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.