Tuesday, June 29, 2010

jesus had a beard

Years ago Pam and I were serving as summer interns through the Duke Endowment in a rural North Carolina community. We benefited from the wisdom and humor of a wonderful mentor, Jim Faggart. Jim stood with me when I was ordained as an Elder. Participating in this same way in a friend's ordination in June brought to mind that relationship and an experience from that summer.

Jim was visiting with one of the cantankerous older members of the parish one afternoon, whose name I cannot recall. The gentleman was possessed with a complaining nature, and in conversation Jim asked if had he met the new student interns, and how he felt about them (us).
He had met us and was somewhat noncommittal, and so Jim explored this. "Well", the older member commented, "I do have a problem with Ken's beard."
Jim listened. He had served the community for a number of years, was very relational, and decided to respond in a creative and playful way.
"You know", Jim replied, "I have seen a number of paintings of Jesus, and in most of them he has a beard."
The fellow was silent for a moment. Then he responded, "You know, you are right, and I have always thought less of him because of it!"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

why the bp gulf ecological debacle was inevitable

1. The Gulf region encompasses several of the poorest states in our nation, and thus ones that are economically at risk from outside commerce that cares little for its citizens (identified by the chair of BP as the "small people").

2. The Gulf region is at some geographical distance from centers of political (Washington, D.C.) and financial (New York City) power, and thus its health and well-being can be ignored. One insidious outcome of the disaster is that professionals in each of these two cities will profit financially from the oil spill, in the areas of public relations and corporate realignment, respectively.

3. The Gulf region is populated by a strong Christian culture, but one that has not connected personal faith with care for the creation. This is changing, incrementally, among evangelicals and mainline Christians, but the shift is slow in coming.

4. The Gulf region is governed by politicians, across a number of states, who are tainted by corruption and incompetence, a story that is as at least as old as Huey Long and as recent as Joe Barton, who apologized last week to the CEO of BP in a congressional hearing. For background, read Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, or Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge.

5. The Gulf region cannot tell its story as effectively as a corporation with unlimited financial resources. The media that reports the news is funded by a constant stream of commercials, conveying BP's humanitarian and neighborly investment in the region it has degraded.

6. The Gulf region was an easy target for corporations linked to the highest positions of power on our planet: it is astonishing that one of the three businesses materially implicated in the oil spill was led by a sitting vice-president of the United States, once removed.

7. The Gulf region is a borderland that has given us Walker Percy and B.B. King, Eudora Welty and Allen Toussaint, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. It's very history has been the confluence of pain and hope, bitterness and celebration, and now oil and water, and death and life. As with Katrina and so now in the ecological crisis, its residents will naturally ask: "Are we a part of the United States?" And "who will be our advocate?"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

the connection: end of life or new creation?

Most annual conferences are preparing, in the midst of or concluding their gatherings. While I write from a particular region (Western North Carolina, Southeast Jurisdiction), my sense from conversations across the U.S. church is that a common experience is occurring. There is a heightened degree of stress among participants and distrust of leadership. The economic downturn has contributed to this (fewer church resources, greater human missional needs, increased costs in areas of health care and pension), as has decline in denominational membership and largely unnoticed but very real trends in generational giving. Related to this is the need to lower the expectations of those participating in and dependent upon the annual conferences as systems; thus "plum" assignments seem to be fewer in supply, and denominational institutions that were birthed by our tradition can expect decreasing levels of support---here I am thinking of children's homes and campus ministries, colleges and seminaries, missionaries and communities for the aged.

The heightened stress can be projected onto the leadership --bishops, conference or general church staff. This must be a disorienting place to inhabit these days. These men and women have arrived in positions of influence through the affirmation and trust of their peers; they now discover an almost default suspicion, and even devaluing of their roles. Bishops are secure because of our restrictive rules, but the merger of annual conferences is a sign of the larger church's estimate of their contribution to the church's mission. General church agencies find themselves in a several year limbo, as the church studies itself (at last count, by nine authorized or self-appointed groups). Annual conference staffs, which once mediated between the general church and council of bishops and the local church, are disappearing, apart from necessary administrative functions related to personnel, finance and property. If you think this mirrors developments in corporate culture, you are correct.

The disappearance of these mediating structures, alongside the diminished role of the general church agencies, coincides unfortunately with a reality in most annual conferences that, with exceptions, most United Methodist congregations are not as strong as they were ten years ago. Again, blame can be assigned to leadership (the pastors, or by extension the seminaries), but the factors may be beyond our own institutions: increased social mobility and dislocation; the explosion of sports cultures that have become normative for many young people and their families on weekends; a lower birthrate among caucasian families and an as yet unwillingness to assimilate immigrant families into our mission. Most annual conferences have not come to terms with how to deploy clergy to the "medium" size churches, which in most instances are becoming small congregations. And so the average annual conference will increasingly approximate an ecosystem of a few very large congregations and a massive number of small ones. Like the annual conference staff, the mediating structure (the middle size church) will disappear.

I am seeking to be more descriptive here than judgmental. Bishops do perform a crucial function: to teach the faith, to assign clergy, to guide the church through a chaotic time, to frame the key questions. General church staff are essential in developing resources or sustaining institutions that are beyond the scope of the local church: I am thinking about Disciple Bible Study and the Upper Room, Africa University and UMCOR, Nothing But Nets and the Five Practices. And annual conference staffs are often populated with very creative and conscientious men and women. Yet the demands on these persons are increasing at precisely the time when resources flowing toward them are constricting. The cliche "doing more with less" is becoming,in real time, "doing less with less".

We convince ourselves that we are connectional, and the annual conference is the visible sign of this (as is, every four years, the general conference). And yet the stark reality is that we are becoming less connectional, more a confederation of congregations than a communion. Annual conferences are by economic necessity decreasing the hours of their meetings at precisely the moment they actually require more together, to build ownership for key decisions and to create the capacity to see them to fruition (this is also true for the General Conference). There is little agreement on what constitutes the mission of the church, the meaning of what it means to be a United Methodist, or even if it is essential that one be a Christian. The connection is a legacy passed to us from an earlier generation, but it is now in a fragile state. We gather together, but we cannot give a clear explanation for what we hope to accomplish.

There are, to be sure, signs of hope: our infrastructure can be a gift to the world in the aftermath of a crisis (Katrina and Haiti are two recent examples; one wonders if the oil debacle in the Gulf will bring us together in the same way). There are theologians on a number of seminary campuses doing remarkable work; I will step aside from my usual Duke bias by naming Jason Vickers of United Seminary and Dana Robert of Boston University among them. There are a few very creative and even visionary Bishops. A very small number of our United Methodist colleges have awakened to the notion that their historic identity could actually be their niche in an increasingly secular culture. UMCOM is doing cutting edge work in connecting a technologically savvy audience with hands-on mission. The missional church movement is more aligned with Wesleyan theology than any other stream of the tradition. And there are congregations that are taking risks for the Kingdom of God. These are more prevalent than we sometimes imagine.

These signs of hope are renewing the connection, either by distancing themselves from the system where possible, accessing the system when that is helpful, and strengthening the system even when it would be easy to do otherwise (and here I am thinking of someone like Adam Hamilton). Yet these signs of hope cannot and should not lead us to the avoidance of the present reality: The stress that is felt in our system is the breaking apart of a structure that is no longer sustainable, missional, or even functional. Conferencing will increasingly be a gathering place for four types of participants: those seeking to avoid the chaos of the surrounding culture as they remember the glory years; others who are seeking to process their disorientation in a system that cannot provide the rewards it once promised; those who wonder how much or how little they should invest in a system that no longer seems relevant; and those who sense that Methodism can yet be reinvented through, in Dean Greg Jones' wonderful phrase, "traditioned innovation".

I find myself in this last cohort. I did not really ever participate in the glory years, and I am fully a part of the denomination, in every sense of that word and at every level; many of my friends, and many clergy for whom I have deep respect are among the most disoriented, and I can only listen and pray. And yet I believe that there is something of substance in the Methodist movement; it is the gospel itself, a rich and broad understanding of grace and a deep and wide perspective about holiness. If we can get in touch with a grace that is lifelong and complex and a holiness that is personal and social, we will connect with the source that may yet be the salvation of our collective soul. My sense is that reformations have always been theological before they have been institutional; put differently, they have been gifts from God. And so the heightened degree of stress is either the end of life, or the birth pangs of a new creation. My hope is that all of this is the latter.

Monday, June 07, 2010

life together (acts 2. 42)

After Easter and the resurrection, what next? After the Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, what next? After baptism and confirmation, what next? After saying yes to Jesus, what next? The short answer is that we become a part of a community. This was built into the design of the Christian way of life from the beginning. Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God with us, lives upon this earth as a person for a particular span of time. Then he is no longer with us, but he calls us to be his witnesses and servants, to the ends of the earth and until the end of time.

So, what happens next? His followers become a part of a community. They get together, and the description of their common life is found in the last verses of Acts 2, the culmination and overflow of the Day of Pentecost:

They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teachings and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

These were the commitments and practices of the earliest disciples. After the experience of emotion or enthusiasm or clarity or faith, what happens next? Well, most of us cannot continue along the path in our own strength---we get lost, we stop moving, or we go back. Maybe it does not take a village, but it takes a community. What were the essential marks of the community, to which these men and women were devoted, in which, more accurate to the Greek language of the New Testament, they persisted?

First, the apostles’ teaching, the teachings of the apostles about the life, death and resurrection. The emphasis is not on the teacher, or the credentials of the teacher, but on what is being taught, the content. Years ago I served as a pastor of a congregation in a city with a very strong Jewish presence, and each spring we would take our congregation to the synagogue to hear the rabbi and learn about our ancestors. There were usually a couple hundred souls at the Friday Evening Sabbath service; this year there had been rumblings from within that community, and I heard the rabbi would be leaving. We arrived for the service, with about one third the usual number there to welcome us. I asked a friend, a member of the synagogue, why the rabbi had left (I had liked him). Now it is usually the case that when a minister leaves a church, there are the typical reasons: she does not have relational skills, or he is a dictator, or he neglects visitation, or she is never around. Why had the synagogue and rabbi decided to end the relationship? “Most people felt that he was weak in his teaching of the Torah, the Law.”

I wondered: would a Methodist Church ever ask a minister to leave because he or she was weak in teaching the Bible? This is related to the core practice that really is at the heart of our common life: the apostles’ teachings, the substance, not the style, the truth, not the way we package it. The conviction is that if the word is taught, it has its own power to transform us into the people God created us to be. Someone has said that the Bible does give us the answers, but it helps us to ask better questions! I like that.

Where does the Apostles’ teaching happen in Providence? In Disciple Bible Study, in studies led by men and women through the week, in Sunday school, and in this service. If we are present, we learn the teaching; if we are absent, we miss it. To be present and to have a pattern of being present is to persist, to be devoted to the Apostles’ teaching.

Second, the fellowship, from the Greek word koinonia, literally, our social relationships. This is a deep sharing of life. And so church is not so much a crowd as a community, as a communion. Why is the fellowship essential? We really do need each other---we need the support, the accountability, the encouragement. And it is also true that these first two marks reinforce each other: without formation in scripture, our fellowship becomes a club of people who agree about politics, whose kids pursue the same activities; and without social relations, the scripture becomes a “head game”---something we figure out intellectually, a collection of ideas and questions that are intriguing, but not much more.

At its best, the church is a fellowship, a set of social relationships among flawed human beings---the Bible calls us sinners----who are finding redemption and wholeness in a relationship with Jesus and other people who are trying to follow him. Sometimes we come empty, needing to be filled. Sometimes we are enthusiastic, and our purpose is to be there for someone else.

A word about our fellowship: one of my favorite spaces in the world is our atrium. It is everyone’s space, it is a space where we come together, to listen and laugh, to embrace and encourage, to console and comfort, yes, to sell things (!), but mostly to strengthen our fellowship. I am very grateful for that space, I am very grateful for our fellowship. I urge us not to take it for granted. I love the words of the twentieth century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

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

A third mark of the church: the breaking of bread. About eight of us in the church are sharing a meal recently, and a friend says, “My neighbor is a Baptist, and she said, “all Methodists ever do is eat”. We laughed, admitted it was true, then someone said he didn’t think Baptists were all that different….and I thought back to this verse from Acts 2. They persisted in breaking bread together. Social relations are strengthened as we share meals together, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ.

In my first three months here, seven years ago next month, I wanted to meet as many people as possible, and so I asked earlier in the spring for the Staff-Parish Committee to schedule conversations with a broad cross section of people--- different interests, length of membership in the church, age, and so forth. Many of these conversations were over meals, breakfasts, lunches or dinners in homes, or at places like Lupies and Greg’s and Phil’s Deli and Hotel Charlotte and Eddie’s Place, and I could go on. Last Sunday I had lunch with two friends in this church at Mexican restaurant I did not know about. It was a great meal, and we reconnected.

How do you get to know someone? In the breaking of bread. How do we get to know Jesus Christ? Do you remember the journey on the way to Emmaus, after the resurrection? Luke also told this story in the 24th chapter of his gospel. They walk with the stranger, the day comes to an end, and then, the scripture says, “he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” .

And so today we experience Communion with God through this meal. I love our practice of communion once a month in one service and every other week in the first service. I need to receive God’s grace in this way. It sustains me. It really is that basic.

Robb Webb, who will be ordained next weekend, told a wonderful story two Sundays ago in a group that was honoring him. He leads the Duke Endowment’s Rural Church Division, and in that capacity helps rural churches (in communities of less than 1500 people) in a variety of ways. This involves going to meetings in country churches, talking with their leaders, and sometimes they have covered dish suppers, they would call them. One evening Robb was in a church down east, in very out of the way place, and one of the leaders, maybe the chair of the church council, asked him, “Why do you do this work?” Robb began by talking about Mr. Duke and his commitment to the rural church, but that was not getting across. He talked about how all Methodist churches were connected, but that was not getting across. Finally he asked the leader, “Why do you think I do this kind of work?” The leader quickly replied, “you do it for the food!”

Now if you think this is a rural phenomenon, last Sunday I was leaving the first service and someone said, “come to our Sunday School class today, we are having brunch.” I usually teach during the middle hour, but I was not on this day, so I went into the class. They welcomed me, put a plate in my hands, and more than one person asked me, “did you get any of Carolyn’s cheese grits?”

Something caught my eye, in corner wall of that room, a white board, with a list of names. You can guess where I am going with this. They persisted in the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. It was a prayer list. When people are shaped by the scriptures, when we share deep social relationships with each other, when we break bread together, we get to know each other, and we get beneath the surface, and the mask comes off, and we are no longer strangers, no longer isolated individuals. We have somehow become the body of Christ:If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

We are connected through prayer. When I was a college student, I spent a two summers working as a counselor in a Christian camp in the mountains of western North Carolina, about three hundred miles from my home in south Georgia. One evening I was playing in a basketball game. Our camp staff was competing with the staff of a nearby camp. I was playing defense against a fast break, moving backward, trying to get into position before the other player’s shot was taken. As I was moving backward, another player collided with me.

This is my last memory of the accident. I was taken for surgery to a nearby hospital, and the recovery lasted several days. Thirty years later, I have two memories: the presence of my family in the hospital, and a letter from the small choir of my home church. I was a part of the choir, and had developed friendships with several of the members. The letter simply stated that they were remembering me in their prayers, and then each person had signed the card.

I was fairly new in trying to live an intentional Christian life, as a young adult, but this struck me as being what the New Testament meant when it portrayed the church as a community of people who prayed for each other. It was real. And what happens when you find, or help to create a community like this, a community that persists in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. What happens next? Well, Luke tells us, in the concluding words of the second chapter of Acts, for me, the true miracle of Pentecost..

Awe came upon everyone, because many signs and wonders were done by the apostles. All who believed were together, and they had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they much spent time together in the Temple they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the favor of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2. 43-47).

Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

summer reading: some unconventional possibilities

Whether you are sitting beside the ocean, relaxing in a rocking chair in the mountains, or waiting in an airport for the next departure, summer is a great time to read, and the motivation can be learning, pleasure, inspiration or some combination of the three. So, toward that end, a few unconventional possibilities:

Yvon Choinard, Let My People Go Surfing. Written by the founder of Patagonia (a company that does seem to live up to its self-designation of making the best outdoor products in the world), this is one-part memoir, one-part business philosophy, and one-part environmental manifesto. In reality, each of these concerns is woven into the whole of the text.

Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory. An eloquent testimony to being a stranger in a strange land; a lamentation; a work of faith and coming of age. If you care about the immigration issue, if you think our common future would benefit from less heat and more light, if you enjoy memoir or the craft of writing...read this book.

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child. A memoir by, in my mind, the most important moral theologian in the world over the last forty years. Born in Texas and educated at Yale, Hauerwas would go on to teach first at Notre Dame and later at Duke; his A Community of Character was a life-changing book for me in divinity school. Hauerwas is utterly transparent: his wife's manic depression, his own struggles with class and faith, academic departmental intramural battles, sustaining friendships, and ecclesial wanderings. Through it all, Hauerwas produced a body of work that is nothing short of astonishing, and mentored a generation of scholars. Having spent time at Duke and Virginia, and knowing some of the figures covered in this memoir, it was for me a page turner. But then maybe I have a low threshold for excitement.

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Game Change. If you were glued to the television set like me during the 2008 Presidential election, you will devour this book, which first came to light for its reporting about John and Elizabeth Edwards. Game Change is a narrative rendering of the election, and, in sharper focus is a study of five political couples (Obama, Clinton, Edwards, McCain and Palin). Obama comes across as the most mature of the candidates, and in the end makes a significant alliance with Hillary Clinton. Why did Ted Kennedy support Obama? ReadGame Change for the answer.

Kathleen Norris, Dakota. A "spiritual geography", this one took me back to our years in East Bend. An educated woman finds herself in a small rural town; along the way her faith is awakened and in the process her creativity flourishes. A modern day desert mystic, she is taken in by the Benedictines and she finds her voice. Again, superb writing about the strange spaces within our borders.

Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. I had read Brinkley's The Great Deluge, the most substantive reflection on Katrina; this one is a superb environmental history of a visionary president, whose example we need to recall in the present day BP/Gulf Coast debacle.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. If you have been listening in on some of the conversation about the missional church, this is the theological source. If you have been wondering how a person can embrace truth without being arrogant, this is the model. If you want to read the last century's "Church Father", in the estimate of Geoffrey Wainwright, this is a great place to begin. Yes, twenty first century North America is a mission field; Newbigin saw it coming in the 1970s.

The Paraclete Psalter: A Book of Daily Prayer. A four week cycle for reading the Psalms. Slim enough to take along on an airplane flight. A simple and beautiful book filled with the biblical language of praise, confession and petition.

Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts. In the Brazos Press series of commentaries, a treatment on the development of doctrine in the first apostolic Christian communities. By the end of his life, Pelikan, a prominent Yale historian, had migrated from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy; this is not your typical biblical commentary, but it is substantive, theological and worth wading through. We are focusing on Acts this summer in worship, so this has been one of my guides.

Michael Lewis, Moneyball. If you liked The Blind Side not only for the human interest/compassion dimension but for what it taught you about football strategy, you might make your way into baseball season with Moneyball. Lewis focuses on the Oakland A's, a team with a low payroll that nevertheless excels year after year on the field. Why? Lewis ponders the answers, and the baseball theorists who are discovering them.

Andy Crouch, Culture Making. Christians (on the left and right) are better at critiquing the culture than comprehending how they (we) are shaping it. A very insightful work on creativity that I find myself turning to again and again.

I am sure that I will throw in a sermon or two by Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloane Coffin and a poem or two by Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver...and I will look for the new book on Van Morrison by Greil Marcus, and I hope to finish a biography of John Muir that I am one-third into, and there is Eugene Peterson's last book in the five volume spiritual theology...and something else will emerge. So, that is my highly arbitrary reading list. What interests you?