Category Archives: United 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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Why I Want to Quit… But Won’t

Yesterday, someone opened up an old wound. So now I share in the spirit of a quote attributed to Hemingway and Red Smith, “if you want to write, sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” Read at your own risk.

I was the solo pastor of a young but modestly sized church. Lynn was on family leave, as we had two very young children at home – a toddler and an infant. During our time, several new families with similar young children began attending the church. Lynn became friends with a younger woman and her son, close in age to ours. For a few years, this little boy and Will were friends; perhaps the stablest friend he had. They would have play dates, and Will actually asked for and prayed about this other little boy.

Then in a rough season, both in the church and in my family, the woman became angry at me and withdrew from the church. I would not say I was without blame, but her response was exaggerated. The attempts I made to rectify and rebuild the relationship were rebuffed and rejected. The mother stopped connecting with Lynn, and the little boy suddenly disappeared from Will’s life. What hurt me most was that my son was robbed of a friendship because another person though so little of the relationships to begin with.

Over the years, I’ve seen many – too many – people leave church communities, sharing a wide berth of “reasons” why they came to such a “difficult decision.” Some times they seek to assure that it isn’t personal; but, in the end, it always is – because, whatever reason they might give, they are casting off relationship with you, and/or with others with whom you are invested. Beyond people leaving my life, my children have experienced Sunday School teachers and volunteers suddenly disappearing; relationships that were helping them grow suddenly cut asunder. The other night, in a book study, I asked, without answer myself, “have we so commoditized relationships that they are easily tossed aside?”

And so it was yesterday the old wound was opened up again when yet another person stabbed at it with their decision to leave the congregation because they were upset with denominational conflict, in this case movement regarding potential changes in how the church responds to homosexual persons. The same conflict has been going on throughout my ministry, and I’ve had people express their disgust and leave because the church was becoming to libertine or accommodating to culture, and others because the church was not loving or open enough. Recently Lynn and I articulated, as clearly as we could, that we have known people of deep faith with very different positions on issues of sexuality, and as pastors our commitment was to sustaining a community culture where people with diverse opinions could join together pursuing growth in love for God and neighbor. Sadly, this means we are not “committed enough” for those who want change to occur, nor for those opposed to such change.

One of my dilemmas is that I can see the faith, the heart, and the good in people with very different perspectives. Perhaps it is because my life has been blessed with mentors of liberal and conservative leanings – people very radically different in perspective but who still demonstrated love and respect for one another – that I can live with such tension and not insist on certainty from others aligned with my own perspective. I know people coming to radically different conclusions but who start from the same place I do, a deep desire to love God and others. I’m not always at ease with ambiguity, for perhaps none of us ever are. But I can live with the tension of different perspectives, because I know they arise from people with strong relationships with God and others. But others can’t, or won’t, and sever their connections with others who don’t think as they do.

So I went to a dark place internally as I spent yesterday on the road, coming to question if this was the kind of church I wanted my children to be a part of. You see, one of the commitments and teachings I cling to is that the church is not an organization or institution, but an organic community of people; more like a “body” – the metaphor most often used in Scripture – or a “family” – the metaphor most prominent in modernity. Like the bonds of family, we are all individually fallible and incomplete, but we don’t render the bonds because of disagreement. The body is supposed to have a deep unity – again, “unity” being regularly exhorted in Scripture while “uniformity” is not – founded not in agreement with one another, but in love for one another.

But my growing perception is that for too many, religion/spirituality has become so individualized that we commoditize the church: instead of a community we commit to, it’s a CostCo where we purchase the things we want, and when we don’t like something, we bail for a different big box location. We tender our resignations, leaving for better pastures where the pastors are “real Christians”… at least until we find something in them we don’t like. (I had a tenure long enough at one congregation to see a family leave, bound through two other churches, and end up back where they had begun!)

And here’s the thing: while I maintain faith in God, I worry I’m losing faith in people. (The tenor of our recent election didn’t help this perception any, either!) If I can’t trust you to maintain love and seek unity even when there might be disagreements along the way; if the threat is always there that you’re going to bail because you’re upset about something; if you’re likely to reopen old wounds; then why should I bother with you?

Why would I stay? If my faith, hope, and commitment are to an idealized community that isn’t realistically going to happen, why invest and sacrifice so much to help lead and form the community? If my own children are not going to know continuity with others who love and care for them as part of God’s extended family, why make them experience the sacrifice of me being gone so much? Why stay somewhere you are being hurt?

And so driving through snow, rain, and sand all in the same day, wind buffeting me with different trials along the way, I once again contemplated quitting the local church. I want to quit, because other people let me down. I want to quit, because I don’t feel strong enough to persevere investing to build community others cast aside so readily. I want to quit, because the reality they’ve seen is not the church as I want my children to know it. I want to quit, because I have skills and passions I could put to good use in other arenas…

When I woke this morning, the sense of personal hurt had ebbed and was replaced by the larger grief I’ve known of late, that I’m losing faith in people. I shared that grief in prayer and moved on. I read through the Gospel of Mark (which was simply the next scheduled morning reading I had, and not some inspired “Oh, I should do this…”), seeing Jesus develop community where it was least expected, and the outcomes of that community: healing and wholeness for people who had been sick, lame, or lost. I saw again his affirmation of the scribe who knew what was the greatest of God’s commandments, and his grief at the Pharisees who were so assured of their own righteousness because they followed God’s Law. I was reminded of Who it is I follow, but saw even he struggled with how people responded…

Then there was another book I turned to finish, having just the last two chapters of The Road to Character by David Brooks left to read after starting it months ago. In the last chapter*, as Brooks shared a radical cultural shift that began in 1945, from moral realism to moral romanticism, something happened. Perhaps it was the movement of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was just my bruised ego healing, or perhaps it was just inspiration shared from one to another. You can ascribe the source as you wish.** But as Brooks shared his “Humility Code, a coherent image of what to live for and how to live” – a simplified list of propositions that should resonate deeply with any person of faith – I was reminded why I may, at times, want to quit, but why I won’t quit.

Brooks shares his view that we “don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness… The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.” He writes that people “with character are capable of long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.” He reminded me that we can not arrive at self-mastery and good character on our own, “Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and examples…” He points out our need for community, perhaps all the more for the deep statistics the chapter shares about the impact of our increasingly individualistic society. And, in the midst of this, he shares that wise leaders always struggle, knowing that lows are lower than the highs are high, but seeking to leave things a little better, making progress toward the ideals after which we strive.

Like others before me, I may want to quit, but I won’t. I won’t because, for whatever reason, I and various communities of faith I have been a part of have discerned God’s calling in my life to be a leader. A leader who strives after ideals – ideals of what it means to know and love God, to follow Christ, to live in Christian community – even if we fall short of those ideals. And, as both David Brooks and Simon Sinek*** allude to, perhaps now more than ever we need true community; and to achieve it, we need people who work to help us develop and experience it.

I know these old wounds will continue to be re-opened. I know I will continue to be let down by others. I know that, at times, I will bear witness to the price others pay for a person’s “difficult personal decision.” Like others before me (Jeremiah and Elijah spring to mind, but I know there are countless others), there will be times I want to quit. But I will persevere, sticking to my core principles – the centrality of love (especially of God and neighbor), and the importance of community to our spiritual health even amid a culture of individualism being central to much of who I am and what I do.

For selfish reasons, I may want to quit;
but because of (what I hope are) selfless ones, I won’t.


*The book is long and wordy, but the last chapter is incredibly profound. I recommend it!

**This is an aside, but in a few recent democratic processes I’ve observed that some Christians only ascribe movement or inspiration to the Holy Spirit if it aligns with their perspectives. Otherwise, they see that God isn’t really present in the activity…

***I also listened to the bulk of Leaders Eat Last, by Sinek, while driving yesterday.

…in the spaces between…

“…the holy things we need for healing and sustenance are almost always the same as the ordinary things right in front of us.” (–Nadia Bolz-Weber; Accidental Saints)

I have been “in a funk” of late. Self-destructively, I tend to feed this beast from time to time, spiraling down into thoughts of my own inadequacy and ineffectiveness. This is not a “pity party,” per se, but more of a spiritual and vocational malaise, generally loosed upon myself in times of stress.

The opposite of meditation – when one intentionally reflects upon the positive, or quiets one’s soul to listen – this was rumination, where one listens to (and even nurtures!) that internal voice we all carry, the antithesis of Stuart Smiley that is ever ready to tell us that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough, and dog-gone-it, no one likes us.

I know this particular record all-too-well, and despite the fact that I know its tracks are hideously out of rhythm, still I let it play through in bits, here and there, from time to time.These funks settle in when I forget to lead and live out of my giftedness; in those days when the mundane daily details are endless, and that internal voice whispers that a career as a Video Store manager might be more meaningful than vocational ministry.

One night (morning?) in the midst of this particular cycle, I had an incredibly vivid dream. Now, i often dream, sometimes even repeatedly – for seven years, particularly during seminary, I routinely dreamt I was a vampire hunter. And I have several times dreamt that I was a former writer for Saturday Night Live. I generally discard most of my dreams as my subconscious mind unwinding. But sometimes, in addition to listening to my own subconscious, I think that in some dreams I perhaps am given a glimpse of the holy.

The dream was so vivid, I posted about it on Facebook. In the dream, author Rob Bell served as the Virgil to my Dante, but rather than descending into hell, we were journeying deeper and deeper into a building…

We are walking into and through a large, ornate, beautiful cathedral; a mix of ancient and modern: soaring ceilings and colored glass in the sanctuary, flatscreen LCDs in classrooms and meeting rooms.

The sanctuary is full of people I know or have known through the years; members of churches served in the past, even some long gone. We talk; I am particularly interested in what the dead have to share, but they speak minimally, trying to keep my attention focused on… the goal of our visit. The nature of the Church, perhaps?
We walk into the most inner office, where Bell and someone else (likely Tertullian or some other ancient theologian) have a particularly animated (spirited?) conversation around a white board.

I am distressed, disappointed, at what we find. As we walk back to the narthex with its gothic doors, Bell challenges me to think about it more clearly. “God isn’t somewhere to be found in a church space,” he critiques me, waiting for a response.

After a moment of reflection I reply, to Bell’s pleasure, “God is found in the space between people.”

This weekend after Easter, I left town to officiate at the wedding of a friend from our previous church. In our denominational tribe (United Methodist), there is the standard expectation that once you are moved you don’t return for ministerial duties. But in this case there was an invitation from a family and the current pastor, and as a connectional church we also help one another out when we can. (And… I was excited to be able to do so!)

So I took the kids with me for the weekend (farming them off to my brother during the wedding itself), freeing Lynn up to have a quiet weekend before leading worship alone.

This was a family that I was comfortable with – perhaps too comfortable, as I will admit this is the first time I have ever led a wedding rehearsal with a drink in one hand! But this crowd of family and friends who were jocular and joyous with one another were also at ease with the “God-talk” I brought with me as my standard stock-in-trade, and even expressed a feeling of being blessed.

One table of women at the reception thanked me for my part in the service, expressing two moments that touched them as a group: when we invited all those assembled to bless the couple in the beginning, and when we ended with words blessing the congregation itself. Straight from the Book of Worship, they were

“Friends, go forth and bear witness to the love of God, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.”

Without going in to details, another shared how in the weeks leading up to the wedding there was a family reconciliation, and they felt blessed with how the evening had gone.

We talked of times past and days to come. I pontificated on Jesus’ pleasure in our love for one another (as a reflection of His love for us). Strangers shared with me about the churches they used to attend or where they were encountering God today.

And I experienced something divine, gathering with these friends and their families. Somehow, in the midst of the most ordinary things – laughter, love, good food, a bit of alcohol, spoken words of blessing, promises of commitment, dancing – we experienced the holy. I remembered the joy and meaning I know as a follower of Christ, and in my vocation as minister. As I read the very next morning in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints, I found healing in the holy ordinary that surrounds me every day.

Somehow, in the spaces between people, I experienced God.

And I have to wonder if perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he shared, in Matthew 18:20, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

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.