Sunday, February 22, 2009

sitting in the balcony

I did not preach this morning. On our annual calendar this was "Youth Sunday", and I will say a bit about that later. It was an atypical morning, but an extraordinary one.

It began with a Fellowship Breakfast. I am usually not able to attend this gathering, since it is held at the approximate time of our 8:30 am service, but today I could be there. The speaker was Dave Sanderson, a member of our church and a survivor of Flight 1549 (Hudson). Dave is a close friend; he has served on our staff-parish relations committee, is a delegate to the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, and has spearheaded our "Igniting Ministries" initiative. More than any other person, he is responsible for our being certified as a Welcoming Church through Igniting Ministries. Dave talked about the experience of crashing into the Hudson, and surviving. Not only did he survive; he was one of the last ones out. His talk was inspirational and a large group was there to hear him. It was, as a friend says, a "God" moment.

Following this breakfast a group of about 80 persons gathered for the first of three "conversations about the future of our church". This is the congregational component of our strategic planning process; we are most fortunate to be led in this endeavor this year by Janice Virtue of Duke, Gil Rendle and Bishop Robert Schnase. I welcomed the group, said a word about "appreciative inquiry", and offered a prayer. I then left the group in the hands of two very capable facilitators.

I next went to teach an adult class of approximately 90 people. I talked about scripture, tradition, reason and experience, using the Wesley Study Bible as a resource, and reflecting on the uniquely Methodist "way" or understanding and living by the scriptures. A couple of weeks ago I sat in a Conference Board of Ordained Ministry Committee and listened to candidates talk about this very topic. It helped me to work with that same material in an educational setting.

I then had an all too brief conversation with a couple who have a concern about the church. It was one of those moments that merits more time to go into the issues, and yet any pastor reading this will know what this experience is like.

I made my way to the sanctuary, and on Youth Sunday (and this was my sixth one at Providence) I sit in the balcony, which is where many youth and parents of youth sit on Sundays. It is great to sit there on this Sunday, and for me it has a couple of meanings: first, it is about role reversal. I want to see the youth in approximately the same way they see me, and I want to afford them the same gift they extend to me by their presence.

But I also realize that sitting in the balcony helps me to get a different glimpse of what is happening. Typically, two or three youth will speak, they are seniors in high school, and I am able to perceive all that they have absorbed over the years. All of the inputs during those years, all of the decisions and commitments somehow become an output, and I can see and hear clearly what has happened. And it is quite extraordinary.

Being the senior pastor of a large church is a challenge, at times, but it is a gift, and this is especially so today. Sitting in the balcony, I am reminded that what the church is involved in does matter. (Note: Those of you who wish to explore this idea further might locate a copy of Ronald Heifitz' Leadership Without Easy Answers, where he talks extensively about the "balcony".). It matters to a person who has a miraculous life experience, and seeks to put things back together; it matters to a group of people who care about the future of their community; it matters to a group of adults who have been reading the Bible for most of their lives, and are struggling to make sense of it; it matters to a couple who are honestly searching for something that they have not found; and it matters to teenagers, who are in the process of claiming Christian faith on the way to adulthood.

It was a good day to sit in the balcony.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

a metaphor worth exploring

On Sunday evening my wife and I went to the movies with friends, and we saw the collection of animated films nominated for this Sunday evening's Academy Awards. My favorite in the group is entitled La Maison en Petits Cubes. The context is a great flood, and the story is told through the experience of an older man who must build higher levels of his home to keep himself above water; when he drops he pipe, he begins the journey of diving into successively deeper levels to retrieve it, and this entails a visual remembrance of his life. I am not certain that this Japanese film will win the award, but it is my favorite. You can learn more about it here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

haiti among the "bottom billion", and yet there is hope

Oxford's Paul Collier recently traveled to Haiti under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace. The author of "The Bottom Billion" reflects here on a possible scenario that is hopeful. For those of us who have been working at the micro-level (and PUMC has been in a long and faithful partnership there for 28 years), this kind of macro perspective is instructive, even if the possibilities are as fragile as the country is now in its present state. Last year's hurricanes and food riots and this year's global economic collapse make our region's response at the same time more difficult and more urgent.

Friday, February 13, 2009

the board of ordained ministry: the unofficial guide for candidates

Over the years my wife and I took our girls to Disneyworld two or three times and we benefited from a publication entitled "The Unofficial Guide...". So, in that spirit, the Unofficial Guide For Candidates Coming Before The Board of Ordained Ministry of the United Methodist Church...

1. If you do not wish to pass a committee, the easiest way to communicate this is to act as if you resent being there. Most communication is non-verbal, so this will come across quite easily.

2. If you do not think you are going to pass a committee, tell someone that you really did not want to come today, but your (wife/mother/sister) insisted that you come anyway. Ed Friedman wisely noted that this is simply code language for personal ambiguity.

3. No one is compelled to come before the Board of Ordained Ministry. It is a free choice made by anyone, and only if that person wishes to become a Deacon or an Elder.

4. If you are in a theology committee, and you mention the words "porch, door and house", you will bring tears to someone's eyes! Seriously...

5. Telling a theology committee that reading is not a "big thing" for you does not garner sympathy.

6. In preaching a sermon, following an identifiable biblical passage through the entirety of a sermon will take you a long way.

7. If you have problems with authority, you are likely not going to be happy in the United Methodist Church. For better or worse, there is a lot of authority in our denomination.

8. Being Methodist implies more than not being Baptist.

9. Candidates from prestigious seminaries sometimes know very little theology, and candidates from other seminaries are at times deeply conversant with theology. There really is no rhyme or reason to it.

10. There is grace in the Board of Ordained Ministry process: sometimes that grace is for the candidate, in saying yes, and sometimes that grace is for the candidate and a congregation somewhere in saying no. This is the pain and the burden of the work, and boards are quite aware that they are also under the grace and judgment of God.

(I added one more so that this would not be confused with the Decalogue...)

11. In the parish you will actually receive little constructive feedback. If you can make a virtue out of necessity, and see the Board of Ordained Ministry as your last and best opportunity to get truthful and sometimes painful reflection on your self, your beliefs and your preaching and teaching, you and those you serve will benefit, and the mission of God will be more fruitful.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"change haiti can believe in": an editorial by paul farmer

Paul Farmer is co-founder of Partners In Health and the subject of Tracy Kidder's compelling biography Mountains Beyond Mountains. He writes in the Boston Globe about how the U.S. might begin to see our neighbor three hours to the south differently. Read it here.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

random thoughts on a slightly snowy day

It snowed a little here in Charlotte, enough to cancel the public and private schools (which is really irrelevant to our family, given that our kids are actually young adults...), not enough to keep me from going by the church for awhile, where I dove into a couple of short and due (almost overdue) writing projects. Both (one for Theolog, the other for Lectionary Homiletics) are intended for that woman or man who is working on this week's sermon, and needs some kind of infusion of something creative...I am not sure that I got there, but I am hopeful, in a modest way. Afterwards I went by the YMCA and exercised. While running on the eliptical machine I read an article in a recent New Yorker about the history and resurgence of Scrabble. Since I grew up playing Scrabble with my great-grandfather, with my grandparents, and play often with my wife, usually when we are in the mountains, I found it to be fascinating.

At any rate the snow, marginal as it was, prompted the usual comments on Facebook, and in other media from persons not originally from the south, but now living in the south (call them transplants) who feel the need to comment about the inability of the southerner to drive in the snow. Being the naturally positive and constructive person that I am, I have learned to listen for what a statement might really mean; the transplant is not really being critical of the native-born person, but instead is engaging in the ancient practice of lamentation. The transplant is actually reflecting on how wonderful life was in Buffalo or Baltimore or Detroit or Cleveland. So I don't take the observations personally. It is not about me.

Speaking about being far from home, I did learn this week to communicate this week via Skype, and, as a friend says, it is the BOMB! We talked with our daughter (in China) for almost thirty minutes one evening, for free. We heard her voice, we saw her face. It took perhaps seven minutes to install, and while I can use the tools of the internets, as someone called all of this, I am not great at figuring out how they work. Which is another way of saying it is a very user-friendly technology.

The evening dinner and studies at the church are cancelled---there is a bit of ice on the ground, and it will be well below freezing after dark. And so we will stay in, I may well finish off those writing projects, we will watch the last two episodes of "Lost" and then perhaps converse with Liz on Skype. Maybe we will play Scrabble. A day with a marginal amount of snow is good for any or all of this.

Monday, February 02, 2009

does the church have integrity? (mark 1. 21-28)

Jesus enters the synagogue, on the sabbath, and he teaches. The place is important, and the day is important. He is in God’s place. This is God’s time. Capernaum was a small village in the Galilee; the ruins of the synagogue still stand today, you can walk on them, it is smaller than the size of our atrium. Jesus had been prophesied by John in the desert, Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan River; he has been tempted, and he withstands the trials of the wilderness; he announces the coming of God’s kingdom; he calls the first disciples.

In the past few weeks we have renewed our baptisms, and focused on the call of Jesus to his disciples; his word, to them and to us, is simple: follow me. Now we find Jesus in the synagogue teaching, and Mark tells us that he teaches as one with authority, and not like the scribes.

Authority is an important word. It is about the coming together of the role that we have in life---in our family, in our workplace, in the church---and the person that we are. It is also about the coming together of our words and our actions. In short, authority is about integrity. The scribes had the role of being teachers, but they had lost touch with the real meaning of the scripture. The scribes knew the words, but their actions did not embody those words. This can easily happen---I know the words of the scripture for today, even the original language in which they were written, but that doesn’t mean that I am ready to listen to them, or act on them. It is not accidental that a scribe passes by the man who fell among thieves in Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 15.

Sometimes our actions do not embody our words. Years ago I witnessed one of the most memorable sermons in my life. It happened to be a children’s sermon. This morning, in between the two services, I am going to be teaching one of our Most important Sunday School classes: the fourth graders! Children grasp all of this, and they get it pretty quickly.

The minister had gathered a group of children together, and he began to speak to them. It went like this: “children, I have made an important decision. I saw the doctor this week, and I need to do something about my health. So I’m going on a diet”. Here he opens a big candy bar and takes a huge bite into, and begins to chew. He talks, whiles he’s eating. “If I don’t change my way of eating I’m going to be in trouble”. He takes another big bite. Then he says, “I’m going to limit my eating to fruits and vegetables, mostly, a little meat and no sweets”. Then another big bite!

Well, the children’s eyes are getting bigger at this point. He goes on: “I also need to tell you that I am growing stronger as a Christian too. This week I have been reading in the Bible about sharing, and I think sharing is what God wants all of us to do”. He takes another big bite, and finishes that candy bar. Then he opens another one, holds it there for a moment, and continues. “Sharing is what life is all about”…then he takes another big bite…”sharing what we have with others. Don’t you think sharing is important?” By now the kids are almost jumping off the floor.

“You’re not sharing”, a little girl said to him. And of course, she was right! In her own way she was saying, “your teaching has no authority”.

Authority does not come from degrees, or titles, or even achievements. Jesus had no formal education, no recognized title, nothing to claim for himself in the way of authority, except for one thing: his relationship with God. His authority came from God, and it was an authority that he used very sparingly: he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In the synagogue, on the sabbath day, Jesus meets a man with an unclean spirit. It is not always true that the Holy Spirit is in the church and the unclean spirit is in the world. Sometimes the unclean spirit is in the church, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the world. Jesus encounters the unclean spirit in the form of a man who says to him, what do you want to do with us Jesus? You have come to destroy us! You are the Holy One of God!

From the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, there is a contest, a battle, a struggle, between the unclean spirit and the holy spirit.

The unclean spirit takes, the holy spirit gives.
The unclean spirit divides, the holy spirit unifies.
The unclean spirit confuses, the holy spirit reveals.
The unclean spirit discourages, the holy spirit encourages.

The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, to the unclean spirit, “come out…be silent”. At the beginning of the gospel, there is a recognition and naming of evil in the world. Jesus does not look away. Jesus does not avoid the unclean spirit. Jesus says, “come out…be silent.” I am wondering, in reading the gospel this week, how the church of Jesus might say, in our time, “come out…be silent” when we encounter the unclean spirits of our time.

We have not always done so well at this, and this in part is why the church does not always have great authority in our culture. We have not always recognized the unclean spirits, or called them to come out and be silent. At times we have supported unjust and inhumane systems. At times we have been silent, or we have looked the other way. Whether the unclean spirit has been racism or the holocaust, abortion or torture, discrimination against gays and lesbians or sexual trafficking of children, destruction of the environment or poisonous greed.

The church has not spoken to the unclean spirit and said “come out…be silent”. I am not talking about being politically expedient, or politically correct, or politically partisan. I am talking about the integrity of the gospel.

Where Jesus is, men and women are healed. Where Jesus is, relationships are restored. Where Jesus is, life flourishes. Where Jesus is, there is wholeness,. Where Jesus is, there is integrity. The church finds itself in a culture of unclean spirits, and sometimes the church itself is fully immersed in that culture.

Jesus speaks to the man with an unclean spirit and says, “come out”. And the unclean spirit comes out, “convulsing”, Mark says, “with a loud voice”. This is the trauma of being healed. This is the difficult process of being purged. It’s like we have been dragged out of the water, and we are struggling to breathe, our lungs have been polluted and the evil spirit/breath within us has filled us to the degree that it has to come out and it is painful.

Salvation is never easy. Something dies. The old passes away, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, the new has come. Salvation involves confession and repentance and change. The unclean spirit was right---Jesus had come to destroy something. But it was more in the spirit of a surgeon who removes something---a tumor---in order that the patient might live.

What is destroyed in us is everything that is opposed to God. Paul, writing to the Galatians (5. 19-23), describes this very well, as the works of the flesh: Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

As Greg Jones, the Dean of the Duke Divinity School has noted, we can almost hear Julie Andrews singing, “These are a few of my favorite things…”. In contrast to the works of the flesh—we might also call them the evil spirits—there are the fruit of the spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In the synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sabbath, there was a struggle between the unclean spirit and the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus. The good news is that the power of God, in Jesus Christ, is always greater than the evil powers of this world. And yet the great battle, good over evil, fruit of the spirit over works of the flesh, often takes place in small ways and in hidden places: we decide not to retaliate; we decide not to say something that is hurtful; we forgive; we speak the truth in love; we move on; we let something go; we extend compassion.

The people are amazed at what Jesus has done, and word gets out. He teaches with authority. What if word got out about Providence? What if we spoke with the voice of Jesus in calling out the evil spirits of our time? And what if we had the humility to recognize the evil spirits that live within us?

A world scorched by economic abuse yearns for transparency, a world jaded by religious pretense longs for authenticity, a world damaged by fractured relationships searches for reconciliation. This is not a time for positive thinking, sticking our heads in the sand, or living in denial. In the words of the Apostle Paul, it is a time to name the principalities and powers.

It is a time to acknowledge that we are, all of us, the man with the unclean spirit. We are all asking, if the gospel has really penetrated our hearts and minds, “Jesus, what do you want to do with us?”. And we must all confess with him, “I know who you are, Jesus, you have come to destroy us!”

Only when we ask that question—“Jesus, what do you want to do with us?”--and only when we make that confession---“I know who you are, Jesus, you have come to destroy us”, only then we will know that he is “The Holy One of God”, only then will the healing begin.

Only then will the church have integrity.