Monday, July 25, 2011

a school of christian mission and a camp meeting

Over the past two weeks I have had the honor of leading in two very different gatherings: the Western North Carolina United Methodist Women's School of Christian Mission, held at Pfeiffer University, and the Pleasant Grove Camp Meeting, which met in Union County, approximately thirty minutes east of Charlotte.

I am grateful that the United Methodist Women chose "forgiveness, restorative justice and reconciliation" as one of their mission studies this year (the others are Haiti and Joy to The World, a superb theology of mission by Dana Robert of Boston University). I led our spiritual growth study, and the text was The Journey, written by Stephanie Hixon and Tom Porter. A few reflections on this experience: I was impressed with how biblical and practical The Journey is as a text. Each chapter focuses, with some depth, on a biblical passage: Jacob and Esau, the words of Jesus spoken from the cross, the Canaanite woman, the Prodigal Son, etc. The methodology included lectio divina, sacred reading, and encouraged an environment of confidential listening and respect. The authors include material related to personal forgiveness and social reconciliation, and, in the best Wesleyan sense, participants were asked to hold these two realities in tension. My interest in this topic has emerged as I have found myself in denominational roles, in the work of leading a large and complex local church, and as a participant in last summer's Center for Reconciliation conference at Duke Divinity School, which I highly recommend. I am encouraging anyone I meet these days to consider The Journey as a Lenten Study in 2012.

At some moment along the way I had the insight that this is what we actually mean when we use the language of "becoming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world". These women (more than 300 were in attendance) had three days of their time to engage in study; our class alone was eight hours. This is discipleship, which includes learning from the scriptures and stories that have shaped us, and struggling with ways to put these truths in practice. Our time together include a service of healing on one morning and the celebraton of Holy Communion at our conclusion. I also know that most of these women are leaders in their congregations and communities: they are often at the center of resolving conflict in families and local churches, and theirs is usually the voice of strength, wisdom and restraint in volatile situations. I knew that the study was relevant to their lives and mine: forgiveness, restorative justice and reconciliation is the journey of our lives, whether we are Jacob on the way to meet his brother Esau, or the Prodigal on the way home to find his place in the family.

I had agreed, one week later, to be the preacher at the Pleasant Grove Camp Meeting in Union County. Pleasant Grove is a campground in the sense that there are small cabins (called "tents") surrounding an arbor (worship space). This is a place of meeting and reunion for extended families from across the United States, and there is a worship service each evening, and a closing service on "Big Sunday".

I decided, in preparation, that I would stay with the theme of forgiveness, restorative justice and reconciliation at the camp meeting. Years ago I served as the pastor of a four point charge (circuit) in rural Yadkin County. Each church had a revival in the fall and the spring, with a guest evangelist. The overt purpose of these services was to "bring people to Christ"; the practical reality was that most of those present had made a profession of faith, and those in attendance were pretty much the core of the church. And so, in my inexperience, I did wonder about the purpose of these gatherings. But along the way I came to the realization that these were the contexts by which neighbors in close proximity to one another became reconciled. When you live in a rural community and no one sells property or moves away, you become estranged over time from neighbors, sometimes over small incidents. Walls get constructed and relationships suffer. The revival was an important way that enemies could become friends again.

And so I focused not only on the vertical relationship (our connection to God) but also on the horizontal relationship: our need to forgive, to make amends, to be reconciled with each other. I preached on the prodigal son, again, and in conversations around the campground learned that the issues of those present were identical to those at the school a week earlier. To be reconciled brings our spiritual and social relationships together: thus Jacob saw God face to face as he wrestled all night, but then he would see the face of God in reunion with his brother (Genesis 32. 30; 33. 10).

There is a core to the gospel, a simplicity to it: this does not imply that the teachings of Jesus are not difficult---indeed, they are demanding. As one of my mentors, Ken Callahan has said, we sometimes assume that grace is easy and law is hard, but the reverse is true: law, or legalism, is easy; to live by grace---to forgive, to make amends, to seek reconciliation---is hard. Like Jacob, it can wound us (Genesis 32.31). Like the waiting parent, it can seem undignified to run toward the returning child, or perhaps it is an active of protection in an honor and shame culture (Luke 15. 20).

At the camp meeting (which also involved several hundred people) I met those who were clearly on the journey toward reconciliation; the messages, and the acceptance they found in community (and yes, sometimes in family relationships that had become fractured) were the means by which grace was being extended to them, and my hope was that they were in fact coming "home" in some way. I had the blessing of being in fellowship with them, and being the one who reminded them of the story. Of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen has said, "All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of my friends is there."

So two very different gatherings, a UMW School of Christian Mission and a rural Camp Meeting, which had a common experience: our human condition and our need for the grace of God, and the confession that we are all somewhere on the journey between them.

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Friday, July 08, 2011

summer reading: some suggestions

I write with the presumption that the summer will bring to you a bit more time to read and that you have the desire to fill some of the time in this season practicing this habit of mind. So, a few suggestions; I have read some of these works, but plan to revisit them, and others are new to me.

1. Reflections on Grace, Thomas Langford. Langford was the Dean and a professor theology at Duke, and he wrote, lived and taught in a gracious manner. This brief but substantive work records his reflections on grace, still to be developed, at the end of his life. He defines grace with depth and breadth, and always in relation to Jesus Christ. "Grace", he insists, "is the distinctive element in the Christian message, for it is the most fundamental depiction of God, of God's way of being, of human possibility...To be discovered by God in Jesus Christ leads to the possible discovery of the grace of God in creation, as prevenient presence, in present forgiveness, in maturing process, and in ultimate hope."

2. Leading Causes of Life, Gary Gunderson with Larry Pray. A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to visit the Church Health Clinic in Memphis, and to learn about the Christian community's response to poverty and disease in that city. I also became aware of this work, which focuses not on pathology but rather the signs of life. The leading causes of life, not death, are connection, coherence, agency (action), blessing and hope. The biblical stories do indeed speak again and again of abundance and creativity; this is a needed corrective for leaders among us who are more prone to focus on scarcity and decline.

3. The Pastor, Eugene Peterson. I had the blessing one summer to take part in a writing workshop with Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message and author of a number of books in the discipline of pastoral spirituality. He reflected with us on the vocations of being a writer and a pastor, and shared some of his autobiography in process. Some of this material will be familiar to his close readers, but there is more revelation here, especially his journey through the "badlands" of pastoral fatigue and emptiness, and his identification of sources of renewal and insight. For those who do this work, Peterson has been and is an essential guide.

4. Watching Over One Another In Love, Gwen Purushotham. I am in the midst of a transition from being a pastor of one congregation, with a large staff, to being a district superintendent of 69 congregations across seven counties. This volume is a distinctively Wesleyan approach to assessment, support, accountability and covenant relationships. I am glad that Gwen wrote it!

5. Leading A Life With God, Daniel Wolpert. I have friends who are on a spiritual journey, and take that very seriously, and I know others who are in leadership roles, and care about about the institutions they serve. I do often have the sense that these two pursuits are often disconnected. I was drawn to Wolpert's attempt to articulate the practice of spiritual leadership. I am hoping to hear him when he leads a workshop at SoulFeast at Lake Junaluska soon.

6. Journey In The Wilderness, Gil Rendle. Rendle knows the North American mainline church well, and has assimilated the writings of Ronald Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers) and Robert Quinn (Deep Change). Living in the wilderness can be disorienting, and leading others through the wilderness can be disheatening. If you find yourself in the wilderness, Rendle can give you a new and more hopeful language for making sense of it all.

7. Forgiving As We Have Been Forgiven, Gregory Jones and Celestin Musekura. I met Celestin at Duke's Center for Reconciliation; his experience as a leader in the midst of the Rwandan genocide is placed here alongside Greg Jones' reflections on the possibility and necessity of forgiveness. Both are academics and both are practicioners, and the result is a powerful testimony. I am also teaching in our Annual Conference's United Methodist Women's School of Christian Mission this summer, and this has been helpful background reading.

8. The Light Has Come, Lesslie Newbigin. I love Newbigin, who is the theological source for the missional church movement. This is his commentary on the gospel of John, and it is extraordinary. I recommend, like the gospels themselves, beginning at the end. Start with Jesus' command to Peter to feed his sheep, and Newbigin's interpretation of that encounter, and then the women at the tomb, and then work your way backward.
I hope a suggestion or two here is helpful, and that you hear the Voice through the diverse witnesses in these pages. Enjoy!

Friday, July 01, 2011

becoming a district superintendent

So we moved most of our stuff a week or so ago and traveled to Ferrum College in Virginia, via Charlotte, to learn about teaching in our annual conference's UMW School of Christian Mission. It was three days of learning and meeting a number of very compassionate and committed people. I will lead our conference's spiritual growth study of "Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Restorative Justice". The texts are profound----Jacob's wrestling through the night until the break of day, the lamentations at the foot of the cross, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and Paul's reflection on 2 Corinthians 5 on the New Creation.

We then drove directly back to Lake Junaluska, and I made a visit that afternoon (Tuesday) to a new pastor and his family in our district; I made the latest one a few hours ago (I am writing on Friday). In between I have been getting my office into shape, meeting with a few pastors in the district who have come through, scheduling a few visits for next week, and continuing the process of transforming our cabin, where we will be living, from a weekend getaway into an actual home. It is mostly a process of pruning, purging, thinning out, whatever you want to call it. Waynesville has a great recycling center, so I have been taking things there, and Providence UMC and Lake Junaluska have yard sales this summer, so others may find some use for our surplus. I have been reading posts on Lifehacker and Zen Habits about simplifying life, and for us it has become a necessity. In the midst of it we have had meals on two evenings with friends who live in this area, and I imagine that will continue.

The transition began in earnest when I turned in my cell phone in Charlotte last Friday and learned to live without one for a few days. I just got connected again with a new smart phone yesterday, although I confess I am still learning how to use it. My wife and daughters did get me an iPad for father's day, and I think I am going to organize things as follows: phone calls, church and conference email on the smart phone, and facebook, personal gmail and music on the iPad. Technology is complex, but at the same time it gives me access to people (and them to me) and it connects me with resources (like music and podcasts) that I will listen to while driving through this region. The IT staff person from our conference, Chris, was extraordinarily helpful.

I am still in the midst of contacting new pastors to the district. We are heading into the July 4th weekend, which is always a blast (sorry) around Junaluska. There is a parade that is so tacky that it is funny, culminating in a barbecue picnic with bluegrass music. Later that night there are fireworks; we have often grilled food with friends and found a place on the lake where the sights and sounds are pretty spectacular.

Some have commented that a District Superintendent does not have to go looking for work; it has a way of finding you, and that may be true. I will learning how to balance the role of administrator and spiritual encourager. I feel very blessed to be in a district rich with resources (Lake Junaluska Assembly, Hinton Rural Life Center, Foundation for Evangelism, World Methodist Council), composed of very strong churches and dedicated pastors, and situated in a mountain region that attracts pilgrims of all kinds seeking renewal. I am hopeful that I can be of help in the renewal of the churches and clergy in this region, and my prayer is that I will find it be a calling that is renewing to me as well.