Saturday, May 30, 2009

psalms in the summer: part three

We begin the summer immersion into the Psalms on Monday, June 1. Our hope is that individuals will read a Psalm in the morning and a Psalm in the evening, across the 90 days. By spending this time daily in the Psalms, and taking one day off each week, you will read through the Psalms. Eugene Peterson writes, in Answering God,

The extravagant claim is that the Psalms are necessary…If we wish to develop in the life of faith, to mature in our humanity, and to glorify God with our entire heart, mind, soul and strength, the Psalms are necessary. We cannot bypass the Psalms. They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive (not patched together from emotional fragments scattered around that we chance upon) and honest (not a series of more or less sincere verbal poses that we think might please our Lord)."

and again, in his Introduction to the Psalms,

"Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose that there must be an “insider” language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayer. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything out in the open before God."

The following resources may be helpful to you over the 90 days. Please join us, connect in whatever way is best for you---this blog, our twitter site, or on Facebook (simply type in "Summer Psalms" in your search there).

The following resources may also be helpful to you, for various reasons:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Psalms: The Prayerbook of The Bible
Walter Brueggemann,
Praying The Psalms
Walter Brueggemann,
The Message of The Psalms
Ellen Davis,
Wondrous Depth
Marva Dawn,
I'm Lonely Lord--How Long?
James Howell,
Preaching The Psalms
Clint McCann,
Great Psalms of The Bible
Thomas Merton,
Bread In The Wilderness
Thomas Merton,
Praying The Psalms
Kathleen Norris,
Cloister Walk
Peter Wallace*,
Connected: You and God in The Psalms

If you are in Charlotte on June 21, Peter will be teaching the Psalms that morning at Providence UMC.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

an expanding circle (acts 1. 8)

We are, by nature, people who want to venture out, see the world, expand our horizons. Many of you know that Pam and I have a daughter who live and works in Beijing, China. She is 23. We say that we must have been excellent parents, because our daughter moved as far away on the planet from us as possible; any farther, and she is coming back. I often think of that book Runaway Bunny, where the bunny goes away but the voice, the reader keeps saying, I will find you, I will bring you back. It’s a wonderful book, but twelve hours away by airplane makes that a little impractical.

But back to my point. We want to venture out, Columbus wanted to “discover” a new world, our ancestors wanted to “go west”. It is in our bones. Actually, it is also a part of our faith story. Abraham is called to go to a place that he does not know. Jesus commissions the disciples to go into all the world. And today, on Ascension Sunday, we hear the story again.

Acts 1. 8, in one single verse, sets the course for the entire book that we know as the Acts of the Apostles: You will receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

This is the movement of God and it is all about going out, beyond ourselves, beyond what we know, to the place that we do not know. Jesus is with the disciples, and they are asking questions about the end times, and the establishment of the kingdom. He changes the subject.

His response to their questions, Acts 1. 8, begins with a promise: you will receive power. One of the convincing arguments for the reality of the resurrection was the change that had occurred in the lives of the disciples, Peter who had denied Jesus, the other disciples, who had abandoned him, they have become new people, something has happened, they are alive with an inner fire. What it is the difference? It is the gift of God. You will receive power The word for power, in the greek, is dunamis, our word for dynamic. Something dynamic is happening. It’ like an electrical current, running through these pages of the Book of Acts. People’s lives are changed. There is reconciliation and healing. There is growth and new possibility. There are dreams and visions of a different world. This is the mission into which the disciples are sent, and even here there is a shift. They are no longer disciples; they are apostles.

A disciple is a student, a learner, and in a sense we are all lifelong students. The physician you wish for, and our congregation happens to blessed with many of them, is one who never stops learning. It is also true in the faith: we never stop learning about the Bible, about God’s purpose for our lives and for the entire creation. We are disciples. But now we are called to be something else, something more: apostles.

To be a disciple is to receive. To be an apostle is to be sent out, sent into the world. Jesus is departing, he had promised the disciples that he was going away, but he would not leave them comfortless. As he leaves, he gives them something. You will receive power, he says, because I will be with you, I will not leave you comfortless, I will not leave you as an orphan, I am coming to you, you will receive power. The power is the indwelling Christ, it is a strength that goes beyond their own human capacity, and it is given to them for a purpose. You will receive power, and you will be my witnesses.

Literally, the greek word for witness was martyr, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, to bear witness is an act of love. In addition, to bear witness is to speak about something, it is to give truthful testimony. I came across a very interesting article recently, about a phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century. The phrase goes like this, and maybe you have heard it: Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.” There are actually two problems with this phrase. First, Francis never said it. And second, he did not live it. The author notes that the phrase never appears in the first two hundred years following his life, in any biography about him. And in addition, Francis was known as a speaker, as a preacher, as a dramatist. One of the early biographies puts it this way: His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the Holy Spirit…”. The phrase, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words”, appeals to us, on a couple of levels. Words have become cheap in our culture, we are bombarded with so many of them. And words have a way of coming back to haunt us; the self-deception or the hypocrisy of our words fail us and those who listen to us.

But witness includes words. In a postmodern world, although it may always have been the case, the truth comes near to us when our words and our actions resonate, when they are congruent, when there is integrity of what we say and what we do and who we are.

You will be my witnesses, Jesus says. How do we witness? For most of us this is probably not by standing on the corner of Sharon and Providence with a sign that says “Jesus saves” or “Jesus is coming soon” or “Where will you spend eternity?” Let’s say this is not our witness. This does not mean that we abandon the idea of witness altogether. The promise, you will receive power, is connected to a command, you will be my witnesses.

We witness in a number of ways: through preaching and music and the sacraments; through teaching and encouragement and hospitality; through meeting basic human needs and advocacy and generosity. I might witness through a sermon, someone else might witness through performing surgery, another might witness by being a compassionate and fair supervisor. And of course, the witness is not just for an individual; we have a common witness.

What and where is the church’s witness? Here Jesus helps us. His followers are to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Many scholars see this as the basic structure of the Book of Acts----Jerusalem is the context of the chapters 2-7; Judea and Samaria in Chapter 8, and the ends of the earth in chapters 9-28.

First, we are witnesses in Jerusalem. Jerusalem might be our congregation, it might include what happens on this campus, it might even extend to what happens in the body of Christ, in our relationships with other churches in our community, and with other churches in the Charlotte District. Jerusalem is a very religious place, some of you may have spent some time there, and this is where we begin. Imagine a stone hitting a smooth surface of water, this is the center of what will become a series of expanding circles, but what happens at the center is important.

Then, we are to be witnesses in Judea. Judea might be our neighborhood, people who are like us in many respects, we go to school with them, we play sports with them, we shop with them and socialize with them, we enjoy their company, and yet, the demographics tell us, at least half of them do not have a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ that includes worship or study or service.

You will be my witnesses in …Samaria. These are folks who might live in our geographical areas, maybe even our region, but in some ways they are unlike us: perhaps they are immigrant or poor, perhaps they dress or act outside our social conventions, perhaps they are younger or older than we are, perhaps we look down upon them or judge them.

This was the historical context of the Samaritans in relation to Israel. The Samaritans had intermarried with the Assyrians in the fall of the Northern Kingdom. There was history there, there was a moral judgment there, there was a natural separation, and yet…Jesus says, you will be my witnesses to them. I think of the families our church welcomed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I think of the men and women who sleep in the Catacombs of our church during winter months. We are witnesses through our words and our actions. I think of a very active couple in our church. One summer our youth and adult leaders were engaged in flood relief in Clyde, North Carolina, in the mountains. As they worked they met a seminary intern working there, and they struck up a friendship. The intern remembered our people, and the words imprinted on our van: Providence United Methodist Church. Later in the summer her parents were in the process of moving from Ohio to Charlotte and told her they would be searching for a church home. You need to visit Providence Methodist”, she told them. She was Courtney Randall, now serving as a missionary in Latvia. Her parents are Bill and Dulcy Michel. They attend the 8:30 service, serve on a missions committee and are active in a Sunday School class.

They saw the sign. They observed the mission. And someone invited them.

You will be my witnesses, there are expanding circles of God’s grace and mission here, in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the ends of the earth.

The ends of the earth…This is the global mission of Christianity, and the seeds of it are planted here in the words of Acts 1. 8. Why do we take the gospel to the ends of the earth? Over twenty centuries men and women have felt this call. There have been abuses: at times it has been more about culture than Christ, more about colonization than conversion. But at times the responses to the words of Acts 1. 8 have been faithful.

David Livingsone was born in Scotland and sensed a call to be a missionary in Africa. During his lifetime he was accused of being more political than spiritual. He believed that God had called him to help bring an end to the slave trade, in the tradition of John Wesley and William Wilberforce. He also sensed a call to help the Africans gain a measure of economic self-determination. Livingstone died in 1873, at the age of 60. He was buried in a place of honor in Westminster Abbey, in London. His African friends, following his wishes, had first buried his heart and entrails in what is now Zambia. Today, Livingstone is largely forgotten in secular Great Britian, but he is still a national hero in Zambia, which, according to its constitution, is a "Christian country".

You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. Today I am thinking about Marcia Conston preaching Cap Haitien, to a church filled with Haitians, who all trace their ancestry to Africa, and the fulfillment of a vision of John Wesley, who said “I look upon all the world as my parish”.

The Holy Spirit comes and fills the hearts of the faithful, and like a stone that penetrates the smooth surface of water, it creates a ripple effect of expanding circles of grace. This movement, beginning where we are, moving beyond us, to people like us and unlike us, and those whom we will never meet, is the great intention of a God who cannot be kept in a box, whose grace and favor is upon all people, it flows from the mandate of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope, and it becomes real in a church that loses its life in order to find it, for the sake of the gospel.

One thing is missing. Stay here. Wait, until you are clothed with power from on high. Not your power, God, says. Mine. I will pour out my spirit on all flesh”, God had promised the prophet Joel. And you will be my witnesses.

Sources: Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Wiley-Blackwell. Mark Gallo, “Speak The Gospel”, Christianity Today, May 22, 2009. Bill Easum, The Church Growth Handbook.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

psalms in the summer: part two

On June 1 we will begin an experiment of immersion, over the 90 days of summer, into the Psalms. Since you have found this blog on the internet, you have some comfort level with cyberspace, so I will encourage to take a couple of steps beyond the place where you now sit (or stand). If you inhabit Facebook, simply enter the site and search for "Summer Psalms". You will find the group by clicking the icon that is "footprints in the sand". The footprints were actually taken from a beach in Haiti, and that is another story. At any rate, the "Summer Psalms" community will give you a gathering place to comment on the psalms, view and post links to great music and photograph, express yourself creatively and pray. You do not have to be a member of our church or any church, for that matter. Our conviction is that the Psalms themselves have the power to form community, as they have done across the ages.

If you like, you can also find us at Twitter. Simply go find us here
and click "enter" or "join". We will be posting, for the most part, 140 character "stream of conciousness" thoughts, fragments or paraphrases of the Psalms that can be read each day. Again, by reading one psalm in the morning and one in the evening, six days each week, you will be able to read through the Psalms over the 90 days of the summer.

Our goal is based on the simple conviction that we can take the scriptures to the people through technology, as they travel. And so I hope you will access either of these sites via your computer or phone, or both.

Thank you for participating in this "ancient-future" project. We trust that God will continue to transform minds and heart through the reading and praying of the word that is indeed "a lamp to our feet and a light to our path" (119. 105).

Monday, May 25, 2009

psalms in the summer: part one

Years ago I dreaded the summer as a pastor. This is due in part to my tendency to overfocus on work, and not to appreciate what the summer can mean for a family in regard to rest and re-creation. I was trying to build worship attendance and sustain momentum, following Lent and Easter. Summer wreaked havoc with all of that. I dreaded showing up at church on Sunday morning, seeing more empty pews and parking space than usual.

At some point---and this would be the result of some lived experience, and after 27 years of serving in parish ministry---I came to embrace what summer was actually about. For our family, and for me personally, it was and is a time to recover and rest, a time to read and think, a time to pray and plan. Since I have served in larger churches during some of this time (and I have served churches of all sizes, so please do not stereotype what I am saying as being relevant only for "high steeple" congregations), I saw this as a time for the other staff to do the same; our only goals were to stay in communication with each other, as much as possible, and to try to make each Sunday as good as it could possibly be. We really have no control on who is present, and, besides, it is good if our members are themselves getting a change of scenery, slowing down, connecting with their parents or their children in other places. It might even be the work of God.

I have attempted a variety of things over these summers, and this year we are planning to focus on the psalms. Each Sunday will focus on a particular psalm, and these have been chosen in consultation with the pastors, the musicians and the congregation. Six different people will preach this summer---the three pastors, a pastoral counselor who is a part of our church, a seminary professor, and our district superintendent. I will preach eight of the 13 sermons between Pentecost and Labor Day weekend.

However, we realize that many will miss these sermons, and so we are attempting to connect with people by internet, and placing before them a spiritual goal for the summer. We are asking individuals to read the 150 Psalms over the 90 days of summer, and we will be offering a reminder about this discipline (which can be accomplished by reading one in the morning and one in the evening, six days per week) on Twitter. I will say more about this in a day or so; in the meantime you can become a follower by clicking here.

I will complete the thought in a day or two. But I do want to note that this summer spiritual exercise is not about marketing our church; it is about attempting to connect a technology with a season of the year and a portion of scripture that can be life-giving. Please share this possibility with others!

Friday, May 22, 2009


It is very quiet around the house. Last week we had our younger daughter home from college, and at times several of her friends, and this included a celebration of her 20th birthday. We also had Jacques, from Haiti, with us. Pam was preparing to lead a group of 19 to Haiti, in an initiative that includes microcredit, a medical clinic, continued renovation of the School of Mercy, and a day camp at a nearby orphanage, plus a connection with the church in Cap Haitien. We hosted a dessert gathering for about 35 people, which was certainly a low-key affair but nevertheless an event.

They all headed to Haiti for the week, and the work is going well. I realize, in their absence, what life is like for many of my friends, and many of the people that I serve. You get in from work, and the likelihood is that you may not speak with another person until you enter the workplace again, the next day. I thought about all of this in relation to a gathering our church hosted for the welcome center volunteers, who staff our front desk through the week. Many (certainly not all) live alone, and it has occurred to me that this experience of 3-4 hours, once a week must meet a need in being at the hub of a very active church--a typical day would include the traffic of weekday school parents and children, the homeless who reside in our church, women attending circle meetings, participants in bible studies, musicians of various sorts and community groups---today we hosted several hundred people at a gathering of retired public school teachers. Not to mention the staff.

I also realize how different this is for many---some of the members of my church look at me, ask if I am truly by myself for a few days, and I sense that, especially among those with young children, this must seem like something of a luxury----like eating a rich dessert, or going to a spa. And there is something nice about it---it is restful, to a point, and yet one needs the discipline of mapping out what is meaningful and useful. Some of this is easy for me--I don't watch Jon and Kate plus 8, or American Idol; some less so--I do watch the Braves, and have developed some interest in the NBA finals, and I have been following a really excellent PBS documentary on the history of Appalachia. My reading, I find, is sporadic. I think I have reached the place in life where the really substantive reading that I do is generally toward some end.

Our family is beyond the physically intense years of shepherding younger children and the mentally intense years of negotiating with older children who are actually becoming young adults. When Pam and I are here, just the two of us, there is a vacuum, but nevertheless it is good. Not that we don't dream of the times, which are rare, when everyone is home. That is actually bliss. But practically speaking, this is less and less the case.

There is a tendency to fill the silence with television, and even that begins to become predictable. I know my own political propensities, but the tv commentators yield little that is informative or surprising. I do watch 30 Rock, The Office and Lost, but these are in the off-season. I probably need to map out some kind of reading goal, but having come through a very busy winter of writing (the 2010 lenten study for the umc) and a filled Lent, Holy Week and Easter schedule, sitting back and doing nothing is good, for now. For now it is quiet, but I am looking forward to the noise and activity that will resume in just a few days.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

who needs the church/the wisdom of crowds

In recent days our congregation has experienced a number of difficult deaths, significant illnesses, economic dislocations. I want to connect what the gospel might mean for us in this particular circumstance. And I want to stay close to the scriptures along the way.

John’s epistle strikes a continuing refrain: to love God is to keep the commandments of God. Two weeks ago I mentioned a young woman named Lauren Winner, who teaches at Duke Divinity School. In Mudhouse Sabbath, she reflects on what Judaism meant and continues to mean to her from the perspective of a conversion to Christianity. She writes, “practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity”. To love God is to keep the commandments, to repeat the basic practices of the faith.

I want to ask a question: how many of you have ever awakened on a Sunday morning and you did not feel like going to church? We do the practices, not because we always feel like doing them, but because they are, in the words of John Wesley, the ordinary channel of God’s grace, the stream by which God’s mercy flows. As Lauren Winner writes, “your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver.”

This goes against the grain of our culture. I recently listened to someone talk about a fundamental change in our culture. Imagine that a young person loves classical music, goes to I-tunes on the Internet, and downloads a few favorite pieces. Now contrast that with the following: a child is given an instrument, first the parent may have found her way to a music store, or consulted with a teacher or a friend about a particular instrument; a child is given an instrument, and then the parent locates a music teacher, who will help the child to learn; at some point the child may meet others who play the same instrument, or the child may play with a group of other musicians who are learning.

At some point the group may perform in some public setting, and so friends and family show up to hear the music, and in the process they come to appreciate it. The child, along the way, progresses. Maybe the child, along the way, hears a master musician who plays his instrument, hears a piece that he has come to know, but in a whole new way. It may that in the beginning the child did not really want to do all of this. But over time the child is actively engaged in creating music. In time, the child, who might be an adult now, may grow to love music.

To love God is to engage in a specific set of practices. In our church, we use the language of radical hospitality----welcoming people into the house of God, as Brandon Lewis did each Sunday; and intentional faith development----learning about who God is and what God wants of us; and passionate worship-----giving thanks and praise to God, not for our own sakes but for God’s glory; and risk-taking mission and service---stretching out our hands to those in need; and extravagant generosity: blessing others out of our own abundance.

These practices help us to love God and our neighbor. As John writes to the first believers, we cannot have one without the other. And these practices cannot be carried out in our own strength: apart from me you can do nothing, Jesus says, just as a branch draws its strength from the vine, just as the tree draws its life when it is planted by a stream of living water (Psalm 1).

In our own strength, we waver in the practice. We say we love God, but to love God is to keep the commandments, and to keep the commandments is to engage in a specific set of practices: inviting a neighbor to church; Disciple Bible Study; singing in the Chancel Choir; serving at Room In The Inn; tithing 10% of your income.

We cannot continue to carry out these practices in our own strength. We need the help of God and we need each other. The proverb is correct, “it takes a village”, and John Wesley wrote, “I shall endeavor to show that Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it.”

But again, this goes against the grain of our culture, which is more about the individual. This year Michael Marsicano and the Foundation for the Carolinas brought a fascinating speaker, James Surowiecki, to Charlotte. He is the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, a wonderful book that explores a very simple idea----that there is more wisdom in a group of people than in the brightest individual, that a large group is smarter than the person with the most education and credentials. He makes the point in a number of ways, the most memorable being about the series “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”

Imagine that there is a lot of money at stake, and you have a multiple-choice question with four possible answers, and you are stumped, you don’t know the answer. You have three options: two of the four answers can be removed. This gives you a 50% percent chance of being right. Or you can phone an expert, someone you have chosen who is really intelligent. The data suggests that this person gets the right answer about 65% of the time. There is one other option. You can ask the audience, a random group of people who showed up to watch the game show. Can you guess how often they are right? 91 % of the time.

We are sometimes inclined to think that we know it all, and yet there is wisdom in the crowd. But for our purposes it is not only about being smart or intelligent; it is more basic than that. It is about our need to be connected to others. We are at the beginning of a strategic planning process, as a church, and we have heard in feedback from our congregation that our greatest positive strength is the support people receive from and give to each other.

There was a heresy in the early church which insisted that religion was all about having a secret knowledge (this was popularized in the DaVinci Code, for example). But the first letters that circulated among the early church, and some argue that John was written as one of the earliest gospels, came from a different direction. To know about God is important. But to love God: that is the essence…but that is not all of it!

Love one another, Jesus says, as I have loved you. The theme of love is prominent in John’s Gospel, and in the letters of John: For God so loved the world; God is love; I give you a new commandment, that you love one another; since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.

John defines love as communion, the experience of community. A significant obstacle to community is individualism, well documented by the sociologist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, whose simple but astute observation is that more people are bowling than ever before, but fewer people are involved in bowling leagues; We are bowling, but we are bowling alone. More of us are downloading or listening to classical music, but fewer people are playing it, or showing up to hear it. Interestingly, this work appeared prior to the onset of social networking and virtual relationships, trends that would seem only to reinforce his point.

In the gospel we discover that Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and so we are connected. The life that flows from the vine into the branches is a life of love. There are no individual, solitary Christians. We are grafted into each other, into the tree of life, to use another image from scripture, into the body of Christ, to use yet another. I cannot be a Christian without you, and you cannot be a Christian without me. For some reason God designed it all in just this way.

This has multiple meanings for us. In the 8:30 service we share Holy Communion together, an activity that includes giving and receiving, tasting and touching. In each service we celebrate the strength and blessing of United Methodist Women in our church---the connection within the circles, the outreach to those beyond us. And at 11:00 we will commission 19 people for service in Haiti next week, a reminder that the branches that grow in northern Haiti and in North Carolina draw their life from one source, from one vine.

And so a part of our conversion is into the communion, the body, the believers, the household of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison cell, reflects on the communion that we share with each other, and on our temptation to take our life together for granted:

It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded 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 us thank God on our knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters”.

Christianity, from the beginning, was never meant to be your private experience, or mine, your personal preference, or mine. For all kinds of reasons, we need the crowd; the crowd is the church, people who know us and love us and pray for us, but the crowd is also those who came before us, those believers who first heard the words of the gospel and letters of John, in the 1st century, and John Wesley, trying to make the gospel relevant in 18th century England, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trying to make sense of the gospel in a Nazi prison cell. And maybe some of us are trying to make sense of this faith in light of what we are living through. For all kinds of reasons, we need the crowd.

We write these things to you, John says at the beginning of his letter, writing about the Risen Lord, we write these things to you so that you may have communion with us, friendship with us, and our communion, our friendship is with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

If there is a God---and I have staked my life on this…if there is a God, I believe we come to know this God through Jesus Christ. And if this is true, I believe Jesus was clear that the wholeness of the faith in him was to love God and to love our neighbor. And if this is true, I believe it is impossible to do this alone, in our own strength.

So, we need the crowd. We need the church. May you know the love of God that flows through the vine, Jesus Christ. May your love for God find its expression in your desire to keep his commandments. And may your love for other people be a sign of your faith in the One who gives you strength. This faith, John says, is the victory that overcomes the world. Amen.

Sources: James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds. Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

liberian brothers and sisters

Last evening I had dinner with a wonderful group of people that included Bishop Larry Goodpaster and his wife Deborah of our annual conference, Mike Collins (our conference director of missions) and his wife, and a few other friends. Also present was Bishop John Innis of Liberia. I met Bishop Innis a few years ago in England, at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies, of which I was privileged to be a member. He mentioned that he had read my books (any author loves to hear this, regardless of how truthful a statement it might be). When I realized who he was, I noted that our congregation included Liberian members. We struck up a friendship and I invited him to come to our church; that invitation materialized on the Sunday after the 2008 General Conference. Bishop Innis confirmed our young people and baptized some of them, and preached. He also had dinner with a group of our members and shared something of his pilgrimage, which is recounted in his inspiring book, By The Goodness of God. All of this followed the extraordinary General Conference speech of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and the first democratically elected president of a country on the African continent. She is also a Methodist, and is featured in the remarkable film Pray The Devil Back To Hell (highly recommended).

Bishop Innis has been in Charlotte this weekend, and today I took part in a forum that was held at Spencer Memorial UMC in Charlotte. The Spencer Memorial Church, under Rev. Emmanuel's leadership has developed a strong outreach to Liberians in Charlotte, and my wife Pam and I had worshipped there recently. The forum included a lunch of rice, collard greens, chicken and fruit. Bishop Innis took part in a lively discussion with a room full of people, all of whom were Liberians and had an intense desire to know about who things were going there. At times Bishop Innis challenged, at times he encouraged, at times he clarified, and at times he expressed gratitude.

I am grateful for our friendship with Bishop Innis and the people I know who are from Liberia. Pam and I will travel there in August; I will give the commencement address at the School of Theology. The experience is a fusion of mission of friendship, the local and the global; this surely has to do with the reality of migration in our world, with the shifting nature of the global church, and, I believe, with a biblical vision of the one body. And it all seems to be a work of grace, made possible "by the goodness of God".

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

that your joy may be complete (john 15)

I am strong.
At least I think I am strong.
I like to be in control,
I like to be at the center of things.

But at times I am aware that I am not so strong.
At times I sense that I am not in control.
At times I know that I am centered not in God,
but in self.

When the illusion of my strength is made plain,
I know that I am weak,
and I must live by faith.
When the illusion of my control is apparent,
I know that I am uncertain,
and I must live by hope.
When the illusion that I am at the center of all things
is before me,
I know that I am filled with pride,
and I must live by love.

God is my strength, I am reminded.
When my own efforts reach their end, God's work begins.
When the wine has been poured out, the miracle occurs.
When I can see no farther, my blindness is cured,
and now I see, and there is grace.

Jesus says, "I am the vine, and you are the branches,
and apart from me you can do nothing."

When I am disoriented or estranged, isolated or bored,
an experience of connection leads me to assurance and safety,
an experience of life ushers in joy and new creation,
an experience of growth integrates God and self and others into a whole.

There is a wholeness about a vine connected to the branches.
There is a wholeness about a life in which the Spirit dwells.
There is a wholeness in One Person, who is the way, the truth and the life.

As I move toward a life that is as connected to Jesus Christ
as branches are to the vine,
I will be nourished with a cup and a loaf,
I will be sustained with a power and a presence,
and I will discover once again,
that the "joy of the Lord is my strength."

Monday, May 11, 2009

what if church was not a verb

I have read a number of ordination papers over the past years, and a recurring theme is present in them: candidates are often good at talking about the mission of the church, but they are less skilled in discussing the nature of the church. The origin of this tendency is in our Discipline, which gives more attention to the former than the latter, and perhaps in our dna: we began as a missional sect within a larger church.

There is, however a theological problem here, and it leads to a kind of "ecclesial works righteousness": the church is defined...further, the church is valued not by what it "is", but by what it "does". All of which resurfaced for me when I came across the question of how the church might be understood as a verb at rethink church.

And so, a gentle suggestion, one that I often write on ordination papers, that we take some time to reflect on "who we are" before focusing on "what we do", on "being". We do often grasp, in some way an individual level, that God loves us for who we are, and not for what we do for God or others, but we do not often translate this to the congregational or denominational level. This is important, because congregations and denominations are sinful, they have flaws, and those who inhabit them will become disillusioned.

Can we extend the the grace of God to the church that we give to the individual? What if church was not a verb?

Friday, May 08, 2009

life and grace, abortion and torture

In anticipation of Mother's Day I am grateful for the gift of my own life. I will travel a few hours south to spend Mother's Day with my mother. She celebrated her 70th birthday last month; I will be 52 in August. I am grateful that she gave birth to me as a teenager. It is a fundamental beginning point in reflecting on my own life as a gift of grace.

I picked up the copy of the First Things issue dedicated to the memory of Richard John Neuhaus. I disagreed with Neuhaus on many subjects, and politically we were often on different planets. But I do sense that his was a prophetic voice on the subject of the dignity of the human person. His is a voice that is silent in my own denomination----for example, at General Conference the subject of abortion is barely on the radar screen, overwhelmed by other (legitimate) matters. I appreciate the voice of my friend Paul Stallsworth, even if we do not think alike on other issues. On this one, we do. Thank you, Paul.

I have been thinking recently about the power of a religious voice that could link the issues of abortion and torture, the latter being, in my mind, a tragic scar upon our recent political landscape. It is sad that conservatives speak on behalf of the unborn, but not the tortured; I also lament the liberal focus on torture to the exclusion of the unborn. I would also link the defense of creation (the environment) within this larger cause. Liberals and conservatives seem to be coming together on care for the creation, and while I know these labels often distort more than they reveal, this is reason for hope.

I also think a way forward may be not to begin by casting judgment on those who practice torture or have abortions, but to first make the case that the one we might be inclined to torture may be the enemy Jesus commands us to love, and the child whose life might be terminated prior to birth might be God's gift of a more inclusive grace. I believe this to be so for gay and lesbian friends who worship in our local church. In each case we might be motivated by prevenient grace (Romans 5. 8)----the expansiveness of God's love and justice that is larger than our imaginations or categories. And in linking abortion and torture, we might not be so quick to judge those with whom we differ politically, as we choose life instead of death.

In anticipation of this weekend, I am grateful for my own life. And when I see my mother this weekend I will find a way to say "thank you".

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

fundamentals (1 John 3)

When I was a kid I ate, drank and slept sports. I did not live the liturgical year of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and then Lent, Easter and Pentecost. I lived the sports year: baseball season, football season, basketball season. Depression set in when those seasons did not overlap (that is no longer the case; now we play football from August to February, basketball from October to June, baseball from April to October). As a kid , in the fall and winter I played basketball in our driveway until it was too dark at night to see, and in the spring and summer, if there was no one else there to play with, I would throw the baseball into the air, hit it, and then run to wherever it had landed. Then I would do the same thing, again. It was a way to pass the hours; I had a low threshold for excitement!

Malcolm Gladwell has written about what he called “the 10,000 hour rule”. When you do something for 10,000 hours, you are likely to become very good at it, and when you do something for 10,000 hours, you are more likely to be “lucky”. He talks about the Beatles, who played 8-10 hours a night in Germany, every night of the week; about Bobby Fisher, who would become the greatest chess player in the world; and about Bill Gates who would sneak out of his house to work in a computer lab, the only one of its kind in the country, which happened to be within walking distance from his house at a nearby university. The 10,000 hour rule is confirmation of an old adage: “practice makes perfect”.

I am sure, as a kid, that I practiced basketball for more than 10,000 hours. It did not make me a perfect player, but it is still a part of me. And this conversation is not limited to sports. When someone plays a musical instrument at an accomplished level, or paints exquisitely, you can be sure they have spent more time than they can recall playing scales, or drawing baskets of fruit. In every endeavor there are fundamentals: swinging a golf club a certain way, positioning your fingers on a keyboard in a certain way, learning to mix the ingredients for a particular dish in a certain way. We practice the fundamentals over and over again, and they add up to a way of life.

Christianity is not so much a set of beliefs, as it is a set of practices. Lauren Winner grew up in Asheville, then her family moved to Charlottesville. Her parents were in an interfaith marriage, Jewish and Christian, and she adopted the Jewish faith. She attended college in New York, in part to be around a high density of other Jewish young adults. She then went to graduate school at Cambridge, where she underwent a conversion to Christianity. She has reflected on what Judaism has meant and continues to mean to her. She says, “practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity.” But in the past few years she often thinks about all the things she misses: Sabbaths and weddings, burials and prayers…paths to the God of Israel that both Jews and Christians travel….but, to be blunt (she says, these are) spiritual practices that Jews do better.”

Why do they do them better? They have repeated these fundamental acts over and over again, the same practices, for thousands of years. The Passover meal that Jesus shared with the disciples, all of whom were Jewish, would be very similar to the meal a family would have partaken of this spring in Jerusalem. The two scripture passages for this morning take us back to fundamentals. Jesus is the good shepherd, he is our guide along this way. While most of us do not live in pastures, making sure that animals get from one place to another, we get the idea. We are, all of us, on a path from point a to point b. Sometimes the road is straight and the direction is clear. At other times we are lost, and then, miraculously, we find our way. Sometimes “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Jesus guides us toward life, abundant life. This gift of life has come at some sacrifice: he lays down his life for us. This sacrifice does not imply that he is a victim; “no one takes my life from me, he says; I lay it down of my own accord”. The good shepherd is in contrast to the thief and the wolf. The thief steals and destroys, the wolf scatters and devours. If you have experienced personal theft, you understood the sense of violation and emptiness. The message to the disciples is simple: watch out for the forces that will leave you empty; give your life to a purpose that will lead to abundance.

It is true that we can do some things for 10,000 hours and this will lead us down the wrong path. Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. One of the desert fathers put it this way: “Do not give your heart to that which cannot satisfy your heart.”

And so the right fundamentals are important. In John’s first letter, the fundamentals are clear: God and love. Eugene Peterson has written: “The basic and biblical conviction is that the two subjects, God and love, are intricately related. If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. God and love can’t be separated. “

“There are always people around who don’t want to be pinned down to the God Jesus reveals, to the love Jesus reveals. They want to make up their own idea of God, make up their own style of love. John was pastor to a church disrupted by some of these people. In his letters we see him establishing the original and organic unity of God and love that comes to focus and becomes available to us in Jesus Christ.”

And so the wisdom of I John is simple and clear: This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another. In this brief verse we are given the essential connection between truth and goodness, what we know and what we do, our speech and our actions. Believe and love, love and believe. Practice what you preach. I have enjoyed getting to know the young people in our confirmation class this year. Some are artists, some are musicians, some are athletes, they have a variety of interests and pursuits. They are becoming teenagers and that is a time in life to test out what we want to do, what we are good at, what fits naturally with our skills, Christians would say what matches our gifts. And along this path, in the years to come, you will make decisions about where you will spend your time, and what will be most important to you.

I was visiting Brenda in her home. This was maybe 15 years ago. We were good friends, we had worked together on a few spiritual retreats, Pam and I were close to Brenda an her husband Al. Brenda was also a very good tennis player, and we occasionally played tennis. She usually prevailed, so I don’t think we played too often. At the same time she had ongoing back problems, and finally she had a very intricate lower back fusion surgical procedure, very complicated.

Her rehabilitation would be about six months: two months laying flat in a bed and then sitting, two months of gradual walking and movement, two months of more demanding walking and exercise. Six months. Brenda was demoralized. I was listening; it was all sinking in. Then Brenda’s facial appearance changed. She remembered something her daughter had said earlier that day, I think to cheer her up. Her daughter Ashley had said, “you know mom, about the six months, look on the bright side, this will give you time to get really good at Nintendo…most adults are not willing to put in the time it takes to become really good at Nintendo”.

That conversation became a parable for me, and takes me back to a question: what do we give our time to? What actions do we repeat over and over again? What are our practices? For a basketball player, the fundamentals are rebounding and shooting free throws. For a vocalist, the fundamentals are pitch and tone.

For a Christian, the fundamentals are believing in God, the God who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ and loving one another. Once we get them straight, we practice these fundamentals throughout our lives. To believe God is to want to know more about him, it is to study the scriptures, it is to pray. To believe is to trust in a power that you cannot see. To believe God is want to worship God and sing to God. It is reflect, and to integrate who God is with your own life experience. And so our faith does not remain static, because our lives change.

To love one another is to look beyond ourselves, it is to honor our fathers and mothers, it is to make sacrifices for our children, it is to forgive those who have harmed us and to ask forgiveness from those we have harmed. To love one another is to think about the resources God has placed in our hands and to know these are not only for us, but they are given to us to share: our money, our food, our talents, our lives. To love one another is to make intercession for them, to enter into their darkness, their struggles. To love one another, and here Jesus voices the ultimate implications of radical hospitality, is to love our enemies---those who do not love us. To love one another is to imitate the good shepherd.

The good news is that we have the rest of our lives, as my friend’s daughter said, “to become really good at this”. And when we are good at this, by God’s grace, the world begins to experience abundant life: a person is loved, a child is fed, a stranger is welcomed, an opportunity is made possible, a dream comes true, a sin is forgiven, a burden is lifted. Maybe we have 10,000 hours to do all of this.

This morning, we have maybe an hour of worship. The longer I live the more I appreciate the particular days of the year that we worship together. This year I have connected Confirmation Sunday with All Saints Sunday, a day in November when we remember those who have died in the past year. On Confirmation Sunday we are really just getting started. On All Saints, it is about being finished, at least from an earthly perspective. The athlete stretches, conditions, practices, runs the race and crosses the finish line. On All Saints, at least from an earthly perspective, the race is finished. Over the past few weeks a number of folks in our church, and friends in other places have been running races for Multiple Sclerosis, for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, for Brain Tumor Research, for a cure for Breast Cancer. Folks of all ages are preparing, then running the race, and then crossing the finish line.

On Confirmation Sunday, we are just getting started, and so it helps to be clear about the fundamentals: believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and loving one another. On All Saints we see the end result, how a man or woman took the baton, maybe from a parent or a mentor and carried it to the end, and then laid it down. And then someone else picks it up. Maybe a young person picks up the baton, and carries it for a time. To pick up the baton is to take up this practice, to keep it going, to pass it to the next generation. In the scripture we move from the statement of Jesus to the questions of the disciples and we have our own questions: what do I do with my life? How can I make the most of my life?

The answers to these questions, in their broadest, most fundamental sense, are there in the scripture: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, love one another. How you work that out is the adventure of your own life. May God give you all the time you need to “become really good at it.” May God give you an abundant life. Amen.

Sources: Malcolm Gladwell, The Outliers. Eugene Peterson, The Message. Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

notes on the great 50 days

Once I am beyond Easter, there is a sense, to borrow the phrase of the Dixie Chicks, that I am in "wide open spaces". And so a rambling post about goings on.

1. We had a great Confirmation service this morning. It is the culmination of a process of a yearlong process, and my primary intersection with it is a) a retreat and b) individual conversations with them. We make a big deal about this being their profession of faith (personal) and the link with being a part of the body of Christ through membership (social). And that it is not graduation from church!

2. I officiated at a neat wedding this past weekend in Winston-Salem, where I served prior to Charlottte. The wedding was at the Brookstown Inn in Old Salem, which is the Moravian area below downtown, it was outdoors, and the rains stayed away just long enough to have the service. A really nice couple, whom I enjoyed connecting with. And in the bargain we were able to see a few friends (but not all of our friends!).

3. I gave a talk on "The Shack" at the United Methodist retirement community in Charlotte (Aldersgate) on Friday. It was fun to get back into the book, which a) I don't think is the best novel I have read in recent memory [that might be Gilead, or Home, or Jayber Crow, but b) I do think is an excellent way of getting into the issues of providence and forgiveness.

4. I also met with a young woman in our church who is going to be involved in a mentoring program in the Dominican Republic next year (2009-2010). I am moved by the young adults in our community who want to give some of their life to service. It is a pronounced trend, for which I can only thank God.

5. A few years ago I wrote a text, " A Hymn for Resurrection People", which has been placed in several musical settings. Two years ago a friend here, Greg Cagle, arranged and recorded it. He is an excellent musician. We have made cds of the song, and copies are available for $5, with all proceeds going to a microcredit initiative in northern Haiti. For more information email me at kcarter [at] Or send $5 to Providence UMC 2810 Providence Rd Charlotte NC 28211, with a return address so that the cd can get to you.

6. I am really getting into Lost. It makes all the sense in the world if you let go of the concept of chronological time. As Edwin Friedman once said, time is not like a telescope through which you see into the past or future. Time is more like a collapsed telescope in which all time, past and future is in the present. So hang in there with it----it will be over soon enough---and don't get hung up on making sense of time travel.

7. On a family note, our daughter Liz is working and flourishing in Beijing, our daughter Abby is coming home from college next week (yeah!) and Jacques is also coming home from college, to be with us for a time before he goes on for the summer to see his parents in Cap Haitien. Meanwhile, Pam and I are thinking ahead about the mountains and July.

8. I have been writing a great deal lately. I was asked to write seven blog posts for Theolog, the website of the Christian Century. These began on Easter Sunday, and conclude on Ascension of the Lord. I also wrote several pieces for Lectionary Homiletics. And I finished a longer work that will be the Lenten study for 2010 (United Methodist Publishing House). It is already being advertised, if you receive a Cokesbury catalog.

9. I did see a few hours of the Quail Hollow Championship here in Charlotte. I am not a great fan of golf (I know this destroys the stereotype of the large membership church pastor in the south), but it is fun to walk around and take in the culture. At one point I was a few feet from Tiger Woods, who is remarkable.

10. My initial and very tentative thoughts about the Proposed Constitutional Amendments for United Methodists: some I like, some I can live with or without, some I am opposed to. The whole matter resurfaces our fundamental divisiveness and leads to the realization that we are almost "constitutionally incapable" of making decisions at the general church level.

11. I have been reading the issue of First Things that is devoted to the memory of Richard John Neuhaus. Neuhaus is more political conservative than me, and at times I thought his head was in the sand in the midst of the priest abuse scandals (labeling many who wanted to focus on it as anti-Catholic). But, I must confess: Neuhaus was an American prophetic, having marched with Martin Luther King, and sensing a natural progression of social inclusion in his advocacy for the unborn. I regret a comment I made on a prior blog about the one time that I met him; he comes across, in the issue of FT as, yes, forceful and even arrogant at times, but also pastoral and personal in his concern for others. His Freedom For Ministry is a classic text on pastoral work. I commend this issue for anyone who wants to understand what has been happening in North American Christianity over the past decades, especially the interface of religion and politics. Neuhaus really does defy the sterotypes we so easily ascribe to him.

12. Pam and I saw the movie Pray The Devil Back To Hell, which is about the women's struggle for peace in Liberia. We will be traveling there in August, at the invitation of Bishop John Innis, and one of the Liberian members of our congregation had urged me to see this movie. It is a moving documentary, and if you are interested in social change, or the cause of peace and reconciliation in our world, or the experiences of our brothers and sisters in Christ in a desperate circumstance, you will love this movie.

Thanks for stopping by, and God's blessings in these 50 days!