Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Campus Ministry Conundrum

This week I'm in the Houston area (The Woodlands, ya'll) at a campus ministry conference called "Refresh '08." It is the third annual "Refresh" and it is a joy to hang around 160 or so dedicated Christians interested in college ministries and young people. We've heard great speakers, experienced edifying worship, attended helpful workshops and have enjoyed spending a lot of time connecting with one another.

I've been in campus ministry long enough that these folks really feel like close friends. Of course, I see some of them only at this event in a year's time. For you United Methodist clergy types, it's like going to annual conference (perhaps a tad more fun). It is NOT like annual conference in terms of acting on business items. The goals of "Refresh" are three: (1) be refreshed,(2) get connected with other college ministers and (3) find resources for your work.

For a research project I'm beginning to build, I looked at the Census Bureau statistics online to try to figure out just how many college students there are in the United States. I need to get back to the site, but I think, if I found the right number, there are almost 16 million college students in this country. Sixteen million. Did I say sixteen million?

Some of my friends in this work have - by the usual standards of measurement - huge ministries: several hundred students coming to a mid-week worship and engaged in small groups for discipleship and other practices of spiritual growth and ministry. They are the mega-churches of campus ministry. For others, the scope of their ministry is smaller, but no less significant. When I hang around these folks and listen to what they're doing, I envision their students. They're doing some really amazing things. I see the fruit of the ministry (some of their former students are now in campus ministry, or local church ministry, or on the mission field, or - perhaps the best - engaged in radical Christian discipleship in "secular" jobs). When I think of those sixteen million young people and the efforts of my friends and colleagues to reach some of them, my heart swells with joy.

But something else is going on at this conference. It is a common theme among us. Why are (especially) erstwhile mainline denominations - in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary - so fatalistically detached from the mission field that is college ministry? Why do we hear so much about new church starts (by the way, how are we doing on them?) and don't see the field white for harvest among college students? Clearly, there are committed, interested, leaders, from the top of our United Methodist Church to the grass roots. We have two bishops attending our event. God bless them! Yet, I've also talked to denominational executives who are working hard and constantly frustrated by the lack of movement. Some of us have stood around in little knots, this week, during breaks, verbally scratching our heads about the inertia.

So, on the one hand, we can rejoice in the tremendous work that is happening. I thank God for concerned individuals working so hard to make a difference. On the other, when we go back home, save for a few notable exceptions, we will get back to work within an ecclesial (United Methodist) context that largely ignores us.

That is the conundrum of campus ministry.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Pet Peeves

I know it's the most ridiculously wrong time of the year to be talking about pet peeves, but I've got 'em. Here's my Christmas list.

1. The sappy Christmas music that my favorite radio stations start playing right after Thanksgiving. OK, once in awhile I chuckle at some of the more farsical ones, but mostly, I'm just irritated. I heard Christmas stuff on the radio even before Thanksgiving this year! Which leads me to my next gripe.

2. Most of us Christians completely ignore Advent. That's partly what bugs me about Christmas music. I used to get in a little trouble when I pastored in the local church. I made my congregations actually sing Advent hymns (there aren't very many in our UM hymnal) during Advent. They are, except for just a handful, little-known. We want to jump right to "the good stuff" with Christmas, so we skip over all the yearning and desire and awareness of our need that Advent draws out. And then, of course, immediately after December 25th, we quit singing carols and stop celebrating too soon. Which leads to my next gripe.

3. Truthfully, the churches that do practice Advent seem to want to avoid all that "second coming" stuff about Jesus that Advent brings up. If you read the lectionary passages from the Gospels, it's not about "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." It's about Jesus the Coming King. If we actually paid attention to the Advent scriptures instead of reading them through all the nostalgia associated with Christmas, we might more passionately worship the Newborn King! Which leads to my fourth gripe.

4. The liturgical calendar, which is something to which we should pay attention, gets treated more cyclically than linear-ly (clearly not a word, but oh well...) and we lose sight of history almost completely. The result of this theological amnesia is that remembering and preparing for Jesus' birthday becomes the focus of our Advent. We start looking only backwards and praying for "Christ to be born in our hearts again," which, on its face, is not a bad sentiment. It just means that we're looking in the wrong direction. We should be looking more toward the future and the full coming of the Kingdom. Which leads to my final gripe...for now.

5. Why do we reduce everything to slogans? "Jesus is the reason for the season." Yes, good reminder, but so pathetically shallow if that's all the farther we ever go. "Happy Birthday Jesus." I'm telling you, there ought to be some sort of ecclesial ban on putting this one on a church sign or board or bulletin!

Christmas gets close and all the pop-culture practices fairly nearly cause all of us - even and especially Christians - to miss the point. Christmas is ultimately much less about Jesus' birthday remembered than it is about the Incarnation of the Word of God. It's not just a day on the calendar that we have romancticized to the point of nauseum and sentimentalized into meaninglessness. It is (along with the resurrection) the most startling, unexpected, "impossible," awesome event that has or will ever, ever, ever take place.

Now, before you go off on me as nothing but an old scrooge, consider this truth: the good is the enemy of the best.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Breakthrough

It has been almost two weeks since the general elections and pundits are still buzzing about Barack Obama's victory. Like so many people, I spent the whole evening on November 4, watching the returns, then Senator McCain's gracious concession speech and, finally, well past my bedtime, the President-Elect.

Yes, it truly was an historic moment. I don't really qualify as a politics junkie - not even close - but I have stayed in touch with various news programs since then. Obviously, one of the regular themes has been what the election means for African Americans, but, more importantly, for the whole nation. A very long, very large burden is finally, mercifully lifting.

As I watched the party in Grant Park, Chicago, the TV cameras returned again and again to Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. The whole world could see both of them alternatively laughing and crying. Although Jackson appears to be beyond his prime in terms of prominence in the news, Oprah Winfrey most definitely is not. She is one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, much less the United States. (Some of you may think I'm too prone to overstatement here, but think about it: her wealth, her reach via TV, her book club, for goodness' sake!) And there she was, shedding tears of joy.

Last Spring I attended the United Methodist General Conference. Worship is always incredibly well-done at this international two-week event. I may not have the details of this memory exactly right, but one moment stands out. A combined choir of two African American United Methodist churches sang at one of the evening worship services. They sang a number well-known among Black churches, with lyrics characteristic of black gospel: oppression, struggle, faith and perseverance. I noticed how our African American sisters and brothers sang - not merely with enthusiasm (because they like the music) - but with a level of feeling that is hard to describe. They felt that song deep in their collective soul.

Affluent, powerful, middle-class black people singing a song about oppression and deliverance; singing with a pathos and a poignance that caught my attention.

I did not grow up in the lap of affluence or privilege. My parents were Depression-era western Kansas, hard-scrabble cowfolk from pioneer stock. My Dad became a preacher and never made more than minimum salary. We pinched a lot of pennies when I was a kid and I often felt embarrassed about not having stuff other kids had, even the kids who lived out in the middle of nowhere.

But, watching Oprah crying on national TV; listening to the songs of Zion sung like only people who know the sting of racial hatred can sing, I'm telling you, I got it. As close as an over-educated white boy can get it, I got it. You can have a billion dollars in the bank. You can have fame beyond description. You can have a modicum of acceptance on the basis of education or wealth. And you can still feel the emptiness of that something, so basic to human community, that is still denied.

Far beyond Republicans and Democrats, far surpassing party power, beyond whether or not they'll get a filibuster-busting super-majority in the Senate, this election is The Breakthrough. That something-so-basic is no longer denied. Or deniable.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Defining the Opponent

We're a week away from election day and I don't know how it is at your house, but my mailbox is being inundated with glossy, oversized postcards. And my phone rings daily, several times, with messages from candidates and requests for funds from political parties. Wow.

The one common characteristic to all the ads is the way they "define" their opponents. I started noticing this word, "define," several months ago, usually coming from the mouth of one of Obama's or McCain's campaign reps on TV.

"Defining" the opponent is quite an ingenious strategy. It appears that the aim is to make the opponent look as bad as possible while staying within the bounds of "factual." One of my local favorites: the Bluestem Fund (a Kansas thing) is a PAC "defining" a certain local Republican candidate for State Senate. About every other day I'm getting something in my mail from the Bluestem Fund, telling me how awful this candidate is. Just one example: he "voted against funding" for science education. The bottom of the card asserts that this abhorrent action is "fact."

The issue lurking is Kansas' infamous fight over how evolution is taught in public schools. In the hopes that you won't dismiss my criticism of the Bluestem Fund on the assumption that I support their opponent, let me say that I'm not in favor of this Republican candidate's position on the evolution question. I'm not happy at all that it is even a political issue. I have very strong opinions about what ought to be done on this topic, but I'll save those thoughts for another time.

Back to "defining" a candidate. The Bluestem Fund's approach is classic: you take a "fact," rip it from its original historical context and magnify it as much as you can for your political aim. Mix in a little alarmist language about what will happen if so and so gets elected and you have the classic "defining the opponent" slop.

Everyone does it. I'm sickened by it and I promise you, I'm not trying to sound all morally superior. Let's call "defining an opponent" by what it is: lying. Otherwise honest, decent, hard-working public servants are all doing it. Their campaign advisors are doing it. They should be ashamed, but, more importantly, we should be ashamed that such "defining" works.

Could we get just a little grass roots movement going to demonstrate that we will not be bought so easily with this tactic? We hear again and again that campaigns pull this sort of stunt because it works. So, let me just start with Christian people. We should never, ever, ever, engage in these sophisticated forms of lying for the sake of getting "our" candidate elected. This tactic ultimately demonstrates our lack of faith in a good, sovereign, holy God. No matter who gets elected, there is still a God in heaven...whose eyes are everywhere...who is not surprised by anything.

I'm not advocating political quietism. We should get involved and exercise responsible citizenship. That's my point: the tactic of "defining" an opponent is rash and irresponsible. Worse, when Christians engage in it, it demonstrates our loss of perspective, our foolishness. It's not worth the horrible consequence of eating away at truth with de-contextualized "facts." Let us not sell our birthright for this mess of political pottage. We are contributing to the degeneration of American society. Christians are supposed to be salt and light, not pawnish political hacks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why Are We Surprised?

No doubt like you, I've been following the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the stock market and listening to the pundits talk about this latest economic crisis. I've been amused - in a sickened sort of way - by the finger pointing of political parties and candidates.

In my morning prayer time I started reading Proverbs today. In the opening chapter, "my child" (NRSV), or "my son" (NIV) is instructed to avoid getting involved with friends who will lead him into a life of greedy dissipation. 1:19 says, "Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors." The proverb writer thus makes the point that greedy people (who are violent even if they never lift a physical finger against someone) are trapped in their own devices, like a bird caught in a net.

An apt picture, this is. Why, then, are we surprised, when greedy people act greedily?

And what is greed, really? It is an insatiable (never satisfied) appetite for money and material possessions. It is the economic form of sexual lust (a form of sin about which we conservative Christians demonstrate obsessive concern). But of course, this is only a partway definition. The reason greed gets a hold on anyone is because of what a super-abundance of money and material possessions promises: freedom, comfort, pleasure, joy. The promise is a lie. It's always a lie. It will forever be a lie. How do we stop falling for it?

In the end, greed (like sexual lust) is disordered desire. It is the economic manifestation of Genesis 3: the woman and the man saw the fruit, saw that it was desirable, and believed that it would give them something good that they didn't yet have. No wonder this story is a classic. We should never be surprised when someone - either the fat-cat Wall Street types or the eighteen-year-old who gets his first credit card and doesn't know how to handle it - falls prey to this problem.

Because we all have the problem. We should neither be surprised, nor should we be jaded, when Wall Street gets out of whack or when Congress-persons contribute to the problem by over-loosening regulations. It's pure hypocrisy for anyone, Democrat or Republican or Independent, to point fingers and pretend that they, themselves don't have the same problem.

Greed tempts us to believe what is not true. It is desire out of whack, like a swollen river exceeding its banks. Disordered desire always gets us in trouble. We are caught in the net of sin - every one of us. Our "caught-ness" manifests itself in different ways, for we are not all tempted by the same things. But we are all tempted.

I just wrote a bunch of stuff you already know. So, why am I writing it? Frankly, because I think Christians, of all people, ought to be able to exhibit (and help to provide) some balance and sensibility during this very heated political season. We ought to have opinions, strong ones, about the best candidates and policies, but we ought not get swept away by the nonsense pumped at us from so many directions. We ought not to be surprised, nor jaded, when we get caught by our own temptations. We thus could be in a better position (rather than playing the stupid politics game) to witness to the One who can redeem us (in more than a merely "spiritual" sense) from the power of sin - economic or otherwise.

Christian people living Christianly - brilliant!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cooling Off, a Little

A commenter on my blog about getting a job (10/11) reminded me of a verse from Ecclesiastes (3:13), "It is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." Since this statement is all that the commenter left me, I take it to be a gentle criticism of my "worker bee" reference.

I'll accept this remonstrance. As I think about people who work in technical fields with technical degrees (including my own son) I do not want to create the impression that such jobs are not good, honest labor with their own inherent value. They certainly are. My intent was not to play the elitist and put down technical schools or work, in general. In fact, I want just the opposite.

Rather, I was and still am aiming at the absurd prejudice so prevelant in our society, that the main purpose of going to college is so that you can get that good job. That is not the purpose of college at all. It is, rather, to figure out who you are; to become a thoughtful, wise person. Furthermore, Christian higher education , to which I am committed, is about becoming a mature, fruitful disciple of Jesus Christ. (Perhaps the Bible college mentality is the Christian analogy to technical schools. Now I'm probably in trouble with a different set of people.) Having a job is certainly an important part of being a faithful Christian. But the "technical school" approach to adult life is dangerously short-sighted.

I suppose what I'm really talking about is the old idea of "vocation." You can get training in a particular skill set and get yoruself a good job. But you - a person - are so much more than your job skills. I'd like for every line worker in the country to know and believe this truth deeply about him- or herself. How will anyone know it if all we think a college education does is help people get a good job?

Here's the irony I find behind my commenter's gentle criticism: it is at least possible that a college student might actually have to read Ecclesiastes 3 for a class and think about what it means. That action of having to think about something beside just how to work a piece of equipment or solve a mechanical problem (worthy skills, I repeat) is exactly what I'm talking about. I have a hard time imagining that a student in technical school would - as a part of his/her education - ever run into such a reading.

Thus I return to my main concern: wise, thoughtful, people and, more to the point, that kind of Christian populating our society. It is why I reacted so negatively to that newspaper article. We need a broader vision about college than the entrenched technical school mentality and, however people get it, our society needs people who know the difference between sound wisdom and instrumental skill. We are slipping badly on this count.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Yes, But Will It Help Me Get a Job?

It's Homecoming time at good old Southwestern College, which means I get to talk to some of my "old" students. I love these interactions. For one, these alums make me smile inwardly at their "I'm getting old" remarks. More importantly, they remind me of what I'm doing with my life. I'll come back to this point eventually.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the Wichita Eagle that just made me mad (yes, I'm still fuming: see my earlier post), although what irritated me was not the main point of the article. The president of one of the technical colleges in Wichita (which feeds the very large local airplane industry) made the offhand remark that he was the "poster child" for getting a college degree and then not being able to find a job. As if getting a job is what a college degree is about! In higher education, there is not a dumber thing that could be said. Statistics regularly demonstrate that practically any bachelor's degree will get you your first job - except in some of the technical fields. Colleges are not and never have been about dispensing "knowledge," if by "knowledge" we mean merely instrumental, technical skill. That sort of knowledge is obsolete before one graduates anyway. The main point of that newspaper article, then, is actually a very good one: if you're interested in a skill to get you a job, by all means, don't waste your time and money on college! But don't slam college on the way out the door.

If you want to be more than a worker bee the rest of your life; if you want to be able to do more than just react viscerally to whatever the latest news cycle throws at you; if you want some joy that takes you far deeper than the fleeting pleasure the stuff you can buy can give you; in other words, if you want to be a whole person, then you'd better either figure out how to read serious, weighty, elegant writings on your own and with a group of friends...or you'd better go to college.

Listening to our college alumni reminds me of what I'm doing. I'm not "dispensing information." (Why do my new students use that word so much?! What is going on in high school that reduces everything to "information?") I'm introducing students to a way of life: the way of wisdom. And more importantly, as a Christian leader, I am both modeling discipleship and helping them into that cruciform life. And a big part of discipleship is thinking wisely. You absolutely cannot hurry it. Learning how to reflect, to pray, to ponder, to learn the difference between strong opinion and sheer bigotry; to recognize what is true and beautiful and enduring - that(!) is what college is about. This kind of learning is grounded in relationship. It requires community. And that, too(!) is what college is about.

The fact is (yes, it can be empirically demonstrated) that gaining wisdom is hugely practical. But it's not very fast.

If you're a parent, pleeeeze don't tell your child not to major in something because it's "not very practical." If you're a college student, don't make the mistake of thinking that you have to major in something in order to get a good job. Figure out who you are! Get a grasp on what is eternally important. Lengthen your vision.

I've listened to lots and lots of alumni from our school - people as old as my parents' generation and as young as the 20-somethings just a fear years out - and I regularly hear a common theme: what really has stuck with them about college and what means so much to them now is not the scintillating lectures that we professors give or the brilliant research papers that they wrote as students. Of course, those things have their place. Nevertheless, as the years go by, what remains of supreme value about college are all the intangibles: the relationships, the conversations, the outside-of-class (even chapel) experiences.

The "will-it-help-me-get-a-good-job?" obsession is vastly over-rated and ultimately counterproductive! Can we imagine this irony? Our grim determination to ensure our future is, once we slow down and look, rather hapless and silly. We're all going to die. There'd better be much more to life that having that good job. And there is.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What Are We Doing?

As an academic, I fall into that class of people often accused of being eggheads; ivory-tower; bookwormish; all theory and no practice. You know, I can talk, but can I get anything done?

I'm still trying to get over an article I read in Sunday's Wichita Eagle. It was about the importance of technical schools in our area to provide qualified workers for the various industries. That point is completely legitimate. What got me was a comment made by the president of one of those technical schools. He said that he was the "poster boy" for going to college and getting a degree and then not being able to find a real job. College: what it's good for?

I, myself, also don't like the ivory tower mentality. I'm so skittish about the term "scholar" that I often tell people that I'm really a "blue collar scholar." I love academics, but what I'm really interested in is how scholarship helps life actually to work.

I confess, however, that I wish people paid more attention to what academics generally call for: the discipline of thinking carefully, seriously, and thoroughly. Political campaigns always cause me to think that way (and in this day of the perpetual campaign, our calling for careful thought seems even more timely). Economic crises do also. When the pressure is on, even smart people do and say stupid things. There's some twisted force within us that causes us to dispense with the measured, the careful, the sensible.

When I see it take place, it makes me ask, what in the world are we doing? When Nancy Pelosi can't resist sticking her finger in the Republican party's eye in the very speech she is making to try to win their support for the "bailout" legislation, what is she doing? When Sarah Palin tells the world that she can handle foreign policy because she wakes up every morning and can see Russia, what does she think she's doing? Can thinking people really swallow these demonstrations? And worse, the partisan sound-bites, the tortured, goofy rationalizations that follow make we want to pull my hair out.

All of a sudden, I sound like the snooty academic, don't I? Yes, mea culpa. I work with young people (college students) every day. In times like these, I'm acutely aware of the practical value of serious, sustained, careful, nuanced thought. I want my students to practice asking, what are we doing here? What's going on? I want them not to get jerked around by irrational, partisan politics, nor do I want them to perpetuate it. I want them not to get swept away in anxiety by either alarmist or reactionary language of any kind. I want them to recognize good thinking from bad thinking. Skill in thinking gives confidence in acting, just like it does in practicing and using any other skill.

So, just what are we doing these days? What is happening? What is going on? Does anybody know? We'd better. We need to think about it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Tongue is a Fire

On the way to work this morning, I was listening to a local rock station. It's not just classic rock, exactly. It's hard to characterize because they play such a wide range of sub-styles, which is one of the main reasons I like to listen (besides the fact that they're local).

This morning the two DJs were meandering through their stream-of-consciousness dialogue when they landed upon the topic of mothers protecting their kids from "dangerous" rock group marketing gimics (ones I'd never heard of, except for "Kiss"). What caught my attention was the disparaging tone they used about mothers who are "against everything," playing off the organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

My first thought: "Don't these guys have mothers? I wonder how their moms reared them." My next thought: "It's so easy to demean and belittle people we don't know whose beliefs we don't like."

Which sent me on my own flight of fancy. I caught just a portion of the "Cafferty File" yesterday evening on CNN. If ever there was an acerbic TV journalist, it's Jack Cafferty. He always ends his segment on Wolf Blitzer's show with a few emails from viewers. The hot topic yesterday was Barack Obama's ability to say "Pah-ki-stahn" rather than the Americanized "Pakistan" (as in "Pacman"). "Finally!" one emailer opined, "A candidate who pronounces the word correctly," as if doing so proved Senator Obama's worthiness to be president. Another emailer noted, however, that we don't get upset when other words are Americanized in the same fashion, so what's the big deal?

That exchange made me think of popular opinion about President Bush. Right now, he's one of the most unpopular presidents ever, exceeded in that status, we should not forget, only by Congress. I've heard him referred to as "stupid," "embarrassing" and "a cowboy." So, maybe he says "Pakistan" (with short a's). He also says "nukular" for "nuclear," and people snort and moan about that, too. But he also speaks fluent Spanish. By the way, it might be a Texas thing. I recently heard the present Governor of Texas pronounce "nuclear" the same way. Come to think of it, I believe my dad pronounced it that way.

So, we feel liberty to belittle people whose intellectual deficiencies are demonstrated by their mispronouncing certain words. It's funny. They also just happen to be our ideological opponents. I wrote in my journal a couple of days ago, "The tongue is a fire" (or "fahr" for some of you). Yep, I'm guilty. I don't want to be. I use the word "idiot" far too much. I get riled up and spout off and feel (momentarily) justified because the stakes are high. There's a difference, however, between venting hostility and speaking prophetically. We Christians often don't recognize the distinction. But we should.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Might God Just Leave Us Alone?

In my prayer time this morning I read Psalm 109, a prayer for vindication in the face of the psalmist's accusers. Most of it describes the accusers' accusations, but the final 1/3 begs God for vindication. And the psalmist is none too kind to his enemies. Verse 29 says, "May my accusers be clothed with dishonor; may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle."

Sensitive believers (both Jew and Christian) have long struggled with how such an idea - in a book purportedly revealing the heart of God - could truly express God's will. Some would say, "It really doesn't. It merely expresses the heart of the psalmist who wants God to step in and straigthen things out." I think that's too easy an answer. It's also too easy to "harmonize" scripture and explain away the sting of this one with "spiritualzing" words. The psalmist wants his enemies hoisted on their own petard. What about forgiveness and mercy and all that stuff?

I can see justice as the assumption behind the psalmist's prayer: he thinks of himself as the righteous victim. Justice necessitates his vindication, which means his enemies are publicly proven wrong (thus shamed). But can one truly be so identified with the just nature of God that one could pray such a prayer with a holy, pure heart? Well, clearly there are people in this world who believe that the justice of God will bring an end to their suffering, so it's not too big a stretch to think that the psalmist is so in tune with God's nature that he could pray such a prayer - and in so doing it might even reflect God's heart.

Which leads me in this direction: the psalm also made me think of the end times, of final judgment. The Bible clearly has a vision of "the present age" and "the age to come." In the age to come, God's justice "wins" and the plans of God's enemies are foiled. Are there truly such enemies of God among human beings? Could the accusers in Psalm 109 actually be such enemies of God because they are enemies of God's servant? And if so, can they stay God's enemies forever? Might God's enemies incur God's wrath forever?

These questions prompted a memory of Donald Bloesch's (Essentials of Evangelical Theology) concept of hell. Hell is the ultimate expression of God's wrath, but it is also a function of God's profound mercy. As I remember Bloesch's argument, every soul God has created has tremendous value. God is both merciful and just, therefore God must judge all evil even if God desires to be merciful. God's nature thus creates a dilemma: what to do with people who hard-heartedly resist the will of God to the very end? To "annihilate" a soul (one of the theories about what happens to God's enemies is that they just cease to exist) goes against God's purposes for life and creation. To save everyone (universalism - another popular attempt to avoid the difficulties of the concept of hell) sounds wonderful, but it certainly seems to undermine the idea of God's justice and, ultimately, it seems to take away from human freedom, a pretty important part of the image of God in people.

So, we're back to the possibility of the reality of hell. According to Bloesch (and C.S. Lewis, among others), in hell, the enemies of God are still sustained by God, but they're getting exactly what they want - for God to leave them alone. The "flames" of hell are symbols of what it is like to be left to our own sin-twisted resources for eternity. When we are left merely to our own devices, we wind up tormenting ourselves and others. Dante's depiction of hell, though literary and not to be taken literally, is pretty apt.

In hell, God still sustains us. He just leaves us alone. We asked for it. We got it. That truly would be hell.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Wrap Up, General Conference

The last day of General Conference, May 2, was a doozy for ram-rodding business through the system. It always happens that people start leaving that last day, particualrly international delegates who have to start their long journeys home.

As I drove away from Ft. Worth Friday afternoon, I felt a little sheepish leaving my delegates in a lurch, but I had to return to Winfield. Saturday and Sunday were full of college convocation and graduation activities and since I was a reserve delegate, and since I had college responsibilities, I thought I probably should go ahead and leave.

In terms of the amount of work yet to be done, it was not pretty for the last day of General Conference. As the day began, there were still almost 90 petitions that needed action. (As Nathan Stanton and I crossed the border into Kansas at about 6:00pm that evening, he called one of our delegates. They still had 50 petitions to work through.) They somehow managed to wrap it all up and close the books on yet another conference.

My view of the combined highlights of the final day and General Conference in toto:

1. From the beginning to the end (when the budget was considered), we talked of four missional priorites:
- Developing principled Christian leaders;
- Creating new places for new people by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones;
- Engaging in ministries with the poor; and
- Improving global health, especially attacking the killer diseases of poverty.

They're huge. I'm especially interested in the first one, but all are critically important. And we're trying to marshal our human and financial resources to address them. This move is evidence of the very encouraging attempts of a large, bureaucratic denomination to get our numerous agencies together to pull for common concerns. May God bless and optimize these efforts and this vision!

2. Some change in the Book of Discipline language related to abortion. I've been a supporter of our stance on this question, but, I admit, I take a "pro-life" reading of it and some do not. It says that we recognize the "tragic conflicts of life with life." We condemn birth control abortions (most of them done in this country). We also decry gender selection abortions. As with homosexual practice, abortion is a political football in the church, one of those topics that mires us in political debate. Thus, I find the additions to the language encouraging because it helps us get to actual ministry rather than mere rhetoric: We will support "“ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies” and we will support those ministries which help women “find feasible alternatives to abortion.” I like these statements because, regardless of how we feel about the rights of women and fetuses (or babies, if you prefer), we can surely work to reduce the need for abortions by engaging in these aims.

3. Because I'm a bishop candidate, I find this next item intriguing, though it actually passed earlier in the conference: we raised the mandatory retirement age for bishops from 66 to 68. I think it's a good move. If a bishop is in good health and still has passion and gifts for ministry, why not make it so that she/he can serve? Surely a person of such venerable age also has wisdom!?

I'm not sure I ever have "final" thoughts, but let me try the following in response to General Conference 2008. First, there is a core United Methodism that is, I believe, firm, if not as vocal as some other parts of the church. I know some people who might read this comment will be offended, but I make this claim because, in my chats with people across the 10 days, I often heard a sentiment that matched mine. On many of the hot issues, there was another opinion that often went unvoiced. The people who go to the microphone at General Conference, most of the time, are pretty bold. The vast majority of delegates never approach the mic. I'm going to avoid using the word "middle" or "center" (there is nothing automatically virtuous about being there), but I do believe there is a core United Methodism that is strong.

On the other hand, the sheer range of ideas, commitments, beliefs and experiences that fit under the denominational label makes "United Methodist" as an identifier almost meaningless. There was a lot of talk (and I mean a lot) about "holy conferencing," but in truth, some people were there to protect their interests, pure and simple. I think, in large part, our structure is to blame. I mentioned in an earlier blog that we act almost like a religious United Nations. I think our denomination has been shaped too much by American liberal (no pejorative intended) democratic principles. (Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon are marking more sense to me all the time.) In this framework, advocating for one's one's interests is expected. We may use the term "rights," but often the issue is really "interests." Some interests are diametrically opposed to other interersts. There is deep animosity in our church. Some United Methodists are enemies of others.

We try to make nice about this animosity by interpreting the hatred as just the emotional heat and pressure of General Conference. We're kidding ourselves.

As I finish this blog, I'm keenly aware of the disaster in Myanmar. One of our students who graduated Sunday is from that country. Her father is a United Methodist bishop there. The latest count I've heard is that more than 20,000 are confirmed dead with more than twice that many missing and as many as a million people homeless. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has set up an account for the Myanmar Emergency. I just made a donation. If you wish to do the same - and I beg you to do - the reference number is UMCOR Advance #3019674.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Down to the Wire

Even though the bishops have been trying to scoot us along, General Conference proceedings are not moving very quickly - and tomorrow is the last day. Why are there so many amendments being proposed? Why so many procedural, tactical moves? Two speculative answers.

First, almost half the delegates at this year's General Conference are new. I'm not slamming new people (especially because some of them have made very insightful comments on our issues - and many of them have been young adults!), but I do think that many new people may not have a good sense of "pace" for getting through all the matters. And there have been lots of procedural questions and doubling back to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Probably more to the point, we are moving toward a new structure in United Methodism. As I've mentioned before, the UM Church is growing outside the USA and we're trying to free them to build the structures they need (e.g. new bishops for new conferences). Whenever you start messing with the structures of a big, bureaucratic organization, you run into resistance. This matter is intensified by the anxiety on the part of some that moving to regional conferences will mean that United States United Methodism will finally remove all language from the Book of Discipline having to do with homosexual practice. And others hope that this very change will finally come to pass.

How would that happen? If the USA United Methodism became a regional conference like the African United Methodists would be a regional conference (or conferences), then we would each have our regional conference meetings. There would be a "super" General Conference that would meet to cover matters pertaining to all of United Methodism, but then regional conferences would have the flexibility to deal with matters pertaining only to them. Some people believe that, since African United Methodists generally see sexuality in more traditional Biblical terms, if they were not voting on American matters (this view assumes that rulings on sexuality would be limited to the American church, which is not a foregone assumption), then the vote would go the other way.

One of my friends did some quick math. Removing the African vote yesterday on the question of removing the "incompatibility" language regarding homosexual practice, the vote would have been roughly 2/3 in favor of removing the language to 1/3 against. In other words, the majority report would have passed and we would be changing some language in the Book of Discipline. Of course, this little hypothetical scenario assumes that Africans all voted the same way. Who knows?

So, General Conference 2008 has been crawling toward the finish line. The agenda committee today made plans to go a third session tomorrow, which means going into the evening. We were supposed to be finished by mid-afternoon.

Since I'll be on the road some time tomorrow, this post will be my last from General Conference (I like talking to you. Please keep sending your comments), so some final mullings. United Methodists who come to General Conference are deeply committed people. They are committed to their understanding and particular expression of the Christian faith.

Our mission - as we heard times infinitum - is to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." This last part about world change is a new addition. Much, oh so very much, of the rhetoric (I don't mean that term pejoratively) has been about transformation. I honestly think that many people who serve as delegates to General Conference (at least many American delegates) see our work as something like a cross between the United States Congress and a religious United Nations. We talk about "legislation" (the petitions) and we make motions and amendments and points of order and speeches for and against.

We're also deeply activistic. We don't have much patience for measured theological conversation. Certainly, there was much scrutiny given to petitions and amendments. Maybe it's more accurate to say that we think such point-by-point theological interaction - with real questions and thoughtful, nuanced answers - needs to happen elsewhere, in a study committee or some other body. But then we turn around and make all kinds of theological claims (or refer to supposedly shared theological assumptions) during the conference. We listen to preachers make references to John Wesley and our Wesleyan or United Methodist tradition. We use the Methodist shibboleths - "grace" - and "If your heart is as my heart..." (this one really bugs me: have any of them actually read "Catholic Spirit?") So, there are lots of assumptions about some kind of underlying unity of heart or mission or something.

I really want to believe that, if you dig down beneath all our diversity and divided opinions, you'll find some ground of unity beside shared denominational name and organization. But I have to confess, I want more than assumptions. I think we have a lot of work to do. Maybe the new standing committee on faith and order will help us.

So, I'm preparing to leave General Conference with a deep sense of ambivalence. I've seen and chatted with some really great people - my fellow delegates included, but all across the connection. Besides, it's just plain fun to see friends from other places and catch up with them on what's happening in their lives. There's abundant fellowship and affection at General Conference. Once again, that sense of the deep commitment that we all hold in common. And we're pretty darn generous, too.

On the other hand, on certain issues (like sexuality), we are truly talking different languages. It's surreal: we often use the same terms, but they seem to mean something different, because the desired outcome is so often diametrically opposed to the aims of other people. But it's more than surreal. It's nighmarish. And it's not just about sexuality. I have the somewhat squeamish sense that even when we're talking about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we mean vastly different (even contradictory) things.

Oh well...

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Well, today was the day that most of us dread: the first set of votes came up on the homosexuality issue. All potential legislation starts in one of 13 legislative committees. One of those committees is called "Church and Society." (Actually, there are two such committees, C and S 1 and C and S 2.) Give me a minute to explain a bit of the procedure General Conference uses to do its business. If a significant number of people on a legislative committee do not agree with a particular proposal passed in committee (i.e. if they lost the vote), then they can write a "minority report" which then is read in the plenary session along with the majority report. The committee chair reads the majority report, then the bishop says, "There is a minority report," and the representative of the makers of the minority report reads it. So, the people have a choice.

Then comes a time for making amendments to both minority and majority reports. Because homosexual practice is so contested in our church, lots of amendments are made to the reports, frankly, incrementally, subtly to gut the meaning of whichever proposal the amender doesn't like. Once the amendments are made, then, people can make speeches in support of or against the report. A maximum of three speeches for and three against are allowed. Then comes the vote.

Now to the issue at hand. The committee had voted to remove the "incompatibility" language from the Social Principles statement in the Book of Discipline regarding "the practice of homosexuality," which now states that such practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Removing the "incompatibility language" and replacing it with a statement that our church is divided on the matter was, in sum, the majority report proposal.

The minority report proposal asked for the church to maintain its current position, recognizing and upholding the scriptural teaching against homosexual practice. To make a long story short, by a very narrow margin, the Conference voted to replace the majority report with the minority report, then voting to adopt it as the majority report. By a margin of 55% to 45%, it passed. So, the official stance of The United Methodist Church stays the same as it has been on the question of homosexual practice, but the margin of support was very close. We look like a divided church.

We continue to have these arguments at great cost to the Body of Christ as it is expressed in The United Methodist Church. There is simply no way to have a productive dialogue on the floor of a session of General Conference. The purpose of General Conference is to pass legislation and the way we do so is through a democratic process that culminates in votes. It's up or down.

I know that this is how politics works and I guess, most of the time, I'm quite OK with it working this way. But when I see the emotion permeating this particular vote; when I watch people weep after the vote because, once again, they feel that the church has spurned them or someone they love, I think to myself, "There has to be a better way to deal with this issue."

We will never be able to deal appropriately with homosexual practice without also facing the other practices clearly condemned by scripture, namely adultery and divorce. Those of us who adhere to the traditional view on homosexual practice look like hypocrites when we say nothing about heterosexual sin. And the floor of General Conference is not the place to deal with that one either.

Let me end on a more positive note. The bishops who have been presiding have had an enormously difficult job. Our Bishop Scott Jones did a great job last night. Today, during this most contentious of times, Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida presided with grace and gentleness.

I go to bed with 1 Peter 4:17 on my mind, "For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God..."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Growing Pains

Most of the time we hear about the decline of United Methodism. General Conference is struggling mightily with how to deal with the growth, even if not in the United States: hence the problem.

There are nearly 4 million United Methodist Christians on the African continent. There is exactly one accredited United Methodist university with a graduate-level theological school, Africa University. There was a good deal of talk today (because today is the last day to deal with legislative items that have implications for the church's budget) about how to help support the church's growth in those areas. Imagine an annual conference in one of the African countries growing like crazy. They have new congregations, but the pool of even minimally-trained pastors is very tiny. If they could start some sort of theological school in their area to train their pastors, it would be a great help.

But who will pay for these schools? Who will train the professors? Who will pay their salaries? How will they purchase even the barest minimum of property and buildings in order to establish a visible presence? The money - most of it - has to come from the United States. Will we change our way of operating to make it possible? Will we give sacrificially? It's testing our mettle.

It also takes an action of General Conference to increase the number of bishops in these areas. One of the really interesting decisions today was a vote to decrease the number of bishops in the United States in order to free up more money for adding bishops in places where the church is growing.

The United Methodist Church is having growing pains!

Another special happening today was the speech by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia. She went to a United Methodist High School and is an active member of the United Methodist Church in Liberia. Bishop John Innis (a seminary classmate of mine) is her bishop. She spoke of the historic struggles of a country that, in the early 1980s, was a failed state, and has made tremendous progress since then. The Christian presence of The United Methodist Church has been a necessary and important help in the rebuilding of that country. Her speech was a stirring call to sustain the mission.

Can we do it? Of course. Will we?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Still Going

Well, I've wimped out and gone to my hotel room, but the General Conference is still meeting in plenary session. (You can watch the proceedings video stream at It's nearly 11:00 pm central time as I write this blog.

I subbed again today for someone else, so I was in the session all day until dinner time. Since the General Conference time frame has been shortened by 2 days this time, some legislative committees have had to work overtime, during lunch time, any time they could find time to meet in order to finish their work. They must finish it in order to present it to the General Conference plenary session.

I think we saw/see today the nervousness created by the sub-conscious sense that we don't have as much time as usual, yet there are some big changes coming. Today's highlights, in my mind, are two.

First, the Judicial Council elections suggest an assertion of episcopal power. Two people, one lay and one clergy, were "voted off the island" of Judicial Council and I suspect that, in part, they were because of the controversy over Judicial Council ruling #1032. That decision supported the authority of a pastor to refuse a person admittance into membership of a local church, if that person does not seem to the pastor to be ready to say yes to all the vows. The case that got this controversy going was that of an openly sexually active gay man who was refused membership by the pastor because he would not agree to the church's stance on homosexual practice, although he was very active in the church. This decision prompted the bishop of that area to remove the pastor from the pulpit. The case went to Judicial Council, who determined - with a good deal of disagreement on the Council reminiscent of split votes on the Supreme Court - that the pastor in fact did have the right to refuse membership. This meant that the bishop had to reinstate the pastor to his charge. I'm thinking of an old TV ad about fooling with Mother Nature. It's not nice to fool with episcopal authority.

The people elected today replaced the Council members who had taken the leada on Decision #32, which, to be blunt, upset the bishops (they clearly felt they had the authority to do what that bishop had done). The new people elected were all Council of Bishops nominees. It would be easy to interpret this change as the church's lurching toward a reversal of its stance toward homosexual practice. I think the change has to do more with episcopal authority.

The other noticeable event of the day is related to potential structural changes in order to help the church more adequately reflect its global nature. The UM Church is growing dramatically in Africa, with now nearly 4 million United Methodists on that continent. A petition to appoint a commission to develop and propose a new structure, thus changing the United States to a regional conference, one of a number of regional conferences around the world, suffered all afternoon under the close scrutiny of people making amendments. I didn't count, but I think maybe close to ten amendments were moved on this one piece of legislation. There was also a "majority report" and a "minority report" (a minority report is done when a sufficient number of people on a legislative committee don't agree with the committee's decision and go through a process of writing a minority report, which then is read before the plenary session and has the chance of replacing the majority report). Needless to say, it was a complicated afternoon.

The majority report finally passed this evening, which means that a commission will be formed to prepare (for the 2012 General Conference) a proposed structure that more faithfully reflects the worldwide nature of the church. It seems like a simple deal, right, so why all the fuss? For one reason, the American church still foots a huge share of the bill for the church around the world. (The four-year budget, if everything passes that everyone is asking for, would be over $500 million.) It's hard to give up control, when you're paying the freight. It's the old adage, "The one who pays the piper gets to call the tune." But of course, we're a portion of the Body of Christ, so we don't use the values of the world. Or do we?

One last thing: it has been so interesting to watch delegates from Central Conferences (outside the United States) exercise their influence in the conference. They are speaking freely at the microphone (we're listening to French, Portugese, other languages); they are advocating and voting. Move over Americans!

I'm watching streaming video. The folk are tired. They just stopped for the night. It's 11:20 pm.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Big News, Maybe

There's so much to talk about today that I just can't do it all in one blog. A couple of bullet points will give you a hint:

1. Although today is the Lord's Day, we didn't break for the day. We had worship in the morning and then carried on with business.
2. Saw a video of the 40 year anniversary of the ending of the Central Jurisdiction (African-American) with the creation of the UM Church in 1968.
3. Growing Central Conferences (outside the USA) are really putting the pressure on US United Methodists to share the power.

As a reserve delegate, I got to spend the whole day subbing for somebody, first in the plenary session, then in a legislative committee. It happens to be the one I'm most interested in: higher education and ministry. One of the pieces of legislation we approved, which is very exciting is the formation of a new mission conference in Malawi. The church is growing!

The big news out of this committee today was something that might not seem so big, but it is...and it's never a done deal until the whole General Conference (plenary session) votes, later in the week. The committee voted to approve a constitutional amendment that would give licensed local pastors the right to vote in the election of General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates. This is a big deal and it provides me the chance to give you a little window into United Methodist clergy that is something like a dirty little secret.

In our church, there are basically two tracks for meeting educational requirements: (1) Course of Study and (2) seminary. People who go to seminary are on the track to become elders and full members of annual conference. 'Scuse the church jargon. The point is that there is a decided political advantage to being an elder/full member. If you're a licensed local pastor (Course of Study, not seminary), one of the most potentially frustrating meetings of the year is our annual conference. There's quite a bit of stuff local pastors can't vote on; only elders/full members get to vote - like who can be ordained, which clergy represent the annual conference at General Conference and constitutional amdendments. If you're a licensed local pastor, you can do everything an elder does in your local church, BUT at annual conference, you cannot vote on those issues I just mentioned.

I've long been sensitive to this two-tier system. My Dad was an Associate Member of annual conference. Today, he'd be called a licensed local pastor, full-time. If he were alive and active in the annual conference now, he would not have been able to vote for his son (and elder and full member) or anyone else as a delegate for General Conference. Lay people vote on lay people. Elders vote on clergy. Licensed local pastors don't vote on anybody.

If the constitutional amendment gets approved, this picture will change. Politically and practically, it will spread the power more evenly. But it raises some interesting questions (I guess I'm in a numbering mood):

1. What does this move do to orders? What does it mean to be "ordained" to the order of elder? What is implied in this order beyond just practical matters about conference membership and voting?
2. What does ordination actually means? Am I holier, more mature as a Christian, more skilled, more anything, than a licensed local pastor? I say "no" without hesitation. There's nothing that automatically sets me apart just because of my academic credentials. So, the only difference between me - an elder - and a licensed local pastor (I'm leaving out some important qualifications, but I don't want to get too technical) is education. I have more formal education that my friends who are licensed local pastor.
3. So, does ordination have to do, at the end of the day, merely with educational level? Of course not. Well, what?

I don't know yet. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Watching a Church Work

Imagine a large convention center with a huge main room and a slew of smaller rooms (they're still big, but they can be divided with those big, moveable wall partitions). Imagine seventy or eighty people sitting in one of those rooms, with a few people at a head table and the rest of the people sitting in rows, with microphone stands strategically placed around the room. At the back are booths in which are seated translators for the delegates who do not speak English. If you could walk by those booths you would hear Spanish, French, Portugese, and other languages. Each translator is speaking into a microphone attached by cable to a headset worn by a delegate who is getting an almost simultaneous translation.

Now, imagine this legislative group doing its work according to Roberts Rules of Order: motions, amendments, points of order, speeches for and against, and votes. Everything has to be done in a way that ascertains as best as we can that everyone participates fully in the process. If you can imagine these things, you can get a sense of a General Conference legislative committee at work.

I sat in on the Higher Education and Ministry legislative committee for awhile, watching the proceedings. (In each of the committee rooms, there is a place separated from the main part of the room, for visitors and observers.) The committee was going through a proposed change to the Book of Discipline relative to leaves of absence for various categories of ministers (e.g. licensed local pastor, probationary member, other categories). Each of these pieces of legislation has a number - "Petition #80412" (I made up this number). One petition can be several pages long. The committee (or a sub-committee) has to go through it and decide whether to recommend approval, non-approval or amendment. The work is slow, detailed and extremely tedious. And remember, everything has to be translated, with adequate time for people to ask questions, make amendments, or do something else, in whatever language is theirs.

I confess, this sort of business does not stir my soul, but I deeply appreciate the people who are willing to take the responsibility. Never doubt that they are engaging in a labor of love.

The pressure is starting to mount. The committees have a lot of work to do and tomorrow (Sunday) is the deadline for getting everything ready for the plenary session. Even more, petitions approved by committees that had budget implications (i.e. were they going to cost money to implement), had to be finished and submitted by 5:00 pm today (Saturday). Talk about pressure.

Highlights for today? Our Kansas Area delegations went out to eat together this evening. It's always a joy to sit down with friends. We had our Bishop Jones and Mary Lou with us as well. And Bishop Hutchinson of Louisiana preached at this morning's worship and it was outstanding! He preached on the John 3 text, about Nicodemus and being born of the Spirit, born from above. It was really a call to remember the source of our life, individuall and ecclesially - to be filled with the Spirit once again.

So, how does all that legislative minutiae relate to life in the Spirit? I admit, I'm sometimes doubtful. It's easy to blow off the business side of church life as unspiritual, therefore unimportant. But then I remember other meetings, not at General Conference, like the Board of Ordained Ministry, when one of our struggling colleagues needs some time off and they take "voluntary leave of absence." And we're checking the Book of Discipline to make sure we follow procedures. But of course, now it's not just about meaningless legislation. It's about someone's life. And I'm thankful for the people who were paying attention in the legislative committee.

I still wonder how much of what we're doing truly embodies the life of the Spirit. There is surely more to Christ's Kingdom...

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Daily Grind

Now this is what General Conference is all about: legislation! Today the work of legislative committees began in earnest. Since I'm a reserve delegate, I'm not assigned a committee. I can observe, float around, watch.

I can also visit with people. Bishop Machado from Mozambique preached in the opening worship. A few of you may remember Thyrza Mucambe. Bishop Machado is her Dad. He can preach, let me tell you. He preached in Portugese and it was translated in English. Portugese and Italian are enough alike that I could pick up some of what he was saying before the translator put it in English. I saw Bishop Machado later and it was good to talk with him, if only very briefly.

I also saw Hilary Mawia's dad, Bishop Mawia from Myanmar. We had a nice little visit. He'll be in Winfield at the end of next week for Hilary's graduation. It's kind of weird being in Ft. Worth, talking to a guy from Myanmar about being in Winfield next week. Ah, The United Methodist Church.

The bishop candidates from the South Central Jurisdiction met for lunch today. I really like these people. There were lots of stories told around the table. Since most (maybe all) are or have been district superintendents, they swapped stories peculiar to being a DS. It was really interesting to listen in: very pragmatic, very administrative, problem-solving-type challenges. Very enlightening.

I had a couple of other really interesting conversations. Stay tuned for more on them, probably after General Conference. But now I should turn to the nuts and bolts of today - the legislative committees. It is a grind. Each committee breaks into sub-committees in order to get the work done. Petitions from all across the connection have come to a central office where they are assigned a particular committee (I won't give you the list, but there are 13 legislative committees). There are thousands of petitions that are bundled and assigned and then the committees have to get through them all. Hence sub-committees. Their work is daunting.

What I've heard (but don't know for sure, yet): the committee on the superintendency will recommend to the plenary session that the mandatory retirement age for bishops rise from 66 to 72 (70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30, you know). I also heard that they considered term limits for bishops. I think this one comes up about every 4 years.

The legistlative committees on church and society and faith and order (two different committees) really have their work cut out for them. These are the committees which get flooded with petitions about homosexual practice. Fun. Please pray for them. These matters are controversial and the folks in these committees will have some gut-wrenching moments.

Day three in the books.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

State of the Church

General Conference always includes - at the beginning - speeches by a bishop (the Episcopal Address) and by a chosen lay leader (Laity Address). For the first time in the history of United Methodism, a Young People's Address was added. So, until mid-afternoon today, we listened to representatives of the church share their assessment of United Methodism and their vision of the future.

For starters - the tone and style of these addresses. Denominational leaders tend to be understated most of the time in their formal addresses. Some pointed comments were made, but always in that...what tone is it? Guarded. Careful. Even when we're making some sort of prophetic statement, we have to watch how we say it. Even when we "get spontaneous," we do it in a planned, controlled way. It leaves one dissatisfied, maybe even a little cranky, like going to the soft drink machine and getting a class full of very flat root beer; no bubbles; no fizz.

The young people, on the other hand, were quite fizzy. They were, as one might imagine, much more forthright and strong in their assessments of our condition and bolder in their vision for the future. You know how young people are - all idealistic and such. They were well-organized and what they said had punch. They clearly called a denomination to set aside the old, tired, faultlines of Left and Right. We all cheered, of course, but do we really get what they are saying to us?

In some ways I was quite impressed with what our denominational leaders said today. We really do want to do things differently. We are all sick of business as usual. There was a powerful call to realize the abundant life we already have, rather than believing the myth of scarcity, thus being afraid to dream too big. At other moments during the day, my eyes welled with the tears of yearning. We use the term "United Methodist Church" far too often. It's still about "Methodism" much too much; still too many assumptions about our denomination's prominence.

One little rant: it bugs me the way we change hymn lyrics to reflect our concerns about "justice." You know the old hymn "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing?" One stanza says, "My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim..." It was changed to "My gracious Savior..." "Master," of course, is rendered unuseable because of its racist or imperialist connotation. Ugh. Sometimes we just do silly, even absurd, things, offending one value (the historical integrity of a hymn) for the sake of another (avoidance of sounding oppressive). There's a hermeneutical issue here: the particular connotation that I choose to give a word means that you will be limited in what you can say. Changing words like this is an act of power that strikes me as, in a way, an abuse of power. It is maddeningly self-righteous. I really, really, really wish we wouldn't do that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Opening Worship

Forty years ago (1968), on this very date (April 23), The United Methodist Church was born in Dallas, Texas. Today, we're in next-door Ft. Worth, at the 10th General Conference since the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church back in '68. This moment in our history stood as a counter-balance to the theme of opening worship for General Conference, '08. Taking that oft-used quote from Jeremiah 29:11, we are looking for "a future and a hope," (or "a future with hope").

As usual, we are off and crawling. Worship at 6:00 pm. I found myself thinking about watching Pope Benedict's mass in Yankee Stadium last Sunday and comparing it with what I was witnessing tonight. Protestants easily stereotype Catholic worship as a combination of rote and pageantry. Although the dais on which the Pope sat and where the altar for the mass stood was huge, the service itself was, as liturgical services go, quite simple.

By comparison ours was oddly flashy: lots of "extras." We always try in worship to demonstrate not only the make-up of our church, but also our intent to be inclusive. Like the Catholics last Sunday with the Pope in Yankee Stadium, we, too, celebrated Holy Communion in the Ft. Worth Convention Center. As usual, there was great music, with lots of visual (though not overstated) stimuli. The sermon by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference was solid. We are resurrection people. Our hope is not the vague, vain hope of "I hope so," but the vibrant hope of people who know the resurrected Christ."

A man announced that roughly 6,500 people had participated in worship. The convention center looked 80% full up in seating area. All the delegates sat/sit on the floor of the center, so the place was really full.

Worship behind us, we move to the opening exercise of the business side of Conference - enabling motions to set the bar, practice using the wireless voting pads, a check of security and then approving the various procedural rules so that the Conference can function. I said to one of the other reserve delegates next to me, "I really appreciate the people who have an eye for this sort of detail. I don't."

It's midnight. Day 1 in the books. Our delegation meets at 6:15 tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

General Conference Ennui

I told my friends and students (who, of course, are also my friends) that I would blog about the United Methodist General Conference, so let me try a warm-up. Yesterday, during my morning devotion time, I settled on 1 Peter 1:8, "...and even though you do not see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy."

For some reason, at that very moment the word "ennui" popped into my mind. defines "ennui" as "a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom." Quite unfelicitously, it gave the following example: "The endless lecture produced an unbearable ennui." Ouch! Boring lectures? Impossible! I've never done such a thing.

Next thought (still yesterday morning during prayer): "I'm not even at General Conference yet and I'm already suffering ennui." Now, some 28 hours later, I'm thinking that maybe "ennui" is not quite the right word. Yes, there will be boring moments as conference committees slog through petitionary tedium. But that just goes with the territory. My particular brand of ennui is not so much weariness from boredom.

Sadness. That's it. It's weariness from sadness.

For at least 2 months I've been receiving items in the mail: letters, a video or two, various other publications. They all plead with me to vote for (or against) something: for this person for Judicial Council; for this or that legislation; watch out for the cruel conservatives (IRD) who are taking over our beloved UM Church. This is the stuff I've been getting in the mail. Certainly I appreciate and can sympathize with the zeal of the advocates. I don't want my "ennui" to trivialize their concerns, but, surely, we care about more in the church than structures and boundaries and who gets to share the ecclesiastical goodies. I understand that General Conference is a legislative body, but something still is out of focus.

Maybe my reading I Peter is just bad timing. It's the opposite of United Methdoism in the United States at least. Here's a suffering church. Here's a church with no power (there are parts of United Methodism in the world in which the biblical stories are existentially real to them. They are living I Peter right now. But not us in the USA). Here's a church filled with joy, even though they don't have any of what we usually associate with a prominent church.

There's also a picture in I Peter of history (read the whole book; it's short and you'll see what I mean). These are the last days. We're at the end of the age. In spite of trials, we have joy unspeakable; it's full of glory. Be ready to suffer and in so doing, you'll be like Jesus. Don't give up. The suffering is not forever. Judgment begins with the household of God. Don't worry about the "fiery ordeal" among us, but gird your minds for action. Be disciplined. Be holy.

I do not like this juxtaposition: a wealthy, aging, declining bureaucracy scrambling for status, going through its four-year ritual, assuming that we're really doing something that counts (after all, CNN will come and video us!); a poor, suffering, powerless, hilariously, absurdly, joyful, hopeful fellowship preparing to die but full of life.

I'm sure my mood will brigthen once I get to General Conference. I'll be watching honest, sincere Christians working hard to make faithful decisions. I'll participate in interesting, well-done worship. I'll see people from around the connection that I know and love.

But when we leave on May 2, will we have done anything that even remotely links us with the I Peter church? That truly looks like Jesus' kingdom? Please God, by your mercy...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bill Maher's Kind of Poison

On a recent trip, at the end of a long day, I dragged myself to a hotel room and sprawled out on the bed to unwind. Heh heh. Unwind? I made the mistake of turning on the TV, where the first thing I encountered was Bill Maher's "Real Time," with his sneering sarcarsm fully on display. I admit, I'm not a regular viewer (strange as it seems, we don't get HBO) and I didn't watch this episode for long. Frankly, I can't stomach much from Maher.

Maybe he's like Don Rickles; his TV persona is all spewing and venom, while in normal life he's a decent guy. I hope so. All I know is that he appears to take a particularly cruel pleasure at launching invective at people he thinks are idiots, or are corrupt, or both.

I know HBO is supposed to be edgy and all that. I just don't understand the popularity of Maher's brand of "hip, incisive commentary." Am I just not getting it? Does he want us to take him seriously? How does one laugh at his attacks, even if they include witty oneliners? Maybe my sense of humor is underdeveloped, but I swear, I don't get the attraction. He was plain mean to the guests who tried not to agree with him, even to offer a challenge to his tirade. The "conversation" seemed a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

Which brings me to my point. Bill Maher strikes me as a tragic indicator of American popular culture, which has become pervasively poisonous. The line between serious, if pointed, critique and downright character assassination has been badly breached. If this is really what we like to watch, then we as a society are slowing eat out our own souls.

There are several ironies for me in this scenario. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) were and are regularly excoriated for their judgmental hyperbole. They both have said some pretty inexcusable things on national TV. I can say without a shred of doubt, however, that there is no one more hateful than Bill Maher, unless, of course, there is someone worse, admidst the gazillion cable and satellite stations available to people willing to pay. He is unequaled in setting the standard for hate speech on television. It doesn't seem to bother people much. And that's what worries me.

We'd better start paying attention. May Bill Maher's schtick shrivel and die for lack of viewers.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Are You a Literalist or a...?

When researchers are trying to explain the factions among Christians, they often use views on the Bible as a way of finding the faultlines. Some people take the Bible "literally," others symbolically.

"Literalists" and (I don't know of one word, so I'll make one) "metaphorists" usually don't travel in the same circles. In my experience, the literalists proudly tout their literalism (although, having heard sermons from preachers in this camp, I know that they often interpret the Bible quite symbolically) while the metaphorists vociferously insist that they are NOT like the literalists.

I refuse to issue a "pox on both your houses" because I think it is too easy - even cowardly - to run to the middle and say "I'm a moderate" just for the sake of position. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll position myself. I found help in Scot McKnight's fascinating "Hermeneutical Personality Test" in the Winter 2008"Leadership" Magazine. I discovered that I'm on the conservative side of moderate. So now you know. I'm a moderate - sort of.

What are you? Does it matter? I think it does and I think we could stand for a little more literal interpretation, especially these days. I think so because the mood of our culture has swung far to the metaphorical side, with serious consequences. The trend in attitudes toward the Bible (especially among younger people) is not toward violent literalism, but toward empty symbolism. "The Bible can say pretty much whatever you want it to say," is an increasingly prevalent attitude.

We need to quit talking so much about the dangers of a literalist interpretation of the Bible (forget the fracus over Genesis and evolution) and we ought to start considering the dangers of an overly symbolic, metaphorical reading. The pendulum is swinging the other way and we ought to pay attention.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Evil Side of "Peace of Mind"

Here's a thought (and be prepared to wince): "Christianity is not a therapy for those who wish never to be upset." It comes from Robert C. Roberts in his book, Spiritual Emotions: a Psychology of Christian Virtues, (Eerdmans, 2007). You'll find it in the chapter on peace. It reminds me of a comment John Wesley once made about people wanting "a pillow for the soul."

We rarely admit it so candidly, but isn't this sort of peace pretty close to what we really want? Isn't this desire what we have in mind when we talk about the "peace" that Christians have in Christ? Isn't this why we memorize and quote verses like, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything...and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding..."?

Now, I want peace of mind, too. Who goes around saying, "I want to be mentally tormented?" One of the blessings of walking with Christ is peace - a sense of settledness, even rest - that one feels even if one's circumstances are not peaceful.

But when we turn peace of mind into the ultimate aim (to see how much we want peace of mind, think about how much we talk about stress), we take what is good and twist it into something evil. The Christian's peace of mind starts to look suspiciously like "therapy for someone who wishes never to be upset." On the contrary, the follower of Jesus is supposed to share the sufferings of Christ. How else do we feel compassion - which literally means "to suffer with" someone? Consider the implications of Philippians 3:10, for example. I often think of what Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, prayed: "Let my heart break with the things that break the heart of God." Now that is a truly dangerous prayer.

Dare we assess the health of the Americn church on this question? Go to a Christian bookstore and see what is being published. Ask the manager which books sell the best. Check a Christian bestseller list. Are more people reading Joel Osteen or Shane Claiborne? (I hope you'll google for book titles.) Listen to sermons preached. How many times have you heard that God loves you no matter what, which is true, to be sure? How many times have you been challenged to risk sharing in Christ's sufferings?

If we truly take the biblical God seriously, then we have to ask, how long will God permit this Christian self-indulgence to go on?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Requiem in Pacem, Dan

The news of Dan Fogelberg's death at age 56 was a real blow to me. Admittedly, although I love music, I'm not a real devotee of any person (I get close with Michael Card). I confess, I owned only one album and it was a "greatest hits" compilation.

Still, certain of his songs I absolutely love. My favorite (one I learned to play on the guitar) is "Leader of the Band." It makes me think of my father, who was a Methodist/United Methodist preacher, an old school cowboy from western Kansas. I became a United Methodist preacher and I learned a lot from Dad. I've long felt something of a parallel, then, between Fogelberg's relationship to his father - assuming that the song reflects real family relationship - and mine with my dad. When I began learning the song, I had to sing it about fifty times before I could make it through without crying. My father had died back in the early 1980s.

And now, Dan's music has stopped. He was so young and, worse, he died of a cancer that is one of the more curable kinds. I'm mourning.

I surfed the net for awhile after hearing of his death and read some of the reports. They say how he died - gracefully, full of appreciation and wonder for the fans who loved his music. His wife talked of his peace and courage through the horrible suffering.

The old Methodists used to talk of dying a good death. Doing so was a particularly difficult challenge, because death could take a long time and the suffering could become unbelievably intense, with little in the way of palliative medicine available back then. To put it bluntly, in dying, people just had to gut it out. And Methodists wanted to die well.

Dying well for them meant that one could give testimony to the witness of the Spirit right up to the point of death. One could honestly say that God was one's all, that one had assurance, that no doubt or fear of death troubled. These testimonies were powerful witnesses to the living of the goodness and power of God, even in the momentum extremis.

By the accounts I read, Dan Fogelberg died a good death. I know nothing of his faith in Christ or otherwise and I won't presume to draw personal inferences. Whatever else one might consider, this death shows that God's heart is clearly good, full of mercy and love. God gave Dan the grace to die well. That is a comfort.

I want to die a good death. And in the meantime, I want to live - in the full Christian sense of that word - a good life. God give me grace.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

My Dirt Doesn't Bother Me

In my haste to get out of the office shortly before Christmas, I left a quarter-full coffee cup sitting on my desk. A week later when I went to the office to climb back in the work saddle, there was the cup with a thick slab of dried coffee in the bottom. Off to the bathroom I went to clean things up.

It was amazing how many rinses it took to get all the sludge out of that cup. And that's when I thought, "You know, if I were in someone else's office watching this process, I'd be a little grossed out." Then came the next thought, "My dirt doesn't bother me nearly as much as someone else's dirt."

Last Friday, Joni and I met halfway between our work places to pick up a part for a home bathroom project. We decided to make it a date and go for dinner. Now, you need to know that I'm culinarily challenged. I eat what's put in front of me. I like pretty much everything I eat. I'm not very picky or discriminating. And I promptly forget what we just had after we eat. I'm a happy, but quite dull, don't-notice-much eater. Sadly (for my wife), I'm married to something of a gourmet cook, who loves to try new things and who really, truly gets the chemistry of cooking.

OK, back to the date. Joni suggested that we go to a new Japanese Steakhouse that she had spotted not far from the national chain home repair/building/supply store we had just frequented. So off we went. The restaurant was brand new, so new, in fact, that they didn't have their liquor license (ergo, no saki after dinner). We sat, as people do in Japanese steakhouses, with total strangers, at a big cooking station with seats surrounding it.

That's when we started noticing - the place wasn't very clean. The cook station was slightly dirty from the previous meal: little bits of rice back up under the edge of the grill, a stray pea, a sticky spot on the floor under my feet. Our cook was good. He was funny. (He was also Mexican, not Japanese. I love this country.) But somehow, the food just didn't taste quite right. We didn't relish the meal like we would have had we gone to the other place where we've been before. As we left Joni said, in that philosophical tone, "Well, I'm glad we tried it, but the next time we want Japanese, I probably won't recommend we come here."

My nasty coffee cup didn't bother me at all. A less than perfectly clean restaurant made my gullett a little jittery.

I don't really mind my dirt. Now yours...? Hence, my problem. I'm so thankful Jesus isn't squeamish like I am.