Sunday, October 25, 2009

climate change: should christians care?

Saturday marked the observance of International Day of Climate Action ( inspired by environmentalists, chiefly Bill McKibben, for the purpose of turning our attention to the issue of climate change. The rising of Earth's temperatures is a tenet affirmed by the scientific communities of the developed countries of the world, and it is reinforced without dissent in the refereed journals of those communities. There may be debate about the appropriate human response to global warming, but there is none about its measurable effects on the present environment.

A few years ago I read three lengthy articles about global warming in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert. Her writing was at once measured and startling, reflective and urgent. I was moved by the articles, and I returned to them again after Hurricane Katrina. Her significant work, Field Notes from a Catastrophe is based on those articles. The title is perfect. These are carefully made observations from the Arctic Circle and Washington, D.C., from China and Greenland, from the Netherlands and Syria. They describe floating houses, thawing permafrost, receding glaciers, rising temperatures and disappearing species.

Kolbert presents the evidence from as many perspectives as possible. The characters who shape the narrative are the sort of folks who give their lives to camping on glaciers and in deserts, measuring butterfly migration in the United Kingdom and digging up soil samples in the Arctic tundra. They are a diverse and persuasive group of witnesses to an emerging truth, and they speak with conviction, grace and humor. Kolbert notes that usually the public is alarmed about a given issue while scientists are cautious, but that in regard to global warming, the reverse is true: the scientific community is alarmed, while the general public is largely unmoved.

Part of the catastrophe described in these pages is the political response, and here again Kolbert is measured in her observations: she sees the Clinton administration as largely right on the rhetoric but politically unwilling to respond, while the Bush administration has been at times "missing in action," to use John McCain's phrase, and at other times intentionally dishonest and attempting to confuse the public. She also notes the economic perspective: the United States and China are at a standoff on the Kyoto Protocol; neither is willing to act because of competitive pressures in the global marketplace. Of course, the pressing question now before is the response of the Obama presidency.

Other questions are posed in the book: Are humans really the cause of global warming? Will the effects of warming be gradual or catastrophic? Can anything really be done, or is it too late? Can humans adapt as they have so often in the past? Is this a crisis in which we have adequate knowledge but lack the will to act?

Kolbert dedicates the book to her three sons, bringing a human face to the problem. I am not aware of anyone who seriously believes that our children and their children will inherit the same planet we have enjoyed. We are changing the environment in catastrophic ways. The choice, Kolbert suggests, is between action in the present and self-destruction in the future.

Carefully recorded field notes can be a vehicle for truth telling, providing an accurate picture of the world for believer and skeptic alike. Global warming is a complex issue, and comprehending it requires scientific literacy. That the matter has been intentionally muddied for short-term political gain makes engagement with this subject all the more difficult and necessary, and Kolbert has presented her field notes masterfully, with a minimum of interpretive annotation.

People of faith will, of course, view global warming and this book through their own lenses. They might call sin what Kolbert refers to as "dangerous anthropogenic interference." Kolbert wonders about the paradoxical relationship between our technological advancement on the one hand, and our methodical journey toward planetary destruction on the other. Readers of scripture will remember stories about the great flood, the Tower of Babel and banishment into exile.

Should Christians care about global warming? God cares for us so that we might care for the world, for each other, for all creation. And for our part, to care for the creation is to care for the Creator, and to be concerned for its future is to be in communion with God, who called it all into being and has a destiny for it that is not limited by human imagination or agency.

To live in a throwaway culture is to deny our heritage. To proceed toward a limited future for planet Earth, by sins of either commission or omission, cannot be morally justified stewardship. Our knowledge, poets remind us, differs from wisdom, and our power can be a form of pride. These field notes, and the movement inspired by Bill McKibben (, can help us take a small step toward caring selflessly for the world that God has made, and for the future inhabitants of our planet.

Monday, October 19, 2009

a prayer of augustine (paraphrase)

The beginning of Augustine's Confessions ("You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you") is well known; less explored is the conclusion of Book One, a prayer of thanksgiving. My loose paraphrase of this prayer is as follows:

I give thanks to you
Lord God
for you are perfection
and in your goodness
you create and rule over the universe.
Everything that you have made
is wonderful and worthy of praise;
all things are gifts from you, O God,
I did not endow myself with these gifts
but they are from you,
and the sum of them makes me who I am.
You are good
and you are my good, and so
I rejoice and give thanks for all good gifts.
My sin is the seeking of pleasure,
the discernment of reality and truth
not in you,
but in my own judgments
and in the opinions of others.
But I give thanks to you, O God,
for you have preserved the gifts that you have given me,
and watched over me as well.
And so I trust that
what you have given me will,
I pray
grow and reach perfection
and I will be with you;
because this too is your gift to me:
that I exist.

(Book One, concluding prayer)

preaching about stewardship in an economic crisis

My friends at Day 1 produced this podcast about preaching on stewardship in an economic crisis. I hope this resource is helpful to friends serving congregations in these challenging times.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

the good news within the bad news (mark 10)

So you are on a journey, from here to there, from today until tomorrow, from point a to point b. On the journey you have good days and days. Well, Jesus is on a journey. It is understood, in Mark’s gospel, that this is the journey toward Jerusalem, toward Golgotha, toward a cross. It is a hard journey.

Sometimes, most of us are so focused on the next thing, this day, this week. We are here this morning to worship God, to think about God, but there is also our “to-do” list—getting a flu shot, filing the taxes, putting one foot in front of the next, moving along!

Along the way there is an interruption. You have had days like this, full and complicated days, when you had enough on your plate, enough to think about, and along comes an interruption which takes the form of a question,. It is a question not about the urgent but the important.

Well, Jesus is on a journey, and he encounters someone: we call him the rich young ruler; in one gospel we learn that he is rich, in another that he is young, and in another that he is a ruler. Over time we have combined all of these attributes. Jesus is on the journey, and he is interrupted by the question of the rich young ruler.

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Interestingly, this is the same question that was asked of Jesus by the lawyer, in Luke 10, the question that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan. In both settings Jesus quotes the law. You know the commandments, he says. And in both contexts, the response of the questioner, to Jesus, is the same: Teacher, I have done all of this since I was a kid at Vacation Bible School, since I was a young person in Confirmation since I was a teenager in MYF. I went to Garden City I got up early to for youth choir. I’ve sung “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love”. I’ve unloaded pumpkins! Not to mention all of those sermons.

There he is-- a good person. Not a bad person, a good person. We know this guy. We are a lot like him, to be honest. We do often put ourselves, as individuals, in place of the one who comes to Jesus. We have been doing the right things, acting on what we know and have been taught, we are the accumulation of all of the voices of those who have come into our lives: parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors. We come before Jesus and ask: is it enough? Am I on the right track? What must I do to inherit eternal life?

It is an important question. Not a question that we ask every day, to be sure. But it is important. For many of us, the story of the rich young ruler who encounters Jesus is one that we know well, we have heard this story before. And so I have reflected in the last few days on this encounter from a different perspective.

What if this was a word not only to us, as individuals, but to us as a church? For the past year we have been involved in a strategic planning process, we have been on a journey. The world is changing, the truths of the gospel do not change but the world is changing, and the future will be different. We are on this journey, and in the midst of the journey we are confronted with the big question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Someday, when we stand before God, will we be able to say, “We offered our best to you, we tried to do your will, we wanted to be the church that you wanted us to be!” Will we find ourselves asking, “is it enough? Were we on the right track?

What must we do to inherit eternal life?

Do you know what inheritance is? A couple of generations ago folks thought about the future as inheriting the family farm. It was predictable---the future is going to be like the present and the past. And so the church is asking the question, what is our future going to be like? Well, for many reasons, not like the past---- in the past, people did not move from one city to another, and so church was wrapped up with family; in the past, an interfaith marriage, in the south, was between a Methodist and a Baptist (!); in the past, people did not have homes in multiple locations; in the past, almost all of the population went to church, not just 50%; now as a kid I was as obsessed with sports as anyone you know, but in the past we did not play sports on Sunday mornings; in the past, in a mill town where I lived briefly as young adult, if you missed Sunday School for a few Sundays the foreman at the plant would come and ask if anything was wrong in your life;

This was the past that shaped our church. We even worshipped at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning so that we could go and milk the cows before worship! What must we do? That is what we have been asking you, asking God. What does the Lord require of us in the future? What will the future church look like? We have spent a year listening, and learning. What must we do?

Jesus says, worship God, love your neighbor. We respond: We’ve been doing that, Lord, wander around our church, at any hour of the week, look at our newsletter, look at the parking lot, something good is always happening, we have been doing this for a long time!

And Jesus looks at us and loves us, and says, “There is one thing. Go, sell everything, give up what you have and follow me”.

Let go of all of it, the buildings, the programs, the staff, all of it, and give it to the poor, and follow me. Relinquish everything that you have, and follow me. In our minds we do know that the future of the church is about following Jesus. But it is hard.

Because there is so much about the present, the way things are that we love. In the gospel the response is grief and shock, loss of the past and the present. Follow me, Jesus says. This is exactly what the small group of people who founded Providence did fifty years ago. They left everything behind and they followed Jesus into a new future, a future that became who we are today. Their dreams must have been multiplied a hundred fold---think of the anthems that have been sung, the prayers offered at this altar rail and in the Brown building, the mission trips, the relationships in Sunday school classes.

What is it like to give up everything? We have a word for this in our personal lives. It is simplicity. A year ago I gave a talk to all of the ministers of the Society of Friends or Quakers, in North Carolina. It was a few weeks after the economic shocks that came that affected us all. Among other things, we discussed extravagant generosity. I was talking with one of the ministers after the gathering and he said, “You know simplicity is supposed to be one of our virtues as Quakers, but now, with the economy, we are all learning to live simpler lives, it has become chic!”

Simplicity. Some of us would admit that we are learning to make a virtue out of necessity: discovering a simpler life. Jesus says, sell everything, give it to the poor. Here Jesus combines simplicity and compassion: Simplicity creates a space in our lives to think about the poor, to welcome them and their needs into our lives.

The temptation is to spiritualize the story here, but it is an encounter between Jesus and a rich man. According to the world’s standards, we are all wealthy, of this there is no doubt. Jesus talked a lot about wealth, possessions and money, more about these topics than any other subject except the kingdom of God. And remember: he is talking to someone who has a history of being generous.

The rich young ruler goes away sad, because he is wealthy. Well, the disciples are still with Jesus, making sense of all of this, just as we are. Maybe Jesus will comfort them and us. Maybe Jesus has a keen sense of emotional intelligence to read our social cues and meet us where we are.

No, actually, it gets harder. He gives a vivid word picture: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This was a story that bothered me as a child, from the time I first heard it, I tried to visualize it and it never worked out. It seemed…impossible.

It struck the disciples get it. Lord, then who could be saved? Are we all shut out from this? It seems impossible.

And then the response of Jesus: with human beings, it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.

This story of Jesus is one of the most relevant stories in the Bible for you and me. It is about the interruption of our journeys. It is about asking the really important question. It is about being on the receiving end of a hard answer. It is about the grief of leaving something behind and entering into a new future. It is about trying to live more simply, so that we might be compassionate toward the poor. And it is about an impossible situation.

The gospel ends with Peter asking the question some of us would blurt out, if we had been there: Lord, we have gone the extra mile, we have not just done the right thing, we have made sacrifices, real sacrifices, we have left everything and followed you, so…give us some extra credit, cut us some slack!

And Jesus responds, in summary: no one who gives up anything for me will not receive that back one hundred times more, in this life and in the life to come.

You cannot out give God.

This is one of the hard teachings of Jesus. But it is the narrow way that leads to life: what is impossible for us is possible for God. Through grace, we do make it in the journey—God makes a way when there is no way.

Sometimes when we ask the really important questions, we do not hear the answer we want, but we discover that we are in the presence of Jesus who never seems to answer us directly, but puts us into situations where we can learn and grow. Sometimes we get the answer that we do not want to hear, and it changes us. Sometimes we need to let go of something in order to receive the gift that God has been trying to give us.

And sometimes we recognize that salvation really is not our achievement, as good as we are, much of the time----it is either a gift, pure and simple, a miracle, or it is nothing at all. Salvation is something God is willing to do in and with and for us, if we will hang in there with him, if we do not walk away. We would love to do it ourselves, but that turns out to be impossible. The radical good news embedded in this hard teaching of Jesus is that what is impossible for us is possible for God.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

an appreciative inquiry into ordained ministry in the united methodist church

(A revision of a reflection shared with the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, United Methodist Church in Nashville, October 9, 2009)

Our local church has been involved in a strategic planning process over the past ten months. We have been guided by a tool known as "appreciative inquiry". The emphasis is not so much on our problems and how to "fix" them; instead we have focused on the identification of our gifts, what is sometimes called our "positive core". And so we listened to our congregation and community, and overwhelmingly they taught us about three strengths:

1. The presence of deep friendships and strong social networks (for example, our Sunday School to Worship attendance ratio is almost 80%, and we have twelve United Methodist Women circles, plus a Men's group known as the Squares!

2. We offer strong traditional worship. We believe that God has gifted us with musicians in this area; as one young adult told me, if we tried to do contemporary worship it would be "cheesy"!

3. We are engaged in significant (Schnase would call it "risk-taking") mission (again, for example, we have a homeless shelter in our church, and hundreds of volunteers are involved in hands-on ministries with the homeless).

And so the Appreciate Inquiry model is pushing us to think about how we build on these gifts in the future. All of this led me to think about the United Methodist Church and Ordained Ministry. What is our positive core?

Again, an initial reflection:

1. United Methodists have a rich and broad understanding of the grace of God.

2. United Methodists grasp the fullness of a holiness that is both personal and social.

3. We have, at our best, the qualities of both a movement and an institution (think "Nothing But Nets" and General Board of Global Ministries, or "Five Practices" and Sunday School).

4. Our heritage is both catholic and evangelical.

5. We are marked by a connectionalism that is increasingly global.

6. We value the intellectual life. Wesley was a scholar at Oxford, a voracious reader, and his legacy has been a succession of schools, colleges, universities and seminaries across the world.

Ordained ministry expressed in this context takes a particular shape:

1. Elders, deacons and local pastors are called not only to embrace the grace of God but to grow in that grace; this implies discipline.

2. Elders, deacons and local pastors are encouraged and required to be evangelists and prophetic in their witness.

3. Elders, deacons and local pastors are called to be a part of the denomination as it is, but also to help in shaping it to be more than it is. Here I am grateful to the ideas in the helpful little book Orbiting The Giant Hairball (thanks, Robert).

4. Our personal experience is always placed in the context of the needs of the whole church. We are a (U.S.) church planted in the soil of a democracy, and yet we also episcopal in our tradition.

5. We live in covenant with each other; we are learning that this is a part of what it means to be a part of an order (the other aspect may be related to a rule of life).

6. We submit ourselves to the rigors and sacrifices of intellectual preparation for ministry, and as a denomination we support this work with our tithes, offerings and apportionments.

The work of the Division of Ordained Ministry, and, I would argue, the ongoing Study of Ministry commissioned by the General Conference will be most fruitful as we claim the gifts of God that are distinctly ours, and build upon them.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

seven key ideas common to church consultants

1. The kids are not listening. 2. We don't live in the 1950s anymore. 3. Pipe organs are bad. 4. Bono is good. 5. Jesus and church are too very different things. 6. We are getting older. 7. Denominations are dying.

I just saved you a lot of time and money. You can now either 1) go to a movie or 2) take a nap!