Saturday, April 16, 2016

Three Thoughts And One Plea To My Traditionalist Friends In the United Methodist Church

A couple of weeks ago, Talbot Davis on the "Ministry Matters" blog made a post entitled "A Plea To My Centrist Friends in the United Methodist Church". As one of founders of what we call the United Methodist Centrist Movement, he seemed to be reaching out to all my colleagues who proudly will serve GC 2016 under the centrist moniker. I pondered his thoughts, and decided that it might be a good idea to respond back. So before General Conference begins in a month or so, here are three thoughts and one plea as a Centrist I'd like our Traditionalist friends to ponder. 

First, traditionalist friends you don't have to panic about GC 2016, or any future GC because math is on your side. The ever-growing African delegation assures a traditionalist majority at GC perpetually. So when it comes to human sexuality there are really only two likely outcomes at GC 2016. The most likely outcome is that the current language (and all the legal wrangling that goes with it) in the Book of Discipline will be maintained. Maybe this doesn't bring you much comfort given the all the upheaval the past four years, but at least in principle your desire for the BOD language to remain the same is secure.

The other less likely - but still possible - outcome is that the current BOD language will be replaced with a proposal written by four of our colleagues entitled the "C.U.P. Plan". I say this is "less likely, but possible" because you have a simple majority this year, but you'll need a few of us centrists to lean your way for the "CUP Plan" to see the light of day.

In case you don't know what the Cup Plan is, here's a summary. It will...


  
  • strengthen the current BOD language around the prohibition of same-sex marriage and same-sex ordination 
  • end our current practice in the United States of maintaining order in our respective conferences usurping the authority of our respective conference Board of Ministry, order of clergy, cabinet, and bishop on matters of human sexuality
  • mandate suspensions and expulsions without what we in western civilization would recognize as "due process" for those who conduct same-sex ceremonies, essentially creating an entirely new class of offense above and beyond all others
  • allow those churches and clergy who have had enough of the United Methodist Church to leave with property and pension in tact after a "discernment period" of sixty days (remember this one... we'll talk about it more later)
So at least from an institutionalized perspective, traditionalists have nothing to worry about. And given the long-term prognosis both for membership growth in Africa and membership decline in the United States, you will always have this advantage. You only need centrists to vote for a more punitive form of discipline. 

But that's isn't likely. Let me explain why. Here's my second thought.

Three out of the four authors of the CUP Plan are ordained Elders here in my conference. Despite the fact they were all running, and heavily endorsed by the traditionalist caucus which for 20 years had dominated our elections, none of them were elected as full delegates to GC 2016. Want to know why? 

The CUP Plan. Or to be more specific it's less punitive predecessor, the A&W Plan. 

The A&W was recognized by centrists as a fraudulent call for "unity" masking a demand for "uniformity". Unity implies we stand together despite our differences. Uniformity is tossing anyone out who can't pass a very narrow, focused, unnecessary litmus test.  For traditionalists to not, under any circumstances, entertain the possibility that the passion of so many United Methodists regarding inclusion was anything more than just individualism run amok was disappointing and disrespectful to a lot of people we admire and respect. The A&W Plan just hammered that disappointment home.

Centrists don't like trials. They don't like kicking people out. They believe unity can be achieved on matters of vital importance while differences exist on the rest. They seek compromise. They don't want mandatory minimums. They have no respect for those who continually threaten to leave or try to force their way by refusing to pay their apportionment unless they get what they want. As Wesleyans who learned the Quadrilateral in seminary our love for free will extends to our desire to be in a denomination that encourages free thought, discussion, reason, pragmatism, and putting aside our differences to do the important things: make disciples of Jesus Christ, and together serve others as He would will it.

If it makes you feel any better we aren't interested in the didactic demands of the Love Prevails crowd either. After all Paul said it best.... love doesn't demand it's own way. Good News, the IRD, Love Prevails, the Reconciling Movement and MFSA in our opinion major in the minors. It's just that the most radical traditionalist voices in that choir actually have the power to put the rest of us under their thumb. Heck, it's their dream. And to that vision we will not bow.

That's why in West Ohio, at least, we rejected this vision for the future of our denomination while we still can.

Third, not speaking for any other centrist but myself, when I read Davis' article I couldn't help but be troubled. Of course I was troubled by an Elder who was single boasting about her active sex life and the unmarried-but-engaged ordinand candidates boasting the same. Know that us centrists believe in the Book of Discipline. We follow it. In fact we probably follow it better than you traditionalists do. On the whole we generally practice infant baptism, both sprinkle and dunk, pay all our apportionment as best we can (even when we don't agree with our bureaucracy), seek inclusivity in our leadership circles, and have no issue with the institutional empowerment of females. 

Your crowd's record in those areas, you have to admit, is a little spotty.

But I was equally as troubled by something else Davis wrote: "I want you to know your vote is not simply about homosexuality and it’s not about justice. It is instead about dismantling the entire sexual ethic that has helped define the Christian faith for two millennia."

The church has been wrong about a lot of things, some of which were taught for hundreds and hundreds of years (and in some corners are still being taught). I was reminded of this just this morning when I read an article in the New York Times about the effort Georgetown University - a Jesuit school - is making to find descendants of 242 persons who the school sold into slavery to pay their debts in the 1850's. The church taught slavery was a defendable institution for over 1800 years.

I was reminded of this again when I stumbled on a quote by our first female bishop, Leontine Kelly:

"[On ordination of women:] We must recognize the kind of culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived. It was a very male-dominated culture. However, Jesus did violate the customs of the culture in that he talked with women, shared with women. Women were part of the entourage of Jesus Christ. God calls whomever God would call."

The church taught for over 1900 years that women had no place in the institutional leadership of the Christian movement that involved having any authority over men.

And I was reminded of this again when I thought of Copernicus and I looked at a globe.

What seems to define us as centrists is the Holy Spirit moving amongst us in the form of pragmatism and practicality bending to what Dr. King called an "arc toward justice". LGBT persons and their families are active in our churches. Many of these good folks have exhibited the kinds of spiritual fruit that are helping create vitality in our congregations. They are highly ethical and committed to the cause of Jesus. They have witnessed the destruction sexual immorality has wrought within both  the straight and LGBT communities and are rejecting that kind of practice for something committed and stable. As they raise children and get certified as foster parents, they are looking to us. They are helping us work with LGBT teens who are suicidal to give them hope for the future. They believe in monogamous, life-long commitments between two consenting adults, and are just as appalled at the destruction "sleeping around" creates. They challenged us to treat them like regular old people - regular old sinners - just like the rest of us.  

And we as pastors are serving many, many traditionalists who are becoming "former traditionalists" or "modified traditionalists". They've been challenged by the people they've met, the studies they've read, and reflection in which they have engaged. They searched the scriptures and prayed for direction. And while maybe they (and many of us centrists) aren't really sure what to do with all of this, they know that growing more punitive right now makes little sense. They're ready for a new season.

We can work with this! Let us. We'll leave you alone as we do so. We promise.

Which leads me to my plea..... traditionalists, if you are delegates to GC 2016, or can lobby someone who is, know that the least you can do is reject the CUP Plan, while the most you can do is work with us and willing progressives to find a "third way" for our denomination. 

I know you have the Rob Renfroes and Maxie Dunnams of the world warning you that a change in BOD language to allow a "third way" will result in churches leaving and endless litigation just like it did in the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian denominations. But same-sex marriage wasn't legal when those folks made those choices, and the attitude of the nation - particularly young adults - has shifted significantly in that same time period. I venture a guess that vast majority of you reading this who call themselves a traditionalist don't harbor any ill-will toward to the LGBT community, and maybe over the last decade or so yourself have had your heart slightly soften on the matter of inclusion.

We can do this differently, but traditionalists only if YOU choose to do so. Come to the table. Tell the hardcore traditionalists and progressives to chill out and give your own willing traditionalist, progressive and centrist brothers and sisters a way to stay together and maintain their own convictions. We won't find a perfect solution, but we will find a workable one. Give it a chance.  

And one last thing... about that CUP Plan. Know that we centrists are rule-followers. Progressives will most likely stick around and fight til the bitter end of the denomination or you kick them all out (which ever comes first). But as for us centrists, well we'll just follow the rules. 

A few of my centrist friends and I were sitting around one evening drinking cold beverages and talking about what a post-CUP Plan UMC might look like for us. None of us were all that encouraged. 

I mean the status quo isn't exactly paradise. Everything already seems to take more energy and stamina than it did when we first started in ministry. And as for our denominational leadership, there appears to be great resistance to the kinds of radical change that's necessary to make sure the local church has what it needs to do good work in the current climate while not getting dragged down by a status quo that's not working. 

Now factor into this discussion the CUP Plan, which none of us as centrists are in favor of. The denomination will come apart at the seams. Progressive conferences will ignore it. Traditionalists will use the leverage of the BOD to enforce it. The rancor will only grow, and we'll do all we can to shelter our congregations from the mess. 

And yet the CUP Plan DOES allow for pastors and churches to leave with property and pension in hand after a sixty day period of reflection. This got us wondering, what if the opportunity, legally, came along to form a new denomination? It could be...
  • One built on the doctrine of the Wesleyan movement, but leaves behind the deaf-to-change bureaucracy who only really seemed to care about us in terms of "nickels and noses" and the preservation of their own position/power. 
  • One that assigns the decisions of marriage and ordination to each of it's local churches and pastors to work out as best for their context.
  • One that only seeks pastors strong in character and committed to creating healthy local churches where they can be effective in partnership with laity in all different types and kinds of settings 
  • One that asks for, say, 3% of General Operating Expense as the only apportionment. 
  • One that, without layers upon layers of denominational staffing and an impossible decision making process, can focus it's available resources on new church starts and church revitalization toward the end of what is the heart of any denomination - strong local churches 
  • A denomination without bishops or a method for assigning church leadership that was perfect for an era when the horse and walking were the main modes of transportation 
  • One that would insure you wouldn't need a boatload of debt to become a pastor
We could call it the American Methodist Church. We've even got an idea for a logo for it. We think the hipsters will love it!


(you have to be kinda old to get the joke... not "Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show old", but still, Millennials you'll need to go ask your parents)

Traditionalists, we don't want to do this. We're the ones killing ourselves trying to keep this thing together. But if you change the rules you give us the ability to put that energy to work in more constructive endeavors. Again, it's not what we want, but traditionalists, we've been asking for a compromise and you won't listen. You won't take us seriously. You want to use us to your own ends, but besides us doing a lion-share of the work and paying the bills, you don't seem to want us around.

We could arrange that. It's your choice. Choose wisely at GC 2016.


Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Late. It's Late. But not too late... for kindness?

Was listening to internet radio when unexpectedly this song came on...


It's not exactly one of Queen's bigger songs. I only know it because it's on "News of the World", which was the first "album" I ever bought with my own money, album being in parenthesis because I actually bought an 8-track tape (millennials, ask your parents). I'm sure as a kid I made the purchase solely for "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" but 8-Tracks didn't rewind or fast forward (at least mine didn't), so I'd just listen to the rest of the album passively til it came back around to those two songs.

Now let me say this... I really liked those two songs, so I heard the rest of that album plenty. Songs like "Sheer Heart Attack",  "Get Down, Make Love", and "All Dead. All Dead (a very sad song written by Brian May about the death of his cat) are imprinted on my brain.



(And yes, my parents let me listen to a song like "Get Down. Make Love". It was the seventies, baby! But I digress....)

Despite the hundreds of times I'd heard "It's Late" I never paid much attention to the lyrics, so I looked them up. They were written by Brian May supposedly with the idea that it's a three-act scene or something (I don't know... Wikipedia did it's best to explain) with two different women, one whom the protagonist is in a long-term relationship with, and another who he takes consolation in when the long-term relationship seems to be on the rocks.

(Once again, it was the seventies)

But putting that all aside, this is a tune about a couple who are having trouble holding a relationship together.

The way you love me
Is the sweetest love around
But after all this time
The more I'm trying
The more I seem to let you down, yes
Now you tell me you're leaving
And I just can't believe it's true
Oh, you know that I can love you
Though I know I can't be true
Oh, you made me love you
Don't tell me that we're through

It's late - mmm, and it's driving me so mad
It's late - yes I know, but don't try and tell me that it's
Too late - save our love you can't turn out the light
So late - I've been wrong but I'll learn to be right
It's late - It's late - It's late
But not too late

Pretty sad lyrics. Anybody who has had trouble in their relationship or marriage can relate. These lyrics paint an accurate picture of everything going on in the moment when two people are on the verge of wondering whether or not their love is going to survive. There's a lot of questioning the intentions of each other. A lot of begging and pleading to keep the relationship going, while simultaneously wondering if the investment needed to be made will save the relationship (or even worth making). A lot of guilt and anger at yourself, or your partner, or both for not having made better choices. And there's sadness. Sadness that can only come when something that at one time was so alive, so good, is now in real trouble... or even done.

Years ago I came across an article about a study The Gottman Institute did seeking to define the key factor in marital success. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that couples who initially respond positively toward one another were more likely to pick up on cues that enabled them to relate better over the long term, than those couples who tended toward a "fight or flight" response geared to manipulate control in the relationship. As the article states simply....

"People who give their partner the cold shoulder — deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally — damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships." 

In short, the most important trait in a healthy marriage according to Gottman is kindness. Marriage partners who seek to be kind to one another tend to fair better than those who aren't. What's more Gottman goes further in stating that the key to kindness is the way you think about it. 

"You can think about (kindness) as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. (Those who navigate marriage successfully) tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work."

The most successful marriages are ones where those involved seek to not just show kindness, but actively work to become increasingly more kind. I think that's good news for any couple who find themselves in a difficult marriage, or in a good one they seek to improve. The way out and up from where you both are is to begin exercising "kindness muscles". Gottman gives a number of examples of practical ways to do this:
  • Offer small acts of generosity 
  • Be generous in regards to your spouse's intentions
  • Seek every opportunity to share and celebrate your partner's joy
While I see the direct application of Gottman's work in marriages, I have hope that if those of us who are United Methodists took his advice, we might be able to fare better in the future than we are now in terms of the fortunes of our local church, and the future of the denomination.

At the local church level, if a church in decline is looking to turn it's fortunes around, or a church doing pretty good is looking to do better, figuring out ways to begin exercising "kindness muscles" is the way to go.  I'd gather, for example, that at the heart of "Missional Christianity" (which are buzzwords denominational leaders have become so fond of and yet unable to really define) is the intentional collective exercising of "kindness muscles". To become so attuned to being kind toward others that it becomes instinctual and automatic. Kindness not defined by who is or isn't or might become "a member" of the church, but rather the church being kind to one all whom they encounter. That seems to be heart of the "missional movement". Given that Jesus called us to love each other, as an expression of our love for the Lord, this makes sense.

To think about this further, in the life of the denomination beyond the local church, I wonder if the vitriol we've spewed against one another has been so great for so long that we've forgotten how to be kind to one another? Kindness, it seems, has taken a backseat as the caucuses representing the polar ends of the denomination seek to destroy each other.

Progressives, as an example, hear evangelicals talk about "loving the sinner and hating the sin" and just roll their eyes. There have been far too many examples of "love" which resulted in rejection and expulsion on the part of evangelicals particularly toward LGBTQ persons for progressives to take that rhetoric seriously.

I had one of these experiences at an event recently sponsored by our conference where there were two presentations by two opposing speakers regarding scripture and homosexuality. The evangelical presenter laid out what was essentially a hard-core-take-no-prisoners perspective that left little, if any, hope both for inclusion now in local church and in the "great hereafter" for LGBTQ persons. Even though he did end his presentation with a "but we're all sinners" and "no sin is greater than another" grace statement, by the time he reached his conclusion the air was out of the room. Those seeking inclusion and those who stand with them were "all out of listen". They had heard it before. The attempt to "soften the blow" seemed to have the opposite effect. It came off as condescending and dishonest. 

On the flip side, I know evangelicals hear progressives talk about following Jesus' lead by welcoming all and wonder what chaos will be introduced into the community if everybody gets to play by their own rules, or at least new rules as a whole we don't all understand. Why, they wonder, if someone points out that we need to have some basic ground rules so we can live peacefully together, and those ground rules have been well-established for centuries, do they get painted as bigots and haters when they attempt to live them out? Since when did trying to be faithful to scripture and what the denomination has determined to be her Discipline warrant being painted as "evil"?

I know that at the same presentation, when the progressive speaker gave her more nuanced argument it seemed to the committed evangelicals in attendance that the "black and white" presentation of the evangelical was a lot easier to understand. The clarity offered by the evangelical is really the trump card when many UM's are presented with the progressive justification for full inclusion. How do you explain these changes in light of the traditional understanding of scripture? How do you explain these new ethics to your children and grandchildren? How do you stand before a congregation that's always more or less unilaterally agreed that the old ways are the right ways, and tell them that they've been wrong and make a change?

Leaning on history and tradition is much easier and understandable than a new reality where behaviors that had never been condoned, now would be. Accusations of "watering down" the Gospel, "trampling on scripture", and an unwillingness to adhere to our mutually agreed upon Discipline create specters of demonizing the "other" and making it impossible for little more than superficial conversation to take place among people who disagree with each other. 

In the end so much time and energy has been invested in the two camps beating on one another it has made their "relationship" so toxic nothing short of Maxie Dunnam and Amy DeLong washing one another's feet at General Conference could begin to move them toward some resolution to even "agree to disagree". Kindness could pave a way forward for all us United Methodists, and begin breaking this stalemate, but I'm pretty sure the polarized caucuses won't let that happen.

It will take those of us who believe unity isn't uniformity, but rather meeting the demands of sacrificial love toward all, to stand up, speak out, and work toward keeping our denomination together.

Just to go ahead and show my hand, I believe that the only role those of us who are sympathetic toward full inclusion, but also realize that there is wisdom in moving deliberately and wisely so as to not too quickly throw out church tradition is to advocate following the advise of Gamaliel. Create a pathway where folks willing to prop the door wide open can do so, and wait and see what the Lord does, or doesn't do, with their work at least for a season. We also need to simultaneously stand for the committed traditionalist and allow them to live out the Discipline as it's been understood historically until such a time where we can see if in this new arrangement we can continue to live together, or seek a peaceful separation.

In any event, we have to keep encouraging those diametrically opposed to show a little grace to one another, even if they vehemently disagree. Evangelicals need to love the LGBTQ much more sincerely than many of them have been willing to do so historically. Progressives, while not moving off of their sincere commitment to include all, need to concede that you can't legislate into existence something that generally takes personal relationships and loving conversations to change.

We need to stand for unity, and not as some critics state just for unity's sake. But rather unity seeking in love to call all standing at every point of the theological spectrum to raise their own bar of personal holiness, so we might have great capacity for both grace and justice. Unity rooted not in uniform understanding of a few particular points of church tradition, or a disdain for those who have been "oppressors", but unity which seeks to live out the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and Great Requirement - to love justice, offer mercy, and walk in humility in the presence of the Lord - with the intent that al of us begin acting more like servant leaders in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in all of our unique, yet necessary, expressions.

Unity which makes us a true light of the world. Not a taillight burning dimly as an afterthought, or a flashlight used for interrogation, but a beacon of hope for all people. People who know that in the storm, there is a port, and that port is the United Methodist Church.

In any event let's figure out simple ways we can begin exercising those kindness muscles in our personal relationships, local churches, and across the United Methodist connection as we keep making the journey of following Jesus. Cause love is a long road, and we need to be in better shape than we are now if we hope to make a journey that ends with the words "well done, good and faithful servant".   


All the while, please join me in praying that's while it's late... maybe VERY late, it's not too late for a new season of vitality for the people we call Methodists. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Why?

(This is a rough edit of the eulogy for Jon Andrews)


As we conclude this service I just have a couple of thoughts I want to add. Promise not to keep you much longer. Just wanted to leave you with this...

First and foremost, I want to thank this community for all the ways they've come together. All the Shawnee students who have been praying, taking time to visit, light a candle, let loose a balloon, write a #6 on their wrist, wear red, leave memorial flowers at the soccer field..... I know that you have been a tremendous blessing to the Andrews family during this most difficult week.

And all the students from the area high schools who have shown their support... wow! All I can say is wow! The pictures of students at LCC, Lima Senior, Wapak, Bath, Elida, other WBL school, and schools from all over wearing red in Jon's honor... you have no idea what that's meant. The teams that came last night. The football team on it's way to O-G. The Shawnee soccer team dressed to the nines last night. All the area high school soccer teams who came in their jerseys yesterday evening. The swimmers... there were literally hundreds of swimmers, coaches, and officials from all over the region who came to pay their respects. Thank you all.

Thank you to the administration - Superintendent Lamb and Principle Cox - faculty, guidance counselors, and staff at Shawnee. Thank you for leading this school with a grace grounded in love for your students. 

Thank you to all the clergy and church staff in the community. Thank you to Pastor Shane Crites of Shawnee Alliance Church, who as Chaplain to our "First Responders" tended to these brave heroes, as well as those grieving last Sunday night. Thank you to Angie Soules, Director of Life Teen, the youth ministry for the area Catholic churches for all the work you've done with students this week. For Father Dave Ross and Father Steve Blum and their good work and support. Thank you to those first responders, as well as the West Ohio Crisis Team who worked with the Mental Health Board to come serve the students and staff. 

Thank you to all the parents... all the adults. to any adult who has done anything to help or comfort others,  the family, I know, appreciates everything all you have done during this most trying, difficult week. 

And just to take a moment of personal privilege, I just want to thank this congregation I serve. I have the most amazing staff. All they wanted to do was help in any way they could. And our lay pastors and all our servants... I'm so thankful to all of you. You proved to me once again that "Serve Like Jesus" isn't just a tagline or hashtag at Shawnee United Methodist Church. I want to personally thank all of you. 

Once again, thank you, everyone, for everything you have been doing, especially praying, so Shawnee could stand strong, and show the Andrews how much their family, and in particular, Jon, meant to you. You have truly loved your neighbor, and served as the hands and feet of Jesus.

I hope that covered all the thank you's. If I missed someone, my apologizes.

As I sat down to put this together, there was only one question I had on my mind. Why? Why are we here today, mourning the loss of Jon Andrews?

I mean he was gifted in a multitude of ways. He was a good student. he had good grades. He understood the material. He was known to help other students with their studies. 

He was a gifted athlete. You heard Coach Quatman. He was a leader on the soccer field who fought for every possession. A captain of the team. And did you see the pile of swimming medals out there in the hallway? Even as a little kid swimming for Sherwood Jon just cut through the water. He was fun to watch. A tremendous athlete. 

He was well-rounded. As a hunter, he bagged a buck the very first time he ever went deer hunting. His dad had to beg a pickup truck on the fly to go pick up a deer that by the time he arrived Jon had already skinned. The mounted duck you might have just seen in the hallway? Jon got it the first time he ever went duck hunting. It literally fell out of the sky into his uncle's arms. 

He loved wildlife. As a child he kept reptiles as pets. Snakes. Didn't make his mom too happy when she'd be folding his laundry in his bedroom and his pet ball python, would hang on the mirror and give her an unexpected jolt. I bet they could hear Julie scream all up and down Lochloman Way. Jonathon Scot Andrews!!! Put that snake away mister or there's gonna be trouble. Trouble! 

As an artist he had quite a flair. There's a whole table of pottery here that's Jon's. Pottery. That's a skill that takes years to master, and Jon's work, as a teen, is just outstanding. 

Why?

Certainly it wasn’t a lack of love from his family. Scot and Julie adored Jon, they’re youngest. They went to games and meets. They chuckled when they saw him, up early, reading the paper and drinking his coffee like a little old man. Jon’s parents loved him and did everything they could to help him. Everything. Stephen and Sarah got to enjoy their younger cute-but-annoying little brother turning into a great friend with whom they could have adventures… the stories of which someday they may have the courage to tell their parents.

 I think the family has a million Andrews and Greenes, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins upon cousins abounding. Plenty of dinners to enjoy together. Someone always stopping by. It’s a big boisterous, loving family who loved watching Jon grow up from a tiny ring bearer to a handsome homecoming date.  

It wasn't from a lack of friends. Certainly he had a tight circle of good friends, but I can't count all the stories I’ve heard this week of people who said Jon helped them with this, or Jon did that with them. You were either this friend, or if you saw him walking down the hall or across the field or driving his beloved truck, you wanted to be his friend.

He had a great sense of humor. He wasn't above the occasional practical joke. Whether it was an escalating TP war with a friend,or eluding the township 5-0 during an evening of hijinks with friends in Indian Brook he was up for some fun. On the first night, for example, he and Avery went out he brought her to his home, asked her to stay in the kitchen and be absolutely quiet. In the next room was his mother, so he rounded the corner.

"Hey mom, I'm home. I finally got rid of that Avery Shirk girl."
"Jon, what was wrong with Avery?"
"Oh, I don't know, she just talks too much. She's really annoying."
"Well, I thought she was sweet."
"That's a good thing, cause she's here and standing just around the corner. Aren't you glad you didn't call her a witch?"

Yeah, he really did that. He could make you laugh.

And he wasn't one to give up. Jon wasn't a quitter. His dad remembered a baseball game when Jon was little. A 3rd grader pitching to 5th and 6th graders, and he was just getting shelled. Eventually little Jon put his glove up over his face began to cry. So Scot went to mound to see if he was OK, and since there weren't any more pitchers, he asked him if he could grind it out. And he did until he got out of the inning.

Jon could grind it out. He was grinding it out.

So, why? 

Have you ever been lost? I remember - maybe my earliest surviving memory - when I was a really little kid, three years old, our family moved to Charleston, West Virginia from Columbus. My parents were helping get all the stuff moved into the house with the movers, and I wandered off. Soon I realized that I had no idea where I was. I started to scream and cry, thinking I’d never see my parents again. 

Now, I was standing at the end of our driveway, about 50 feet away from the house. I wasn’t actually lost, but I thought I was. Feeling lost is terrible.

All of us, from time to time, feel lost.  We struggle to make sense of this world we live in, with all it's complexities. Life can often scare us. It’s hard, difficult, chaotic... and we're supposed to be able to make sense of it... 
crack the code... 
figure out the answer... 
not burden others with our problems. 

And when we can't, it's exhausting. It's humiliating. It's defeating, and we forget that we are a precious child of God. We believe lies that echoing in our head, that if we said them out loud to others who know and love us, would be rebuked. 

This is not a rational, understandable, predictable world we live in. It is beautiful and it is broken, just as we are beautiful and broken. Broken even as the world's brokenness is thrust upon us. 

Why are we here today? Because life is difficult, doesn't come with a clear-cut road map, and we get lost. And being lost is no fun. In fact it's terrifying. Lost leaves you scared and angry and frustrated.

Which is why I love Jesus. The One who seeks the lost. The One who'll leave the ninety-nine to go find the one out in the wilderness. I mean, that's the point of John 14. Not even death, apparently, keeps Jesus from seeking us out, seeking out the lost. 

I am coming to you, to take you to my Father's house, to a place I've especially prepared for you. And if you've experienced the love and grace that is mine, that is at the heart of why all things have been made, then you will know my voice, and you will know you're home. 

I wish, with all my heart, that the love and grace Jon Andrews was so capable of extending to others, the love and grace of Jesus that is at the heart of all created things, he could have extended to himself.  

Love and grace greater than all our sin. Greater than all our flaws. The love and grace which binds us together as a community. Love and which seeks to serve first, and judge later. 

When Jesus came seeking Jon, that love and grace washed over him like rolling waters of a flowing stream, and he knew it was his. It always was his, It always will be his. It’s just hard, from time to time, to figure that out on this side of paradise. 

So as we prepare to leave this place, to rebuke the darkness, to chase away the chaos, to crucify the lie that we are no more than our shortcomings, we must engage in practicing love and grace to one another. Love and grace which allows for honesty among us in the community. Love and grace which allows us to admit our flaws and seek those willing to walk the journey with us. Imperfections and all. Love and grace which rebukes the tempter, who seeks to deceive us into believing we are isolated and alone. Rebukes the author of lies, who would seek to distract us from the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who has come to bring us peace.

Whatever the demons are that haunt us, that haunt our homes and our families, let us seek to make earth more like heaven, like we pray in the Lord's prayer, and confess our shortcomings, our sins, so as we find the Lord's forgiveness as we forgive each other. It is in that divine forgiveness we might find new ways to defeat the tempter, and be delivered from evil that would deceive us into falsely believing that we deserve to feel isolated and lost.

May the grace and love of the Living God rain down on this community. May it rain down as you tell others that you love them. May it rain down as we step out of a feeling of helplessness and ask others for help. May it rain down in our willingness to listen. May it rain down as we embrace the gifts of those who are skilled healers, as we continue to pray for healing. And may it rain down as we understand that if we are to love our neighbor as yourselves as an expression of our love for God, that fundamentally we need to love ourselves. Flawed, mortal, imperfect, and yet still capable of being loved. 

And may grace and love rain down on Scot, Julie, Stephen, and Sarah in the form of our continued prayer and concern. May it rain down as we refuse to let one dark moment define the life and meaning of Jon Andrews as we remember his friendship, his gifts, his humor, and love he had for others. 

May you find hope in the Risen Christ, who nails our sins to the tree standing on Calvary, so that we may rise again as new people, ready to overcome evil with good.

Amen and amen.
 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bill Croy - Three Personal Memories

It's growing late, but I can't sleep. A good friend of mine, Bill Croy, died today after a long, hard 4 1/2 year battle with ALS. So, if you don't mind, as a means of simultaneously paying tribute and clearing my head, I'd like to share some memories (actually, three) with the world. Hopefully they'll make you smile, and maybe understand what a great guy Bill Croy was.

First, a little background. I met Bill as a kid who moved to Lima, Ohio at the age of 10. My parents attended Trinity largely because 1) my mom could sing for her high school choir director (Ron Richards), 2) my Dad's boss (Henry Hollinger) invited us to come check the church out, and 3) at the time they had the reputation of having best children and youth program in the city. That last one was all thanks to Bill's leadership as he was the Associate Pastor of Christian Education.

Bill left either at the end of my eighth or ninth grade year (I really don't remember), but as a United Methodist Elder ordained in 1995, I was able to stay in touch with him. I got the gift of not only having him as a pastor, but then a mentor, and ultimately a great friend.

In any event, here are three (of many) memories I have of Bill.

Memory One: Death By Green Bus

Bill taught my confirmation class, and let me tell you it was a doozy. I can't recall every single classmate, but I remember the class was somewhat large (17 or 18 of us I believe), and we were a handful. I just remember Bill always looked much older after spending an event with us than he did before. We really made him appreciate High School ministry.

This was never more true than on our confirmation class trip to Dayton. Bill was a proud alum of United Theological Seminary and he liked to take the confirmation classes there to see where the United Methodist church minted fresh pastors. As a part of the day we also visited a UM-related mission and an urban UM congregation. We wrapped up the day swimming at a YMCA and returned home.

This was the early eighties - or as I like to think of it, the era of the "boom box". Just so happened that Jeff Gluck and I owned identical Panasonic boom boxes, and we could be link them in tandem using stereo jack cords. We called our paired tandem the "Wall of Sound", and it was loud, man.

I mean really, really loud.

So we spent that day on an old school bus painted dark, forest green (hence the nickname, "The Green Pickle") with Bill at the front driving and seventeen of us listening to the Wall of Sound pound out songs from the J Geils Band as far in the back as we could sit. I don't know how many times Bill had to listen to Freeze Frame, Centerfold, or Piss On The Wall that day, but they had to be many. It was his own personal Highway to Hell (which probably got played once or twice also).

So we go all the places we're supposed to go, including the Y where a bunch of clueless 13 year old boys were ogling the 13 year old girls. I'm sure inappropriate things were said and done all day (as is generally the case regarding 13 year old boys) and after getting yelled at by Bill many, many times, we finally headed back to Lima.

Along about Troy, Ohio was the point the bus quit. Centerfold pounding out of the Wall of Sound above the din of a bunch of teenagers cackling at one another, and the bus just dies. And all I can remember, was Bill, looking in that big mirror above the windshield so he could see us, and hearing him shout,

"Turn that damn radio off!" Only time I ever heard him cuss.

And I remember, distinctly, thinking that maybe (just maybe) his job, which meant he got to hang out with the likes of us all day, was not exactly always "rewarding". It even, occasionally, might have - in the vernacular of that day - "sucked".

I thought about that moment on the side of I-75 in Troy often over the years. I thought about it while stuck in a van with a bunch of teenagers on a 15 hour drive to the deep south. I thought about it while I was in an office with a parishioner who was chewing me a new orifice for something I said in a sermon. I thought about it the night I arranged for police to bust a pot dealer working the parking lot outside our youth meeting (true story... happened in Goshen). I thought about it again and again and again.

I've thought about that moment a lot, and all I can say is that I can't ever claim I didn't know what I was getting into when I chose to do this ministry gig. Horny teenagers blasting terrible pop music on unreliable ancient school buses, or even worse. Much worse. That's probably why when I told Bill I was thinking about the ministry, he encouraged me to think twice, or maybe go to law school first.

Ministry isn't for sissies. Bill Croy was as tough as they came.


Memory Two: Thinking Differently

I wasn't happy when I left Shawnee for Epworth in 1997. It wasn't that I didn't need a change of scenery. As my wife reminds me now, I was pretty restless my last year at Shawnee, and most likely was itching for a new challenge. It's just they moved me over my own objection. I mean after I told my DS, L. Cean Wilson, "no" to a move, she took my wife out for dinner and based on that conversation decided we need to go elsewhere.

Has that happened to any of you Elders out there? I'm guessing not.

So I went to Epworth feeling very torn about the itinerate system and whether or not I belonged in it. As a result, my 18 months in Toledo were an unsettling time. I chafed at being in a "high steeple" church. My wife was a high school band director who worked 90 hours a week, so since we never saw each other, our marriage was strained. We bought this house that should have been condemned in the Old West End, with neither the money, time, nor expertise to restore it, so it looked like the British had bombed the inside of it until the day we sold it (to a guy who advertised "I Buy Houses" on the back of a city bus). It was a tough time, and I was in a poor frame of mind to handle it.

But one good thing about my Epworth experience was that my approach to ministry began changing for the better. After replicating at Shawnee the youth ministry I remember Bill Croy leading at Trinity - which was kind of a "one man show" - I found myself at a church with a slew of adults willing to help with pretty much anything that had to be done. At first, to be honest, I just didn't know what to do with them. I was so used to pulling things together with not much more than spit, a ball of twine, and a Rubik's Cube, that I remember the leader of those volunteer adults - Bob Knowles (who is now the youth director at Epworth) - getting rather angry at me for not sharing more responsibility. I mean, here they finally had a lot of kids (which I guess, hadn't been the case right before I arrived) but the goofy youth director was still just kinda winging it, week to week. I just didn't know any other  way.

So, I called Bill, and that's when he explained to me that at Worthington as an associate he had led ministry with a far different philosophy than at Trinity. He talked about the need for fostering relationships between adult leaders and students, and crafting an environment where those relationships could succeed. He gave me a sketch of what empowering servant leaders looked like, and to everyone's relief I started implement this strategy at Epworth.

I didn't realize the full scope and effectiveness of empowering adult leaders in youth ministry until my five year stretch at Goshen First. That's when I was able to witness what good ministry work could happen when 22 adult volunteers and a couple of underpaid college interns could focus on discipling hundreds of teenagers. Admittedly, I'd love to figure out how to do this more effectively with adults discipling adults. It's really the only way to do ministry well by centering it on Jesus, and not your own personality and talent.

All that to say that Bill was a great pastor, but inside of that he was one of the best strategic thinkers I ever came in contact with. Can't tell you how many times over the years I gave Bill a call to pick his brain, and how more often than not, the guidance he gave was spot on.

He was really good at what he did, and he loved sharing that experience with the rest of us.


Memory 3: Living Down Your Past Life

For those who don't know, in 2004 I returned to Shawnee as an associate, with the chance (not a promise, but a chance) of becoming the next Senior Pastor. It's kind of a long story as to how this came to pass, but the short version is this: Churches with long-term pastors (15 years or longer) tend not to do so well after they leave. I actually did the numbers on this historically in a few UM conferences, and they were just downright scary. Statistically, most successors to a long term pastor don't last more than two years. If they aren't named as interims, they become de-facto interims.

Given that my predecessor was an exceptionally charismatic leader but not as strong systems creator, the powers-that-be in the West Ohio Conference were greatly concerned about what was going to happen to Shawnee after he left. That's where I came in. The cabinet and the senior pastor liked that I had a history at this church, but had also served as an associate at two other churches that were much larger than Shawnee. I had seen how that sausage was made so the hope was I'd get Shawnee off the plateau it had been on (around 400 in worship) for years and years. Even though I'd never been "the big kahuna" I'd seen a couple of them in action.

Having a past history at a church, I discovered though, is a mixed bag. When you're younger you make a lot of mistakes, some of which are pretty memorable, or worse, legendary. Legends take on lives of their own, and after eight years gone, a few of mine had taken on Paul Bunyan-esqe proportions. By the time I left Shawnee I was neither as reckless, nor disorganized as the legends recalled me to be, but that didn't matter. In the minds of many, I was still just a kid out of a college finding my way, as opposed to a married-father-of-two-sons who had just had a distinguished stint at what was one of only a couple of UM teaching churches in the midwest.

In any event, among staff and laity both, I found this was a significant barrier I had to get over both before, and after the transition. But, like most everything else I'd encountered in ministry up to that point, Bill had already gone through this professionally. In 1993, he'd been re-appointed to Trinity as the Senior Pastor, about eight years after leaving there as an associate. So I leaned on him pretty heavy to find out what he had learned in his experience. There's been more than one phone call, email, text, or PM that was made between Bill and I as I looked for advice as to how get out from under the shadow of not just my predecessor, but also myself.

Even after he got sick, I kept looking to Bill for guidance. And Bill kept looking out for me. Not too long ago he saw something I posted on Facebook, and PM'ed me to find out if I was OK. He's dying of ALS, and he wants to know if I'm OK.

Bill was a rock. He was solid. Pastor, mentor, teacher, and friend.... he was great.

And so, with a good many other stories left untold (not the least of which involved Croy sticking me in a cabin as the counselor to this son, Jeremy... he did that with a twinkle in his eye), a number of epic battles on the basketball court left to recount (on days we had off from school I'd always call him about using the gym at Trinity to run a game or two, and I learned he always said yes if I let it drop that I was bringing an odd number of guys and we'd need him to run as our 8th guy for 4-on-4), and much, much respect, I gotta wrap this up.

Grace, peace, and love to his lovely wife, Dort, his kids, Jeremy and Megan, and all his family who I know he loved with all his heart. My heart breaks for you all.

Godspeed, my friend. I'm gonna miss you. See you on the other side of the river, in the place where there is no darkness. May you rejoice this day as you find the place prepared for you at our Father's House.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

The New R&R Plan? Not A Fan. Not A Fan At All.

Late last year in a gathering of "Centrists" and people investigating us "Centrists" who formed the United Methodist Centrist Movement, we welcomed Chris Ritter - an Elder from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference - to share with us a possible "way forward" for the United Methodist Church. For those who don't know, our denomination is heading toward a possible (some say "probable") schism over the issue of homosexuality. While the Book of Discipline is clear in regarding homosexuality to be sin, prohibiting the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" (that's the actual Discipline language), and also prohibiting ordained and licensed pastors from conducting same-sex marriage and covenantal unions, these matters are creating great consternation in the denomination as clergy and laity alike.

You see, we United Methodists are not of one mind on the issue. Some believe the Bible and the Book of Discipline are clear. Others believe a grave injustice has been via misunderstanding of the Bible, translated into the Book of Discipline. And still others, mostly us Centrists, are still working their way through the question, understanding that there is a lot at stake.

In any event, we invited Ritter into our conversation on the strength of a "reorganization plan" he had authored called The Jurisdictional Solution. This proposal essentially split the denomination into new "jurisdictions" that aren't drawn geographically like our current jurisdictions. Instead, two jurisdictions are created and split via theological orientation. Essentially, one jurisdiction would exist for conservatives and moderate conservatives, and another for progressives and moderate progressives. The details for this plan are too numerous to go into here (hence the link above). Since Maxie Dunnam and Rob Renfroe of Good News - who had  only been beating the drum for schism - had unexpectedly expressed interest in the TJS as a possible way forward, we gave folks the opportunity to interact with the TJS author as possible "way forward" to keep our denomination together.

After talking with Ritter, on the whole the UMCM thought The Jurisdictional Solution was worth further discussion, as do also a number of others possible plans laid out (and not yet laid out) to restructure the UMC do also. But nobody thought in its current form it was workable as it's fraught with problems for a place like our conference (West Ohio).

Geographically, the South and the coasts match up well in this proposal.  Given the fact we are "sent" by our bishop and cabinet to our church, and these appointments are generally made within conferences that have geographic boundaries, given the theological affinity within churches and pastors both in the South and on the coasts, not much would change. A church and pastor, here and there, would stick out like lonely a cactus in the middle of the wilderness (say, a progressive church in Atlanta, or a conservative church in Orange County), but on the whole not much else would change.

For us, however, in a state where we decide presidential elections, the lines are not as clearly drawn. In TJS, each church has to vote on which jurisdiction to join. Church by church in West Ohio, we're not sure we could draw these lines clearly within almost all of our larger and midsize congregations. This aspect - the individual church votes - is a potential disaster in our part of the country. It will split churches wide open. And who knows, maybe there's more theological diversity among United Methodists in the South and on the coasts than we realize.

Conservative UM's don't like to hear this, but the truth is that we're starting to see shifts in our local congregations in regards to their attitudes toward homosexuality. In what was a decade ago - shoot, maybe five years ago - a taboo subject few dared to address, now is something we now talk about in Bible Studies, sermon discussions, ad board meetings, and in the parking lot after worship. The combination of people having familial or personal relationships with LGBTQ persons, coupled with the growing belief that everyone should be protected equally under the law (or at least not discriminated under it) is slowly breaking down age-old stigmas and stereotypes.

This is even true out here in the soybean fields. As a pastor in a small city in Northwestern Ohio, I've counted more than 40 families in our congregation who have a family member who is "out of the closet". A grandmother in her 90's regularly shows me pictures of her grand-daughter with her wife and their children. A sizable percentage of our members and attenders have a friend or colleague they work with who are LGBTQ. Gay and lesbian couples sit together with their friends in our pews. People who were once considered "exotic" and "unknown" are now just neighbors. And while certainly not everyone feels comfortable with LGBTQ people here in Allen County and in our congregation, on the whole people have become a lot more affirming, and more willing to "let and let live". And this in a community that's voted Republican in virtually every election since Abraham Lincoln was president (Roosevelt might have stolen an election or two here, but that's probably it).

So, The Jurisdictional Solution, which counts on churches "voting" and pastors making choices about which jurisdiction to affiliate with is a complicated matter in a state like ours. As a chair of the UMCM Steering Committee, I'd be happy to table questions relating of homosexuality for our 2016 General Conference, and commission a seriously talented and faithful group of laity and clergy to study TJS, among other suggested plans as a possible pathway for the United Methodist Church to be introduced in 2020. And I'm for a proposed time limit (General Conference in 2020) where if we can't find a "way forward" together, or sense we could do so with a little more time, we could an amicable split. Maybe we can't go forward as one. It's sad to me, but it is possible.

But why bring this up today?

Well, a friend of mine texted me a new proposal Ritter has put together. The Restore and Release Plan is one Ritter has - I'm guessing - put together as a response to the situation regarding Bishop Talbert.

For those who don't know the story, Talbert is a retired bishop who officiated a same-sex ceremony over the objection of the presiding bishop in the conference where the service was held. He was brought up on charges by that bishop, and his case was heard by a member of the College of Bishops which is how it's outline in our denomination's rules. The end result of that case was something the UM Book of Discipline calls "A Just Resolution".

"A Just Resolution" is established when the person who made a complaint, the person they made a complaint about, and the presiding Bishop hearing the case mutually agree on a course of action, or actions, short of some punitive punishment, that all can agree settles the difference between the parties. I am very much generalizing here, but in the case of Talbert, he admitted that he had "caused pain" in this situation but did what he believed justice demanded, the bishop presiding felt the Discipline had been maintained by hearing Talbert's case and reaching a just resolution, and the other bishop who made the complaint (Wallace-Padgett) felt too that her complaint had been dealt with adequately in the terms reached by all parties in the Just Resolution. The terms of which stated that all parties agreed that taking away a pastor's orders for violating the Discipline in regard to LGBTQ inclusion as the ONLY means of outcome isn't really adequate, and new possibilities need to be discussed within the College of Bishops and introduced to the denomination as a whole in the future. They all promised to work together to further this effort.

As you might imagine, conservatives are outraged. Break the Book of Discipline as blatantly as Talbert did, and the punishment should be swift and clear. Of course, given what the Discipline has to say about baptizing infants, empowering women in ministry, and paying our apportionment - all matters some of these same conservative evangelicals have no problem ignoring in their congregational settings - it seems that attitudes toward enforcement of Discipline in that tribe is a little "uneven".  But, I digress....

As a Centrist, speaking only for myself, I agree with The Just Resolution in the Talbert case. There's got to be a better way to find our way through these important questions.

Further, I am mindful we have allowed ourselves to be on the wrong side of history as it relates to the inclusion of women, culture and race. As someone in the "middle" I don't want heavy-handed discipline as the only pathway available in the matters involving LGBTQ inclusion. At least for the next five years,  why not pause, pray, and let the Holy Spirit guide us as we conference together, before we go forward, business as usual? While Centrists aren't unanimous for full-inclusion OR the current status quo, I think there is a growing understanding that the Holy Spirit MAY be very well doing something new in our midst. As those who don't just embrace "tradition", but also continue to weigh equally "experience" and "reason" in our understanding of scripture. There's enough evidence of the Spirit working to give things a hard, hard look.

Which is why the Restore and Release Plan is for me, a non-starter. Unlike the Jurisdictional Solution, which gives everyone in all jurisdictions a say and vote in denominational matters, the R&R Plan sets up a jurisdiction for progressives which marginalizes them in terms of representation in the denomination. While progressives are still able to participate in the pension program, the reality is that they have no voice, vote, or presence in denominational matters. There's no opportunity to conference together on these issues in an R&R Plan world because all the voices wouldn't be at the table.

Ritter says in a recent post he's concerned that some would view this new separate jurisdiction which would have no voice, vote, or representation of progressives in the denomination as something akin to a 21st Century Central Jurisdiction. He claims this is unfair because membership in it would be voluntary, as opposed to the old Central Jurisdiction which forced persons of color and the churches they served into a separate entity, apart from the rest of the denomination.

But, from where I'm sitting that's pretty close to what Ritter has proposed. Without voice, vote, or presence, it's just a matter of time before the progressive wing is cut off, left to float out to sea. And with conservatives firmly in place, organized around caucuses like Good News and IRD, how long will it take before orthodoxy and orthopraxy are narrowed to the point that moderates get the same treatment now as they did in the Southern Baptist Church back in the 1980's (a denomination that isn't doing too well now I might add)?

Chris Ritter is a good man, devoted follower of Jesus, and someone who has worked very hard looking to do the same thing we're looking to do in the UMCM (keep us together) I appreciate his work, and I think his is a valuable voice in helping us find a way forward. But the R&R Plan just isn't the right idea. It just isn't.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Are You On An Adventure?

I've never preached on a stranger piece of scripture than Nehemiah 3. At first glance, it's one of those sections of the Bible that you end up skimming. A bunch of complicated names of people, born to other people, hailing from locales you either need to be a scholar, or a really dedicated Bible student, to track down. And quite frankly, most of these people - whoever they really were - have been lost to the succession of years since their passing.

 I mean at one point there would have been people who read this who would have recognized these people outside of this particular context.

Oh yeah, Zakkur. I didn't know him but I went to high school with his dad, Imri. 

Joiada. Had that falafel place over on the east side he ended up selling to his brother.

Shallum.... should have seen those daughters of his back in their prime. Hubba, hubba!

But at this juncture in time all that info has been lost. Just as someday nobody will no longer remember me because of that one season I played on Lima Senior's Sophomore Basketball team, or for the year in elementary school I was in the all-city recorder choir, or even as the father of that Xavier kid who was a good actor at Encore Theater, this fate has befallen all of the people on the list of who helped rebuild the wall. Really, it could be easily argued that the ONLY thing we remember these people for is their work on (or refusal to work on) the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem. So - as you might normally expect from the guy who almost ended up teaching high school history for a living -  I don't have any clever little facts or stories about any of those folks or that time period. They are all unrecognizable, and largely forgotten by history.

But, there is something else about them that did capture my imagination.... how many professional "wall builders" do you see on that list? Far as I can tell, zero. Where is the list of the three bids for a contractor to do the work, the process in which those bids were measured, the qualifications of the various contractors, and then the process the contractor used to rebuild the walls? Doesn't exist.

And so while I am sure that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, and there had to be some people there who knew what they were doing, it was largely rebuilt with amateurs. Priests. Levites. Goldsmiths. Politicians. Servants. Merchants. Some guy in conjunction with his daughters. A few "nobles" felt like they were too good to their hands dirty, but the upshot is that a hodgepodge of people, most of whom weren't builders, were lead by a cupbearer to a king - also not a professional builder - to put the walls of Jerusalem back together.

But the masses were being prepared by God for this work. Maybe not the actual work of building the wall, but their hearts were being prepared to take on the task. To commit to the labor, sacrifice, and expense necessary to make this vision a reality. They had heard the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Joseph and Moses. They knew of King David and the wisdom of Solomon. They had practiced Passover. They knew that God, when they were slaves, had heard their cry and he delivered them. Set them free. And while they also had heard God's disappointment with them through the message of the prophets, they also heard the promise that a new thing was coming. They just had to commit, together.

We talk about the importance of "TEAM" right? When we coach our kid's team or whatever, we make sure everyone knows there's no "I" in "TEAM". Of course I was the smart-alleck who pointed out that was true, but "TEAM" does have an "M" and an "E". But this idea that we have to band together, put aside our differences, and unite under something bigger than what we can do ourselves, is something we drill down into every generation.

And I'll bet if you really think about it, most - or maybe all - of the most meaningful memories you carry forward with you are moments when you triumphed, or didn't quite overcome yet while still striving valiantly, in lockstep with others. Maybe you had a work project. Or were a member of a sports team. Or maybe you had a study group in school or were part of a service organization or club. Or maybe you accomplished something with your family, or significant other.

I saw, for example, on my Facebook newsfeed a post from someone commemorating their one year graduation from boot camp. He talked about how the experience was the most fun you could have that you'd never want to do again, and then thanked everyone with whom he went through it. I've heard - which is all I can say because I never served - that boot camp doesn't just test your physical limits, but ultimately is designed to bind you next to the people serving next to you. It's designed to orient you to taking care of one another by stressing the importance of doing your job properly while watching your neighbor's back. Because in the end that's what will keep you alive.

Shared experiences are generally at the heart of what gives our lives meaning. We aren't created to be alone. We're created as social creatures who need to be relationship with others. Even the most introverted of us still need at least one contact. One shared experience. Someone who cares. That's how God made us.

This is especially true when it comes to faith. Nehemiah rallied the city of Jerusalem, those who loved the city of Jerusalem, those who desired to heart of the city/community/nation/people - the Temple - be rebuilt. What started with brokenness, admitting that brokenness in prayer to Lord, compelled Nehemiah to humble himself to God's will for his life, and be obedient to this work. Work that will always be ultimately - as we see sometimes obliquely through the biblical text, and clearly in the person of Jesus - the creation and re-creation of relationships through the power of sacrificial restoration and reconciliation. Hence the plan for our lives, and the plan for Nehemiah's life, was a subset, a small piece, of this greater work God is doing. Creating and re-creating relationships through sacrificial restoration and reconciliation.

But the plan is never carried out singularly. When we talk about sacrificial restoration and reconciliation, we aren't just talking about Jesus on the cross. We're talking about us, carrying our cross. Jesus has shown us the way, dying unto self on behalf of the Kingdom. We each then make the sacrifice for others for the sake of God's plan. Reconciliation and restoration. The creation and re-creation of everything.

If you really think about it, what an adventure!

You know when Jesus called his first disciples - a few fisherman according to Matthew - to come and follow him so they learn a new "thing".... fishing for people, I'm sure they had no idea of what they were getting into. And maybe that's the problem with many of us as we practice our faith. It is the expected we want (even demand), but not the unexpected. I think Vince Antonucci - founder of The Verve Church in Las Vegas - puts it best in this video:


Follow Me


You know I've been responsible for facilitating hundreds of people over the years going on mission work experiences. I've heard the same reactions of people who participate over and over. A sense of shared purpose. A realization that whatever was given paled in what was received. That they were meant to go. Ordained to go. Prepared to go. Not prepared maybe for what they encountered, but prepared to take a major step of faith that ended up looking like this very encounter. And God showed up. Over and over, God shows up. And often it's in the most onerous and difficult circumstances that God seems to show up in most real way.

Why is this so often limited to the retreat experience? I mean I see churches trying to practice the presence of God through the power of the charismatic experience, and I don't doubt that the Lord shows up in the context of prayer and collective praise, but so much of the Gospels is Jesus impacting others and the world around him for the cause of fulfilling his mandate of "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven". We're taught that all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed to bring to fruition what is necessary to provide others with rest and shelter. We're told that if we ask, it will be given, knock and it will be opened, but I'm not sure that we really understand what this kind of faith entails.

All authority in Heaven and Earth has been given to Jesus. Why should it be a surprise when in the midst of the most unexpected circumstances, where people step out in faith, that the Lord shows up in a big way? Maybe, if you're in a spiritual desert, the answer is making the journey out of safe place you are, toward the unknown in the wilderness.

Amateurs, scattered up and down that wall, had to trust one another. They had to agree on what they would accomplish, and hold others accountable to what they would accomplish. They had to get out of their comfort zone. Goldsmiths moving stones and levites affixing gates. Not everyone was willing to bear the work. Nobles, we're told, wouldn't deign to humble themselves to put a rock upon another rock in a broken wall, but the price of this, we're told, is that they had no part of rebuilding the wall. No part of the work accomplished.

The daughters of Shallum, on the other hand, could look upon the rebuilt walls, remember the hard work and toil, recall the challenges and opposition of those who didn't want to see Jerusalem back on her feet (even to the point, we'll find out of facing random planned attacks), and experience the sore muscles in places you didn't know you had muscles, and see what the Lord had accomplished through their faithfulness. They were surely pushed out of their comfort zone, and probably at one time or another wondered what in the world they were thinking, believing they could help rebuild the part of the wall between the Broad Wall and Valley Gate.

But they did it, together, with the Lord's leading.

I'll be honest, there was a time I measured a church's effectiveness with the normal numbers.... nickels and noses. I still am guilty of sinking back into the nickels and noses mindset. Income and attendance as the end all be-all of our existence. And while those things on some level are necessary, the moments I've been proudest of the congregation I've served had virtually nothing to do with attendance or the offering.

I think about that first Big Drop, at the bottom of the recession, so many hurting people, and 1000 families served with food in what was about 30 minutes. The Lord called us, we responded to the call, and it was obvious that's what was needed in that moment of time. And I think the moments people needed prayer or visitation. The folks who needed others to help them get through a tough stretch in their lives. The moments people not only gathered around to lay on hands for prayer, but then made the follow up to do their part to help that prayer be answered. I remember in Bible studies and theology discussions moments of break thru. People turned off by what they thought the church was all about - nickels and noses - and suddenly impacted by the reality of Jesus' message. I remember all the attempts to address poverty, the need for education, racial reconciliation, cultural differences, and other huge challenges in this community... even the movements toward faithfulness that didn't end the way those seeking God's will would have wanted them to.

I think of all the moments where the risk to do what we believed what God wanted seemed great. Dangerous. Opened unwritten, unexpected chapters in the course of God's continued ministry which revolved around the church who (mostly) own a building at 2600 Zurmehly Road. We were being prepared. God was getting us ready. We'd heard the stories of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus, if only for an instant. Of Paul blinded on the road to Damascus, his life forever changed as an agent of healing and new life. God was getting us ready.

Is the time at hand for you now, to do a new thing? A new thing in your life? A new thing in this world? Has God been been speaking? Is God whispering, "seek justice but do so humbly", and you think maybe you know what that means?

If God is revealing some sort of new adventure of reconciliation and restoration, of creation and re-creation in your own life, or out there somewhere in the world, the questions I want to challenge you to ask are these:

1) Who do believe God has prepared, or is preparing, to make the journey with you?
2) What is being demanded of each of you to do the work of reconciliation and restoration, creation and creation?
3) What are willing to commit to in order to make this vision a reality?

The journey is not made alone. It just isn't. And the chapters yet to be written aren't what you've come to expect. It's time to let God shake things up for the cause of creation and re-creation. Restoration and reconciliation, through our blood. Our sweat. Our tears. And most importantly, His grace.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014