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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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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.

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.

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.

A couple months ago, the pastor of the Fellowship Churches (Ed Young) in our area received national publicity for challenging his married congregation members to have sex every day for a week to increase the intimacy within marriages.  Pastors and laypeople all over the Dallas area responded with laughter or disgust to the challenge. 

In the spirit of judgment and competition that are incredibly healthy fodder for true conversation, I’ve decided to award some points.

+10 cahones points for showing some “cahones” (not showing his cahones…that would have been super negative points) and talking about sex in church.  Sex is an important thing for Christianity.  Every other chapter in the Bible has someone having sex with someone else they should or should not (usually it’s should not) have been gettin’ it on with.  The Bible is sexy…our churches should be too.  (grand total: 10)

+2 clever points  Young preached the sermon while lounging on a bed.  (grand total: 12) 

-2 clever points  The bed had satin sheets.  You can sometimes get a little too clever and spend way too much money on a gimmick that could have been used to feed about 100 guys at Austin St shelter for a week.  (total: 10)

-10 gimmick points  Ed Young acknowledged in the Dallas Morning News that this was done, in part, to pick up publicity.  Eddie, Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.  It’s one thing to do something in the hope that it will get noticed and impact the world, but you should NEVER do something just to get publicity!  It’s crap like that that destroys the church’s credibility (and if you do do something for publicity, you really shouldn’t say that to the press)  (total: 0)

+7 breaking expectations points  Most people think that the church is against sex or that the church thinks sex is bad.  Young did a good job helping his church and many others to see that the church isn’t against sex.  Sex is one of God’s greatest gifts!  The very first commandment that God issues to creation is to have sex (okay…the actual quote is “be fruitful and multiply,” but if you think about it for 1.2 seconds, it’s a command to have sex).  (total: 7)

-4 should have done more points  At the end of the day, I’m not sure that Ed Young really took the message far enough.  As my senior pastor said it, “dogs can have sex every day for a week–that doesn’t make them more intimate.”  Intimacy is far more than sex.  While Young alluded to this, I think THAT should’ve been the thrust of his series.  Intimacy takes far more than sex.   (total: 3)

-.5  it makes me nervous points  I have not been able to watch the ENTIRETY of what was said around the worship services on the 7 days of sex challenge.  I hope and pray that SOMEWHERE in there, he told his congregation that marriage is not a blank check for sex whenever one member of the couple wants it.  That understanding of marriage is dangerous and illegal.  It is possible for a spouse to rape a spouse.  Sex must always be consensual and desired by both parts of a couple.  I would give this a LOT more negative points if I knew he said that marriage means being willing to have sex all the time and I would give a LOT more positive points if I knew he talked about this.  Anyone out there know?  (total:2.5)

So there it is:  2.5 points to Ed Young for his seven days of sex challenge.  Is this a good score?  I’m not sure.  The scale is virginal and arbitrary.  Time will tell if 2.5 is a good score on my SCALE OF JUDGMENT (said in scary voice)

Right now our church is doing a series on intimacy.  I’ll post some more about it as time goes on. 

Peace!

My wife and I went Christmas shopping yesterday at NorthPark mall which is in one of the most stupidly rich places in the world.  It was crazy crowded to the point that people were driving oon the curbs and onto the green areas around the mall.  My hunch:  the mall was so crowded because this is the one time a year all the Park Cities people with Hummers actually have the chance to take advantage of their car’s height by driving up the curb.

After picking up a couple presents (does it count as “re-gifting” if you buy a present for someone else with a gift card that you received or is it just “thrifty”), we went to see Frost / Nixon.  (Overall, good movie that made us think even though it drags at times).

I was struck, while watching the movie, by the importance of an apology.  All, it seems, that Frost and his team needed was an apology–an admission of guilt and some sense of remorse.  The success of the interviews and DAvid Frost all hinged on a simple admission of guilt.  At the end, that’s all that came.  (spoiler alert).  Frost didn’t berate Nixon–either on camera or in personal conversation later.  

I found myself wondering, why.  Why is that enough?  Why is that so needed?  Did the American people need to see that Nixon hurt?  Maybe, but I think there’s something deeper.

In order to heal, the wounds sometimes have to be exposed and acknowledged.  America and the world needed to hear from Nixon an acknowledgment of what he had done.  Until he did that, the nation couldn’t really heal.  Although Nixon never recovered from the shame of his actions, Clinton has bounced back from the shame and scandal of his presidencybecause eventually he was honest about it all.  South Africa is doing far better as a nation than so many other African governments that have overthrown their regimes because SOuth Africa formed a Truth and Reconciliation committee that got those who hurt others to admit their wrongs.

Public confession help heal the wounds of society.  President Bush is moving back into Park Cities area of Dallas and will likely attend one of its United Methodist Churches.  Maybe, just maybe, someone in one of our churches can nurture and love him to a place of public confession.

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