Category Archives: Methodist

The Facebook Effect & The Court Prophets of Old (Testament)

I don’t usually post sermon manuscripts/transcripts, but since our audio recording isn’t currently working I prepped this one and thus share it here for anyone with the grace to read the whole thing!
Prior to this sermon, we watched the following BBC video on Vimeo: “The Social Media Echo Chamber”

1 – The Facebook Effect: Social Media “Echo Chambers”

Let me begin with a caveat: as a later part of Generation X, I am a digital migrant, not a digital native. I remember thinking, when I came to NAU in the Fall of 1993 and was assigned an email address, “no one is going to use email!” (You could argue I was right, as now no one does use it but texts everything!) Similarly, I was slow to join Facebook or Social Media. In fact, it was my Worship Design Team that first goaded me on to the platform. They routinely shared that “the Bishop is on Facebook;” they finally got me to join when they declared, “you wife is on Facebook!”

Anyway, I turn to Facebook and social media as modern technologices that have accelerated a tendency of human behavior has existed for some time. In fact, it may be a natural tendancy for us, hard wired into our human condition. I’m referring to our choice to self-select
• groups we belong to,
• people we discuss things with, and
• the type of media we consume.
And, more specifically, we generally self-select such to correspond with our existing perspectives.

While this emerged last year in more and more discussions, it is not a new thing. In some minimal research this week, I discovered articles from the 1990s about such “echo chambers” related to media consumption, at that time focusing on talk radio shows. But the advent and explosive growth of social media have perhaps made these tendencies more observable and relevant.

According to tech blog Ars Technica, the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States) recently undertook a study of the Facebook activity of 376 million(!) English-speaking users:

The authors found that Facebook users typically interact with a small number of news outlets. Users tend to confine their activity to a limited set of pages. These behaviors allow news consumption on Facebook to be dominated by selective exposure, meaning that people are most often exposed to news sources that reinforce their existing opinions. Though social media critics have been making this claim for a while, the authors’ quantification of this behavior adds strong empirical evidence to the argument.
“The Social Media ‘Echo Chamber’ is Real”; via Ars Technica

A Wikipedia article about echo chambers points out that “people trust evidence supplied by their own social group, more than they do the news media,” and goes on to share that,

“Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism.”

I found that term, tribalism, intriguing because of conversations I’ve had with Brooke Isingoma. Some of you know Brooke; she was formerly a member here at Trinity Heights and after completing PHD studies in Africa she is now pasturing in Paige while she finishes her dissertation on African Christianity.

Brooke and I have talked some about tribalism. A key negative characteristic she identifies about tribalism, one that is radically different from our cultural experience, is the expectation and pressure toward conformity. Whether it be chosen freely or forced on members of the tribe, they are expected to conform to social behaviors, expectations, and norms. The way Brooke describes this emphasis, it is a radically different experience from our American norm of individualism, where we tend to emphasize the importance of the individual over that of the community.

Social Media Echo Chambers, and our tendency to self-select groups or media that reinforce our perspectives, present a problem to us. They limit our worldview and perspective. They may even prevent us from being challenged to hear the divine voice speaking to us!

I believe part of the solution to these echo chambers occurs somewhere between the over-emphasis on individualism of our culture and the conformity expected within others. But before I get to a potential solution, I want to share a few Biblical examples of the echo chamber. Then I’ll share some Biblical insight we can turn to in choosing how to respond.

2 – The Court Prophets of Old (Testament)

1 Kings 12 tells a story about King Rehoboam, son of Solomon and grandson of David. As Rehoboam is coming to power, the people send for exiled Jeroboam to be a spokesperson to him. They share with Rehoboam:

“Your father made our workload very hard for us…”

Let me pause for a moment of context. When Samuel, considered the last of the judges and first of the prophets, is approached by the people demanding a king, he prophesizes to them all of the bad things the king may do, including their oppression. Still, the people insist they want a king, so that they can “be like the other nations around us.” It is in King Solomon’s reign that Samuel’s prophecy comes to fruition; as Solomon does all of the things Samuel had warned the people about. As a result, they felt oppressed by their own king, and were frustrated. Back to the story of the people coming to Rehoboam:

“Your father made our workload very hard for us.” If you will lessen the demands your father made of us and lighten the heavy workload he demanded from us, then we will serve you.” He answered them, “Come back in three days.” So the people left.

King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon when he was alive. “What do you advise?” Rehoboam asked. “How should I respond to these people?”

“If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today,” they replied, “then they will be your servants forever.”

But Rehoboam ignored the advice the elders gave him and instead sought the counsel of the young advisors who had grown up with him and now served him. “What do you advise?” he asked them. “How should we respond to these people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the workload your father demanded of us’?”

The young people who had grown up with him said to him, “This people said to you, ‘Your father made our workload heavy; lighten it for us!’ Now this is what you should say to them: ‘My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist! So if my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!’”

Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam on the third day, just as the king had specified when he said, “Come back to me in three days.” The king then answered the people harshly. He ignored the elders’ advice and instead followed the young people’s advice. He said, “My father made your workload heavy, but I’ll make it even heavier! My father disciplined you with whips, but I’ll do it with scorpions!”
(1 Kings 12, selections, CEB)

I want to point out that “the young people who had grown up with him” and offer him advice offer it from a perspective similar to his own. They have only known the reign of King Solomon; they do not remember the kingdom as it existed during David’s tenure. They probably even know similar experiences as children of the elite. And so they fan Rehoboam’s ego, encourage his natural inclination to being “better” than his predecessor. And, as a result, the kingdom of Israel, united in no small part because of David’s efforts, splits into two kingdoms; neither of which are to have a great history from that point forward.

There is a similar story in 1 Kings 22, where Israel’s King Ahab has surrounded himself with 400 court prophets who seem to share his perspective.  Judah’s King Jehosaphat comes to visit, and they discuss a region (Ramoth-gilea) that had been within Israel’s borders but had been taken over by another country:

So Israel’s king gathered about four hundred prophets, and he asked them, “Should I go to war with Ramoth-gilead or not?” “Attack!” the prophets answered. “The Lord will hand it over to the king.”

But Jehoshaphat said, “Isn’t there any other prophet of the Lord whom we could ask?” “There is one other man who could ask the Lord for us,” Israel’s king told Jehoshaphat, “but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, only bad. His name is Micaiah, Imlah’s son.”

Note that King Ahab already critiques Micaiah because he isn’t a “yes man” like the other court prophets. Jehosphat convinces Ahab to send for Micaiah:

Meanwhile, the messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Listen, the prophets all agree that the king will succeed. You should say the same thing they say and prophesy success.”

But Micaiah answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, I will say only what the Lord tells me to say.”

When Micaiah arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, should we go to war with Ramoth-gilead or not?”

“Attack and win!” Micaiah answered. “The Lord will hand it over to the king!”

But the king said, “How many times must I demand that you tell me the truth when you speak in the name of the Lord?”

Then Micaiah replied, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd! And then the Lord said: They have no master. Let them return safely to their own homes.”

Then Israel’s king said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you? He never prophesies anything good about me, only bad.”
(1 Kings 22, selections, CEB)

Guess who Ahab listens to? Yes, the 400 court prophets, instead of Micaiah. As a result, Ahab goes in to battle at Ramoth-Gilead, but he takes a precaution to dress not as a king but as a common soldier. Even so, while the enemy seems to focus its energies on Jehosaphat, dressed as king, a stray arrow strikes and kills Ahab, leaving the people of Israel without a leader.

Jeremiah 28 gives another example, where the Jeremiah squares off with the court prophet Hananaiah, who is sharing with the king and officials they should not fear the Babylonian exile because it will only last for a few years.
There’s a well-known verse elsewhere in Jeremiah that touches on these echo chambers, where kings and officials only listened to the prophets that spoke positively. In Jeremiah 8, he shares God’s critique of such:

…prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
(Jeremiah 8:20b-11, NIV)

3 – Responding to Modern Echo Chambers

I find some biblical guidance in how to respond from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I have portions of this letter at the start of my journal precisely beause of the wsdom here shown.

First, we are invited to “live worthy of the calling”

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.
(Eph. 4:1, CEB)

There are a variety of aspects to our calling in Christ. But the one that first came to mind has to do with how we will be identified, and called, as God’s people. In Matthew 5, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares:

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
(Matthew 5:9, NIV)

As followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to be peacemakers. We are told we will be called and known as children of God when we seek to build and live in peace.

Paul continues this same thought, when he encourages us to “live in unity”

Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. (Eph. 4:2-6, CEB)

Paul emphasizes that we are called to live in unity, not uniformity. I think this is the healthy middle ground between individualism and conformity. In seeking unity, we recognize and value our individuality while also emphasizing and valuing community, and our part within it. Remember, Paul routinely refers to our connections in community in terms of a “body,” where all parts are connected and important.
Further, I read in Paul an encouragement to us to “speak, and listen, in love”

In Christ, called to grow up, to speak the truth to one another, in love: we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. (Eph. 4:14-16, CEB)
Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. (Eph. 4:25, CEB)

Not only are we encouraged, as we seek to grow up in Christ, to speak the truth in love, but Paul goes on to share how we do so:

Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. (Eph, 4:29-32)

Rule 3 of our family’s six rules is related to this, “use kind words in a kind voice.” We are reminded that our language is powerful, and Paul encourages us to speak truthfully, but also to avoid foul words; to avoid speaking evil and only that which helps build others up. To put aside negative things like bitterness, anger, slander, and choose to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving.

I believe that this applies not only to speaking but also to listening (in love). Not only is this a relevant application of both Ephesians and other Scripture, but it is also a strategy recommended by others who are studying and writing about filter bubbles. A solution to overcome filter bubbles is to listen to others, particularly those with different perspectives than our own.

The book of James addresses this well, too, in 1:19:

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters:
everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.
(James 1:19, CEB)

Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. Those are wise words, but it seems to me that in too much of modern discourse we flip that on its head and choose to pursue the opposite: quick to anger, quick to speak, slow to listen… If we could choose to follow James’ exhortation, perhaps we’d have more civil dialogue and be able to expand our perspectives.

I want to share a recent experience that illustrates both the good and ugly of speaking and listening.

A couple summers ago, I attended a special summer course at Asbury Theological School in Kentucky. Going to Asbury was a step outside of my usual comfort zone; I’m generally centrist, and going to an enclave known for evangelical conservatism was a bit of an uncomfortable shift for me. But I went because I knew one of the two professors leading the course on Wesleyan theology (something that interests me).

I feel blessed to claim Dr. Phil Meadows as a colleague and friend (I won’t speak as to whether he might claim me as such). I’ve known Phil since he was my professor of Wesleyan Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Phil and I do not agree on all things – in fact, if we were to take a tally of theological, ideological, and social perspectives, we probably hold varied perspectives on many.

But we both do agree on the foundational importance of Scripture, and take the Bible very seriously. We both believe in the high value of our Wesleyan heritage and theology, and believe there is insight in our heritage to lead us in our contemporary settings. Yet we may come to different conclusions from these common starting points.

That said, Phil remains to me an inspiration in relation to evangelism and ministry. Today he splits his time between the INSPIRE Movement in England and Asbury. So I went to this class knowing that though we might have some disagreements, overall there was much that I find in common with Phil and how he seeks to follow Jesus Christ in the company of John Wesley. And Phil didn’t disappoint me; his lectures and classes were well thought and well presented.

However, that wasn’t my experience with his colleague. The other professor also had good content and ideas, some of which I am still intrigued by and exploring; but his approach was salted with negatives. Whether from anger or self-righteousness, his speech was peppered that week with derogatory, denigrating comments for those with other opinions, including leaders, liberals, and any Methodist in the Western Jurisdiction. Even if this professor had good content, it was colored, to me, because of the way in which he presented it.

We’re called and exhorted, as followers of Christ, to speak and listen in love. To be quick to listen, slow to speak, and (dare I say) slow-er to anger. I believe that if we can find ways to listen, to invite others to share their perspective in similar loving ways, we can broaden our understanding of one another, of our world, and even of God. (We all seem but in a mirror, dimly, after all.)

In closing, I believe an early portion of Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata speaks well both to living in unity and to listening and speaking in love:

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

(And thank you for listening to me.)

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Mark, Matthew, and Luke walk into this coffee shop…

Now that we’ve used it twice, I doubt we’ll be returning to this script any time in the near future, so I thought I’d share the Easter Sunday worship script I wrote with the youth of Trinity Heights U.M.C. We first wrote and presented this in 2015, and again this year…

Enjoy!

A Script For Easter

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 4: Death and Failure

4. Death and Failure

Before we get to Part 5, where the hope is (and, unfortunately, the portion I may not get to for a while), there are two other ways that this frenetic spirit seems to manifest in this story:

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:25-28, NRSV)

So much happens so quickly here. Jesus exorcises the demon, but since the disciples had failed in the same task, and because the father has likely seen others make the same attempt, the terrible convulsion that follows may not have seemed any different than past experiences. But then the boy seems “like a corpse,” and they believe him dead. One of our greatest anxieties pokes his head into the story. (I say one of because I once heard Jerry Seinfeld reference a study that indicated people were more afraid of public speaking than death, suggesting that if at a funeral we’d rather be the one in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy.)

The specter of death seems to drive so much of our behavior. I’ve read we often spend more in medical care in the last months of a person’s life than in their entire life to that point. Poet Dylan Thomas wrote, as his father lay dying, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In Act 3 of Hamlet, Shakespeare gives its titular character the following lines, reflecting on the fear of death:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

While some people strong in faith have, perhaps, faced death well(1), our own mortality seems a universal anxiety that we struggle with from time to time…

And so, too, is the specter of failure. We idolize success, and often look down upon failure. So, when the disciples ask Jesus about why he could cast out this spirit and they could not, they are struggling with their own failure.

It’s important to note that earlier in the Gospel of Mark the disciples were not only given authority and power to act out demons (Mark 3:13-15; 6:7), but they actually have some success!

13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:13, NRSV)

But now they are faced with the question; why, when something worked before, did it not work now? Why did they fail?

Sadly, I think too many of our churches seem to be asking the same question in some form or other these days…

We are so afraid of failure that sometimes it immobilizes us from trying. At least in the disciples’ defense, they made some attempt at casting out this demon, unsuccessful though they may have been. What have we left undone, untried, or un-risked because we feared failure?


(1) There’s an article at Seedbed about how members of my “tribe” once faced death with perhaps more contentment and dignity than we do today.

Think on These Things…

An earnest young woman begins to pray:

“Father God, we are so glad to be here. Thank you, Father God. We just want to give you praise…”

And somewhere behind it begins, the subtle under-the-breath comments:

“Here we go, ‘Father God?’”
“Oh, and add in a little, ‘I just wanna’…”

“Father God, we just want to express to you what is in our hearts…”

All the while, subtle critiques may continue of her theological articulateness or, perhaps worse, the appropriateness of her shorts.**

Or perhaps it is later on, in the sermon, when a preacher shares something akin to “Of course, we would never know what taking a day off is like, would we clergy?” or “but your church members think you only work a couple hours on Sunday, right?”

I would guess that these are not uncommon experiences. Likely whomever you are reading this can point to an experience – likely recently! – where some comment or conversation had a subtle, or not-so-subtle, negativity in it.

I learned somewhere along the way – whether I practice it well or not – that sarcasm is a form of (veiled?) violence. (I think it was in Stephen Ministry training, actually.) It is a way of couching negative, even hurtful statements, in a socially acceptable way. And yet I don’t think I can go a day without encountering – or, perpetuating – it.

I also routinely run in to cynicism, so prevalent in our age. The dictionary defines it as “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; skepticism.” I heard a great definition of it recently; but unfortunately at that time I wasn’t carrying my journal and didn’t write it down, so it is lost in the recesses of my memory…

Actually, my journal is part of why I’m reflecting on this today. Before traveling to Oregon last week for a conference, I grabbed the journal that I used to regularly keep, but haven’t written in since the day Gracie died in 2010.

As in many of my other Journals, the first few pages are a selection of Scriptures to help focus my attention in meditation/prayer, as well as the General Rules of the United (Methodist) Societies, and The Desiderata (by Max Plank). Among all of these, on the first page, are five translations of Philippians 4:8, which have been influencing my meditation today:

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (NIV)

“you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (MSG)

“if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is worthy of praise” (CEB)

In addition, one line in the Desiderata so wisely shares:

“Speak your truths quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant;
they too have their story.”

(I am reminded, though I cannot find a source to cite whether it is true or not, that I once heard that John Wesley said or wrote that we should be willing to humbly listen to others, for we have something to learn even from the poorest of preachers.)

How often do I allow my own thoughts, opinions, or preferences to blind me to the earnest expressions of another? How often do I subtly or overtly criticize another? How often do I do violence to another through my choice of words, or tone, or how I respond to them?

As this annual gathering of clergy continues, one of the topics that has arisen between us is how to have conversations around difficult and divisive issues. What strikes me as imperative for such to occur – whether in our churches or anywhere – is to do away with the weapons of violence we all to often wield in order to win arguments or proselytize others to our perspective. Sarcasm and cynicism must needs be set aside if we are truly to talk with one another; we need to remember our first rule “first, by doing no harm” and live out the “higher calling” Paul reminds us of in Ephesians 4:2, being “humble and gentle… patient, bearing with one another in love,” to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Again, all citations at the front of my Journal – wise words to reflect on, from a younger me. Journaling is kind of like time-travelling, you know?!)

So let me close by sharing a short prayer I found myself writing earlier:

Lord, deliver me from these forms of subtle negativity, criticism, and cynicism
that masquerade as humor or critique.
Lead me to see the good and pure and holy, and encourage such in others. Amen.

**Just a side note, as I do realize that sometimes we oversimplify faith and/or God in prayer. I don’t know how anyone could do any better with skewering how our simplicities or preferences emerge in the language we might use than Will Ferrel’s prayer in Taladega Nights

Our “Order”

I have been at the annual “Gathering,” this week, a yearly event where all clergy of our annual conference are expected to gather together. In fact, according to discipline, since there is a gathering of the “orders” at the event, it is technically as mandatory as annual conference. But clergy attendance varies from year to year, and looking around I can identify many who aren’t present; and based on conversation I can empathize with them, as even those here question whether the outcomes are great enough to validate the investment.

I have experienced some good fellowship and discussion with clergy colleagues this week. And I have appreciated the willingness of three of our clergy to engage us in conversation about preaching. But like years past, the event has been lacking in some areas, especially publicity (at my covenant group in late January, half did not even know the Gathering was coming up[!], and 80% aren’t here as a result) and planning.

My critiques aside, part of the purpose of this annual event is to gather the Orders, in accordance with changes to our Discipline over a decade ago. And the question has been raised, yet again this year, about what it means to be an “order,” and how might we foster deeper identity and connection with one another.

So I’ve been thinking about the questions, and here are a few of my rambling thoughts.

First, we need to claim our identity as a religious order within a quasi-order of the Church. Let me unpack this going backwards…

The Church, of course, is all those united by “one faith… one baptism… one Lord… one hope…” The capital-C Church is comprised of all people through time and space who, through the work and grace of Jesus Christ, seek to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength (what is the plural of strength?); those who seek to follow Jesus Christ’s example and command to “love one another” and “love our neighbor as ourselves…”

Within the Church, I would suggest that Methodists exist as a a quasi-order (and here I refer to the Methodists in these sense of a movement, not as institutional denominations). Methodists are like a religious order because, in addition to the unity we know in our common mission to see faith working in love, we agree to be bound by a rule of life, the so-called “three simple rules”:
do no harm,
do good,
use the means God has given to experience and grow in grace…

It is within these contexts that clergy are grouped into “orders,” be it the “order of deacons,” or the “order of elders.” (Local pastor’s are united in a “fellowship,” and short of reading a copy of the Discipline, which I do not have, I could not define the difference.)

Like other orders religious, Elders in the UMC already have a kind of “rule” by which we will live. (So why do we need to draft a new one?) Through the seemingly never-ending process and experience of ordination, we agree to a mutual way of life and, thus, we enter into an “order” with one another. (I think I’ll reflect more on our mutual rule of life together at a later date…)

According to the 2004 Book Of Discipline (I found the quote online, for anyone wondering why I can find it but not define why local pastors are in a fellowship):
“An order is a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church.” (2004 BOD ¶306)

So how do we deepen our connections to one another, that we can “mutually support, care for, and hold accountable” one another? By mandating meetings, gatherings, or covenant groups? Can anyone seriously think that drafting a covenant in committee and voting upon it will deepen our sense of identity and connection as an “order”?

A local church does not grow by telling people they should be a part. A local church grows because the people are being so inspired and transformed that they want to participate and invite others.

If we truly want to grow in our sense of being part of an order, we need to find and foster means of coming together that are “can’t miss,” not because you’re in trouble if you do, but because you realize how much you miss out if you do.

People in a small group does not grow because the pastor tells everyone to be in one. People in a small group grow because they find the joy and transformation of doing life together.

Our connections, be they in “Gatherings” or in covenant groups, cannot be mandated, but must come from the inner drive that we want to do this, that we trust one another and want to share and be encouraged and challenged.

Inner motivation cannot be mandated, it can only be encouraged, and nurtured. Someone has to take responsibility to plant, and then allow someone else to water, feed, prune, etc.

I know that such change cannot come from the top, but nor do I think that helping an existing structure of people learn and embrace a new understanding of life together can simply rise from “grass roots.” Someone needs to be the cheerleader, expressing the vision, encouraging one another to be a part of the new community. And just as the pastor of a local church can articulate and share vision, fellow leaders can take roles in helping to facilitate means for transformation. In terms of our Order, such steps could include:
-Communication of local covenant groups that are open to new clergy members
-Picnic, clergy family camp, and other fun events planned for the families of members of the order
-Reflections on our mutual order of life from members whom we respect, perhaps by blog, or newsletter, or social network, or even social media (eg YouTube)
-Virtual options for connectivity, such as a Facebook page, particularly for members of the order distant from others
-Standing gatherings or meetings of small groups of members of the Order that we can know about and join with to share faith and life together

These are just a few ideas that some leader(s) could take the initiative to help begin to foster a deeper sense of our belonging to an “order” together. I’m sure others can think of or suggest others, but part of the key will be some leader(s) taking responsibility and committing to the work of helping foster a greater understanding of our “order.”

Don’t “Give Up” Something For Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. I’m writing this a few days too late, I fear, but I also am saddened when a technology blog can make an important point about a spiritual tradition that is popularly celebrated in a fundamentally flawed way.

To that end, I want to encourage you: do not “give up” something for Lent. In this season intended for prayer and repentance, some folks wear their spirituality on their sleeve, broadly announcing some form of fast they have taken on to commemorate the 40 days of Lent. My problem with this popular phenomenon is that it misses the point, in essence losing the forest for the trees.

Yes, fasting is a traditional ascetical spiritual practice for the season of Lent. For two millenia, devout Christians have utilized the practice of fasting as a means of growing closer to God. For centuries, good Catholics have avoided meat on the Fridays of Lent in accordance with their church’s practice. For decades, modern Protestants have avoided chocolate or coffee or sugary soda to show they are commemorating the 40 Days of Lent. For years, spiritual progressives have opted to log off Facebook for Lent because it’s what you do…

Do you see what I did there? Granted, I’m being overly simplistic in my analysis, but I think that we’ve lost the true focus of a Lenten discipline being something that helps us to grow closer to God – and, specifically to this season, a discipline that helps us to be aware of our short-fallings and trust God’s grace for forgiveness! In an act that is eerily akin to the general critique of those who are “spiritual but not religious,” we’ve replaced the sincerity and relevance of the act with the ritual.

Frankly, I could argue that we need to “give up” far more than one thing in order to truly give attention to our relationship with God. We are so hyper-scheduled, over-programmed, non-stop-busy, that we actually need to fast and disconnect from many things, learning how to re-align our time with God’s presence and activity in our hearts and world… But I digress…

I am encouraging, asking, begging, even, you not to “give up” something for Lent. Ignore the empty austerity of “giving up” what generally tend to be insignificant things. Instead, I implore you to “take on” something for Lent. Make a commitment to something that matters.

That sounds a bit harder, doesn’t it? We’re all very busy. We’re over-scheduled. We can’t possibly add anything else to our day’s calendar of events…

That’s the lie we tell ourselves, perhaps the single greatest one that we should, in this season of true self-reflection and repentance, confess and repent of. Before our time is ours, it is God’s. We are stewards of what time we have, and to think that we haven’t the time to give attention to growing in love for God does great damage to our spiritual health.

So, don’t “give up” something, take something on to grow in love for God. Granted…

  • If Facebook is such a vice that it becomes a black hole for your time, perhaps you should consider logging off and spending some of that time with God in some other way. But I would encourage you, then, not to just stop there: log off all of your Social Networking or Social Media sites. But, again, it isn’t enough just to stop – you have to actively choose what you replace it with.
  • If you recognize you spend too much time channel flipping/surfing, then by all means a fast from television could be a positive experience for you. (Several years ago, Lynn and I realized this was true for us. Rather than going cold-turkey, we made the conscious decision we would only have the television on for two things during the week: (1) morning news and (2) Friends on Thursday night. In hindsight, perhaps we still missed the mark a bit; but we did find  that season we had more time to read and pray than we had been experiencing…)
  • If there is a fast that can be truly meaningful, and which can help you to connect to the presence of the holy in your life, by all means take that on.

But, generally speaking, I would encourage you to worry less about what you give up and focus more on taking on even just one thing that might help you know God’s love and forgiveness.

Worried you might not have the time? Or know what to do? Consider these options:

  • You can pray as you commute. Find an audio devotional book that you can listen to; check out the podcast for “Pray As You Go,” a ministry of Jesuit Media Initiatives; memorize a short prayer you can say as you sit at a stoplight, or when merging onto the highway, or when someone cuts in front of you…
  • Want to engage the Bible, don’t know where to start? Try a daily devotional. Resources such as The Upper Room or Moravian Daily Texts or even our own United Methodist Church have daily devotionals you can receive online or via email. (The UMC and British Methodist Church both have apps for your smartphone that include daily prayers/devotionals.)
  • Have a few minutes to engage a spiritual practice? There are many ancient practices that can help you grow in love for God and neighbor. Bible reading, daily prayer, spiritual journaling, meditation, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, Ignatian reading…. Find one that engages your intellect, touches your heart, and nurtures your spirit, and God will be present within and through it.
  • Want to go really deep? Get together with two or three Christian friends you truly trust. Engage together in a small group study about the spiritual practices, or use a book about them as the source for discussion and prayer together. Share about your successes and struggles and pray for one another.

In our tradition, we define such spiritual practices as “means of grace,” because they are the ways in which God works in our hearts, in our lives, and through us to transform the world. This Lent, I encourage you not to worry too much about what you will give up, but how you might engage a means of grace to grow in your love for God, for self, for family, for neighbor, and for the world.

Lazy Methodists?

UMC Cross & FlameTwo different thoughts are on my mind this week, related because both touch on what it means (or what people think it means) to be a Methodist.

First, there is an online blog about Methodism that’s been making the rounds – both my wife and Steve Manskar have pointed to an article I think worthy of sharing, asking the question “Are Methodists Lazy?”

It might be an interesting question to consider.

Years ago, I heard the now-tired cliché from denominational leaders that many people explained their choice to be Methodist by saying “I can believe whatever I want.” Although I think such a cavalier attitude toward sound theology is disingenuous to The United Methodist Church at large as well as our constituent congregations, the breadth and openness of our teachings do perhaps lend themselves to such a perspective.

I wonder if the same thing has happened vis a vis the openness of our churches; because anyone _can_ join, perhaps we’ve lost sight of what commitment we make when we do join. Considering the commitments embodied in our history and heritage – from the stories of personal commitment we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, to the many and quite honestly challenging “one another” exhortations of the New Testament, to the dedication to personal and social holiness demonstrated by the early members of the Methodist movement   – I wonder how we shifted to a perspective that it is “easy” to be Methodist.

Did our general perspective shift – that instead of viewing church as what we are together, we came to view church as where we go to see one another?

Did we, somewhere along the way, begin to expect that church should offer more to me than it asks of me?

And, perhaps more importantly, is it unreasonable to think that we can reclaim such deep commitment to God and others? The kind of communal commitment demonstrated by the “primitive church” of Acts (or even of the early Methodists)?

Honestly, I think many (if not all) of us grew up with some incomplete perceptions of the church. If my memory serves me well (which I will admit it may not), as I recall both I and many of my colleagues in seminary had trouble when it came to defining a healthy ecclesiology – that is, a theology of the church. (Some of this had to do with weak pneumatology – our theologies of the Holy Spirit who unites us together as the Body of Christ, the Church, but I digress.) Many of we who were “called out” from among us to be ordained as clergy also struggled with articulating a positive and compelling theology of the Church.

Likely it is a struggle every generation has to contend with – finding ways to overcome the systemic (and resulting theologic) breakdowns of an ever-changing institutional structure, and re-capture a theology of the Church: this one, holy, catholic (universal), apostolic, communal, we-are-all-in-this-together, Body of Christ united primarily by the amazing work and grace of God’s Holy Spirit rather than any mutual race or experience or belief or even creed.

Thankfully, as Genesis 1 reminds us, God speaks into chaos to bring new order, new life. Such is true for the church, as it seems generations repeatedly seek reform and renewal.

And among those efforts for renewal we often find renewed commitment to truly living out a new life in the community. The early Methodists did exactly this: rising to overcome what they saw as a listless religion in the Church of England, they committed themselves (after the example of the early church) “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Through the evolution of the movement Wesley and the Methodists developed bands, classes, and societies in addition to the local churches where they retained membership and attended worship! Methodists were committed, again after the example of the early church, to living life together, to providing from their own resources for those who had need, and to spending much time together.

To be a Methodist initially meant one was committing to a radical life change (as evidenced in the three rules!): not only was one turning away from the sins and temptations that so easily trip us up (“do no harm”), one was actively committing to being in community to support, encourage, and help others seeking to do the same (“do good”) through the same means (“attend to the ordinances of God”).

Sadly, institutional decay and our human tendency to forget our past have contributed to where we are today, perceived as something that one can belong to and be lazy.

I remember, when I attended the School for Congregational Development for the first time back in 2000, that I heard repeatedly that that successful, growing, healthy churches often “raised the bar” regarding their expectations of members. At the time, churches that required more of members seemed to be growing more than others. Perhaps we need to revisit the nature of our commitment, re-articulate what we mean when we commit to being part of the church together.

In his article on the stereotype of “just another lazy Methodist,” blogger Kevin Alton points to some of the commitments our healthy churches are engaged in:

  • Community
  • Mission
  • Personal Growth (“moving on to perfection”)
  • Biblical knowledge

These are just some of the ways people live out their commitment to being a follower of Christ within a local church body. I would suggest they are part of what is an imperative, ever-present tension in a Christian, between faith and works (James 2:25); between pious acts of faith (personal transformation rooted in God’s Spirit) and merciful works of mission (social transformation rooted in God’s Spirit).

All of this leads to the second thought about Methodism rattling around in my head. This past Tuesday evening some members of our church and I watched and discussed a presentation by Rev. Adam Hamilton about “Leadership for the 21st Century Church.” In the midst of the presentation (given to the 2007 School for Congregational Development), Adam said:

“We are a church of the extreme center.
We hold in tension things that others tell you should be pulled apart.”

I’ve referenced this phrase a few times this week, and believe that it gets to the heart of the commitment of being part of a Methodist Church. We allow (invite, even!) different theological viewpoints to be “held in tension” within our churches – from conservative fundamentals to liberal progressive. We “hold in tension” different political or social ideologies – consider that both George Bush and Hilary Clinton were United Methodist! And we seek to “hold in tension” the ongoing reality of works and faith.

To me, true faith in Christ naturally leads to deeper commitments involving tension. To be a Christian is to commit to following one who, being both wholly-human and holy-divine, both illuminates our flaws (conviction) and guides us toward perfection (sanctification). To be a member of a local church is to commit to a communal life with others, connected by the deep binding of the Holy Spirit to strive both individually and collectively to accomplish works of piety and mercy after the example and guidance of Christ.

There are many, deeply life-affecting commitments inherent in being part of the church. But – and this is good news – our imperfection in following any need not alienate us from being part of the community. The wonder of the church, to me, is that beyond calling for and often bringing out our best, the church is also a means of grace. The church is a means by which God is at work in my world – transforming the community for the better, sure, but also transforming me through a constant cycle of calling, conviction, forgiveness, and empowerment.

If you’ve read this far, you might also want to check out “The United Methodist Way” developed by our General Board of Discipleship.