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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

Image

, 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. 

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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.

I’m a cynic, Jesus follower and a bit of a populist.  I view most big businesses with a pretty negative eye.  I’m used to corporate greed.  I’m not used to Home Depot.

We pulled into Home Depot to pick up some supplies—yes, I said pulled in. Three weeks ago, the tornado’s malice turned Joplin’s Home Depot into rubble.  Macabre winds made a victim of the store’s manager as well.

“I lost my house.  I was afraid I had lost my job too,” said one employee.   As soon as it was over, Home Depot, began rebuilding.  I asked a couple employees why and their mission was clear ‘we have to rebuild so that we can help others rebuild.’  In the two weeks it took to get an operational drive-through, Home Depot told all of its employees not to worry—you have a job, take 3 weeks and know that you will be paid as if you worked for those three weeks.    All 97 employees received three weeks paid time off.

Thanks, Home Depot, for doing the right thing.  I hope that others follow your lead.

I’ve never seen trees with scars—if we can call them that.  Scars seem to suggest that the majority of the skin is healthy with only the occasional mark.  What do we call skin that is nothing but scar?  That’s what the trees are like in Joplin.

But not just the trees.  The landscape is like this too—all scars.

I didn’t understand the word devastation until I came to Joplin.  Most people marvel at the statistics:143 deaths.  I marvel at the opposite.  I examine the homes and instead marvel that anyone survived.  The tornado swirls a home into a pile of splinters.  How do you survive that?

Under mattresses, in basements, clutching to loved ones.

Most residents of Joplin call themselves and their town lucky.

-lucky that they survived

-lucky that their family is alive

-lucky they found their daughter’s favorite Dora

-lucky that the tornado hit during graduation, when much of the town was out of the tornado’s path (the high school was not)

Some weren’t lucky.  Some were downright cursed.

The people of Joplin are scarred by their memory as well.  For now, most choose to look at the healthy skin that remains.  And that inspires me.

I I took this picture on the second day of work in Joplin.  We met a man at a pile of broken lumber, twisted trees, insulation and possessions.  Three weeks ago it had been his home.  Our mission: find baby pictures.  The tenant’s son died (not in the tornado) at nine months old.  The father had found the urn.  We were searching for pictures and personal affects so that the parents would have something to remember their son by.  These were his son’s shoes.  They had made their way out of a box and on top of the rubble.  It took four hours, seven volunteers and one crane (to remove two trees), but we found three pictures, these shoes and a copy of the newspaper with his son’s obituary.  The father  celebrated.  I hid my tears.

Joplin, MO

 

 

This past week, I took a handful of college students up to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to walk a prayer labyrinth.  I walked the labyrinth looking for direction about some upcoming decisions.  At times, I’ve been trying to make things happen and was curious if I was supposed to make them happen or just see what happens.  As I began walking the labyrinth, my thought began to quickly wander.  I’m not typically good at this naval-gazing spiritual reflection stuff.  By the time I made it to the center, I had calmed the random thoughts and focused on one thing: ‘how do I lead a meaningful discussion about the labyrinth experience when this is over.’   I walked into the labyrinth looking for discussion points and had forgotten to reflect on my question–my spiritual need.  So I told myself (or God told me), ‘stop planning, just be.’  In a flash, I realized that God had just answered the question that led me to the labyrinth in the first place–am I working to hard to make things happen?

Similar to my experience walking into the labyrinth, it seems to me that many pastors (by which I mean, myself) read the scriptures looking for talking points.  We hone in on the meaty stuff, ignore the stuff that won’t obviously connect with our people and, I believe, frequently miss the bigger picture and beauty of the scripture.  If I hadn’t caught myself, I’m not sure I would have ever opened myself to God to hear the message.  There might be a sermon in there.

Conversations with the students afterwards was great.  Here are some highlights of our insights together:

  • The longest, uninterrupted pathways were the ones that were the farthest from the center.  In order to stay close to the center, you have to keep turning and changing direction.
  • Entry into the center was a surprise.  The end of the journey into the center happens very suddenly from the outside of the circle when we thought we were far away.
  • It’s hard to tell where we are on our journey…how close or far away.  It’s even harder to tell where other people are on their path–even if we know who started before or after us.
  • “My feet were deliberately walking along a particular direction for the first time in a long time.  Usually I just lollygag my way around.”  Seems to be true of real life as well.
  • There is only one path.  That being said, we can choose to ignore the lines, jump to a different spot on the path or just go straight to the center.  OR, we can follow the path layed out before us which was (literally) difficult to see at times.  We wondered how many people missed some of the pathway lines and ended up back in the middle after thinking they were on their way out.  IF we chose to ignore the lines, intersting outcomes can happen, but we all saw how cheap of an experience it would be to simply walk into the middle and then walk out.
  • At one point, one person got lonely, abandoned his path, put an arm around me and started walking with me.  At first, I was annoyed. ‘didn’t he listen to the rules?  This is supposed to be a solo journey.’  Then I realized, ‘this is cool…he abandoned his path to walk with me because he didn’t want to be lonely.  I should be willing to work with that.’  We walked togehter for a bit.  Eventually, he decided to let go and walk on his own again. 

If you’ve never walked a labyrinth before, make sure to give it a try and experience what it is to wander in the direction of God.

In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t been in ministry that long.  I have, however, been in appointive ministry long enough to hear two baby bishops make grand promises about a change in the way appointments are made–an end to systems that ensure pastors climb the ladder…and end to appointments that take salary into account yadda yadda.  I’ve heard two new bishops make promises to lead the appointment system the way we all know is *should* be instead of the way it always has been.  Both times, I was disappointed.

Somehow, I have hope this time.  Bishop Lowry has issued his own little manifesto for the Central Texas Conference of the UMC.  I no longer serve in that conference, but did several years ago and felt that it was two generations away from anything that could be fixed. 

Then Lowry comes in and actually says the stuff that pastors (until he came around) got into all sorts of trouble from the cabinet for saying.  He starts to discuss controversial issues (in the Annual Conference that tables indefinitely ANY slightly controversial resolutions).  He challenged the Board of Trustees at Texas Wesleyan to start acting like a religious school (the mere fact that he showed up for a Trustee meeting was revolutionary as the previous two bishops never did).  He challenged the status quo which, it seems, is what Central Texas Conference was all about.  And now he does this:

He declares war on the good ole boy network and he did it in a way that was authentic, honest and confessing.  He laid it all out there–including the known vacancies for appointments–and encouraged pastors to contact their DS if they felt called to one of the positions. 

It looks like there might be a Maverick in town to clean up the cowboys (and hopefully let a couple Cowgirls into the saloon).   I’m praying for his efforts and God’s success.

I had the best afternoon at work today.  I watched three hours of Freaks n Geeks episodes and wrote discussion questions to go with the episodes.  THAT’s how awesome my job is!

For those of you who don’t know, Freaks n Geeks was an AMAZING show that ran at the turn of the millenia.  It was one of the first things I ever saw that revealed high school as it truly is…for the outcasts.  Our youth group has been watching episodes on Sunday nights and then talking about it afterwards.  It’s been a great, low-key study that gets people to talk about what they actually experience in school and at home.  Here’s the biggest reason I show it to my youth group:

Jesus spent most of his times with the freaks and / or geeks of his time.  We talk about how Jesus hung out with the “wrong crowd”, but I don’t think we acknowledge very often just what a bunch of freaks Jesus spent time with!  Zealot = freak.  Boanerges = cool name, but still pretty freaky.  the bickering brothers = freak.  John the Baptist = total raging lunatic freak!  Camel hair?!  Do you know how disgusting that probably was?  Don’t tell me that eating locusts was any better of an idea then than it is now! 

If we want to see what Jesus could do in this world, we need to spend time with the freaks and geeks of our time.  My church is in Plano, TX.  Everything in our

 surrounding culture tells teens to NOT stick out in any way.  Freaks and Geeks can be used in subvert this culture and replace it with some gospel ideals.  I’ve noticed that there are two big themes that run through our discussions:

  1. Should Lindsay (a “good kid”…like most of our youth group) spend time with the “freaks” of her school even though they do things that “good kids” shouldn’t do?
  2. Can I embrace my inner freak and / or geek?

I hope that, by the end of the series, most of our youth group will answer “yes” to both questions.

If you haven’t seen FREAKS and GEEKS, rent it or buy it.  Also, if you want to see some possible discussion questions, leave a comment and I’ll send a copy to you.

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