Sunday, April 27, 2008

ourselves in relation to each other: gc 2008

I asked to serve on the GBGM legislative committee. After a day of sorting out who the leaders of subcommittees would be, and what our process would be, we dove into the work. My subcommittee has focused on a number of subjects---the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Fair trade practices, Global debt and the year of Jubilee, HIV in Global context, etc. I have spoken twice in favor of more explicit Christian language in the larger settings, and each time this has not carried the day. There is some legislation at the nexus between the IRD and the Women's division, and this is getting nowhere in our group. I have spoken in favor of more balanced language related to Israel and the Palestinians, and this has been incorporated in our subcommittee. We will see how it goes in the whole GBGM group and in the larger setting.

Beyond the legislative work, I have enjoyed having lunch with Bishop Schnase yesterday, and Bishop McCleskey today, and also dinner one evening with Tom Albin, a friend from the Upper Room, and Tom Butcher, who directs the Path One initiative (new churches). Tomorrow we get into the larger legislative processes, especially elections of university senate and judicial council members.

Most of what we are doing is all about ourselves, in relation to each other. This overwhelming reality transcends all of the political groupings, and unfortunately does not help the church in fulfilling its mission.

Friday, April 25, 2008

general conference, so far

It is Friday evening, I think. We have been at this for most of a couple of days. Most groups have not moved much beyond organizational processes, which are incredibly complex, sometimes to the point of absurdity. The plenary sessions have been heavily scripted, with teleprompters, the arena darkened, so that those present are not able to take notes, or read books, or catch up on other important work! There seems to be a subdued atmosphere; maybe we have not gotten to the real work, maybe it will stay in this mode. There were several "state of the church" addresses: the council of bishops, the connectional table, youth, laity. Reader's theater seems to be the preferred rhetorical style; it allows for different voices, and matches the heavily scripted style of the week. It is odd, however, as I can't remember experiencing reader's theater in years.

I am on the Global Ministries legislative committee. There are approximately 72 of us, speaking ten different languages. My sub-committee (of ten) is working on a number of issues: Israeli-Palestinian relationships, fair trade practices, global HIV ministry, a ministry plan for Latin America and the Carribean, and for Pacific Islanders, etc. We are on a dinner break, and will reconvene at 7:30 p.m. My subcommittee chair is from the Congo, and speaks French with an interpreter. The Central Conference delegates are much more engaged with it all than in 2004 and that is to the good.

I have met a number of old friends, some working in general agencies, some in theological schools, some fellow pastors. I have seen a number of Bishops, and have met a few people who I only knew by name or reputation. It is all very interesting, and some of it does actually relate to the local church that I serve.

We are staying about seven miles away, a daily bus trip of 30-40 minutes each way. The days are long, and again the organizational processes are somewhat tedious, but I think it will all start to stir over the weekend. There is severely limited access to computers, so I hope to blog more substantively later.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bishop John Innis of Liberia

Bishop John Innis of the United Methodist Church of Liberia will be preaching at Providence United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 4, 2008 at the 8:30 am service, and presiding in the Service of Confirmation and Baptism at 11:00 am. Providence has a number of Liberian members, and we are delighted that Bishop Innis will be with us on this day. If you are in the Charlotte area on this date, and/or if your congregation does not have an early service, please join us on this historic day. You can learn more about the United Methodist Church of Liberia here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

an open letter to the 2008 general conference: are we one body?

We live in a polarized society where the church is often shaped by its environment, claiming a privileged posture for itself and demonizing anyone who disagrees. This happens in the crossfire among the left and right wing expressions of our political and cultural debate. One of the books I have been working through since the last General Conference, an experience I have been trying to repress from my memory (!), is a brief volume (only 62 pages) entitled In One Body Through The Cross: The Princeton Proposal For Christian Unity (Eerdmans). It is a statement offered by sixteen theologians about the present state of affairs in the church, and particularly about the divisions that exist. While there are very real disagreements, and important issues at stake, this fragmented condition is a problem for the church, which exists “in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2. 16).

The authors of In One Body Through The Cross offer a number of compelling insights:

*we have celebrated diversity and pluralism, sometimes to the neglect of God’s gift of unity;
*our divisions contradict and jeopardize God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us;
*we have learned to accept division and disunity as normal;
*the church is to be a sign of unity in the midst of a divided humanity;
*disunity is barrier to our evangelism in the world;
*the spiritual failure of Christianity in the modern era stems from our ongoing divisions;
we make more of our distinctive identities (within denominations, or even in local churches) than we do of our common confession of the crucified Lord;
*division always distracts us from our mission;
*the division of the church undermines our teaching authority;
*and we sometimes presume others to be faithless and spiritually dead because they are different from us.

The United Methodist General Conference will meet in Fort Worth, Texas over ten days in late April and early May. In some areas of the world the Methodist movement is growing---particularly in the two/thirds world. In other regions, the church is on a plateau, growing a little, primarily swapping members with each other--- the southeast and southwestern United States. In the major media areas of our country the church has been steadily shrinking over the past decades. Therefore what United Methodist leaders do when they gather once every four years is not that interesting to the world, really.

There is one exception. The media---whether Fox or National Public Radio--- loves a church fight. The denomination doesn’t matter. Sometimes we fight each other. There is the story of a small southern town, two revivals happening on the same evening, the Methodists singing the hymn, “Will there be any stars in my crown?”, the Baptists singing, “No, not one”! And sometimes we fight within ourselves; it is the common affliction at the moment for Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans as well. And it is as if the media looks at us and asks, “they are supposed to love one another; look at them”. Before I leave the media, I must comment on NPR's coverage of the last General Conference. I love NPR, but their very brief coverage of the United Methodist General Conference in Pittsburgh in 2004 was, to be generous, an adventure in missing the point, and to be honest simply horrible.

In Fort Worth we will accomplish important business. We will affirm our core mission-to make disciples, for the transformation of the world. And yet one of the most profound ways we will do this is by the way we live with one another, and by the way we love one another.

A few decades ago, the big issue might have been the relationship between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and modernists. Some are still fighting those battles, but by and large, the world has changed. People are no longer interested in those battles. They are disillusioned. They are scared and scarred. The story is not new to them. They have heard it. They are just close enough to the religious community to gaze inside and wonder if it is real. They are more familiar with law than love, with rules than relationship.

Outside the church, the perspective is clear: nations have the capacity to destroy each other. The deep historic divisions are more pronounced than ever, and yes, these divisions are sometimes identified with religious traditions that have, at the their core, important teachings about love.

God has only one reason for wanting to save the church: the church has been given a mission, a commission, to make disciples who know and share God’s love. This idea is embedding in our Scriptures and in the Discipline we will gather to revise. When we forget our mission, God will use someone else (our steady membership loss indicates that this is in fact already happening). When we rediscover our mission, we will have the assurance that God is with us.

Jesus clearly intended and prayed that the church might be one (John 17). The divisions within our denomination and even within our local congregations are not within God’s will. We are called to remain in the body, repenting of actions that divide. Ultimately, unity is never our human work. It is the gift of the “God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5. 19).

And so, my open question: "Are we one body?"

Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. is senior pastor, Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte, and a delegate to the 2008 General Conference (Western North Carolina).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

benedict xvi meets with victims of abuse

The pope is here this week, and I have casually watched some of the proceedings, the mass today at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the address yesterday at the United Nations. I came across this articile today in the Boston Globe. Boston was the epicenter of the priest abuse scandal, in regard to both the damage to young children and the equally harmful ecclesial responses characterized by denial, avoidance and blame of the victims. I found this article to be very moving for a number of reasons: it displays true pastoral integrity on the part of the present cardinal of Boston; it shows the humanity of the present Pope; and it acknowledges, in a way that is true to the church's highest nature, the need for forgiveness, reconciliation and pastoral meeting. Reading this actually brought tears to my eyes: it reminded me that the church is an institution, and yet the church is also an earthen vessel (2 Corinthians 4. 7), with the power belonging to God, and not to us. This side of heaven, the damage done to young boys and girls is irrevocable, I am sure; and yet there is the sense, in reading about this encounter, that men and women are being set free, the old passing away, the new coming into being.

Read it all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

friendship (john 15)

Some of you may be familiar with “Facebook”. It is self-described as a social utility that connects friends. Some of you have never heard of Facebook. Some of you have heard of it, some of you probably spend a lot of time there. Facebook is about having your own site on a computer, where you post your picture, and reveal facts about yourself, and you invite friends into your site, and you talk about the next gathering, the next game, the next party. Some have hundreds, even thousands of friends on “Facebook”.

Friday evening I was here at the church, for a wedding rehearsal and then a dinner that followed, and I observed two groups of friends, who were in gatherings adjacent to each other. One group was known to me, for the most part, one was unknown. The first was a Sunday School class, and they had gathered for a “game night”. I suppose there were twenty-five in attendance. They were married couples and singles, they had brought food to share, they were relaxing, laughing, playing a variety of table games. I knew enough to know that the folks present in that room had been through some pretty stressful events in the last year: fighting cancer, the marriage of adult children, the loss of a child by death, business changes, the death of parents, retirements. Some of them had been together a long time, others were fairly new to the group, but they were quickly accepted.

After the wedding rehearsal, and after hanging out with the Sunday school class for awhile, I went into Charter Hall, where Alcoholics Anonymous was meeting. Another group of friends--- a very large group of friends; I am told it is the largest A.A. meeting between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. I sat down and listened, and watched. A man was sharing his life story, a twenty-year journey of sobriety, of making amends, of living “one day at a time”. It was one-part wisdom, one-part humility, one-part humor. Even in a large room it was if he was talking to one or two people. As he spoke, folks nodded: some of them were neatly groomed, others were what I would call “hard-living” people.

I had been thinking for some time about preaching a sermon on “friendship”. Our lives are enriched by friendships, and yet we often take them for granted, when they are present, and sense a great void, when they are missing. The Celtic Christians had a term, “anam chara”, soul friend, and a corresponding saying, “a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head”. Last week Bishop Wilke quoted the verse from the Beatles song of a generation ago, “look at all the lonely people, where do they all belong?” People recognize the need for friendships. And yet friendships are an endangered species. Many of us are like bodies walking around, without heads: all the lonely people.

Years ago I read a wonderful little book entitled Friendship by Gilbert Meilaender. In it he made an important distinction between the classical world and the modern world. In the ancient Greek world, no one expected to find fulfillment in their work. People worked in order to live, in order to contribute, perhaps to the common good. In the modern world, by contrast, people do want to find fulfillment in their work. In the ancient world, people found fulfillment, not in work, but in friendships. In the modern world, many are willing to sacrifice friendships for the sake of work. “The inevitable result”, he noted, “was that deep personal relationships, like friendship, become harder and harder to sustain” (92).

We need friendship. And yet, friendships can be rare. The Bible teaches us that we are created for relationship. After the creation, God surveys the situation and says, “it is not good that man should be alone”, and there is the gift of companionship. Peter Gomes is insightful in noting that God does not say that it is not practical to be alone, or that it is not convenient to be alone. God says that it is not good to be alone!

We were created for relationship. In part, that is relationship with God, in whose image we are made. But we are also created for relationship with one another. Years ago I was getting started in the ministry, and we were living in a rural area. For several years I had enjoyed close friendships with seminary students, some of whom have served over the years at Providence. And now, I was on my own. I began to seek out and through God’s grace discovered a group of pastors, who were about my age, who were also serving in nearby rural towns: Yadkinville, Boonville, Elkin, Mocksville. Over time we met weekly, sometimes to prepare sermons, sometimes to shoot the breeze, sometimes to gripe and complain, sometimes to support each other. The setting changed, from our churches, to a McDonalds in Yadkinville, to the Lexington Barbecue Restaurant. For several years we meet at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast in Lexington. In hindsight, I suppose you would call our group of rural ministers a “social utility”! Looking back, I am not sure if I would have survived the early years of ministry without that group of friends.

I learned, early on, an important lesson. The ministry was never intended to be a lone ranger enterprise. I was always in a much healthier place when I realized that companions in the journey accompanied me. I was not alone. Across the years I have come to a couple of perspectives on friendship.

In friendship we see ourselves in others, our experiences in another person. And sometimes we are supported in the knowledge that we are not the only person going through a stage in life: the physical exhaustion of raising a young child, or being pulled between a teenager and an aging parent, or being a single adult in a large city, or being the parent of a gay or lesbian child, or having a family member in the war. Someone has noted the “aha” character of this kind of friendship: “I thought I was the only one going through this!”

But friendships, deep friendships, can also bring people together who disagree about important matters: politics, sports, even faith. One minister described one friendship in this way: “the only thing we can agree on is the time of day” And this too is a gift: the world is enriched by relationships between people who cross lines that differentiate them. This week I was listening to the television news, and thinking about the identity markers that so polarize our culture: race, class, gender, and then I recalled the wonderful affirmation of the apostle Paul in Galatians 3. 20: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor greek, male nor female, slave no free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus”. The radical message of the gospel was that the love of Jesus Christ did not harden the categories that separate us, but that, in the words of Ephesians 2, it broke down the wall of hostility between us.

Friendships are not just the coming together of like-minded people. And for this reason we move into a necessary dimension of these relationships—the difficulty of sustaining them. There is a wonderful piece of wisdom in the Ecclesiasticus (Apocrypha): The man who fears the Lord keeps his friendship in repair, for he treats his neighbor as himself. (6. 16-17).

Pam and I have a small cabin in the mountains. We have lived in parsonages all of our adult lives, with the exception of student housing in graduate school. With this cabin, and the property on which it sits, we have learned a bit about the meaning of repair. There is labor involved: something breaks, something floods, something falls, something settles, something appears out of date, something is not functional…and it is in need of repair.

We are to keep our friendships in repair. How do we do that? We attend to them. We reciprocate. Sometimes, we ask for forgiveness, for some sin of omission or commission. Because we have invested most of our financial resources, such as they are, in this cabin, it is worth keeping in repair. Are friendships worthy of repair? Have you ever needed to repair a friendship? How would you go about it?

It might be as simple as sending someone an e-mail message and saying, “can we meet for coffee?” Or writing a note of apology. Or making the conscious decision to let go of some grudge or hurt. Or resolving to see that the good in the other person far outweighs the defects. Isn’t this how we ourselves want to be seen, by others?

Friendships are crucial to our well-being, to the formation of community, to the abundant life. But all of this conversation about friendship, for our purposes this morning, is placed in yet another and more ultimate context: In John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples. He is sharing a last meal with them, he will be betrayed, he senses this, he is trying to get an important lesson across to them. And then he says something astonishing to them: “I no longer call you servants, but friends”.

Friendship is for the sake of something larger, a cause, to love one another, and to share this love beyond themselves. Some of our closest friendships in life develop as we focus on some mission that transcends us: two people who sing in a choir, week in and week out, rehearsing music that glorifies God; two guys who coach a kids baseball team, and discover the joy and frustration of see children grow in self-confidence; two couples who spend a great deal of their life in a substantive mission project; parents of disabled adult children who discover a new set of friends, other parents whose path has joined their own.

The friends of Jesus were his disciples, they would take part in his mission, which was to make his kingdom of love and joy and peace and justice visible in the world. Like all friendships, the relationship was sustained by spending time together, learning about each other, sharing meals, becoming vulnerable, getting beyond the surface. The friendship endured, despite failures of love and betrayals of conscience and misunderstandings and periods of doubt. Over time, the friendship with Jesus changed their lives.

There are worse definitions of being a Christian than this simple one: a friendship with Jesus. Peeling everything away---the doctrinal disagreements, the social and racial and economic identity markers, the unique directions our lives have taken—peeling all of that away, to be a Christian is to be in a friendship with Jesus, which, in the original Greek language of the New Testament, is to love Jesus, to be in love with Jesus, which, as John would write in a letter to the very first friends of Jesus, could never be separated from loving his friends. If we cannot love our neighbor, whom we have seen, how can we love whom we have never seen? (I Jn 4)

The invitation is a simpler one: write down, somewhere, a list of three to five friends. I am not talking about the hundreds of friends you have on Facebook. If you have difficulty coming up with 3-5 persons, perhaps it is time to move toward the community---a Sunday School class, a ChristCare group, a Disciple group, a UMW circle. There is no shame in acknowledging the need to cultivate friendships a priority. Priorities change, we move, we over-invest in work. Ask these questions: How am I investing in this friendship? Does this friendship need to be repaired? How can I strengthen this friendship? And then give thanks for the gifts of human friendship, and friendship with Jesus. It is amazing that he calls us, no longer his servants, but his friends. I close with an insight from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“What is an unspeakable gift of God, for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters.

Sources: Peter Gomes, Sermons. Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Thomas Gillespie, “Theological Friendships”, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Fall, 1997. Gilbert Meilaender, Friendship.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

the chimney starter

I am a recent convert to the chimney starter, which provides an excellent way to grill food without using a gas grill or lighter fluid for the soaking of charcoal. Not only is the food healthier; it is also, imho, more flavorable. Read about it here

Saturday, April 12, 2008

jesus, the illegal alien among us

Last summer I preached a sermon on globalization that questioned our nation's increasing antagonism toward immigrants, largely through reflection on the Old Testament injunction to make a place for the foreigner and alien in our midst through acts of hospitality and provision of food. Here is a link to a sermon by Edgardo Colon-Emeric, who teaches at Duke Divinity School and assists in the pastoral ministry at Reconciliation UMC in Durham, North Carolina. A member of our church worships there (while in graduate school) and she had forwarded this sermon to her mother, who forwarded it to me. It is a profound example of deep biblical reflection on an issue, and calls into question the attitudes that prevail in the popular media and, as a consquence, in our common life. I have met Edgardo--we were participants in the Oxford Institute For Methodist Theological Studies last summer--and in that setting found him to be a thoughtful and serious Christian.

Read it all.

braves 10, nationals 2

The Braves bring the power in this rain-delayed game, which included four runs in the first inning, and, amazingly, three runners left on base in that inning. Jeff Francoeur had two home runs and seven rbis, Brian McCann added a homer, and John Smoltz picked up his second win, with six excellent innings. A good day.

Friday, April 11, 2008

exaggeration: listening to barack and hillary, anticipating forth worth

I have come to believe that politics is inherently hyperbolic, which is to say, political rhetoric is driven by the exaggeration. For example, Elton John laments that America is misogynistic for its lack of support for Hilary Clinton's candidacy for the presidency. I would let this pass, but it is a comment I have heard in at least one other setting, from a person I respect. Yes, there are misogynistic people in the world (the abuses presently taking place in a religious compound in Texas and in the Congo being two vivid and horrifying examples). But it is possible that many people are not voting for Hillary, not because they are misogynistic, but because they do not wish to see her in the office of the president. The reasons might be her unwillingness to admit her mistake in voting to go to war, or her lack of preparatory study in making that decision, documented by the New York Times, or her stance on a particular issue. In the same way, one could withhold support for Barack Obama and not be racist. Racism is without a doubt a part of my heritage and educational experience. I happen to like Barack Obama, alot. But, that does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that I am not a racist. And, as for John McCain, I have long appreciated his principled stands in opposition to torture, in defiance of the White House and the Pentagon, and have sensed a moral authority in his stances that transcend political partisanship. Yet the campaign will surely place him in a box, the right wing alternative to the left-wing choice, whoever he or she turns out to be.

And so the exaggerations about policies and personalities become, over time, a bit absurd, for the benefit of our simplifying it all: one party is good, the other is bad, one person is racist, the other is not, one is misogynistic, the other is not. This all, of course, bleeds over into the church, and especially as we ramp up for General Conference in Fort Worth. One group does spiritual violence to gays, another group adopts a pagan perspective that marriage between a man and a woman should not be normative. The general agencies are disconnected from the realities of ordinary Christians who occupy the pews and fund the denomination, the local church is narrow-minded and parochial...I am only reporting the extreme perspectives, as they are often communicated, and of course the rhetoric serves the political gain of the group that seeks to gain visibility and market share in a slowly shrinking body.

Exagerration is, of course, our default culture, and the media (secular or ecclesial) is not inclined, by temperament or training, to find another path through it all, another perspective. It is not, finally rooted in the question "why can't we all just get along", meaning, the realities are at the polar extremes; those in the middle are in some sort of denial, having retreated to the role of pacifier. My hunch is that the reality is not primarily at the extremes, but this language shapes or structures our reality, and not, in my mind, to the good. If this were not so, if our speech were more truthful, if our judgments more measured, we might have a government that actually focused on the needs of people---an end to the war, a response to escalating energy and transportation costs, access to health care---and a church that re-focused on its mission--to make disciples, for the transformation of the world.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

an interesting week for the carters

1. On Monday our daughter Liz successfully defended her undergraduate thesis in Asian Studies at UNC, and will graduate in May with "highest honors".
2. On Tuesday my wife Pam met Michelle Obama.
3. On Wednesday our daughter Abby flew to Dallas, where she is playing in a national club volleyball tournament for college students.
4. Today I was invited to spend a week in the summer with one of my spiritual heroes, Eugene Peterson, focusing on "writing and pastoral ministry".

Lots of other important stuff, but these were the highlights.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

humanitarian disaster in haiti

Read the following : Starving Haitians riot as food prices soar.

For Preval's response, click here as well.

Haitians run through the streets during protests against the rising cost of living in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday

You might also write your political representative: now might be the time for humanitarian intervention beyond the scale of faith-based initiatives (such as PUMC's Haiti Mission, etc.). And of course Canada and France could join us. A human tragedy, two and one half hours from the U.S. shores.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

a typical weekend in a typical church

This has been a typical weekend in a typical church. On Friday morning I spent some time revising a manuscript that is slightly overdue (thank you for your patience, Jill), and then I gave some thought to a writing assignment that is also due, that will be next on the conveyor belt (thanks for your patience, David). Then I went out to have lunch with about 30 of our members who reside at the Methodist retirement home. It is a bright, engaged and lively group, and they come from all over the U.S. Then I got ready for a wedding rehearsal dinner. Once the rehearsal was over, I wandered by one of the rooms in our church, where a sunday school class was having a fellowship night. Some of our closest friends are in this group. Then I went back to the rehearsal dinner. Then I went back by the ss class gathering. Then I wandered in the large gym (we call it a hall), where a large a.a. meeting was happening. It was happening there because their usual space (which we call the catacombs) was being used by several homeless families who are spending three weeks there. In the evening I met a couple of friends who were bringing a meal to these families. I then went back into the gym and listened to one of the anonymous witnesses. Amazing.

So four fairly lively gatherings were happening at one time.

I went home, went to asleep, woke up this morning, and returned to church. I did a little more work on the manuscript--I am making some progress. Then I met with a couple who will be married in the fall. Premarital counseling, they call it. Then I welcomed Richard and Julia Wilke, who are here for the weekend. Bishop and Mrs. Wilke are here for the weekend, leading a focus on Disciple Bible Study. We walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and they enjoyed the low country fare (which is not very prevalent in their native Kansas). We walked back to the church, where Bishop Wilke led a gathering from our district through a reflection on Disciple in the congregation and in the prison setting. As that ended I got ready for the wedding. It went fine--I shared in the leadership with a Moravian minister who is a friend of the family. Afterwards I congratulated the couple, and the parents, and had a picture made. Then, home...

Next...the semifinals of the Final Four. My predictions for the Final Four were on target. My predictions for tonight's winners: Memphis and UNC.

P.S. If you are in the Charlotte area tomorrow and don't have a church commitment, I invite you to hear Bishop Wilke, at either 8:30 or 11:00. He is one of the great spiritual leaders of United Methodism.

Friday, April 04, 2008

mlk: disappointment in the church

"I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen".

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter From A Birmingham Jail

forty years ago: remembering martin

Martin Luther King (c) on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, 3 April 1968

One man come in the name of love

One man come and go

One man come, he to justify

One man to overthrow

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

One man caught on a barbed wire fence

One man he resist

One man washed on an empty beach.

One man betrayed with a kiss

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

(nobody like you...)

Early morning, April 4

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They could not take your pride

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

In the name of love

What more in the name of love...

"Pride", U2

Thursday, April 03, 2008

braves 10, pirates 2

In which the Braves win their first game, they are now 1-2. On the bright side, three Braves hit home runs: Matt Diaz, Yunel Escobar (of Cuba---baseball is a very multi-cultural enterprise) and Mark Teixeira (new to the team this year, and destined to be a Braves standout). On the other hand, it took seven pitchers to pull off the win (it was a 3-2 game until the bottom of the eighth). It may be a long year in the starting pitching and long and middle relief areas. Can the Braves get into the playoffs? Who knows?

But, hope springs eternal. Go Braves! link

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

why parables are so frustrating and offensive

You can see a version of a prior post on Hilary and Barack
at Theolog. My friend Jason, an editor at the Christian Century,
oversees this blog. You will also see a few responses to the brief reflection. My intention with it: to help us move beyond the tired categories that limit the imagination in assessing current events (liberal/conservative, accusation/rebuttal, experienced/novice, victim/oppressor). It seems to me that this was a part of the genius of Jesus' use of parables, and contributed, to be sure, to the frustration and offense among those who listened to them.

resurrection, seeing and believing (john 20)

The Christian life, at its core, is about an experience. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Well, no. Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? Yes…no. I was somewhere else, actually I had fled with the crowd, I didn’t see it, I heard about it later. The Christian life, at its core, is about an experience. Last Sunday morning I stood here with many of you and sang the verses of “Christ The Lord is Risen Today”, the descant soaring above, the thunderous praise of congregation and organ. It was something. How can I describe that to someone who was not here? It was like heaven, it was like an out of body experience!

How do we describe these experiences for those who are not present? This was the predicament, only magnified, of the early disciples, soon to be apostles: This amazing Easter message, that Jesus was no longer dead, but out of the tomb, the stone rolled away, he appeared to the women, we didn’t believe them at first, then to Peter and the 12, then to over 500 then to James, then to Paul…he is alive. And yet, they had to explain it, they had make sense of it, they had to tell it, it was such good news.

When we tell someone about an experience, we use images, metaphors, “it is like this” we might say. John the Evangelist was a master at telling us about the good news through the signs of Jesus. John has been called a book of signs: I am the bread of life, Jesus would say. I am the good shepherd. I am the vine and you are the branches. We can visualize the vine and those branches, knit and woven together, and learn something about the relationship between the believer and the Lord. John’s Gospel shows us, and that’s good, for we want to visualize it, we want to see. We are like Thomas. We had heard with our ears, second-hand, so to speak, but we would like to see with our own eyes. Spiritually speaking, we are all from Missouri: we are all saying, “show me”.

John is a book of signs. And the sign given to Thomas is the concluding one. “I will not believe”, Thomas had said, “unless I see in his hands the nail prints, and place my finger in his wounds”. In other words, I want to experience it myself.

Were you there when the crucified my Lord?, they asked Thomas. Well, no. Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? Well, no. He needed to experience it. Pam and I experienced the joy of raising two daughters. Maybe we are not finished! These were exciting, exasperating experiences, it was always something new. I will make a confession: I often wished they would listen to me, follow my advice. “Don’t climb the fence, don’t sit on your sister, its not good for her, if you eat chocolate all day you will be miserable”. I wanted them to defer to my authority as a parent, and trust me.

But it was not to be. They had to discover everything, all along the way, for themselves. The same is true for you and me, if we are honest. The same was true for Thomas. He could not take the word of Peter, or James, or John, not to mention the others. He wanted to see for himself. And the Gospel is not something that we can impose on someone else. We must discover it for ourselves, like a treasure hidden in a field.

There is something to be said for this approach. We cannot live off of the spiritual experiences of others, drawing down the spiritual capital of the past. It has to come alive, for us. This was so with Thomas, and it is so for you and me.

Thankfully, the disciples allowed Thomas his quest. History has referred to him as “doubting Thomas”, but in his skepticism he represents all of us who come to faith and continue in faith with perseverance and struggle. Thomas is a seeker. Pam and I have a good friend, John Mathew, who is a minister in Canada, and whose roots are in the church of the apostle Thomas, rooted in India.
In the first century, after the resurrection, Thomas had taken the gospel to India. But earlier in John’s Gospel, Thomas had asked Jesus, upon his impending departure, “We do not know where you are going? How can we know the way?” And Jesus had responded, “I am the way, the truth and the life.

Thomas is the one who is in conversation with Jesus about the faith, and included in that faith is struggle, doubt. My friend John says that Thomas is the most influential theologian of the first century Christian Church. John quotes Frederick Buechner:

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is no God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep…doubts are ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving”.

Don’t disparage doubt so quickly. As the “Hymn of Promise” captures it, “in our doubt, there is believing”. And so we do not discount Thomas. Neither did his friends, the disciples. “If you won’t take my word for it”, they say, “try this yourself”. Come and see. This is the evangelical invitation. Come and see. And he does, and there is the confession of faith: “My Lord my God”.

Then follows the pronouncement of Jesus. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. ckey Efird, one of my professors at Duke Divinity School spoke of those who were always wanting to see signs. Jesus did not think too highly of those always looking for a sign, a proof. And so he extended to all of those who would come later a blessing, a beatitude: Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.

There would come a generation, successive generations of men and women who would believe not because of experiences like those of Thomas, but who would believe through the signs written in the book. The thrust of Jesus always seemed to be just the opposite of our usual way of thinking: not if you see, you might believe. But if you believe, you will see!

It’s March Madness, basketball moving toward an exciting finish, two North Carolina teams still in it. You would not know it from the weather, but today is also the beginning of baseball season. Some of you have seen the movie, “Field of Dreams”. It is based on a novel entitled “Shoeless Joe”, as in Shoeless Joe Jackson, the baseball star who was banned from the sport for life, perhaps unfairly, because of gambling. In the movie and book Ray, the farmer, hears a voice. “if you build it, they will come”. He gradually realizes that he must build a baseball diamond on his farm, and he does. Miraculously, baseball greats from the past come out to play on his field. And yet he cannot show his spectacle to others; they do not believe, and so they cannot see. Ray believes, and thus he sees.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. For the believer, all of life can be a sign. With many of you I have followed the progress of Kelly Braxton through her husband Ken’s writings on their Caring Bridge website. I asked Ken if I could share this experience. Kelly is fighting cancer, and is needing to gain weight (this is not the problem for most of us).

One evening I ran into Ken at Harris Teeter, not far from where we both live. I was buying supplies for all of the adult children, Liz, Abby, Jack, and some of their friends, who were coming home for the Easter holiday. Ken was there to buy ice cream for Kelly. She has not had much of an appetite lately, but that evening she was hungry. And so he was there for one thing: her favorite ice cream. We talked for a couple of minutes and did our shopping. I have observed that men do not spend long periods of time in grocery stores! The next day Ken commented that their family’s favorite ice cream was on sale—buy one, get one free. It was, he said, a sign.

If you believe, you will see. And so, I ask you, are your eyes open to see the signs? A beautiful Bradford pear tree, in bloom. A shooting star. An unexpected encounter with a long-lost friend.

After the resurrection, we look for the signs, by faith. Christianity is never going to be intellectually proven to us. Instead, as Anselm of the early church expressed it, “I believe in order that I might understand”. Not “seeing is believing”, but “believing is seeing”.

And so the good news takes on new life. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? No…well maybe that night I spent in the shelter. Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? That afternoon when I walked with my friend to the graveside. Were you there when God raised him from the dead? I was there, I was there….

Because we believe, we see. And the signs of John’s book become not proofs but living experiences with one who walks with us and talks with us and tells us that we are his own. The Easter beatitude becomes ours, and with it the command of Jesus, “as the father sent me, so I send you”. We are sent forth with this new discovery, which of course we want to share as joyfully and helpfully with others as we possibly can. Because we believe we see, and because we believe, John tells us, we have the promise of life in his name.

Prayer: I ask three things, O Lord: To see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.

Sources: John Mathew, “Christophanic Courage To Change One’s Mind”, Light of Life. W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.