1054

Last post I staked out space squarely but somewhat vaguely in the middle of the road. I was thinking and praying and preparing for the first meeting of The United Methodist Centrist Movement (http://umcm.today). For those of you not United Methodist Christians you might not find the link all that interesting. If you are United Methodist I hope you will give it a read and prayerfully consider if it resonates with you as it does with me. I found the event that my earlier post anticipated a day that brought me hope and a renewed optimism about what might be.

In the debate underway in my tribe words like “split” and “schism” are tossed about quite freely. Many of the proposals for The United Methodist Church’s future have some element of schism at their core. This schismatic element ranges from outright divorce to de facto separation while remaining in the same house (but sleeping in separate bedrooms). Most see no other possibility and assume some separation is both inevitable and necessary.

We may have missed the rather startling news that the schism of 1054 (when Eastern and Western Christianity formally and finally split) is under attack. Specifically, Pope Francis and his Eastern Orthodox counterpart have begun healing this split (http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/30/world/europe/turkey-pope-visit/). Can you imagine? A nearly 1,000 year-old division of the Christian church might be in the beginning stages of healing? The journey from where each side now resides to the kind of unity expressed in the news coverage is long and fraught with risk. But the commitment to unity and to a different future seems real enough.

What leaves me hopeful is that if the Holy Spirit can blow into that rift with its long history perhaps God can also bring something different, something new into my United Methodist Church? If a given in the church world can be undermined so radically what else might be possible? I keep returning to David Watson’s post on November 9 about the need to take seriously the call to prayer for our denomination. We are fond of quoting Jesus who said in Luke’s Gospel: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27 NIV)

I hope we don’t require a 1,000 year split to learn about God’s possibilities in the face of overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable barriers to a different future.

 

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The Man in the Middle

It is hard sometimes in the middle-of-the-road. The traffic in both lanes can more easily hit you! And those who are securely in one lane or the other, or who are on the edges of the road, are unsure what to do about you. Most don’t want to hit you. But I think they also wish you would get in one lane or the other or just get out of their way. Seldom is being called “middle-of-the-road” a complement. It often carries connotations of being lukewarm or  ambivalent.

For much of my life I called myself a conservative. I am conservative in many ways. But on most of the pressing issues facing our church (The United Methodist Church) I am in the middle because neither end gives me a place where I can stand. Sometimes it is the complexity of the issue. Sometimes it is the contradictory beliefs I hold in my mind. It would be easier to be sure about every question. I am not. I could say much the same thing about the political climate in our country as well.

II hold firmly to my core faith in Jesus Christ, in my conviction of the necessity and centrality of the church in being a faithful disciple. I am not ambivalent or wishy-washy about a great many things.

But I am staking out my place in the middle and have been in recent weeks searching out others who are standing in the same place. It can be dangerous here. Even confusing. But it’s the center where I plan to stay.

William Willimon wrote “That most people meet Jesus on the road is no coincidence.” (Why Jesus?) I hope to meet Jesus there myself in the days ahead… in the middle of the road.

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Longing for What We Can’t Have

Weirdly I posted last week’s blog as a page… not sure what I was doing or how I did it. I deleted it as it was a time-sensitive one on Thanksgiving. 

Yesterday (November 29) was my 48th birthday. Over the years I have received many wonderful birthday gifts including several marvelous surprise parties thrown by my wife and friends (alas for my wife, throwing parties is not in my make-up so she has not been so blessed). And this year I was blessed by a number of cards, a few gifts, and a fair number of Facebook well-wishes.

However the one thing I would love to have received- the one thing I did not and could not receive – was a birthday call from my dad. For many years, wherever I was, my father would call me to wish me a happy birthday. I didn’t realize until my dad’s death in 2011 and the phone call that would never come again how much that simple act meant to me.

So much of what we want we cannot or perhaps should not have. Friday was “Black Friday.” Someone wryly observed it is a day to buy things we don’t need (or really want) after celebrating a day of being grateful for what we have. But in it I always see a longing for more, for satisfaction. Not well-pursued or satisfying however.

We are creatures of longing, of aspiration. We want higher, better, bigger things. We see it an humanity’s art – visual arts, drama, poetry, literature. Our visions in politics, even the disparate ones so prevalent today. are for a world that is better than the one we have. We want justice and peace and abundance and joy.

Advent and the often contrasting frantic preparations for Christmas are about this longing. a longing that cannot be satisfied by any Christmas observance or holiday tradition. No purchases made or gifts received will bring us closer to the aspirations that lie beneath so much of what we do at all times but especially now.

Unlike the phone call from Dad which will not happen in this life again, this longing does have a satisfaction in God’s gift in Jesus. All the wants that we cannot or should not have pale in the light of the Light of the World.

Today I am re-experiencing a bit of grief because of the call I will not ever receive. I am longing, though, for the promise of Christmas, which can and will be satisfied anew if I will let it…

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

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Is It Enough to Pray?

Yesterday I read a blog from United Seminary professor and colleague David Watson about the recent UM Council of Bishops statement that came from their gathering. I am not going to enter into the fray on my denomination’s divisions over human sexuality among other things.

I am struck – again – by the lip service I pray to the power of prayer in my life and ministry after reading David’s blog. Not that action isn’t necessary – far from it. At its best faith requires a fusion of right-heart and right-action. It is, I think, what God demands of us and makes possible in Jesus Christ.

But I keep coming back in my own life and faith and ministry to how little I believe in prayer. At least based on my efforts in that direction in my spiritual walk.

Do we believe that God does things? Do we believe that a God who demands right-living wouldn’t also be a God of action?

I find myself losing hope about my denomination’s future unity and vitality. Which is, I think, a perfect invitation to pray. So I will… more.

 

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Things Look Different Today

No, not in the light of the election yesterday. But in the light of the sun. Sunday marked the return of Eastern Standard Time to my world. As I walked into church Sunday morning, I thought “Wow it looks different!” The sun was shining in my eyes and the world was bright. I had grown used to the morning twilight of recent weeks as I drove our son to school and then shambled into the office.

What a difference turning the clocks back an hour makes. At dinner time the difference will be there, too, as darkness covers the evening meal that was eaten in broad daylight not so long ago. What a simple act, turning back the clocks. Just an hour. But how different things look.

And how disorienting it is! My sleep is still a little off as my body continues to think it is Daylight Saving Time.

As I think today about church – worship, meetings, studies, groups – I think the same ought to be true. Just an hour. But it ought to change our perspective. It ought to disorient us a little as our comfortable assumptions are challenged and our faith is renewed by exercising and stretching it.

Faith IS a comfort and ought to be. But if that is all it is… faith puts us to sleep rather than waking us up and changing us as it should.

I leave you with my favorite quote on the subject of church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982

 

 

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Election Day Thoughts Don’t Matter – Your Vote Does

Today is election day in America. Although I have not yet voted before the day is out I will have. I can count on one hand the number of times in thirty years that I have not voted. And I always regret when I do not.

My vote… your vote… matters. If there is an American creed, this assertion must be at the top of the list. Voting is how we do America.

If you do not vote, then you have silenced yourself. No one else. Facebook is not a ballot box. Anything but. The truth is I don’t care what you think about the issues and candidates of the moment if you don’t express that thought through voting.

You may feel like your vote doesn’t matter. But it does. Your single vote may not sway the election. But the number of close elections that have been decided by a relatively few people’s choices argues against the impotence of your vote. And like many small acts that are right and good and may not seem to matter, this one does, too.

You may not like the candidates. Then put your name on a ballot somewhere – school board, village council, condo association, PTO, church board. Some group some where needs your leadership if you don’t like what is happening.

If you do not vote then the argument is won. Even if your vote cancels mine on some issue or candidate the bigger victory is that we exercised our right to vote.

And we live in a world where some still do not have that right. Some whose circumstances make casting that ballot difficult or, in other lands, dangerous.

And we live in a nation where men and women have died for the right you may not be exercising. Veterans who risked life and fallen soldiers and sailors whose lives were sacrificed. Women who risked censure and their safety to demand they receive the same right the men had. People of all colors and backgrounds but largely African-Americans who became martyrs because they took seriously the ringing words that “all men [people] are created equal.” Including that they should be able to vote.

If you can’t vote because you didn’t register, then watch and listen carefully to today’s lesson in American civics. And if you don’t go today to complete a ballot, then go here and complete the application so you can when this next American holy day arrives again:

http://www.sos.state.oh.us/

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Go, Go, Go Joseph

If you recognize the title of this week’s blog, then you’ll also know the subject matter. Joseph. No, not that Joseph (as the person behind us at Sunday night’s performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat corrected her seatmate). The other Joseph – the son of Jacob, the great-grandson of Abraham. That Joseph.

Joseph’s story appears in the final chapters of Genesis. Thirteen chapters in fact. As much space as the story gives to his father and more than to his great-grandfather. Yet Joseph’s story ends when Genesis ends. The attention given him suggests he is the fourth patriarch and his biography fits the pattern well: a younger son, someone who experiences dreams and visions, a boy who grows into manhood and also into maturity in a foreign land where God has sent him to save his family.

But… nothing. We hear about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but Joseph is not added to the formula. If fact, when the twelve tribes of Israel are listed Joseph’s name disappears. His two sons are each remembered as half-tribes. Joseph is mentioned in Hebrews 11 among the roll of the faithful (11:22). But as far as I can see he disappears.

I love the story of Joseph. One of my treasured passages of Scripture comes from the mouth of Joseph:

 “ But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20 NIV)

My affection for this dreamer is the reason I love the Broadway show so. And his life is one to which I constantly return for inspiration in my own walk of faith. So I am distressed at his seemingly being written out of the story.

Perhaps Joseph is a reminder (not unlike the Joseph who is father to Jesus) that our place in God’s narrative begins and ends. Others will follow. Even the most important of us fade into the background of divine purpose and providence. We matter but not as much as we might assume or our pride expects.

In the words of the fictional Joseph -

“If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers lie
Far from this world.” “Close Every Door”

“Close Every Door”
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

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Enemies at Home

“…a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:36 NIV)

Matthew quotes the prophet Micah, both of whom are talking about the end times. But when I hear this passage these days I hear the part about my own household – the places and people closest and dearest to me.  Eugene Peterson in his translation of this segment puts it thus:

“—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God.
Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.” (The  Message)

I spent a few days with people who include some of my dearest friends. They are not biological family members but are family in the sense of affection and loyalty. Among them are also folks who test me mightily! I crossed paths several times, for instance, with someone about whom I wrote in an earlier blog and whose betrayal and breaking of trust still hurts deeply.

I know that I am ripping this verse out of its context. But part of what I think Jesus meant by the startling words about family is that family and friendship will be where our Kingdom commitments and character will be most sorely tempted.

Some of us face or will face great public trials of our faith. Some followers of Jesus will experience great hardship or unimaginable tragedy. Some will have to affirm or deny Christ in dramatic ways. But most of us will live out Jesus’ ways in our homes, offices, schools, and neighbourhoods.

The people we most love and with whom we spend the most time are often also the people we struggle to forgive and to love as Jesus demands (and not as our feelings or inclinations alone may lead us). While enjoying the renewal of friendships this weekend I also was tried in my commitment to love, to forgive, to extend grace.

Eugene Peterson wrote in a book on teenagers (maybe something I should read?) but something that applies broadly to families and family-like relationships:

“The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption, after the manner of William Faulkner’s plots in Yoknapatawpha County.”

Eugene H. Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager
(Eerdmans, 1994), pp.110-11

Let the redemption continue…

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Outside In or Inside Out?

Earlier this week I caught this story on NPR:

‘Mass Mobs’ Aim To Keep Pews Full At Old Churches

Each Sunday, a crowd of worshipers descends on a Detroit church that used to be filled with people but now faces closure and death. The pastor and administrator in me listened with interest but also with concern.  What happens next week when the pews – and the offering plates – are again empty? How does one Sunday of great attendance improve the viability of the local church in any meaningful way?

What really caught my attention was this line:

“People are upset that the churches are closing, but the simple reason is, people don’t go…”

The speaker meant that people don’t go to the churches and therefore the churches are empty. I wondered if the real problem lies in the very words he spoke but seen from the other side?

In the interest of fairness, I do not know these churches, their leaders or their congregants. But when did keeping the physical doors of the church open become a passion worthy of the church? Worthy of the sacrificial nature of a Christ who gave himself if others and not for himself?

This story troubles me because – honestly – much of my work as a pastor is directed to this very thing — keeping the church open, moving the church forward in growth, etc. And guaranteeing that I have a salary and a home and a retirement account.

What this story says to me is that the church will survive and thrive when its people – when Christ’s people – go rather than lamenting that people don’t go to church. Not a new thought for me or for many but a thought energized by this sad story.

I certainly hope the churches in this story stay open. I hope, even more, that they and we go instead.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 16:25 NRSV

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Broken Dreams and Callings

This week I read one of the most unsettling – and liberating – things I have ever read:

Discovering Your Calling Won’t Make You Whole

It is troubling because it speaks to so much of what we spend our adult lives pursuing… purpose, meaning, calling. Why am I here? What am I here to do? We believe that if we find this calling all will be easy – or at least clear.

Andrea Lucado in the above post bursts that bubble. And it should be burst.

So much effort spent on finding our unique calling. So many books written, seminars given, and (yes) money spent on this dream. So much agonizing over my place and purpose. Not pursuing this unattainable dream in a fallen world can free us for better things.

What if our purpose is rather to particularize God’s vision for the world in our lives and relationships?  This is enough of a dream for most of us! I wonder if our striving for our calling and purpose is a slightly off-course attempt to do this very thing? Another sign of the brokenness of the world. But also a source of hope.  As Andrea Lucado quotes Jesus in her blog:

“But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33c

Jesus has done so… therefore I do not have to overcome it. What could be more liberating and hope-filling than that?

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