christianity from the Jewish emphasis on ritual. “The day is coming when people won’t worship on this mountain, or in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth.” This reformation stripped away place, race, religious practice, and family ties from the list of qualifiers for getting you into heaven. 

 

Soon, the early church was battling gnostics and mystics and people who said you had to ‘know’ (or Grok) some deep secret in order to be saved. The early church fathers tried to reform a rag-tag fellowship that was getting too woo-woo to do any good. They grounded the faith in scripture and stuck to a cannon that excluded useless metaphysical speculation.

 

Then came Constantine and his mother, Helena. They married church and state and it took 1,200 years for reformers to divorce this hell from heaven.

 

Then came Wesley who preached to coal miners on their way to work and offered them the sacraments, even though they didn’t have water to wash their hands. His reformation had a simple question, “How does your soul fare today?”

 

And now the postmodern church stands in need of reforming. Tell your people its not about good deeds. Stop telling cute kitten stories. Every reformation before us has struggled to speak the truth. It’s a counter-intuitive thing, requiring both prayer and courage. 

Lent 2
Sunday, March 1, 2015
What? Read John Calvin in today's world?
Every system has wheels within wheels

I find that when I step back from my ministry and look at the church as a whole, I am always humbled. All United Methodist clergy persons do their daily tasks within the boundaries of a parish to which they are duly appointed. We are never free agents. This field of service lies within a particular district and annual conference. It is within these three concentric circles (parish, district, conference), that you must demonstrate your promise and fealty to the United Methodist Church. For some period of your career, you may be asked or elected to serve the general church and/or to engage in mission work beyond the borders of your parish. This work is always secondary to your appointed task and context. Our movement from parish to parish is the product of a peculiar and complex clockwork of wesleyan tradition and current adjustments. Sometimes the overhead over our head makes us feel powerless. None of this prevents you from complaining about the appointment process or your most recent experience of it. Just remember, that you are like a goldfish complaining about its bowl.

    Each of us was born into a family system that had some degree of dysfunction. We were confirmed as teens into a local church, that was itself a family system with its own set of oddities and inefficiencies. We may not have been aware of the dynamics of these first two systems that nurtured our faith. When we made the transition from laity to clergy, we lost that innocence that enabled us to simply go with the flow of a church provided to us by others. We now have tools for changing the local church, as well as, an obligation to conference together with other United Methodists and perfect our system. 

    As Pogo says, the enemy is us.

    Much prayer is required to remain sane in any system. Those who move from church to church, need to intentionally offer forgiveness to those who made their move happen. Bitterness against the Bishop and/or cabinet will sabotage your spirit and sow seeds of conflict in your ministry to those within your care. It’s amazing how often those clergy who rant about not getting the church they deserve are the ones who have a hard time getting their parish to pay its mission apportionments. This is a spiritual issue. Deal with it early. Deal with it honestly.

    Pray also, to understand and be compassionate towards the new congregational system that you find yourself working within. Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the key change agent in this parish, you must differentiate yourself from those who have a particular form of unhappiness that they want the church to walk in. You should also be clear about the four things that all happy congregations share:

    •    Prayer marked by a spirit of expectation

    •    Scripture that’s viewed as relevant and life changing

    •    A Witness to Christ that is joyful

    •    Worship that is inspiring

    Keep your focus on these things. But also, take time to understand the particular problems that afflict this congregation. Nothing will be as simple as it first appears, Peal the onion. Don’t be surprised if key issues have deep roots. You will need to do twice as much listening as talking. As you find new problems and you will need new solutions.

UMC

Our journey towards being the people God wants us to be.

 

Ash Wednesday: “Purity”  - Psalm 51 - “Create in me a clean heart”

Lent 1:  “Wilderness”  - Mark 1   “Jesus was driven…”

Lent 2:  “Suffering”  - Mark 3  “Take up your cross…”

Lent 3:  “Worship”  - John 2  “Zeal for your house…”

Lent 4:  “Salvation”  - John 3  “Everyone who believes…”

Lent 5:  “Death/Transformation”  John 12 “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies…”

Lent 6 - Palm Sunday: “Understanding/Acceptance”  John 12 “Behold your king!”

Holy Thursday/Mid-week:  “Humility”  John 13 “He washed their feet.”

Easter: “Witness”  John 20  “Go and tell…”

 

GBOD does a similar theme set for Lent  that invites us to think about our baptismal vows.

Sunday, February 15, 2015
as a tree is transformed by the dessert sun, so am I in Lent
2 Kings 2:1-15

At McDonalds, we get asked if we want to supersize it. It doesn’t cost much more. Unfortunately, there isn’t a fast food restaurant that offers super-sizing for spiritual things. In the movies, the dispirited protagonist always walks into a bar and asks for ‘a double.’ I can never see how two extra fingers of whisky will make the situation better. Perhaps when we are praying about something really important, we should ask for ‘a double.’ In Bible times, first born sons stood to inherit a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. We don’t deal with intangibles. We deal with something that matters.

 

Let that be your starting point in the familiar story of Elijah’s chariot ride to heaven (II Kings 2:1-15. The lectionary stops this great story short, but if you keep going you hear people affirming that the same quantity of spirit that rested on the old prophet now rests on his successor. We don’t have any problem with Elisha inheriting the Prophet’s office, though the people who knew Elisha weren’t as sure about it. We tend to miss the way this story speaks about the physicality of the Holy Spirit. It picks Elijah up (notice the chariot is made of fire), it falls in the form of a mantle, it splits the water, it manifests itself in a way that is obvious to theological undergrads (who don’t grasp much else). Something this real can be supersized.

 

It can also be halved and halved again. This is what is happening to the American church. We barely notice Lent, even though Christians through out all time have used the season to grow their faith. We hardly ever pray with the expectation that God’s Spirit will do something tangible because of our prayers. We treat the Bible as if it is irrelevant, even though we know that churches without a spiritual foundation die like flies. We don’t speak with job about how the Spirit connects us with Jesus. We seldom find our worship to be inspiring.

 

Okay, I’ll say it. Make mine a double. 

Last week in Epiphany
Sunday, February 15, 2015
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness - where is it driving your church?
Luke 4:1-13

“Everything you see, I own. literally.” The devil has taken Jesus to an imaginary mountain peak, where all the world can be seen. Jesus can see the Bruegger’s Bagels on the corner where they make the salmon and capers on pumpernickel that he loves. He is famished. It’s been a thousand hours since his last meal. Literally. If I were him, and they had just brewed their dark roast coffee, I’d trade my mission to save the world for part ownership of that one Bruegger’s bakery branch and its bagels that are to die for. But, that’s not what Jesus does.

    The Sam Walton family (Walmart) owns more stuff than 40% of the rest of us. Literally. That means that they could give a hand-up (like childcare or free college or decent housing or public transportation that gets you to a real job) to every family that is financially struggling in the US and still have a billion dollars for pocket change.  The Koch brothers own 85 billion dollars, and hope to own the next US president. They could have bankrolled the first year of the Iraq war and had a billion to spare. Literally.

    And whats this about people lining up to buy Powerball lottery tickets this week because the jackpot is now over 450 million dollars? Imagine if you won. You’d be rich enough to have a controlling interest in the entire Brueggers Bagel’s chain. Literally. Then, for a short while, you’d be in that elite circle of people who think about their wealth in precise, black ink. To be literally rich, would be wonderful. No nebulous cloud of debt hanging over your home. No vague uneasiness when it comes time to pay a medical bill or get your car repaired.

    Have you noticed that obscene wealth is always talked about with numbers, agendas, and actually-so type language? You make the Forbes 500 list, or you don’t. You are a member of the 1% or you’re not. You’re the devil and can offer Jesus the world, or you’re not one of the two Koch brothers. Well, most of us don’t have to worry about living so literally. Unfortunately, living in poverty has the opposite effect. Life becomes entirely imprecise.

    What does it mean to live below the poverty line? It means not knowing what to do with your child when they’re sick and need to stay home from school and have already used up all your sick days at your minimum wage job. It means not knowing how you’re going to get to work when your car doesn’t start today. It means moving a lot, and never to a better neighborhood. It means feeding your family crap, because you can’t afford fresh produce, and even if you could, the nearest real grocery store is miles from your hood. It means not being understood or even considered by the Walton’s and the Koch’s when they say that they own the world. Literally.

    Having said all that, who among us would sell their very soul to live in their literal world? Jesus wouldn’t. He chose instead, to go to the dessert so he could have a truer understanding of the human condition and our spiritual needs. Such clarity shines brighter than the precise language of the 1%.

Sunday, February 15, 2015
Call to worship
There are 4 regions that a church can inhabit

The US Army has a slogan: Mission First, People Always. It can be translated for the church as; Witness First, Be Disciples Always. In both the business world and the military, such slogans emphasize the priority of both developing a strategy to achieve your mission, as well as, building an organization that invests in its members. The strategic front-end of the slogan, prods leaders to compete, win the battle, and remain on task. The people-end of the slogan, prods leaders to build healthy organizations, channel resources into training, develop teamwork, and always serve the needs of your members. Jesus gave the church both a strategic and organizational challenge when he said, First be my witnesses, and, make disciples everywhere. Every local church lives or dies by its commitment to these things. Leadership is all about maintaining this dual focus.

 

This is another way of talking about the church’s two leaderships priorities (vectors); the New People Vector (Strategy), and the Effective Disciples Vector (Organization). Effective leadership is not a matter of balance, as both priorities are essential. Instead, just as a sailboat tacks into the wind by laying a course first to one side of its objective and then to the other, so good leaders maintain congregational momentum as they shift focus from witness to discipleship and back again. Meanwhile, the wind of social pressure is always blowing us backward, downward, and inward. Instead of witnessing and reaching out to new people, most congregations want to care first for those already in the fold (Luke 15:3-17).  Instead of committing themselves to lifelong learning and Christian growth, most of our members pull back from transforming the world through their discipleship and love.

 

These two vectors outline the four regions that congregations find themselves living in:

 

  • Fire & Ice - When churches are allowed to pull back from both witness and discipleship, they begin to die. Robert Frost says that such ends can involve fire or ice. Hence, this is a strange region where both apathy and conflict reign. The way out involves totally investing in either a strategy for reaching new people or an organizational plan for nurturing your members into committed disciples.
  • Unsustainable Growth - If a church only focuses on strategies to reach new people, it will enter a region of unsustainable growth.  Here church leaders need to discern the right time to change tacks (sailors call this ‘coming about’) and focus on small group ministry and discipleship formation.
  • Low Growth - If a church majors in organization and the nurture of its members, it is likely to have a high level of missional involvement and spiritual passion, but the church itself will be stuck in a region of little growth. Good leaders must shift into new people strategies that improve the congregation’s witness.
  • Fruitfulness - If a church’s leadership exercises spiritual discernment, tacking when needed, and keeps the slogan: Witness First, Disciples Always in mind, then the congregation will pass in and out of a region of high fruitfulness. Remember, both vectors require total commitment. We can’t stay in the region of high fruitfulness by trying to balance our leadership. We must shift foci as the Spirit leads us.  
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.
Exodus 34:29-35
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2

I was midway through college before I read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It was my first introduction to the concept of systemic evil. One people do not put another people down by simply putting them in chains. They instead, drop a veil over the faculty that enables people to see each other clearly. Early in his book, Ellison describes a statue depicting the white founder of this college for people of color, lifting the veil of ignorance off of the face of a slave. Ellison winks. Who knows which way the veil is going on that bronze statue? It may be the intention of the college and its surrounding segregated system to tie the veil down more firmly. Thanks to Ellison, I’ve begun to see deceptive systems everywhere.

As we consider the story of Moses and the veil (Exodus 34:29-35), we might make the mistake of believing that Moses covered his face to keep people from being blinded by his spiritual brilliance. It was a considerate thing to do, since if you hang around with God on Mount Sinai for a while, you might make the people around you feel uncomfortable. Paul winks. He says that it was helpful for Moses to wear a veil to keep people from knowing when his just-been-with-God glory had worn off. 

Ziporrah, Moses’ wife, probably wasn’t fooled by the veil either. She had a list of a hundred faults that being with God hadn’t repaired in her husband. Moses might have rationalize his hypocrisy by saying it made people respect the Ten Commandments more. It’s always this way with religious systems. We don our clergy robes and play with veils because we think it will make people respect God more. Instead it has the effect of keeping people ignorant of the content of God’s revelations and more beholden to the experts of the law. I wink. 

Epiphany 5
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Tuskegee Institute Statue
The green arrow is missional

I believe that John Wesley’s vision for the Methodist movement can be boiled down to two foci, or what I like to call vectors. When he sent his preachers out, he said, “You have nothing to do but to save souls.” This is the New People Vector that I dealt with in last week’s blog. It’s an exclusive priority. You can’t say, “use all your energy to save souls,” and say “this other thing is just as important.” But, there was another fervent side to early Methodism. They also formed small groups to nurture individuals to become effective disciples. Wesley taught his group leaders to ask, “How fares your soul?” This represented another vector, running perpendicular to the all-in for evangelism vector. The idea is that you, as a church leader, have nothing to do but to save souls, and you must nurture the people in your charge so that they become transformed individuals, capable of changing the world for good.

 

Both of vectors, new people and effective disciples, face outward. They share an opposition to the church’s default position. Left to our own devices, we would focus on making our own people happy and we would channel all of our resources inward, satisfying the whims of a selfish few. The problem with the New People Vector, is that it forces our shy and self-satisfied members to witness to their neighbors. The problem with the Effective Disciples Vector is that it asks the Holy Spirit to fundamentally change us. When the day of Pentecost came, the first church members were forced out of the safe upper room and onto main street. There they had to sharpen the spiritual gifts that God was providing and set to work transforming the world. Nurture shouldn’t lead us to cloister with those we know and sing Kum By Yah. Witness can’t be a matter of standing with other believers and saying the Apostle’s Creed.

 

The Effective Disciples Vector is missional. It asks:

  1. How are we taking scripture to heart every day and letting it guide us in our interactions with others?
  2. Are we praying with the expectation that our prayers will change real things in the real world?
  3. Are we becoming Christ-like in our compassion for the plight of others?
  4. How can the good that we do be measured, so that we set greater and greater goals for ourselves?
  5. Is the joy that we experience in our small groups leading us to be more effective witnesses for Christ throughout the week?
  6. Is our worship inspiring enough to overcome our natural timidity about religion?
  7. Is our gathering together and our organizational work being done for the glory of God? 

 

Balance in church life is the enemy of Spiritual Passion. We must be totally committed to reaching new people for Christ and be serious about becoming the best disciples that we can be. The Spiral Rule* teaches us that Churches that face outward go upward, congregations that focus inward, shrink downward until they become a selfish singularity. Often, those who call for moderate and balanced policies, really want to take the church inward and downward. Every budget line item should be evaluated on how it helps the church move outward into the community. A item on the church council agenda should only be given consideration if the proponents can state how this action strengthens one of the two Vectors.

 

Further, the four lift points for Spiritual Passion need to be kept always before us:

  1. Prayer with expectation
  2. Scripture with relevance
  3. Witness with joy
  4. Worship that is inspiring

 

* More about the Spiral Rule can be found in Reality Check 101, chapter 6. Spiritual Passion is the subject of my Ezekiel’s Bones book, available through www.notperfectyet.com 

UMC
Mark 1:21-28

Jesus is teaching scripture. Why? Jesus knew something that we have forgotten, that scripture can be life changing. He read the same words that had been heard in that location, every year for many years, but people heard them afresh. Geezers moved up front to hear Jesus better. Teenagers sat up. Suddenly, one of the trustees was on the floor, rolling, spitting, and shouting out, “We know who you are!” There is power in these dusty, old Torah rolls when Jesus handles them.

 

Melvin the Scribe returns from vacation the next week asking how the sub did. Week after week, Melvin carefully prepares his little homily at the Capernaum Synagogue so that it includes three cute stories; one about kittens, one about football, and one a rambling remembrance of his days at seminary. He hopes that these stories will make the lesson relevant, though they only bear passing resemblance to the week’s scriptures. They are like muppets pretending to be men. Then he gives a brief moral, like, treat people better, or, consider raising your weekly offering a few shekels. The real problem, however, is that Melvin no longer finds scripture to be relevant to his own life.

 

What gives the reading of scripture punch? Obviously, our belief that these very words are inspired by God, literally God-breathed. Those who follow Jesus’ example must wake up each morning and read their Bibles with a fervent hope that the words will prove themselves to be useful, and perhaps even transformative, in the hours ahead. Those who preach the word must believe in its inherent relevance. Only by application of scripture to our own lives, do we avoid the common practice of reading God’s words for two minutes, and then, grinding our own ax for fifteen. Stop looking for good illustrations. Preach the word.

Epiphany 4
Sunday, February 1, 2015
The Word, teaching the word of God
Our Vision must move us to include new people

“You say that we should always lead our people outward, that our vision has to be to constantly bringing new people into the congregation. Shouldn’t we balance this with our inward need to grow spiritually?” It was a good question. A woman on the staff of a large church asked me this after I had presented the Spiral Rule: Churches that face outward go upward, congregations that focus inward, shrink downward until they become a selfish singularity.

 

I answered that it is not a matter of balance. Jesus always led his disciples outward. He refused to let them become a spiritual club. In the book of Acts, particularly chapter 8, the Holy Spirit forces the church outward. The disciples tried to organize a nice little chapel in Jerusalem, and the Spirit allowed persecution and the outward vision of the Apostle Paul to send them to the farthest reaches of the globe, seeking for new people. On the other hand, Jesus was always sneaking off to the mountain to pray. Paul had three years as a hermit in Arabia. I wouldn’t call this balance. Instead, I see two vectors at play in the church, both of them are outward in direction.

 

The first vector is towards bringing new people into the fellowship. We have to ask:

  1. What kinds of people in our town are currently underserved or under-evangelized by the current religious institutions?
  2. What causes people to drive by other churches and come to ours?
  3. Who is God calling us to reach?

 

The second vector deals with the spiritual formation and the nurture of our people to become effective disciples of Jesus Christ. Its focus is missional and transformative. Serious followers of Jesus do real and measurable good in this world. 

 

These two vectors aren’t balanced in the life of a congregations. Effective church leadership requires an outward spiral that oscillates between the two foci. Further, Jesus seems to set before us the example of being responsible for our own spiritual formation. We must each guard our sabbath time. We must nurture the inward heart that fellowships with God. But, we dare not damper the church’s outward focus by fostering navel gazing. That way leads to congregational death, conflict, and/or persecution.

 

More on the Nurturing-Missional Vector next week.

Mark 1:14-20

There is a difference between our current culture, and the people described in Mark  Chapter 1. People today do not expect God to intervene in their personal lives, nor do they expect God or Jesus to suddenly appear in the sky and kick their oppressors to hell and bring his faithful into a new kingdom of peace and justice. We have become un-apocalyptic as a culture, in spite of social media’s trending of fake stories about zombies, ebola, and the muslims in burkas.  The hope that underlays Jesus (and John the Baptist’s) message is that God’s kingdom is near.

 

It is good news, however, to know that God is at hand, literally as close as our fingers. He refuses to allow our apathy, or our secret sins, to chase him away. The good news is this loving presence that is simply there. I spent the past few days in Big Bend National Park — a place of impressive silence. When the sun sets behind the mountains, and another day ends in peace, having been spent distant from cell phone reception, TV, and traffic, it is hard to ignore the quiet one at my side. The conversation on the lodge porch is in whispers. Everyone seems mindful of an ineffable spiritual presence.

 

It is also good news that when God eventually sweeps our current hurry-hurry culture away, we will have an eternity to do what is important, worship. When God sends Jesus again, the many injustices of our politically divided minefield of  a planet, will be righted. Multitudes will weep for joy. We will be ashamed at how many of these wrongs we simply accepted or promoted. But, God, and those we have wronged, will forgive. So, it will be good news.

Epiphany 3
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Sometimes we need to be awestruck
Churches that go outward go upward, inward facing churches decline to a selfish singularity

Science Fiction teaches us that when a space ship approaches a black hole, gravity becomes infinite, things spiral down and get worse until the luckless crew passes the inescapable event horizon. Many churches are captured in a similar death spiral and I am convinced that elevating Spiritual Passion is the only answer. 

 

 Seven marks of low spiritual passion are: 

  1. A reluctance to witness or share faith with others 
  2. A lack of genuine expectation of prayer to change things 
  3. A loss of interest in studying the Bible or expecting it to have truth that can be applied to daily life
  4. The inability to show any joy when talking about faith
  5. A lifeless feel to worship, even though the worship performance may be of excellent quality
  6. A disconnect between the work of the church’s committees and the faith that the church professes  (what we believe doesn’t affect what we do)
  7. A loss of hope for the future coupled with a reluctance to try new things

 

The four ways to lift Spiritual Passion in a church are:

    1. Cultivate a sense of  Expectation when the church Prays - encourage people to share how God is answering their prayers. Turn every church committee into a prayerful small group.
    2. Always link Scripture with its Relevance to today’s world - have those who read scripture also say how it links with something they experienced this past week
    3. Witness with Joy - Nothing goes without saying. Teach people how to speak transparently about their love for Jesus
    4. Worship with Passion - Make sure that in every component of worship, the emotional feel of the act relates to the emotional meaning of the content. If the subject is serious, then make the emotional feel of the act, reflective. If the content is about heaven, be joyful. Bring passion back into the practice of our faith.

 

For more, see Ezekiel’s Bones by Bill Kemp available at www.notperfectyet.com

Psalm 139:1-18

Life is, in its simplest telling, a journey story. This is why our hearts are drawn to stories like the Hobbit, the Exodus, and Homer’s Odyssey. Psalm 139 tells us that the journey has purpose. It assures me that [God has] searched out my path and my lying down, and is acquainted with all my ways. Such knowledge is overwhelming. Whatever you say about this Psalm, don’t water down the intense and poetic way it expresses God’s love for us as individuals. 

 

Our faith provides our life with meaning, by stating that God has established both our beginning and our end, within his great loving plan. We as individuals have dignity. Spirituality is an unfolding process of discovering that the journey in between has both beauty and purpose. It all happens for a reason.

 

Epiphany 2
Sunday, January 18, 2015
For more, see Ezekiel's Bones by Bill Kemp

Spiritual passion is the fuel that keeps a congregation active and excited about the faith it has to share with the world. Without spiritual passion, a church, no matter what its size, will either crash and burn or become a hollow shell of its former glory. Just as the body is fueled by a nutritious diet, so a church is fueled by a healthy, passionate, spirituality. 

Three Questions - One answer

Q1) What makes a church different from a social club? A: Spiritual Passion

Churches often focus on being nice, growing membership, and having relevant programing. We are just like the YMCA, except, we have a deep passion for Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.

Q2) What guarantees diversity in a church? A: Spiritual Passion

In this world, community is usually formed around shared interests (hence Facebook). The churches that form their community around a shared passion for God, make themselves available to the Holy Spirit’s emphasis on diversity.

Q3) What determines the lifespan of a church? A: Spiritual Passion

It isn’t loss of membership or poor management that kills churches, its loss of meaning. Unless the congregation’s rank and file understands prayer to be effective, scripture to be relevant, witnessing to be the sharing of the thing they are most passionate about, and look forward to each week’s worship because it inspires them deeply, they will flake off to other activities.  

In Screwtape Letters, CS. Lewis gives us insight into how the demons veiw congregations with low spiritual passion:

“A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.” 

 

“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we [the demons] see her, spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”

 

 

Mark 1:4-11

Meditation consists of intentionally eliminating the things that are so familiar that we have allowed them access to our souls. Spirituality begins with naming our inner idols and the material albatrosses hanging around our necks. So, Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Then, he immediately goes further into the wilderness for forty days. These two events lack noise. They lack clutter. What specifically is missing from these two events?

 

Hierarchy - John says I need to be baptized by you. What would happen if, for today, the preacher comes into the congregation and says, “I need to be taught by you?” Jesus sets the example. Hierarchal structures are constructed to promote specific outcomes; in business, having a boss enables a group of employees to be more profitable. In times of war, having a general increases the chances of winning a battle.Over the course of our spiritual development, the things that hierarchal structures aid become our most pernicious idols. Jesus here, and elsewhere, reverses the master-servant structure in order to dispel its hold on our lives.  

 

Friends and Family - Both Jesus and John come into the wilderness alone. Jesus will exit to build the fellowship of disciples that becomes the church. Times of transition are often very lonely. It is in the baptism of solitude that we learn new ways to be in relationship with other people.

 

Money - This, and many other parts of the Bible, have absolutely nothing to do with money. Yet, almost every aspects of our personal lives relates in some way to the acquisition, spending, or saving of money.

 

Buildings and Institutions - Much of what Jesus did was outdoors. Paul did most of his evangelism out doors. John Wesley’s was thrust into his role as founder of the Methodist movement by his experience of outdoor preaching. We tend to assume that the lack of buildings in the Church’s formative story is because these things happened where the weather was nice. It often snows in Israel, Macedonia can be brutal, and England is infamous for its damp. Our baptism stories should awake us to the fact that institutional concerns can become idolatrous. Church buildings are unnecessary.

Epiphany 1
Sunday, January 11, 2015
Baptism involves letting go
Reality Check 101 has a three step process for healthy ministry

A certain young pastor came to Jesus and said, “Lord, I already know how to be saved. What I need to know is how to move on from this parish and find the situation that I really deserve.” And Jesus said, “Why do you call me Lord? I am not your bishop. Have you filed your statistical reports? Does your church pay all of its denominational askings, and have you organized every committee according to the rules you have received? Have you gone to all the workshops, visited all of the shut-ins, and said the invocation at the rotary each month? “All these I have done,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, love your family. Take the time that you need to establish your own spiritual disciplines. Guard your health, both emotional and physical, and set reasonable boundaries for your workload. Give up on your ambition to meet everyone’s expectations for you will never satisfy them. Forget multi-tasking and time management, instead, simply follow me each moment each day, for tomorrow will take care of itself.” The young pastor walked away dismayed and sad for he was very ambitious and addicted to mastering his job.

Parable from Peter's Boat by Bill Kemp page 73 - book available from www.notperfectyet.com