Thursday, July 25, 2013

Church Things

My disclaimer for the following post (shamelessly borrowed from a fellow UM clergy): my blog, my rant.

In our attempt to raise John Wesley on a pedestal of perfection, even the best of us armchair and formally-educated Wesleyan theologians forget that Wesley was a rule breaker who formed a movement that would become it's own denomination in the midst of opposition and persecution by the Church of England. Yes, John Wesley, more so than his brother Charles, was a rule breaker who challenged the church structure of his day in order to birth a movement that invited people to a Christianity that was less rigid and more relevant in lives of people. And yet today, all too often, in our amnesia of our own church history, its founder, and the earliest Methodists, we implement a very rigid and stifling church structure that if challenged meets the reprimand of misconduct to the point of being accused of completely undermining the operation and mission of the entire church--not entirely dissimilar from the accusations Wesley met from the powers-that-be in the 18th century church hierarchy. As Mark Twain wrote, "The past doesn't always repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

Today the church does a whole lot of talking. We do a lot of talking about the need to do something, change something, be something, and yet from what I have seen the ever elusive something that we all hope will revive our church is something implemented from the top down; an ecclesiological trickle down theory, if you will. An agenda articulated from the top down instead of bottom up does not bode well for our future as a denomination. Just as there is really no such thing as trickle down economics, there is no such thing as trickle down implementation of change for the church today. If we want to see change, it must be at the grass roots level, or in church lingo--at the local church level where ideas can be birthed such as those that the "Bible Moths" of Oxford birthed in the 18th century. The local church level--clergy and laity--should be the driving force of articulating change instead of being micro-managed by the top-tier administration lest we forget that the Methodist movement was largely a lay-driven movement. However any student of John Wesley will admit that he came to be a little rigidly structured over time as the Methodist movement grew--hence the name our denomination now bears.
But the early years of the Methodist movement was a defiant movement in face of the church status quo--for which Wesley was admonished. But admonishments did not deter Wesley from pressing forward, from dreaming God-size dreams without first getting permission from those who held positions of power within the church. Spiritual awakenings and revolutions are not planned happenings, but they burst forth, challenge the status quo and shake things up.

The world, not only the church, is in need of a spiritual awakening today. I heard one pastor say to me just the other day, "The definition of insane is doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of different results." We have a lot of insanity in our church today. Everyone knows something has to change, and there are a lot of opinions about what that something is or should be. It has been my experience that there is a lot of desire to micro-manage and control from those at the top, not allowing creativity to be birthed in and among the people who day in and day out serve and worship within their community's context--our mission field of where we hope disciples are being made. John Wesley got away with preaching and teaching wherever he wanted by declaring "the world is my parish." I have a feeling that credentials would be stripped and churches reprimanded if such "enthusiasm" was expressed today; it probably violates some paragraph in the Book of Discipline which would of course be a chargeable offense.

That brings me to another point of critique: we Methodists are no longer people of one book as Wesley was, but we are people of two books--the Bible and the Book of Discipline. What was it that Twain wrote, "History doesn't alway repeat itself, but it often rhymes"? There is so much fear and concern for the future of our church today. I would argue that if we get back to being a people of one book, back to being a movement and less of a rigid institution that maybe we would see some positive change that would change the trajectory of our dying church and our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world. But until some of those at the top get off their high horse and relinquish power and pride then nothing within this dying institution will change. But then maybe such an institution isn't even worth saving. Maybe we need to birth a movement--a spiritual awakening, a revival, a revolution that works outside the bounds of appropriate church structure and polity in order that the kingdom of God is grown. It worked for Wesley...maybe this part of our past we inherit as today's Methodists should repeat.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ministers of the Social Club

Last week I met with a lady to talk about how our church could help a growing problem in Columbia. The problem and solution seem actually quite simple if we could get people to give a little time, space and energy to it. This is the problem: there are many single parents who become homeless or lose their children because they can only take jobs when childcare is provided. Most childcare centers are open from 7:30pm-5:30pm. That is great for the average working mother, but what about the earlier and later shifts; those jobs starting at 6:00am and ending at 9:00pm? How are single parents supposed to find work when they are limited, due to the operating hours of childcare facilities, by the work they are able to take? The lady I spoke with owns an adult career development center for lower income families. She said that several of her clients have to turn down jobs because of the childcare problem. In our conversation, she lamented some ministers of the past who used to be quite boisterous in advocating for such issues on behalf of children are no longer living. She lamented the days when some of Columbia's great ministers cared about what happened beyond their immediate church congregation. She said there were days in the past when the communities of faith in Columbia, led by their pastors, where a loud, respected and listened-to voice on such issues. But now, she said, few of them are left. I wasn't around for those days, but of the people she told me about, I hope I can learn to walk in their shoes in being a leader not only at my church but in the community. But I felt convicted because I know she is right; we like to play it safe--especially in the age of church decline.

But if ministers really were doing their jobs well, myself included, I don't think blossoming non-profits like Family Promise of the Midlands would be having such a hard time trying to find churches to sign on to host 14 people one-week every quarter. I also think a minister would be saying something about the mental health--or lack there of--care for people who need it but can't afford it. Surely a minister would have stepped up by now to question our government in cutting education funds in our state. By now a minister would have spoken out about so many other issues that might not directly pertain and effect our churches, but are concerns of the faith community and the community at large. But instead I see ministers of outreach at some churches posting how many shoes they keep in their closet while children in our very community--probably their very church--don't have a single pair of shoes except for the ones they are wearing but outgrew last year.

If we want to start making disciples, we, the ministers and those who call ourselves Christian, must begin living discipleship beyond church on Sunday. In an article by Richard Heitzenrater, "Take Thou Authority: Ministerial Leadership in the Wesleyan Heritage," that looks at John Wesley's 1756 "An Address to the Clergy," Heitzenrater writes, "The obvious foil to the matter of pure intentions to glorify God and save souls, is the desire for worldly gain." I do believe we have Methodist ministers in our ranks who have abdicated their Biblical ministerial role for a more passive leadership role that seeks to be both in and of the world so as not to ruffle the feathers of church goers. Such soft leadership does not teach our church what a disciple of Christ looks like in the here and now. Rather such leadership accommodates the way of the world at the expense of domesticating the way of Christ. Such hypocritical leadership is not leading the people in our pews to be "altogether Christians." But then how can we make "altogether Christians" if we, ourselves, the leaders of the church, are being merely nominal or almost Christians?

We sit and complain about church decline, but as one of my members reminded me last night at bible study in the words of Jesus, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." Church decline is not a harvest problem; it is a laborer problem. The problem lies with us. Where are those greats that I was told about--those ministers that boldly stood up as the voice of Jesus in our community and government? When we recover that courageous voice--whose concern extends beyond our own comfort and our own flock--then maybe we'll begin to leave behind the era of the social club and start really being the church, the "ecclesia" we are called out to be by our Creator.

Community Tragedy

The news is filled with tragedy. Such tragedies as the senseless killing of Kelly Hunnewell, a baker and mother of four children ages 6-13, are far too common in our news today. Not to mention people's weigh-ins on such tragedies via Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. Upon the arrest of two 18 year-olds and a 16 year-old in the killing of Kelly Hunnewell, several South Carolinians commented with posts and tweets like, "Good. I hope they get the death sentence. Don't want my tax-payer dollars keeping them alive," "No sympathy for the murders, no matter how young they are" "The 16 year-old acted like an adult, let him be tried like an adult," and I could go on and on with like comments, posts and tweets that had the three convicted before any formal trial. My initial reaction when I read that three boys not even out of their teens had been arrested was, "How did they get there? How did they come to be murderers?" I can't imagine that someone wakes up one day thinking today is a good day to murder someone. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, and so there are probably people who crave to kill. I am a Dexter aficionado after all. But for the most part, I think it can be argued that most people do not wake up suddenly desiring to murder. The boys arrested are said to have "long criminal records;" they were not made murders in one day, but had a history that all who read might surmise that such a history of violence and crime would lead to murder. At what point did a parent, a friend, a teacher, a coach, a pastor, a fellow church member, someone in their life speak a hard-to-hear-truth, a reality-check that could have changed their future criminal trajectory? Where in their past did it all go wrong? 

I by no means think they shouldn't receive the consequences befitting of their crime. I am not trying to blame anyone else in this horrible act of senseless murder; they are responsible for their actions. At 16 and 18 years-old people ought to know the difference between right and wrong, and therefore they must be tried and punished for their crime. But I do, upon reading stories of such relatively young people committing heinous acts of violence, wonder how could have their community been their for them? Maybe you're thinking, "It's none of my business. It's the parents job to raise their kids." Yes, it is, but not all of us have been born into equally loving, giving, disciplining families who teach and model for us right. The world is not fair, and that is a fact of life. Some people are born where both nature and nurture are working against them. 

On craigslist there is a section called "Missed Connections" where you can, upon briefly having met someone, put out an ad searching for the person whom you briefly made a connection. We daily have many missed connections, missed opportunities to say and do something that could have made a difference. Not too long ago, I had a friend who I used to run and ride bikes with who committed suicide. A few weeks before she took her life, I noticed she was very down, and then a couple days before she died, I felt like I should call her and ask her to go to for a run or a bike, but I didn't. I was too busy with me that I didn't want to take the time to go see her. I don't know if my call or invitation to run or ride would have made a difference, but I will always wonder, "What if..." 

I don't like the "What if's" of life. At the root of "what if" is regret, and regret is often irreversible and can weigh heavy on the heart and mind for years. What if I had said something, she would still be here. What if I had done something, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. What if I had talked to him, maybe he wouldn't have done that. What if I had showed love to her when she needed it, maybe she wouldn't have gone off the deep end. What if I chose to forgive, maybe they would made a different decision. I would bet that we all come into contact with friends, acquaintances, or strangers whom we know we should say something--something that could make a difference. Too often with such "missed connections" there is no going back; once missed, it is simply a missed opportunity that we cannot use craigslist or a time machine to change. But we can learn from these "missed connections," not letting such important connections slip by so easily. 

We live in a very over-individualistic culture where we keep to ourselves and expect others to do the same. "It's none of their business" or similar variations is the standard mantra of the day for keeping relationships in the shallow end. How dare you try to interfere in my personal life! No one wants that, right? I bet right about now as those three teenage boys are sitting in their cell, they're probably wishing someone had been there for them to speak a hard-to-hear lesson that invaded their personal lives, but didn't lead them down the road to spending the rest of their lives in an orange jumpsuit. I also think there are people in their lives going through the "What if" questions, retracing missed connections that led up to their violent crime. 

From the newspaper and such stories as the murder of Kelly Hunnewell, it's evident that our world is plagued by needless violence and senseless crime. But what are you doing about it? Perhaps you are not contributing to the violence and crime. Good for you. But by not doing anything to add to the violence, by keeping silent, are you working to bring about a safer, less violent and crime riddled world? I think Christ calls us to be more proactive than just not being like "them." Jesus tells a story in Luke 18, "The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Letter to the Editor

Today The State paper, the daily statewide distributed newspaper in South Carolina, ran an article titled, "Are the Homeless Hurting Columbia's Downtown Businesses?"The article from title to content appalled me. When I was a child and my mother told me to go clean my room, most of the time I admittedly stuffed everything in my closet or under my bed, giving the perception upon first glance that I had cleaned my room. To me, it sounds like downtown businesses want to sweep a very real problem that has to do with living, breathing human beings under the rug, giving the perception that Columbia does not have a homeless problem. We do have a homeless problem; it is a problem that the city and it's citizens have failed to successfully address at the root of the issue which goes beyond providing food, shelter and clothing. While such programs are good and meet basic needs, somewhere we are not working together to effectively put into place preventative programs that help people not get to the point of homelessness. Homelessness is a community problem that we should be concerned with not just for the sake of protecting businesses or out of self-interest, but we should have a genuine concern for and desire to help our fellow human beings, beginning by investing in education, mental health services, financial counseling and other proactive services that help people before they find themselves and their children on the street. I suggest the downtown businesses put their heads together on ways they can help the people at the heart of their issue rather than simply complaining and disregarding the homeless problem in Columbia as someone else's problem. If you aren't a part of a real, sustainable solution then you're only perpetuating the problem. People's lives are at stake, and I'm not talking about the life and livelihood of the business owners. The homeless problem in Columbia is greater than an annoyance or eyesore for downtown shoppers. When we begin to see the homeless problem as much as our problem as those who are experiencing homelessness, then maybe we will more than put a bandaid over a problem that a bandaid cannot fix or hide. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sunday Musings: Mark 4:35-41

How many of us at WMUMC--or as members of other slowly declining churches--haven't asked God, "God, don't you care that we are perishing?!" As many of us have watched WMUMC decline over the past 30 or so years, don't you ever wonder what makes some churches decline and others grow? It can be a frustrating rabbit trail to trace; I chase it almost every day as I pray, think an plan the ministries of our church. I've only been at WMUMC for 3 years, and even I--after all the hard work I know we've all done together to be the hands and feet of Christ, hoping to help our church grow--I ask like the disciples did on that boat with Jesus, "Jesus, don't you care that we are perishing?!" Sometimes it feels like Jesus is asleep in the back as we pray and work so hard to help our once vibrant church find a rhythm of growth again. But something struck me as I read Mark 4:35-41: if my question is, "Jesus, don't you care that we are perish in," then I have to assume Jesus' follow-up question for me is, "Jeri Katherine, what are you afraid of? Have you no faith?" We small-member churches must remember if we ask, "Jesus, don't you care that we are perishing," then we must also be ready to truthfully answer, "What are we afraid of? Have we no faith?" I think that is a good place to begin a church-wide conversation because fear too often paralyzes. When we are afraid, we forget how significant a role fear plays into our decision making, into how we be and do church together. I want to believe that if we, as a church, can openly name our fears then together we can move from fear to faith that God is in our very presence, working, moving, breathing life into places fear prevents us from ever noticing the work of our living God. Fear gripped the disciples in the middle of the storm. We have endured some stormy years, Wesley Memorial, and I believe fear has paralyzed many who sit in our pews. Many of us want our question for Jesus answered, but we refuse to answer Jesus' question for us. I believe it is answering Jesus' question that our question will become moot. So, church, Jesus asks us, "What are YOU afraid of? Have you no faith?" 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Preparing for Sunday: John 1:1-18

This is where it's at! Join us!
Every Sunday in our bulletin there is a section that let's everyone know what the scripture text and sermon will be for the next four weeks. This is not merely for my benefit, nor merely the benefit of the worship team and our musicians who plan our services ahead of time. My hope is that people will do a little reading before worship, start thinking, maybe even do a little reading about the scripture text on their own time, so that they don't come into Sunday morning worship cold, but warmed up and ready to engage the text on a deeper level. 

Before every workout or race, I have my runners warm up by running a few easy miles, doing agility drills, strides and stretching, so that they won't get hurt when they start trying to run the fast stuff. This same principle can and should be applied to warm ups before Sunday worship. You really can't expect to fully grow as a disciple or fully engage Sunday worship, or get all you can out of worship without some preparation and warming up on your own time. 

So with that in mind I wrote the following to get folks thinking about this Sunday, June 9:

After 22 weeks in the Old Testament, we are in the New Testament, and we will be reading John 1:1-18. In the middle of the scripture lesson John writes: "Jesus was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not recognize him." For 400 years after the prophet Malachi prophesied Jesus' coming, there was silence--no visions, no prophecies, no messenger from God. Then the Word became fleshed; the long awaited messiah came to dwell among us. But we learn from John that those who waited the promised Messiah didn't even recognize him when he came!

In the movie October Sky, Homer Hickam gets to travel from West Virginia to Indiana for the National Science Fair. Homer and the Rocket Boys win first prize, and in a flurry of congratulations, Homer's hero, the rocket developer for NASA, Werner Von Braun, shakes Homer's hand, but Homer didn't even know who's hand he shook until a reporter asked Homer, "What did Von Braun say to you?" Later Homer's dad said, "I heard you met your hero, and you didn't even know who he was." 

"Jesus came into the world...yet his own people did not recognize him." How do we miss Jesus in our midst? How do we make sure the world does not miss Jesus alive and working in the world today?

Sunday Worship with WMUMC
2501 Heyward Street, Cola., SC
9:50am (contemporary) and 11:00am (traditional)
Scripture: John 1:1-18
Sermon: "Incognito Jesus"

See you there!