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.
Friday, January 30, 2015
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.
Posted by bryan at 1/30/2015
Saturday, January 24, 2015
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.
Posted by bryan at 1/24/2015
Friday, January 23, 2015
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:
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.
Posted by bryan at 1/23/2015
Thursday, May 15, 2014
The Appointment Game, the Coming Schism in the United Methodist Church, and How This May Effect UM Pastors
(No sermon to put together this week - Charlie Dray and youth ministry are taking charge this Sunday - so I'd thought I'd just blog. You know... for old times sake.)
This appointment season has been the strangest for me in many a year... and I'm not even moving. It's been strange for two reasons:
First, as I'm getting ready to start my 11th consecutive year here at Shawnee/Community - 3 years as an "associate in waiting" (that's another blog post in and of itself) and now my 8th year as Lead Pastor - my appointment amongst my colleagues has been the subject of great debate. The longer a United Methodist pastor stays at his or her church, the greater the speculation as to whether or not "this is the year" they are going to move. I mean the UMC isn't known for long appointments. 11 years in one place in my tribe is pretty unusual. Hence, every church (or bureaucratic position) that comes available (particularly if it's larger than this church) inspires a little speculation as to my future whereabouts among my colleagues. In our circles we call this "The Appointment Game"... guessing "who" will go "where".
I haven't been concerned with the appointment game in long, long time. See, my appointment journey has been different than most. The only time I truly was moved by the Bishop and Cabinet was in 1997 when I was appointed as an Associate Pastor to Epworth UMC in Toledo. Since then I applied for and received a conference staff position in Illinois (1998), was recruited to an associate position in Goshen, Indiana (1999), and then was recruited once again to come back to West Ohio and Shawnee (2004). Most UM pastors never leave their conference, let alone serve in three. In my experience when you cross those conference lines you don't know what churches are "desirable", what pastors have served how many years at whatever appointment, or any info you need to know to play "the appointment game".
Then last year I found myself engaged in the appointment system in a more conventional way. Didn't end up going anywhere, but when you get "the call"gauging your interest in doing something new, it's a strange experience. It's shocking. It not only forces you to think about what you've been doing, but what it is you should be doing.
It also forces you to think about everyone else who would be effected. I have a wife with a good job and career ambitions (ambitions she put off while I got established in the ministry and we expanded our family). Our kids all still live at home. The oldest has friends and girlfriend and all matters of connections here in Lima. We've been here so long that outside of the year we were on campus at Asbury, our kids have never been enrolled anywhere but Shawnee. This thing just doesn't effect me. It effects us.
And there's another dynamic.... my call isn't fully my own. When you become an Elder in the United Methodist Church, you are examined by Elders and then voted upon by Elders. The Bishop lays the hands in a symbolic gesture representing the handing down of power through "Apostolic Succession" (google it), but it's your colleagues who determine when you are in, and if you need to be cast out. We hold our call together in a trust, and we are responsible to one another. A decision made by one of us, effects all of us. So you can't be so selfish in this denomination to just unequivocally say "I'm not moving anywhere" or "I'll only go to ________ church." If you turn a move down, it has consequences for somebody else. We are in this together, and we need to remember that, always.
In any event, hearing rumors about where you'll be living and what you'll be doing is unsettling. For the first time, this year, I was the subject of much chatter. No calls from anybody who mattered in the process... just chatter amongst us plebes (which is maybe another lesson... unless it's a DS who calls, just ignore whatever is said). I've never been subject of any chatter before, so this was strange, and I'll admit, difficult to block out.
However, while the appointment game isn't new, this would not be the case for the other reason this appointment season has been strange, and very troubling: Thinking about where you'll be serving when the denomination splits.
A split coming in our denomination. Believe it. 2016 or 17, the United Methodist Church will most likely split. As the coasts, Rocky Mountains, southwest and some of the European conferences become increasingly more progressive, the South and non-European overseas conferences are decidedly not. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the issue of homosexuality is a non-starter. It's just culturally taboo. Thus as the two polarized factions are becoming increasingly hostile and less interested in dealing with one another, the reality of schism becomes increasingly real.
The coming division in the UMC will be about homosexuality. Nothing else. I mean there are people out there who will tell you that it's about scriptural authority or size of the bureaucracy, but that's not what is really at stake here.
On the one side you have literalists who take key portions (but not all) of scripture literally. There's not much more to say about this. Some of the literalist arguments are more sophisticated than others. The writings of scholars like Dr. Ben Witherington III and Dr. Bruce Arnold are much better than many of the arguments I've seen, for example, on various Facebook pages of clergy and lay-people. But the various positions always originate out of the literalness of scripture.
On the other side you have people who have seen movement in Christian circles on issues like slavery, race relations, the role of women, the origin of governmental authority, and numerous scientific issues (nobody, for example, is arguing that the earth is still flat.... not anybody worth listening to anyhow) who realize that while the church's understanding of scripture has changed, scripture hasn't. Hence, they're diving into the hermeneutics (history and goings on during the time the scripture was written) and the various literary studies academics use to look inside of what is being said in the Bible, to understand why it's being said in this particular way, at the particular time in history it is written.
In any event, if you live on the coasts and the south, the coming split isn't going to change very much. If you are a progressive pastor serving on the coasts, you're probably already serving a progressive congregation. Same goes in the south for conservative pastors who are most likely serving conservative congregations. When the denomination becomes two denominations it'll be (for the most part) business as usual and probably a feeling of "good riddance" as people who disagree don't have to be yoked together any longer.
But here in the good 'ol Midwest, the situation is more complicated. I'd gather that my conference - West Ohio - is probably the most polarized as any that exist on these issues (hence Ohio always being an "up for grabs swing state" in political elections). Churches in the bigger cities tend more toward progressive theology. Churches in the smaller hamlets tend toward conservative.
And so it goes, for the first time ever, that I wonder about the church I'll be serving when the schism comes and if we'll make the same choice of the two denominations which will exist.
I know where I live. We moved to this town when I was 10. The community has a long history of conservatism, and not always the good kind which protects personal liberty and freedom. In our past, the Catholic Churches formed CYO sports leagues because their children weren't permitted to play in the ones sponsored by the YMCA and public schools. The Bradfield Center was opened because black kids weren't allowed at the YMCA. All of that has changed of course, but historically we're not real open to change here, so it comes pretty slow. The only truly liberal congregation in the entire county is a church located in a college town, on that college's campus. The rest of us are just either in the "middle", or most likely, somewhere on the "right. People here tend toward keeping things as they are.
As I keep reading authors like Brian Zahnd, Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans, Steve Chalk, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, NT Wright, Brian McLaren Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, and Phyllis Tickle, and listen to the sermons of UM pastors like Andy Hamilton and Rudy Rasmus, I know I am continuing to drift in directions that many people in this part of Ohio aren't interested in going.
That being said, certainly after being here so long this congregation has become very supportive of us and we love each other. And it's not like my tenure here hasn't been tested. People have left, loudly, on a couple of different occasions over displeasure with either what they saw was a denomination leaning too far to the left, or their pastor doing the same. It certainly would have been easier to have been a conservative evangelical in this part of the world, and definitely an easier ticket toward building and funding a ministry. But somehow, at least up to now, we've accepted one another. We see eye to eye on issues of racial reconciliation, poverty, peace with justice, hunger, education, and most importantly, on the centrality of love and grace in the message of Jesus' gospel.
But if the church were forced to choose between a denomination that was openly welcoming of all people wherever they were at in their lives, and one that professed that standing strong on certain issues of sin was a greater witness of God's love than blanket acceptance of everybody..... well, I'm just not sure how that discussion would go. And this lends myself to wonder if the church went one way, and I went another, what would that mean? Would I have to relocate? Would I be commissioned to start a new congregation in this area? Would there be a possibility of a "cross-denominational" appointment and we'd just stay here?
None of these questions have I ever entertained before, but "schism" always seemed like one of those things we'd talk about late night over ice cream at Annual Conference, then the 2012 General Conference happened (the one where nothing got done because everybody was too polarized),
then pastors and bishops starting openly defying the Discipline on Covenant Service and Same-Gender Marriage,
then Frank Schaffer got the boot for officiating the marriage service of his own son (kind of watershed moment for me, personally),
then some bishops started actively ignoring those who violate the Discipline as acts of civil disobedience over what they perceive to be injustice much to the anger of other bishops, pastors, and laypeople,
then both the conservative churches and progressive churches throughout the connection are holding "secret meetings" about potentially leaving the denomination
and so, in this appointment season I'm becoming concerned about what is coming, and how that might effect this church, our family, and the relationship we have meted out together.
I'm still here. I didn't go seeking another church. The PPRC didn't go looking for someone to replace me. But in the coming years I do expect to see pastors seek appointments with what they deem to be "like-minded" congregations. And for those of us in places where there is mutual love and acceptance, and yet still disagreement, harder questions are going to have to be asked, and harder choices are going to have to be made.
Strange days these are. Strange days, indeed.
Posted by bryan at 5/15/2014
Saturday, March 08, 2014
11am Graduation/Youth Sunday
Posted by bryan at 3/08/2014
Saturday, February 22, 2014
When I was in first grade, I somehow attracted the attention of a fourth grader, David Bentley, who decided I'd be a great little kid to bully. When the bus dropped us off at the front of the Shoals Elementary School, we had to walk outside around the perimeter to the rear portion of the building to get to the door that led to our particular classroom. To do this you had to walk along a long brick wall on a side of the building where there were no windows and doors. Turns out that was a perfect place for a kid to get bullied.
David never actually did hurt me. He pulled a butter knife on me once, but mostly he just like to pin me up against the wall and threatening me with all kinds of bodily harm that never was applied. In fact, the only punch ever thrown between the two of us was by me. My father, upon being told his son was being bullied, made it clear that I'd better defend myself for I'd face a worse whooping at home. Taking that advice to heart, pinned up against the wall one day, I punch David Bentley in the stomach, and when he doubled over, I ran like the devil chasing me.
But that didn't stop the bullying. Just made it worse. Thanks for nothing Dad.
It was only after I was so miserable that I talked to two older boys at our church, Tim Jesse and Fritz Weigle, what was going on that the situation got under control. You see, Tim and Fritz were safety patrols. They got to wear an orange sash and belt. You could only cross the parking lot, and then SR 119, when they said it was OK. They had the power to stop traffic.
And so one day, Tim and Fritz, in full safety patrol regalia, escorted me around the building, and when we hit that long blind sidewalk, you can imagine David Bentley's surprise when he saw the three of us. The two patrols explained to David that he was scaring me, that I wanted it to stop, and in the interest of safety he should leave me alone.
Don't underestimate the power of a safety patrol. After that, David Bentley never bothered me again. In fact, he'd wave and say hello most every time he saw me.
Of course not every story turns out like this. Peace in many corners of this world we live in, is elusive. Difficult.
This morning in Kiev, after much bloodshed there is a parliament back in session, and elections for a new president scheduled, but nobody knows what the future really hold for the Ukraine. Will the Russians intervene? The EU? Will those who wish to move the Ukraine into a more fully integrated position in the western world carry the day, or will Ukrainian nationalists, some neo-nazis, convince people that isolation is the better course?
Such, it seems, has been the case over the last five years or so across the Arab world. Nobody knows what the aftermath of the Arab Spring will be across the Middle East in places like Libya and Egypt. And as we speak Syria still is being torn apart.
I wish we could just send in a couple of safety patrols.
But I'll say this... the most revolutionary teachings of Jesus are the ones that touch on the topic of peace. I heard a rabbinical scholar not long ago say that nothing Jesus taught during his life couldn't also be found in the Old Testament, except for one thing:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
and then Jesus takes it even further...
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The heart of the Old Testament law is "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", and yet here's Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, telling everyone that this isn't the ethos he is going to embody in his life. And true to his word, Jesus never leads an armed uprising. Never calls for a sword to be drawn or a battle to be waged. In fact, he chooses the ultimate turning of the cheek - his own death - instead of calling down hosts of angels to destroy those who oppose him.
And the course of the early church follows this lead. Christians are to varying degrees persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and put to death, and never fight back.
That sounds strange to us. But I want you to reconsider this. It's not that strange.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God."
Jesus wasn't just simply slaughtered, and cast in a tomb to be forgotten for all history. Jesus dies, but he is my no means passive or weak. His is not the death of a coward. On the other side of Jesus death, stood with Him a group - not a big group, but a group - of people so committed to creating a new Kingdom, a peaceable kingdom, they to become willing to stand for this strange new teaching, as they turn the other cheek, but refuse to back down on behalf of God, and those who need to experience his grace. Jesus death is the pathway to God's grace, and it leads through his people, committed to living out that grace in this world. To living as if Jesus is their king.
You see if you read the Old Testament, you find out that God's people don't end up faring all that well living out "an eye for an eye" kind of existence. Just like in the case of David Bentley and myself, the party who is weaker, after experiencing a few blows and a lot of threats, becomes desperate for peace. Israel's heyday in the aftermath of Joshua leading the people back into the promised land, and is capped by David unifying the 12 tribes and securing the borders to the degree that his new kingdom would be recognized by others... an art that his son, Solomon perfected later. But those victories over the Philistines were long in the rearview mirror when, after the fall of Israel, and then the fall of Judah, the prophets, battered by war and destruction, began to see a new day. A new place. A new kind of world:
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
let us walk in the light of the Lord.
The power in visioning visions and dreaming dreams is that become a powerful tool in charting the course of history. We begin to mold our lives so those visions will come true. I was just reading an article about about an American Longboarder in the Olympics. If you don't know what long boarding is, join the crowd. It's essentially a competition where you ride down a mountain on a long snowboard and you try to go as fast as your bravery, or fear, will let you. Our long boarder lived in his truck so he could afford to train. That's power of vision. It will compel you to do things NOW in the belief of what results will yield later. And this is Isaiah's vision. Tired of wars and battles, Isaiah envisions a place where the wisdom of the Lord, the light of his grace, would be that which would settle all disputes and differences. And he knew that this kind of world wouldn't be made manifest through armies and generals and politics. It would have to be made manifest through the hearts of God's people.
A vision that becomes embodied in Jesus. We are his children, the peacemakers.
When you take the initiative to end the dispute, to put down the weapons that have been employed. When you admit a prejudice that made you do stupid destructive things, and seek a new way to live that's smart and constructive. If you decide it would be better to die with your honor and integrity, in tact, for the sake of something greater without taking another life, well I don't know if there's anything more powerful out there. And that's not weak or passive. That's what changes the world.
One of the better movies I've seen in recent years was "The Butler". For those who haven't seen it, you should. It's the story of a man who rises up from the pain of a hard upbringing in the cotton fields of the deep south, to becoming a long-time butler in White House. Cecil Gaines served for 34 years in the White House, living through Civil Rights era, Vietnam, and even until the day the Berlin Wall came down.
A shadow story in the movie, however, was that of Cecil's oldest son, Louis, who enrolls in Fisk University, and instead of getting the education his father dreams of so that he can have a professional career, gets involved with the Civil Right movement. He volunteers for training in non-violent protest with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and engages in sit ins at lunch counters, the Birmingham Childrens Crusade, and the marches in Selma, Alabama which led to Voting Rights act being signed in 1965. Louis eventually gets a degree, but also is repeatedly arrested simply seeking dignity and respect for all. He receives another education.
And the movie is this study in how two men, both flawed, both non-violently but firmly and directly, defy expectations and seek the make the world better. More just. More peaceful. The father by showing class, dignity, and loyalty, which in turn earns the respect of all so that on important issues he can be heard. The son in becoming part of a movement seeking to stand up for what is right. And together, in their own way, sometimes at odds, move the needle the justice.
You see peace starts in your own heart. It begins with treating with others the way you'd like to be treated, but then actively seeking to create a world where others are treated fairly through living out your convictions, even if it means paying a price standing up for the only Kingdom that will last forever. It begins knowing that beyond a shadow of a doubt you are God's child, but then seeking create a life that radical hospitality beacons others to join in this community of Jesus where they can discover they are children also.
Sowing peace will involve....
- Seeing Others As God's Children (Love your neighbor)
- Refusing to Look Past Injustice (act better than the tax collectors who just love who love them)
- Prepare To Do What's Right (Ponder what it means not to resist an evil person)
- Expect To Pay The Cost (go the extra mile, turn the other cheek)
- Wrap It In Prayer With Other Disciples
- Keep your eye on the dream (live as if swords will be bent into plowshares)
So, where are you being called to sow peace, now, in your life? Where is God calling you? If you seem alone, who can you pray about this with so that will no longer will be on your own? What are you willing to give up?
Posted by bryan at 2/22/2014