Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Word From Pastor Bryan to our Students, Parents, and Friends of our Student Ministry

Students, Parents, and Friends of our Student Ministry

Earlier this week I received a letter of resignation from Charlie Dray, our Director of Student Ministries. Charlie will remain with us through the end of June. Charlie will be stepping back from ministry for a season as he and his wife focus on their future and family. We wish the Drays all the best as they seek God's will for their lives and look forward to still seeing them in the community in the coming year.

There will be a few changes in the youth ministry for the remainder of this school year. First, on Sunday, March 16th, 7pm in the Solid Rock Cafe I'd like to invite you all to meet with John Kopilchack (Pastor-Parish Relations Committee Chair) and myself to discuss our Student Ministry. As PPRC looks toward the future, this is a chance for us to hear your ideas and hopes for the future. We will also have information for Senior High Lakeside available, a "Scene 75' trip on May 18, and some tentative plans for a 3-day mission trip to Chicago in July. 

Through May 18th, 6-8th grade will continue to meet 11am, Sundays in the Solid Rock Cafe. Also beginning March 23rd 8-12 graders will be invited to meet on a new day and time, 6:45-8pm on Sunday nights (excluding Easter) in the Solid Rock Cafe, 6:45-7pm we'll have food available in the Solid Rock Cafe as a time to "hang out", with some singing beginning 7ish. Leigh Ditto and I are coming out of retirement to join Charlie and his team as we worship, do a little Bible Study, eat, and have a good time. 

May 18th will be Graduation Sunday. All High School graduates will be recognized, youth will take a lead in the 11am worship service, and Charlie Dray will be preaching. We'll also have a reception for Charlie and his family following the service.  

Enclosed is a calendar of everything happening until the end of the June. If you have any questions, please call the office 419 991 4806. We appreciate your cooperation and patience in this coming transition.

God Bless,
Bryan Bucher
Lead Pastor
Community UMC

Shawnee Community UMC Student Ministry Schedule
March-June 2014

March 16th
11am Junior High Student Ministry (6-8th Grade - SRC)
7pm  All Student/Parent/Friends of Student Ministry Meeting (SRC)

March 23rd - May 11th (Excluding Easter Sunday)
11am Junior High Student Ministry (SRC)
6:45pm Senior High +8th Grade (SRC)

April 23rd 
7pm Pick up Tables for Mom to Mom sale (meet at church)

April 24th 
6pm Set Up for Mom to Mom sale (Centrum/Commons)

April 26th 
1pm Tear Down for Mom to Mom sale (Centrum/Commons)

May 18th
11am Graduation/Youth Sunday

May 18th
1:15pm Leave for "Scene 75"

June 22 - 28
Lima District Institute at Lakeside

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

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:

In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    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.
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.

Come, descendants of Jacob,
    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? 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Last week I talked a little bit about the Year of the Jubilee, and how we as Christians need to take it seriously. The jubilee, as a quick refresher, was a year in Levitical law that was supposed to come every 50 years. In that year all debts owed by Israelites to one another were to be cancelled. And even if you had sold or traded your land to settle a debt, it had to be given back.

This was significant. Significant to a people who had been slaves in Egypt. Slavery that was made possible - as speculated by some biblical scholars - by an ever-growing debt that Israel - who had once been free - owed to Pharaoh. Debt is a tool that's been used again and again, and is still being used today, to keep one group of people oppressed. Captive. Slaves. 

It was important to freed slaves that they'd never be enslaved, or slave owners, again. Hence the year of the jubilee, a piece of the law not only talked about extensively in the Torah, but over the course of the prophetic texts, and then even by Jesus himself who quotes Isaiah 61 to announce his ministry. He, Jesus, came to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. The year of the jubilee.

So, we'd better take this scripture seriously. But if the early church still had rich and poor, slave and free, what exactly does this mean for us today? The clue, I think, is in this thing Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven, which is anyplace God's will is in place. Not just after we die, but here... on earth. Jesus was AT LEAST as concerned about this life as the next. And so, going forward we need to understand the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. To do this we're working through the "Blessed are" part of the Beatitudes, one "blessed are" at a time. The thinking is if we take a look at who is blessed by Jesus coming, that will give us clues as to what the Kingdom looks like, and hence how to celebrate the Year of Jubilee.

The first "blessed are" is "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.". Poor in spirit is actually a translation of one Greek word, Ptochos. Ptochos is basically everyone who isn't connected. Powerful. Wealthy. Important. They can even be destitute or needy. These are essentially ordinary people. Everyone who has no say, or sway.

Remember, the Roman Empire is a world where only a few people, at the top, have any power. Any say. The vast majority of people living in the Empire are not citizens, but rather subjects of it. A subject in an empire exists to serve the citizens. It's not a great existence. There are stories in the Gospels, for example, of pig farms in Israel. Israelites don't eat pork. They're not even supposed to touch it, and yet there are still pig farms to feed those who had been sent by Rome to rule over Israel. A governor with a bureaucracy and all their families. Roman soldiers. Didn't matter if you weren't allowed to touch pigs. You're a subject. Not a citizen. 

A strange thing to say, I think.... blessed are the subjects. 

You ever felt like a subject? A "less than"? I remember a few years ago we were in Haiti looking for a possible place to house a team. Somebody suggested we go visit a missionary couple who had a large house where other teams had stayed. Our friend and ministry partner, Pastor Marius, took us out to this place. I remember we climbed out of the truck, and one of the missionaries invited us into their home. We had called ahead so they knew why we were coming. They were going to show us around the place. So we got out of the truck, and went into the house to start the tour, but before we could get out of the living room, one of them made it clear that Pastor Marius wasn't welcome to come with us. He wasn't allowed in the house. 

"We don't let those people, the Haitians, in our home."

I'm sure they had their reasons. We started the tour. Pastor went back and stood by the truck. We ended the tour, left, and never went back. 

He was a subject, not a citizen... and it just felt, wrong.  

I think that's why the text in Luke 14:7-14 is so powerful. Jesus is at a dinner party, and he's watching (I'm supposing with a little amusement) the scribes and Pharisees jostling for position around the table. For the place of importance. And in the midst of this, he just simply says that the person who takes the seat of least honor, can be honored when the host offers them a better seat, which is way better than taking a great seat, and then being moved by the host so the seat can be given to someone else. 

And then, he lets everyone there in attendance - everyone in attendance largely to hear him speak - know that for their next dinner party they shouldn't invite friends, family, and people of importance in the hopes of reciprocation or to receive some sort of favor. Instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed. Maybe not today, but someday, then the righteous finally win the day, you will get your reward. 

Invite your subjects.

I don't like to think about myself having subjects. I'd like to think I could invite anybody. Anybody. But would I really invite the recently emancipated foster child who had lived an impossible for me to imagine hard life into my home? The homeless man? The woman with the strange skin disease? The recently released prisoner? Who do you consciously or unconsciously place yourself above? Who, in the way you think about them, have you made your subject.

I'm just going to say this.... the church has never fared well when she's tried to put herself at the head of the table, and try to keep others in the kitchen or servants quarters or outside looking in the window. That always seems to fail us. When white churches refused communion to blacks. When men consciously try to marginalize women. When the young or the old are shorted and compromised. 

The church makes a lousy bouncer manning the front entrance at the velvet rope. Might have a lot of reasons - some of them might even sound good - when we try to make others feel "less then", as subjects, but it never looks good. And it's never resolved easily. 

And I understand. I get it. It's easier to make limits. Place boundaries. The poor in spirit aren't always easy to get along with. They aren't always reasonable. They're behavior and choices can seem strange to us. There are too many of them. They eat up all the resources and take up all our time. We can't manage them, and they wear us out. 

But the Kingdom is theirs. They're citizens. Our banquet is supposed to be laid out for those who can never pay us back. It's supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. It's supposed to feel backwards and wrong. It's a clarion call to just how out of whack the earth runs, compared to the way God wants it to run. 

It's a wake up call to new priorities, where inconveniences are begging us to lay ourselves down. To let ourselves die unto ourselves, to find a new reason for living. And what it makes more than bearable. What makes it joyful, is that we learn how to do this together. We experience it together, so we're not in it alone, as we show others they aren't in it alone either.

Yesterday we were at a swim invitational in Celina. Maybe you read about it in the paper. There were a lot of teams there. Hundreds and hundreds of swimmers, and for most of the events the swimmer couldn't enter if they hadn't beaten a certain time. Like if you hadn't swam the 100 meter breast stroke faster than 1:30, you didn't qualify for the race. And this was true in every single event except for the 50M freestyle and the 100M freestyle. 

The freestyle, for those who don't know, is the most common stroke. It's the one where your hands kind rotate around like a couple of windmills while you kick your feet. And here's something most people don't know.... in the freestyle, you can swim any way you want. If you want to do the butterfly, the back stroke, the breast stroke, even the doggie paddle you're allowed. In the 50M (which is up and back in the pool) and the 100M (which is up and back, up and back) freestyle, there was no minimum time. 

The pool could swim a maximum of six swimmers at one time (what they call "a heat"). Six swimmers could swim in one heat. To accommodate all the swimmers who wanted to swim in the 50M and 100M freestyle races, it took 83 heats. 83 heats. My kid isn't in a single one. 

The fifties were first. I went to lunch (a cup of chicken and noodles). I talked with some of swimmer and the parents. I walked around the facility. I surfed the internet on my phone. I took my time. The natatorium was packed and was heated to about 289 degrees. I thought I was gone a really, really long time.

I was. Just in time for the 100M Freestyle races to start. I'd only missed half of them.

Incredulous and a little bitter, I took my seat back in the bleachers. First were 25 heats of girls 100M freestyle. 

And then we got to the boys, and that's when I met Ian.

Ian was in the 1st of 18 boys 100M freestyle heats, which would be the slowest. But he was locked in. Focused. He was about a foot shorter than all the other swimmers. And he had Down's Syndrome. 

Nothing mattered. Then the buzzer buzzed, Ian was good to go. 

He didn't as much dive as he belly flopped. Belly flopped to the degree that an audible "ooh' rose up from the crowd and 500 people started rubbing their belly in sympathy pain. And his stroke wasn't the smoothest. Kind of a combination of the freestyle and butterfly. And his turns weren't the sharpest and he wasn't the fastest, which is why by the time he had gone up and back, and up again, the rest of the heat had finished.

But it didn't matter. Ian kept plowing through the water. And as we got closer and closer to the final wall, first there were a few cheers and a few claps. And then there were more. And then more. And then more. Until the whole place was cheering to Ian. To the point that when he finished, the whole joint just broke out into cheers and applause. 

And surly, inconvenienced, disdainful ol me, was thankful they had scheduled every single one of those 83 heats of freestyle. 

So I think the first secret of the Kingdom, of the jubilee, is you stop thinking so much of yourself. Make yourself a little less important in your own mind. Shift seats at the dinner table. Maybe even move over to the kids table where all the plates are plastic and their have the Flintstones printed on them. Because if the point of church is simply to make you feel good about the choices you've made or recharge you to do what you are going to do, then maybe we've missed the point. We've told Ian "no heat for you", and in the process we'll miss the highlight of the day. The moment when a YMCA is turned into a temple, into holy ground, into a classroom where we learn something essential about what matters. 

And on the other side of things, sometimes we don't just need to find humility in service, but the humility to be served. To be unflinchingly real. No pretense. No bull. No putting up the best front. And trusting that the people who have decided to open the door a little wider so everybody has the chance to come in, will even let you in, and serve you, like a citizen even when you don't have much to offer. 

Even when your spirit, is poor. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013


I don't know about you, but I like stuff. All kinds of stuff. Just bought, as an example a Martin Backpacker guitar a couple of weeks ago. I have other guitars, but this one is different. It's small. It's easy to play. It's a Martin.

Stuff man. I like stuff.

I think other people like stuff. All kinds of stuff. Monitored a Facebook post that took on a life of it's own as people started weighing in on area eateries, particularly the newer local ones that opened  downtown. Lots of passionate arguments for the wine here or the steak there or the mediterranean dip over there.

I don't own a gun but I have friends that talk a lot about guns. And ammo. I thought all bullets are just bullets. I am apparently wrong. Bullets, I have been told, are different. I have heard bullet arguments.


Charlie Dray is partial to flat billed caps. He owns a lot of flat billed caps. I personally think you should never trust a person in a flat billed cap. But he tells me that this is because I'm old. Apparently we only had straw or a big leaf to cover our heads back in the olden days to hear Charlie tell it. Anyhow, he likes flat billed caps.

When my Uncle Dennis comes to town we go to Cabella's or the Bass Pro store up by Toledo. There are at the Bass Pro store a million fishing poles for sale. They apparently all do something different. I could listen to my Uncle Dennis talk all day about fishing poles, because to choose the right pole, you have to know something about fish. He knows a lot about fish, so he knows a lot about poles.


When I've been to your house I've seen your stuff. Buckeye stuff. Commemorative plate stuff. Some of you collect something specific. My mom collects apple stuff. Other people collect pig stuff or puppy stuff. I spent a whole afternoon once walking around Beverly Hills with three doctors who did nothing but look at watches and pens. Watches and pens. Ridiculously expensive watches and pens. Pretty ironic. Doctors. Can't keep a schedule or write legibly to save their lives, and there we were looking at watches and pens.

Maybe you like clothes. Dresses. Socks. Shoes. Or tools. Maybe you dream of a trip to Lowes. Power sanders and socket wrench sets. Cutlerly. Skis and snowboards. Golf clubs. Jewelry. Coins. Quilts. Electronic gizmos.

Stuff. Lots of stuff. People love stuff.

That's probably why the scripture this morning is so jarring. It's a scripture about stuff.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:13-21)

Jesus, it seems, has something against stuff. It's Jesus who tells the rich man who says he's kept all the commandments to give away all of his stuff, and come follow him. It's Jesus who says you can't serve God and money, you gotta choose one or the other. Jesus, in fact, talks more about money and stuff than he does anything else, except the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Why is that? Well, apparently stuff can get in the way of our being "rich in God". 

And why might that be?

I have this theory. Based on what I see Jesus talking about, I have this theory that it's a lot easier to to be successful in accumulating stuff than it is to be rich in God. To be rich, in fact, in any kind of relationships. 

I mean when we were young, Aimee and I, just kids. 21 and 19, married and clueless. We barely got by. We were in college, both us, working part time jobs and relying on the generosity of our parents to make our rent, utilities, tuition, groceries.

One time, at the end of the month when we were totally broke, Aimee searched around the kitchen for something to eat, and only found a can of spinach. To this day we have no idea why we had a can of spinach in our house. Neither of us likes spinach. It had to be some mistake, but there was nothing else in the house to eat, and nothing in our bank accounts, so my wife, hungry, is staring at this lonely can in our pantry when her mother calls her. 

"Aimee, it's Mom. How are you doing?"

My wife starts bawling. "I'm hungry and all we have is a can of spinach."

Her mother, God rest her soul, hung up the phone, grabbed Aimee's dad, and went grocery shopping. It was like manna from heaven when that 280Z pulled up, loaded down with food. 

Now we look around us. We can provide for our family. What's more all those years we lived on one income, to now have two good ones, the end of the month isn't bleak like it used to be. When we first got married I owned a used push mower. Now I'm in the market to for zero turn.

We want to measure our progress in terms of stuff, or our career, or our portfolio. We're better at that than we are relationships. Workaholics thrive on work because it's something they can do. They can master. It gives them a sense of self-satisfaction, a high, that they can't find anywhere else. It's easier to measure a life by a zero turn mower and how far we've come in terms of promotions or positions at work. 

I said this in a sermon a couple of months ago, and I still mean it. There's a power that we feel when buy something. Even if nothing else in our life is going quite right, we can still buy something, anything really, to make us feel better. 

I think Jesus, recognized the truth in an agrarian, pre-industrial economy that people find it's easier to develop a love affair with stuff, and that's not healthy. That's not life. Things might make us feel alive, attached, rooted. But it's a lie. 

You can almost hear Jesus wonder aloud, "Why worry about an inheritance? Why would you use me to get you money, to get you stuff? What's the stuff really worth? Wouldn't you rather be rich in brothers? If you'd use me to compromise, to leverage your brother for stuff, then, what hope do you have to know God? Why don't you leverage me, leverage all you have, to reconcile with your brother, so you can be reconciled with God?  

As someone once told me, in a moment when he felt very alone, all that stuff is just dirt. It's just dirt. And that's the danger. We can make so many compromises, even for good reasons, like providing the basics for our family, that we can begin to deceive ourselves in thinking that what others really need from us is stuff. The stuff we earn. The stuff we bring. And we work hard for our stuff, so it's easy to justify using a little of it here, and a little of it there, to make us happy. To satisfy us. To remind us why we work so hard in the first place. To mark our success. To measure it against someone else.  

Is that the way it works?

Well, what if one day, one day, you woke up completely alone. No family. No friends. Nobody on the planet knew who you were. You have no obligations or responsibilities to anyone else, but if you get hurt, who is going to pick up from the hospital. Or who are going to spend Christmas with. Or who is going to celebrate your birthday or any day for that matter, with you?

I mean if stuff is so important, so vital for us to survive, then right now we should be happier, more satisfied, and better adjusted than in any time in human history. There has never been more stuff available more cheaply than right now. 

And yet relationships with others, relationships with God….. if stuff is so doggone important, wouldn't it correlate that the greater the abundance of stuff the healthier our relationships would be? The greater the overflowing of God's presence and power? 

The church is growing fastest in sub-saharan Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia, the poorest places in the entire world. That's where they can't build churches fast enough. Can't raise up pastors quick enough. People got nothing but one another and God.

And here, in the abundant land of stuff, in the land of IPhones, Elves on Shelves, and Keurig coffee makers we're trying to figure out how to get people out of their warm, comfortable homes on Sunday morning, and into church. To slow prune their lives so they can share time together. To learn to take care of one another. To pray for one another. Out loud.  

Hear, we're selling church? Like a commodity, in a world where everything is for sale, and everyone is completing for your time and attention.

"Hey… over here! Look at meeeeeeeeee! Remember us?" And people think we're heading to hell in a hand basket faster than we ever have before. 

Fools, rich in things, and poor in God.  

I did a funeral for a woman this week. She was 67 years old. At 44 she had a massive stroke, and lay helpless on a the floor of her home for days until a paper girl, seeing the papers pile up, decided to call the police. It's a miracle she survived, but as you might imagine, her life changed, immensely. She's was institutionalized for 23 years. In the end, only her immediate family and a few friends stayed connected with her. They said that for a time, in the nursing home, she loved to sing hymns. They were the songs, I suppose, emblazoned in her brain, something the stroke couldn't take away from her, so she'd sing. Sing hymns of praise, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and later, bedridden. It's all she had left that she could do.

Her greatest hope, her sister told me, was the Lord. Her greatest joy was her family and close friends. I mean, she knew they were in, because so many others had not been, physically, in her life. 

What has to be taken from us before we learn this same lesson?

Dirt. What you think you have - your stuff, your talent, your position - is dirt. You'd be shocked how quickly it can disappear. And then, on the other side of that illusion, what do you have left?

How many people recognize the song that Jeff sang earlier? It's a song from the greatest era of pop culture ever…. the 80's. The song was made popular in a movie called "Say Anything", an 80's movie (which are the best, ever) where a young John Cusack played a character, a graduated senior named Lloyd Daubler, who pines for the class valedictorian, Diane Court. And while Diane had a whole life of education and success her father had planned out for her lined up before her, Lloyd wanted nothing else but to be a kick boxer, a kick boxer in love and married to Diane Court. 

The famous scene is Lloyd, holding up a boom box with a cassette tape in it, playing this song. I'd demonstrate this for you, but we no longer own a boom box. And I haven't touched a cassette in decades. Now Lloyd would have to hold his IPhone above his head and text Diane Court the lyrics. But he lifts up the boom box, and plays the love song, because Diane has dumped him because her father doesn't think Lloyd can provide the life he wants for his daughter. A good life, with lots of success, and lots of stuff. 

And yeah, the scene was corny. It was the stuff of adolescent romantic fantasy. But in the end of the movie, after her father is caught embezzling money, stealing money, in the name of getting a "better life for his family", all the family assets are seized, and he is in jail, guess who ends up with Lloyd. 

Rich in God. Stuff, success, isn't the pathway to richness in God. When we make the pivot, from me to we, from I to you, stuff is nice, it's a blessing, but it's just a tool. A tool that tests our integrity when we have much, and when we have nothing.  A tool to be used to draw us closer, or a something we can concretely reject so we can drawn closer together. It is the place where Jesus is, in the point of greatest need where we can risk ourselves, risk loving someone else, and meet their point of greatest need. 

Our denomination's founder said it best: Work all you can, to earn all you can, to save all you can, so you can give all you can. Stuff should first and foremost, be a tool to draw us into deeper relationships with others, and a place where our trust in the living God is most at stake. 

Will we really take care of one another? Will we really care for one another? Will our lives, shared mutually, dedicated to making God's will manifest in this world, become the center that hones the center of who we are? 

Are you just a fool, sitting in the middle of a pile of stuff, or is your stuff drawing you deeper into the heart of God?

One last story.

When I was a kid, there was a guy in our church, Dan Powelson, who whenever an impromptu sermon was needed, always volunteered, or was volunteered, to tell one story. The same story. It was a story we'd all heard - men and women, old and young - again and again, about Mr. Give and Mr. Get.

Mr. Get owned a huge house. He needed it. He had a lot of stuff. He'd clip his coupons and hit sales and be the guy who bought ten razors for a penny or a six Thanksgiving turkeys at pennies on the dollar the day after Thanksgiving. As a consequence, his house over flowed. Freezers filled with turkeys. Closets filled with razors. A storage rooms filled with soda pop. The place was busting with stuff, because Mr. Get was always worried he wouldn't have enough?

What if there's a turkey shortage? What if all the razor factories exploded? What if all the soda pop was stolen by terrorists? Mr. Get was always packing in more and more into that house, until only small pathways existed between piles and piles and piles of things. 

Mr. Give lived next door to Mr. Get. he never seemed to have as much stuff, I mean not even close to as much stuff as Mr. Get, but there were always a lot more people. People hanging around on his front porch. Kids playing in his front lawn. There always seemed to be a carry in or cook out at Mr. Give's house. And people knew if they were short of something, Mr. Give would share it with them if they he could. A cup of sugar. A cup of milk. If Mr. Give bought cheap turkeys he'd see if anyone needed one. I mean he only really needed one, and even if he gave a couple away he still came out ahead. Besides, whenever Mr. Give needed anything, it seemed like the other neighbors were quick to share with him too. He didn't worry if the razor factory blew up. He'd just have a beard growing contest with his friends. And he enjoyed nothing better than sharing a glass of soda pop with a friend. He didn't fully understand why, but Mr. Give, while he didn't have much, never seemed to want for anything. 

One day a kid from the marching band came around selling nut bread to raise money for a band trip, and both Mr. Give and Mr. Get both decided to buy a few loaves. Mr. Get noticed that as soon as he bought the loaves, Mr. Give shared them with his friends. There was a big congregation on Mr. Give's front lawn, and as he watched it, Mr. Get laughed. 

"His nut bread will soon be gone, but I'll have plenty." And so in a corner of his pantry, he wrapped it and put in tupperware, balanced the nut bread on top a pile of other tupperware containers... and soon forgot it.

Until many, many months later, when he got a hankering for some nut bread.

He went into his pantry, fighting through many more tupperware containers than had been added over that time, and after hours of looking, finally found the nut bread, tucked in the corner. He open up the tupperware, and inside, there it lay, moldy, crusty, rotten, and ruined. 

Just then, across the lawn, he heard noise. It was another crowd of people gathered again on Mr. Give's lawn, and Mr. Get found himself getting angrier and angrier. All of his nut bread was rotten. In fact his pantry was filled with spoiled and stale food that had been sitting there forever, and there was Mr. Give, laughing. Mr. Get got angrier and angrier and angrier.

Until finally, he could take it no more. 

He came bursting across the lawn. "Why must you always be so loud? Why must there always be so much laughing and screaming and talking and singing over here? Here. Look at this. Look at my nut bread. It's stale and it's ruined. And I wanted some, and now there isn't any. And CAN'T YOU ALL JUST BE QUIET!"

Everyone got dead silent. Nobody could say a word. It seemed like an eternity, as they all stood there staring at him, and he began to feel foolish, embarrassed. 

"Hey", Mr. Give said, "I'm really sorry about that, but we're eating dinner together and it just so happens I made a great nut bread to share with everyone. Would you like to come eat with us?"

And as they filled his plate, filled it to overflowing until he needed a second plate, filled with nothing but nut bread. As he ate his fill of nut bread, as he found himself thirsty, he excused himself, went home, and came back, with two liters, cans, and bottles of every kind of soda pop imaginable. And while much of it had to be thrown away, the rest was wonderful. And from that day on, if anyone needed anything, they could stop by Mr. Get's house. The house that was once filled with stuff, but was now filled with friends.

Wouldn't you rather be rich in brothers? Wouldn't' you rather be rich in sisters? Wouldn't you rather be rich in God?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Get Out Your Wallets - Be a Hero To Some Heroes through the Hands for Heroes Half-Marathon/5k

Hello All,

It's that time of year again. The Hands for Heroes Half-Marathon/5k is coming up, Saturday, September 28th here at Shawnee Community UMC. As in years past, proceeds from the race will buy lunch for school-children at Victory Christian School, located at Borde', a little village in northern Haiti, and medicine for those who can't afford it it at a medical clinic in Labruyere.

This year a portion of the proceeds will also go to support "Team Red, White, and Blue", and organization who, through sport, rehabilitates mind, body, and soul of veterans who were injured serving their country. A number of these folks will be running with us that morning. Their stories and TRWB's work is inspiring. For more info on TRWB, click here.

In order to make this a success (i.e. raise a lot of money) we need your help. In years past I've asked you to sponsor me as I walk the 5k. This year I want to do something a little different. In the race there are "Mile Markers" that can be sponsored for $100 apiece and water stops that are $250. I'm going to give you a choice. Instead of sponsoring me, I'd like to donate to honor somebody else. You have three choices:

- Sponsor the "Honoring our Haitian Heroes Water Station" (any $ amount): Pastor Marius through his dedication and sacrifice has made life for the people of Borde', Haiti, better. His faithful work has educated hundreds of children, started dozens of small businesses, taught young people a trade, and provided clean water for the village. He's also baptized hundreds of new believers in the power of Christ's love and grace. Pastor Marius is just one of our Haitian Heroes, make a difference in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Make your donation towards the $250 that will sponsor a water station to serve runners, just like Pastor Marius and others in Haiti are providing "living water" to those in need. In the PayPal special instructions box, or in the memo of your check just put "Haitian Hero", if you want your hero's name on the sign (I'll have my crack staff take care of that), and their name..

- Sponsor the "Honoring our Military Heroes Water Station" (any amount): Some men and women served bravely in our nation's military and safely returned home. Others were not so fortunate. This is a chance to remember those who serve, and served. Those who made it home safely, others who came home needing our help, and still others who lost their life. Include the name of a soldier or vet you'd like to honor, and I'll make sure my crack graphics team. Make your donation towards the $250 that will sponsor a water station to serve runners, just like our soldiers serve their nation. In the PayPal special instructions box, or in the memo of your check just put "Military Hero", if you want your hero's name on the sign (I'll have my crack staff take care of that), please add their name.

- Sponsor a "Standing Stone Mile Marker" (minimum of $100): We'll have 150 or more runners/walkers here on Saturday. Put a word of encouragement to them on a mile marker. You can choose your own scripture verse or some other encouraging saying, and we'll put it on the sign RIGHT FROM YOU, or if you wish, in honor or memory of someone else you love. If you need help with a scripture here a few good ones:
Psalm 23
Romans 12:1-2
Romans 12:21
Hebrews 12:1
I Corinthians 9:24
John 3:16
Jeremiah 29:11
Proverbs 18:10
Philippians 4:13

In the PayPal special instructions box enter "Mile Marker" and whatever verse/saying you want us print, and if you desire, who the "Mile Marker" is in memory or honor of. If you send a check, just enclose the same info on a sheet of paper, or email me at Make all checks payable to "Community UMC" and put "Mile Marker" in the memo. All checks can be mailed to:

Community UMC
Hands for Heroes 
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima OH  45806

Hope to hear from you. Be a hero to some heroes!!!!!