Category Archives: United Methodist

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.

Two Days in London, Part 2

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons.

I’ll admit it – my boots are not the best walking shoes for warm, sunny days. (I packed them expecting cool, rainy days! [At least I persuaded myself to bring a light jacket and leave my trench coat at home!]) By the time I returned to my hotel on Friday evening, I was tired and fagged out, as after a prolonged squawk. My calves and lower back ached. So, seeing that the next day was going to be another warm one, after my morning reading I retired my beloved boots and reached for my Chuck Taylors instead…
Saturday: The Other Doctor (Wandering Toward Westminster)
(What I was reading: Sermon 6, “The Righteousness of Faith”)


Saturday was a much more leisurely day; leaving my jacket, I was better prepared to just wander in the warm, sunny weather. I did, initially, have a handful of postcards; and though I was surprised to learn that the post office(s) are closed on Saturday, I was still able to procure appropriate postage and post all three. (They should go out Monday; it will be interesting to see whether they, or I, arrive first!)

I wandered along toward the SoHo neighborhood – stopping at two nearby outdoors/camping stores (still looking to repair my backpack, unsuccessfully) – toward my only aim for the morning: Forbidden Planet, Britain’s largest comic book chain. I arrived at the flagship store, and quickly found myself lingering at the entire side wall of Doctor Who merchandise: Doctor and Dalek action figures (along with other characters); coffee mugs; T-shirts made up to replicate each of the 11 Doctors’ styles; plush Daleks and TARDISes (Lynn and I had a conversation about how does one pluralize TARDIS?); iPhone and iPad skins; LEGO-like building sets and mini-figures; and much, much more.

A nearby shop had an advert on the window that indicated they offered “free shipping on any order of 50 or more. I did not see such an offer at Forbidden Planet, which is probably a good thing. Had I, I very likely might have given them my clothes to ship so I could re-pack my backpack with Dr Who toys! Thankfully, good-sense (or the voice of my wife inside my head) won out and I managed to leave the store with only a single mini-figure packet. (Though, truth be told, I will be returning next Saturday, as the shop is hosting a special launch party for a new Doctor Who television remote control – though I don’t plan to get the remote, I’m interested in the costumes and activities they may have going on…
I wandered into the SoHo and Leicester Square areas for lunch, past theater after theater of live shows and also the Odeon theaters for films. I contemplated seeing an afternoon show of… something. Perhaps Les Miserable? Or Spamalot? Or Phantom of the Opera, still playing at Her Majesty’s Theater. I opted not to, with the thought that I might not have another such sunny day to wander London, and I could always get Lynn’s input on which show to see next Saturday (and thus feel less guilty that I went to one without her!)
I walked through Trafalgar Square, past the Mall (the Mall is closed for the duration of the Olympics and ParaOlympic Games), and down toward Westminster. I walked by the Imperial War Museum – Churchill’s War Offices – with the intent of returning next week.

I found myself beside Westminster Abbey, but rather than paying to visit it again, I walked across the square and instead went inside the Methodist Central Hall. Built in 1812 – to belatedly celebrate the centennial death of Wesley – Methodist Central Hall is not only home to a Methodist congregation, but is the largest conference center in London. The United Nations had their charter meetings here at the Hall, which can seat 2,000. There was no museum nor much to see, though I did get to go out on an upper balcony and look down upon Westminster and out across the Big Ben.
There was a statue of Wesley in the entryway. Produced in the early 1800s, the sculptor had hoped it would sit in Westminster along with the other memorial statues there. However, the archbishop at the time refused, stating that Wesley was and had been too “factious.” Today there is a plaque memorializing both brothers in the Abbey, but the statute, after sitting years at the entrance to a college for clergy, stands in the Hall.
He was a short man, by the way!
Not long after I made my way along the Houses of Parliament, then caught the Tube back to my hotel.
Like many other large cities – perhaps most? – London is an eclectic architectural mix of buildings. There are ancient walls built in Roman times and still in use; medieval churches supported by tourist dollars and fortifications repurposed to other use; Renaissance, Reformation, and modern all side by side…
And that was Friday – quiet; leisurely, a nice day walking about in the city.
Why subtitle it “The Other Doctor”? Well, one of the exhibits at Wesley’s Chapel was a discussion about one of Wesley’s most popular books from his day, Primitive Physik. It was a book Wesley printed and made sure every Methodist pastor had a copy of; for beyond just caring for people’s souls, as the likely most learned men in their respective communities, these pastors were also approached to help people who fell ill. Wesley was very interested in medicine, and published this book based on his many readings and personal experiments in the area. Wesley, of course, would refer one and all to the Great Physician, for the cure and care of our souls. Not that I would equate the Doctor with Jesus, but the connection came to mind as I wandered Friday…

An interesting observation from Thursday that I had not mentioned: my tour guide at Wesley’s Chapel made a point of showing us the men’s bathroom. Built in 1899, all the fixtures in the bathroom are original, making it one of only three working Victorian era bathrooms in London. He pointed out the imprinted “Venerable Throne” inside of the bowl; as well as the name emblazened upon the tanks and pull chains, “John Crapper.”