I’ve been dabbling with spoken word poetry, on stage and in sermons. Here’s something that I tried out in both places. I’m still new to this so it needs work, but some folks asked for it…so here it is. 

Wisemen Generation

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We like to put Bethlehem in a box…and then take it out once a year. Bethlehem is a “good neighborhood”, made of felt board and figurines. It is a delicate place that demands a delicate ritual. We unpack Bethlehem with our fingertips, piece-by-piece. Bethlehem is predictable. The characters are always the same and the story never changes.

We bring Bethlehem home because, in some sense, Bethlehem stands for home—or at least our ideal of what it should be. Adoring parents, abundant gifts. An angel showing divine approval while looking down from above. Bethlehem is stable.

But this is not the Bethlehem of the Bible and this is rarely the home of our lives.

Bethlehem is a Biblical bus stop. It’s a spiritual transfer station where one finds God an moves on. No one stays in Bethlehem.

David slays Goliath and goes north to Jerusalem.

The shepherds return West to their flocks.

Wise men go East.

The Holy Family flees south.

The price for staying is the death of innocence that far too many have paid.

Bethlehem makes warriors out of runts and gods out of babies.

Bethlehem is made more of blood than of plastic.

Figurines don’t shit.  Babies and donkeys do.

But still, Bethlehem is beautiful and it is necessary.

Bethlehem is where you go to find God…and then GO because you can’t spell God without “GO” and I’m pretty sure the “D” doesn’t stand for “dump your ass here.”

As I look over the Bethlehem box in my living room, I wonder, who are we in the home for God?

We, in this room, are not the bored shepherds, falling asleep on their staffs. We’re not dirty enough, not oppressed enough, not nearly poor enough to have God show up in our back yard.  We are not frightened by angels  because we’re too entertained to hear them.

We are wise, or at least educated. It takes a star to catch our eyes, but when our eyes have been caught it is easy to reel us in and here, here is the power of the wise men generation, the potential power of us.

We are the generation who leaps so that we can look at the view.

We put all our eggs in one basket and count them as chickens in waiting

We run with scissors because we know that someone needs them now (plus we’ve got shit to do and it’s not that hard to protect yourself from scissors).

We go on road trips to anywhere because the trip is what we remember

and that goes for life too: it’s the trips we remember because it’s easy to laugh after a fall—except when it hurts…that’s when it’s easy to cry. Yes, it’s the trips we remember.

Our generation knows that all who wander are not lost and that the lost might not be if they just wandered around a bit.

The world has forgotten that the wise leave home, chase after stars and set their sights high.

The wise are civil in their disobedience to authority but disobedient nonetheless.

The wise lose home and find themselves.

So maybe Bethlehem stands for home after all—or an improvised home for those of us who find home on the road.

Bethlehem stands for home in the face of homelessness, and home in the face of God.

epiphany

People sometimes ask me what it means to be a community curator at a place like Union. Thank God, it includes going to stuff like this:

It smelled like sweat, lady shampoo and Barefoot Wine in a basement theater of Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University as Ten Bitches (no, they weren’t all women) took the stage on the last day of classes at midnight. Their goal:  present 30 plays in one hour, selected in random order by the audience. Also they wanted to surprise, break down the 4th wall, dance, laugh and draw mustaches on everyone in the audience.

The show was light and fast. As soon as one play ended, audience members shouted out the number for the next. This breakneck pace kept a bunch of stressed out, ADD college kids engaged. The plays varied but were consistently creative.  #12, The Grinch, featured Cindy Lou and the dog, Max, bedside to a hospitalized Grinch. A doctor enters the scene to deliver the bad news: Grinch isn’t likely to make it because of the complications caused by his heart growing three times its normal size. #28, Basement Dancing, invited everyone up on stage to dance to an audience members favorite song. Actors interacted with crowd members throughout and the audience sometimes played unscripted roles that built upon the evening. During #24, Free After Ten, an actor said, “I need a new man,” prompting a guy in the audience to shout, “amen.”The Grinch

The banter cut quickly during #8, Ledge Talk  (brilliantly written by Mei Mei Pollitt).  In fact, the room went silent. A brave actress stepped onto stage, wearing nothing but bra and boyshorts. She sat on a ledge, with a man standing off at a perceived distance. “What does it do to you to see so much flesh” she asked the man or maybe the audience. The two actors raised questions about commitment, sexuality and God. This led to the only awkward moment of the night—not because things got serious. The room needed a dose of serious to break up the train of frivolity. The awkward moment came when the actors shouted scene and no one wanted to shout out another number for the next play. They just wanted to applaud or wipe away the unexpected tears.

I’m not an SMU student, but I help run Union, a coffee shop nearby to SMU and some of the actors for Ten Bitches are regulars. They show up at Union’s events and it seemed right to show up at theirs. I came to Ten Bitches to support some friends. I left with insight into the weird subculture that is The Meadows School of the Arts.

These students instinctively know how to take care of each other. There’s no extra credit or graduation awards for putting on a performance like Ten Bitches and a Stage. They filled the stage on the last day of classes to do for their fellow students what theater does best—Sabbath. Ten Bitches gave fifty students the chance to breathe, laugh, dance, celebrate and mock the world that threatens to define them.

If you hear rumors of ten bitches taking the stage again, grab a friend, wander around the basement of Meadows until you find them and enjoy what the bitches have to offer. You won’t be disappointed.

10 Bitches and a Stage

ImageLast night I had the honor of offering an opening prayer at La Cena, an All Saints Feast put together by Cafe Momentum and House of Plates. Here’s the prayer that I wrote. Please feel free to use it for churches or other celebrations (churches may want to substitute “today” for “tonight”)

 

 

Tonight we remember the saints

And give thanks for the way they shaped us. May we mold the world according to their witness.

Tonight we remember the saints

And give thanks for the way they loved us. May we reflect their light, long after their lives have slipped into darkness.

Tonight we remember the saints

And pray  we be remembered like them. For this fleeting flesh will not last, but the fossil remain of our work will surely linger and give shape to the coming age.

Tonight we remember the saints

And savor their memory as we do this meal. May we be nourished by this food, nourished by their memory so that we might serve the world in a way that brings light to darkness food to hunger courage to victim flesh to bone water to thirst life to death.

Tonight we remember the saints

and give thanks to God, the giver of death.

Tonight we remember the saints

and give thanks to God, the giver of life.

Confession # 1: I Crash Landed the Plane & Thought No One Noticed

Tuesday’s sermon was great. I was super excited about it because the kuneo planning team (‘kuneo’ is the name of our worship gathering) had come up with some really great insights into our surrounding culture, plus we had a super sexy title:

Jesus Wants to Save You from the Zombie Super Apocalypse

Things were going great…we had congregational participation and laughter.  Our conversations around zombies revealed some of our greatest fears and weaknesses as a society and as individuals. All of us (including myself) recognized things from which we need to be saved.

I remembered the convicting words of my friend, Maria Dixon-Hall in a recent blog rant. I decided, I am going to proclaim that Jesus saves. I am going to own the fact that I need to be saved just as much as someone who’s life is obviously in shambles. My brokenness is much more hidden than this guys

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, but it’s just as real. I need Jesus to save me because I can’t do it on my own. So I told everyone to spend some time acknowledging the parts of their lives that are zombie-esque, choose to live differently and, if it seems overwhelming, trust that Jesus can save you from the zombie-infected parts of your soul. 

Here’s the problem: 

  1. I never explained how Jesus saves us
  2. I never offered guidance on what people should do to get Jesus to save them
  3. Although I did expand people’s understanding of salvation to include being saved from very real practical realities TODAY and not just far off salvation after people die, I essentially defaulted to a Christian cliche that “Jesus will save you” as if that statement makes sense on its own.

I thought it was a good, inspirational landing, but in actuality I hit the tarmack so hard that the baristas had to scrape people off the ceiling who had failed to fasten their seatbelts. 

Confession # 2 : Sometimes the Church Acts Like the Producers of LOST

(warning: LOST spoilers)

I will always be annoyed at the people who made the show LOST. They started the show with some really good ideas and then decided that they would let the story write itself. They didn’t know where they were going…and that was okay with me. I think it is cool to create a universe and see where it takes you–whether you’re telling a story, writing a TV show or theologizing. This is what’s not okay with me: LOST fell apart at the end. The producers knew it, the actors knew it and good God, almighty, the audience knew it too. But here’s the great sin: they spit in my coffee and called it sugar!  LOST pretended like their crazy storyline made sense (it didn’t…come on, unless the lights in my parent’s pool are magical, an icy wheel that combines light and water shouldn’t be able to create rifts in the space-time continuum of the universe) and with a smug look on their faces, pretended like the ending was their plan all along. Image

This is crap: “ha ha ha, all these flash sideways (what the heck is a flash sideways, BTWs) are from the afterlife. It all makes sense because no one knows what happens in the afterlife so it doesn’t have to make sense. Thank you for watching our program for 6 years.”

At the end of my sermon, I pulled a LOST. I said stuff like “Jesus saves” as if that makes sense in and of itself. But it doesn’t. I ought to respect the intellect of my congregation enough to acknowledge that. I ought to be honest enough about my own shortcomings as a theologian to acknowledge to the room that I don’t know how Jesus saves us and I don’t really know what it means.

I get all sorts of self-righteous and dismissive of churches that throw out our own theological constructs as if they make sense…and I did the same thing.

Confession # 3 : I Need Honest, Smart People to Help Me Become a Better Preacher …(the Church Might Need Some Honest, Smart Critics to Help Her Become Better Too)

Thank God for people like Rachel, Jonathan, Robert, Jennifer, Katie, Michelle and Shane who went with me to grab a drink after worship. They loved me, were honest about the places the sermon connected and then owned the hard landing. Here’s the really magical thing about these people who I absolutely adore: they didn’t just talk about the hard landing. They entered into dialogue with me as we figured out, together, how we could have smoothed out the landing. We set up the flight simulator and they jumped into the cockpit with me. Instead of throwing out this notion that “Jesus saves” instead I could have ended with any of the following:

I don’t know how Jesus saves, but I do know that God saved the people in the Bible from zombie-like influences of wanton greed, mass consumption, violence, ignorance and more. I’m just crazy enough to believe that God the stories in the Bible can help save us too. I’m hoping that we can figure it out together.

OR

If you have zombie infections in your soul, I know that Jesus has something to offer because Jesus has something to say about our warring madness and violence as a society. Jesus has something to say about our materialism. Jesus has something to say about our wanton consumerism. Jesus has something to say about our willingness to blatantly ignore the needs of others in order to pursue our own wants. There is salvation in Jesus’ words and wisdom!

OR

I know I’ve thrown out this concept that Jesus saves. And I know we’ve all heard it. And I know that none of us probably really know what it means. In the next several weeks, we’re going to explore the practical ways that Jesus saves and see if we can get a better understanding of what it’s all about. 

Confession # 4 : Pretend Perfect

I was going to sit down tonight and write out the sermon (I still plan to do so), but what stopped me in my tracks is that I planned to fix the ending, without qualification or confession. Instead I wrote this blog. Hopefully, I’ll find time to post the sermon later. I want to be honest and transparent in my preaching. 

I told Rachel Bryan, tonight on the phone, “if I ever throw something out there like that again, call me on it–but don’t wait an hour. Call me on it in worship. Maybe we can figure it out on the spot instead of at the bar a couple hours later.” Praise God that she, and others like her, will be brave enough to do so. 

Luke 19:28-40

Yesterday morning, I was proud to stand with my two sons, one of my daughters and thousands of men. We stood around city Hall because Mayor Mike Rawlings called upon the city of Dallas to end a culture that allows for Domestic Violence.

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As we gathered around city hall yesterday morning, I was struck by the similarities to Palm Sunday. Palm fronds were replaced by rally towels, though we waved them above our heads, fronding, to similar affect. Like on Palm Sunday, we demanded a change in the culture of oppression and violence. We forget, too easily that Palm Sunday was a grand political protest. It began on the Mount of Olives (where all political protests and militaristic invasions took place in Jerusalem) and the words of the people invoke revolution. By invoking the words of the prophets they call Jesus, Messiah, and call for a new era where justice is only ever overruled by mercy and never corruption.

Palm Sunday was a protest.

Yesterday morning, like Palm Sunday, was a day we believed in the power of people to radically change a culture by the sheer force of their common purpose and shared conviction. In a day before non-violent resistance, Palm Sunday was a peaceful protest against violence. Like it was yesterday.

Dallas Cowboys stood in front of their crowd, and said, ‘I want Dallas to be known not by its 5 Super Bowl Championships but as the city that has made the greatest difference in affecting a change in a culture of domestic violence.

I was inspired. But I was also sad. One of the prophecies of Palm Sunday came true.

“Rabbi, tell your disciples to be quiet,” some of the Pharisees tried to reason with Jesus-talk the crowd down from their dangerous proposition.

Jesus response: “if they are quiet then the stones themselves would shout.”

I was sad yesterday because it was not the church that called 10,000 men to end domestic violence. Sure, the church participated and provided some of the best speakers, but it was the Mayor and the Dallas Cowboys that provided the real leadership and the City of Dallas who will lead the charge.

“If my disciples are silent, the rocks themselves will shout out.”

I am disturbed by the fact that 1 in 4 women will be victimized by partner violence by the time they are old enough to graduate college.

I am disturbed by the fact that 13,000 cases of Domestic Violence were reported in Dallas last year—that’s 35 a day and, by the way, it is just as prevalent in that park cities as it is anywhere else in Dallas. DV does not know race or socio-economic status.

But what really pains me is this:

Statistically, church members are just as likely to be abusers and victims.

Sunday, is the most common day for Domestic Violence to occur.

There is a direct correlation between the score of the Cowboys game and hte number of domestic violence calls.

I know that we have been silent and I know that the stones themselves are rising up to speak because if the United Methodist Church had addressed Domestic Violence these statistics wouldn’t hold!  And so the stones themselves are speaking out.

The passion story is more than a story of salvation and sacrifice. It’s a cautionary tal

e of a church that Jesus foretold and the disciples lived out.

 

(The Duck Church)

At the rally yesterday, one of the best speakers was a preacher whose name I,unfortunately, cannot remember, He told a story that floats around pastors from time to time. It’s about Duck Church.

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There was once a town full of ducks who waddled everywhere. One Sunday morning, they waddled into church and heard an inspiring sermon from Duck Matt Gaston. He told them three important things.

1) Remember that you are ducks.

2) Know that ducks have wings

3) You were made to fly!

The duck congregation went crazy. Duck Richard Hearne shouted loud amens throughout and the congregation was visibly stirred. Duck Damin Spritzer played a beautiful piece on the pipe Organ and the duck choir quacked along with a song so beautiful that many members of the congregation closed their eyes and felt like they were flying for the first time.

At the end of the service, many ducks shook wings with Duck Matt and thanked him for reminding them that they are ducks with wings who are called to fly.

And they all waddled home.

The story of duck church is the disciples’ Passion story. The “multitude of disciples” were all fired up talking about the power of God and the new kingdom of peace and by the end of the week Jesus is left standing there, looking around. “for all of his acquantances” the scripture says—not just the close friends but even down to the acquaintances—stood at a distance.

We have been blessed to be a blessing, but far too often we just act blessed.

I feel like I’ve spent far too much of my life arguing and working on issues over which we, in the church, easily disagree. I’m from NJ, so arguing is in my DNA, but I need to find ways to get past that. What if we spent that time working, really working, on the issues over which there is unity and there are a great many issues in our world over which we find unity!

No one in this room believes it’s a good thing to abuse women and children. Even abusers have remorse over their actions, which is part of why the cycle continues.

I don’t think anyone in this room is okay with the fact that someone dies of hunger-related causes every 7 seconds in the world.

I don’t think anyone in the church is content with the fact that many people find suicide their best option.

I think we would have a hard time finding churches that support bullying in our schools.

And yet so many great ills in our society continue in the face of a silent church!

 

(The Sirens)

I’ve always been intrigued by Greek mythology. One danger, in particular, always struck me: the sirens. The Sirens sat on a rock through some oceanic pass that offered a deadly shortcut. The sirens were beautiful sang a song so glorious that sailors would steer their ships towards the sirens, wreck the ships on unseen rocks and were then gobbled up by the sirens. There were only two ships who successfuly navigated the sirens.

One was Odysseus. In a time crunch he had to pass by the sirens. TO navigate it safely, he stuffed wax in the ears of his sailors, blindfolded them and tied himself to the mast of the ship.

The other was Orpheus, a musician, who simply sat at the bow and played more beauitful music.

Odysseus’s way is the way of the stones

Ours is the way of more beautiful music

Orpheus

(So the Stones Don’t Have To)

So I say, let us raise our voice so that the stones don’t have to.

Let us raise our voice for love because safe sanctuaries are not enough, we cannot rest until our homes are sanctuaries for love.

Let us raise our voice for education so that little girls grow up knowing that the men who love them cannot strike them.

Let us raise our voice of manhood, so that little boys grow up, knowing that

real men don’t resort to violence,

that real men hold their brothers accountable and

that gentleness is not the opposite of manliness.

Let us raise our voice of justice because silence is the friend of oppression.

Let us raise our voice so that abusers might lower theirs, choosing to give up control

Let us raise our voice so that the children of Dallas never have to stand in the way of their father’s fist, so that families don’t have to lie about their bruises, so that abusers don’t speak in code as a way to warn their spouses that they are out of line

Let us raise our voice so that abusers might find wholeness, pride and acts of repentance that lead to redemption.

Let us raise our voice for gentleness now but let us not just speak about domestic violence.

Let us raise our voice so that the children in our schools never live in fear of a bomb, a gun or a fist.

Let us raise our voice so that those who feel there is no way out will know that there is always hope in Jesus Christ.

Let us raise our voice to shout down the demons of suicide, the demons of loneliness, the demons of hopelessness because our music is far more beautiful than anything the demons have to offer.

Let us “lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty!”

I don’t want to wait for the stones to sing about it, the mayor to write about it or congress to incentivize it.

Let us raise our voice for community now!

Palm Sunday is a day of revolution and Jesus is looking for recruits!

(The Promised Land)

I see Paige Flink, director of the Family Place, here. Wouldn’t it be great, Paige, if, on some Easter Sunday, we are able to walk out together and board up the doors of the Family Place? Not because funding has run out but because our mission is accomplished.

Wouldn’t it be great if our kids didn’t fear going to school anymore?

Would’t it be amazing if suicide no longer marred our society with unseen scars?

Then, maybe then, once we have accomplished great work on these matters about which we agree, perhaps we will have worked together enough to work better together on issues about which we are not yet on one accord because once you’ve worked with someone, once you’ve sweat side-by-side with someone on soemthign that matters you see them in a new way.

(Adding Days and Minutes)

But this is a tall order. The scope of the work to be done is great and can paralyze.

What if, in our life time, we were responsible for adding hours—so that domestic violence only occurs once a day in Dallas instead of 35 times a day?

What if, in our life-time, we were responsible for making it every 30 seconds that someone dies of hunger, instead of every 7 seconds—a difference of 512 lives / hour?

Or we could remain silent. We could “stand at a distance” as the disciples and the women who followed Jesus did. It will not keep God from working. “Even the stones will shout out,” Jesus says.

“The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice.” The fix is in. We know how the story ends. God does not need us, but God wants us—to hasten the day when the last wound is inflicted, when the last bruise heals, when we meet down by the riverside and study war no more, when the last drop of blood has been shed, when the savior does not have to die.

This is why we wave our palms.

This is why we sing this day—so that world won’t have to wait…so that God won’t have to raise up the stones.

While writing a post about Hurricane Sandy and its broader impact, I came across this blog entry from The Thoughtful Pastor. I was frankly aghast to read her first paragraph. I had to temporarily abandon my initial blog post and reply.

This was her first paragraph:

I guess I just don’t get the “Blame God for Hurricane Sandy” thing that is being tossed around. Although I suppose I should: it all fits with the “Divine Butler-god” that I’ve written about before. As long as we get what we want (good weather for weekends, sports events and campouts) then God has been nice and obedient and fitting well within the lines we’ve drawn. But the moment things get just a bit out of control (that would be our control, not God’s), then we are all over that Holy One with our complaints about what an awful person (!) God is and how terribly disappointed we are. Our next performance review will certainly reflect that disappointment, and we will strongly suggest God take steps to do better next time.

I will say that the blog gets better. She goes on to say some very beautiful and wise things (no snark…they are wise) about how the heroes who emerge in the wake of such a storm will be the ones who ask what God wants of them in the light of such tragedy. I’m posting my response on my blog (and not just as a comment to hers) because I know how easy it is to forget the perspective of the people we write about. I’m writing this on my blog as a reminder to myself for future blogs as well as a caution to the author of The Thoughtful Pastor.

My response:

Christy, I like many things about this entry, but I wish it was published a couple months later. The reality is that I agree with just about everything you said, but if I put myself in the shoes of people I know in New Jersey, I know I’d really struggle with your words.
I don’t know who specifically you were responding to, but the people I know who question God in this time are not angry because they can’t have a nice weekend on the golf course. They’re angry because 80% of their city…not just their house…THEIR CITY is under water. They’re angry because their jobs washed away with their homes and a lack of electricity matters–really, really matters–when it’s 42 degrees outside and you have an infant to care for.

I have a lot of family and friends in NJ. One of whose spouse just lost his job and whose infant shivers because there’s no electricity…all because of some storm that ripped mindlessly through her town. She has a right to challenge and question God. I think she is blessed because of it.

The people of God aren’t named “Abraham” after the paragon of obedience. They are instead named “Israel.” “One who wrestles with God. ” Questioning and challenging God, screaming at the Almighty over the roar of destructive wind is right and good and blessed.

“What does God expect of me?” is a critical question to ask, but I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that many of the heroes of faith and the heroes who will emerge after this storm will first have to say, “God, I expected a lot more from you.” I can’t imagine saying to a mother whose children were literally ripped from her arms by the greedy tides that “you shouldn’t be pissed at God. Ask what God expects from you right now.” I think that all God expects of that mother is to survive.

This is going to sound patronizing of me so I apologize to anyone hurt by this storm who reads this. There is a necessary sensitivity to our words in the face of human suffering. If the victims (and yes, they are victims) stay too long in this place of challenge and struggle, then they miss the opportunity to answer the call to serve and rise up and rebuild and resurrect. Job wrestles with God for chapters and chapters and chapters until finally God hears enough and slaps him back into place. But God does give space for Job to wrestle.

I would humbly request, that you would give space to the victims of Sandy to wrestle as well.

WARNING: to non-methodists and the Methodists who care little about polity and structure of the UMC, this blog post will be exceptionally boring. Go read something else or watch something funny on youtube. All Methodorks or Methodork wannabees, please read on…

In the wake of the Judicial Council decision to retain guaranteed appointments and overturn the ‘Mueller Amendment’ and related 2012 General Conference legislation, I’ve seen a flurry of comments on facebook. This is an effort to clarify some things and offer some perspective on the decision.

“How does the Judicial Council have the right to overturn something voted upon?”

The Judicial branch has the responsibility to review the constitutionality of any legislation enacted by General Conference that they are asked to review. The Judicial Council holds the United Methodist Church accountable to its founding constitutional principles (found in the Book of Discipline). In this case, they felt that the proposed changes violated Article 3 & 4 (more on that later)

“Overturning the legislations is a move by ‘old pastors’ to preserve their jobs”

I just don’t think this is true at all. First of all, only five of the nine judicial council members are clergy and only two of them currently serve in the local church. Secondly, as I recall there were three consistent voices on the Higher Education Ministries subcommittee at General Conference who advocated for retaining guaranteed appointments. I didn’t check their IDs, but I think they were all around 40 or younger. The bulk of clergy who were supporting an end to guaranteed appointments were established clergy over the age of 50 (not a swipe at anyone, just the facts as best as I remember them).

 

Why were guaranteed appointments overturned

(my interpretation based on their ruling)

The Judicial Council did not mince words in their ruling. They said that the proposed changes were ‘repugnant to the constitution.’ To understand why, you have to read the 3rd and 4th restrictive rules of the UMC constitution.

Article III “The General Conference shall not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.”

Article IV “The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal; neither shall it do away with the privileges of our members of right to trial before the church, or by a committee, and of an appeal.”

Breaking that down in light of the proposed changes to guaranteed appointments:

1)   The Judicial Council feels that guaranteed appointments and itineracy are inextricably linked. The fact that pastors are still appointed by bishops under the proposed changes is not enough to maintain itineracy—probably because it becomes a one-way power street with the bishop able to appoint and the pastor having no recourse. My guess is that some would argue with the Judicial Council’s interpretation on this.

2)   Ordination is a covenant. All covenants have promises made by both parties. When I was ordained I made a lot of vows. I cannot suddenly choose to stop following some of those vows. To do so, breaks the covenant and I can have my ordination nullified. Likewise, the church made vows to me when I was ordained and elder, among them was the promise of a guaranteed appointment. For the church to take away that right (see article 4) is to break it’s part of the covenant.

3)   The Judicial Council likely saw one of the key flaws in the Mueller Amendment and its partner legislation. According to the new framework, a bishop could assign a pastor to a less than full-time appointment without having to provide cause and with very little accountability. This sweeping power could be seen as a betrayal of the covenantal relationship between bishop and pastor, annual conference and clergy. If a pastor was suspected of being ineffective or having done something improper, but the bishop did not want to pursue a formal trial, he or she could simply send that pastor to a quarter time appointment in the far reaches of the annual conference until the pastor leaves on his or her own accord, effectively denying the pastor the right to trial (article 4). Alternatively, a bishop might receive negative, but untrue information about a pastor from a District Superintendent or other source and consequently appoint the pastor to a less-than-fulltime appointment. Without a trial or hearing, the pastor could be effectively blacklisted by a bishop who does not take the time to hear directly from the pastor in question.

4)   I would guess that there may be labor law issues at play here as well. This is tricky because labor laws differ by state. I would imagine that in some places in the United States, removing guaranteed appointments could leave the UMC open to law suit. It could be argued that the contract between clergy and annual conference includes a guaranteed appointment. Removing a pastor according to Mueller amendment procedures might be a ‘breach of contract’ much in the same way that removing a tenured teacher without cause and without going through previously agreed upon methods would constitute a breach of contract between a school board and a teachers union.

 

“We are stuck and there is no way to change the system”

This is also not true. The United Methodist constitution can be (and has been) amended. This, however, is not the course of action taken by the legislation that came out of Higher Education Ministries at General Conference 2012.

Constitutional amendments require (my polity is a little rusty so I might be a little off on this) 3/4 vote by the General Conference and a ¾ majority of Annual Conferences affirming the constitutional change by vote at their next Annual Conference. That being said, the only Book of Discipline I can find in my house right now is the Spanish version.

Here’s the thing: the Mueller amendment and its partner legislation passed on the consent calendar at GC 2012. That means that fewer than 10% of the body objected or realized what was being voted upon. Had the legislation to end guaranteed appointments been done along a constitutional route, it may have received its 3/4 super majority. It would have been close, but it might have gone through the round of Annual Conferences and we could be facing a completely different UMC in 2013.

The latest stage for the debate over homosexuality, religion and culture has taken up to roost in the land of deep fried chicken and I think it’s time we all took a breath. The inevitable backlash against the hype is growing and in the midst of this chicken fried kerfuffle, I’m left wondering…what is God up to in all this?

Dear Democratic and Republican Extremists…

Extremist Democratic city mayors, please stop it. Stop it right now. Since when did the party that encourages civil liberties become the party that bans restaurants because of what their owners believe? Does the owner of a Chili’s have to submit to a personal beliefs inventory before opening in Chicago, San Francisco or Boston? What you’re doing is discriminatory. Shame on you.

Extremist Republican pundits, please stop it. Stop it right now. People boycotting Chick-Fil-A because they disagree with the organization is supports isn’t restricting anybody’s free speech. If people were boycotting the news organization for airing the interview or if they were suing Mr. Kathy (it feels weird to write “Mr.” followed by “Kathy”) for what he said, that would be a violation of free speech. You can protest the protesters all you want, but let’s own up to what this issue is about.

Straining at Pennies

Let’s just be honest about this. Those who have chosen to boycott Chick-Fil-A are people who do no want a portion of a penny from their lunchtime purchase to support causes that are discriminatory against the GLBT community. They aren’t protesting Mr. Kathy’s ideas (well, some might…but I don’t get the impression that’s what this is about). They just don’t want their money to go to something with which they disagree. This is an act of conscious–not an effort to limit someone’s free speech.

Those who do continue to eat at Chick-Fil-A are people who are okay with a portion of a penny going to support causes that are discriminatory against GLBT community. While I do not discount the hurt felt by many in the GLBT community (and I am deeply appreciative of Rev. Eric Folkerth’s blog for raising the ways in which this can be hurtful to many who are GLBT), not everyone who eats at Chick-Fil-A wants gay people to suffer, nor do they necessarily want gay people to be discriminated against. Their brain has just decided (consciously or not) that they are okay with a portion of a penny going to causes that act on the belief that homosexuality is wrong. While I acknowledge the hurt this causes for some folks in the GLBT community, I’ve also seen posts like these from gay friends of mine whom I respect:

I ate at McDonald’s today—not out of protest…I just had a hankerin’ for the best French fries that I can find. If I think about it, my $4.63 went to a lot of places.

  • A couple pennies went to support the 2012 Olympics
  • A portion of a penny contributed towards Brazilian deforestation
  • A portion of a penny supported Ronald McDonald House that affords parents of sick kids the chance to be with their children over extended hospital stays
  • Several pennies went to McDonalds marketing which is responsible for significant increases in childhood obesity, early onset of type II diabetes and Lord knows what else.
  • A couple pennies supported jobs for unskilled workers who will likely cycle out of their job in the next 6-12 months
  • Several pennies went to make really rich people a lot richer while their minimum wage employees are paid a pittance and can barely scrape out a living
  • A portion of a penny went to a potato farmer and his family.

The reality is, all of our purchases have an impact on our world. In our increasingly globalized economy, our money trails grow longer while the world gets smaller. Chick-Fil-A’s decision to provide money to discriminatory organizations is just what has our attention right now.

Our money spreads through the globe–some of it doing good things, others doing bad and sometimes I’m paralyzed by the weight of responsibility that flows out of my wallet. I can’t possibly keep track of it all! Sometimes I just want to throw my hands up in the air, make my own food and live on a commune.

Sometimes I wonder if our efforts to strain at portions of pennies is like straining at gnats. Rev. Frank Drenner spoke of it well on his blog:

There will still be the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves, and there will still be folk who question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer will have nothing to do with fast food.

The Sad Thing

A very tiny percentage of purchases at Chick-Fil-A go to support these controversial organizations.

If McDonald’s announced that tomorrow, 1% of all revenue would support clean water initiatives in Africa or to build Domestic Violence shelters around the world, would we see lines like we saw at Chick-Fil-A?

For all I know, 1% of McDonald’s revenue might already support non-profit organizations. Sadly, I don’t believe we’d see that kind of turnout. Even so, I’m staking my ministry and money (and other people’s money) on the notion that we can call people to something better.

What God is Doing

When I look at this controversy, I give thanks to God–not for one side or the other, but for the debate as a whole. There is clearly a growing desire among people to know where their money is going. People are waking up to the awareness that how they spend their money is both a spiritual and moral matter. Thanks be to God! That sounds like the kind of thing that the church and Jesus can work with! The challenge to the church: can we address this growing sense of financial responsibility and morality? Can we find ways to preach about this tomorrow and engage people with economic spirituality while the spirit is moving?

Shameless Promotion

I’m not interested in straining at economic gnats, but I am deeply interested in supporting businesses that put money to kingdom work. That’s what we’re trying to do with our new kind of new church start, Union—a coffee house that will adopt different causes every quarter with 10% of all revenue (not profits…revenue) going to non-profit agencies that do good things. Good things like:

  • Addressing Domestic Violence in ways that assist children, victims and abusers
  • Helping the homeless in Dallas
  • Eradicating Malaria
  • Rebuilding communities after natural and political disasters

We’re not straining at pennies. We’re talking about quarters and dollars from every purchase. By 2015 we hope to donate over $200,000 to non profit agencies. We’re hoping that Dallasites will consider where they want their moony to go and will choose to purchase their beverages and food at Union.

Every purchase also helps to sponsor ministry with young people in Dallas so that the community can benefit from positive interaction between the established church and surrounding culture.

Union isn’t the first to do this. Newman’s Own, Tom’sand others have taken up such endeavours. I pray that we have more businesses like them where significant portions of our funds can support causes that make a significant positive difference in our world. I pray that Christians can encourage such positive business development so that the marketplace can be a place of justice, of hope and of love.

Union is a new kind of new church start in east Dallas that seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through outstanding coffee, significant community and engaging causes that make a positive difference in the local and global community.

Blue Like Jazz (the movie) opens April 13th nationwide. I was able to see a sneak preview last month and wrote this review for the United Methodist Reporter. Hope you enjoy!

“Life is like Jazz, son, it never resolves”

This advice, given from father (played by Eric Lange) to the main character (played by Marshall Allman of True Blood and Prison Break fame), reveals what some will see as the greatest strength, and others will see as the greatest weakness of Blue Like Jazz. Precious little is resolved at the end of the film, but you do gain a sense of joy and progression throughout the movie that should mollify those who need a well-resolved ending and will delight those who relish the film’s Jazz-like ethos that withholds resolution.

Blue Like Jazz, the book, is more of a collection of essays than a storyline. Blue Like Jazz, the movie, takes the concepts laid out in the book and explores them through a storyline set at Reed College in Oregon—called “the most godless campus in America.”

The movie begins with Donald Miller as an assistant youth pastor in a conservative, Houston, Baptist Church. He also works in a factory that produces communion cups, sealed with juice and wafer. While overt critique is never explicitly offered, there is a sense of foreboding with such packaged expressions of faith.

Miller begins secure in his faith, church and what he knows. “Back in Texas, I knew everything. Because I’m from Texas,” Miller explains in an opening scene. In quick succession, this security is shattered as he comes to realize that his mother (played by Jenny Littleton) is sleeping with the church’s youth pastor (played by Jason Marsden) who is married to another woman. He packs his things and treks off to Reed College on a scholarship arranged by his estranged father.

Miller is thrust into a world in which being a Christian is taboo. He is advised by his first friend, a lesbian (played by Tania Raymonde) with whom Miller shares both a classroom and bathroom experience, to “get in the closet, Baptist boy” if he is to “plan on ever making friends.” The film plays with this gay/Christian role reversal. At another point, Miller discovers that a character attends church. “You aren’t going to out me,” she worries. These scenes not only set up much of the course of the film’s story, but also solidifies director and screenplay writer, Steve Taylor’s ability to use irony, discomfort and cross-culture encounters to set up laugh-out-loud moments throughout the movie. These moments offer more than just humor and invariably make significant comments about the church and its relationship with the world.

Blue Like Jazz is more than a film about a Christian in a secular college setting. In many ways, it is an allegory for the realities that the rising generation of Christians  must increasingly face in Western society. Church-going Christians are less and less the majority. There is a growing hostility to the church, largely in response to what the church has done or failed to do. Miller, as a representative of the rising generation of church, must figure out what to do with the baggage laid upon him by the past. Miller speaks for many young adult Christians as he reflects on his early experiences at Reed College: “I wake up every day, feeling lost in a sea of individuality.”

Blue Like Jazz, much like the lead character, seeks to straddle the two worlds of “Christian” and “Secular” films. Those who dislike the church will find their voice consistently expressed in a way that will welcome them into the film and make them feel at home. This may, at times, go too far for conservative audiences. Still, these critiques are consistently tempered by characters and scenes that reveal beauty, hope and possibility for the goodness of the church—giving Christians a foothold in the film’s sometimes debaucherous setting. Blue Like Jazz drives its story along the fine line between Christian and secular in a way that seeks to draw both ‘sides’ a bit closer to each other.

Steve Taylor’s film, for all its play along lines of uncertainty, does offer advice for the church. Spoiler alert: When Miller, a clear representative of the church in this pivotal scene, confesses the church’s sins to an anti-church atheist, we see the most significant transformation take place. “Do you forgive me,” he asks, “for misrepresenting God?” In this scene it is unclear whether Miller or the atheist experience deeper transformation, but transformation is there and it is stunning. The moment is fleeting, but will likely be deeply rewarding for Christian and non-Christian alike. In the act of true apology, we see the ice break along the dividing line and hope for deep conversation rises from the frigid waters of contentious, contemporary discourse.

Blue Like Jazz is a playful, rich and deeply honest film with much to say to those both in and outside of the church. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the movie’s ideas or content, it will easily spark conversation and challenge most audiences to consider the perspectives on the church that they themselves do not naturally embrace.

                       Blue Like Jazz opens in theaters, nationwide, on April 13th

This is my review of The Hunger Games for the United Methodist Reporter. It will appear in the printed version next week.

Rather than dull the social commentary for mass consumption, Director Gary Ross sharpens the edge of the popular teen novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins in the screen adaptation that boasts $155 million domestic in its opening weekend. Those who watch The Hunger Games looking only for action, a compelling story and solid entertainment will not be disappointed. This is offered to the audience in spades. Though the film is rife with social commentary, it does not get heavy-handed. Instead it drives the story in ways more apparent in the film than in the book. Though die-hard fans of the popular book series will see this and other differences between the book and movie, none that radically change the storyline. Most will likely find them acceptable or even positive shifts.

The Hunger Games begins with a look at poverty in Collins’ dystopian future—the home of Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) in one of twelve poor districts that provide raw materials, goods and services for the politically dominant Capital population. The visuals of poverty do more to set up the contrast of poor and rich than the written word ever could and Ross takes full advantage.  We witness Katniss hunting in off-limits woods. She’s skilled with a bow and uses these skills to help feed her family. Soon it is revealed that this is day of ‘reaping,’ when a boy and girl from each of the twelve districts is selected by drawing to compete in a competition to the death—the Hunger Games.

While district residents dread selection, those in the capital relish the Hunger Games for its spectacle, drama and entertainment. The sickening reality of entertainment at the death of children is held up consistently through the movie. When Katniss’ twelve year-old sister is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to compete instead. Here, again, director Ross takes advantage of film in a way that books fall short. At the selection of children for the Hunger Games, a representative of the capital announces them triumphantly, expecting applause. The revolt of the district’s silent response is aurally stunning while their faces silently scream for revolution. Katniss is soon whisked away to the Capitol with Peeta Mallark (played by Josh Hutcherson), a boy we later learn has had a crush on Katniss for years.

After training, interviews and various demonstrations, twenty-four children are placed in a futuristic, forested coliseum. Director Gary Ross, actors Jennifer Lawrence and Lenny Kravitz (who plays Cinna, Katniss’ stylist) do an incredible job conveying the fear felt by Katniss Everdeen before being thrust into the arena. I felt the fear and anticipation in my body—along with, I presume, the rest of the theater. After an excruciatingly exciting countdown, the children are thrust into the game and after each other.

The violence is shown in quick motion, with minimal blood and gore. It spares the audience from being overwhelmed until you think for two seconds about what is being portrayed. The knowledge that this is a depiction of children killing children was enough to make me shift uncomfortably in my seat. This, I’m sure, is a part of the filmmakers’ intent: to set the audience continually ill at ease.

The Hunger Games continually asks questions of its audience. The director offers especially poignant challenge after the death of one of Katniss’ allies. While rising up from the now lifeless body of her young friend, she looks accusingly through the camera to the audience as if to ask, ‘does this amuse you?’ Director Ross and author Collins challenge the ways we are entertained by violence while serving up plenty of portions. It became clear to me that if I were to truly listen to the message of the movie, I should stop watching. And yet I don’t…I can’t because I am held captive—revealing something about myself that I perhaps don’t want to see. The Hunger Games continually walks an interesting line—critiquing questionable norms in our society while simultaneously pandering to them. I believe that this irony is intentional—and brilliant.

Because it seems to foreign and absurd, the alien costumes and strange appearances of the capital residents and impressive technology helps us to identify with the district heroine, Katniss Everdean. She becomes the heroine that we all root for and with whom most audiences will identify. This, too, offers an ironic twist for wealthy audiences who are far more like capital residents than those of the district. In the course of the book and movie, I caught myself co-opting Katniss Everdean as if her story is my own. I’m honestly not sure if this is a good thing or not—but it seems like a very “capital” thing for me to do in the The Hunger Games world.

I stepped out of the movie theater at the North Park Mall, situated in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas—one of the wealthiest in the world. I’m surrounded by botoxed men and women, shoppers wearing outfits that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. There are more blonde women than could be normal anywhere outside of Sweden. Makeup, expensive jewelry, plastic surgery and ignorance or indifference to the real plight fo the poor surround me. I am a member of a society reminiscent of the Capital in The Hunger Games. Not many movies encourage that level of reflection and realization. The Hunger Games is a must-see for anyone who wants to stay current on contemporary culture or speak to the questions raised by this well-executed movie.

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