Saturday, May 31, 2008

social networking, fundraising and christian stewardship

I read this essay on Memorial Day weekend. It is about Obama's remarkable fundraising over the past months. It is worth reading by any Christian leader, for it describes a method that churches and ministries can learn from, particularly the relationship between social networking and fundraising (something we have known about in a pre-digital age) as it is practiced in a digital era, among people who do not have accumulated financial resources.

Read it all.

Friday, May 30, 2008

the "lost" season four finale: miracles, endings and beginnings

The Oceanic Six make their way to safety, but in true family systems fashion, what looks like a solution is actually a problem. The end of season four was very satisfying, even if it did raise more questions than were answered. Such as:

1. How can John Locke and Jeremy Bentham be the same person?
2. What does it mean that Christian Shepherd appears to everyone just prior to death?
3. Ben wants the Oceanic Six to return to the island, and yet Claire urges Kate not to go back, or, to be more precise, not to take Aaron back?
4. Are Desmond and Penny together? Is it too good to be true?
5. To what location has the island moved?
6. Why does John Locke plead with Jack to lie about the island?

The series is set to continue its exploration of the relationship (and power struggle) between Jack Shepard, the rational, somewhat controlling leader of the survivors and John Locke (or is he Jeremy Bentham), the philosopher/explorer/mystic/wounded healer. The others are along for reasons having to do with romance and adventure (Kate), humor (Hurley), espionage (Sayid) and honor (Sun).

As an aside, in my denomination "Lost" would get very high marks for multicultural representation. Think of the survivors of the Oceanic Six: three males, two females, an Asian, a Middle-Easterner, and one under 30. But, as my younger daughter reminds me, it was a Transatlantic Flight.

In the meantime, the show will go on, at least until 2010. As Ed Friedman, of blessed memory, once said, "what looks like an ending is actually a beginning".

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

relax (matthew 6)

For a number of years I led a retreat that was required of all first year pastors in our annual conference. I always began the retreats by encouraging the participants to relax. There is that stage at the beginning of a retreat, when you encourage those present to begin to disengage with everything they’ve left behind---work, families, other demands---and to enter into the retreat. You’ve probably experienced the same dynamic in transitioning from work to vacation. It takes some time and effort, for all of us.

I would then usually reflect on the passage that is the lectionary gospel for today---do not be anxious about your life, consider the lilies of the field, will not God take care of you?, live one day at a time, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.

Then I would read the passage from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, and I would pause, for some time, over a particular phrase within that passage, our passage. “What I am trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving”.

Now I realize that we are not on a retreat. We haven’t carved out two or three days, it is more like two or three hours, but the principle is the same. We’re all in the process of disengaging from whatever we left behind, at home this morning, or on the way to church, or even in the car: something on television, a family disagreement, an errand that needs to be accomplished or a bill that needs to be paid, a phone call that needs to be returned, the sign on the way to church that said gas was $4 a gallon! I am trying to forget about that one! And so I am encouraging us to leave all of that behind, to disengage with it, and to enter into this teaching of Jesus.

The gospel falls in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and it follows a brief teaching about money. That is not accidental. Much of our anxiety, much of our spiritual struggle is related to money. Most of us worry about money, no matter how much or how little we have of it. This has to be related to something that is embedded deep within us, the question, “will there be enough?” Maybe it is in our genetic code, the hunter-gatherers anxious about whether there would be enough food for that day.

We wonder and worry: is there enough to provide for my family, enough to make that college tuition payment, enough to retire on, enough to make it to the end of life?”

Jesus gives us this teaching. Across two thousand years not a great deal has changed. We are anxious. We worry. Jesus prompts the question: why do you worry? Has anyone, by worrying, ever added an hour to her span of life, or, it could be translated, an inch to his height? The answer, logically, is no.

Then Jesus asks his disciples to participate in an experiment. In the Message, “look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God”…. Of course birds don’t have mortgages, or children in college or businesses to sustain, but that is not the point. We are not comparing ourselves to birds. We are simply taking note that God provides for them.

Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, and yet look at the beauty! Look at the grass of the field, the most transient of the objects to which Jesus guides the disciples, grass growing for only short periods of time in a desert region, today it is here, tomorrow it is gone, and of course, there is meaning there too. The birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the grass that is alive today and tomorrow has withered, what does Jesus want us to see? That God provides for the creation, even a small and insignificant bird, even the petal of a flower, even a blade of grass, and how much more will God provide for you and me?

So “do not be anxious about your life”, Jesus says. What I am trying to do here is to get you to relax. Relaxing has to do with trust, and I am aware that for many trust is difficult. Many of us have had life experiences that have made it difficult for us to trust. Many of us know how uncertain life is, and the more tense and anxious we become, the more difficult it is for us to trust.

We live in the most affluent and yet probably the most anxious nation in the world. The gospel, along with the verses that precede it in Matthew 6, would say that there is a connection between these two realities. The men and women who settled this nation lived with a great deal of uncertainty, with tremendous vulnerability, with shorter life spans, with uncertain outcomes. And yet they were able to live in trust. The people of Haiti, with whom we serve several times a year, live in extreme poverty. There is illness, loss, poverty, hunger, victimization. And yet there is also peace, and joy, and trust.

The spiritual question is a simple one: how can I learn to trust God? We can ask it experientially: how can I learn to relax?

As a college student I spent summers leading backpacking groups on the Appalachian Trail. A portion of the training was experiencing several kinds of climbing---rappelling, traversing, climbing the vertical face of a mountain. It was for the purpose of developing skills but mostly team-building. I completed the training, but I did not enjoy it! I did it, but it did not help me to bond with the others, and when it was over, I was glad! Years later I was involved in a leadership training experience where we were asked to do many of the same things. For some reason, I found it much easier to do. Perhaps I am learning to trust. Life experience has something to do with that, aging has something to do with it. Perhaps I have been asking people to trust for so long that I am beginning to believe it myself!

Trust is important. And in the scripture Jesus is talking about trust. Our spiritual development is directly related to our ability to trust. What is Jesus saying to us, in the gospel?

Do not be anxious about your life. Translated positively, this is the invitation to relax. But how can we do that? We can remember that God is the creator and sustainer of all that is. As the children sing, “He’s God The Whole World in His Hands”. That’s good news. I am not in control. God is in control.

I have been reminded of this in several ways recently. Last month we commissioned a new group of Stephen Ministers. In the Stephen Ministry there is a wonderful saying, which has relevance for all of us: We are the caregivers, but God is the caregiver. I like that. It reminds me that I have a role in God’s healing and caring work in the world, but the outcome is not ultimately up to me. That is freeing.

I also came across a poem that I had read years ago, a poem by T.S. Eliot, written after his conversion to Christianity as an adult. The poem is entitled “Ash Wednesday”, and it concludes with these words:

Teach us to care and not to care”.

The wisdom there has to do with our understanding of what is possible and appropriate for us. We are creatures, we are human beings, we are not God, we have limitations. Teach us to care---to care enough, to love enough, to be, as someone has said, a “good enough” parent…Teach us to care and not to care…”Not to care”, not to become paralyzed by anxiety over matters that are beyond our control. Trusting God is participating in the life that we have been given—the work, the relationships, the mission---trusting God is not passive, it is active, but trusting is also relinquishing the outcomes, ultimately, to God. He’s got the whole world in his hands.

I am aware that it is one thing to say, to someone else, or to myself, “relax, trust” and it is another to do it, or even to know how to do it. I want to share another insight, which for me was helpful. It comes from Gerald May, who was a spiritual director and a psychiatrist in the Washington D.C. area.

Gerald May talked about the relationship between relaxing and paying attention. He said that in American culture, we associate relaxing with drowsiness or sleep. At the end of the day we relax, and we soon find ourselves asleep in the Lazy Boy or on the couch. When we relax, we fall asleep. In the same way, in our culture, we associate paying attention, alertness, with tension. The more alert we are, the more awake we are, the more tense we are, the more stressed we are. When we pay attention to things we want to control them.

May offers this profound invitation: to pay attention without the need to control. To pay attention while remaining relaxed. Jesus says, in the Message:

What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax…to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving… Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.”

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now… He continues, “don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow”. Live one day at a time. Live in the present moment. When your child is four, enjoy them as a four year old. Don’t worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow. We often miss what is happening today because our minds are wandering or worrying about what is ahead. Relax. Live one day at a time.

The spiritual lesson is to trust in providence, to be still and know that we are in the presence of the One who is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. “Teach us to care, and not to care.” This is possible when we pray, when we sing, when we move toward relationships that sustain us, when we immerse ourselves in the stories of scripture, when we look at the world and really see the beauty and the order and the design. I love the words of the spiritual:

I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free.
For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is the good news of our faith. It is the radical freedom of an orthodox Christian vision of who we are in relation to God. And yet it is also a way of life that Jesus is teaching us, again, from the Message.

What I’m trying to get you to do here is to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works Fuss over these things But you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-initiative, God-provision, God-reality.

Don’t worry about missing out.You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now,

And don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever comes up when the time comes”.

Sources: T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”; Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality; Tom Long, Matthew; Gerald May, Addiction and Grace.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Sometimes I come across a piece that says exactly what I would want to say about a subject. The following is from a sermon entitled "True Inclusiveness", found in Fleming Rutledge's Help My Unbelief. The sermon reflects on the tension between the Galatians (who needed less law) and the Corinthians (who needed more). At the conclusion, she writes (with one minor adjustment on my part):

"Fellow evangelicals! You know, and I know, that the hallmark of the wider [] church today is "inclusiveness"...You know also, and I know, that the reproach continually brought against us evangelicals is that we are "narrow", "intolerant", "rigid", and "exclusive". I believe that we must not let the idea of inclusiveness be wrested away from us. The gospel is more inclusive than anyone who does not know scripture could ever imagine. Who could ever have spoken of the justification of the ungodly and the undeserving except by revelation? We do not stand on our spiritual gifts, our religious habits, our extemporaneous prayers, our right doctrines, our correct interpretations. We stand on only one thing: the grace and love of God freely given to us in the Cross of the One of whom it is written that at the moment of his death the curtain was rent asunder from top to bottom. There is neither first class or second class, black or white, slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, oppressed or oppressor, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, deserving or undeserving. For circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing. In Christ Jesus, there is a new creation."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

baccalaureate sermon at huntingdon college, montgomery alabama (may 16, 2008)

This afternoon I want to reflect on a simple idea, and that is the call to follow Jesus. It is found in the brief gospel reading, but there are earlier echoes of the call of God in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Isaiah and Ruth, Joseph and Mary. As you listen, the idea may resonate with your own place in the world, especially on this very important weekend in your life.

The gospel passage is filled with active verbs: Jesus withdrew to Galilee, he leaves Nazareth, he walked by the sea of Galilee, he spoke to the disciples and said follow me, they leave their nets and follow, he sees two others, he calls them, they leave their boats, they follow Jesus.

To be a Christian is all about action, it is setting out on a journey, a path. You are about to set out on your own journey, from this wonderful college. You are about to make your own way in the world. I want to describe some of the features of this path, and again you will forgive me if this seems very simple, I hope it is not simplistic, but it is a “field guide” the basic calling in your lives, to help you get started on this path.

A friend Arthur Boers, a Mennonite pastor and professor in Indiana, recently published a book entitled The Way is Made By Walking. It is about a particular pilgrimage that Arthur took, 500 miles over a summer in northwest Spain, toward the Cathedral of St James, where the relics of the Apostle are supposedly housed. The book, however, leads the reader into reflection on the different journeys of our lives, and at the same time it is a commentary on something as basic as walking.

I love to walk. As a college student I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Maine to Georgia. The son of one of our church members in Charlotte lives in Birmingham and has been instrumental in extending the AT into Alabama. As a college student I hiked the trail with friends, I took youth groups, I took college students. My wife Pam and I would later hike up to the top of Mt. LeConte in eastern Tennessee, which is just a few feet less in altitude than Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

And so my friend’s book title appealed to me: The way is made by walking. It is a similar sentiment to the phrase of the 4th century teacher and saint of the church, Augustine, who said, “it is solved by walking”. I like that: It is solved by walking. One of our college-aged daughters prodded us into watching “Lost”. The characters are always walking somewhere, they are on the way. I like that too.

I am a creature of habit. As an adult I have walked most every day, my goal is usually two miles, and that is usually the distance that I walk. I can look back over time and see that a number of insights have come in the midst of walking—the call to ministry while walking the trails of a western north Carolina camp one summer; walking to the post office in seminary, and meeting and getting to know a student named Pam who often happened to be sitting there, along the way; sometimes I have walked in the midst of struggle---trying to resolve a financial issue; and the decision to invite Jack Lamour from Haiti to come and live with us, he is now a very happy student here at Huntingdon---this decision came as I walked the outdoor track at the YMCA near our home one evening. “It is solved by walking”. I like that phrase.

It is not accidental that the Christian life begins not as an assent to a formula or a creed, but as an invitation, a decision to get moving on the path---follow me, Jesus says. “Take a walk with me”.

And so you get started on the path. It will lead you into a different kind of life. Following Jesus---maybe it will mean spending every Sunday night with teenagers at church, or giving medical care to the uninsured, or sleeping in a church basement with the homeless, or flying to Haiti to serve the poor, or teaching the Bible in prison or spending a year or a lifetime in some kind of full-time Christian service. In this different kind of life you will see the things that Jesus did, you will do the things that Jesus did, you will go the places where Jesus went.

I marvel at the potential for good that exists in your lives, and you cannot figure out what it will look like ahead of time. The way is made by walking.

This is the path, the journey, following Jesus. You don’t have to know exactly how it will all turn out. That is the “trust” part, the adventure part. One of the stereotypes about Christianity is that it is boring; in reality, it is an adventure. Follow me, Jesus says. Where? You’re going to meet sick and confused people, wounded and conflicted people, but you are also going to know life, abundant life, it is going to make sense in a way that nothing else does. It is the way of the cross, this journey, but it is also about an empty tomb and an upper room and the promise, finally of Jesus: I am with you always.

Follow me, Jesus says. When you begin walking with him, you make a few discoveries. You learn something about yourselves, and this has something to do with the need to simplify, to shed, to lay aside some of the baggage that you are carrying. In the gospel they leave their nets, they leave their boats, they leave their parents. In hiking, I figured out what was worth carrying in the backpack, and what could be left out. I often chose the book that weighed the least, the food that was lightest, the clothing that took up the least amount of space.

The path of life is like that. Most of us carry around baggage that we could get rid of, baggage that clutters our minds, weighs upon our hearts. As you leave Huntingdon and go into the world, this might be a great time to let go of some of that baggage---some anger, some bitterness, some sin, some prejudice, some resentment. Jesus often talked about our need to shed the unnecessary baggage----

if anyone would come after me,
let them deny themselves,
take up a cross and follow me.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

In hiking, in traveling, we learn to simplify, to reduce, to let go of the non-essentials. The spiritual writers called this purgation, or detachment. And as we purge, as we let go of stuff, as we lay it all out, we also discover what is really important, essential, crucial. We figure out what we really need, what is necessary to sustain us in the journey. In a backpack that might include food, clothing, a sleeping bag, a good map, a way to build a fire and something to help in case of an emergency.

In life, we figure out the necessary provisions for the journey: companionship, work to do, the dreams that God places in our hearts and the passion to go after them, desires for beauty or compassion or truth or justice, and the discernment between what you need and what you want. Or you might make a different list: family, faith, church, community, country, work, friendships. And this has everything to do with the vision you have caught a glimpse of here: faith, wisdom, service.

The good news for those who follow Jesus is that he promises to provide for our needs. This is the message of Exodus 16, the gift of manna in the wilderness, from which the hymn comes, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see, all I have needed thy hand has provided, great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

It helps to remember that God provides, because along the way you are going to encounter difficulties, and you will be tempted to give up. A necessary dimension of following Jesus is perseverance. Jesus must have known this. Later, he will be in conversation with Peter, this same Peter whom he calls by the lakeshore, they are well along the path by now, and Jesus asks him, “Would you also like to leave?”

And Peter responds,

“Lord, where else would we go?
You have the words to eternal life.”

At times, along the path, we are tempted to give up, to give in, to quit. But the path of following Jesus is a lifelong journey, it is, to borrow Eugene Peterson’s wonderful phrase, “a long obedience in the same direction”. Let’s be honest: hiking is not always easy. There are dangers: you can become dehydrated; you can get lost; you can develop blisters, and your muscles often become sore.

You have arrived at this place because you have persevered. Studying for final exams. Making it beyond disappointing relationships. Coming to a dead-end in a particular field of study. Maybe the pull of home, something going on in your family, should you stay, should you go back? You have persevered, you have stayed on the path.

In life, this will continue to be true. At times we are exhausted, at times we are lost, at times we are wounded, and at times we are hobbling along, doing the best we can, and it does not seem to be enough. In fact, sometimes we wonder if we are going to make it!

What do you do? You take life one day at a time (this was the great lesson of Exodus 16), you follow Jesus one step at a time, you place one foot in front of the next. A friend of mine says that it is about progress, not perfection. Progress. And when life is most challenging, it is enough to take small steps. I think of the hymn composed by John Henry Newman:

Lead Kindly Light
Amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on,
The night is dark and I am far from home,
Keep thou my feet
I do not ask to see the farthest scene,
One step enough for me.

Progress. One step at a time. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, it is “to walk and not faint”.

And so Jesus calls you to follow him, to set out on the path of discipleship. Along the path you purge all that is unnecessary and you give thanks for the provision of all that is necessary. You persevere through adversity and you keep before you the purpose of the journey, which is to stay close to Jesus. Over time, by grace, you become more like him, you take on his identity. Along the way, you live into the words of the Psalm and make it your prayer:

Teach me your ways, O Lord
Show me your path.

When I was working on this sermon, it seemed to connect together for me, it made some sense to me ( I hope it does for you!), but I could never figure out a way to end it. Maybe you have figured that out already!

And then I thought---it has no ending, the path has no ending, and that is the point. The adventure of following Jesus begins in this life—for some of you a long time ago, for some maybe right now,---but the path really goes on forever, in this life and into the life to come.

The one who said follow me also said I go to prepare a place for you, and that is his final provision for us, eternal life, a life that begins now, but a path that goes on forever. To walk the path is the adventure of the Christian life. It is the adventure of living out the vision of this school, your school: faith, wisdom, service. You are not at an end. You are at a beginning. In the words of the poet T.S. Eliot,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Your life, I promise, will be an adventure. What will happen? Where will you live? What will you do? That is the adventure: ultimately, it is solved by walking. In the meantime, there is a simple word of instruction.

Jesus says, Follow me.

Let us pray:

O God,
Give us faith to know you,
wisdom to discern the way ahead,
and opportunities for service.
Lead us in paths of righteousness
for thy name’s sake.

Sources: Arthur Paul Boers, The Way Is Made By Walking. John Henry Newman, “Lead Kindly Light”. T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

the way (john 14)

I want to talk about Jesus as the way, and about a way of life that is a spiritual practice. Think about the activities that fill your schedules, that call forth your passions: they are usually made possible by practices of one sort or another.

A girl loves cheerleading; the practices teach her the rhythms of movement and the sounds of words. A young man loves to play the classical guitar; practice teaches him correct body posture, the importance of tuning, the right positioning of his hands and fingers. Another man is passionate about fly-fishing. Over time he practices the clockwise motion of casting, he learns to tie flies, he becomes adept at reading the waters. A woman loves to work with fabric, her eyes are trained to see the colors and her hands become knowledgeable about texture. In time she grows more comfortable in her creativity, having mastered the basics and now moving on to new and different possibilities.

Many of us find that when we engage in an activity over time, an activity that includes an ongoing experience of practice of some sort, habits are developed. These habits can become second nature to us: the cheers that a young girl learns, the music of the classical guitarist, the fisherman’s art, the seamstress and her relation to the fabric. Of course habits are not always positive: we often call negative habits addictions. Addictions are habits that have destructive consequences in our lives and in the lives of others.

The earliest followers of Jesus were said to be on “the way” (Acts 19). Maybe they remembered that Jesus had said, of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. The way turned out to include a number of spiritual practices and habits; many of them are recorded in the New Testament:

Do this in remembrance of me. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Go and make disciples. Repay no one evil for evil. Confess your sins to one another. When you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me. Love one another, as I have loved you. You will be my witnesses. Pray without ceasing. Do not neglect to meet together

Today, many followers of Jesus read the New Testament, for ourselves, and there we discover a way of life. But mostly we discover that Jesus himself is the way. And because he is the way, we learn that being a follower of Jesus involves a set of practices and habits. Understood positively, habits lead to an increase in freedom.

As a teenager I learned to play the guitar, the usual stuff that many kids pick up along the way. As a young adult I took classical lessons for many years, two lessons a month with a well-known guitarist in a city an hour away. Over time I learned a great deal, and could I play Bach pieces.

Well, life went on, priorities changed, children were born, and I stopped taking the lessons. Over time, I stop practicing. And now, when I sit down with a guitar, I no longer have the skill, the freedom, to play those pieces. Freedom always flows from discipline.Jesus said, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8. 31-32, NRSV). “If you continue in my word”…Practices lead to habits, and habits, over the long haul, add up to a way of life. I am the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus says. Follow me.

The earliest Methodists saw themselves as followers of Jesus, the way, and so they felt a need to define their way of life. They came up with three simple rules, to remind themselves of who they were and where they were going. These rules were sort of their global positioning system. And the rules were grounded in deep biblical practices.

The first rule: do no harm. We live in a violent world, violent in action, violent in speech. It is counter-cultural to begin with “first do no harm”, but Christians have always been counter-cultural people. “My kingdom is not of this world”, Jesus said. A few years ago in 2003 I was in Nashville for a conference. The meeting would take place on the Monday in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was remembered. I arrived late on Sunday evening; we would begin our work the next day at noon.

The next morning I woke up and made my way to the dining hall. A couple there introduced themselves: James and Eunice Mathews. I later learned that Richard Bailey of our congregation worked with Bishop Mathews and knows him and Eunice well. They asked me to join them, and we shared breakfast. I offered the blessing, remembering especially on that day the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Matthews seemed vaguely familiar to me---he was a retired Bishop, and they were known for their commitment to missions. They shared some of their life story that morning: Eunice was the daughter of E. Stanley Jones, who served in India as a missionary/evangelist for forty years and whose books were translated into eighteen languages, selling in the millions of copies. James Matthews had been elected a Bishop, without his knowledge (he was in India at the time) and apart from his ambition.

Eunice told me this story: When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, a reception was held for him at United Methodist-related Boston University, where King had received his doctorate. James Matthews was the Bishop of Boston at the time, and he and Eunice joined in the line of people to congratulate him. When King met Eunice he pointed his finger at her and said, “it was your father’s biography of Gandhi that changed my life, and convinced me of the necessity of non-violence”.

E. Stanley Jones had written a biography of Gandhi, and in it he included Gandhi’s simple conviction---that nonviolence was a strategy not of the weak, but of the strong. In the margin of his copy, King had written “this is it!”. James and Eunice Matthews gave me a copy of that biography, and I asked them to sign it, which they did. They also underlined the sentence: “nonviolence is the method of the strong, and the only method of the strong”. If you visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta today, you can see his copy of the biography of Gandhi, opened to page 88, with the words in the margin, “this is it!”.

Do no harm. Each of us must wrestle with the meaning of that phrase, that spiritual practice, in our own lives. Someone hurts us, someone hurts our children, through words or actions, and what is our natural response: to retaliate. Or, sometimes we are prepared to say something or do something, and we pause for just a moment, and we reflect, and we ask ourselves, “will this cause harm?”

Physicians, because they are intervening in the very lives of their patients, practice in accordance with an oath: first, do no harm. We live in a world where violence gives birth to violence, but the seeds of violence are within each of us. What if everyone were governed by this phrase, Do no harm? This was the way of Jesus, who did not retaliate, but said, on the cross, “Father, forgive them”.

The second rule: do all the good you can. In his simple book on the three rules, Rueben Job makes the connection between loving our neighbor and loving ourselves. The idea is a simple one, but it is difficult to practice. We live in a culture where the self is placed first: this is the first principle of marketing—what do you want, what do you need? What if there is a more important question: what is good for the community? What is good for the world? These are risky questions, because we live in a world where groups, institutions take advantage of individuals, in ways that are self-destructive.

But we still need to understand our culture. When a product is marketed to us, and the message is “you are the most important person in the world”, you can be sure that the messenger is not really that interested in you or me---they are more concerned with the product. The early Methodists believed in simplicity of life, in vital connections with others, and in the grace of a God who loves each of us. And so, John Wesley gave an invitation to those who were on the way: do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

The Methodists responded to this invitation. Listen to this description of the early Methodist Christians:

“Methodist life was marked by a deep and authentic personal piety that led to a broad and uncompromising social involvement. Methodists were known for their prayers and for their commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. This commitment resulted in persistent efforts to build houses of prayer and worship as well as consistent efforts to visit the prisons, build schools and hospitals, and work for laws which moved toward a just and peaceful social order… Because they took their relationship to Jesus Christ with utmost seriousness, their life of prayer and witness was readily identified and often very contagious as many wanted to what Methodists appeared to have. Among these Methodist gifts were a certain knowledge about their own salvation, an at-homeness in this world and confidence in the next, a living companionship with a living Christ, and access to the power of God that could and did transform the most broken and hopeless persons into productive, joyful and faithful. Such was the power of God in the way the Methodists lived.

When I read those words I give thanks to God for you, the people of this congregation, for the good that you do. And I realize it is all a part of trying to follow the way of Jesus, who went about doing good.

A third simple rule: Attend to the ordinances of God. Reuben Job has described this as “staying in love with God”. These ordinances of God are the practices that help us to sustain the first two rules. The ordinances are worship, prayer, scripture, singing, communion. “Staying in love with God”, Reuben Job says, is the foundation (48); “we practice the rules, but God sends the power that enables us to keep them”. If we are not staying in love with God, all of the good works are merely, in the words of Paul, “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol”, our human efforts or achievements.

These were the three basic spiritual practices of the early Methodists, their “general rules”. If they followed these rules, they believed, they would remain in the way, they would never lose their way, they would never lose this way of life. They saw in Jesus someone who gave them access to this way of life but who also embodied it. These three simple rules, Reuben Job says, can change the world. They can be easily understood, even if they are a challenge to practice. And yet those who have followed them have discovered a less violent and destructive life; they have discovered the joy that comes in giving to others; they have turned again and again to the streams of water that give abundant life, and found renewal. So, this week, I invite you to practice these three simple rules: do no harm; do all the good you can; stay in love with God.

Sources: Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules. Rueben Job, A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader.

Monday, May 12, 2008

seek and you shall find

Worth finding on the internet...No Depression selects Buddy Miller as artist of the decade (I concur)...A moving piece on Mother's Day by Tom Friedman in the Sunday New York Times...I am quoted in last week's Jewish Week (New York)...and have a brief commentary in the current United Methodist Reporter...An excellent blog, which I have not yet linked on this site, is one hosted by Adam Hamilton of the Church of The Resurrection (Seeing Gray)...and a perceptive piece on "The Church That Doesn't Exist" can be found in the current issue of Relevant magazine. And what does it mean that Jacob "wants to move the island"...(Lost)? If I weren't so lazy I would have provided links, but, hey, I have separated the wheat from the chaff. I only ask that you meet me half-way: type a couple of words into your favorite search engine and enjoy! You can do it...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

take and read

Embracing Purpose: Essays on God, the World and the Church

The newest collection of essays by one of the foremost theologians of our era, a man of genuine Christian piety, with experience teaching in Africa, Europe and the U.S. If the way forward is going to be shaped by the Trinity, the Creeds, the Scriptures, and the church across space and time; if we are to avoid fragmenting into thousands of little pieces; if our chief end (purpose) is to "enjoy God and to glorify Him forever"; if the human search for truth, goodness and beauty is grounded in his/her creation in the image of God, which is love...if any or all of this matters, these essays are worth exploring.

Friday, May 09, 2008

re-entry: family, church and beyond

It has been nice to move back into the pleasures of life and work. May is a time of transition. Our Confirmation service was last Sunday, Disciple II class has its final meeting next week, we are beginning to plan for the fall, using Robert Schnase's Five Practices as our template; some of our leaders and staff have begun reading it. We host an interfaith dialogue in late May, two of our staff will be commissioned and ordained, respectively, at annual conference, we welcome a new director of music in early June, and will host a mission effort on a Sunday morning in late June in which we put together 10,000 meal packets (each with 5-7 meals) in cooperation with Stop Hunger Now. There are some follow-up ideas after having hosted Bishop Innis of Liberia; he is amazing.

For more on the Five Practices and Stop Hunger Now, respectively, visit here and here.

One of our daughters is home for the summer, searching soon (hopefully) for work (!). My wife and I have caught up with the episodes of Lost. I believe there are only two left. Who will make if off the island? And in what condition?

Sunday morning our family will be sitting in a sea of Carolina blue, watching our older daughter graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, with her B.A. in Asian Studies (honors, phi beta kappa). Then we will go to a smaller departmental gathering and then to a lunch at her apartment. It won't be Pentecost in my own congregational setting, but God will be with us!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

12 good things about general conference

I realize that my last three posts related to general conference (gc) reflect a fair measure of pessimism and even cynicism. I am by nature an optimistic and hopeful person, and there were some amazing people at gc. So, to strike a balance, and in order to move myself into a new place, a highly subjective listing of 12 good things about general conference, in no particular order. This will also bring closure to gc for me. It is time to move forward.

1. The speech of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia.
2. The leadership of Rev. Okoko of the Congo, who chaired my sub-committee in Global Ministries, and our translator, Mary Lou. And several of the participants in our sub-committee.
3. The report on Hurricane Katrina.
4. Higher Education Night, especially the combined college choir.
5. The funds raised for Nothing But Nets.
6. The Laity Address--basic, direct, to the point.
7. Shortening the length of the probationary process into ordained ministry, from three to two years.
8. A strong statement against torture, and a more balanced perspective on Israel and Palestine.
9. The Encounter With Christ in Latin America and the Carribean Dinner.
10. The humor within the close quarters of our delegation. We came up with a "Reality Show" cast populated with the ten persons who spoke most frequently. If you were there, you will have no trouble coming up with the names and home conferences.
11. Reconnecting with friends across jurisdictional lines, like Bob Hill (Boston), Phil Amerson (Chicago), Art McClanahan (Iowa), Doug Mills (NY), and David Mosser (Texas), and others, and getting to know people on the bus commute in each day, like Pat Day of Shreveport and Sheila Cumbest of Mississippi. A brief conversation with Adam Hamilton, and a consistent lunch bunch that processed it all. Dinner with Tom Butcher, who has a great vision for new churches in our denomination. Lunch with my own Bishop, Lawrence McCleskey, and also with Bishop Schnase. And seeing friends who will gather again at Junaluska in July for Jurisdictional Conference.
12. On a lighter note, the Fort Worth cuisine, especially at Billy Bob's, and a couple of walks along the Trinity River.

Some of this was the core stuff of gc, some was around the edges. It is an amazing experience, and it is, finally, the work of the people, offered, imperfectly but steadfastly to God.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

general conference and the apostolic mission

I paint with a broad brush here, but Methodists have always been stronger at feeling and doing than thinking. I came to this realization at General Conference, where we would occasionally act on, ignore, or comtemplate studies of various subjects. At times, studies are floated for the purpose of avoiding action; this is not always bad---we have made terrible decisions "in the moment". Since we are so polarized at this meeting, it is worth noting that both left and right push issues to study groups when it in their interest to do so. I was pleased that we had some reflection on the place of the Trinity in relation to the proposed social creed; I participated on the floor on this, and was also pleased that it was finally described as a litany rather than a creed---I think this was more accurate. I also think it is good to continue to study the ordained ministry. We have an incoherent understanding of the practice of ordained ministry, and one thousand highly politicized and increasingly exhausted people are not best positioned to sort all of this out.

Since most of the Methodist blogosphere is dominated with questions of same-sex attraction and general conference, I would propose that anyone who was present in Fort Worth read Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press). We can spend the next few years sorting out ways to organize ourselves in relation to Christians in the two-thirds world, for our own political or economic advantage, or we can join together in the mission of God with them, and/or we can learn something about the apostolic mission that is happening beyond our borders. Perhaps they can teach us to re-evangelize North American culture?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

general conference: everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics

I came away from my first General Conference, four years ago, disillusioned. I entered into this one, admittedly, with low expectations. Two factors contributed to this very human posture on my part: the polarization of the culture and the church on key moral issues (gay/lesbian identity and practices and abortion), and the very method of General Conference itself.

A word about the latter first. We use Robert's Rules of Order, which is a very good process if you wish to divide people into winners and losers. In virtually every action taken at General Conference (hereafter GC), and there were thousands of them, there were winners and losers. Sometimes the vote was 52%-48% (as with a key vote on abortion); at another point it was 55%-45% (the confession that we are divided on the issue of homosexuality, the vote itself proving the point); on other matters 67%-33% (several consitutional amendments, which needed a two-thirds majority, passed by one-half of one percent). Robert's Rules of Order lends itself to the gifts of persons trained in the law, and indeed some of the more effective speakers were in fact attorneys (the more prominent being from New York and New Mexico, but there were others, and across regions). It does not lend itself to spiritual discernment, or to the practice of listening in general. Again and again I heard, around the edges, that there has to be a better way to do all of this. Indeed, a clergywoman proposed the exploration of this idea, but it was "defeated" by the house (I use the word intentionally, for this was in fact the case).

And so, a first tentative sense is that the outcome we arrived at was shaped by our method. If we use the same method again, in four years, we will arrive at the same destination.

The method does more, however, than divide us into winners and losers. It seems to create insiders and outsiders. The two most inflammatory areas of debate were human sexuality and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And, of course, opposing political orientations are prone to create insiders and outsiders, through the use and abuse of power. No one, really, has the high ground here.

There are profound moral ambiguities surrounding homosexuality and abortion. The moral ambiguity on the gay/lesbian question has led the church to stay with the received interpretation of scripture and tradition; some see this as an injustice, others a matter of faith. The moral perplexity related to abortion has led some to call for hospitality toward the unborn, others choice in the life of the woman. At present, the United Methodist Church is much more sensitive to those who disagree with our position on the gay/lesbian question than the abortion question. If you were at the GC, or watching it on the web, this was obvious.

So we are divided, and we want to legislate where the will of God is to be found: among gays and lesbians and those who support them, or among those who in conscience read the scriptures and stand with the tradition? among the Palestians, unjustly treated, or among the Jews, victims of anti-semitism?

What if the radical grace of God, so prominent in the Wesley hymns, and in the gospels, were extended to gays and lesbians, and to the unborn, and to the Jews and the Greeks? Indeed, I think in most United Methodist congregations this is in fact the case. And why does such a question, which cuts across our preconceived political divides, seem so odd?

Beyond all of this, we said very little about the war, or immigration, or global warming, or the local church. We adopted a budget of $642 million. We did some new and different things related to ordained ministry, not all of them good, in my mind (I know, however, that it is not all about me), but some will help; I will comment on all of that at a later time. I left feeling like a great deal had been accomplished, not entirely happy with every vote that had been taken, seeking to live in peace, as much as was humanly possible, with all of those who were present, finally trusting the church again to the providence of God (this was Bishop Palmer's comment at the end of GC, I think). It all seemed rather surreal, a slowly shrinking church spending a day on constitutional amendments and a day and half on homosexuality, the gathered body obviously more African, more non-English speaking, all of us in denial about where we will be, in the U.S., in ten years (a vivid exception to this seems to me the work of Bishop Schnase). It also seemed odd, to me, that my favorite sermon of the ten days was preached by a Lutheran Bishop. And that we kept talking about three simple rules, and yet spent hours, ad infinitum, amending, bending and commenting on the rules that filled three very thick books.

There has to be a better way to do all of this.

I am very tired, so a better, more measured comment will appear here in a few days. In closing I recall the wisdom of the poet Charles Peguy:

"Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics".

It is true.